Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Christian Theology and African Traditions

Written by: on June 16, 2017

Following on from our earlier considerations of contextual theology and folk theology, this book looks at how to marry classic Christian theology in the Judeo-Christian tradition with specific African traditions and culture. Dr. Matthew Michael carries out a sweeping review of various systematic theological categories and considers how they fit in with and can be taught against the backdrop of specific African cultural traditions and practices. As Michael states:

“two categories that explicate the task of theology are namely the theological commitment to transcendence and secondly its commitment to immanent or contextual realities”[1]


“African tradition becomes a formidable partner or opponent which African Christianity must adequately seek to understand, interpret and confront.”[2]


One of the interesting areas for me in reading this book was Michael’s consideration of Pentecostalism and its role on the African continent. He emphasises how Pentecostal congregations speak to the African worldview with their emphasis on the active presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. He writes of the emphasis on the miraculous, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, healing and deliverance. He compares this with more “mainline” Christian denominations that are proving to be less successful on the African continent. In many ways, Pentecostals tap into the underlying African belief in the supernatural and the spirit world. Africans are more open to these ideas than many in the rationalised, secularised, “enlightened” West. The inherent dangers in this context appear to be twofold. One the “folk theology” of the Africans with their equation of the Holy Spirit to their ancestral “good spirits” and demons to the “bad spirits” and the mixing in of superstitions and half-cooked beliefs that don’t fully align with orthodox Biblical revelation. The second danger comes from the opposite direction, as Western influence, secularization and post-modernism makes its way onto the African continent, diluting and diminishing African belief in the supernatural aspects of God and Scripture. Michael focuses more on the former than the latter, and insists on the importance of African theology having a full understanding of the Godhead of the Holy Spirit – that he is not just another “good spirit” in the African tradition.

In line with Oden’s analysis on the importance of African theologians and scholars finding their own way, and researching their own rich inheritance, this book challenges African Christianity to seek out a path that brings together the richness of both Biblical and African tradition. It also argues that theology is shifting from West to East, and that the African church must know what it believes and continue to develop a robust contextual theology.


Michael does a good job of this in many places and leaves us – and more specifically the African church – with a number of areas to address in their disciple-making and theological training.


[1] Michael, Matthew. Christian Theology and African Traditions. Cambridge: James Clarke and Co Ltd, 2013, 23.

[2] Michael (2013), 223.

About the Author

Geoff Lee

9 responses to “Christian Theology and African Traditions”

  1. Mary Walker says:

    Thank you, Geoff. Yes, one of our earlier books had a, shall we say ‘caution’ about Pentecostals in Africa. I appreciated that author’s concern, but the Holy Spirit is the One that Jesus said would teach us all things and I think that means teach all of us all things – truth about Jesus. Michael made it very plain that we can unite over the important things – especially if they are biblical – and let the traditions be part of our uniqueness in each culture.
    Looking forward to more enriching conversation in the fall in South Africa!

  2. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Geoff you hone in on an interesting point of supernatural beliefs about spirits. I think much of the caution/warning/danger is also a westernized tactic to say that Africans belief in the supernatural is not at par with the western beliefs and traditions. While their understanding of spirits makes them more open and aware to the supernatural, I do believe, they are able to make a distinction between the active work of the Holy Spirit and a “good spirit”.

    • Katy Drage Lines says:

      Christal, my experience confirms this, both our western “cautions” and the distinction between the HS and “good spirits” or ancestors.

  3. Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Yes Geoff, I also found it interesting how the Pentecostal movement resonates with the African culture. I could see how the openness and emotional expression of Pentecostals resonates with the African culture much more than the mainline, traditional denominations. It made me crave the African Christian in our churches just like I long for the beauty of Pentecostalism and traditional mainline churches to unite and recognize the beauty in each. I have never understood the fear and criticism one has for the other. I see Christ in both.

  4. Jim Sabella says:

    Thanks Geoff. Your warnings are well stated. I have seen the post-modern secular influence of the west on Africans who live in Central Europe. It is usually the second generation that is most impacted. Enjoyed your post.

  5. Stu Cocanougher says:

    “It also argues that theology is shifting from West to East, and that the African church must know what it believes and continue to develop a robust contextual theology.” I thought of this while I read this book. Much of the book was written from a perspective of theological deficits in the African church (areas of syncretism, tribalism, etc.). What I hoped to see more of was areas where African theologians are CONTRIBUTING to global theology. An example of this from China is the Book LIVING WATER, which is a record of theological reflections that a persecuted Chinese pastor made after escaping to the West. https://www.amazon.com/Living-Water-Teachings-International-Bestselling/dp/0310285542

  6. Geoff,
    As one of those ‘mainline’ pastors, I can definitely attest to the fact that, while I wouldn’t call them Pentecostal, our African members are distinctly more charismatic in nature than the ‘average’ Presbyterian.

    Our Presbytery (regional governing body) has several Brazilian congregations – and they sometimes describe themselves as ‘basically Pentecostal’ or something about being Pentecostal with Reformed theology…..

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      This is what I tell people – I’m Pentecostal-ish (one of my profs calls me PenteMethodist). I like the “basically Pentecostal” approach!

  7. Kristin Hamilton says:

    Geoff, I’m really interested to hear your thoughts on Michael’s discussion of Pentecostalism and the African approach to the supernatural. It felt to me that he was sort of making the African church sound a bit immature for their belief in the spirit world and felt that the Western approach to supernaturalism is somehow more biblical. I on the other hand wish we could learn from the African church how to revel in the Spirit. What do you think?

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