on 18 July 2001
As a founder-member of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Mission Theologians, Prof. Kwame Bediako welcomes the 'testing and affirming of insights' as a sign of a 'shared activity emerging out of a shared experience' (p.113).
The purpose of this publication is create access in Anglophone and Francophone Africa a short compendium of the theology of Prof. Bediako, for each chapter, except the list of publications, is a reprint of a journal article or book extracts, which are not all available in Africa. Indeed, when it comes to published works of African theology, the whole world is on the periphery, and not even the Bodleian Library is a centre. In the introduction, Hans Visser and Gillian Bediako write, 'the theology that emerges from the cutting edge of the interaction of the Gospel and culture in Africa has universal relevance and far-reaching significance for the global church.' Prof. Bediako is increasingly being called upon to give the Christian voice of Africa in a wide range of academic fora, most lately the centenary edition of African Affairs 99/395.
This slim Regnum Africa volume is pleasantly produced, and the only typographical errors apparent were the consistent misspelling of Tshibangu and a full stop instead of a comma on p.111! The danger of a compendium is that the same ideas recur with shorter or longer treatments, and in fact the same conclusive sentence in Bediakot theology recurred on pp. 73 & 82. The book lacks indices, for it would help to be able to find authors' names. More significantly it provided food for much thought, far too much to regurgitate here. Leading Bediakot motifs are given a good airing: the shift southwards of Christianity's centre of gravity; the reality of the Christian faith in contemporary Africa; the Christian Gospel as an intellectual and historical category in its own right; theology as a product of African personal identity; the analogue of 3rd century theologians, whose North African member, Tertullian provides continual fascination, as well as being a standing reminder that Christian theology was African long before it was German or English. Further, African theology can now make amends and fill the gaps left in European theology and mission.
Anyone looking for a neat African Christology will soon be disappointed, for the collection sacrifices 'formalised theology that dampens freshness and weakens vitality' on the altar of 'authentic African experience' (p.10), which sounds romantically novel. The chapters are equally divided into three sections: The African Experience of Jesus; Theology and Culture; Africa and the History of Christianity. The original contribution to Christology is one that is explicitly from below, from the African grassroots in fact, as exemplified by the reflective theology of an illiterate Christian Ghanaian (Bediako deliberately prefers Ghanaian Christian) woman, Christian Afua Kuma, who uses lion and gun imagery of both Jesus and Satan (pp.8-11). Bediako quotes HW Turner on the task of theology being to assist new religious movements with all their heresies old and new. The problem with authentic, grassroots Christian faith is, through little fault of the adherents, that they have appropriated not only a certain missionary tradition, but also in a cultural context that has already been changed by missionary, especially institutional, insertions so that it is not a matter of gospel meets culture on homeground, eventually issuing in an African Christian church. Any visit to Akropong-Akuapem vivifies the picture. Gospel turns out to be religion: 'It is as religion that the Christian Gospel is able to meet the African world in depth.' (p.104).
Yet what is this religion? It is grassroots Christian practice in order to keep theology and church close together. The speculations of many African theologians can be ruled out on the grounds that their Christologies, theologies of ancestors, and so do not find widespread acceptance among the laity. Again, what is this populist religion that lays behind the Gospel? The 'in its own way, also a reflective theology' (pp.8ff.) of Afua Kuma uses as much military imagery as CT Studd himself. Jesus is the grinding stone, the Sword Carrier, the sharpest of all great swords, the Hunter, ten arms rolled into one, the firekiller, the King of the nations, the king of the valiant, the chief of all chiefs. He blockades, tears out entrails, puts His royal sword in our right hand, and the flag of victory in our left hand. Yet he does not stand alone, for in these extracts, the devil, Satan, evil spirits, and the snake are mentioned twelve times. Jesus is the Christus Victor, but we are very close to the fundamental dualism that inspired missionaries to demonise African traditional religion and much else in their culture, so that they could replace it with the Light of the Gospel from Christendom. Religious traditions die hard, especially if their implicit theologies fit the cultural context, as dualism fits a culture divided by colonialism. To redeem the dislocated culture, and there is none that is not, Jesus needs to be believed as divine and human, as someone who is beyond what he does.
So can we infer a Bediakot Christology from his avoidance of explicit expression? There is refuge in mystery, for the 'revelation of God in Christ is the revelation of transcendence' (p.93), and our preaching should be the 'Christian witness to the divine incognito in Christ' (p.44). One is tempted to ask which religion it is that worships the unknown God. It is not surprising that he finds 'how tentative, provisional and contextual all theological efforts are' (p.79). We want to say 'Amen' to statements like: For Christianity is, among all religions, the most culturally translatable, hence the most truly universal, being able to be at home in every cultural context without injury to its essential character. (p.32)
Still, again the question remains, 'What is this Christianity?' and what its precious essential character? The answers are made explicit, Christ and Gospel. So African theology can only proceed 'without surrendering Christian content, for Christian content, strictly, is Jesus Christ himself.' (p.44), while the Gospel is 'an all-encompassing reality and an overall integrating principle' (p.73). If Christ is inscrutable and the Gospel is the grassroots witness of the church, what task remains for African theology? When 'ancestors represent a more enduring problem theologically than divinities' (p.90), it is questionable that there is much room to manoeuvre, and when Christian history is the major control over methods (p.79), it seems that African theology is to be allowed no originality.
The risk of an inscrutable Christ and a guarded Gospel is that the theologian can assume them to be, with only implicit support, what he wants them to be. We, and Africa, are explicitly given a Christology from above to trust and obey, no questions asked. Yet what if the Christ is from neo-Calvinism and the Gospel is that according to Hendrik Kraemer? The danger of avoiding an explicit Christology and seeing 'theology as the hermeneutic of identity', where the African theologian becomes the locus of theology (pp.51-3) is that beneath the kerygma of the risen Lord lies the unintegrated human being who is not Jesus.
The book ends curiously, not with a bibliography of African Christology, but with the still instructive 'Publications of Kwame Bediako' (pp.121-4).