Review: African Christian Theology

Samuel Waje Kunhiyop, Hippo Books, 2012, 250 pages, 3 of 5 stars

Summary: a simplified and abridged theology covering the major themes of systematics and applied to African life today

Samuel Waje Kunhiyop (SWK) wants to be true to Scripture and writes African Christian Theology (ACT) in an effort to take the African situation seriously. This is a thoughtful yet rare contribution to the African church and deserves to be read carefully.

Strengths: (1) ACT interprets theology contextually. Why an African Theology? SWK is correct that “Scripture is always interpreted within a context” (p. xiii). Thus, John MacArthur’s Biblical Doctrine written in 21st century America gives significant attention to doctrines like cessationism and gender roles when John Calvin’s Institutes does neither because it was written in 16th century France. SWK scratches where the African itches. He doesn’t waste time on proofs for God’s existence since rare is the African atheist.

(2) ACT is practical. This book leans toward the practical since, as SWK states, overly abstract ideas are burdensome for the African worldview and language. Excellent applications to the African context include: evil spirits and disease (p. 57), sexual activity and procreation, funerals, cremation, the binding of Satan and generation curses (p. 109), and the blood of Jesus (pp. 124-25). With insight, he suggests the superstitious invoking of Jesus’ name so common in prosperity churches may have come from the Muslim habit of constantly saying “in the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious…” (p. 130). His excellent section on the African reverence for ancestors (“one of the most persistent religious beliefs in Africa is that ancestral spirits have power to influence our daily lives”, p. 135) was sullied by his suggestion that this practice foreshadows “the mediatorial role of Christ described in the book of Hebrews” (p. 137).

(3) ACT is generally orthodox. Some of his superb arguments include sections on inspiration (pp. 29-30), hermeneutics (pp. 35-37), wrong uses of Scripture (p. 38), ATR’s view on transcendence versus immanence (pp. 48-50), discipline in Scripture (pp. 183-84), and the weaknesses of developing theology from an anthropological perspective.

Weaknesses: (1) ACT is soft on Catholics. SWK often states the Protestant/Catholic view and leaves it there without overturning the latter. He minimizes the differences: “Catholics and Protestants seem to be coming closer together in their views of the Bible than ever before” (p. 7). His spirit toward Catholic theology is too irenic. For example, after explaining the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, he finally disagrees but with this introductory line: “Though these arguments are appealing…” (p. 227). But there is nothing appealing about the unbiblical teaching of purgatory that has led many to hell. Incidentally he calls hell a place of “mental anguish” (p. 223).

(2) ACT is egalitarian. SWK sounds like a liberal feminist in his section on “Women in Ministry.” He writes: “Believers are not to build a theology that seeks to discriminate on the basis of gender.” (193). Then what does Paul mean when he clearly says women shouldn’t preach or pastor (1Tm. 2:11-14; 3:2)? The reader is left to wonder since the author never addresses either passage. He agrees with Michael Green who says men and women are “completely equal before God” not just in value but in “practical” ways (p. 194). He then quotes 1Tim. 5:3, 16 to argue “widows are encouraged to be teachers”, though these verses say nothing of the kind. Then he makes the jump to say since Scripture may allow women to be deacons, they can thus “occupy leadership” (p. 195). He calls Priscilla a “leader” in the church, says “women…are called to preach and minister the good news just as men are”, quotes Liberation theologians to urge gender sensitivity “to cultural contexts”, commends thrice-divorced lesbian prophetess Juanita Bynum and calls Joyce Meyer a “great woman preacher” (p. 199). He closes: “It is insensitive to the work of the Holy Spirit to assume that he gives certain gifts only to men and not to women” (202).

(3) ACT underestimates man’s depravity. Speaking of pre-evangelized African culture, SWK writes perhaps his most disturbing sentence of the book: “All African societies valued kindness, honesty and love, and prohibited murder, rape, lying, cheating and adultery” (p. 19). Not only is this plainly and historically false, even worse it is biblical flawed. Romans 1 paints in gruesome colors humanity’s condition (regardless of race) before biblical revelation touches a culture. Jean Merle D’Aubigne in The Reformation in England calls the pre-gospel Englishman wretched, barbaric, savage, and heathen: “While [some ] gradually laid aside their savage manners, the barbarous customs of the Saxons prevailed unmoderated throughout the kingdoms” (p. 8). Compare this to the African who, according to SWK, wasn’t that bad before the gospel came.

