Theology in Africa

David Ngong

This article provides a broad overview of key issues that have animated theology in Africa. It thinks of theology in Africa as African Christian theology and engages the key issues from a historical and continental perspective. It shows how Christian theology in Africa has engaged key issues such as martyrdom, missions, culture, politics, sex and gender, and the place of the Bible in theology. It demonstrates that contemporary theology in Africa may also be understood as including theology in the African diaspora. In fact, theology in Africa has been stamped with global theological, political, and cultural dynamics, and so it may also be understood as a global theology.

1 Introduction: whose theology? Whose Africa?

The phrase ‘theology in Africa’ immediately raises at least two important questions. The first is, ‘whose theology?’ and the second is ‘whose Africa?’ The phrase ‘theology in Africa’ raises the first question because Africa is home to multiple religious traditions that have different theologies. The major religious traditions in the continent include indigenous spirituality, Christianity, and Islam, and minor ones include Hinduism, Buddhism, and Baha’i, among others. Thus, speaking of theology in Africa immediately raises the question of which religious tradition one is referring to. It is, therefore, important to state from the outset that the theology we shall be addressing in this article is Christian theology in Africa. Delimiting our topic to Christian theology in Africa, the next question is ‘whose Africa are we talking about?’ As is now well known, Africa is an invented category that has a long history (Mudimbe 1988; Diagne and Amselle 2020). While the provenance of the name is often shrouded in mystery, scholars agree that the name has not always designated the whole of the continent. In fact, the name initially applied to a small section of north Africa in what is today Tunisia. The Romans used it to designate much of what has come to be known as Roman Africa – which is much of northern Africa, excluding Egypt. Through Arab Islamic influence and the Portuguese circumnavigation of the continent the name came to include Egypt and the rest of the continent.

Even though the name applies to the whole continent today, it is not often used in this way. The continent is often divided into what may be called Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa. While Saharan Africa includes the Islamic countries of north Africa, sub-Saharan Africa includes what is sometimes called Black Africa, that is, the rest of the continent south of the Sahara Desert. Sometimes when people speak of Africa, they specifically refer to sub-Saharan Africa. This distinction between Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa has influenced developments in and understandings of contemporary Christian theology in Africa. When some scholars speak of theology in Africa, they are typically talking about what has come to be referred to as ‘African theology’, which is the Christian theology of sub-Saharan Africa. While some see this theology as emerging in the twentieth century, others see it as connected to the radical ministry of the young Kongolese woman, Kimpa Vita, who was burnt at the stake for disturbing the peace of state and church in 1706 (Parratt 1995). This understanding of theology in Africa sees it as steeped in the social, cultural, political, and economic life of Black people in sub-Saharan Africa. It did not include ancient or contemporary Christian theology in North Africa or Egypt or even the theology of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It sought to retrieve marginalized knowledges and spiritualities in developing Christian thought that was suitable for Black Africans and challenged oppressive social, economic, and political forces that threaten their lives (see Appiah-Kubi and Torres 1979; Dickson 1984; Muzorewa 1985; Gibellini 1994; Parratt 1995; Katongole 2002; Maluleke 2005; 2022; Bujo 1992; Stinton 2015).

The distinction between sub-Saharan and Saharan Africa has, however, become increasingly problematic. Some have argued that the life and history of the continent should be seen as intertwined so that the northern parts are not as radically distinct from the southern parts as the distinction between sub-Saharan and Saharan Africa seems to suggest. Not only are the northern and southern parts of the continent connected, the ancient and modern life of the continent are connected and should be studied together. Thus, ancient North African and Egyptian Christianity are connected to contemporary North African, Egyptian, and sub-Saharan African Christianity. However, others have argued that it is anachronistic to connect ancient North African and Egyptian Christianity to the Christianity of sub-Saharan Africa (see Engelke 2018: 289–290; TeSelle 2006: 1). In keeping with the distinction between sub-Saharan and Saharan Africa, they also see Coptic Christianity as different from the Christianity of sub-Saharan Africa. Others have argued that there are elements that connect ancient North African and Egyptian Christianity to contemporary African Christianity (see Hastings 1989; Sindima 1994; Kalu 2007; Uzukwu 2012; Ngong 2017). For this group, the division between sub-Saharan and Saharan Africa is rooted in imperial cartography and racist thinking rather than any cultural or political division. From this, it is evident that how one describes Africa affects how one sees African Christianity and the theology that has been and continues to be done in the continent.

While much contemporary Christian theology in Africa may be rightly described as sub-Saharan African Christian theology, this article takes a longer and broader view of theology in Africa by including the whole continent and the theological activities that have taken place therein. This means that theology in Africa includes ancient North African and Egyptian Christian theology, contemporary Coptic and Ethiopian Christian theology, and the Christian theology of sub-Saharan Africa. This article therefore adopts a historical and thematic approach in addressing this theology, looking at how some key themes in the development of theology in Africa may be traced throughout the development of Christianity in the continent. From this perspective, a distinction is made between what has come to be known as African theology and theology in Africa. African theology is the Christian theology that developed in sub-Saharan Africa especially after the Second World War. Theology in Africa depicts the Christian theology that has been done all over the continent in the last two thousand years. This distinction expands the scope of what is often described as African theology to the broader vision of theology in Africa and argues that African theology should be understood from the perspective of theology in Africa, rather than from the perspective of the theology that developed in sub-Saharan Africa in the twentieth century. In this article, therefore, African theology will be read from this expansive view of theology in Africa and vice versa.

