Does culture matter?

[This is something I shared with African Christian Theology, a forum for pastors and theological educators (bible colleges and seminaries) in anglophone Africa which I administer; I have lightly edited it to make it more generally applicable.  The original version was written in French for Théologie Contextuelle en Afrique, the sister group for francophone Africa; if interested see my post “La culture est-elle importante ?” from earlier today.]

Does culture matter?  Specifically, I want to ask whether culture plays an important role in our theological formulations. As for me, I think culture does matter, but it remains a question as to how culture matters. What is the appropriate role, including limitations on that role, for culture in our theologizing?

Before I proceed, kindly note that I am not calling for theological relativism. But I am asserting that we should not absolutize previous culture-specific theological articulations — Western theological expressions have much to offer World Christianity and should not be discounted. But neither should they be absolutized.

I am a historian, as many of of our readers know. Within the Christian tradition, I see that both culture and language — notably Greek, Syriac, Latin, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, Ge’ez (or Old Ethiopic), and Nubian during the patristic era (i.e., the first 600–700 years of Christian history) — have influenced theological articulations. Or, as I enjoy preparing food in the kitchen, I might say that culture imparts a certain flavor or aroma to the way we “do theology.”

More recently, I can see distinctives between English-speaking Christianity of Scotland or America and French-speaking Christianity of France or Belgium — though both anglophone and francophone Christianity are certainly like twin sisters within the context of Western Christianity.  When we move to non-European cultures, however, (and I consider the cultures of North America to be primarily European, or, if you like, Euro-American) it is possible to see greater differences in Christian expression.  Naturally, when we move into vernacular theologies — thinking in the languages of Africa or of Asia instead of insisting on anglophone or francophone or lusophone theological forms — these differences are accentuated, much as Ge’ez and Syriac theological formulations sound rather different from the anglophone or latinate theological formulations of Western Christianity to which we are accustomed!

Different cultures ask different questions. The answers given by brilliant theologians a thousand years ago, or five hundred years ago, in England or France or Germany might not be pertinent to our African contexts, simply because here in Africa we are asking different questions to which traditional Western Christian theology simply has no answers.

Allow me to restate my question:

  1. When we theologize, does culture matter?
  2. If culture matters, what its appropriate role and function?
  3. Specifically within the setting of the African contextual realities, what is the appropriate role and function of African culture in our (Christian) theologizing, that is, in how we express the truth of the Gospel and its implications for how we live?

La culture est-elle importante ?

[For francophone friends and colleagues; this is something which I shared in Théologie Contextuelle en Afrique, a forum for pastors and theological educators (bible colleges and seminaries) in francophone Africa which I help administer.  The version here has been lightly edited to be more generally applicable.  I apologize in advance for any bad grammar or other errors in what I have written!  For an English version, see my “Does culture matter?” post.]

La culture est-elle importante ? Plus précisément, je veux discuter du rôle important que joue la culture dans nos formulations théologiques. Dans ce groupe, nous savons que la culture compte, mais la question reste de savoir comment la culture compte. Quel est le rôle approprié de la culture dans notre théologie ?

Je suis historien. Au sein de la tradition chrétienne, je vois que la culture et la langue — notamment le grec, le syriaque, le latin, le copte, l’arménien, le géorgien, le guèze (ou le vieil éthiopien) pendant l’ère patristique — ont influencé les articulations théologiques. Ou, comme j’aime cuisiner dans la cuisine et que mes amis me considèrent même comme un chef, je pourrais dire que la culture confère une certaine saveur ou un certain arôme à la façon dont nous « faisons » la théologie.

Veuillez noter que je n’appelle pas au relativisme théologique. Mais j’affirme que nous ne devrions pas absolutiser les articulations théologiques précédentes spécifiques à la culture — les expressions théologiques occidentales ont beaucoup à offrir au christianisme mondial et ne doivent pas être écartées. Mais ils ne doivent pas non plus être absolutisés.

Plus récemment, je peux voir des différences entre le christianisme anglophone d’Angleterre ou d’Amérique et le christianisme francophone de France ou de Belgique — bien que le christianisme anglophone et francophone soient certainement comme des frères dans le contexte du christianisme occidental. Cependant, lorsque nous passons à des cultures non européennes (et je considère que les cultures d’Amérique du Nord sont principalement européennes, ou, si vous préférez, euro-américaines), il est possible de voir de plus grandes différences dans l’expression chrétienne. Naturellement, lorsque nous entrons dans les théologies vernaculaires — penser dans les langues d’Afrique ou d’Asie au lieu d’insister sur des formes francophones, anglophones ou lusophones — ces différences s’accentuent, tout comme les formulations théologiques guèze et syriaque semblent assez différentes de la théologie théologique francophone. formulations du christianisme occidental auxquelles nous sommes habitués !

Différentes cultures posent des questions différentes. Les réponses données par de brillants théologiens il y a mille ans, ou il y a cinq cents ans, en France, en Angleterre ou en Allemagne pourraient ne pas être pertinentes pour nos contextes africains, simplement parce qu’ici, dans les divers pays d’Afrique, nous posons différentes questions auxquelles théologie chrétienne occidentale traditionnelle n’a tout simplement pas de réponses.

