Kwame Bediako reflects on Jesus as ancestor

Bediako-Kwame
Kwame Bediako

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.

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Photo credit: Dictionary of African Christian Biography

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Tom Oord calls for Nazarenes to “open the windows”

Thomas J. Oord

If the Church of the Nazarene were an army, then Tom Oord of Northwest Nazarene University would be one of the scouts riding out in front, probing new territory. Armies need scouts, and the Church of the Nazarene needs theologians like Dr. Oord.

Oord has written an intriguing essay, calling for us to “open the windows” in the Church of the Nazarene. He lists 10 areas where we need to “let the fresh air of the spirit blow through.” (No doubt he means the Holy Spirit, and not just any “spirit.”)

You can read all ten points over at his blog. They are all worth the reader’s time, but here I’d like to quote two of them as a springboard for further reflection. Oord writes:

1. Engage contemporary theology. Theological scholars in the colleges and universities sponsored by the Church of the Nazarene explore a variety of theological ideas. Theology in the denomination is significantly different today than it was fifty years ago. And that’s to be expected. Unfortunately, however, pursuing new forms of Wesleyan-Holiness theology in dialogue with these contemporary theological ideas is not encouraged as it should be. I believe the Spirit intends to do new things and guide the denomination in new ways theologically.

Tom Oord is justified in calling the Church of the Nazarene to the theological task. Each generation must grasp the biblical underpinning of the doctrine of holiness, but – having done so – must clothe the message in language relevant to its own generation and cultural context. It is not enough to just reprint old holiness classics. Those books use a distinctive idiom and illustrations that spoke to a time past. Who will write holiness theology in a language and style that touches the hearts of people in the 21st century? And the very style that makes an American writer resonate with American culture may for that same reason make the book ineffective in cultures outside North America. Our task as a global church is to raise up theologians from each culture where we are at work.

Yet is it enough to engage only the theology being written in our own culture? Worldwide – not just in the Church of the Nazarene – the Church is growing in what Philip Jenkins has called the “Global South,” including Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. More and more, contemporary theology is being written in these parts of the world, yet to what degree do seminary students in the United States grapple with theologians from these other cultures? Do our Nazarene universities in the U.S. read these emerging theologians? I admit my weakness in this area, but as one serving in Africa, am determined to become more conversant with thinkers like Kwame Bediako of Ghana. Who among our Nazarene theologians in Africa will rise to his stature?

The late Prof. Kwame Bediako of Ghana

Oord continues, underscoring the need for us to re-empower women in ministry. He sounds a clarion call:

8. Reestablish the power of and number of women in leadership. Many members of the Church of the Nazarene happily note that while the Roman Catholic church has not embraced the Spirit’s move to establish women in the highest positions of leadership, Nazarenes have affirmed this throughout their history. And yet a very small percentage of Nazarene pastors are women. And leadership in various denominational sectors is dominated by men. Steps must be taken to encourage Nazarene members to promote women into positions of leadership.

I believe that the Church of the Nazarene in Africa will set an example for other denominations in Africa and the global Church of the Nazarene in this regard. Currently, 14% of the nearly 1,000 students enrolled in the Nazarene Theological Institute are women. While we are not satisfied with this paltry figure, it is nonetheless movement in the right direction. Of the 16 students in a class I taught in Madagascar in 2011, 14 were women. Likewise, of nine who were ordained in Bukavu (Democratic Republic of the Congo), three were women, and a recent seminar on spiritual gifts (see photo) included a healthy representation of women.

Church leaders in Bukavu, DRC

The obstacles that African women must overcome to become pastors are daunting. If they can do it, what other culture in the world can be excused from fully empowering women to pursue all roles of lay and ordained ministry?

Thank you, Dr. Oord, for raising important issues. May the Holy Spirit continue to blow, refreshing His Church, including the small branch we call the Church of the Nazarene!

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Photo credits:

Thomas J. Oord – from the website of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science

Kwame Bediako – from the Akrofi-Christaller Institute website