Even if limited to sub-Saharan Africa, theology in Africa is a vast topic that has addressed many themes. Our expanded delineation of African theology involves a further broadening of the scope of the subject. This broadened scope suggests that not every theme it has broached can be addressed in this brief discussion of the topic. Some important themes are bound to be left out. However, a broad outline of some significant issues will be discussed to provide readers an understanding of the subject. The key issues to be discussed include: martyrdom; the Bible in African theology; African theology and culture; theology and politics; theology, sex, and gender; and African and African diaspora theology. In the end, it will be argued that theology in Africa has been influenced by, and has influenced, global dynamics. Hence, this theology may properly be described as a global, rather than merely a local, theology. This article will first discuss different types of theology in Africa before addressing these key themes.

2 Types of Christian theology in Africa

When the eminent African theologian John Mbiti noted that there are three types of African theology, his focus was mainly on the theology of sub-Saharan Africa. His three types of African theology consisted of written, oral, and symbolic theology (1979: 84). Written theology was the theology of literate Christians and theologians, oral theology was the theology of non-literate people, and symbolic theology emanated from artistic creations. This tripolar division of African theology has characterized much of African theological activities thus far, and it can be applied to the whole continent across time and space as well. Theology has not only been written but has also been sung and prayed and artistically portrayed. It has been manifested in material culture that is symbolic in nature, such as the cross in Ethiopian Christianity (Abbink 2016). Mbiti’s tripolar division of African Christian theology is therefore intended to account for the different forms of theology in the continent so as not to give the impression that theology is only written theology, as seems to be the assumption in much of Western theology. Thus, contemporary African theologians have been careful to engage the theology of ordinary Christians, especially those in rural areas who do not have access to formal, written theology but who, nevertheless, conceptualize the Christian life in vibrant ways (Kanyoro 2002; West 2007). Reading the Bible with ordinary Christians and reducing the songs and prayers of ordinary Christians into written forms have been among some of the ways of taking oral theology seriously. This includes the study of the prayers and songs of the Ghanaian woman Afua Kuma, among others (see Kuma 2022). The Cameroonian theologian Engelbert Mveng has been a central figure in African symbolic theology as his artistic work has not only been the subject of theological reflection but has donned sanctuaries in many parts of the continent (Mveng 1996; Mendouga 2014). The role of art in theology is especially manifested in Ethiopian Orthodoxy (Esler 2019; Tibebe and Giorgis 2020).

What Mbiti’s taxonomy does is that it draws our attention to the complex nature of African theology. This complexity is, however, not only rooted in written and non-written theologies, but also in the different forms of Christianity in the continent. These different types of theology are sometimes done from denominational perspectives such as Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, or Pentecostal perspectives. Thus, when we think about the different types of theology in the continent, we should also think of them from what might be called denominational perspectives, even though Christian theology in Africa sometimes transcends denomination and even Christianity (Maluleke 2005). Mveng’s symbolic theology, for example, is done from a Roman Catholic perspective so that the stations of the cross are important dynamics of his artistic creations. His theology, however, transcends Roman Catholicism in that it addresses the lived experiences of many Africans, Christian and non-Christian.

Overall, however, what Mbiti’s taxonomy seems to capture is the fact that theology in Africa houses several genres: the literate and non-literate, the academic and popular. The point seems to be that theology in Africa should not only focus on the life and thought of academic theologians but also on ordinary people. Academic and popular theology can be found all over Africa from ancient to modern times, from the high theological reflections of Origen or Augustine to the expression of the Christian faith by ordinary people in ancient Roman North Africa, as well as Egypt and contemporary Africa (see Frankfurter 2018; Kanyoro 2001; West 2007). Thus, there are essentially two broad types of Christian theology in Africa – popular and academic (or written) theology. While popular theology is not always written, academic theology is often written theology – it is a theology often found in texts and art. Popular theology is the theology of ordinary people often expressed orally and in art. Although popular theology may be written, it is generally not written. These two broad types of theology do not operate in isolation but often interact with each other. These taxonomies, therefore, do not provide hermetically sealed types of theology. Sometimes they influence each other but sometimes they do not. The struggle centres on how to encourage mutual interaction and cross-fertilization between these two theologies. They should, however, not be separated as some scholars of global Christianity attempt to do when they focus mostly on the theology of ordinary African Christians (Jenkins 2006).

At this point it is important to raise the question of the audience of theology in Africa. In other words, who does theology in Africa attempt to address and what response does it expect from its audience? This question of audience is connected to the kind of community envisioned within African theology. Like theology all over the world, theology in Africa seeks to construct vibrant ecclesial and Christian identities and communities. Much of it deals with how African Christians should understand themselves and live in their different contexts. However, much theology in Africa is not just about the lives of Christians. This is why the very idea of Africa is so central to theology that emanates from that continent. From ancient North African to contemporary expressions of Christianity in the continent, being an African Christian has often carried specific implications. While ancient North African Christians addressed themselves as Africans in the Roman and Arab world (Wilhite 2017), contemporary African Christian theology focuses on the plight of Africans in the modern world. Central to this theology is not only the creation of Christian communities that worship in peace and harmony, but also societies that enable human flourishing. Thus, theology in Africa addresses a range of audiences, from Christian and non-Christian Africans, to Christians and non-Christians around the world, to the ecclesial hierarchy, and national and international organizations. The vision of community is not only eschatological but also focuses on present planetary existence. Like Christian theology in general, theology in Africa does not only envision community in local contexts but also imagines peaceful, global human and ecological flourishing. The themes to be addressed below demonstrate some visions of community imagined by this theology.