Veuillez me pardonner si mon discours a été trop long, mais je suis enseignant ! et permettez-moi de reformuler ma question :

  1. Lorsque nous théologisons, la culture importe-t-elle ?
  2. Si la culture est importante, quel est son rôle et sa fonction appropriés ?
  3. Spécifiquement dans le cadre des réalités contextuelles africaines dans lesquelles la plupart des membres du groupe vivent et travaillent, quel est le rôle et la fonction appropriés de la culture africaine dans notre théologie (chrétienne) ?

C’est ma conviction que les chrétiens africains ne sont pas seulement authentiquement chrétiens mais peuvent aussi être authentiquement africains.

What is “theology”?

As a missionary- and theological educator, I (Joshua) spend a lot of time in my study.  Today I  am spending some time with Prof. E. Bôlaji Idowu (1913-1993, Nigeria 🇳🇬). I was delighted to find this gem:

… a theologian who thinks that he is an intellectualist is only wasting his time. A theologian who is worthy of the name is first and foremost a man of prayer, waiting upon God for a message, God’s own message.

— E. Bôlaji Idowu, God, chapter 1 in Biblical Revelation and African Beliefs, 17-29, ed. Kwesi A. Dickson and Paul Ellingworth (Lutterworth Press / United Society for Christian Literature, 1969), p. 23.

I want to note this assertion, with which I agree:

A theologian who is worthy of the name

is first and foremost a man or woman of prayer.

As a historian, I am immediately struck by how much this echoes one of my favorite patristic quotations, Evagrios of Pontus defining what a theology is and what a theologian is.  But I’ve written about that elsewhere.
So let me ask us:  are we people of prayer?


I have just learned that we have lost another giant.  The great John S. Mbiti of Kenya, professor and theologian and philosopher and mentor, passed from this life a couple of weeks ago, 6 October 2019, a bit before what would have been his 88th birthday.

If you are interested in —
.        • African culture or religion or philosophy,
.        • Christian theology,
.        • hermeneutics, or
.        • African Christianity —
then you should read his works. His monographs African Religions and Philosophy (1969) and Concepts of God in Africa (1970) were seminal and remain classics.

I can’t claim to have known him personally, but I was honored to meet him a few times, to have heard him lecture a couple of times, and to have had one delightful one-on-one conversation with him. He was a gentleman and a scholar … and a true Christian.

Professor John S. Mbiti and friendsThis picture was taken at a Centre for World Christianity event in Nairobi in March 2018. Those pictured include Professors Mark Shaw, Jesse N. K. Mugambi, John S. Mbiti, Andrew F. Walls, with Dr Ingrid Reneau Walls & Dr Kyama Mugambi.

Some of you haven’t heard of John Samuel Mbiti before.  For an excellent though short introduction to Prof. Mbiti’s work, see Francis Anekwe Oborji, “John S. Mbiti – Father of African Christian Theology: .A Tribute,” Journal of African Christian Biography 4/4 (October 2019): .3-14.
The issue is available online at the Dictionary of African Christian Biography here
(There are also booklet formats for printing available, in either A4 or 8.5×11.)

Professor John S. Mbiti, may your memory be eternal until you rise again to meet our Lord.


It is perhaps not unfitting that it was on Epiphany (6 January 2019) that the great Lamin Sanneh breathed his last in this life. In his life and scholarship the light of Christ was revealed to many. He passed on only yesterday, yet already he is 

We grieve, but we do not grieve as those without hope.

Born in The Gambia in West Africa, raised as a Muslim, after his conversion to Christ he became a preeminent Christian scholar and missiologist.  If you haven’t read his books or articles or heard him speak, you should. His books are widely available and you can still find him on youtube.  Here are two of my favorite of his quotes:

“People receive new ideas only in terms of the ideas they already have.”

“Conversion is the turning of ourselves to God, and that means all of ourselves without leaving anything thing behind or outside.  But that also means not replacing what is there with something else. Conversion is a refocusing of the mental life and its cultural/social underpinning and of our feelings, affections, and instincts, in the light of what God has done in Jesus.”

~ Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion Is Christianity?  The Gospel beyond the West (2003).

If you’re a buyer and reader of books, that text is worth acquiring.  But if you only buy or read one of his books, I recommend that you start with Translating the Message:  The Missionary Impact on Culture (1st edition, 1989; 2nd edition, revised, 2009).  Though you’ll run across a lot of books before you find anything that would surpass his Disciples of All Nations:  Pillars of World Christianity (2008).

Professor Lamin Sanneh (24 May 1942 — 6 January 6 2019), may your memory be eternal and may you rest in peace until you rise again in the Resurrection.

Update (15 January 2019):  Christianity Today has just published a collection of tributes, “Remembering Lamin Sanneh, the World’s Leading Expert on Christianity and Islam in Africa.” This article would be a great place to start to learn more about this great man.  Also … anyone interested in World Christianity should read not only Prof. Sanneh’s works, but also should listen to the voices of those who give him tribute here.