An African Liberal Jesus: Ancestor Christology

In my last post I indicated that many African theologians want to portray Jesus as an ancestor. They want to create an authentic African Jesus. At the end of the day, this is a liberal Jesus created in the image of the African theologians. Yet, these issues need to be addressed by evangelicals since they do affect the African church negatively.

What does seeing Jesus as an ancestor really mean?[1]

Jesus as “Brother-Ancestor”

The deceased African brother-ancestor plays the role of mediator or intercessor on behalf of family and clan members, maintains ties with the living, becomes closer to God in position after death, and requires mandatory and regular communication from the living in the form of libation, invocation, ritual offerings, sacrifices, etc. He has to have lived a distinguished and exemplary life in the community, and goes on living through the lives of those still alive.

Jesus’ role parallels that of the brother-ancestor. Jesus is a mediator between us and God, intercessor on our behalf, and models good and proper conduct for us. We maintain a sacred communication with him, and he maintains ties with us, and is alive in us who are still alive. Jesus meets all the prerequisite conditions for an ancestor and therefore he is qualified to be brother-ancestor. Yet, he is unique because he is the Son of God. For this reason, his status as ancestor transcends that of the brother-ancestor in that he perfects and completes the role of brother-ancestor. He is the universal “Brother-Ancestor” par excellence.

Jesus is “Proto-Ancestor”

Another and most important role for the African ancestor is to be the source of life for his/her family members. As one who saves, Jesus identifies with the saving role of the African ancestors. He is thus the “Proto-Ancestor.” In support, one author paraphrases Hebrews 1:1-2 as follows:

“For after God had spoken to us at various times and in various places, including our ancestors, in these last days he speaks to us through his Son, whom he has established as unique Ancestor . . . from whom all life flows for His descendants” (Bujo, 83).

Thus, for the African theologians who advocate this view of Jesus as ancestor, Jesus is the unique ancestor because he “completes and perfects all there is in the African conception of ancestor” (Orobator, 77).

Many questions come to mind: Should African church leaders be concerned? Should evangelicals make a stronger effort to bring more solid theological education to Africa? What is the place of the Bible in developing an African theology? Is the Christ of the African liberal theology a savior?

We will continue the discussion in future posts.


[1] The following discussions are gleaned from these two representative sources on the topic: Benezet Bujo, African Theology in Its Social Context, trans. John O’Donohue (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 1992 [2006]); Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, Theology Brewed in an African Pot(MaryKnoll, New York: 2009).

Is Jesus an Ancestor?

According to Orobator (see introductory post or follow-up post),  “The Africans’ quest for who Jesus is for us cannot be satiated by simply adopting Christological formulas and models developed in foreign cultural contexts. Some people might object: ‘It doesn’t matter. Jesus transcends culture!’ Not quite. Jesus subsumes cultures.” (72).

He continues: “How can we recast the alien and expatriate images of Jesus Christ in the mold of the rich and colorful African religious and cultural worldview in order to discover an authentic and meaningful African identity and personality of Jesus?” (72). His aim is to discover a Jesus Christ “who will be able to respond to questions  posed by Africans themselves.” (72).

Acording to Orobator, we have the following descriptions for the African Christ: “ancestor, diviner, traditional healer, healer, chief, guest, warrior, loved one, brother, elder brother, ideal brother, universal brother, proto-elder, kin, kinsman, chief priest, chief, chief elder, ruler king, king, leader, liberator, black messiah . . .” (73). In addition, he writes, “It is as though the Africans are saying: ‘God we know, ancestors we acknowledge; but who are you for us, Jesus Christ?” (74).

The issue, according to Orobator, is how to deal with the issue of Christology in a way that is “authentically African and speaks immediately to the African consciousness” (75). He concludes that the way to deal with Christology in the African context is to see Christ as Ancestor (75).

What does seeing Christ as Ancestor mean? Is this biblical? What dangers does it pose to the gospel message? Is an African Christology necessary for Africans to come to faith in Christ?

These questions will be answered in the next post.

Examples of an African Brewed Theology

My post last week introduced the book Theology Brewed in an African Pot by Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator. This week, I want to give samples of this kind of theology.  On the doctrine of God, we see the following:

Existence of God

The author writes, “The question of God’s existence does not constitute a ‘burning question’ for us as Africans. . . .  “All African people believe in God. They take this belief for granted” (14, 19). Thus, there is no need to speak of God’s existence in African theology.

Names of God

“God has no name and many names” (18). God is present in the experiences of Africans and they give him different names depending on their life experiences. Limiting God’s names to those revealed in the Bible fails to communicate God to the African man. God has as many names as can be attributed to him from life experiences (21). “In Africa, the names of God are as varied as the people’s experiences of God” (22). The following are names of God that have come from the life experiences of Africans: Unbreakable stone, Grandfather, Piler of rocks, Artist-in-chief, Drummer of life, Large and deep pot, my feathered one, mother of people, great eye, great rainbow, great leopard, great spider, caller forth of the branching trees, big boundless hut (23-25).

Primacy of place goes to the people and their experiences and not to Scripture.

The Trinity

Again, the doctrine of the Trinity is to be understood from lived experiences. He asks, “As an African, how do I understand the idea of the Triune God? Is there anything in my African background that gives me a unique insight into the meaning of three persons in one God?” (30). He appeals to the image of an African woman to offer a unique way of understanding the Trinity. The Trinity, he says, is like “a woman who combines the strength, character, personality, and beauty of three women” (31). With this image, “we are able to recognize the God who enters into our experiences and meets us where we are” (32-33).

