Tribute to Professor S Mbiti: A Pioneer of Modern African Theology

Today I heard the news that Professor John Mbiti sadly passed away on the 5th of October.  On the one hand, this makes me very sad that we have lost another African Theologian, the other we lost early this year was Professor Lamin Sanneh (1942-2019) who passed away on the 6th of January. On the other hand, these two pioneers have help to lay the foundation of what we refer to as Modern African Theological scholarship.

The pioneering work of Professor John Mbiti is in the fact that he is one of the architects that formulate African Theological enterprise at a time when Africans were not considered scholars. If Ajayi Crowther defies his time by being an African that shows aptitude to learning which goes against the grain and popular theory of the time that Africans are less human and are definitely not advance enough to learn. Professor Mbiti furthered the journey by asking questions that critiqued colonial Christianity’s view of Africans and African religions. This was in arguing and articulating that African Religions and culture are also important materials in the study of Christianity. He went further by asserting that just as the Old Testament prepared the Jews for Jesus so did African Traditional Religions prepared Africans for the reception of the Gospel. It was this preparation and openness to the world of the supernatural that made the modern mission movement a success. Whereas before, European mission movement and colonial officers saw African Religions and customs as barbaric, savage, heathen, pagan and uncivilized, the likes of Professor John Mbiti help to change the language so that African Traditional Religions (ATR) was seen as an important religion like Christianity or Islam.

Interestingly, we all know him today as an African Theologian, but his studies positions him as a New Testament scholar. This is why Another area of his contribution are his Bible translation projects a major one being the Kiikamba Bible Project. He felt that some earlier  Bible translations into some East African languages were not accurate therefore embarked on new projects that saw the New Testament translated into his own language, Kiikamba.  Professor Mbiti is the first African scholar to translate the Bible single-handedly from the original Biblical languages into an African mother-tongue. This translation has caused a lot of excitement in Kenya and beyond, and a Project has arisen out of the publication.

Another area of his pioneering work is his ecumenical work which saw him working for World Council of Churches (WCC) institution in Switzerland. Perhaps the significance of this was that there was a time when African Churches were not considered church enough to be part of the ecumenical movement. This changed over time with people like Professor Mbiti and African Indigenous Churches (AICs).

On a personal note, I had the priviledge of meeting Professor Mbiti in 2015 at one of the Missio Africanus conferences put together by one of my colleagues, Dr Harvey Kwiyani. It became very clear as our friendship developed that here was a father who like to see his children prosper as he encouraged me on a number of projects I was working on. One of such projects was editing the work African Voices: Towards African British Theologies (2017). I asked Professor Mbiti to write a foreword to this book as I could not think of anyone else to do so. He agreed, but had some concerns. His concern was the way myself and other theologians use the label black such as Black Majority Churches (BMCs), Black-led church, Black Theology and so on. Below is an excerpt of one of our email conversations on the subject:

I wondered about – and am rather disturbed by – your use of the term „Blacks“ for Africans. It is not your invention, and it is circulating widely in Britain and America. However, I find it inappropriate to use it, when it has so bad connotations. It is originally a racist term, invention, and abusive. By using it people are simply perpetuating and promoting racism -in my judgement. We ourselves in Africa do not use this term, except perhaps a bit in South Africa where it was wrapped up with Apartheid. At least not in East Africa. Furthermore, there are millions and millions of people in India, Middle East, Pacific, Caribbean, etc. who have brown, dark, and mixed skin colours. How can they be distinguished from one another if they are all bundled „Black“? Furthermore, the peoples of Africa have many skin colors – dark, brown, pink, mixture, fading colors, combination of parts brown, parts pink, parts red… The skin is not the content of who they are as human beings.

(Picture taken at Missio Africanus Conference in 2015)

From left to right: Dr Babatunde Adedibu, Provost of the Redeemed Christian Bible College, Lagos, Nigeria, Rev Israel Olofinjana, CMMW Director, Late Professor John Mbiti, Paul Thaxter, CMS Director of International Mission, Dr Harvey Kwiyani, Liverpool Hope University and Dr Cathy Ross, CMS Head of Pioneer Mission Leadership Training

Here it is very clear that Professor Mbiti understood that the construction of blackness was a social construct of the Enlightenment thinking therefore his uneasiness of the term. He was very strong in his conviction to the extent that he felt he could not write the foreword. I persuaded him that he could actually write the foreword including his reservations and thoughts on the use of the term black as I thought what he was sharing was something very crucial. He agreed and so what we have in the foreword of African Voices: Towards African British Theologies are his reflections on the subject which has now generated conversations online through Bishop Joe Aldred and other avenues.

We will miss Professor John Mbiti for his works and challenge to us and it is because of people like him that some of us can call ourselves African Theologians!

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