By Ernest Munachi Ezeogu, cssp
Bible and Culture in African Theology, Part 1

For a hard copy printed and edited version of this essay see the
January 1998 issue of the International Review of Mission.

This page was cited in Time Magazine Europe survey
of African Religion Web Resources, March 1, 2000.

© Ernest M. Ezeogu, C.S.Sp.


(a) Background and Object of the Study

My memories of my first contact with the Bible goes back to my days as a toddler in a typical Nigerian Igbo village. My father could not read or write, yet he owned a Bible. In fact, he owned the only Bible in the village, an enormous red-edged book. Nobody ever read my father's Bible. It was not acquired to be read like ordinary books. No. My father's Bible was always carefully wrapped in white cloth and kept under lock and key in a wooden cabinet in which my father kept things he particularly treasured. Whenever you saw my father open the cabinet and bring out the Bible, you know that there is big palaver in the village. There must certainly be a dispute which has defied the ingenuity of the village elders and the only way to settle it would be for one of the contending parties to swear an oath. And for this my father's Bible was the most reliable means. For those first generation Christians my father's Bible had replaced the sacred staff (ofo) of the traditional religion as an object of oath taking, thanks to the example of the colonial court-room formality.

I have begun this paper with this personal reminiscence fully conscious of how bizarre it must sound to most of you. The purpose is to warn you beforehand that the journey we are about to undertake in this essay will take many of you through fairly unfamiliar territory. The "bizarre" personal recollection is meant to invite you to this unknown territory. In this sense it can be compared to the "once upon a time" of traditional folklore which functions to invite the audience out of their everyday world to a different world where it is simply natural for animals and trees to move and talk with humans. Our opening story invites you to mentally leave your familiar Euro-American world behind and follow me to a world, that of first or second generation Christianity that we have in present-day Africa.(1)

The growth of Christianity in Africa has been very spectacular. Africa is on record as the continent with the highest numerical Christian growth rate in the world.(2) And the Bible has been identified as "a major contributor" to this phenomenal growth of Christianity in Africa.(3) The Bible is certainly very much valued and used by African Christians. Given the oral tradition that forms the background of these African Christians and the literary tradition that the Bible represents, the question of the relationship between the Bible and culture in African Christianity becomes an intriguing one. How is the Bible used in the cultural environment of Africa by African Christians? Here we shall not content ourselves with simply describing the present situation of Bible-culture interaction in Africa. As theologians we need to go further and ask more probing and critical questions with an end to assessing the appropriateness of this way of relating the Bible to culture. If we find the present model of Bible-culture relationship in African Christianity inadequate, as we most certainly shall, then we shall suggest or prescribe another model which we believe will prove more appropriate for the realization of the mission of African Christianity.

(b) Definition of Terms

St. Louis University historian, Thomas P. Neill, is quoted as saying, "How can you have a good fight if you define your terms?"(4) Since the purpose of this paper is to provoke not a good fight but a good reflection, it might be necessary to offer some working definition of the main terms embodied in the topic "Bible and Culture in African Christianity" before we get into the discussion proper, even at the risk of possibly boring the reader.

Bible. This paper uses the term "Bible" in two ways, closely related yet distinct, to refer to either the book or the message. As book suffice it to say that it refers to the books of the Old and New Testaments held by Christians as the inspired Word of God.(5) As message, it refers to the teaching of this collection of books, and as such it could be synonymous with the terms "gospel," "good news," "biblical tradition," "biblical revelation," etc.

