African Traditional Religion and the Trinity

To what extent do the resources of African Traditional Religion (ATR) contribute towards Christian theological discourse and benefit the African church? ATR is accommodated in the African Initiated Churches (AICs). The members of these churches aim to be Christian without losing their African identity.

ATR is a religion that was practiced throughout Africa before the arrival of the Western missionaries. The core premise of ATR is the maintenance of African culture and its main feature is loyalty to the ancestors and the accompanying rituals that express this loyalty. Here we address the appropriateness of ATR’s resources in terms of their contribution to the doctrine of the Trinity. When the early church worshipped God the Father and God the Son (Jesus) in the presence of the Holy Spirit, a tension developed. The questions of monotheism versus polytheism and the nature and position of Jesus within the Trinity were put forward and addressed.

The doctrine of the Trinity is uniquely Christian and includes the belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God who alone mediates between God and men. There is, on the other hand, an understanding that Africans worship one Supreme Being and venerate ancestors as intermediaries to the one Supreme Being, without clear roles being ascribed to Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

It is an accepted position that the African Initiated Churches (AICs) were formed as a result of the search for a unique African identity and culture. This is the popular assumption amongst many African theologians of which Maluleke (1994) is one example. African identity and culture are preserved in African Traditional Religion. The notion of Ubuntu or communion in ATR is based on the conviction that African life is lived within a community. Here, we reveal how Africans within ATR relate amongst themselves and with their ancestors. African Christians continue their veneration and worship of ancestors whilst upholding a Christian identity.

For Erickson the doctrine of the Trinity is what defines the Christian faith: ‘Among the religions of the world, the Christian faith is unique in making the claim that God is one and yet there are three who are God’ (Erickson 2006:347). Christian theologians accept that this doctrine is at the heart of the Christian faith. Throughout its history, the church has confessed and proclaimed that it worships one God, yet in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

An African approach

There was a common perception in missionary circles that Africa had no prior religion, and hence, was a ‘dark’ continent. This view and the actions flowing from it were regarded by Africans as using ‘the gospel to declare the superiority of Western value systems and using this claim to justify European conquest and exploitation of Africa’ (Goba 1998:19). Missionaries were not only perceived as turning Africans away from their culture, but were also understood to be undermining African culture by being arrogant, in the sense that they compared African culture to their so-called superior culture. Consequently, missionaries were regarded as part, or agents, of the colonizing of Africa.

Maimela (1991) claims that the indigenous counter-movement was all about the resistance against domination; He declares that:  ‘’it is this kind of resistance to Western culture and religious imperialism that led to the breakaway of the African Independent Churches from the white denominations in the 19th century.

Moila (1991:37) believes that ‘Western Christianity had failed to meet the African aspirations.’ He continues to say that it created a serious vacuum in their lives. Moila (1991:37) claims that Western Christianity ‘had taken from Africans a religion which was functional and useful in their lives.’


African traditional religion

The faith in ancestors continued to be practiced by many African Christians. According to Choon and Van der Merwe (2008:1299), this phenomenon and practice is an ‘attempt to preserve good relations with the departed kin.’ The practice and the involvement in ancestral rituals should be seen as religiously motivated. Choon and Van der Merwe (2001:1300) state that ‘ancestral rituals are intrinsically a form of worship.’ However, Seoka (1997:5) argues that the rituals and the practices within ATR should not be regarded as the worship of ancestors. Seoka (1997:5) claims that the motive for such an interpretation is to ‘exploit and deliberately misconstrue, so as to promote Western religious practice.’ Mtetwa (1996:23) goes further and states that ‘the use of Western theological and anthropological categories in articulating African rituals and philosophies has to discontinue, precisely for their capacity to distort and confuse.’ In the Roman Catholic Church there is the practice known as the veneration of the saints. Mtetwa (1996:23) does not feel comfortable with the use of the term ‘ancestral veneration’ because it is a foreign term that has neo-colonial connotations.

Both Mtetwa (1996) and Seako (1997) prefer the use of African terms like ukuhlabela amadlozi or gopaasa badimo.These terms are used by Mtetwa to explain the ritual of slaughtering an animal. According to Seoka (1997:5), in African religious practice ancestors are serviced, but not worshipped – thus Africans talk of umsebenzi kababa or umama, meaning that the entire event is called umsebenzi [a service] of remembering or thanking the ancestors but with an approach that is similar to worship. The term service is also used for going to church -being called church service. In pouring down the beer or water on the ground, Africans communicate with their ancestors, asking for blessings and good fortune.