(4) ACT confuses general and special revelation. The author takes the aberrant view that those who have never heard the gospel can still be saved (p. 22). He quotes Vatican II and Clark Pinnock to prove general revelation can lead to salvation (p. 18). When Kibicho argues for full salvation outside of Christian revelation, SWK simply calls this “questionable” (p. 20). He says that “all our human ancestors…experienced divine revelation before the incarnation of the Son of God” (p. 23), suggesting God was giving special revelation to the African in the OT, not just to the prophets of Scripture.

(5) ACT has a misleading title. SWK draws the cultural lines from the very first page. “Too much of our theological reflection is informed by Western thinkers” (p. ix). Yet, the irony is that of the book’s 283 citations, only 25 were from African authors. Why give over 90% of the attention to a culture you stated you wanted less influence from? Why not be more grateful for the West’s contributions to African Christianity (e.g. missionaries, Bible translation, evangelism)? In God’s providence, the gospel moved West after Golgotha. Based on no merit of their own, Israel (and not Philistia or Edom) was entrusted with the revelation of God (Rm. 3:2). And wherever Jesus goes, the culture changes for good. 

(6) ACT draws ethnic lines too sharply. As stated above, I applaud SWK for applying theology to the African context. But sentences beginning with “the African view…” were ubiquitous and too frequent to make this book of much help outside of the continent and perhaps even within it. Grudem, Reymond, Berkhof, Bavinck, Calvin and dozens of others address a particular doctrine with loads of Scripture and careful arguments without saying: “The Western view is…” If they do, it is rare. Here, it was constant.

(7) ACT is charismatic. SWK believes God uses dreams, visions and direct messages with believers and unbelievers. He then quotes Open Theist Clark Pinnock positively to justify this position. He does say that this illumination is subject to God’s Word, but this leaves the reader with even more questions. If God tells me in a dream to work in Cape Town, how can this practically be subject to Scripture? For SWK, miraculous gifts from God today is not only true but obvious. “To say otherwise is to deny reality” (p. 176). Elsewhere, SWK speaks somewhat positively about some of Africa’s most heretical churches (e.g. Winner’s Chapel, Rhema, ZCC). He gives only two small paragraphs to address fake gifts (p. 178).

Conclusion: Though Kunhiyop simply and skillfully applies Scripture to a host of African situations, his theological aberrations are too many and too concerning to make this book a primary resource for African theologians.

Excerpts:

  1. “There are church leaders who focus solely on deliverance ministries and neglect the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They adopt titles such as ‘man of God’, ‘woman of God’, ‘supersonic man of God’ and ‘demon destroyer’, which draw attention to themselves rather than to God. Their preaching is a mix of truths and untruth as they appeal to select Bible passages before making wild leaps into dramatic speculation. In many respects they resemble the magicians of old and traditional spirits and diviners. They claim to be able to decree God to do something, command and bind Satan, cast him into the Abyss or the ocean, bind territorial spirits, bind the strong man, take dominion over an area in Jesus’ name, and storm the gates of hell.” (60)
  2. “Many African Christologies make no attempt to deal with who Christ is but instead focus only [on] what he does for us.” (78)
  3. “Before their conversion, many Africans were accustomed to invoking the names of deities and ancestral spirits to resolve particular problems. Once converted, they tend to carry on the practice, simply substituting concepts like ‘the blood of Jesus’ and ‘the name of Jesus.'” (124)
  4. “The idea that the blood of Christ is protective derives more from an African approach to blood sacrifices than it does from the Scriptures.” (128)
  5. “The argument [for infant baptism] hold together only as long as one holds to a continuity of covenants between the Testaments. If one believes that there is a discontinuity between the Testaments, and that the church is not identical with Israel, the whole justification for infant baptism collapses.” (156)
  6. “It is a historical fact that many churches in Africa were established not so much because of disagreement over core beliefs but because of disciplinary issues such as taking second wives and alcohol consumption.” (180)
  7. “In Africa, the title ‘Bishop’ is often adopted in Pentecostal and Independent churches. It has been found that holders of this title are treated with more respect by civil officials than those who simply have the title ‘Pastor’. (188)

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s