John S. Mbiti – Father of Theology of African Religion: A Tribute...

John S. Mbiti – Father of Theology of African Religion: A Tribute By Francis Anekwe Oborji

African Religions and Philosophy John Mbiti
John Mbiti, author of 'African Religions and Philosophy'
Prof. John S. Mbiti (1931-2019), in the introduction to his seminal book, “African Religions and Philosophy”, published in 1969, wrote:

“Although many African languages do not have a word for religion as such, it nevertheless accompanies the individual from long before his birth to long after his physical death… Chapters of African religions are written everywhere in the life of the community, and in traditional society there are no irreligious people. To be human is to belong to the whole community, and to do so involves participating in the beliefs, ceremonies, rituals and festivals of that community. A person cannot detach himself from the religion of his group, for to do so is to be severed from his roots, his foundation, his context of security, his kinships and the entire group of those who make him aware of his own existence.” – J.S. Mbiti, “African Religions and Philosophy” (2, 1969).

The Kenyan theologian, philosopher and pastor, Prof. John S. Mbiti, generally acclaimed as the Father of Christian theology of African Traditional Religion (ATR) and indigenous efforts for authentic inculturation of the Gospel in the continent, has gone to meet his ancestors.  Sunday, October 6, 2019, has gone down in history as the day cold hands of death hit badly the African intellectual orbit. It was the day, Prof. Mbiti, the greatest of the mind to illumine, intellectually, the ancestral religious world and heritage of African people, joined his ancestors.

The entire intellectual world, community of African theologians and scholars are in a mourning mood following the demise of this greatest of the African theologians of our time, who breathed his last on that fateful day in Switzerland where he was hospitalized.

On hearing of the demise of Prof. Mbiti, one of my former students in Rome, wrote, “We are today proud as Africans because of the dignity he gave to the African tradition up to where it is now. He has left a memorable legacy of cultural values of Africa. We are proud of him, and he will forever be quoted through all ATR related studies.”

Another admirer wrote, “Really sad news. Prof. Mbiti’s resonating academic works testify to his greatness.” To this another added, “We lost a gem! Not only deep in thought, but also warm as a person. I remember his visit to Bigard Seminary, Enugu. He challenged us students with his remarks: ‘If you don’t change change, change will change you.’  Yet another wrote, “It is a sad news, it is a big loss for the academic world, especially for Africa. May God rest his good soul in Peace. Amen.”

One other person eulogizes him as follows, “The death of Prof. Mbiti is another heavy blow on Africa, happening within a short space of time after the demise of Prof. Lamin Sanneh of Gambia.” Finally, an Italian young scholar who studied African theology and traditional religion under me, adds her voice in the following words, “Che brutta notizia, uno studioso eccezionale che con i suoi libri ha aiutato tante persone a capire Africa” – (What a sad news, an exceptional scholar who, with his books had helped many to have better understanding of Africa).

Prof. John S. Mbiti was born on November 30, 1931 in Kenya. He studied, first in his native Kenya, and thereafter in Uganda before taking his Doctorate in 1963 at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. Ordained a pastor in the Anglican Church, he taught theology and religion for many years at Makerere University in Uganda. Thereafter, he served as Director of Ecumenical Institute Bossy, World Council of Churches (WCC), Geneva, Switzerland. He was visiting professor at many universities in Europe, America, Canada, Australia, and Africa, and had travelled widely in many countries within and outside Africa.

Professor Mbiti had published over 400 articles, reviews and books on theology, religion, philosophy and literature. In all these, Africa remained the center and context of his academic scholarship. He retired few years ago as part-time professor at the University of Bern, parish minister in Burgdorf, Switzerland. He was married to Verena and they had four children, Kyeni, Maria, Esther and Kavata.

As a junior lecturer at Makerere University, Prof. Mbiti challenged Christian inferences that traditional African religious ideas were “demonic and anti-Christian” through his first work, “African Religions and Philosophy” (published in 1969 by the Heinemann Publishers). In the ‘Preface’ to the Second Edition of this book, Mbiti did not hide his feelings and frustration about the rejection, the book went through before been accepted for publication. He wrote, inter-alia:

“I also thank the publishers (Heinemann Press) very heartily, for promoting the book, for facilitating its translation into other languages and for asking to have a new edition of it published. It is amazing to think that the original manuscript was rejected by several other publishers before being accepted by the current publisher!” (Mbiti, in “Preface” to the Second Edition of “African Religions and Philosophy” (xiii, 2nd Edition, 1989).

