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The Question of Christology in the young Church of Africa

(Dissertation in Partial Fulfilment of the Requirements for the Degree Doctor of Sacred Theology Presented to the Faculty of Theology University of Vienna).


An African Proverb says: 'the eyes of the frog do not hinder the Giraffe from drinking out of a pond'. The frog which widely opens its eyes could be compared to the European Theology, which is above all an academic Theology, which is developed in the universities and other cultural centres, a Theology which has for a long time been exported into the countries of the third world. The Giraffe which only consists of muscles, which drinks out of the pond ignoring the eyes of the frogs and then goes further on his way, can here be compared to the rising Theology in Africa, which meanwhile had began to gain respect, importance and acceptance.

The question who is Christ today, has been a recurrent question in history. Dietrich Bonhoeffer even raised the question as he lay in prison just about a year before he was hanged by the Nazis. In a letter to his friends, he wrote that the great question agitating his mind in this secular age was, 'Who is Jesus Christ for us today?' . John Macquarrie notes that this existential question is as real and oppressive for us today as it was for Bonhoeffer. The very form of Bonhoeffer's question is an indication that in different times and in different situations different ways of thinking of Jesus Christ and different ways of expressing the thought may be required .

On the part of the African Christians, the quest for a relevant theological discourse necessitated the search for an appropriate image of the person and work of Jesus Christ. This is because the faith, the hope and the praxis of love that Christian theology attempts to explicate, and which Christians endeavour to witness to, have Christ as their foundation and goal . Without adequate discernment of Christ, his nature, his meaning and his message for humankind, the Christian religion itself and its attendant theology will be devoid of relevance. A number of African Theologians are wrestling with this question that even Jesus Christ himself asked: "But who do you say that I am?" (Matt. 16.15). This work will examine some of the answers that African Theologians have provided. It is dangerous to generalize when one is talking about Africa because it is a continent of hundreds of distinct and different traditional ethnic groups. Africa is also a continent where there are rapid social changes.

African theologians have come up with different paradigms for Christ like: victor or Chief, suffering Christ, Christ a healer, liberator, Christ in kinship, our ancestor, and even Christ as our guest. I am not of the opinion that there should be consensus with regard to a suitable paradigm for Christ. Therefore, I do not believe that there is a Christological crisis due to the existence of so many paradigms, as Schoffeleers seems to suggest . Africa is diverse, so it is not possible to find the paradigm that would be suitable for every African situation. A paradigm that is meaningful in one situation may have the opposite effect, on another. Paradigms that are going to be of any value are those that come from the grass roots and not those imposed by theologians. Every Christological formulation is far from being fixed; each needs to be re-examined in the light of new circumstances. As Therese Souga said, our Christology must be open to questions especially those coming from African women, taking into account their place in the church and society in Africa . Africans cannot have a meaningful Christology, when it is built on foreign theological formulations. African Christology can only be formulated in African cultural symbols and categories of thought.

This can only be possible through Inculturation: "…Communicating the gospel in a more indigenous way" . Shorter defines Inculturation as "the on going dialogue between faithand culture or cultures" . This means that Christianity can only exist in a cultural form, and Christ needs to be in dialogue with the Culture. One does not need to do a lot ofresearch to find out that whenever the gospel has been preached, it bas been incarnated inthe experiences of the people to whom it is proclaimed. One of the task that faces AfricanTheologians is that of making Christ more real in and through African life and thought. For many Africans, life is holistic. There is no solid demarcation between the sacredand secular, hence the saying: "Our world is like a drum; if you beat one part, everythingvibrates". Africans do not separate the person of Christ from his work. To them Jesus is concerned about the whole of life and, therefore, has a message for the poor and oppressed.The gospel will be meaningful if it is formulated in the idiom and thought patterns of the people.

A number of models are being suggested by African Theologians as relevant and meaningful models of Christology which are drawn from the African world. In this work, I will attempt a systematic und scientific analysis of some of these models of Christology. For a more precise overview of the work, it has been divided into five chapters. Chapter one occupies itself with the development of Christological Reflections starting from the New Testament period, running through the patristic period and Middle Ages till the modern times. Chapter two examines the meaning and contents of African Traditional Religion and Culture. Highlighting the nature of Culture and Portraying Religion as a cultural system, it x-rays the African Cultural Values, outlining the Basic Doctrines of African Traditional Religion and areas of a possible dialogue with Christianity.

Articulating the Christian Faith from an African Perspective, Chapter three Occupies itself with the Origin and development of African Theology as an African response to the reception of the Christian Faith within the African context. In Chapter four, Jesus Christ is made the subject of African Theological inquiries. Some Images of Jesus Christ in Africa has been examined: Ancestral Image, Initiatory Image, Jesus as Healer, Saviour Image, Jesus as Liberator and Guest Christology.

A Critical appraisal of the work in Chapter five reveals among others some persistent problems facing the African Theology and Christology. In view of this, one would agree with John Parratt that "the Church in Africa is faced with different problems from those which face most Churches in the Western world, problems to which European theology can provide no relevant ready made answers. African Theologians are attempting to grapple with these problems, and to relate the gospel to the practical issues, whether social and political, or cultural and liturgical, which confront them. As such, theology in Africa is not only a practical task, but one whose results can greatly enrich Christendom as a whole" .