Contextualizing salvation in Africa

In this article the theological approach to the teaching of salvation in Africa is similar to that of the teaching of the Trinity in Africa. After the identification of the mistakes and the attitudes of the missionaries from European and other Western cultures, an attempt is made in order to introduce an approach that is not influenced by Western culture, but by being African in approach and content. Brand (1999) points out that:

Although soteriology, or the doctrine of salvation, has always occupied a central place in Christian theology, the shape of soteriology has changed many times as Christianity’s centre of gravity shifted to a new cultural context.

Jesus told his disciples to be his witnesses from Jerusalem to all of Judea, to Samaria unto the end of the world. The gospel moved away from the Jewish context where it was influenced by Judaism. Then the nature and position of Jesus Christ needed clarification for the Gentile world, outside of the Jewish context. Similarly in Africa, the Western missionaries had to consider a new cultural context. Brand’s (1999:193) understanding is that the doctrine of salvation ‘entered into the ways in which it is being conceptualized in new contexts which are often vastly different from a more traditional Western approach.’ In addition, Maimela (1990:43) says that ‘the concept of salvation and how it should be understood is not as simple as we might suppose.’ He states this because throughout the history of the church, theologians in different situations have proposed a variety of understandings of what salvation means.

The concept of salvation

According to Brand (2002:58) ‘the definition of salvation is challenging, for the word is ambiguous.’ The reason, Brand claims, for this ambiguity is the use of words such as ‘happiness, well-being or beatitude’ to refer to certain states of being. Freligh (1994:11) emphasizes that ‘salvation represents all that was purchased at Calvary.’ He continues to say that it covers every phase of our needs and reaches from eternity to eternity. He explains that there are present and future aspects to salvation; it is not only about going to heaven, but also about life today in the now.

Salvation in Christianity seems to be expressed by means of several processes that take place from the moment a person becomes a Christian. This idea is represented by Horne (1991:ix) when he says ‘the salvation planned, executed, and applied by the Triune God is manifold in nature.’ He says it is comprehended in a series of biblical concepts: election, calling, regeneration, conversion, justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification. Brand (2002:58) states that ‘salvation can be the equivalent of reconciliation or sanctification or liberation;

When it comes to Christianity in the African context, according to Brand (2002:59) ‘the concept of salvation had to be stretched beyond the confines of conventional Christian usage in order to encompass elements from widely divergent religious frames of reference.’ He argues against the suggestion that it is a concept unique to Christianity. Salvation is often taken as a key to the very heart of all religions and views of life and as a fruitful basis for comparisons between them. Brand (2002:60) explains that ‘the word salvation does not have its origin in Christianity for Christianity found its roots in Judaism.’ Jesus was a Jew; he came to fulfill the Jewish Scriptures and he responded according to the Scriptures. The name Jesus is derived from the Jewish name Joshua. According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary (1993), Joshua is a Hebrew name which means ‘Jehovah is his help or Jehovah the Savior.’ In many passages in the Old Testament God is regarded as the savior:

The Lord is my rock, in Him will I trust; He is my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my high tower, and my refuge, my savior, to save me from violent men. (2 Sam 22:3, KJV)

Israel knew their God as a savior and a stronghold. In the days of trouble, the God of Israel regards himself as a savior, as in Isaiah 43:11: ‘I even I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior’ (cf. Is 45:21; 49:26, KJV). The understanding of Israel from the Old Testament is that God is the savior. The New Testament introduces Jesus as a savior, ‘for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord’ (Lk 2:11, KJV). The early church also testifies that God has exalted him to his right hand to be ‘a Prince and a Savior’, to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins (Ac 5:31).

Brand (2002:60) may be correct in suggesting that ‘the word salvation does not have its origin in Christianity.’ However, in Christianity the word salvation found the most perfect definition in Jesus and there is no better story that defines and explains the word like that of Jesus the Savior.

Salvation from below

Brand (2002:89) opposes the views of theologians who concentrate on the ‘sins of the sinner’. Instead, Brand proposes an approach that concentrates on the victim of sin. This view seems to be moving away from the Christian tradition which declares that all human beings are born sinners. Brand (2002:89) claims that God takes the side of the victims, who are the poor and the oppressed. He recognizes the role of Jesus in salvation, but instead of emphasizing the repentance from sins in general, Brand (2002:92) holds that ‘the repentance that is preached must be named: it is repentance for our share of the guilt for the suffering and oppression in South Africa.’ If the point of departure is those who are victims of sin, then how does one view the issue of sin in relation to suffering? For Jesus suffered and died for both the poor and the rich, both the oppressed and the oppressor.