Mbiti (1969:178) also discusses the use of the term worship. He notes that the word itself does not exist in many African languages. Zulu (2002:476) argues that to worship a human being in the real sense of the word is foreign to Africans. He adds that the word ancestor denotes a human being, and Africans worship God alone. Mbiti (1969:178) disputes the use of the term worship, yet he accepts that in the worship of God, in some cases, sacrifices and offerings are directed to one or more of the following: God, spirits and the living dead (ancestors). It is not only offering and sacrifices that are directed to spirits and the living dead, but prayers and invocations are also made.

Turaki (1999:162) comments that, due to the distance between the Supreme Being and Africans, those who follow ATR turn to connect with God through the ‘lesser’ beings, that is, African divinities and the ancestors.

To use African terms like badimo, izinyanya, swikwembu or abaphansi, is to use terms that are stronger than the term ancestors. Anyone who speaks South African languages knows that the word badimo refers to the ancestors. The same can be said about Shangaan because in this language God is Xikwembu (singular) and the ancestors are swikwembu (plural), meaning ‘the gods’. These terms are related and are used by Turaki (1999:80), reflected in the title of his book Christianity and African gods, referring to ancestral spirits. The ancestral spirits are part of the African divinities.

Kiernan (1995:22) explains that the living communicate with the dead by regular sacrifice and invocation. Kiernan (1995:23) claims that ‘the type of an animal to be slaughtered varies according to economic circumstances which will be accompanied by a beer or grain offering.’ These rituals ‘revive relationships within the community and between the living and the ancestors’ (Mndende 2006:161). It is also a way to revive the relationship between the physical world and the spiritual world.

Chidester in his work Religions of South Africa (1992) is one of the few who has written in detail about the process of ancestral ritual. Dealing with the event in whatever way or form there had to be a diviner who in other African languages may be referred to as a sangoma or a ‘traditional healer’. Chidester (1992:9) explains that ‘the person is a specialist expert in communicating with the ancestors and who may also be able to pass on a message to family members.’ When an animal is killed, the sacrifice has to be chosen by the ancestor or one that may be acceptable to them. The animal has to be killed by the eldest man in the lineage. There are specific parts of the animal that symbolise something. Chidester (1992:9) explains that ‘the bellowing of the sacrificial animal is crucial to the ritual because that cry opens up communication with the ancestors.’

The families in most cases have a hut, a room or an altar where they communicate with the ancestors. If it is a house, Chidester (1992) says that:

It is in that room or hut where a piece of fat from the slaughtered animal is placed by the ritual elder on the fire, to be wholly consumed for the ancestors.

Chidester (1992) wrote his work from research carried out in the Eastern Cape, but the order may differ from one family to another and may differ from a Xhosa-speaking family to a Tsonga-speaking one. The differences may be based on emphasis or points of departure, such as the act of killing the animal and its accompanying rituals. The Zulus, for example, put the skin of the slaughtered animal on their wrist for protection and good luck. The meat is shared amongst the family members in a festive communal meal, and sometimes the food is served with African beer.

Chidester (1992) adds that the ritual concludes with the burning of the bones of the animal. In some African families or nations there is the cutting of hair to symbolise a new beginning. In Shangaan families the ritual is accompanied by a celebration of dance and the sound of drums to welcome the spirits of the ancestors. During the dancing and the noise of drums someone becomes possessed with ancestral spirits and begins to act in such a way that the audience is alerted that a certain spiritual presence of an ancestor is about to communicate with the gathering. Those who work with that particular person or family member put some garments on that person that are symbolic for the occasion and the possessed person then dances and sings. The song that the person sings to the audience reveals who the ancestor is that has possessed the particular member. After dancing to that song the possessed person speaks and the audience is aware that they are communicating with someone from the dead.

The question of worship is also discussed by Chidester (1992). To him:

The answer to this question has turned to large extent on what might be understood by ‘worship’, but some commentators argue that ancestors were not worshipped but were treated with the same kind of attention that was owed to living elders.

