Theology and Identity: The Impact of Culture upon Christian Thought in the Second Century and Modern Africa (Regnum Studies in Mission)

Written by Kwame Bediako Reviewed By Graham Keith

Bediako’s theme is the African theology which emerged in the 1960s. Its aspirations are clarified through an analogy with the Hellenistic Christians of the second century, particularly the Apologists and their successors. Bediako does not imply that the African theologians who are the subject of the second part of his study consciously drew inspiration from the patristic era. On the contrary, they show surprisingly little awareness of this period. Moreover, Bediako has been able to find hardly any scholars who have tried to postulate a link between Hellenistic and African Christian theology. Thus, his work is ambitious, even pioneering. But Bediako rests his case on the organic nature of church history. We may expect a young emerging church today to mirror those issues which young churches have faced at earlier times elsewhere in the globe.

The early church which grew up in the Graeco-Roman world had not only to face from outsiders the charge of rootlessness, but was obliged to determine for itself what was of value in the Hellenistic culture in which most of its leaders had been immersed. In the second century it was a major concern whether Christians could carve a niche for themselves within the cultured Graeco-Roman world. African Christians also face, according to Bediako, an identity problem of their own which has been largely shaped by the origins of the church in a European missionary movement which ignored any theological contribution from traditional African religion.

Bediako does not suggest that the response to the identity problem has been exactly the same within either period. His method is to take a range of responses from each. It is enough for his purposes that they are dealing with kindred problems. For the second century he sets Tatian and Tertullian, who were highly critical of Hellenistic culture and philosophy, alongside the more favourable approaches of Justin and Clement of Alexandria. Among the African theologians E. Bolaji Idowu, John S. Mbiti and Mulago gwa Cikala Musharhamina (a Roman Catholic) exemplify positive approaches to pre-Christian African religion, while Byang Kato, who is probably the best known in the evangelical world, was decidedly critical of the whole project. Bediako sees a similarity between Mbiti’s approach and that of Justin and Clement in that they were all prepared to look for the workings of Christ in contexts unaffected by the Christian Scripture. Kato for his part corresponds in many respects to Tertullian with his warnings about compromise. But Bediako wisely does not try to make the parallels too exact. He makes it clear that the theological evaluation of culture or even of past religious traditions is a complex matter, where even noted theologians with a deep respect for Scripture may sometimes fail to appreciate the concerns and approaches of others. Kato comes under particular criticism on this score; for Bediako is largely sympathetic to the motivation for African theology, as he is for the second-century Christian Apologists.

This does not mean that Bediako is uncritical toward African theology or that he is insensitive to the differences between the second-century church and that in Africa today. Indeed, the most extensive difference perhaps poses the greatest problem for African theology. Hellenistic Christians rejected many elements in their culture, particularly those directly associated with idolatry, and tended to align themselves with the philosophical tradition which in some quarters was even regarded as a counter-culture. Thus, Hellenistic culture could be recognized as anything but a unified whole; it was certainly not permeated through and through with religion. But the African theologians have been inclined to argue that African culture was consistently religious—and that this is an asset on which the Christian church should capitalize. Their stance not only raises the danger of an unhealthy syncretism, but is challenged by contemporary atheist African writers who would wish to see African culture in a more diversified way. Bediako predicts that there will be more writing from Christians on this area. No doubt the opponents of Christianity, both atheist and Muslim, will see to that.

I believe Bediako does succeed in elucidating the African theological scene through the parallel with the second century. In the process he highlights theological questions vital to missiology—e.g. how general relates to special revelation, how Christ has been active outside the Judaeo-Christian tradition, whether a synthesis is possible between local religious tradition and the Scriptures. This means that this book is valuable far beyond the two contexts with which it deals immediately. It would be a pity if it were seen simply as another tome on how Christianity should be proclaimed or manifested within some indigenous culture. It is much more because rather than grappling with specifics, it turns to the vital, overarching themes of Christian identity and of integrated Christian discipleship.

Graham Keith