Kwame Bediako (1945-2008) was a Ghanian Christian theologian. With a PhD from Aberdeen, he was Director of the Akrofi-Christaller Memorial Centre for Mission Research and Applied Theology in Ghana. In the collection edited by William Dyrness, Emerging Voices in Global Theology (Zondervan, 1994), Kwame Bediako contributed the chapter, “Jesus in African Culture: A Ghanian Perspective.” In it, Bediako addressed a variety of Christological issues as seen through eyes of Akan culture. Of special interest is the way that he developed themes in the Book of Hebrews that resonate with Akan culture, particularly the function of the ancestors. Besides our Lord’s function as sacrifice and High Priest, Bediako framed Jesus in terms of the greatest ancestor (pp. 117-118):
Jesus Christ surpasses our natural ancestors also by virtue of who he is in himself. Ancestors, even described as ‘ancestral spirits,’ nonetheless remain essential human spirits; whatever benefit they may be said to bestow upon their communities is therefore effectively contained by the fact of their being human. Jesus Christ, on the other hand, took on human nature without loss to his divine nature. Belonging in the eternal realm – as the son of the Father (Heb. 1:1, 48; 9:14) – he has nonetheless taken human nature into himself (Heb. 10:19) and so, as God-man, he ensures and infinitely more effective ministry to human beings (Heb. 7:25) than can ever be said of merely human ancestral spirits.
It is interesting to note that for Bediako, humans having spirits that survive the demise of the body is not questioned; it is an unexamined presupposition of his worldview and that of his people. [For a comparison of the two views, dualism and holism (monism), see my The Dark Side of Destiny: Hell Re-Examined (Wipf and Stock, 20013), chapter 5 – “What Are We, Anyways?,” available here). Beyond the first-order question of the existence of ancestral spirits, it may be asked:
Does calling Jesus the greatest ancestor in some way subordinate the Second Person of the Trinity to the First?
While we acknowledge the reality of the Incarnation, the “Word Becoming Flesh” (John 1:14), does not the use of the word “ancestor” as applied to Christ demote Him in substance and nature to a merely human order of being? In essence, in the Akan worldview, the Chief when enthroned takes on sacred character (p. 104) as intermediary. Yet the fact that there is a moment in time when this status is conferred upon an ancestor is problematic when Jesus is then called “ancestor.” It seems to evoke the ancient heresy of adoptionism, where the merely human Jesus of Nazareth supposedly became the Son of God at the moment of is baptism by John. In any case, Bediako wrote widely, and this is my first exposure to his writings. It is possible that he has answered this objection elsewhere, so I will keep an eye open to this concern as I dig deeper.
A critique of the “Christ our ancestor” idea offered by Rodney Reed and Gift Mtukwa of Africa Nazarene University (Nairobi) may be accessed here.
Kwame Bediako believed strongly in the importance of Christology done from an African perspective. Contextualization means speaking to listeners in ways that meet them where they are. According to Bediako, this is part of the cultural adaptability that has made Christianity “culturally translatable” and the “most universal” of world religions (p. 119). As in any culture around the world, it will take wisdom from the Holy Spirit to do so in a way that remains true to Scripture and orthodoxy.
Photo credit: Dictionary of African Christian Biography