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Can We Be Christian & African? // The Legacy of Byang Kato

The impact of a life does not always depend on length. For some, a short time lived on earth proves fruitful, perhaps even beyond what they might have imagined. Examples include Enoch Sontonga, who died at 32; Steve Biko, who died at age 31; and Thomas Sankara, who died at 38. The same can also be said of Byang Henry Kato. He was only 39 when he drowned during a family vacation in Kenya. But to Evangelical Christians in Africa, his life and writing continue to bear fruit nearly 50 years later.

To Evangelical Christians in Africa, Kato’s life and writing continue to bear fruit.

That’s not to say that Byang Kato was universally loved. Nor did everyone agree with him. In fact, many found his absolutist stance on Christian truth first and contextualisation second deeply problematic. Furthermore, his total rejection of African traditional religions was felt to be insensitive and even imperialistic by many. However, just as Kato calls us to apply biblical truth in our lived context, we need to take Kato’s background and upbringing into account if we are to understand his theological contribution fully. Therefore, in this article I will provide significant details from Kato’s life that undoubtedly influenced his approach to African Christianity.

Who Is Byang Kato?

Byang Kato was born in Nigeria in June 1936. His parents were devotees to the Jaba traditional religion. Getting converted to Christianity at 12 was in itself a salvation from a religion in which he, as the first born, was dedicated to become a priest in.

In a 1962 article titled “The Devil’s Baby” published in Africa Now, Kato described his home religion as one of “devil worshipping”. He writes that as a baby his family dedicated him to service of the devil. Kato was one of eight children, but only one of his seven siblings survived childhood. His family attributed his survival to the power of the devil, whom they understood to be protecting the child dedicated to him.

A Dedicated Student & Leader

Byang Kato was converted at the mission school he attended. It was the explanation of salvation through the story of Noah and the ark that led to Kato’s commitment to Jesus Christ. So he professed his newfound faith, standing in front of his classmates. Understandably, Kato’s father was very unhappy. Hearing of Kato’s conversion, his father began to actively discourage school attendance, even refusing to pay the school fees. However, Kato got a job through missionaries. And he paid his own fees as well as buying the school supplies needed.

Kato was the first African to graduate from the London Bible College.

Kato’s dedication to the gospel was seen very early on through his involvement in Christian activities. By 16 he became involved with Youth for Christ. Before leaving school he also became a Boys’ Brigade leader, Sunday school teacher, and the director of African Challenge, a Christian magazine produced by SIM.

Byang Kato went on to study theology at Igbaja Bible college, aged 19. He graduated in 1957 and, through correspondence learning, he took courses from England to earn his O-levels and his A-levels. In 1963, Kato furthered his theological studies, enrolling at London Bible College. He would become the first African to graduate from the college. Then, in 1970, he was admitted to the Master of Sacred Theology program at Dallas Theological Seminary. Kato completed the two year course in just one year. Immediately after this, he registered for a doctorate in theology, which he earned in May, 1974.

What Fuelled Kato’s Commitment to Study?

Kato’s father discouraged studying from a young age, pointing Kato towards farming instead. But Byang Kato was passionate about learning, particularly as a Christian. He pursued further studies so that he would be equipped for gospel work in his own context. In this pursuit of education, there was a determination to help shape and fashion theology in the African context.

Byang Kato pursued further studies to become equipped for gospel work in his own context.

His doctoral dissertation, Theological Pitfalls in Africa was a major step towards this desire and vision. Byang Kato was the first Evangelical theologian in Africa to receive a doctorate degree, signalling the lack in trained Evangelical leadership at that time.

It is really his leadership in contextualising Christianity in the African context that has made a mark and left a legacy.

Byang Kato’s Polarising Effect in Africa

Byang Kato has many critics and supporters when it comes to his view of African Christianity. His critics accuse him of being an antithesis to African theologians. They feel that his position is too radical, overemphasising the discontinuity between African tradition and the Christian faith.

His supporters see Kato as a champion of Evangelical Christianity on the continent. They insist that Kato’s affirmation of the Bible’s centrality for the theological enterprise powerfully shaped modern African Christian thought. One thing that both critics and supporters agree on about him, however, was his unwavering commitment to God’s word.

One thing that both critics and supporters agree on about him, however, was his unwavering commitment to God’s word

Why Did Kato Sever His Traditional Roots?

