Bible and Theology in African Christianity Summary

John S. Mbiti


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

There is a widespread notion that Christianity in Africa has been merely an instrument of colonization. Conversely, some have believed that Christianity brought progress to African peoples by supplanting traditional religions that were bound by superstition. To a committed African Christian such as Anglican priest John Samuel Mbiti, both of these notions are too simplistic to be of any value. He states that “aided by the biblical revelation and faith in Jesus Christ,” Africans built their approach to Christianity on a foundation that already existed in traditional African religions. However, African cultures that have adopted Christianity view religious practice and salvation quite differently from European cultures. Mbiti holds that a respectful understanding of the differences can help to ensure the viability of the Christian church in Africa.

According to Mbiti, European and American Christians tend to separate mind and body and to view salvation as a phenomenon solely of the afterlife: Jesus died on the cross so that we might have everlasting life. African Christian cultures, in contrast, view salvation as a phenomenon both of the hereafter and of the here and now. Earthly life and the afterlife are parts of the same continuum; far less emphasis is placed on the afterlife than in Western Christian cultures. Africans look for evidence of God’s love and protection in their daily lives, for example, in the form of deliverance from present evil. The evils from which African Christians ask God to deliver them include earthly tribulations such as illness, injury, infertility, starvation, and lack of rain for crops or water to drink—reflections of life’s hardships on that continent. African Christians also hope for earthly peace and deliverance from enemies as well as protection against curses and malevolent spirits. Historically, Africans have looked to religion for practical demonstrations of protection against these ills.

It is helpful to know this background, says Mbiti, when one is trying to understand...

(The entire section is 833 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Mbiti, John S. Introduction to African Religion. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993. A well-organized survey of traditional African religion, based on Mbiti’s extensive research but intended for a nonspecialist readership.

Olupona, Jacob K., and Sulayman S. Nyang, eds. Religious Plurality in Africa: Essays in Honor of John S. Mbiti. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyten, 1993. A collection of essays by other scholars honoring Mbiti’s work as academic research and Christian ministry. Includes biographical information on Mbiti.

Partain, Jack. “Christians and Their Ancestors: A Dilemma of African Theology.” Christian Century, November 26, 1986, p. 1066. Briefly surveys the scholarly work done by African scholars, including Mbiti, on traditional African concepts of life after death and the challenge these concepts present to Christianity.