African worldview to salvation

A lot has been said about the holistic approach from an African perspective. Maimela (1991) adds to that discussion that:

[An] African is made fully aware that the individual’s life and the pursuit of life are not attainable in isolation and apart from one’s fellows because life is communal and is possible only in a network of mutual interdependencies between an individual and his or her community; life in Africa and for an African is viewed as a pursuit of the maintenance of relationships. (p. 4)

As stated in many ways and forms, these relationships include extended family, clan or tribe, ancestors, God and nature.

An African is introduced to these relationships through a process that is called ‘rites of passage’ (Cox 1998:x). These rites and rituals are subdivided, as illustrated by Cox (1998:x), ‘according to the functions they perform for the faith community.’ Here are the subdivisions:

  • Life cycle rituals
  • Crisis rituals
  • Calenderer rituals.

As a person goes through the process of development, they pass through certain phases of life and relationships. The development begins from the moment of conception and continues after death. According to M’Passou (1998:16), ‘a ritual must be performed as soon as a woman is pregnant; the elders in some communities like the Swatis go to the kraal (Esibayeni).’ There at the kraal the elders communicate with the ancestors to ask them to safeguard the foetus. Then the event proceeds through the introduction of an inyanga [traditional healer] where the pregnant woman is given muti [African herbs] to give her strength to cope with the challenges of being pregnant. There are also ceremonies that are associated with the birth of the child and the naming of that child. M’Passon (1998:18) further mentions rituals like the burial of the umbilical cord. This is where the child undergoes ritual washing and cannot be touched by other people for a period after that. After a month another ritual is performed where the child is introduced to the larger community and relatives. Africans need to realize the impact of these relationships and accept being part of them. Maimela (1991) adds that:

Within these highly charged and dynamic communal interrelationships, for better or worse, an African cannot avoid experiencing and being influenced by the activities of the individual existence of his or her fellows who shape, mould and channels his or her life’s fortunes in certain directions as much as he or she in turn also shapes and influences their lives through the manipulation of certain supernatural forces or spirits. (p. 5)

An African continues living life as part of a community, not in isolation as an individual. Life is lived in connection with those that are alive in the here and now, but also with an awareness of those who have died, yet who are also present in the here and now. Maimela (1991) points out that:

When an African suffers disappointment or frustration, success or failure, when a beloved one falls ill or loses children in succession, he or she is apt to look for the cause, in a context outside that of physical cause and effect. (p. 5)

The reality of life for an African is that there is never a separation of physical from spiritual. To the traditional African there is no coincidence or accident. Nothing happens by chance. This is the reason Maimela (1991) mentions that the traditional African lives his or her life through the manipulation of certain supernatural forces or spirits. The forces and spirits are also manipulated by the witches and sorcerers with evil intent or by medicine men and women to arrest and cure illness.

When an African lives life outside his or her community and becomes an individual, he or she becomes exposed to forces and spirits that can bring misfortune upon his or her life, as Maimela (1991:6) points out: ‘The traditional African is a victim of anxieties that are born out of the foal of evil spirits and malicious persons, especially witches and sorceress.’ He continues to say that against the background of appalling terror and deep revulsion against witchcraft, the traditional African is likely to call every premeditated act of enmity, hatred, evil speaking or any other act directed towards the destruction of the life of others witchcraft and therefore evil, sinful in the highest degree in God’s sight. Maimela (1991:6) argues that ‘evil spirits and witchcraft are the greatest injustice and sin against a community.’ Brand (2002:73) adds the category of wrongdoing and affliction as a form of small evil.

Brand (2002:104) suggests that ‘salvation is to be understood as wholeness.’ He further argues that:

Evil is constituted by whatever detracts from such wholeness of black people, or the powerlessness of black people in a social order designed to deprive them of the full humanity that God intends for them.

