Mourning the death of John Samuel Mbiti, ‘father of modern African theology’

John Samuel Mbiti. Photo courtesy of family.

John Samuel Mbiti. Photo courtesy of family.

NAIROBI — There is one person’s body of work that came to define outsiders’ views on African religion more than any other in the past 50 years — Prof. John Samuel Mbiti, a Christian philosopher, Anglican minister and writer from Kenya.

“Africans are notoriously religious. Wherever the African is, there is religion. He carries it to the fields where he is sowing seeds or harvesting a new crop; he takes it with him to the beer party, or to attend a funeral ceremony; and if he is educated, he takes religion with him to the examination room at school or in the university; if he is a politician, he takes it to the house of parliament.” –an excerpt from Mbiti’s dissertation at the University of Cambridge, published in African Religions and Philosophy 

Those in the know say that Prof. Mbiti emphasized this statement to debunk what he saw as a myth propagated by European scholars like Herbert Spencer and David Hume that there is no philosophy or systematic thought to derive from the African continent. 

Mbiti, who died Oct. 7 at 87 years old, is being mourned as a giant in theological studies in Africa. Mbiti was fluent in the original Greek in which the New Testament was written and studied Bible translations in his native Kamba dialect to find some 1,000 gaps. He then translated a more precise version.

According to records, Mbiti was born on Nov. 30, 1931, in what is now Kitui County, Kenya. He went to local schools and later Makerere University in Uganda. He cleared his PhD from Cambridge in 1963 and later joined his alma mater as a lecturer.

While a lecturer at Makerere, Mbiti published the major works Concepts of God in Africa (1970), New Testament Eschatology in an African Background (1971) which was a revised edition of his PhD thesis at Cambridge, Introduction to African Religion and The Prayers of African Religion, both in 1975.

He left Makerere in 1974 after he was appointed Director of the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches in Bogis-Bossey, Switzerland. 

Mbiti liked to remind critics that:

“Theology is not the monopoly of the comfortable, the secure, the highly educated, the rich; it can also come from the songs and hymns of peasants as they till the ground; from the impromptu prayers of Christian parents as they nurse their sick child; from the unorganized sermons of the village catechist; from the charismatic leadership of an illiterate founder of an Independent Church; from the old man who is steeped in traditional religious life, who has been converted, together with his several wives and many children, to the Christian faith, and who is trying to make sense of it.”

Among those mourning him is Dr. John Azumah, a visiting professor at the Yale Divinity School as well as the Executive Director of the Sanneh Institute. Azumah said Mbiti’s death has created “yet another considerable vacuum that will be impossible to fill in the African Christian academy.” 

“Mbiti is arguably the father of modern African theology. His affirmation of the continuity between the gospel and pre-Christian African culture was as perceptive and challenging as those raised by Origen of Alexandria in engaging Greek Philosophy in the third century. Mbiti is no doubt, the Origen of modern African theology! He was also among the first to call attention to the shift of the statistical center of Christianity from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere, and to raise questions of its implications for theological reflection globally. Having obtained his theological education in the West, Mbiti acknowledged the limitations of Western systematic theology in engaging the spiritual universe of Africa and called upon Africans to ground their theological reflections in African traditions and philosophy. He called upon Western theologians… to allow Africans to hatch their own heresies and theological errors, for often it is only in response to heresies and errors that sound theological orthodoxy is generated.” - Dr. John Azumah

Father Lawrence Njoroge, chaplain at Jomo Kenyatta University, eulogized Mbiti thus: “John Mbiti is a child of two worlds. Born and bred in Kenya, he lived and worked in the diaspora most of his life. This immensely gifted man has successfully bridged that duality by living in communion with his family, friends and colleagues.”

In his message of condolence, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta described the late Mbiti as an accomplished Kenyan scholar and priest who was a great ambassador of the Kenyan nation abroad.

"We've lost a great Kenyan. A great man who went against all odds to become a successful scholar, writer and priest. He was a role model and an ambassador of the Kenyan brand abroad," Kenyatta said.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga tweeted: “His book was an eye-opener and groundbreaking work. Condolences to his family. May his soul Rest In Peace.” 

Along with Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh, Mbiti insisted that the study of Christian theology will increasingly need to operate from the places in the world where the majority of Christians are found. Mbiti said:

“Theologians from the new (or younger) churches [of the Global South] have made their pilgrimages to the theological learning centers of the older churches [of the Global North]. We had no alternative. We have eaten theology with you; we have drunk theology with you; we have dreamed theology with you… We know you theologically. The question is: Do you know us, theologically? Would you like to know us, theologically?”

Dr. Kyama Mugambi, Editorial Manager at the African Theological Network Press, said he grew up seeing Mbiti's books and hearing his name come up in conversations both at home and in school.

“My dad knew him well and cultivated a close friendship, especially in their later years. My personal encounters came much later, only in the last decade. What struck me most about our conversations was the warmth of his personality, which meshed well with his clear, insightful perspectives about African culture and spirituality. His teaching and scholarship came across to me as his service to the church on the continent, and around the world. I find that very inspiring for my own academic pursuits.” - Dr. Kyama Mugambi

The Executive Director of Center for Early African Christianity Michael Glerup summed up Mbiti by saying Mbiti “documented and articulated the historic shift from Christianity in Africa to a genuinely African Christianity. Always ready to engage new ideas, I found Prof. Mbiti to be very generous in his encouragement, in particular, to those efforts that appreciate the contribution of Africa to world Christianity.”

Tom Osanjo is a Nairobi-based journalist writing for Kenya’s Daily Nation, All Africa, Christianity Today, and other outlets.