Culture. To expect a human person to define culture is like expecting a fish to define the water in which it lives. For "As water is to the fish, so culture is to the human person."(6) The best we can hope for is a more or less exhaustive description of the all-encompassing reality we call culture, such as the one proposed by the Greek Orthodox bishop, Anastasios Yannoulatos, who has isolated seven "constant elements" found in every culture. These are:

(i) formation of a system of contact, of a code of understanding, that is of a language; (ii) solutions given to the very first needs for humankind's survival, concerning shelter and maintenance, that is, developing of an elementary technical skill and economics; (iii) regulation of the living together of the basic human unity, man-woman, for the perpetuation of the human species; (iv) organization of a clan, race, nation, which means a regulation of social relations; (v) definition of what is good or bad, in other words, making social rules; (vi) artistic expressions of the beliefs and problematics of the individual and of society; and (vii) experience of the "Holy," of what is beyond everyday reality, through a form of religious beliefs.(7)

It is important, from the outset, to know that this paper uses the term culture in this very broad sense, not in the narrow, popular sense as "the appreciation and understanding of literature, arts, music, etc."(8)

It seems impossible to talk of culture in Africa today without coming against the question of whether one should speak of African culture or cultures. As a matter of fact that question has long been settled since African scholars reached the consensus that both usages are in order depending on the case at hand.

We discussed whether we should speak of culture or cultures. It seems to us that on the one hand there exist so many different cultures in Africa that they justify the use of these terms in the plural, on the other hand, the history and culture of Black Africa have a fundamental unity which permits us to face the values, problems and perspectives of this huge part of humanity as if it were one body.(9)

African Christianity. There is an African Christianity that was and there is an African Christianity that is. The former African Christianity flourished geographically in the northern third of Africa in the first seven centuries of the Christian era and produced such Christian giants as Clement, Justin Martyr, Origen, Athanasius, St Monica and her renowned son, St Augustine. That Christianity all but disappeared in the face of the Islamic expansionism of the 7th century c.e. leaving only a remnant in the Egyptian Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches. Present-day African Christianity, however, is geographically prominent within the southern two thirds of the continent and is only between one and two centuries old. Today African Christianity is said to have four different strands, and these are: (i) Ancient Christianity, with a history dating back to the earliest era of Christianity, today represented by the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, (ii) Missionary Christianity, founded between the 18th and 20th centuries by European and later American missionaries, now largely indigenous, comprising all mainline Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical confessions, (iii) Independent Christianity, founded by Africans who had benefitted from, but were unsatisfied by, the teachings and practices of missionary Christianity, and who have no allegiance to any mother Christian churches outside Africa; (iv) Immigrant Christianity, founded by European immigrants with no missionary interest, no interest in native African membership, but only in sustaining the vested interests of European immigrants, exemplified by the Dutch Reformed Church that sustained the apartheid policy in South Africa.(10)

The terrain of African Christianity is, therefore, a vast one, and it would be almost impossible to do justice to all the variety in African Christianity within the limited scope of this paper. Our discussion, therefore, will concentrate on the strand of missionary Christianity to which I belong and on the strand of independent Christianity which is a non-negligible factor in today's African religious scenario.


(a) Two Models of Relationship: Dialectic and Dialogic

Judging from the various ways in which, down through the ages, the gospel or the biblical message has been understood by Christians to relate to cultures, it is possible to distinguish, without necessarily separating, two major tendencies or models, namely, the dialectic and dialogic models.(11)

According to the dialectic model, the gospel and culture are opposed to each other, in perpetual conflict with each other, and are ultimately irreconcilable. This polarity is often expressed in the language of contrasting spatial, temporal, and circumstantial metaphors, such as these: the gospel is from "above," culture from "below"; the gospel is "divine," culture "human"; the gospel is "light," culture "darkness"; the gospel is "eternal," culture "time-bound"; and so on. According to the advocates of this view, the dichotomy between the gospel and culture can be resolved in only one possible way, by culture yielding to the demands of the gospel.

This contrasts with the dialogic model which views culture and gospel as two compatible entities that could and that should be reconciled. According to this view culture and gospel could blend harmoniously. They could dialogue, and such a dialogue would result in their mutual enrichment and efficiency.

These are paradigms, and paradigms are rarely found in their pure states in real life. In real life, the way Christians perceive the interplay between gospel and culture could be located anywhere between the extreme poles of the purely dialectic and the purely dialogic models. But my submission is that in African Christianity , we are operating an overly dialectical approach to the critical issue of the relationship between the Bible and African cultures.

