The Role And Significance Of The Translation Of The Bible

Into African Languages In The Consolidation Of The Church And Its Expansion Into Unreached Areas

Introduction: a new configuration of the Christian world

I be­lieve that there is a sense in which your pre­sent Africa Area Fo­rum and the con­cerns that bring you to­gether are par­tic­u­larly prov­i­den­tial. For this rea­son, it is im­por­tant to be­gin with a recog­ni­tion of the his­tor­i­cal con­text of our pre­sent dis­cus­sion, namely, the fact, now gen­er­ally ac­cepted, that in the course of the last cen­tury there oc­curred a shift in the cen­tre of grav­ity of Chris­tian­ity from the North to the south­ern con­ti­nents, from the West­ern to the non-West­ern world. The maps of the world’s re­li­gions have had to be re-drawn in the course of the last 20 or so years, and some of them, in only the last ten years.

For those who are fa­mil­iar with The World Chris­t­ian En­cy­clopae­dia, edited by David Bar­rett, (Nairobi: CUP, 1982), the no­tion of a mo­dem shift in the cen­tre of grav­ity of Chris­tian­ity pre­sents no great dif­fi­culty. The idea that in our time, the heart­lands of the Chris­t­ian faith are found no longer in the West­ern world, but in the non-West­ern world; not in the north­ern con­ti­nents, but in the south­ern con­ti­nents of Latin Amer­ica, Asia and par­tic­u­larly, Africa, has now be­come com­mon cur­rency in vir­tu­ally all dis­cus­sions of the Chris­t­ian pres­ence in the world. In 1900, 80% of the world’s Chris­tians lived in Eu­rope and North Amer­ica. To­day, just over a cen­tury on, more than 60% of the world’s Chris­tians are said to live in Latin Amer­ica, Asia and Africa. In other words, we are liv­ing through a new con­fig­u­ra­tion of the Chris­t­ian world.

Be­fore the pub­li­ca­tion of the En­cy­clopae­dia, Bar­rett had pre­dicted, in an ar­ti­cle en­ti­tled, “AD 2000: 350 mil­lion Chris­tians in Africa”, in the In­ter­na­tional Re­view of Mis­sion, Jan­u­ary 1970, that by the end of the 20th cen­tury, Africa might well “tip the bal­ance and trans­form Chris­tian­ity per­ma­nently, into a pri­mar­ily non-West­ern re­li­gion” (Bar­rett 1970: 50) Not only in de­mo­graphic terms, but in other re­spects too, Chris­tian­ity has be­come a non-West­ern re­li­gion. This does not mean that West­ern Chris­tian­ity has be­come ir­rel­e­vant; rather, that Chris­tian­ity may now be seen for what it truly is, a uni­ver­sal re­li­gion, and that what has taken place in Africa has been a sig­nif­i­cant part of this process.

At about the same pe­riod as Bar­rett’s re­searches and pre­dic­tion, An­drew Walls, found­ing Di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for the Study of Chris­tian­ity in the non-West­ern World, Uni­ver­sity of Ed­in­burgh, then in Ab­erdeen, wrote: “The­ol­ogy that mat­ters will be the­ol­ogy where the Chris­tians are.” The point he was mak­ing was that there has never arisen a sig­nif­i­cant the­ol­ogy that does not emerge from, or re­late to, a sig­nif­i­cant body of Chris­t­ian be­liev­ers. There­fore, as “it looks as if the bulk of Chris­tians are go­ing to be in Africa, and Latin Amer­ica and in cer­tain parts of Asia” — with Africa hav­ing a par­tic­u­lar sig­nif­i­cance in this south­ward shift of the cen­tre of grav­ity of Chris­tian­ity”, he went on to state:

It fol­lows from this that what hap­pens within the African churches in the next gen­er­a­tion will de­ter­mine the whole shape of Church his­tory for cen­turies to come. Whether and, in what way, world evan­ge­liza­tion is car­ried on may well be de­ter­mined by what goes on in Africa; what sort of the­ol­ogy is most char­ac­ter­is­tic of the Chris­tian­ity of the twenty-first cen­tury may well de­pend on what has hap­pened in the minds of African Chris­tians in the interim.’