3 Themes of Christian theology in Africa

Key themes of Christian theology in Africa include: theology and martyrdom; modern missionary theology; theology and African cultures; theology, sex, and gender; theology and politics in Africa; the Bible in African theology; and theology in Africa and the African diaspora.

3.1 Theology and martyrdom

Over the centuries, Christianity in Africa has developed within treacherous terrains that have called upon Christians to follow the One they call their Saviour in making the ultimate sacrifice. Martyrdom has therefore been a central theme in African Christianity – from the first Christians in Roman North Africa at the end of the second century, to the development of Coptic Christianity in Egypt whose tradition looks to martyrdom as central to its founding; from the development of Christianity in early modern Central Africa, with the martyrdom of Kimpa Vita, to modern missionary Christianity in East Africa that cherishes the memory of the Ugandan martyrs; from the murder of Christian leaders in post-independence Africa to the rampant murder of Christians in Nigeria and Egypt. Because of this, Africa has played a central role in developing theologies of martyrdom. These theologies are not only expressed within academic or written theology but also within popular theologies that originate from the mouth of martyrs as they are executed. Thus, from the ordinary Scillitan Martyrs in Roman North Africa we see how they relativized earthly authority for the divine as they refused to offer sacrifice towards the health of the emperor. We see something similar in the Acts of Perpetua and Felicitas where the martyrs are captivated by an eschatological vision that places the earthly in a penultimate light. Here we see that martyrs are people who have been so captured by a divine vision that the earthly becomes penultimate. Theologians from Tertullian to Augustine and Origen have theologized on the significance of martyrdom for the Christian life. While for Tertullian martyrdom serves an ecclesiological function in that it spurs the growth of the church, for Augustine and Origen it is a profound act of discipleship, of the imitation of Christ (Youssef 2017; Cunningham 2011). As Augustine saw it, the day a martyr dies is a day that should be celebrated because on that day the martyr not only followed their Lord in his suffering but also overcame sin and inherited paradise. Martyrdom is, therefore, a profound act of Christian commitment, a moment that challenges Christians to live up to the belief that Christians ought to relativize the earthly. The Ugandan theologian Emmanuel Katongole (2011b) echoes this point when he draws on the Guatemalan poet, Julia Esquivel, to suggest that martyrs threaten Christians with the resurrection. In this sense, martyrs are not only part of the cloud of witnesses but threaten the living because they call the living to be in solidarity with them by making manifest the conviction that the power of the resurrection is the power of life over death. For those who pursue the shiny things of this life, rather than serve the God of Jesus Christ whom they purport to confess, martyrs are threats to be avoided. However, it is the way of the martyr that demonstrates the profundity of our Christian commitment.

An important issue in the theology of martyrdom in Africa, as in much of Christianity, is how to define who qualifies as a martyr. While African Protestants rarely address the question of martyrdom (Pobee 1985), it appears that for Catholics and Orthodox Christians, martyrs are those who die explicitly confessing their faith in Christ, as exemplified by the Scillitan Martyrs, Perpetua and Felicitas, and the Ugandan Martyrs in the nineteenth century. Contemporary descriptions of martyrs in African theology, however, go beyond the understanding of martyrs as people who die explicitly confessing their faith in Christ. Martyrdom in African Christianity has come to include those who die in defence of Africans from various forces of dehumanization, especially in the modern world. It is in this light that figures like Steve Biko, Amilcar Cabral, and Kimpa Vita, may be described as martyrs in African Christian theology. In fact, it has even been argued that the dehumanization and pointless death of many Africans in the context of the global exploitation of Africans should count as the martyrdom of the Africans (Okure 2003). This is because the unjust suffering and death of Africans is reminiscent of the unjust suffering and death of Christ. From this perspective, the theology of martyrdom in Africa raises questions about who counts as martyr. In other words, it raises the question about whose life and death matters – is it only the life and death of Christians that matter or do all who die unjust and despicable deaths matter? This is a fresh and fruitful area of theology that still needs significant engagement, especially from Protestants in Africa.

3.2 Modern missionary theology in Africa

Modern missionary theology undergirds mission work in the continent, both articulated and unarticulated. It is important to engage this theology because much of Christianity in the continent today emanated from missionary activities, and some dynamics of Christian theology in the continent are responses to this missionary theology. Missionary theology applies to early modern and modern missionary work in the continent because it was during this period that organized Western missionary activity was launched in Africa. The means through which Christianity spread in Roman North Africa and Egypt are not quite clear and so a missionary theology is not quite evident there (Frankfurter 2018: 5; Tilley 1997: 19). The expression ‘missionary theology’ is used here to distinguish it from a ‘theology of mission’. A theology of mission reflects on missionary praxis and seeks to provide an ideal type of theology for missionary work, rather than describing the praxis of mission itself. Missionary theology, on the other hand, is a theological description of missionary praxis, reading theologically the work of missionaries. It is about what missionaries thought about Africans and did there. Theology of missions may coincide with missionary theology, but they are not the same thing. For example, a theology of mission may say that missionaries are participating in a missio Dei, but it is also the case that missionaries were participating in the mission of empire (Etherington 2005; Brown 2008). This view of missionary theology is different from that of the missiologist David Bosch when he suggested a shift from a theology of mission to missionary theology. For him, theology of mission posited mission as a part of what the church should be doing, whereas missionary theology sees mission as integral to the very being of the church (1991: 492–494). Here, however, missionary theology is about the praxis of actual missionaries in Africa.