But no one can deny the fact that sacrificial offering to the ancestors exists, which is a ritual that has been practiced from the earliest history of the human race. In Acts 14 at Lystra Paul prayed for a sick person who was healed, and the people brought some oxen to offer sacrifices for Paul and Barnabas, because the people regarded them as gods – the gods Jupiter and Mercurius. It is also known that in ancient times some of the kings were elevated to the position of a god, as reported by Moila (1987:23). In Egypt Moses was regarded as one of the gods by the Egyptian priests because of the miracles that he performed. In a ritual of sacrificial offering there are some activities or symbols which are interpreted according to each nation, clan or family. This is also hinted at by Chidester (1992) when he says that:

In the history of religions, sacrifice has been interpreted in a number of different ways, depending upon which aspect of the ritual has been emphasised like in the passages of life, just after the birth of a child or giving a child a name, or for circumcisions.

Whatever the event by the family whether it is called ukuhlabela amadlozi [sacrificing for the ancestors] or gopaasa badimo (same meaning), the activities are loaded as activities that signify worship. The fact is, Africans had various means to warship God through their cultural practices.

According to Mbiti (1969:1), ‘Africans are notoriously religious so much so that religion permeates permanently into all departments of life so fully that it is not easy or possible always to isolate it.’ Mndende (2006:161) is in agreement with Mbiti (1969) when he acknowledges that:

Religion is part of the fiber of society; it is deeply ingrained in social life, and it is impossible to isolate and study it as a distinct phenomenon; therefore when members of a family clan gather together in a sacrificial ritual for the ancestors that is a religious activity in honor to an ancestor or ancestors.

It may be regarded as a service to the ancestor or remembering them but all the activities within that event make it a religious event. The slaughtering of an animal, the pouring down of beer or water and the dancing, all are done with the focus on the ancestors.

Another point to be considered is the position of the ancestors between human beings and God. First, Moila (1989:23) gives us some names that are used by Africans in reference to God.

In addition to the known names like Modimo, Xikwembu, uNkulunkulu, Moila includes others, such as Kgobeans, Lebepe and Khutsoane. These names are largely used by the people who speak Northern Sotho, especially those who are from Sekhukhune. Moila further explains that Kgobeane comes from Kgobe meaning son of Kgobe. He says that it is not clear what Lebepe and Khotsoane mean. God is also known as Mmopa-Batho [the Creator of humankind] and Motlhodi [Creator or Initiator]. According to Moila these names that mean ‘Creator’ are an influence from Christianity. Moila and most African theologians and scholars are in agreement that the ancestors have a position of power higher than human beings which is closer to that of God. Donders (1986:11) says that the African ideas of God as the Creator are not the same as the Christian ideas about God as the Creator. Some Africans believe that human beings came out of a hole in the ground; maybe this is the reason why sometimes the ancestors are being referred as ‘the ones from below’ or ‘the ones from the ground’. When praying to the ancestors Africans pour water, beer or blood on the ground and claim it is for the ones from the ground.

From the discussion above it is arguably true that Africans believe that they originate from sources other than God. This may have some implications for the relationship between God and the African people. Turaki (1999:86) is aware of the fact that even though Africans generally have an awareness of and belief in the Supreme Being, the truth is, this Supreme Being is not known to have been exclusively worshipped by traditional Africans. Africans are aware of the existence of the Supreme Being, but being aware does not mean Africans have a relationship with God the Supreme Being. A person may be aware of other political parties but this does not mean that he or she votes for those parties. Africans are aware of the Supreme Being, yet he is too remote or transcendent. According to Turaki (1999:162), the reason why God is remote ‘is that human beings ha[ve] done something which offended God.’ There are some scholars like Turaki (1999:162) who argue that Africa never had altars or temples built for this Supreme Being. Some argue that, since Africa has names for God, worship directed to the Supreme Being exists. But the means to approach the Supreme Being is through what Turaki and others call intermediate directions. Mbiti (1969) asserts that:

It is a widespread feeling among many African people that man should not or cannot approach God alone or directly, but that he must do so through the mediation of a special person or other beings.

Mbiti (1969:68) explains further that ‘the living dead occupy the ontological position between the spirits and human beings and between God and human beings.’

Although Africans are notoriously religious in all that they do in life, being religious does not reveal much about God, but more about Africans and their rituals. It seems Africans do not question the reality of God, because it is a given. The question is never asked, therefore the answer is not provided.