In trying to comprehend Byang Kato’s theology and his understanding of African Christianity, we need to appreciate his background. He had been brought up in a pagan home, pledged to priesthood in the family’s cultural religion, and was met with rigorous opposition from his father when he was converted to the Christian faith.

We need to appreciate Kato’s background.

For Kato, he understood early on that there must be a clear separation between the religion of his childhood and that of his youth. In his case, Kato was escaping a satanic religion. Severing himself from his traditional roots and upbringing was completely necessary.

Kato’s Call To Take A Strong Stand

“By mixing paganism with a smattering of Christianity, liberal forces have weakened the African church. Evangelicals are now taking a strong stand”. These are the opening lines from Byang Kato’s journal article, Africa’s Battle For Biblical Christianity. In it he challenges African theology, arguing that it is a consequence of the theological illiteracy in the African church.

He points out three guises of African theology for his time:

  1. Liberal theology, which “systemised the traditional African experience of God and his relation with him, of man and his relation with God, of the spiritual universe of sin.”
  2. Universalism, which dismisses the belief in heaven or hell.
  3. A high esteem of traditional religions, elevating the gods of Africa to the rank of being co-eternal with God. He believed that these promotions and understandings of African theology were gaining ground because there was a general lack of theological knowledge and understanding in the church.

Kato takes an absolutist stand, advocating for a complete severing between the Christian religion and pagan religions.

The common thread amongst these is their overly ecumenical spirit concerning the way of salvation. For Byang Kato, each fails to esteem God’s word as the final authority, communicating that there is salvation in all kinds of experiences, including pagan religions.

Revelation First, Contextualisation After

Here, Kato takes an absolutist stand, advocating for a complete severing between the Christian religion and pagan religions. This position earned him much opposition, critics who accused him of apathy towards African culture because of his aggressive biblicism.

Critics of Byang Kato, such as Kwame Bediako and Njoya Murere, claim that truth about God can be found in African traditions. Some go as far as saying that God is not only revealed but can be sought in these religions. Therefore they understand Kato’s insistence on the separation between Christianity and traditional religions as a failure to contextualise the gospel.

Kato believed that Christianity was first a universal religion and then, only after that, a local one.

For Kato, any theology must begin with a universal construction and understanding of the essential message of Christianity. This, he contended, can only be derived from revelation in God’s word. We must then fashion or accommodate that revelation using contextual methods.

Byang Kato believed that Christianity was first a universal religion and then, only after that, a local one. Thus, the starting point for an African theology, he argued, cannot be from the African religions, nor from theologies that do not hold to the absolute authority of the Bible. Kato sought to inspire an African theology that he understood to be most biblical.

Biblical Christianity vs. African Christianity?

Are biblical Christianity and African Christianity different sides of the same coin? Or are we holding two different coins entirely? The answer to that question is not as straightforward as one might think. At least, in Byang Kato’s understanding, the answer must be nuanced.

Two Understandings of African Christianity

Before answering it we must clarify what we mean by “African Christianity.” For there is more than one understanding of the term.

On the one hand, we understand African Christianity as the amalgamation of Christianity and African traditions. Such syncretism is a form of African religion. But on the other hand, we can understand African Christianity as biblical and universal Christianity, expressed in African language, symbolism, and imagery. This latter understanding is what Byang Kato imagined for Africa. For him, African Christianity was simply Christianity as explained and understood in the African context.

For Kato, African Christianity was simply Christianity as explained and understood in the African context.

The African Christianity that Kato argued against was the one that took elements of African religions and added them to Christianity. These approaches liken the traditional gods to the God of the Bible. They also equate the mediatory work of Jesus Christ with that of ancestors.

Kato’s African Christianity

On the contrary, the essence of Kato’s African Christianity was the idea that the universal truths of Christianity need to be translated into African language and for the various African contexts.

In order to achieve this he advocated for the use of African symbolism and imagery in explaining God’s self revelation in Scripture. Because Kato desired that all African people gain an understanding of God in a way that’s simple and understandable within their own world.

The Importance of Contextualisation

One of Kato’s key involvements was around this issue of establishing an African Christianity. In the early 1970s, the term “contextualisation” was coined. This was in a bid to highlight the importance of taking into account the local context in developing Christian theology.

Byang Kato became heavily involved in debates surrounding this term. The Theological Education Fund, who coined the term, defined contextualisation as ‘the need to develop contextual theologies’. Crucially, they also differentiated this term from “indigenisation,” which emphasised the need for universal theological articulation.

