Researching African Lived Theology: The Value of Non-Traditional Sources in Contextual and Intercultural Theology

Benno van den Toren
PDF version Open / Download

The Importance of Lived Theology in Sub-Saharan Africa

In its early days, African theological reflection was consciously developed in African academic settings through critical debate with the models of Western theology in which the earliest representatives of African theologies were themselves trained. The traditional sources of Western theology were the academic writings of specialist theologians, the Scriptures, normative texts drawn from church history and critical conversation partners from other academic disciplines, particularly philosophy. The use of these traditional sources is one of the reasons why academic theology is often experienced as far removed from the lives of ordinary believers. However, from its early days, African theology has shown an interest in what might be called non-traditional sources of theology. African theologians saw the use of sources that represented the lived faith of the church as a way of relating their theological reflections to the lives of ordinary African believers and to the existential questions they were facing.

An example can be found in the early work on African Christology in John Mbiti’s “Some African Concepts of Christology” (1972). In this text he draws on an earlier study by Harold Turner on the sermons of Nigerian Aladura churches (1965) for the formulation of Christological notions that were apt to the African context. Here he exemplifies the use of what we might call the “espoused theology” (Cameron et al. 2010, 53–56) of the African Independent Churches (AICs). In the early decades of African theology, the AICs were seen as an important source of theological reflection, because they showed where the churches established by mission agencies fell short because they failed to respond to the needs of the local populations and did not adequately express the Christian message in a form that could be understood from the traditional African worldview (see f. ex. Bediako 1995). Although these AICs produced no academic theology at the time and still produce very little today, their espoused theologies provide a rich resource for understanding the theological questions that arise when the Christian message takes root in African soil. Therefore, they are not only a rich source in the life of the church, but also for the formulation of a contextually relevant academic theology.

Of course, it would not be wise to limit ourselves to the AICs when looking for sources for African theological reflection; African Pentecostalisms provide similar sources in modern Africa. The theology and spirituality of AICs is particularly appropriate to more rural contexts in which the Christian faith needs to be related to Africa’s rich cultural and religious traditions. However, in many regions Africa is changing fast with the rise of rapidly growing urban centres that present new challenges to life in general and to the Christian life in particular. Although much more critical of traditional religious practices, African Pentecostalism is similar to AICs in that it also understands the Christian message in a form that relates to the understanding of life from the African worldview (Kalu 2008, 169–86; Omenyo 2002). However, according to a number of sociologists, African (neo-)Pentecostalism is also well adapted to life in Africa’s new urban centres and the particular economic, and social/familial challenges faced in such settings (Kisala 2004). What is true of AICs and Pentecostal churches is of course equally true of other grassroots movements in the African churches, whether they be Bible study groups in universities, Roman Catholic charismatic prayer meetings, church support groups for people infected with HIV or church related movements struggling for equality in post-apartheid South-Africa. All such expressions of faith are deeply embedded in their respective contexts and are lived expressions of contextual theology.

 The Theological Value of Lived Theology

Although some of these movements currently do very little to engage in formal academic reflection, these ‘espoused theologies’ and practices are of crucial importance for the development of contextual and intercultural theologies. Theology is developed here where the rubber hits the road – or where the shoe pinches (cf. the 2015 documentary Between a Shoe and the Roof produced by Regent College). There may be additional theological reasons as to why such lived theologies should be taken into account when engaging in contextual and intercultural theological reflection. Some would argue that theology is best, or only truly, done when one is engaged in the struggle for liberation, or rather when one is open to the Spirit, is seeking holiness or is engaged in cross-cultural missions. If that is the case, academic theology can never stand on its own, but will always need to be developed in continuous conversation with the lived theology of Christian communities.

This means that such expressions of the Christian life are not just raw materials, or brute facts that need to be theologically interpreted. In fact, all of life can be interpreted theologically and demands theological engagement, whether it is the world of nature, of family and relationships, business, art or politics, because it all occurs in a world that belongs to God its creator and in which God is deeply engaged as the redeemer (see f. ex. Vanhoozer, Anderson, and Sleasman 2007). However, the faith expressions mentioned above are not mere raw material for theological reflection but rather are themselves a form of theology. It is in trying to live out the Christian life in ever new situations and contexts that believers are either implicitly or explicitly, either intuitively or reflectively, responding theologically to the challenges of life. It is a theological response because they are trying to work out what it means to follow Jesus Christ in these contexts by asking how the Spirit is leading them and where God can be found. They are also relating to the sources of their faith in a new way, as they look to the Scriptures and their traditions for new answers to new questions. Therefore, in the words of Claire Watkins, such lived theology is a form of fides quaerens intellectum, of “faith seeking understanding” (2015, 35).

