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

Tradition Versus Theology

Written by: on June 8, 2017


Why does this people group, denomination, socio-economic quota, or ethnicity get a pass?  Can being from a certain continent give you a “green card”, “Get Out of Jail Free-card”, or “I can do what I want because I am __________ – card (You fill in the blank)”.   After my rant, I reflected on my own biases and how I had perceived others through a “lens” that I wanted to call theology but was a Christian tradition.

Have African believers been given an unfair indictment?  Do they hav  As Thomas Oden said in his work, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind:  Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity, “Some Westerners will turn away from even hearing Africa’s ancient Christian heritage because of seated prejudices about the assumed unimportance of Africa to world history.”[1]  Mix this “seated prejudice” with perceived (and real) challenges, polygamy being one of them, within the continent of Africa and you have a theological conundrum.

Matthew Michael in his book, Christian Theology and African Traditions, reiterates the same challenge 

Christian theology has a long history of association with the African continent. This association goes back to the second century in the planting of the church at Egypt, and subsequently in the founding of churches at Numidia, Nubia, and Abyssinia in third to fourth centuries respectively. The names Numidia, Nubia and Abyssinia may be unknown to some readers because these great African kingdoms, apart from Ethiopia, have now disappeared from the pages of world history and have been replaced by the Arab nations of Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Sudan.[2]

The African story is one of heritage, divided ethnicity, masses of people, corruption, and mistrust, yet it holds the key to the modern church.  Matthew Michael resounds the words of Andrew F. Walls when he, “…described African Christianity as ‘the representative Christianity of the twenty-first century’ because ‘what happens within the African churches in the next generation will determine the whole shape of church history for centuries to come . . .’ and ‘what sort of theology is more characteristic of Christianity in the twenty-first century may well depend on what has happened in the minds of African Christians.’”[3]



Dr. Matthew Michael, in his work Christian Theology and African Traditions, takes on a difficult discussion of the major tenets of the faith from the Scriptures to eschatology to the Godhead to the sacraments within Christianity and how it is contextualized in an African setting. Michael defines theology early in the book and then weaves theology and African tradition and the nuances that proceed from them.  Michael challenges when theology and tradition clash.  One major challenge is the allowance of polygamy and allowing the individual/s to partake in communion.

Michael asks, “Should this flagrant sin in the African context include polygamy? The problem of polygamy is intricately related with issues of African values, Western cultures and the Bible. To this end, Yusufu Turaki revealed that ‘Polygamy is the most difficult theological issue to deal with in Africa because of the apparent uncompromising and irreconcilable views of African culture and religion and Western Christianity.’”[4]  We can make quick judgment calls as Westerners and forget the implications when tradition and theology clash.



I know my own weakness when it comes to tradition and how I view the world.  I was raised in a home where there was no television, alcohol of any kind, and playing cards.  You throw a deck of cards on the table that has steins of beer on it and my childhood tradition can emerge.  Since childhood, I have looked through balanced of eyes of theology and married them with my tradition.  African traditions can be much the same.


Michael states:

Consequently, tradition goes deeper than culture and also shows the challenging nature of the entire encounter between Christianity and the African continent since it is an encounter between two inherited traditions. The African traditions make claims that its traditions are necessary towards the construction of its identity. Thus we could ask the pertinent question whether one can jettison African traditions and still remain an African, or to put this another way, by taking on the Christian traditions are Africans not taking on a foreign identity since it is assumed that traditions of a particular people are key to the formation of the identity of such people?[5]

For me, as well as Africans, I am no longer a citizen of this world.  I do not want to propel traditions that tie my identity to this Earth.  I want to live with a theology and traditions that intertwine and look my Heavenly Father and bear His identity.

[1] Thomas C. Oden. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind:  Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity, (Downers Grove, IL:  IVP Books, 2007), 35.

[2] Matthew Michael, Christian Theology and African Traditions, (Eugene, OR:  Resource Publications, 2013), 3.

[3] Ibid., 1.

[4] Ibid., 16.

[5] Ibid., 224.

About the Author

Phil Goldsberry

9 responses to “Tradition Versus Theology”

  1. Pablo Morales says:

    I hope you had a nice birthday celebration! Thank you for your reflections on the book. I also grew up in a home with tight moral standards, including things like no smoking or dancing. It has been a long journey for me to realize that even our moral standards can be shaped by a cultural worldview, to the point that smoking and dancing can be completely compatible with being a devoted follower of Christ. Reading Michael’s book takes me a step farther in exploring issues about our individual or communal identity as well as the issue of family ties. Discerning the relationship between Christian identity, traditions, and cultural worldview is proven to be more complex than what I had anticipated. I can see you are dealing with the same issues as I read your blog. Thank you for sharing your reflections.

    • Phil Goldsberry says:

      In reflection, I am thankful for the heritage, disciplines, and traditions. The challenge is keeping them in check with humility and spiritual arrogance.


  2. Garfield Harvey says:

    Great blog. It sometimes difficult to maintain our citizenship here on earth because of these prejudices. This also makes me want to challenge our missional efforts that are filled with biases. As I’m responding to your blog, I’m reminded of my own biases to the people of Jamaica. After immigrating to the USA, every trip I made to Jamaica I went with gifts as though they needed me. Not once did I visit with the intent of learning but always the mindset of teaching. This is a tension to manage because we (Jamaicans) were cultured to a place of inferiority to America and Europe but a place of superiority to other Caribbean countries. Until we lose our biases, we won’t truly understand the relationship between our christian identity and traditions.


    • Phil Goldsberry says:

      Your usage of “bias” is probably the better word when traditions become extreme and divisive. Thank you for that one word, it is something that I will use in the future when speaking about traditions and convictions.

  3. Happy birthday again Phil!
    Nice blog.
    I think one way forward to this question of tradition and theology is when Michael says that African Christians should focus on the noun. This means for any people group we should claim our citizenship in heaven stronger than our country’s. I find this helpful.

    • Phil Goldsberry says:

      The “citizenship” location is what stabilizes all of us. When we allow superiority in any area, we are creating a hypocritical environment that is unhealthy. This is not an African issue, it is a human issue.


  4. Marc Andresen says:


    I love your statements, “You throw a deck of cards on the table that has steins of beer on it and my childhood tradition can emerge,” and “I want to live with a theology and traditions that intertwine and look my Heavenly Father and bear His identity.”

    How has theology engaged your childhood worldview, and how has that worldview been affected?

    Has theology freed you from tradition in any way?

  5. Phil Goldsberry says:

    Theology has caused me to examine through an eternal lens versus a limited bandwidth. Yet, my childhood has influenced me to look at the heart of Christ and assess what holiness is. The term “freed” is an allusive term that can mean many things.

    I have made “shifts” but there are some things that we do not need to be “freed” from if they lead us closer to Christ.


  6. Jason KENNEDY says:

    Well stated. We all have natural cultural tendancies. I do not get a pass on issues like lust since I was raised in “over-sexualized” America. The point is there are a closed handed set of values and open handed set. I know how decipher between the two, but how about you?

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