Missionary theology in Africa must take its starting point within the context in which Western missionary work was carried out in the continent, beginning from late fifteenth century and ending in the middle of the twentieth century. This period could be seen as one, long missionary period in the continent because it spans from when the Portuguese first introduced Christianity in parts of sub-Saharan Africa to the so-called moratorium debate which called for the end of missionary work in the continent in the 1970s. Within this context, it must first be acknowledged that missionary theology was rooted in the doctrine of providence in which different empires saw themselves as having been divinely empowered through the pope and the king and various mission agencies to missionize the ‘heathens’ in the continent. This doctrine of providence developed a specific doctrine of creation in which Africans and other non-Western people were regarded as not fully human and it was the work of missionaries and the empire to humanize them. It is within this framework that African indigenous systems would at best be seen as problematic and at worst as worthless. Thus, to missionize Africans was to convert them not only to Christianity but also to the white, Western ways of life. The mission station came to stand as an epitome of this understanding of mission as it became the site that depicted the removal of Africans from their benighted environment to an enlightened one. While theologies of mission talked about saving the souls of Africans for heaven through converting them to Christianity or of planting churches in Africa (Mushete 1979), this discourse was rooted in the larger doctrine of providence that undergirded empire and missionary work. It is this theological framework that led to missionary rejection of various dimensions of African indigenous cultures and spirituality. This theological framework continues to be challenged within some dynamics of contemporary theology in Africa. However, African theologies that continue to harp on missionary praxis appear to have passed their prime. Theologically engaging African cultural contexts as they manifest in our time of global hyperconnectivity should be encouraged. Indeed, thinking about how new technologies are affecting the cultural dynamics of the continent is becoming increasingly important.

3.3 Theology and African cultures

A central question that arises in discussing the relation between Christian theology and African cultures is the question of Christian identity. In his magnum opus Theology and Identity (1992), the Ghanaian theologian Kwame Bediako discusses this issue by comparing ancient Christian contexts with contemporary African Christian contexts, arguing that the theologies developed in these contexts were wrestling with the question of identity. For him, ancient African theologians such as Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria were struggling with how to be Christian in the Graeco-Roman context, whereas contemporary African theologians such as John Mbiti, Bolaji Idowu, and Byang Kato were wrestling with how to be Christian in the context of the encounter between African indigenous cultures and spiritualities and the Christian and Western traditions. While some of these theologians (Mbiti, Idowu, Mulago) sought to accommodate their cultures to the Christian faith, others (Kato) saw the Christian faith as antithetical to their cultural contexts. Bediako’s contribution was that the Christian faith is often performed in the context of extraneous cultures and these cultures must be taken seriously. Thus, together with Lamin Sanneh (2009), he championed what has come to be called the theology of translation. For them, African indigenous cultures have in a way domesticated the Christian tradition through the process of translation. This process of translation does not only emerge through the translation of the Bible using indigenous languages, but through the understanding of Christianity as an incarnational religion. This is so because for Christians God is incarnated in specific contexts in the form of Jesus Christ. This theology of incarnation has come to be known as the theology of inculturation (Magesa 2004). It focuses on the idea that Christianity must be expressed in Africa using indigenous idioms and practices. Even though Bediako’s magnum opus focuses on what we have described here as academic theology, he is aware that this theology is not only found in academic circles. It is especially incarnated in the life of ordinary Christians in what we have described as popular theology. That is why the Ghanaian oral theologian, Afua Kuma, came to be a central figure in his theology (Bediako 2004). The theology of translation has however been critiqued for, among other things, failing to see the missionary corruption of indigenous religious ideas and missionary complicity in the exploitation of Africans (Setiloane 1979; Ntloedibe-Kuswani 2001; Maluleke 1996).

The theology that engages African cultures is often linked to the work of the Belgian missionary, Father Placide Tempels, whose Bantu Philosophy (1945, French translation; 1952, English translation) disputed previously held beliefs that Africans did not have coherent philosophical ideas. He asserted that Africans had a coherent worldview rooted in the notion of vital force or the interconnection of forces in the universes that enhance or diminish life. For him, the enhancement of life is central to an African view of life. This notion was picked up by others, among whom were some priests from Africa and its diaspora who met in France and were influenced by the negritude movement. Their work Des Prêtres noirs s’interrogents (1956) sounded a warning shot that Black African Christian leaders wanted to theologize for themselves and that they intended to construct theologies that took seriously the African cultural contexts. Theologians such as Meinrad Hebga, Alexis Kagame, and Vincent Mulago, belonged to this group.

However, the story of theology’s engagement with African cultures is sometimes pushed back to the work of the Kongolese young woman Kimpa Vita Donna Beatrice who challenged Capuchin missionaries’ presentation of the gospel in the Kongo. She did this by claiming that Jesus was born in the Kongo and Mary was a Kongolese. She even became the medium of the Italian St. Antony of Padua, claiming that he had possessed her and was speaking through her. In this way, she indigenized Western Christianity in the Kongo (Parratt 1995: 4). She was seen as a threat by the church and the state and was burnt at the stake in 1706.