Imperialism and apartheid were perceived as systems that were designed to deprive Africans of the full humanity that God intended for them. Salvation needs to meet the concerns of the African people, as Munyika (2004) explains:

the primary concern of ATR is to realize an ideal life, for in ATR healing and cleansing was meant to restore all kinds of broken relationships whether between the individual and the community or with the world of the spirits of which God is supreme. (p. 246)

One needs to realise that Munyika’s (2004) definition is based on ATR whilst Brand’s (2002) definition is derived from Liberation Theology or Black Theology. Brand stresses the evil of systems that were meant to oppress and to deny blacks their full humanity, whilst Munyika (2004) puts emphasis on relationships. Maimela (1991:10) may be regarded as consolidating the two views in saying that salvation is understood in terms of relief or help in a time of trouble in this life. He further explains that ‘salvation is expressed in acts such as healing, driving away evil spirits, empowerment of the individual self, the promotion of fertility and success in life’s ventures.’

There are some concerns about the definition of salvation within the Christian faith outside of ATR. According to Maimela (1991:10) ‘the salvation offered through ATR is one which speaks to the heart of the African in a way that nothing else does.’ He explains further that any:

religious understanding of salvation which is preoccupied with the spiritual, as the Christian faith often does, will remain inadequate to meet the needs of the African world, especially if that salvation does not hold promise also for happiness and prosperity, here and now. (p. 10)

Brand (2002) suggests that:

by widening the meaning of salvation to include more than atonement wrought by Christ on the cross, African theologians wish to open the way towards a recognition that ATR was already to some extent salvific, even before the advent of Christianity in the continent. (p. 105)

Brand’s (2002:106) point of departure is the claim that the word salvation did not originate from Christianity, and therefore he concludes that ‘Christianity came to fulfil rather than to replace the religio-cultural heritage.’

Munyika (2004:247) comes from a position that says ‘religions without Christ cannot know the grace of God as shown in Christ, though they may have knowledge about His governance.’ He further explains that outside Christ there is indeed a self-manifestation of God, and therefore knowledge of God, but it does not lead to salvation, to a union between God and humankind.

According to the creeds, Jesus came down for the sake of salvation and was incarnated specifically for that reason. It implies that the church fathers believed that who Jesus was, could not be compared to any person on earth. He came to fulfil a purpose that no other human being was qualified to accomplish. The church fathers understood human beings to be sinners by birth, and no human can save another, because all are sinners, and the punishment of sin is death. The incarnation was God’s means to make Jesus the only human being who could attain salvation for all of humanity. They believed that Jesus was with God the Father from eternity and that he came down for our salvation. There was no need for Jesus to be born, for he was already there from eternity. He was made human for the sake of salvation.

Jesus took pain and suffering as a means to salvation. He took the form of a servant and became obedient until his death on the cross. The church fathers’ understanding was that Jesus suffered for all of humanity. They lived their lives in between the times of what already had happened and something that is anticipated to happen. African ancestors’ graves are still closed and their bones are still in their graves. The grave of Jesus is empty because after three days he rose and ascended into heaven. Christian worship is to thank God for what he has done through Jesus Christ and also to anticipate what God has prepared for the church in the future, for Jesus shall come again.

The African approach is not to build a pie in the sky. According to theology from below, sin is about the hardship of the African people through systems of oppression. African theologians advance a concept of salvation that must respond to the context of the African people. The challenge is about the agent or agents of that form of salvation. The question is directly linked to the relationship between Jesus and African ancestors. To accommodate the ancestors whilst being aware of the cross can be problematic. However, Jesus’ suffering on the cross is appropriated by some Africans not as an agent to forgive or to remove sins, but as a symbol of liberation from systems of oppression. The incarnation and the suffering of the Son of God were about the love of God and that love produced salvation. When God in Jesus became human, he was starting at the root of the problem, not the fruits thereof. Human suffering in whatever form is as a result of sin. By becoming human, Jesus was penetrating every level of human life from conception to death. The church fathers perceived pain and suffering as a result of sin, due to mankind’s disobedience to God. Theology from below, on the other hand, views systems of oppression and all forms of corruption which undermine human life as a result of sin.

The ancestors may be part of the ‘life cycle rituals’, ‘crisis rituals’ and ‘calendric rituals’, but they cannot be brought into the oneness of God. They may play a vital part in creating a harmonious life for Africans, but they cannot share the same substance with God. Therefore, salvation is only through the Lord Jesus Christ who became human, suffered for salvation and who is coming back to be the judge of the living and the dead.


African Traditional Religion has a space to exist within the Christian faith, its only the approach to worship that differs. ATR as a religion existed before Christianity, before the arrival of the missionaries and it can not be ignored at all. Both can continue to exist together today.