For Walls, this global trans­for­ma­tion of the Chris­t­ian world in our time has far-reach­ing sig­nif­i­cance, which he has ex­pressed more re­cently in the fol­low­ing terms:

This means that we have to re­gard African Chris­tian­ity as po­ten­tially the rep­re­sen­ta­tive Chris­tian­ity of the twenty-first cen­tury. The rep­re­sen­ta­tive Chris­tian­ity of the sec­ond and third and fourth cen­turies was shaped by events and processes at work in the Mediter­ranean world. In later times it was events and processes among the bar­bar­ian peo­ples of North­ern and West­ern Eu­rope, or in Rus­sia, or mod­ern West­ern Eu­rope, or the North At­lantic world that pro­duced the rep­re­sen­ta­tive Chris­tian­ity of those times. The Chris­tian­ity typ­i­cal of the twenty-first cen­tury will be shaped by the events and processes that take place in the South­ern con­ti­nents, and above all by those that take place in Africa.’

Kevin Ward, (of Leeds Uni­ver­sity, UK), in the newly-pub­lished World His­tory of Chris­tian­ity (ed. Adrian Hast­ings), con­cludes, “…​that, at some point in the twenty-first cen­tury, Chris­tians in Africa will be­come more nu­mer­ous than Chris­tians in any other con­ti­nent and more im­por­tant than ever be­fore in ar­tic­u­lat­ing a global Chris­t­ian iden­tity in a plu­ral­ist world.”

The significance of African Christianity – some assessments

It is per­haps too much to ex­pect that this global sig­nif­i­cance of mod­ern African Chris­tian­ity should read­ily find gen­eral and un­qual­i­fied ac­cep­tance. In­deed, one in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised re­searcher into African Chris­tian­ity, Paul Gif­ford, of the School of Ori­en­tal and African Stud­ies of the Uni­ver­sity of Lon­don, is rather puz­zled at this prospect of Chris­tian­ity be­com­ing a dom­i­nant re­li­gion in Africa, and of Africans con­tribut­ing a vis­i­bly high pro­por­tion of the world’s Chris­tians. In his re­cent book, African Chris­tian­ity – its pub­lic role (1998), Gif­ford sees in this sig­nif­i­cance of Chris­tian­ity in African life, a sign of Africa’s de­pen­dence. In his view, Africa com­pounds its own po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic mar­gin­al­i­sa­tion by suc­cumb­ing to West­ern hege­mony as one of its best re­main­ing ways of opt­ing into the global or­der. Ac­cord­ing to Gif­ford, ‘what­ever else it is, Chris­tian­ity is a cul­tural prod­uct, honed in the West over centuries.’

Newsweek of April 16, 2001 also car­ried a ma­jor ar­ti­cle on Chris­tian­ity un­der the ti­tle: ‘The Chang­ing face of the Church – How the ex­plo­sion of Chris­tian­ity in de­vel­op­ing na­tions is trans­form­ing the world’s largest re­li­gions’, writ­ten by Ken­neth Wood­ward, the Re­li­gion Ed­i­tor. It is ev­i­dent from that ar­ti­cle that the fact of the shift in Chris­tian­ity’s cen­tre of grav­ity is a phe­nom­e­non that can­not now be ig­nored; and Wood­ward even records the sug­ges­tion in some Ro­man Catholic cir­cles that the next pope might con­ceiv­ably be an African. And yet, on read­ing the ar­ti­cle, one gets the dis­tinct im­pres­sion that Wood­ward too is some­what puz­zled about the fact of Chris­tian­ity’s south­ward shift. This is how Wood­ward con­cludes his article:

Al­though Chris­tian­ity’s fu­ture may lie out­side the West, West­ern in­flu­ence is still de­ci­sive wher­ever the Gospel is preached. In re­li­gion, as in other in­ter­na­tional af­fairs, glob­al­i­sa­tion means that su­per­pow­ers re­main dom­i­nant. For the world’s poor, Chris­tian­ity of­ten ap­peals just be­cause it is seen as the re­li­gion of the most suc­cess­ful su­per­power, the United States. Nonethe­less, as the world’s most mis­sion­ary re­li­gion, Chris­tian­ity has a his­tory of re­new­ing it­self, even in the most cul­tur­ally in­hos­pitable places. That is the hope that hides be­hind the chang­ing face of the church. (p.52)

It is not dif­fi­cult to dis­cern that be­hind the views ex­em­pli­fied by Paul Gif­ford and Ken­neth Wood­ward, there lies, as An­drew Walls has noted, the con­tin­u­ing ‘hid­den as­sump­tion that, “Chris­tian­ity is es­sen­tially a re­li­gion of the West, with the re­sul­tant opin­ion that the fact that such a high pro­por­tion of the world’s Chris­tians now are Africans, is ‘al­most a nuisance’.”