In pushing back against missionary theology, one of the critiques African theologians brought against it was that it undermined the African spiritual worldview in favour of a Western Enlightenment rationality that denuded the world of the spiritual (Acolatse 2018). Thus, for many African theologians the rise of what might be described as African Initiated (Indigenous or Instituted) Churches (AICs) has been partly an attempt to rescue this spiritualized imagination that sees the spiritual and the material as intimately linked. While missionaries/colonizers derided this worldview as animistic, heathenistic, or superstitious, it has arguably come to be seen as central to an African conception of the cosmos. Because this conception of the world sees the spiritual and the material as interlocked, the presence of the spiritual in the material is not an anomaly. Thus, belief in the importance of the ancestors, witches, dreams, miracles, and other spiritual dynamics are part of the daily experience of many ordinary Christians. It is this view of reality that forms the basis of not only the theology of African indigenous churches but also of the theology Pentecostal and Charismatic churches that are presently leading the blossoming of Christianity in the continent (Clarke 2014; Kalu 2008; Asamoah-Gyadu 2005). Pentecostal theology believes in the immediate presence of the Holy Spirit in not only transforming the person but also in empowering them to perform acts that may appear to be outside the ordinary. Here there is belief in miracles and the ability of holy people to mediate divine or spiritual power and presence. While some dynamics of Pentecostal theology have been criticized for exacerbating materialism and capitalist exploitation, it has also been seen as means of accessing a transformative and dynamic imagination that leads to creative living (Wariboko 2012).

This spiritualized imagination is, however, not limited to sub-Saharan African Christianity. It is expressed in different ways in Roman North African, Egyptian, and contemporary Coptic and Ethiopian Christianity. In ancient North Africa we see this imagination in the practice of communing with the dead, especially at the shrines of martyrs (Confessions VI, 2). It was also a common view of the Christian life among the ordinary Christians in ancient Egyptian Christianity who brought dynamics of ancient Egyptian religion into their practice of Christianity. These dynamics included belief in holy people, holy places, and holy things that mediated divine or spiritual presence (Frankfurter 2018). Expectation of the miraculous, especially in terms of healing, was rife. This is still the case in contemporary Coptic Christianity in which many ordinary people continue to expect divine intervention in the material world and where holy objects are still used for protection (see Matthew the Poor 2012; Loubser 2001). We also see this expectation of the miraculous in the life of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians from ancient to modern time (Galawdewos 2015; Abbink 2016; Tibebe and Giorgis 2020). This spiritually dynamic atmosphere can also be seen in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Kongolese Christianity in which communion with the dead at gravesites was practiced (Thornton 1998). Such spiritual imagination has therefore animated much of African Christianity over the centuries and has come to be emphasized in contemporary African theology, especially in Pentecostal theology (Asamoah-Gyadu 2005; Kalu 2008). It also shapes African connection to the ecosystem and is thus important in African ecological theology (Dickson 1984: 47–73; Ilo 2022).

From the above, we can see that African indigenous spirituality has informed how Christian theology has developed in the continent, leading some to describe African indigenous spirituality as a preparation for the gospel (preparatio evangelica). This description has been challenged by those who claim that African indigenous spirituality should be seen as an independent and complete way of life rather than as preparation for the gospel (Maluleke 1996). While there are those, such as Byang Kato, who argued that African indigenous spirituality does not have any salvific value (1975), most African theologians have made positive connections between African indigenous spirituality and Christianity. This is especially reflected in some Christologies that see Jesus Christ as a medicine man or ancestor (Schreiter 1991; Stinton 2004; Ezigbo 2010). Perhaps, the best way of relating African indigenous spirituality to Christianity seems to be to see both as enriching, but at the same time challenging, each other. The missionary attitude that assumes Christian supremacy and which treats African indigenous spirituality as a preparatio evangelica needs to be eschewed. It is now increasingly acknowledged that African indigenous spirituality should be accorded the same integrity as that of the so-called world religions. This insistence on the integrity of indigenous spirituality has led to the persistent question of whether it is appropriate for Africans to be Christians (Setiloane 1979: 64). Should Africans continue to become Christians? Are they not betraying their ancestors when becoming Christians? Scholars such as Okot p’Bitek and Wole Soyinka seem to suggest that becoming Christian would constitute a betrayal of the ancestors given that Christianity is not an African indigenous spirituality. This has led a theologian like Bediako to argue that Christianity is a non-Western religion and that it has become indigenous to Africa (1995). There appears to be much confusion regarding the claim that Christianity is an African religion. Some correctly take it to mean that Christianity was in Africa before it arrived in many other regions in the West. Christianity was in North Africa, Egypt, and Ethiopia before many regions in Europe. However, this is not the case with much of Africa. Thus, many African intellectuals and ordinary people still consider Christianity to be a foreign religion and an instrument of colonialism (Kalu 2007; Bediako 1995). There is some justification for this reasoning, especially when one considers that Christianity is one of the media of Western influence in Africa and that influence, in many ways, continue to bedevil many Africans. Thus, the question of the status of Christian theology and its relation to African indigenous cultures will persist. But an area where even more questions are raised is that of the relationship between theology, sex, and gender.

3.4 Sex, gender, and African theology

As seen above, a central issue in contemporary theology in Africa is the construction of a coherent identity believed to be consonant with what it means to be African in the world. This discourse is often couched in the concept of African authenticity which imagines what it means to be African as one thing, even though there appears to be scholarly consensus that there is more than one way of being African (Appiah 1992; Diagne and Amselle 2020). Much of this discourse of African authenticity has, however, been challenged by theologies that deal with gender and sexuality. These theologies accuse discourses of African authenticity of sustaining patriarchal and other oppressive tendencies that are detrimental to women and queer people. As with feminist and queer theologies around the world, theologies that address issues of sex and gender challenge the dominant appropriation of culture in some forms of African theology, urging that men, women, and gender non-conforming people be thought of and treated with dignity and respect. African theology that addresses gender issues has mostly been done by women whose work challenges some dynamics of culture that undermine their flourishing. They argue, rightly, that church and society cannot flourish if women are oppressed.