The value and role of such lived expressions of faith are of course matters of theological debate that receive significant attention in formal academic theological study. For example, it depends on how one understands the relationship between the Christian Scriptures and the Spirit: is the Spirit illuminating a message that is a deposit once and for all or is the Spirit leading the church through ever new situations? It also depends on how one understands the relationship between the universal church and its local expressions. For instance, is there a need for, or any legitimacy in, a central authority (such as in Rome), that sets boundaries for locally legitimate expressions of this universal faith? Or is catholicity much more an expression of mutual exchange in a global network of local expressions of faith without a centre? It also depends on how one understands the relationship between doctrine, action and spirituality (between orthodoxy, orthopraxy and orthopathy): is one of the three principles always in the lead? In all three theological debates, if the answer is not an either-or, then how do we relate orthodoxy to orthopraxy and spirituality? How do we understand the relationship between the local and the transcultural in a network of global Christian expressions? How do we discern the Spirit in the light of the Scriptures and read the Scriptures guided by the Spirit?

The value of ‘ordinary theology’ in relation to academic theology is of course also reflected on (or intuitively appreciated) in lived theologies themselves. For example, it is visible in which voices are given most authority, be it the preacher, the prophet, the activist or the cross-cultural evangelist. Naturally, this is also shaped by implicit theological opinions concerning where God can be most deeply encountered and how the Spirit leads. Some proponents of ‘lived theology’ defend the concept precisely because they work with a concept of theology that views the theology of the Christian community as the primary locus of religious truth. However, this is not a necessary part of valuing lived theology; neither is it intrinsic to the self-understanding of lived theologies. Many church practices locate the locus of authority outside the community itself. When Christian groups study the Bible together, they tend to do so because they believe that the word of God can be found there once and for all. When Christians wait in prayer for the Spirit, they believe that this Spirit speaks into their situations from beyond. When Christians welcome the bishop or the apostle, they accord them an authority over their lives and communities that they believe to originate from God.

The understanding of the value of lived theology will not only be shaped by theological considerations but will also be influenced by a person’s social location. For instance, academic theologians are more easily convinced of the importance of their own voice, while many believers outside the academy are much more sceptical about academic theology. Those who are rich often find it harder to appreciate the importance of the voice of the poor than vice versa. Cultural factors will also come into play in assessing the value of lived theology. Academic theology has a long tradition in Europe where theology was a central discipline when the oldest universities were established. A Bible study group in which the students are all equal in their reading of the Scriptures rather fits a more democratic spirit. A Spirit-guided prophet naturally fits the African worldview.

This means that the place of lived theology in theological reflection – or the theology of lived theology – should itself be part of intercultural theological conversations. What place is given to which voices? What are the theological reasons or intuitions behind these choices? How are these shaped by social location and cultural context? Intercultural theology can only be truly open to the intercultural ‘other’ (and to the Spirit guiding the intercultural ‘other’) if one does not decide beforehand about the theological value of lived theologies but allows them to be heard according to their proper self-understanding – and their understanding of how God speaks and guides (cf. van den Toren 2015).

The Use of Lived Theology in Academic Reflection

Academic theology in Africa tends to be more closely engaged with the lived theology of local Christian communities than does academic theology in Europe and North America. This is partly due to institutional and cultural factors. Academic theology in the North has developed into a specialized profession in which many publications are mainly written for academic peers. In general, African theologians do not have that luxury – or temptation. Furthermore, unlike in Africa, academic theology in the North is profoundly shaped by an academic climate that has a strong tendency to keep God and personal faith outside the world of the academy which is supposed to be secular and religiously neutral (Volf and Croasmun 2019, 45–57; Gregory 2012, 298–364). Consequently, in practice many theologians in the North are more engaged in religious studies than in theology, while many religious studies faculties in Africa are effectively engaged in theological reflection (Wijsen 2003, 44f).

Some forms of African theology make the link with grassroots communities explicit in their methods. One example is found in biblical scholarship that engages in “contextual Bible study” with local communities (West 2014). However, in many other forms of African theology, the link between lived theology and academic theology is not itself a matter of critical reflection. We suppose that it is often the life experience of the academic theologians and their involvement in ministry, mission and activism that is the most important link. This link is often made explicit in these writings, but in academic theological reflection the sources of lived theology are not always given the sustained and critical attention they merit. On the other hand, we note that the life of religious communities in Africa is given sustained attention by sociologists of religion and other experts in religious studies, but, more often than not, their perspectives are not studied as proper theological contributions themselves, nor are they brought into theological conversations.

The purpose of the African Theology Worldwide website and the Bibliographical Encyclopaedia of African Theology is to enable African voices to be better heard in worldwide theological conversations. According to the editors in principle, these global theological conversations should be intercultural conversations and more so than has been realized thus far. This means that the lived theology of local Christian communities must be taken into account much more in academic theological conversations, precisely because this is where theology is most deeply engaged with different contexts and their particularities. We are grateful for the growing interest in ‘lived theology’ (Marsh, Slade, and Azaransky 2016), ‘ordinary theology’ (Astley 2002) and ‘operant and espoused theology’ (Cameron et al. 2010). However, there is, still much work to be done; not only to bring such sources to attention, but also to reflect on their value and place in theological reflection. Sometimes the attention to ‘lived theology’ may reflect a loss of confidence in traditional theological authorities, and particularly in the Scriptures and their ability to guide the churches. However, the study of the ‘grassroots theology’ of theologies in the Global South shows that these theologies can often be combined with a high view of the Scriptures (Chan 2014; Jenkins 2006). Further study is needed on how the Scriptures are effectively used in such grassroots theologies and how this should be evaluated theologically. Some approaches to lived theology do explore methods that allow for a critical conversation between operant and espoused theologies on the one hand, and normative and formal (academic) voices of church theology on the other. One such example is the “theology in four voices” model (Cameron et al. 2010). There is a need for further intercultural theological conversations on the interaction between lived theology and other theological voices.