These are just samples of the kind of theology that is brewed in an African pot. It is a theology that goes from life experiences to the Bible. Scripture’s role is only to validate what people have already believed. What Scripture reveals is set aside for what people already know. The authority of the Bible is missing. God is not only triune, he is multifaceted. The line between the African religious context and Christianity is blurry. Syncretism reigns.

As an African, I ask myself, “Do I need an African theology to properly understand the gospel and obey its commands?  Or do I need, as does everyone, to have the gospel reign supreme in my life and in my culture?”

Theology Brewed in an African Pot?

I recently read a book entitled Theology Brewed in an African Pot, by Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator. The book was published in 2009 by Orbis Books in Mary Knoll, New York. Orobator is a Nigerian Jesuit priest who teaches theology and religious studies at Hekima Colloge Jesuit School of Theology and Institute of Peace Studies in Nairobi, Kenya.

The author uses a framework of excerpts from a famous novel, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, to explain the major themes of Christian doctrine in the African context. He covers doctrinal topics such as God, the Trinity, creation, grace and sin, Jesus Christ, the church, Mary and the saints, and African spirituality.  He seeks to address these doctrines specifically from the life experience of the African Christian, thus providing a theology truly brewed in the African pot and for Africans.

Orobator’s book is well spoken of. For example,

“ . . . a most engaging reflection on the meaning of Christian doctrine seen in the light of the living traditions and experience of African people. It will be of real value to all who want to understand the developing contours of Christian faith in the rapidly growing African church” (David Hollenbach, Boston College).

“Like the psalmist, Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator invites us to ‘taste and see’ the richness of theology ‘brewed in an African pot.’ While others have analyzed the ingredients of inculturated African theology, Orobator offers us not a recipe but a feast. . . .” (William O’Neill, Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley).

Other impressive comments can be found at http://www.amazon.com/Theology-Brewed-African-Agbonkhianmeghe-Orobator/product-reviews/157075795X/ref=cm_cr_dp_see_all_btm/178-7902135-4982404?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending.

My purpose is to take a look at the book as an African and ask sincere questions about Orobator’s methodology and his conclusions. First of all, what does it mean to “brew” theology and what is “an African pot?” There are varied cultures in Africa and therefore varied pots. Whose pot is used and what makes that pot valid? Should we brew theology or should we seek to apply it?

Orobator’s book illustrates the push to have an authentic African theology (the need for which I even question) and the challenges involved. It also brings to light the present danger of subjecting Scripture to culture in an attempt to produce a cultural theology. Honestly, how will the doctrine of God, the Trinity, Creation, grace, sin, Jesus Christ . . . be different in different cultures? These are truths that stand alone and hold true for all cultures.

As an African who is unashamedly proud of the Bible, I believe that our theology should flow from the text and be applied in our African context. We must refuse to allow our African experiences to direct our theology such that we read that theology back into the text.

I differ with those who are so positive about this book. It poses significant problems for the church and the place of the Bible in the theology of the church. Upcoming posts will show how this is the case.

The Challenge of Theological Education Using a Translator

On TLI trips, most teaching is done through a translator. We recruit teachers and give them curriculum to teach throughout the world. Our curriculum is prepared using the ESV Bible, and we explain the text based on the English syntax. This is great for English speakers, but such syntax is not as clear cut in other languages.

On my own TLI teaching trips, I have realized that while our curriculum is clear-cut in the explanation of texts, teaching it through a translator is challenging. Here are some reasons:

  1. It requires your translator to be well-versed in that text of Scripture. Why? Translation is not simply a matter of hearing words strung together and reproducing them in a different language. The translator has to hear what the teacher communicates and then put it in his or her language in a way that communicates the content of the teacher. In Romania, this became especially obvious to me. I found that my translator was saying things using more words than I did in English. When I asked why, he explained that some of the words do not exist in their language. Therefore he had to explain the concepts in a way that made sense to his people. Suddenly, I realized that for every minute of teaching that I did, I had to allow two minutes for translation. It is a challenge to teach effectively in such situations, but it still can be done when the teacher is well prepared.
  2. On the same trip, I emphasized certain words that were important for translating a passage (e.g. “but”, “therefore”, because”, “for”, “in order that”.). I was stunned to find that some of the words were not used in the same way in the text of the people. The challenge for me was that I had to learn to communicate concepts and thoughts without relying heavily on the English syntax of the passage, but at the same time helping my students know that those words were used by the author of the passage, and that they impact meaning.
  3. While the words, “glory of God”, “justified by faith”, and “the righteousness of God” are commonly used in our biblical theology curriculum, these concepts are not easily communicated in other languages. I come from a tribe where the words simply do not exist. So, how do I teach that believers should do all things for the glory of God or that justification is by faith alone etc?
  4. Often, the translation of the Bible in the language of the people is done based on an NIV or other text and not always from the original languages. I saw this done in some locations. Thus, the people are hearing the text read in our curriculum and it is different from their own. The teacher must be aware of this and address the differences when teaching.

Thus, one who desires to train pastors overseas in Theological Education, and has to do it through translators, has an extra challenge.  He must be willing not only to study and understand the curriculum, but also to put in the effort to have alternate explanations for key concepts in the curriculum. This takes time, but is worth it for people need the Word of God. It is their very life.

Learning to be faithful in rightly dividing the Word of Truth through translators.