The appropriation of Christian thought in order to challenge patriarchy in church and society has a long history in Africa. Contemporary African women theologians have been inspired by the exploits of seventeenth-century Kongolese women such as Apollonia Mafuta and Kimpa Vita who proclaimed a gospel that elevated the voices of women in a patriarchal missionary context (Hinga 2017: xiii–xxii; Thornton 1998). A notable predecessor is the early seventeenth-century Ethiopian nun Mother Walata Petros whose exploits is believed to have helped foil the introduction of Catholicism into an Ethiopia that was mostly Orthodox (Galawdewos 2015). Mother Walata Petro’s spirituality is yet to be adequately engaged with in contemporary African women’s theology, having only recently been translated into English by Wendy Belcher and Michael Kleiner. In Egypt, the Coptic historian and feminist theologian Iris Habib El-Masry (1910–1994) has challenged the patriarchy of the Coptic Church and Egyptian society through her theology (Saad 2009).

These forerunners notwithstanding, African feminist theology came to its own only in the last forty years or so. This is especially seen in the work of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians founded in 1989 (Fiedler 2017; Yafeh-Deigh 2020). Led by the Ghanaian theologian Mercy Amba Oduyoye, the women of this collective have drawn from women’s stories to critique oppressive dynamics not only in African cultures and Christianity but also in contemporary international political economy (Oduyoye 2001; Dube 2001). They have called for a cultural hermeneutic that critiques both African cultures and Christianity to ascertain the life-affirming qualities of these traditions (Oduyoye and Kanyoro 1992; Kanyoro 2002). While African male theologians tend to uncritically accept certain aspects of African cultures, such as the important place of ancestors in society, women have shown how the importance of ancestors is rooted in a patriarchal system in which women are often seen as breeders of male children who would be heirs to their fathers. Thus, in societies that pride themselves on being hospitable, the life of the childless woman is often miserable. Theology aimed at rethinking the nature of motherhood, for example, is an important dynamic of African women’s theology (Oduyoye 1999).

The plight of the childless woman is one point at which African feminist theology intersects with the question of sexuality. The connection here is to queer sexuality that is often described as un-African and un-Christian. Queer sexuality is described as un-African, but not because queer people or queer Christians do not exist in Africa. In fact, there is evidence of queer Christians in Africa as early as seventeenth-century Ethiopia (Galawdewos 2015: 254–257). Rather, being queer is often seen as un-African because of an African ontology that prioritizes procreation to ensure the survival of the community (Bujo 2001). In this ontology, the childless person, like people attracted to same-sex and gender, inhibit the process of community creation which includes the man, the woman, and the child. It is this ontology that funds the form of community in which ancestors are made and through which the physical and the spiritual interact. Also, queer people are seen as un-Christian because of the numerous texts in the Bible that seem to condemn same-sex relationships, even though many of these texts may be interpreted differently. In fact, many African states have draconic laws against same-sex relationships. It is also the case that some of the hostility towards queer people have been engineered by people who come from churches in the West, especially the United States (Gunda 2017). In the last thirty years or so, scholars from inside and outside Africa have drawn from Christian theological resources to construct a theology that would contribute to the flourishing of queer people in the continent (Gunda 2017; Van Klinken 2019; Nyeck 2022). These theologies have sought to argue not only that the queer life is neither un-African nor un-Christian, but also that there are resources in African ecclesial and cultural life which Christians may draw from to enhance the lives of queer people. They seek to shift the narrative from that of a homophobic Africa to one in which there is affirmation of queer life.

3.5 African theology and politics

Christian theology in Africa has always been political because it has been concerned with the negotiation of power – who has it and who does not. In other words, given that Christianity in Africa has always been practiced in the public sphere, Christian theological reflection has always been implicitly or explicitly political. In this sense, all the theologies we have seen above are political. It is perhaps for this reason that Valentin Mudimbe has argued that African religion is political (2016). In this section, however, we shall focus on the theology that deals with the relations between what may be called the church and the state or religion and politics. Such theologies range from St. Augustine’s distinction between the earthly city and the city of God in his magnum opus City of God to theologies that see a very close connection between the church and the state, such as in Ethiopian Orthodoxy and early modern Christianity in the Kongo (Northrup 2009; Cochrane 2020).

Political theology in Africa came to the fore during the colonial and postcolonial periods as Africans struggled against colonial domination. As the historian of world Christianity Andrew Walls has noted, through its training of those who became anticolonial and postcolonial leaders, Christianity contributed to creating the nation-state in Africa (2002: 104–107). In fact, in the case of apartheid South Africa, the nation-state was explicitly created through a perverse theology of racial segregation (Vosloo 2016). Anticolonial politics took on the mantle of the quest for self-determination as found in the work of anticolonial leaders such as Nkwame Nkrumah, Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere, and Leopold Sedar Senghor. These leaders often rooted their anticolonial and post-independence work within the framework of Christianity (Parratt 1995).