African Christianity as Vernacular Religion – the legacy of the modern missionary movement

Be that as it may, it does not re­quire ex­ten­sive re­search to demon­strate that the Church in Africa to­day is con­tin­u­ous with the mod­ern mis­sion­ary move­ment from the West, since the late 18th cen­tury on­wards. Hence, there is a great deal which is ev­i­dent in African Chris­tian­ity that is ex­plain­able in terms of the cul­tural im­pact of the West upon Africa. And yet, there is equally a lot which goes on which is not di­rectly trace­able to the west­ern im­pact. For the pur­poses of this pre­sen­ta­tion, I shall draw at­ten­tion to one fac­tor that I con­sider of im­mense im­por­tance. It is the fact that the his­tory of the mod­ern ex­pan­sion of Chris­tian­ity in the last two cen­turies can be writ­ten as the his­tory of Bible trans­la­tion in a way that the mis­sion­ary his­tory of the West it­self can­not be. One only needs to re­call the im­por­tant col­lec­tion of es­says edited by Philip Stine, Bible Trans­la­tion and the Spread of the Church – The last 200 years (1990).

Every stu­dent of Eu­ro­pean Church His­tory knows the pro­longed dom­i­nance of Latin in the Chris­t­ian his­tory of north­ern and west­ern Eu­rope. The long dom­i­nance of Latin as the scrip­tural medium meant that evan­ge­li­sa­tion took the form of an ac­cul­tur­a­tive process which ‘laid the ef­fect of tak­ing the con­scious­ness of the peo­ples of the north and west be­yond the lo­cal­ity and the kin­ship group which had tra­di­tion­ally bounded their so­ci­eties’. This preser­va­tion of Latin, not as a ver­nac­u­lar lan­guage, but as a “spe­cial” lan­guage for Chris­tians – “a com­mon lan­guage for Scrip­ture, liturgy and learn­ing” meant that as the an­cient peo­ples of the north and west be­came Chris­t­ian, the lan­guage of Scrip­ture func­tioned less as the mo­tor for the pen­e­tra­tion” of their cul­tures than as ‘The ve­hi­cle for the ap­pro­pri­a­tion and ex­pres­sion of a new iden­tity,’ which orig­i­nally had not be­longed to them.

We can there­fore ap­pre­ci­ate the ques­tion that Pro­fes­sor of The­ol­ogy in Free Uni­ver­sity, Am­s­ter­dam, Nether­lands, An­ton Wes­sels poses in the ti­tle of his book: Eu­rope – Was it ever re­ally Christian? But that kind of ques­tion also helps us to ap­pre­ci­ate the im­por­tance that the ver­nac­u­lar Scrip­tures sub­se­quently came to as­sume in the re­li­gious and cul­tural re­newal move­ment that we call the Re­for­ma­tion, which, in due time, would bear fruit, even if some­what be­lat­edly, in the mis­sion­ary ex­pan­sion. Mod­ern African Chris­t­ian his­tory, on the whole, has not fol­lowed the ear­lier Eu­ro­pean model. Rather it is the link be­tween the ver­nac­u­lar prin­ci­ple, on the one hand, and re­li­gious and cul­tural re­newal in Chris­t­ian his­tory, on the other, which the mod­ern African Chris­t­ian story seems to demon­strate most promi­nently. Here, I sug­gest, stands the real legacy of the mod­ern mis­sion­ary move­ment in Africa, that is, the emer­gence of African Chris­tian­ity as, not West­ern re­li­gion at all, but rather, as ver­nac­u­lar re­li­gion, as mother tongue Christianity.

The point I am mak­ing is this: African Chris­tian­ity to­day is in­con­ceiv­able apart from the ex­is­tence of the Bible in African in­dige­nous lan­guages. By its deep ver­nac­u­lar achieve­ment, there­fore, rel­a­tive to Eu­rope’s own mis­sion­ary past the mod­ern mis­sion­ary move­ment from the West in Africa ac­tu­ally en­sured that Africans had the means to make their own re­sponses to the Chris­t­ian mes­sage, in terms of their own needs and ac­cord­ing to their own cat­e­gories of thought and meaning.’

