Africa has always had its own doctrine of God. In Aspects of African Traditional Religions, John Pobee writes: “’Obi nnkyere abofra Onyanie’, i.e., no one teaches a child to know God. In other words, atheism is alien to the traditional West African Akan and he starts from and ends with the religious postulate. The Supreme Being is self-evident.”
God Is Revealed In Nature
This statement is not only true for the Akan People, is also true for almost every ethnic African group. We see this clearly in some of the theological doctrines contained within African Traditional Religions like ancestral worship. These conceptions of God reflect certain biblical truths. But because they are grounded exclusively in natural revelation they fall short of God’s self-revelation in the Bible.
God is self-evident. His existence can be certified by observing nature
This is precisely what Paul teaches in Romans: God’s nature is self-evident in creation. He writes: “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:19-20). God is self-evident. His existence can be certified by observing nature.
Natural Revelation Falls Short Of Knowing God
In this article I will show that Africans, just like people from every other culture and continent, turned God’s self-evident nature into idolatry. Though much can be known through natural revelation, it does not lead to a personal knowledge of God. Therefore, in Christ, God both commands repentance and calls us to truly know him.
A Knowledge of God Is Different To Knowing Him
Paul did not stop where John Pobee does. He builds on the statement that humans are without excuse, writing thus: “For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:21-23).
Though much can be known through natural revelation, it does not lead to a personal knowledge of God.
Even though people can know about God through natural revelation, natural revelation does not necessarily lead to a personal knowledge of God. There can be knowledge of God without knowing him – it is not necessarily relational.
For example, I know some of John Pobee’s work. Indeed, this article was inspired by what I’ve learnt from his work. But that does not mean that I know him in person, in a relational way. The most I could say is that I know about him and how he thinks. The same can be said about God and the knowledge of him accumulated through natural revelation.
It is revelation without relationship.
All that nature can do is teach us that there is a God and his works are great.
Revelation Without Relationship Leads To Idolatry
All that nature can do is teach us that there is a God and his works are great. As the psalmist sang, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). But this does not necessarily teach us how to have a personal relationship with God. We don’t actually know him. That is Paul’s point.
From the Greeks in Rome to the Akan people, we can behold God’s glory in creation without coming into a personal relationship with him. In fact, as Paul indicates, we typically turn this knowledge into idol worship. We exchange the glory of God for created things.
Africa’s Distant God & Ancestral Consultation
Like the Romans, the naturally accumulated knowledge of God has lead many Africans into idolatry. For while other nations through the centuries, responded by worshiping creation as Paul says, many Africans responded through ancestral worship.
John Pobee comments on the hierarchical system in the African spiritual world and religions: “As the greatest King, he (God) is never to be approached directly but always through linguists who are the ancestral spirits. God as king has delegated areas of authority and jurisdiction to the ancestors and gods, because as a matter of his dignity he is not to be bothered with the small and trivial affairs of men.”
While other nations responded by worshiping creation, many Africans responded through ancestral worship
How Does God Want Us To Know Him?
God has told us what he wants. He desires a response consistent with his revealed will, in the Bible. That is, worship “in spirit and truth” (John 4:22-23). This worship is centred on and responding to Christ’s life and work.
For this reason, even though the men of Athens were in every way religious (Acts 17:22), Paul still called them to repent, because of Jesus Christ. He preached, saying: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).
The Need To Repent Is Universal
Linking Romans 1 and Acts 17, God is also calling Africans to repentance. As Paul says: God commands all people everywhere to repent. Because this is universal, it includes Africans. For the people of Athens and Rome, repentance might have meant turning from idol worship (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). But for us, as Africans, repentance means turning from ancestral worship. For ancestral worship is an idolatrous response to the glory of God revealed in creation. It is not consistent with God’s revealed will in the Bible.
One cannot be a Christian and consult the ancestors. Within the Christian faith there is only one mediator between God and men – Jesus Christ.
Ancestral Consultation Is Idolatry
To be more specific, the belief that the dead (ancestors) mediate between God and the living is inconsistent with the biblical teaching that Jesus is the only mediator between God and men. As Paul wrote elsewhere, “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Timothy 2:5).
Therefore one cannot be a Christian and consult the ancestors. Within the Christian faith there is only one mediator between God and men: the man Christ Jesus.
An Invitation To Truly Know God
In conclusion, the Church’s cry that Africans turn from ancestral worship is a cry for true worship of God. More than a cry, it is an invitation. Like Paul called on the Athenians, in Christ, God invites Africans to know the God they merely ‘know about’ from natural revelation.
God is self-evident in creation, but natural revelation tends towards idolatry; it is insufficient to bring us into a relationship with God. It’s true that God exists and it’s true that there needs to be a mediator between God and men. This much Africans observed about God’s nature from creation. But that mediator is Jesus Christ. He lived and died so that we might truly know God.