On hearing of the demise of Prof. Mbiti, one commentator wrote in his condolence message, “His first book (“African Religions and Philosophy”) has been hailed as an enlightenment by many but it also earned him an equal share of criticism from those with contrary beliefs (and philosophy of life).” In the same context, Raila Odinga, former Prime minister of Kenya in his condolences to Mbiti’s family, twitted, “His book was an eye-opener and groundbreaking work.”

Other major published works of Mbiti include, “Concepts of God in Africa (1970); “New Testament Eschatology in an African Background” (1971), which was a revised edition of his PhD thesis at Cambridge; “Love and Marriage in Africa” (1973); “Introduction to African Religion” (1975); “Prayer in the Religious Traditions of Africa” (1975); “Bible and Theology in African Christianity” (1986).  There are other titles of his published books and articles too numerous to mention.

He became the first African to translate the Bible into his native Kamba language. Prof. Mbiti was indeed an untiring theological worker of first-hour. A towering figure in the world of academia, he was a mentor to many younger African theologians and scholars of all times and space.

Mbiti left Makerere University in 1974 after he was appointed Director of the WCC Ecumenical Institute in Bogis-Bossy, Switzerland. Thanks to him, the presence of Christians from Africa, Asia, and Latin America started to be felt in the WCC as their participation increased. He became vocal on matters of contextualized theological education as he traversed in various universities worldwide.

In this our tribute in honor of Prof. Mbiti, we shall concentrate mainly on two aspects of his contribution to African theology: a) Mbiti’s theology of African Religion, and b) Mbiti’s Perspective on the New Southward “Shift” in Christian landscape.

Mbiti’s Theology of African Religion

Mbiti, is appreciated highly as Africa’s greatest scholar in ATR and his convictions in African Christianity in which he firmly believes that God revealed in the Bible is the same God worshipped as “Creator and Omnipotent God” in the Traditional African Communities before the advent of Christianity and Islam in the continent.

In his writings, one finds an honest attempt by an African scholar to correct the prevalent Afro-pessimism pervading Western scholarship on African people, culture and religious heritage. Mbiti addressed and corrected the age-old prejudice and scorn often directed against African religious values, culture and traditions in the Western scholarship. In addition, his theology focuses on reasons why, Africa, in spite of all, has emerged as the fastest-growing center of Christianity in the contemporary history of evangelization and in the New southward “Shift” in Christian landscape.

Thus, Mbiti, ab initio, had set out to rehabilitate the wounded African dignity by striving through his writings, to link African cultural and religious heritage with Christianity by promoting theological dialogue between Judeo-Christian religion and African religious values and traditions.

However, in all his writings, Mbiti never equated the two different religious traditions (Christianity and ATR) as being exactly, the same. No. Rather, he was always conscious of their basic differences just as he was of their communalities in the logic of the theology of inculturation and “praeparatio evangelica.”

The generic concept of God as “Creator and Omnipotent” in ATR does not mean identical with the God revealed in the Bible. The Judeo-Christian theme of the “Covenant” in the Old and New Testaments, and especially, the Special Revelation of God in the New Testament as “Trinity” through Christ, as well as the “inner-life” of the “Trinitarian God Himself” are new to the African of the traditional religion. The same thing applies to the themes of the Holy Spirit, Blessed Virgin, and so forth, which are completely new to the religious consciousness of the African of the traditional religion.

This shows that the two religions, Christianity and ATR are however, not the same. But as we say in traditional Christian theology, ATR was a way, God in His Divine Wisdom, had prepared the forbears of Africa for the reception of Christian message through proclamation. This is the fact Prof. Mbiti had tried to explain to us all in his writings on the meeting of the Gospel with ATR. In the new dispensation, ATR as the religious background from which the forbears of Africans come from, has an important pedagogical role to play in the introduction and inculturation of the Christian message in the continent and among Africans anywhere in the world.