In the Epi­logue I con­tributed to the book by Ype Schaaf, On their way re­joic­ing – the his­tory and role of the Bible in Africa, I have sug­gested that

This, in turn, en­sured that a deep and au­then­tic di­a­logue would en­sue be­tween the Gospel and African tra­di­tion, au­then­tic in so far as it would take place, not in the terms of a for­eign lan­guage or of a for­eign cul­ture, but in the cat­e­gories of lo­cal id­ioms and world-views. Africa in mo­dem times was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the re­cep­tion of the Word of God in ways and at lev­els which the cru­cial for­ma­tive gen­er­a­tions of Chris­tians of north­ern and west­ern Eu­rope, who re­ceived Chris­tian­ity through the medium of a spe­cial ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal lan­guage, Latin, may never have known.

On this sub­ject, Lamin San­neh (orig­i­nally from the Gam­bia, and now Pro­fes­sor of World Chris­tian­ity in Yale Uni­ver­sity, USA) has made an im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion in his vig­or­ous demon­stra­tion that the mo­dem mis­sion­ary move­ment from the West, far from de­stroy­ing in­dige­nous cul­tures, has in fact aided their re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion. By iden­ti­fy­ing ver­nac­u­lar­i­sa­tion rather than west­ern­i­sa­tion, as the es­sen­tial out­come of the trans­la­tion process, San­neh helps fo­cus our at­ten­tion on the po­ten­tial­i­ties and va­lences of re­cep­tor lan­guages and cul­tures, an out­come that sets the Chris­t­ian ex­am­ple in sharp coun­ter­point to the Mus­lim stan­dard of the non-trans­lat­able Qur’an. The im­age of the fin­ger, trig­ger and the bul­let read­ily comes to mind here. So long as the fin­ger rests on the trig­ger, the bul­let in the gun re­mains within one’s con­trol. The sit­u­a­tion changes rad­i­cally once the trig­ger is pulled. Once the gun is fired, one can­not re­call the hurtling bul­let; such has been the ef­fect of the ver­nac­u­lar­i­sa­tion of Chris­tian­ity in Africa.

In re­la­tion to Africa, San­neh makes the point that the im­por­tance of Bible trans­la­tion and its pri­or­ity in mo­dem Chris­t­ian mis­sion were an in­di­ca­tion that “God was not dis­dain­ful of Africans as to be in­com­mu­ni­ca­ble in their lan­guages. This in turn, had two con­se­quences. First this im­bued lo­cal [African] cul­tures with eter­nal sig­nif­i­cance and en­dowed African lan­guages with a tran­scen­dent range”. Sec­ond, it also pre­sumed that the God of the Bible had pre­ceded the mis­sion­ary into the re­cep­tor cul­ture, so that the mis­sion­ary needed to dis­cover Him in the re­cep­tor cul­ture. In other words, the fact that the cen­tral cat­e­gories of Chris­t­ian the­ol­ogy – God, Jesus Christ, cre­ation, his­tory – could be trans­posed into their lo­cal equiv­a­lents — car­ried im­pli­ca­tions for the the­o­log­i­cal un­der­stand­ing of the new worlds of mean­ing be­ing pen­e­trated. As a his­to­rian of re­li­gion, San­neh was par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive to what this might mean in re­la­tion to what he de­scribed as ‘the salvific value’ of Africa’s pri­mal religions:

The en­ter­prise of Scrip­tural trans­la­tion, with its far-reach­ing as­sump­tions about tra­di­tional re­li­gious cat­e­gories and ideas as a valid car­riage for the rev­e­la­tion and di­vine ini­tia­tive that pre­cedes and an­tic­i­pates his­tor­i­cal mis­sion, con­cedes the salvific val­ues of lo­cal religions.

In this con­nec­tion, the fact that in Africa, in the vast ma­jor­ity of cases, the God whose name had been hal­lowed in in­dige­nous lan­guages in the pre-Chris­t­ian re­li­gious tra­di­tion, was found to be the God of the Bible in a way that none of the ma­jor Eu­ro­pean gods, whether Zeus, Jupiter or Odin, could be, pre­sents a chal­lenge that re­mains to be fully processed. It means go­ing be­yond the stage of sim­ple cor­re­la­tions into the im­pli­ca­tions for a fuller ar­tic­u­la­tion of a fuller Chris­t­ian doc­trine of God. If it is the case that Scrip­ture is the rev­e­la­tion of Ngai, Muungu, Chineke, Olorun, Mwari, Un­ku­lunkulu, Nkosi, Nyame and Onyanko­pon rather than of an an­cient Ger­manic or Teu­tonic “goft”, then what new op­por­tu­ni­ties for our Chris­t­ian the­o­log­i­cal un­der­stand­ing might this pre­sent to us? What might an African Chris­t­ian doc­trine of God look like if the start­ing point is Ngai or Muungu, who has been known for gen­er­a­tions in African pre-Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion, and who also turns out to be the Chris­tians’ God? Eu­rope had no equiv­a­lent, ex­cept the philo­soph­i­cal con­struct, ‘god’, which is a generic term, whereas Muungu, Ngai, is His name.