Kato promoted both indigenisation and contextualisation – in that order.

Kato promoted both indigenisation and contextualisation – in that order. He argued that the aim should be to first construct a biblical theology. Once this was in place, we must contextualise that theology.

The Western Missionaries’ Major Failing

Contextualisation is central to what Kato stood for. He insisted that we must be intent in bringing the universal gospel to bear on specific contexts, particularly African people. The question, “What does it mean to be a Christian as an African?” was crucial.

Western missionaries’ teaching of their own culture as part and parcel of the Christian life was one of their biggest failings.

For despite the good work done by Western missionaries on the continent, not contextualising the gospel was one of their biggest failings. By teaching their own culture as part and parcel of the Christian life, missionaries alienated individual Africans from the culture that God had placed them in. In a sense, missionaries prevented many African cultures from being influenced by the gospel they preached.

This continues to have ramifications today, as many Africans resist the gospel on the grounds that it is a cultural imposition rather than the universal good news.

Theological Education in Africa is Key

Attempting to navigate this deadlock, Byang Kato emphasised theological education. To this end, he was instrumental in the establishment of a number of theological institutions in western Africa. For he longed for Africans to attain a knowledge of the universal Christian message. But he did not to stop there.

We must express the never changing word of God in ever changing modes of relevance.

Through theological education he hoped that African converts could become conduits of the gospel to their own contexts, expressing those universal truths in ways that can be understood by the people within that context. Contextualisation was his “effort to express the never changing word of God in ever changing modes of relevance.”

Was Byang Kato Too Tough On African Culture?

The centrality of the Bible and the universality of the gospel message are two of Kato’s greatest legacies. They are also the cause of ongoing opposition and criticism. In fact, at points Kato appears too harsh towards African culture and tradition.

We have already noted that this was very likely a reaction against his own upbringing. For Kato grew up where there was no distinction between culture, tradition, and religion. Therefore culture entailed the worship of African gods.

Like everything else, culture is redeemable. Through the gospel, God redeems culture.

Of course, we should not shun our cultures. Byang Kato’s experience and challenges were unique. Upon conversion it became clear to him that he had to abandon most of his culture. But culture is from God. God created culture. Everything made by God is good.

But, like everything else in the world, our cultures are subject to the consequences of the fall. At the same time, like everything else, culture is redeemable. Through the gospel, God redeems culture. Our views of our cultures should not be primarily concerned with what is wrong within them. Rather, we must recognise that all cultures are given by God and corrupted by sin. Beyond the corruption of sin, they are beautiful and should be rightfully expressed and enjoyed under lordship of Christ.

Two Major Legacies of Byang Kato’s Work

When someone tells me that they are a Christian, I have learned to not assume that they believe in the absolute lordship of Jesus Christ, and nothing else. One has to ask where they stand when it comes to a number of belief systems, including ancestral worship. In this, Byang Kato played a prophetic role in foreseeing the dangers of syncretism.

1. The Dangers of Syncretism Are Real

The reality is this. We now live an age whereby the worship of the God of the Bible and that of traditional gods is held in tension. Because they are seen as things that can co-exist. Interestingly, we even refer to this dualistic religion as Christianity. It’s clear that Kato’s fervent opposition of the intermingling between Christianity and traditional religions was as a warning against this kind of dualism.

Byang Kato played a prophetic role in foreseeing the dangers of syncretism.

We should take a leaf from Kato’s book, and oppose dualistic or syncretistic views of Christianity. And like Kato, we can do this by upholding the universal truths of biblical Christianity. As Jesus has said, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

In Acts 4:12, Jesus’ apostles reaffirmed that claim, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” We too must hold fast to the universal truth that Christ is the only way of salvation.

2. We Must Champion African Christianity via Contextualisation

While upholding these universal truths, we need to champion an African Christianity through contextualisation. By this I mean, we must long to see the universal Christian truths expressed in African modes. Using Byang Kato’s phrase, we need to “theologise in context,” reading, understanding and teaching God’s word in ways that are relevant to the African individual and cultures.

We must long to see the universal Christian truths expressed in African modes.

The question, “What does it mean to be a Christian in Africa” is still incredibly relevant. And we need to answer it in such a way that we become a light to African people. If we want God’s word to impact the everyday African, in their everyday life, contextualisation is key.

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