Again, in his theology of African religion, Mbiti began with the question of whether we should use the term “ATRs” in the plural or in the singular (ATR)? He followed this up with his treatise on the African sense of time to establish African metaphysical knowledge and sense of eschatology vis-à-vis Christian beliefs.

In the first edition of his “African Religions and Philosophy”, Mbiti had favored the use of ATR in the plural. His reason being that there is no evidence of common origin or rather of historic movement in the development of the African religion. “Every member grows assimilating whatever ideas and practices that are held in his/her family and community. Besides, African religions have no founders or reformers, so that the beliefs among the different communities would differ greatly especially as each group would incorporate its national heroes.” (Mbiti, “African Religions and Philosophy”, (1-2, 1969).

However, Mbiti later modified the above position of his in the second edition of “African Religions and Philosophy.” Thus, he writes:

“In the first edition I spoke of ‘African religions’ in the plural to keep alive the diversity of African religiosity. Since then I have felt the need to emphasize also the commonalities and potential unity (not uniformity) within this diversity. Consequently, in lectures and other publications, I now use the singular, ‘African religion’, more than the plural expression.” (‘Preface’ to the Second Edition of “African Religions and Philosophy” (xiii, 1989).

This means, on one hand, that ATRs may be used in a pluralistic sense since there are no officially accepted common grounds of doctrines as in religions with historical founders and dogmas. On the other hand, there is a common denominator of beliefs and practices among Africans to warrant also the use of ATR in the singular.

The latter opinion is the position of African Catholic Bishops at the Synod of Bishops for Africa, which took place in Rome in 1994. The “Instrumentum Laboris” – (Working Document of the African Synod), states that there are sufficient common features in the practice of the religion to justify its usage in the singular. (See “Instrumentum Laboris”, nos. 101-102).

In addition, Mbiti agreed with most of his contemporaries such as Bolaji Idowu and Stephen Ezeanya, among others, who had argued strongly in the favor of the use of African “Names” for God for the translations in African languages of the name of God in the Bible.

Idowu had argued alongside Mbiti, that the concept of God and names given Him, for example, is not only common on the entire continent, but one finds that He goes with the same or similar names over wide areas of Africa. Idowu adds that many translations of the African’s names for God suggest that God is the Creator, Almighty in heaven. Since the real cohesive factor of religion (in Africa) is the living God, and without this factor, all things would fall to pieces, “it is on this identical factor that we can speak of African Traditional Religion in the singular.” (Idowu, “African Traditional Religion: A Definition” 8104, 1973).

In the same vein, Stephen Ezeanya argues from the perspective of African (Igbo) attributes to God which are often expressed in the names which they give to their children. We therefore have these examples: “Chukwunwendu” (God owns life), “Chukwuma” (God knows), “Chukwukodinaka” (everything is in God’s hands), ‘Chukwubundum” (God is my life), “Ifeanyichukwu” (nothing is impossible to God), “Chukwukelu” (God created), “Chukwubuike” (God is strength), etc. Underneath these names with “Chukwu” as the substantive noun, is the predicate and desire for life rooted in the benevolence of the same “Chukwu.” (S.N. Ezeanya, “A Hand of Igbo Christian Names” (1972) Second edition, 1994).

Furthermore, we meet Mbiti’s treatise of African concept of “Time.” His phenomenological interpretation of African concept of “Time” is one aspect of his theology to have received the most severe criticisms not only from outsiders, but especially from African scholars. Mbiti was seen by most of his critics of mispresenting the concept of “future.” in ‘African Time.’ While highlighting the “past and present” that are concrete to ‘African Time’, Mbiti describes the “future” in the African sense of “Time” as something “virtual” since the event is yet to take place.

Be it as it may, the fact remains that none of the critics had given us anything concrete comparable to the pioneering work of Mbiti on the subject. Moreover, Mbiti himself was a story-teller. In Africa, it is often said that, ‘a story tells us about the past, supports us in the present, and prepares us for the future.’ Mbiti’s interpretation of “African Time” with the Swahili word, “Zamani”, is another way of him telling us that, ‘African concept of Time’ involves the memory of the past and the memory of the future, happening in the present.