I wish to sug­gest, there­fore, that what the mis­sion­ary move­ment, through its en­voys, has de­liv­ered in Africa is not ‘a cul­tural prod­uct honed in the West for cen­turies’ (Gif­ford). What it has de­liv­ered are the ba­sic raw ma­te­ri­als for re-af­firm­ing the mis­sion­ary move­ment’s own unique in­sight into the na­ture of the gospel, namely, that the Chris­t­ian faith is es­sen­tially ver­nac­u­lar re­li­gion, con­firmed by the mis­sion­ary com­mit­ment to trans­la­tion; uni­ver­sal, not uni­form, and there­fore cul­tur­ally trans­lat­able. That Africa as a con­ti­nent has the largest num­ber of Bible trans­la­tions, and in view of the mul­ti­tude of its lan­guages, is set to con­tinue as such, is prob­a­bly a moot point. How­ever, the fact that this has hap­pened on a con­ti­nent whose peo­ple were re­garded as more ill-rated than most at the start of the mis­sion­ary move­ment may well be worth noting.

It is pos­si­ble that the full im­pli­ca­tions of this de­vel­op­ment for African Chris­tians may not have reg­is­tered ad­e­quately within all African churches. And yet, it is my view that all the in­gre­di­ents are pre­sent for its full im­pact to be felt in due time. How this es­sen­tially ver­nac­u­lar con­scious­ness of the Chris­t­ian faith is main­tained in the con­text of the so called glob­alised so­ci­ety of our time might well be one of the most in­sis­tent chal­lenges to face us now.

I trust I may be per­mit­ted to make a few brief ob­ser­va­tions about glob­al­i­sa­tion. This phe­nom­e­non pre­sents a par­tic­u­lar set of prob­lems, in­clud­ing the prospect of the pro­gres­sive at­tri­tion of ver­nac­u­lars or mother-tongues and their re­place­ment by so-called “world lan­guages”, with the Eng­lish lan­guage ap­pear­ing to emerge and to func­tion as the new Latin! In my own view this prospect may well prove to be a false dawn. The con­tem­po­rary re­vival of dis­tinc­tive lin­guis­tic and cul­tural iden­ti­ties in sev­eral parts of the world, com­bined with the em­brac­ing of new uni­fy­ing knowl­edge in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy, may well be the in­di­ca­tion that peo­ple may be less prone to be vic­tims of preda­tory glob­al­i­sa­tion than it may be assumed.

But more im­por­tant still is the fact that the Bible, as the rev­e­la­tion of the mind and de­sign of God, re­tains its own es­cha­to­log­i­cal vi­sion of world com­mu­nity. The es­cha­to­log­i­cal vi­sion of Scrip­ture, in Rev­e­la­tion 7 points to a plu­ral­ity of re­deemed cul­tures of equal stand­ing, with an en­hanced ca­pac­ity for com­mu­ni­ca­tion among them, as a di­rect fruit of the re­demp­tive pres­ence of the Liv­ing God: “…​there was a great mul­ti­tude that no one could count, from every na­tion, tribe, peo­ple and lan­guage…” (v. 9).

It is im­por­tant also to re­alise that Chris­tian­ity which ‘has al­ways been uni­ver­sal in prin­ci­pal,’ can be said to have be­come uni­ver­sal in prac­tice only in re­cent his­tory, a fact which ‘Is not only unique among the world’s re­li­gions; it is a new fea­ture for the Chris­t­ian faith it­self.’ The fact is that, as in the very ear­li­est phase of the rise of Chris­tian­ity in New Tes­ta­ment times and in the im­me­di­ate cen­turies fol­low­ing, the pre­sent mod­ern shift in the cen­tre of grav­ity of the Chris­t­ian heart­lands has pro­duced a sit­u­a­tion in which the Chris­t­ian faith has emerged as, by and large, the re­li­gion of the rel­a­tively and ab­solutely poor, cen­tred in the poor­est parts of the world”.’ If the levers of global eco­nomic and hence po­lit­i­cal power, are likely to be ‘lo­cated in the post-Chris­t­ian West’ then it is also likely that the poor­est parts of the world where the ma­jor­ity of the Chris­tians of the world will be found, will be per­ceived as not sig­nif­i­cant when viewed from the stand­point of the geopo­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests of the West. Gif­ford and Wood­ward re­flect this per­spec­tive, as we noted earlier.