The political theology that developed during the colonial and post-independence period has been divided into the theology of liberation and reconstruction. Connected to the development of Black theology in the United States and Latin American liberation theology, the theology of liberation in Africa has been described as a theology that sought to liberate Africans not only from colonial but also from post-independence oppression. This was especially expressed by Black theology in South Africa and what might be called African liberation theology represented by a theologian like the Cameroonian Jean-Marc Éla (1986; 1988). Liberation theologies are seen as protest theologies that decry the humanization of Africans and call for freedom from oppressive political powers. With the end of legal apartheid in South Africa, however, it has been suggested that the hour of the theology of liberation may have passed. What is needed now is a theology of reconstruction that draws from the biblical texts of Ezra-Nehemiah, to construct a new future for Africa (Villa-Vicencio 1992; Mugambi 1995; Bongmba 2018). However, some have argued that the dehumanization that bedeviled Africans in the colonial period has not gone away in the post-independence period, and that the post-independence period is not a postcolonial period because the postcolonial is still rooted in the colonial. Thus, the time of liberation theology has not passed because Africans still need to be liberated from the coloniality of the global order that still dehumanizes them (Maluleke 2022; Dube 2012).

While some theologies in Africa continue to call on the church to be apolitical (for example, Coptic theology), others consider it to be the responsibility of the church to hold the state accountable for the well-being of the people (Bongmba 2006). Some are, however, asking whether the nation-state has the potential to promote a flourishing Africa. In this last group belongs a theologian such as the Ugandan Roman Catholic priest, Emmanuel Katongole, who has described the African nation-state as rooted in colonial violence and unable to get Africans out of this rut. As he sees it, Christian communities and others of goodwill may, however, be able to pull together moral resources from their religious traditions to save the continent from this embedded violence. Thus, his theology, like much of contemporary political theology in Africa, has focused on the issues of peacebuilding and reconciliation (Katongole 2011a; 2017). It is in this category that the famous ubuntu theology of Desmond Tutu falls (Battle 2009; Maluleke 2020b).

A newer form of political theology developing in the continent seeks the creation of new nation-states from the ashes of old ones. Because of the continued marginalization of many minority groups in postcolonial nation-states, some have drawn from Christian theology to seek independence from current oppressive postcolonial states. While the first generation of political theology sought independence from Western colonizers, the current one seeks liberation from Black Africans (Ngong 2021; Tounsel 2021). This is a new theology of dissatisfaction with the status quo that has given birth to new nation-states like South Sudan, which became independent in 2011. The rise of this theology is a sign of the increasing disappointment that has come to characterize post-independence Africa. This context has made the theologies of peacebuilding and reconciliation even more relevant. Building on the work of Katongole and others, such theology should consider that violence is embedded in African communal and political life and is not just a creation of Africa’s encounter with the West. Africa’s encounter with the West only intensified this latent violence (Reid 2012).

3.6 Theology in Africa and the African diaspora

The African diaspora emerged due to the trans-Saharan and the transatlantic slave trades (Premawardhana 2019). While the trans-Saharan slave trade created African diasporas that were not dominantly Christian (most became Muslims), the transatlantic slave trade created an African diaspora that is predominantly Christian. The African diasporas that developed because of these slave trades may be called the old African diasporas. There is, however, a new African diaspora made up of Africans who migrated to the West after the end of formal colonization of the continent (Okpewho and Nzegwu 2009). Most of these Africans went to the metropolis that colonized them, such as in Spain, Portugal, France, and England. Many have also migrated to the United States even though, except for Liberia, the United States did not formally colonize any African country.

Many have suggested that the Christian theologies that have emerged from the old and new African diasporas should be considered as part of theology in Africa because they sometimes inform or are informed by theology in Africa (Maluleke 2010). In fact, it was the enslaved Africans in the Americas who dreamed of a Pan-African theological vision that suggested that Black people have a common destiny. They drew from Psalm 68:1 to declare that ‘Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands unto God’. This was a declaration of the divine will for the redemption and elevation of Black people in Africa and its diaspora (Hanciles 2007: 179; Bediako 1995: 3–16). This theological vision has contributed to creating the idea of Pan-Africanism, which informs the notion of the unity of Black people around the world. It was also in the African diaspora that the idea of Black liberation theology developed. While this idea was controversial in African theology as evidenced by the debate between John Mbiti and James Cone (Martey 2009), it was instrumental in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

Recent theological development, however, has arisen from the new African diaspora. This diaspora is made up of Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and Protestants. While the theology of the new African diaspora still relies on the theology developed back in Africa, it has developed dynamics that are informed by its new contexts. Issues addressed in this theology include migration, intergenerational relationships, racism, and Pan-Africanism, among others (Adogame 2013; Clarke 2018).

3.7 Theology in Africa and the Bible

As John Mbiti pointed out long ago, the Bible has a long history in Africa. It was in Alexandria that the Hebrew Bible was translated into the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible used by the first Christians (1994). The Bible, at least the Hebrew Bible, was in Africa before the beginning of Christianity. Africa produced some of the greatest interpreters of the Bible such as Origen of Alexandria and St. Augustine of Hippo. While some African Christians do not use the Bible (Engelke 2007; Mukonyora 2007), the Bible continues to be the most read book in the continent and most African Christians would agree that it is central to their faith and theology. Apart from indigenous cultures and socio-political experiences, the Bible is perhaps the most important source of African Christian theology (Kaunda 2020). However, when it comes to using the Bible in theology, central problems arise regarding its authority and how to interpret it. In other words, what authority should the Bible have and how should it be interpreted? The ways in which African Christians have conceptualized the authority of the Bible has informed how they have interpreted it. At the heart of the question of authority is how one should understand the Bible as the Word of God. In the history of theology in Africa, most Christians have held the Bible to be the Word of God. This is the case with the early church in Roman North Africa and Egypt, and contemporary Coptic, Ethiopian, Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Roman Catholic theology. In this case, the question of interpretation simply relates to how we should understand and apply the Bible as the Word of God.

