African Theologian and Scholar
Manasseh Kwame Dakwa Bediako was born on 7 July 1945 in Ghana. He was the son of a police inspector and the grandson of a Presbyterian catechist and evangelist. An outstanding pupil, he was able to gain secondary education at Mfantsi-pim School, Cape Coast, founded in the nineteenth century by the British Methodist mission.
The period of his secondary education coincided with the transformation of the Gold Coast into Ghana, the first of the new African nations, led by Kwame Nkrumah, with his emphatic rejection of Western rule in Africa and high sense of Africa’s past glories and future destiny. Kwame joined the University of Ghana in 1965, set up after World War II with the aim of being an Oxbridge in Africa.
There he developed as an eloquent orator and debater, a person who could make a mark in politics. He also attained the academic excellence in French that won him a scholarship for graduate studies in France and the promise of an academic career. By this time he was a confirmed atheist under French existentialist influence. In France he gained master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Bordeaux, not surprisingly choosing African Francophone literature as his area of research.
During his time in France he underwent a radical Christian conversion - so radical that at one stage he thought of abandoning his studies in favour of active evangelism. Happily, he was persuaded otherwise; the time was coming when he would recognize scholarship as itself a missionary vocation.
Kwame’s evangelical convictions and credentials were manifest, but he was wrestling with issues that were not at the front of most evangelical minds, or on the agenda of most evangelical institutions at that time. Could Africans become fully Christian only by embracing the mind-set of Western Christians and rejecting all the things that made them distinctively African?
Ordinary African Christians daily faced acute theological issues that were never addressed by the sort of theology that apparently served Western Christians well enough. It was not that the theology was necessarily wrong, it simply could not deal with issues that went to the heart of relationships with family, kin, or society, nor deal with some of the most troubling anxieties of those who saw the world in terms different from those of the Western world.
Africans were responding to the Gospel, and in unprecedented numbers, but the received theology did not fit the world as they saw the world. Great areas of life were thus often left untouched by Christ, often leaving sincere Christians with deep uncertainties. Much evangelical thinking was not engaging with the issues of culture, or was doing so simplistically or superficially.
Over many years Bediako pointed others to Africa’s proper place in contemporary worldwide Christian discourse. He charted new directions for African Christian theology. He laboured so that generations of scholars, confident equally of their Christian and their African identity, might be formed in Africa, and to that end he created a new type of institution where devotion to scholarship and understanding of the cultures of Africa would be pursued in a setting of Christian worship, discipleship, and mission.
These were huge undertakings, and sadly Kwame was to be called from them at the height of his powers, when still full of visions and plans for their implementation, and the institution that was meant to model and facilitate all those visions still in its youth. It would be premature, therefore, to pronounce upon his legacy so soon after he has gone from us.
All who knew him or his work are still achingly conscious of the gaps caused by his departure, the business unfinished, the books half written, the plants that have budded and blossomed but are yet to bear their intended fruit. His achievements, great as they are, point to a future not yet realized.
He was both a visionary and a skilful entrepreneur, but he was also an inspirer and encourager of others, holding out a vision for the whole church in Africa and beyond, sending out a call to those who would heed it to dedicate themselves to scholarship as a costly form of Christian service.
His life, his vision, and his objectives can be set out, but we do not yet know how far others will take up what he has laid down. It is as though we are present at the reading of a will; decades must pass before it will be manifest how others, in Africa and elsewhere, made use of what Kwame Bediako bequeathed to them.
In his quest to establish an institute of scholarship the Akrofi-Christaller Centre for Mission Research and Applied Theology, later called the Akrofi-Christaller Institute of Theology, Mission, and Culture was started in 1987. Its establishment and development lay at the heart of Bediako’s work for the rest of his life.
Any consideration of the life of Kwame Bediako must take account of the institute and the principles on which it was based. Crucial to its purpose was the commitment to Christian scholarship in Africa. Bediako believed that Africa was now, as a result of its experience as a major theatre of Christian mission, a major theological laboratory, with theological work to do that would not and could not be done elsewhere.
Furthermore, the shift in the centre of gravity of Christianity from the global West to the global South that was such a feature of the twentieth century made the quality of African theological activity a matter of universal, not just continental, Christian concern. Africa needed scholars, and needed them not only for its own sake but also for the sake of the world church.
Kwame Bediako was an outstanding African theologian of his generation. A distinguished academic himself, he knew that academics were not the only theologians, and he drew attention to the informal or, as he would say, implicit theology to be found among people of little formal education. He delighted in the vernacular songs of Madam Afua Kuma, traditional midwife and Pentecostal poet, who sang the praises of Christ in the exalted language of praise songs to traditional rulers. He called them “a liberating force for African academic theology and for the academic theologian.” He did perhaps more than anyone else to persuade mainstream Western theologians and mainstream Western theological institutions that African theology was not an exotic minority specialization but an essential component in a developing global Christian discourse.
His all too few writings will continue their influence, as will his institute’s Journal of African Christian Thought, to which he so often contributed. There are other books that he never completed, rich material lying in those electrifying lecture courses and biblical expositions. But much of his finest work has been written in the lives and thinking of his students, colleagues, and friends, in the concept of the institution he founded, and in the networks he helped to establish, enhance, and maintain.
It is a rich legacy, much of it prudently invested for future use. Bediako was passionate about the need for African Christians to create an authentic, indigenous African theology which connected both with the historical Christian tradition and also with the realities of life in Africa. He was an ardent promoter of Bible translation into African languages. He was a man of towering intellect, but he didn’t use it to crush others, but to build them up and encourage them. After a serious illness he died on 10 June 2008.