by Lois Fuller
“I don’t like the doctrine of the Trinity,” one of our students confessed. “It gives us all kinds of trouble with the Muslims, is impossible to understand, and is of no benefit.”
"I don’t like the doctrine of the Trinity,” one of our students confessed. “It gives us all kinds of trouble with the Muslims, is impossible to understand, and is of no benefit.” The truth of the plurality in unity of God is of immense value, illuminating many African concerns such as access to God and spiritual power, the importance of community, and plurality of spiritual beings. But this student’s American textbook had been unable to relate this doctrine to questions the student was asking in his own life, thought, and ministry.
Churches all over the world are asking questions whose answers might not have been sought by the Western church that first brought them the gospel. Answering those questions is one of the urgent theological tasks of the church today.
Since I work in Africa, my illustrations will come from there. I hope people working in other parts of the world will be able to draw some lessons, too.
WHAT IS INDIGENOUS CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY?
Theology is the study of God. Traditionally, Christian theology has involved grouping everything the Bible teaches on each topic. The topics are the subjects the Bible deals with as seen by the theologians. Systematic theology tries to include all the topics in one system, and the order of the topics is usually determined by what seems appropriate to the theologians. Sometimes theologians address topics about which the Bible says little, but which they think are important, and deduce what would seem to be a biblical approach.
Theologians sometimes use sources other than the Bible to discover the truth about something: reason and experience and sometimes ideas from the world’s ideologies, philosophies, and religions. This article is about theology that tries to make the Bible its only authoritative source.
Obviously, the mental processes of theologians are critical in formulating theology. It is they who perceive what topics the Bible deals with, or what topics need to be dealt with, and the right way to organize them. Topics deemed of little relevance or importance receive little attention, or might go unnoticed. Imagine what would happen if different people were each given a big jar of buttons to sort. People like me who use buttons to fasten garments would likely sort them by color and size so they could quickly find the right one to sew on. But a recycler would arrange them by material, and people who used buttons for money might sort them by weight. An artist might arrange them in patterns stimulating to the eye. Somebody with a use for or perception of buttons which I have not yet encountered might even sort them by how many holes each had! Some buttons would be discarded as useless by one sorter, and others by another. Each way of organizing the buttons is intelligent and useful, but not equally so to everybody. No one way tells the whole story about buttons.
Likewise, the theology of the Western churches was first forged to give answers to the questions of Jews, but soon turned to answering the questions of the Greek- and Latin-speaking Gentiles who were coming into the church. The categories of Greek philosophy helped determine the topics noticed in Scripture and how the material was organized. Theology grew to reflect the changing circumstances of life and thought where Christians lived (mainly the West). This is perfectly legitimate. The Bible must speak to the reality in which we live.
Enter the new churches from other parts of the world with different thought categories and questions. Some aspects of the “theology” brought to them by gospel messengers from the West seemed irrelevant at best, and some burning religious questions in their own lives and culture were not addressed. The theology was not always arranged in a fashion that seemed natural and understandable. This made Christianity look foreign and inadequate.
Perceptive missionaries noticed this, and some tried to provide more contextualized teaching. As the churches outside the West matured, God raised up thinkers among them who began going to Scripture with theirown questions, categories, and spiritual insights born of the local culture and religion. They started building compilations of and deductions from biblical truth that made sense to them and their people. Some foreign missionaries who were attuned to local thought made contributions, too. Indigenous Christian theology, therefore, is theological reflection organized in local categories and addressing local questions.
Like Western theology, other indigenous theologies tend to be limited by the cultures in which they develop. But they are also strengthened by the insights of their own viewpoints.
WHY IS INDIGENOUS CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY IMPORTANT?
1. It is necessary for personal discipleship. A faith without answers for people’s pressing questions can never be strong. In a culture that believes that storms are the wrath of the ancestors, a Christian whose house has just been struck by lightning has to have a theology of storms. Failure to grapple with such topics hinders discipleship. Many Africans believe that some problems cannot be solved by Christianity. When a witch is devouring your life force, the church doesn’t want to hear about it. Better go to the diviner.
2. The church cannot mature without it. A church dependent on foreigners for its ideas can never feel good about itself, stand fearlessly in its own environment, go ahead on its own, or claim the allegiance of the local culture. Every church must be able to find its answers directly from Scripture, without, of course, ignoring the insights of the household of faith in other times and places.
3. The society cannot be transformed without it. This transformation may take a different form in each society, depending on its pressing needs. Many countries suffer from bad government and need a theology of leadership that interacts deeply with local ideas. The Ghanaian theologian Kwame Bediako, for example, discusses the divine status of chiefs, who, in many West African societies, rule by the authority of the ancestors. He talks about chieftaincy in the context of the servant leadership model of Jesus. How will a Christian vision of leadership affect the traditional model and transform society?
Many groups of people are gravely oppressed and need to know how to react as disciples of Jesus. Liberation theology and Black theology have been attempts to meet this need. Are they biblical? How does the Bible say we are to bring about justice?