However, some theologians have underscored the problematic nature of the presence of the Bible in Africa, especially in the modern period, and urged that the idea of the Bible as the Word of God be interrogated for the deleterious effects it may have on Africans. The problem is captured in a story that is now popular in African theology and biblical studies, especially in southern Africa. The story goes: ‘When the white man came to our country, he had the Bible and we (Blacks) had the land. The white man said to us, “Let us pray.” After the prayer, the white man had the land, and we had the Bible’ (West 2016; Maluleke 2020a). This is a story about the use of the Bible to dispossess Africans. According to this story, the contemporary struggle of Christianity in Africa has been about how to take back the land once stolen by colonial Christianity. While some theologians hold that Africans can take back the land without losing the Bible, others suggest that to be able to take back the land, Africans should be prepared to give up the idea of the Bible as the Word of God (West 2016; Dube 2012).

There is, therefore, a diverse understanding of the place of the Bible in African theology. Even though most African Christians and theologians tend to see the Bible as the Word of God, others see this notion as problematic. For this reason, the Bible has been described as a site of struggle, a site in which people struggle to find out God’s word for the people of Africa in our time (West 2016; Dube 2012). This understanding of the Bible as a site of struggle may lead to the conclusion that the Bible cannot be seen as the Word of God a priori. That is, the claim that the Bible is the Word of God cannot be determined beforehand, that is, before the effects of the Bible as the Word of God is known. It is through the struggle for understanding and application of what the Bible is believed to be saying that we come to see what God’s word for African Christians and for the continent might be.

4 Conclusion: whither theology in Africa?

This brief outline of Christian theology in Africa has taken a continental, historical, and thematic approach, touching on some of the important themes that have animated this theology over the years. These themes have addressed African experiences in the world, including African cultural, political, and socio-economic experiences. The article has highlighted that theology in Africa is not limited to what is going on in the continent because what is happening in the continent is also connected to the African diaspora and the rest of the world. As such, African and African diaspora theology do not only influence each other but also seek to influence how the Christian faith is understood and practiced globally. As a matter of fact, there is a sense in which African theology can be seen as global theology as it developed in the context of the confluence of local and global dynamics. It has been influenced by theological outputs from around the world such as the modern missionary enterprise, colonialism, enslavement, the World Council of Churches, the Second Vatican Council, Roman Catholic episcopal conferences, the All Africa Conference of Churches, Pan-African Conference of Third World Theologians, global evangelical organizations, and theologians from around the world, among other things. At a time of world Christianity, one can argue that to study theology in Africa is to have a feel for much of global theology so that African theology is a theology for the world church not in the sense that it has some unique African contribution to make (Hartman 2022) but rather in the sense that it has engaged and synthesized various theological views from around the world. Thus, it is necessary to study African theology not only as a ‘contextual theology’ but rather as an example of a theology that has synthesized global theology in ways that are hardly seen in other theologies around the world. Its appropriation of theologies from the African diaspora, Western theology, Asian theology, Latin American theology, among others, makes it a site from which to begin to understand what a theology of world Christianity may look like. It is therefore little wonder that Africa is central to the development of World Christianity.

Perhaps it is within this global framework that one may think of the future of theology in Africa. African theologians have often wondered what the future holds for African theology (Magesa 2018; Maluleke 2010). They have suggested that African theology should engage African cultures and critically interrogate the Bible; that it should pay critical attention to issues of justice and the wellbeing of the people. These are all laudable visions. Perhaps it should also be added that African theology should be seen as a world and worldly theology, a theology that has a local and global vision, seeing the possibility of a resurrected Africa as situated within the context of the resurrection of the world. For a theology that focuses on the overall well-being of Africans, African theology also needs to engage the issue of the relationship between spirituality and science. This is urgent given that the continent has often been caught scientifically wanting, especially as demonstrated through the problems associated with affording medication for HIV and AIDS patients and COVID-19 vaccines. African theologians and theologians of Africa still have much work to do.


Copyright David Ngong ORCID logo (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Appiah-Kubi, Kofi, and Sergio Torres (eds). 1979. African Theology En Route. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
    • Bongmba, Elias K. (ed.). 2020. The Routledge Handbook of African Theology. London/New York: Routledge.
    • Bujo, Bénézet. 2006. African Theology in Its Social Context. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.
    • Dickson, Kwasi. 1984. Theology in Africa. London: Darton, Longman and Todd.
    • Gibellini, Rosino (ed.). 1994. Paths of African Theology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
    • Martey, Emmanuel. 2009. African Theology: Inculturation and Liberation. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.
    • Ngong, David T. (ed.). 2017. A New History of African Christian Thought: From Cape to Cairo. New York/London: Routledge.
    • Oduyoye, Mercy A. 2001. African Women’s Theology. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press.
    • Parratt, John (ed.). 1995. Reinventing Christianity: African Theology Today. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
    • Stinton, Diane B. (ed.). 2015. African Theology on the Way: Current Conversations. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
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