(b) Evidence of the Dominance of the Dialectic Model in African Christianity

There is evidence that African Christians generally assume a one-sided view of the Bible and the way it relates to their cultures. The average African church-goer, asked "What is the Bible?" would most likely reply that "The Bible is the Word of God" and forget to add the other equally important aspect, "in the words of men".(12) The popular view of the Bible in Africa approaches the Islamic view of the Koran -- composed by God in eternity and for all eternity, then revealed to mortals in time through divine inspiration understood as dictation. This has led to the popularity of a fundamentalistic viewpoint among African Christians according to which every statement in the Bible is held to be literally backed up by God's own authority and, therefore, not subject to re-examination on the grounds of scholarship, common sense, or experience.

Yes, the dialectic model of perceiving the relationship between the Bible and African cultures pervades African Christianity and it is engaging the keen interest of African theologians. Two papers presented by two African biblical scholars in a consultation held in Glasgow, Scotland on the theme "Interpreting the Bible in African Contexts" are revelatory of this concern. Justin Ukpong read a paper on "Inculturating Biblical Hermeneutic: Rereading the Bible with African Eyes," and Kris Owan read the paper "The Word of God in Human Language: Towards a Culturally Pluralistic Interpretation of the Bible". Both papers argue for a more dialogic understanding of the relationship between the Bible and African cultures.

The report presented by Ukpong of a survey conducted in Port Harcourt, Nigeria to determine the dynamics affecting popular interpretation of the Bible pointed to the same conclusions. According to the report,

African Christians are largely dogmatic in their approach to the Bible. The belief that the Bible is the Word of God and divinely inspired has acquired magical dimensions.
The Independent African churches ... remain conservative in believing that the Bible is universal and not subject to cultural interpretations. Thus such accompaniments to worship as hand clapping and dancing are seen as biblical, not cultural.(13)

That the dialectic model of perceiving Bible-culture relationship is dominant in African Christianity is no longer in question among African scholars. What is in question is what gave rise to it and what can be done to ameliorate the situation.

(c) Why the Dialectic Relationship?

To cure a malady it helps to know the cause. Why do African Christians adopt a dialectical attitude to their cultures in relation to the Bible? Without excluding other possible causes, I will like us to focus on two basic factors, one external and the other internal, which I regard as contributing immensely to Bible-culture polarization in African Christianity. These are: (i) missionary theology and strategy, and (ii) the novelty, in African experience, of the written word.

Christian missionaries sent to Africa in the early days of the missionary movement were apparently theologically ill-equipped for the task ahead of them. Many of them were recruited the same way that the Crusaders of the Middle Ages were recruited, namely, for war. They were made to see themselves as "Christian soldiers" marching as to war against demonic powers and the forces of darkness in order to liberate the land for Christ and save the hell-bound souls of its helpless inhabitants. Africa together with all its cultures and religions represented for them so much fetishism, the kingdom of Satan, fit only to be overthrown and brought to subjection to the superior power of the Cross of Jesus so as to raise the banners of the kingdom of Christ. The first voices of sanity began to be heard in the second quarter of the twentieth century from such avant-garde scholars as Edwin W. Smith who had this to say in 1929:

It used to be said that Africans had no religion, but plenty of superstition. Some writers who admitted the presence of rudimentary religion supposed it to consist of no more than a mass of entangled fears and irrational taboos. They talked obscurely of Satanism, devil-worship, fetishism. We are as yet very far from a complete understanding of African faith and practice, but we can confidently assert that these are much more respectable than used to be thought.(14)

A lopsided theology gave rise in practice to a missionary strategy that emphasized not dialogue but authority, not love but power. This is, of course, in keeping with the missionaries' self understanding as soldiers of Christ. The missionaries knew they had no authorization from the local constituted authority, so they claimed that their authorization came from God whose authority was to be respected before that of the community elders. Community leadership, the custodian of the peoples' culture and tradition was often presented in bad light as inimical to the gospel, and converts were sometimes encouraged to disregard them. In some cases, as in Southern Nigeria, the missionaries tried to erect their own "Christian villages," parallel and in opposition to the village community. Thus an attitude of dichotomy between the Christian gospel and their native cultures was sown in the hearts and minds of African Christians from the first moments of their contact with Christianity. This is the first explanation for the dominance of the dialectic view of the Bible-culture relationship in African Christianity.