But our con­cern is with the mind and pur­poses of the Lord of mis­sion, and not the schemes and pro­jects of world em­pires and su­per­pow­ers. In the ex­pec­ta­tion that it is the es­cha­to­log­i­cal vi­sion of Scrip­ture that will prove more en­dur­ing, there­fore, it is my view that in the com­ing decades, the cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect of the im­pact of the resur­gence of re­li­gion in its var­i­ous forms gen­er­ally, and of Chris­tian­ity in par­tic­u­lar, now for the first time in his­tory a uni­ver­sal faith, could well be a re­verse process to the pre­vail­ing west­ern-dri­ven glob­al­i­sa­tion. A process of glob­al­i­sa­tion “from be­low”, in which the so­cial and cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance of re­li­gious be­lief and re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties – as­so­ci­ated with the less af­flu­ent parts of the world – could be­come ap­pre­ci­ated afresh and so lead to a con­sid­er­able mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the now gen­er­alised ex­pec­ta­tion that the Two-Thirds of the world has lit­tle choice but to fol­low in the trail of the One-Third. In my view, the south­ward shift in Chris­tian­ity’s cen­tre is likely to have a de­ci­sive im­pact here.

Bible translation and the theological significance of language

Ear­lier on, I re­lated the avail­abil­ity of the Scrip­tures in African lan­guages to new op­por­tu­ni­ties in the­o­log­i­cal un­der­stand­ing. In­deed, it may wed be that it is in mo­dem Africa that Chris­tian­ity’s es­sen­tial char­ac­ter as cul­tur­ally ‘trans­lat­able’ will be most no­tably seen and ap­pre­ci­ated afresh. But trans­lata­bil­ity is an­other way of say­ing uni­ver­sal­ity and there­fore im­plies its fun­da­men­tal rel­e­vance and ac­ces­si­bil­ity to per­sons in any cul­ture within which the Chris­t­ian faith is trans­mit­ted and re­ceived. Nowhere is this es­sen­tial char­ac­ter of Chris­tian­ity more ev­i­dent than in the Chris­t­ian un­der­stand­ing of Scrip­ture. Whereas, say, in Is­lam, the ef­fec­tual hear­ing of the word of Al­lah oc­curs only through the medium of Ara­bic Chris­t­ian faith re­jects the no­tion of a spe­cial sa­cred “heav­enly” lan­guage for its Scrip­tures, and makes God speak in the ver­nac­u­lar so that “all of us hear … in our own lan­guages … the won­der­ful things of God” (Acts 2:11). This is re­flected in the ti­tle of Aloo Mo­jola’s re­cent book, God speaks in our own languages (1999).

This brings our thought to the the­o­log­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of lan­guage. Aloy­sius Pieris (of Sri Lanka) has sug­gested that “Lan­guage is the ex­pe­ri­ence of re­al­ity, re­li­gion is its ex­pres­sion.” If this is the case, then it makes lan­guage, each lan­guage, a dis­tinct way of ap­pre­hend­ing and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing truth. The sig­nif­i­cance of Scrip­ture trans­la­tion here is that it en­ables a peo­ple’s lan­guage and thus their ex­pe­ri­ence of truth, to be con­nected to the re­al­ity and ac­tu­al­ity of the Liv­ing God. It is this which makes lan­guage it­self into a the­o­log­i­cal cat­e­gory, con­fer­ring upon it “eter­nal sig­nif­i­cance … and tran­scen­dent range” (Sanneh).

The vi­tal place of mother-tongue Scrip­tures, there­fore, re­sides in the fact that by en­abling us to “hear in our own lan­guage[s] the won­der­ful things of God” (Acts 2:11), they cre­ate res­o­nances and re­ver­ber­a­tions which make other over­lap­ping recog­ni­tions oc­cur. Mother-tongue Scrip­tures, in all our churches in Africa, ac­cord­ingly, come to con­sti­tute one ir­re­place­able el­e­ment for the birth of the­ol­ogy, in that they en­able us and our Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties to “drink from [their] own wells”, to bor­row the ti­tle of the book by Gus­tavo Cutier­rez. Chris­t­ian ap­pre­hen­sion and re­flec­tion in African lan­guages, there­fore, are set to be­come more, not less, im­por­tant and may well be one of the ma­jor means for forg­ing new in­tel­lec­tual cat­e­gories in the com­ing decades. This also means that if the church in Africa were tempted to ca­pit­u­late to the pre­vail­ing glob­al­i­sa­tion on the grounds that the new gen­er­a­tions seem to pre­fer Eng­lish (or French), then the church would be de­priv­ing it­self of the op­por­tu­nity for new in­sights into the Gospel. For the very chan­nels for gain­ing ac­cess to those in­sights would have been blocked.