More significantly, Mbiti’s ‘African Concept of Time’, is a big warning to all those who, like Hegel, deny that Africans have the capacity to metaphysical and eschatological realm of human knowledge and philosophical thought. African sense of “Time” involves a promise and tells us we should not move forward without looking back. Moreover, “since African memory is future-oriented, we look back to the past, to the myth of our ancestors for the sake of the future and future generations.”

Mbiti’s Perspective on the New Southward “Shift” in Christian landscape

Mbiti is a seminal voice on the new southward “Shift” in Christian landscape. On this most important topic, Mbiti’s greatest contribution is his call for ‘North-South mutual-theological dialogue through ‘theological pilgrimage.’

Speaking always from his African perspective, Mbiti proposes what he calls “theological pilgrimage” on the part of European theologians into the African wells of theological scholarship and people’s daily struggle for survival. Rhetorically, he asks our Western colleagues and theologians, the following questions:

“We have eaten with you your theology. Are you prepared to eat with us our theology? … The question is, do you know us theologically? Would you like to know us theologically? Can you know us theologically? And how can there be true theological reciprocity and mutuality, if only one side knows the other fairly well, while the other side either does not know or does not want to know the first side?”

Continuing, Mbiti said:

“You have become a major subconscious part of our theologizing, and we are privileged to be so involved in you through the fellowship we share in Christ. When will you make us part of your subconscious process of theologizing? How can the rich theological heritage of Europe and America become the heritage of the universal church on the basis of mutuality and reciprocity?” – (J.S. Mbiti, “Theological Impotence and Universality of the Church”, in: G. Anderson & T. Stransky (eds.), “Mission Trends No. 3: Third World Theologies” (17, (1976).

Like most other African and Third World theologians, Mbiti sees this new southward “shift” as a sign that Christianity is really becoming the world religion which it is meant to be. But Mbiti was quick to add that the southward in Christian landscape has presented us with two realities that are in sharp contrast, almost contradiction. (See J.S. Mbiti, “Theological Impotence and Universality of the Church” (6-18 (1976).

While on the one hand, the church has become universal in a literal, geographical sense, thanks to the great missionary movement of the last 200 years, on the other, theological outreach has not matched this expansion. For Mbiti, this is a serious dilemma, and if we do not resolve it, it will destroy our foundations as the church in the world.

Thus, he suggests that as the church becomes worldwide, as it affirms the universality for which God’s dispersal of history has destined it, theology must strain its neck to see beyond the horizon of our traditional structures, beyond the comforts of our ready-made methodologies of theologizing. For Mbiti, this means that, “Our theology should be with the church where it is, rubbing shoulders with human beings whose conditions, concerns, and worldviews are not those with which we are familiar.”

Furthermore. Mbiti suggests that the dichotomy between older and younger churches, between Western Christianity and the Christianity of the southern continents, is a real one, but it is also a false dichotomy. We can overcome this false dichotomy if we really want to. The background for overcoming it, according to Mbiti, lies in our preparedness to embark on theological pilgrimages.

Theologians from the new (young) churches have made their pilgrimages to the theological learning of older churches. They have no alternative. But it has been in a sense one-sided theology. Therefore, the new southward shift in Christianity challenges us to embark on a pilgrimage of true theological reciprocity and mutuality. Because, as it is now, it is only one side that knows the other side fairly well, while the other side either does not know or does not want to know the first side.

Mbiti concludes, thus:

“There cannot be theological conversation or dialogue between North and South, East and West, until we can embrace each other’s concerns and stretch to each other’s horizons. Theologians from the southern continents believe that they know about most of the constantly changing concerns of older Christendom. They would also like their counterparts from the older Christendom to come to know about their concerns of human survival.” (J.S. Mbiti, “Theological Impotence and Universality of the Church” (17 (1976).

Mbiti is leaving us with this legacy of “theological pilgrimage” as a viable step towards confronting the dichotomy between the older and younger churches, between the “West and the Rest of Us” (apologies to Chinwuizu).

Mbiti’s theory of “theological pilgrimage and mutual reciprocity” is gem. It challenges the emerging new emphasis on “interculturality as a new missiological language in Western theology. In the first place, “interculturality” and “inculturation” are not the same thing, and ultimately, they don’t have the same theological origins and goal in missiological sciences. Therefore, for someone to suggest that “interculturality” should replace the theology of inculturation in Western missiology portrays a great betrayal of the basic differences between the two terms.

