African Languages and African Theology

click here to go back to main site MAIN SITE

African Languages and African Theology


 (Copyright applies. September 2008)


Theology constantly changes in response to people’s cultures and ways of life, somewhat as the view of a mountain changes as one moves in relation to it. This means that what will be taught in theological colleges in the West in twenty years will be different from what is taught now. People living within Western culture will keep up with such changes as they are part of the ebbs and flows of the Western culture with which theology is interacting.


This is more difficult for people learning Western theology who are not Westerners. In so far as they are not steeped in Western culture, they will be unaware of the cultural features that Western theologians are responding to. Their unawareness forces them to take Western theology as if it is an entity that is valid in itself – that theology indeed is god as it were. That is how they will receive it as students, and that is how they will communicate it to students. Western theology will only tangentially reflect their own thoughts about God.


It should be clear that as long as Western theology remains dominant, non-Westerners such as Africans will “always be on the receiving end of the theological insights of others”.[1] They will quickly go ‘out-of-date’ as their cultural context does not allow them to update in ways acceptable to the West. Then either they must be re-educated in the West, by Westerners or through Western teaching that has moved to the non-West. Unless or until theological teaching becomes rooted in African culture, the African church will not be able to develop its own theology. That means it will not be able to respond to its own context. This means both that non-Christian contexts will remain unchallenged, and that the theology taught will be of marginal relevance to African issues.


The solution to this dilemma is clearly that African theology needs to develop in response to African contexts. The problem here is that African contexts are neither known or understood by Westerners who act as gatekeepers to theological journals and publishers. Because that to which it is responding is not perceived, African theology is rejected. The only contributions usually accepted from African theologians, are those that are responding to Western cultural contexts. Typically, explaining African cultural features to those familiar with Western contexts. Published works on African theology are usually attempts at justifying positions that are different from Western ones. They are not theology as such: as true African theology cannot be done in European languages.[2]


If the African church is to develop indigenous roots, then there is no choice but for it to be allowed to develop outside of the scrutiny of Western scholarship. This is almost impossible should theology be written in English. Instead – African theology in order to make progress and to remain relevant to the African context must be rooted other than in English (or other European languages). Written theology in African languages needs to be encouraged to reflect the oral theologising already going on.


What can be said of theology also applies to other academic disciplines. The situation is serious. Unless or until African thinkers are enabled, encouraged or allowed to do scholarship in non-Western languages, African scholarship cannot advance. This means that African people’s and ways of life will have no scholarly roots or expression. In other words, they will remain in effect in a pre-literate state. In a globalising age, this bodes badly for massive populous communities.


The use of African languages in African scholarship is not an optional extra. It is a must for the sake of the health of the African church. Westerners who encourage and subsidise the use of their language in Africa are doing African people no favours. They may be suffocating the African church.


Jim Harries


[1] Tshehla, Samuel M., 2002, ‘Can Anything Good come out of Africa?’: reflections of a South African Mosotho reader of the Bible.’ 15-24 In: Journal of African Christian Thought. Vol. 5, No. 1st June 2002. 22.


[2] “Our terms can furnish only an approximation to concepts and principles foreign to us” says Tempels of European languages. (Tempels, Placide, 1959, Bantu Philosophy.  Paris: Presence Africaine. 39.)


click here to go back to main site MAIN SITE