In the post­grad­u­ate re­search pro­grammes at Mas­ters (MTh) and doc­toral (PhD) lev­els that we or­gan­ise from our Cen­tre in Ghana, it is a stip­u­lated re­quire­ment that stu­dents pro­duce ab­stracts of their dis­ser­ta­tions in their mother tongues! The im­pact of this re­quire­ment on the stu­dents’ abil­ity to in­ter­nalise the Gospel and to demon­strate orig­i­nal­ity and cre­ativ­ity has been re­mark­able. How can we min­is­ter the Gospel ef­fec­tively if we are not equipped to re­flect the­o­log­i­cally in the lan­guages in which we pray and … dream?

If one were to ob­ject that this process would serve to en­trench eth­nic di­vi­sions, I would re­ply that this is not con­firmed by em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence, and that the ob­jec­tion in­di­cates a the­o­log­i­cal mis­con­cep­tion about the Chris­t­ian faith. For, as the cen­tral cat­e­gories of Chris­t­ian thought -God, Jesus Christ, cre­ation, sin, death, re­demp­tion, his­tory, in­car­na­tion, res­ur­rec­tion, new hu­man­ity – are trans­posed into their lo­cal equiv­a­lents, the Scrip­tures be­come the fun­da­men­tal route for sus­tain­ing a di­a­logue be­tween Gospel and cul­ture that ad­dresses re­al­is­ti­cally the el­e­men­tal and sub­lim­i­nal forces that op­er­ate within that cul­ture. It is by a deep en­gage­ment with the re­demp­tive and rec­on­cil­ing mind of Christ me­di­ated through the Scrip­tures in mother tongue, that one will learn to deal with the eth­no­cen­tric mind.

The Bible in African languages and the expansion of the Church

How, then, may the Bible in African lan­guages yet serve the ex­pan­sion of the Church into un­reached ar­eas? It is ev­i­dent that what has ac­tu­ally hap­pened in the emer­gence of vi­tal Chris­tian­ity on the African con­ti­nent has es­tab­lished the pri­macy of the role of in­dige­nous lan­guages in African Chris­t­ian ex­pe­ri­ence. In this re­gard it is in­ter­est­ing to ob­serve how an in­creas­ing num­ber of African aca­d­e­mic the­olo­gians, while con­tin­u­ing to write in Eu­ro­pean lan­guages, also recog­nise the im­por­tance of their par­tic­u­lar African ver­nac­u­lar lan­guages in their the­o­log­i­cal re­flec­tion. As early as 1979, John Pobee (of Ghana) felt able to write:

Ide­ally, African the­olo­gies should be in the ver­nac­u­lar. Lan­guage is more than syn­tax and mor­phol­ogy it is the ve­hi­cle for as­sum­ing the weight of a culture.

Sub­se­quently, Jean-Marc Ela (of Camer­oun) spoke of a need for African the­ol­ogy to un­dergo a ‘Passover of lan­guage’ in which the con­fronta­tion of the mes­sage of the Gospel and the African uni­verse must bring forth a mean­ing with the power to trans­form the lives of African Chris­tians. For with­out this ‘Passover of lan­guage’, ‘the mean­ing of the Chris­t­ian mes­sage will not be un­der­stood’. ‘More re­cent de­vel­op­ments seem to sug­gest that we might well be on the thresh­old of a move­ment of ‘mother tongue the­ol­ogy’ in which some African the­olo­gians are now mak­ing an in­ten­tional ef­fort to be­gin their the­o­log­i­cal re­flec­tion in their African lan­guages, their mother tongues.’ This is some­thing in which I my­self share through the work at the Akrofi-Christaller Cen­tre in Ghana, and the con­ti­nen­tal net­work in which we par­tic­i­pate the African The­o­log­i­cal Fellowship.