Without the question of the reality of God, a vacuum is created. Discussions of who God is and how to relate to him are lacking. In African languages there are names for God or the Supreme Being, but there are no historical events that inform the names Africans have for God. There seems to be no revelation of God in history. But maybe Africans are not looking in the right direction. Africans perceive a distance between them and God or the Supreme Being. The ancestors are closer to the African people, whilst the ancestors are regarded to be closer to God. It is not clear what the implications and functions of the closeness of the ancestors to God are. When Africans offer sacrifices and prayer to the ancestors, which suggests that the ancestors have the ability to hear prayers, but it is not clear what the prayers mean to the ancestors. This implication is revealed in Khathide (2003) who observes:

Deeply committed Christians faithfully attending church services on Sunday, praying to God who revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, but in time of need or existential crisis, they turn to the local Shaman (Inyanga) for healing, to a diviner for guidance and to an exorcist, traditional or spiritual that is, for deliverance from spirit oppression.

Once more the words of Khathide (2003) suggest the closeness of Africans to their ancestors rather than to God or the Supreme Being.

So far the evidence suggests that Africans have a closer relationship with the ancestors than with God or the Supreme Being. The involvement of ancestors in African life does not imply that God has a lesser role in influencing African life. Africans perceive that ATR is a preparation for the Gospel. This is the historical background of Africans who moved out of the missionary churches to churches that accommodate their African culture. It is as if they were going back to what they were before encountering Western missionaries, but they were going back as Christians. Yet it is not clear whether Africans justify ATR using the categories and resources from Christianity, or the other way round: whether they interpret Christianity using the ATR resources and categories of thinking. This raises the question of the relationship between Jesus as the Mediator and Africa.


Jesus in Africa

Maluleke (1994) asserts that:

Jesus in Africa needs to be understood to refer to how black and white Christians in the light of past discrimination, racism and artificial separation, can come together as participants in a largely homogeneous culture perceive and proclaim Christ.

On the Christological debate Maluleke (1994:57) says ‘in Africa, Christ is the healer, liberator, ancestor, mediator, elder brother, the crucified one, head and master of initiation and the black messiah.’ At the end of his article one senses that Maluleke has not gone far enough in saying something about the identity and the role of Christ in the African worship of God. Perhaps he should have explained further how Jesus is ‘the healer, liberator, ancestor, mediator, elder brother and the crucified one.’ In 1997 Maluleke published an article titled ‘Will Jesus ever be the same again? What are the Africans doing to Him?’ It seems that in Africa Jesus must be taught how to be an African. This begs the question whether there is still room for him to transform African life. Maluleke (1997) points out:

When the question of the relation between Jesus and Africans is raised, it is often in terms of what Jesus has done for Africa and Africans – or at most what He has done with them.

In response he puts forward a view of how Africans have appropriated him. But does Jesus need any appropriation or is it human teaching that needs to be appropriated by their relationship with him? Maluleke (1997:14) indicates that ‘Africans have done a lot to Jesus, perhaps as much as He is supposed to have done to them.’ But it seems here the discussion is about what Africans have done to Jesus. There is a need for African theologies to focus on what he has done for Africans! African theology has focused persistently on the evils of Europeans and their culture against the culture of Africa. This has been done consciously or unconsciously at the expense of God’s revelation and relationship with Africans through Jesus Christ.

Maluleke (1997:14) makes the assurance that there is only one Jesus who cannot be duplicated. In other words, the Jesus who is being presented by Africans is the same as the one Paul of Tarsus preached when he said ‘I preach Christ and Him crucified.’ But can an African theologian say ‘when a person is in Christ he is a new creature. The old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new’ (2 Cor 5:17, KJV1)? In African theology it seems that when Christ is in Africa, he becomes one of the ancestors. If Christ becomes one of the ancestors, what is the position of God the Father? If Jesus becomes an ancestor to the people, does the Father become an ancestor to the Son? If that is the case, then there is a question about the position of the Holy Spirit. Somewhere the boundaries of the Christian faith are tested.

