A Christian Scholar: John Samuel Mbiti
Trinity CommunicationsOctober 10, 2019
by Tite Tiénou, research professor, dean emeritus of TEDS and director of the Paul G. Hiebert Center for World Christianity and Global Theology
John Samuel Mbiti (1931–2019), the Christian theologian from Kenya who died on Sunday, October 6, was one of the best known African Christian scholars of the twentieth century. His college and university studies took place in Uganda (Makerere University College), the United States of America (Barrington College, Rhode Island—Providence Bible Institute when he studied there), and the United Kingdom (Cambridge University). He earned the PhD degree in New Testament from Cambridge in 1963.
In 1971 Oxford University Press published the substance of his Cambridge dissertation with the title New Testament Eschatology in an African Background: A Study of the Encounter between New Testament Theology and African Traditional Concepts. In the preface Mbiti expresses “deep gratitude” and “affectionate appreciation” to his “parents for their love and home where as a child, [he] learnt and ‘began to call upon the Lord’ and read the Kikamba New Testament” and “missionaries of the Africa Inland Mission, and Akamba evangelists who, through their sacrifice and labours, have made it possible for a thriving Church to exist in Ukambani” (p. v). This expression of Mbiti’s Christian commitment and gratitude for the work of missionaries and evangelists must be brought to the attention of audiences that may not be fully aware of that dimension of the Kenyan theologian’s life. He was, indeed, a Christian scholar.
He gained international recognition and reputation through his scholarship. Statements about his importance for what is commonly called “African theology” abound. One will suffice for the purposes of this brief piece. In the words of Kwame Bediako, “John Mbibi is the modern African theologian with by far the weightiest bibliography” (Theology and Identity: The impact of culture upon Christian thought in the second century and modern Africa. Oxford: Regnum Press, 1992, p. 303). No published scholar, even those with less “weighty bibliographies, can escape critical evaluation. It should, therefore, not be a surprise that Mbiti’s extensive work has been the subject of scrutiny.
On two occasions I witnessed how Mbiti handled critical evaluation of his thought. The first occurrence took place in Nairobi, Kenya, in December 1976 during the Pan African Christian Leadership Assembly. The second one happened in January 1978 at the consultation on “Gospel and Culture” convened by the Lausanne Committee’s Theology and Education Group in Willowbank, Bermuda. In both settings Mbiti responded to criticisms with poise, grace, civility and clarity. Would that this manner of handling criticism characterized all Christian theologians.