This discussion of the polarizing effect of missionary theology and practice in the way African Christians see the relationship between the Bible and their cultures would not be complete without mentioning the continuing re-enforcement by present day missionaries, mainly Americans of the Evangelical and Pentecostal traditions, who troop to Africa, especially English-speaking Africa, armed with the Bible in one hand and a loud-speaker in the other. Many of these new wave missionaries are full of zeal but wanting in knowledge both of the Bible and of the culture of the people they go out to evangelize. As if to justify their poor preparation for the task, they teach their gullible adherents that to fully understand the Bible all that is required is much faith, and that human reason and common sense only inhibit a true understanding of the Word of God. As someone engaged in the biblical apostolate in my native Nigeria, I have often observed the look of surprise on the faces of ordinary believers who have been reading the Bible for years when I tell them to bring their reasoning and cultural common sense to bear on their study of the Bible.

The second contributing factor to the Bible-culture dichotomy in African Christianity is the novelty of the written word in the African experience. At the time the Bible came to Africa, south of the Sahara, African peoples generally had no written tradition. African foundational stories and sacred narratives were passed on from one generation to the other in oral form which made room for updating, emendation and contextual reformulation where necessary, with each phase of retelling. Fixed and sacrosanct phrases and formulae that could no longer be reshaped to serve the needs of the community were alien to the African religious experience. And this was precisely what African Christians got when the Bible was placed in their hands. How could one navigate a fast anchored boat? With time, faith turned the sense of oddity into a sense of mystery and magic, and that is what we have with us today.(15)

In the West, the problem in biblical interpretation seems to be that of naturalism. People tend to see the Bible as a document that arose naturally within the believing community and so needs to be understood and interpreted by the natural human powers of rationality, imagination, reconstruction, etc. In Africa, on the other hand, the problem seems to be that of supernaturalism. Virtue, they say, lies in the middle but humans always tend to extremes.

(d) Assessing the Effects of the Dialectic Model of Bible-Culture Relationship

It is possible to evaluate the appropriateness or otherwise of the dialectic model of Bible-culture relationship by examining theologically the nature of the Bible as the product of human culture under divine guidance and so argue from there that the Bible cannot be opposed to culture as such. It is also possible to go through the history of biblical interpretation in Christianity to see how the interpretation of the Bible has influenced and been influenced by the evolution of culture. In this paper, however, I intend to examine the effects in African Christianity of adopting a dialectic model of Bible-culture relationship, and then assess the model with a very practical biblical principle:

You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits (Matthew 7:16-20).

Let me start by admitting that the dialectic model can be very attractive. In a world of absolute relativism and uncertainty, the dialectic approach seems to offer the certainty which the human mind invariably longs for. Irrespective of whatever issues of doctrine or discipline, that might possibly arise between the Bible and an African culture, the dialectic mind has a prepackaged answer: yes to Bible, no to African culture. Thus the model tends to offer easy and clear-cut answers in issues that would otherwise involve long and painful deliberations that often produce no definite or final answers.

But whatever short-time gains and attractions the dialectic model has to offer, the resultant effect is certainly counter-productive. For one thing it bears the sour fruit of what may be termed "one-dimensional Christianity". One-dimensional Christians are those who are very vertically oriented, but have no horizontally bearing: they believe in God, they don't believe in the world that God created; they hope to see God in heaven, they don't work for God's kingdom on earth; they try to love God whom they do not see, they do not strive to love their neighbours whom they see, men and women created in God's very image.