Jesus as an ancestor

Mbiti (1971:132) cites expressions that are often used by African people when they speak of dying, namely: ‘going to one’s Fathers’, ‘going home’, ‘be taken away or be received’, ‘departed’. ‘Going away’ in an African worldview implies going to the spiritual world, because the spiritual world is as real as the physical one. Amongst other things, Mbiti (1971:132) claims that ‘there are mountains, rivers and trees; those who have died as babies continue to grow; God is the Originator and Sustainer of all things’, and this includes the living dead and the spirits. At the point of death a person becomes part of the ‘living dead’ and joins other members of his or her household who have preceded him or her in the spirit world. This person would from time to time visit the family. Mbiti (1971:132) states that some may see the person and some may not. Those who are lucky enough to see the person are the elderly. However, the revelation of God is not based on luck but on grace and is for all generations and age groups. Luck suggests that only a few can ‘see’, depending on how lucky they may be, but the grace of God is for all.

There is no fear whatsoever concerning the presence of the person. The person does not inform the family about the world of the spirits. After three to five generations, when no one in the family is there to recognize him or her, the living-dead person changes and becomes a spirit.

According to Mbiti (1971):

The understanding of African Christianity is that since Jesus died and was seen by some walking the streets of Jerusalem, he is regarded as living dead. When Jesus died on the cross He went to meet others.

Those who accept Jesus and partake in the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist are to be joined with the spiritual world. Water baptism is symbolized as death – ‘the sacramental death when baptizing a person is regarded as the doorway into the New Testament world of the spirit’ (Mbiti 1971:153). Mbiti further explains that the saints commune with God and the whole of heaven. The Christian practice of sharing the Eucharist, eating the body of Christ and drinking his blood, is regarded to be the same as Africans sharing their meal with the living dead (ancestors). In Christianity the two worlds of the living and the living dead overlap in Jesus Christ, and the goal is to transform and emulate the numerous African traditions that are associated with Jesus.

Beyers and Mphahlele (2009:38) began their work by relating to what an ancestor is, whilst Afeke and Venter (2004:47) explain what African views concerning ancestor veneration are. But the concern here is about Jesus as an ancestor. In the work of Afeke and Venter (2004:47) he is seen as ‘the supreme ancestor’. Some even go further and say ‘Jesus is the greatest of all ancestors’ (Afeke & Venter 2004:47). Since a person according to the beliefs of ATR becomes an ancestor after death, and Jesus continued to speak and eat after his death, this qualifies him to be an ancestor. Christ, by virtue of his incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension into spirit-power, is seen as the Supreme Ancestor by some African theologians (Afeke & Venter 2004:47). The suggestion is that ‘African Christians be encouraged to communicate with their ancestors within the context of the Eucharist.’ During the Eucharist ‘Christians can pray to the greatest of all ancestors’ (Afeke & Venter 2004:52). It is believed that human beings have Jesus as their ancestor and, similarly, Jesus has God. Christ and those who died are united as one family.

Mogoba and Mekoa presented a paper at the Theological Society of South Africa in June 2007, titled: ‘Saints, martyrs and ancestors: An African reflection on the communion of the living and the dead.’ Their suggestion is that African Traditional Religion has enriched Christianity rather than threatened it. In ATR God is understood to be an intangible, invisible phenomenon able to penetrate and defuse things. God is extremely great and far removed from humankind and therefore ancestors act as mediators between them and God.

The African response to the creeds

The creeds are officially a product of the church and are therefore part of Christian tradition. The African Christian community of faith needs to take ownership of the creeds, especially the Nicene Creed. Historically the debate on the nature of Jesus Christ, his position and relationship with the Father, began here in Africa. When the debate started to emerge around 311 CE, Arius, Bishop Alexander and Athanasius were in Egypt. Even when the Nicaean debate continued beyond 325 CE, Athanasius spoke from Egypt in Africa. In addition, it has been stated that the term Trinity came from one of the sons of Africa, Tertullian. The question is what resources and categories of thinking can African theologians use? ‘We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible’ (Wilhelm 1911).

African theologians and scholars like Moila (1989), Kombo (2009) and many others use African terms for God like Xikwembu, unKulunkulu and Uthixo. It is assumed that these refer to the God of Christianity. Although Mbiti (1969) and others have testified that Africans believe in that God, the debate is on how Africans relate to him and how close he is to Africans and how they perceive his involvement in their lives. Some like Ogbonnaya (1994) have a problem with the term Supreme Being because to them it is not African. In response it must be stressed that Christians relate to God the Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.