One way we do intend to contribute to these reflections on the role of lived theology in theological conversations is by pointing to relevant contributions. Therefore, all the articles in the Bibliographical Encyclopaedia of African Theology have a section on ‘Primary Resources Online’. These are examples of lived theology in forms such as sermons, film clips, artwork, songs, news items, manifestos etc. Although there is much more material available, we have chosen to limit ourselves to what is accessible on the internet, so that it can be easily consulted rather than sought for in museums or archives. These examples can be used as illustrations in classroom settings and are invitations to look for more and similar materials as the starting point for further research. We hope that this enables intercultural theological conversations that get closer to the life of believers and therefore closer to where the rubber hits the road and theology engages with concrete contexts in all their complexity and messiness. This will then foster further discussion about the questions we started to explore in this contribution concerning the precise value and role of the voices of lived theology in conversation with academic theological voices and with the Scriptures.

The effort to collect telling examples of lived theology online is necessarily a collaborative project. We invite others to point us and fellow users of this website to good examples of lived theology that can contribute to our contextual and intercultural explorations and conversations. Such contributions can be made either to existing thematic bibliographies or by proposing a new bibliography.


Astley, Jeff. 2002. Ordinary Theology: Looking, Listening and Learning in Theology. Aldershot, Hants, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Bediako, Kwame. 1995. ‘The Primal Imagination and the Opportunity for a New Theological Idiom’. In Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion, 91–108. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Between a Shoe and the Roof. 2015.

Cameron, Helen, Deborah Bhatti, Catherine Duce, James Sweeney, and Clare Watkins. 2010. Talking about God in Practice: Theological Action Research and Practical Theology. London: SCM Press.

Chan, Simon. 2014. Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press.

Gregory, Brad S. 2012. The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Jenkins, Philip. 2006. The New Faces of Christianity Believing the Bible in the Global South. Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA.

Kalu, Ogbu. 2008. African Pentecostalism: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kisala, Robert. 2004. ‘Urbanization and Religion’. In New Approaches to the Study of Religion: Volume 2: Textual, Comparative, Sociological, and Cognitive Approaches, edited by Peter Antes, Armin W. Geertz, and Randi R. Warne, 255–74. Berlin; New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Marsh, Charles, Peter Slade, and Sarah Azaransky, eds. 2016. Lived Theology: New Perspectives on Method, Style, and Pedagogy. 1 edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mbiti, John S. 1972. ‘Some African Concepts of Christology’. In Christ and the Younger Churches, edited by George F. Vicedom and Jose Miguez Bonino, 51–62. Theological Collections 15. London: SPCK.

Omenyo, Cephas. 2002. ‘Charismatic Churches in Ghana and Contextualization’. Exchange 31 (3): 252–77.

Turner, Harold W. 1965. Profile through Preaching; a Study of the Sermon Texts Used in a West African Independent Church. London: Edinburgh House Press.

Van den Toren, Benno. 2015. ‘Intercultural Theology as a Three-Way Conversation: Beyond the Western Dominance of Intercultural Theology’. Exchange 44: 123–43.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J., Charles A. Anderson, and Michael J. Sleasman, eds. 2007. Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.

Volf, Miroslav, and Matthew Croasmun. 2019. For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

Watkins, Clare. 2015. ‘Practising Ecclesiology: From Product to Process: Developing Ecclesiology as a Non-Correlative Process and Practice through the Theological Action Research Framework of Theology in Four Voices’. Ecclesial Practices 2 (1): 23–39.

West, Gerald O. 2014. ‘Locating “Contextual Bible Study” within Biblical Liberation Hermeneutics and Intercultural Biblical Hermeneutics: Original Research’. HTS : Theological Studies 70 (1): 1–10.

Wijsen, Frans Jozef Servaas. 2003. ‘New Wine in Old Wineskins? Intercultural Theology Instead of Missiology’. In Towards an Intercultural Theology: Essays in Honour of Jan A. B. Jongeneel, edited by Martha Theodora Frederiks, Meindert Dijkstra, and Anton W. J. Houtepen, 39–54. Zoetermeer: Uitgeverij Meinema.

How to Cite this Resource

Van den Toren, Benno. “Researching African Lived Theology: The Value of Non-Traditional Sources in Contextual and Intercultural Theology.” African Theology Research Guide. 26 February 2021. Accessed [enter date of access].

PTHU Master of Theology



Sign up here to receive the ATW Newsletter, which provides updates about the platform and showcases valuable resources, as well as special announcements related to the field of African Christian Theology.