4. Only together can we get close to the whole truth. The Bible has the answers, but no one culture asks all the questions. People asking the questions that the West has not asked go to Scripture and find that there are answers. They explore these answers and present them to the Christian community all over the world. The churches of the West will always have an incomplete (and hence distorted) view of the Bible’s teaching unless they are enriched by the insights of Christians from other backgrounds, and vice-versa.
HOW CAN MISSIONARIES HELP STIMULATE INDIGENOUS CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY?
Although good beginnings have been made at indigenous Christian theology in many cultures, much still needs to be done. Missionaries want to encourage local believers to digest and apply Scripture to their own cultures and societies. A missionary is an outsider, however, who struggles to understand the local world view and thought patterns well enough to communicate convincing theology for a local situation. Here are a few suggestions.
1. Learn as much as you can about the local situation. There is no substitute for studying the local language, culture, world view, politics, and religion. Try to find a local friend who can explain not only what people do, but why, and the assumptions behind their ideas. If jealousy is sometimes considered justified, or Christians in your church always keep their prayer requests anonymous, you need to find out why. Sometimes they do what you would, but not for the same reason. This takes longer to figure out.
2. Try to identify discipleship problems stemming from the local cultureand world view. These probably point to areas where theological work needs to be done. In Africa, Christians often resort to charms and diviners. Tribalism is endemic. Church members feel justified in taking a second wife. Some of this is just the flesh and the devil, but some is due to deep understandings of the nature of existence. What does the Bible teach that addresses the root causes of these problems? Are there things that initially looked wrong to you but could actually have biblical sanction in this different context?
3. Read the Bible from the viewpoint of the local culture or world view. Take a topic you have not had to think through in your own culture, ask some questions, and read through the Bible looking for answers. One year, having come to understand much concerning the local belief about ancestors, I copied every Bible passage I found relating to the topic. Then I tried to put it all together and formulate a biblical theology of ancestors, looking for points of agreement with and divergence from the local traditional belief. This has given me a beginning for discussions with local Christians, and their insights are further refining my thinking.
4. Read theologians from your area. You may not agree with them all, but understand what they are trying to do and say. Being in (West) Africa, I have read, among others, John V. Taylor and Aylward Shorter of the foreigners, and of the Africans, Bolaji Idowu, John Mbiti, John Pobee, Byang Kato, Harry Sawyerr, and, to me the most useful, Kwame Bediako. If you read, you won’t need to reinvent the wheel but can build on what others have done.
5. See if local believers find your insights helpful and accurate. Discuss your ideas with dedicated believers and take advice. If you teach, ask your class how your idea sounds and let students refine or develop it.
6. Publish ideas that seem to be helpful. Scholarly articles should provoke response, which will further refine the insight. Be tactful and quote local sources to support your account of local ways and ideas. You don’t need to come across as one who is trying to prove that these are wrong, but that the Bible is relevant to them.
7. If you are a teacher, challenge your students by teaching and modeling indigenous Christian theology. Plant a vision for theological work and pray that it will bear fruit in those God has prepared.
Help students digest local theologians. Sometimes very good work has been done, but it has been published in academic language. Paraphrasing this material for students is helpful. If possible, check your paraphrase with the author for accuracy.
Get students to do projects and papers on locally relevant theological issues. When he was a baby, a student in our school had been taken to a diviner to determine what life he had chosen for himself before he was conceived. His parents believed that if they raised him to follow what his preexistent spirit had chosen, he would be successful. But he had decided to become a pastor against his parents’ wishes. After completing a comparison of his people’s view and the biblical view of the origin of human souls, however, this student’s confidence in his decision was strengthened. A student in another seminary wrote an essay on the ideological similarities between the prosperity gospel and the traditional African world view. He has since published it as a very insightful book.
Incorporate insights from indigenous Christian theology into all courses, pointing out relevant teaching in Bible courses, applications to education and counseling, methods in homiletics—the possibilities are many.
8. Help develop good theology textbooks for pastors and leaders. Some areas of the world are farther ahead in this than others. Some missionaries have written their own teaching materials. Another approach might be to offer typing and editing help to an indigenous colleague who has ideas but little time to get them on paper, or better yet, to help find funding for sabbaticals and publishing.
9. Good theology needs to spread through the whole church. You can help or encourage the writing of discipling materials for churches incorporating the insights of indigenous Christian theology. This includes tracts, Sunday School materials, and Bible study lessons. When was the last time you saw a good Sunday school lesson on the Christian response to witchcraft or on whether you should eat the part of the sacrificial ram that your Muslim neighbor kindly sent you at Id El Kabir? Some churches have materials like this, but, sadly, many do not.
Local believers are the best people to formulate indigenous Christian theology. But many of them have never attempted it because those who brought them the gospel did not encourage them to do so. The missionary role is to model this task, however inadequately, and to encourage others to do it. Sometimes it is by our very failure that we will stimulate others to do it properly. I am looking forward to the day when we will have enough relevant theological reflection in every culture to make the churches stronger and enrich the worldwide body of Christ.
Lois Fuller works in Nigeria with World Partners of the Missionary Church/Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada. She has worked in Nigeria since 1974. She teaches Greek, Bible, and missions at the United Missionary Church of Africa Theological College in Ilorn and at the Nigeria Evangelical Missionary Institute in Jos.
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