In the first place, inculturation has the Mystery of Incarnation of Jesus Christ in human flesh and cultures as its theological basis. Inculturation theology is therefore, about the meeting of the Gospel with the culture of a people in a determined context. It is a theological reflection on the ‘mystery’ – symbiosis, which occurs whenever the Gospel meets any human culture through proclamation and church’s missionary activities. Inculturation, therefore, will always remain valid as an important aspect as well as part and parcels of evangelization.

“Interculturality”, on the other hand, in the first place, does not concern itself with the meeting of the Gospel with the cultures as such. Rather, it privileges dialogue between two or more cultures – that is, among different groups and races, in a divisive manner – replica of the era of theology of “Multi-racialism” or “Multi-culturalism”, with their hidden seeds of preserving “racial” classification of humanity.

This is why one must be wary about the emerging concept of “interculturality”, because it “assumes in the first instance, that people are going to be arranged in different compartments based on colors (or cultures) – Europeans in one compartment, Asians and colored in second compartments, and Africans in another compartment.”

The fact is that immediately we accept “interculturality” as a new missiological language, basically, we are accepting as starting-point, as happened with the old theory of “multi-racialism” or “multi-culturalism”, that cultures are not only different but that some cultures are classical and scientific, while others are ‘demonic’, primitive, or at best underdeveloped, and that these differences must be recognized.

This error is actually, what Prof. Mbiti’s proposed ‘theological pilgrimage, mutuality and reciprocity’, intend to correct and avoid in our theological languages and way of relating with one another as peoples of diverse contexts and cultures. His view is that our theological approach should be such that should regard an individual as an individual. That everybody must be accorded his full rights, theologically, religiously, culturally, politically, economically, etc. This is regardless of whether you are European, African, Asian, Latin America, etc. That is, irrespective of whether one is educated or not, rich or poor.

The theory of “theological pilgrimage’, in my estimation, is one of Mbiti’s greatest theological legacies to our contemporary theology and world.


The news of the demise of Prof. Mbiti at this critical time in the history of African Christian theology, is one received with mixed-feelings of ‘gratitude and sadness.’ Yes, gratitude to God who blessed Africa with such an intellectual giant, a theologian of first-hour. Gratitude also to Prof. Mbiti for allowing himself to be used by God in restoring the wounded dignity of African people through his intellectual work and publications.

Sadness, however, because, in the last few years alone, Africa has lost through the cold hands of death, the finest minds of Mbiti’s generations of pioneers of African theology as well as those of African philosophy. The present generation of young Africans appeared not interested as such, in continuing with the veritable intellectual tradition and treasure left behind by these pioneer African theologians. Majority, among the emerging new crop of young Africans love robot and artificial knowledge more than intellectual scholarship – (the influence of social media). This is too sad a development!

This is why we mourn with heart full of sorrow, the demise of this greatest of pioneer African theologians, Prof. Mbiti. His death is coming at the time Africa has lost many others of his generation of pioneer African theologians. That today we can speak with dignity and sense of pride of African ancestral religious heritage as Christians without fear of contradiction, is thanks to the pioneering works of Prof. Mbiti and his colleagues of contemporaries.

With a rare wit, consistency, dedication, personal sacrifices, sense of duty, and pride, Prof. Mbiti, through his writings and intellectual prowess, baptized and Christianized the ancestral religion of African people. He rehabilitated African Traditional Religion (ATR), and made it come alive, years after the colonial onslaught on the African religion.

Dear Prof. Mbiti, now that you have gone to the “World Beyond”, in communion with the Saints in Heaven, please, greet all our other great ancestors of African theology and philosophy. Tell them we need their prayers, ancestral spiritual inspiration, and guidance to be true witnesses of their legacy, and to be alive to the challenges of our time as Africans and as theologians.

Adieu, the Great Teacher of African religious heritage and theology, Prof. John S. Mbiti. May the Angels of God welcome you in our better home in heaven! Amen!

Francis Anekwe Oborji is a Roman Catholic Priest. He lives in Rome where he is a Professor of missiology (mission theology) in a Pontifical University. He runs a column on The Trent. He can be reached by email HERE.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.


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