As these de­vel­op­ments be­come con­sol­i­dated, they ar­gue forcibly for the con­tin­u­ing trans­la­tion of the Bible into new lan­guages in or­der to pro­vide the es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ents for the birth of the­ol­ogy in those new lan­guages. By the­ol­ogy I mean not so much an aca­d­e­mic ex­er­cise, but the de­vel­op­ment of ma­ture Chris­t­ian thought and life within the cul­tural worlds of those lan­guages. There is am­ple ev­i­dence that, in sit­u­a­tions of non-trans­la­tion of Scrip­ture into the lan­guages of a sig­nif­i­cant body of peo­ple, even where there has been pro­longed con­tact with the Chris­t­ian faith me­di­ated through other lan­guages, there is a dis­cernible lack of con­ver­sion and there­fore of ma­ture Chris­t­ian con­scious­ness. This sit­u­a­tion ap­pears to be reme­died once the Scrip­tures be­come avail­able in those lan­guages. In other words, no lan­guage group should be con­sid­ered as reached un­til they have the Scrip­tures avail­able in their mother tongue as the foun­da­tion for build­ing sus­tain­able Chris­t­ian thought, life and com­mu­nity. It stands to rea­son, there­fore, that African Chris­tians and churches that have de­rived the great­est ben­e­fit from the avail­abil­ity of the Scrip­tures in their mother tongues, should be the ones to shoul­der the re­spon­si­bil­ity for of­fer­ing this same gift to other African com­mu­ni­ties. It is my prayer that from among such African Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties, per­sons will emerge with a vi­sion for this min­istry and will al­low God to use them in en­abling oth­ers to hear God speak­ing to them in their own languages.

Here we get to the heart of the Great Com­mis­sion – the dis­ci­pling of the na­tions – the con­ver­sion to Christ of all hu­man cul­tural worlds, the things that make peo­ple into na­tions, the shared processes of thought and con­duct, and their pen­e­tra­tion by the mind of Christ. For, as Christ be­comes in­car­nate in each cul­tural con­text, so new di­men­sions of Christ him­self are re­vealed for the ben­e­fit of the world church.

Conclusion: Africa’s opportunity, Africa’s responsibility

We be­gan this pa­per by not­ing the im­por­tant place that Africa now oc­cu­pies in the new con­fig­u­ra­tion of the Chris­t­ian world. We noted that para­dox­i­cally, the mo­dem West­ern trans­mis­sion of the faith in Africa has served to re-af­firm Chris­tian­ity as es­sen­tially ver­nac­u­lar re­li­gion, as African mother tongue re­li­gion. The shift in the cen­tre of world Chris­tian­ity through which we are cur­rently liv­ing, is no unique phe­nom­e­non; and, ar­guably, it will not be the last in Chris­t­ian his­tory. The cen­tre shifted from the Jew­ish to the Hel­lenis­tic world; sub­se­quently from the Hel­lenis­tic to the Bar­bar­ian or north­ern Eu­ro­pean world. Now it has shifted to the south­ern con­ti­nents, with Africa as a ma­jor priv­i­leged arena. African Chris­tian­ity will not re­main rep­re­sen­ta­tive Chris­tian­ity, willy-nilly. Africa can fail, though she need not fail, in her mo­ment of op­por­tu­nity, her kairos from the Lord.

What the pre­sent con­fig­u­ra­tion of the Chris­t­ian world and this new sig­nif­i­cance of Africa re­quire, has been laid upon oth­ers be­fore, in other times and in other con­texts namely, the same spir­i­tual dis­ci­pline, in­tel­lec­tual rigour and faith­ful life and wit­ness that char­ac­terise all au­then­tic re­sponses to the ini­tia­tives of God through­out the his­tory of the Peo­ple of God. Hear­ing and re­ceiv­ing the Word of God as God speaks to us in our own lan­guage, and liv­ing by the light that God sheds on our path through his Word, is the es­sen­tial pre­req­ui­site for ful­fill­ing this task.

May God grant us grace to hear and to heed what God’s Spirit says to us in our time, to the end that our Lord Jesus Christ will re­joice in our obe­di­ence as he sees the re­sult of the tra­vail of his soul in the sal­va­tion of the nations.

This pa­per was given at the Wycliffe Bible Trans­la­tors In­ter­na­tional Africa Area Fo­rum, Limuru, Kenya, 16-18 May 2001.

Dr. Kwame Be­di­ako was head of Akrofi-Christaller Memo­r­ial Cen­tre for Mis­sion Re­search & Ap­plied The­ol­ogy, Akropang-Akuapem, Ghana. Dr. Be­di­ako passed away the week of June 8, 2008.

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