For such Christians, the social order, the human community is irredeemably evil, so they should have as little concern for and interaction with it as they possibly can. No wonder they end up with a very self-centred piety that seeks only to survive the harsh realities of their social, economic and political environment and does not in any way seek to correct and improve the situation itself. This is the bane of African Christianity in general and Nigerian Christianity in particular. Prof. John Riches, in a report on the Glasgow Consultation written for Ministerial Formation (67: 1994), expressed the concern that "the focus on individual problems in Nigeria meant that church members were less concerned with wider, social and political issues."(16)

Karl Marx said of the religion of his day that it had become "the opiate of the people". One could say the same of the popular use of the Bible by African Christians today, especially in Nigeria: the Bible has become an opiate, a tranquilizer to dull the sensitivity of African Christians to the many social, economic and political injustices that they experience on a daily basis, thanks to the one-dimensional Christianity of the dialectic model.

Recently on a Nigerian television channel, a "Bible-believing" Christian revivalist preacher who was promising "instant miracle" and monetary prosperity to those who would follow him was asked what he thought about the economic depression in the country. His reply was that there was no economic depression in the country; that the depression was only in the minds of those who do not believe, as those who followed his gospel would soon verify. Where does one go from there?

Enough for now of the dominant dialectic approach; let us now turn to what I consider to be a more appropriate model for African Christianity to conceptualize the way in which the Bible relates to their cultures, namely, the dialogic model. continue

Notes and References

1. The re-Christianization of Africa after the fall of the first African Christianity in the 7th century c.e. took place mainly in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. Most of the pioneer crop of African theologians today would be only first or second generation Christians.

2. For the statistics see D.B. Barrett (ed.), World Christian Encyclopedia, Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1982, pp. 136-771.

3. John S. Mbiti, Bible and Theology in African Christianity, Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 12.

4. Quoted in Carl F. Starkloff, S.J., "As Different As Night and Day": Ignatius's Presupposition and Our Way of Conversing across Cultures (Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits 28/4), 1996, p. vi.

5. The writer is aware of the sad fact of disagreement among Christians regarding the canon, the accepted list of inspired books. Though I write from a Roman Catholic background, I do not think that the case for this essay is dependent on a particular stand on the question of canonicity.

6. Gerald A. Arbuckle, Earthing the Gospel: an Inculturation Handbook for the Pastoral Worker, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1990, p. 1.

7. Anastasios Yannoulatos, "Culture and Gospel" Some Observations from the Orthodox Tradition and Experience" International Review of Mission LXXIV/294 (1985): 185.

8. Oxford American Dictionary, New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980, p. 155.

9. Valentino Salvoldi - Renato Kizito Sesana, Africa: The Gospel Belongs To Us, (Trans. Marie Swift), Ndola: Mission Press, 1986, p.12.

10. Cf. John S. Mbiti, Bible and Theology in African Christianity, Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1986, pp. 14-20.

11. Julius Lipner, "'Being One, Let Me Be Many': Facets of the Relationship Between the Gospel and Culture" International Review of Mission, LXXIV/294: (1985) 158-168. Credit is given to this work for most of the analysis in this section.

12. I use this traditional phraseology rather than the more inclusive "in human words" on purpose. "In the words of men" more clearly underlies the concern of modern biblical scholarship that many hands were involved in the composition of the Bible, and the concern of feminist hermeneutics that the Bible has a bias in favour of masculine interests and concerns.

13. "Interpreting the Bible in African Contexts" Minutes of the Glasgow Consultation held on 13th - 17th August 1994 at Scotus College, Bearsden, Glasgow, Scotland, pp. 16-17.

14. Edwin W. Smith, The Secret of the African: Lectures on African Religion, London: Student Christian Movement, 1929, p. 132.

15. See S.A. Adewale, "The Magical Use of the Bible among the Yoruba Christians of Nigeria" in Pastoral Biblical Bulletin, I (1988):.48-55.

16. "Interpreting the Bible in African Contexts" p. 58.

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