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I Understand
Volume 7.1 / The Kingdom of God in Africa: A History of African Christianity

Book Review

Shaw  Gitau

The Kingdom of God in Africa: A History of African Christianity

Book Authors: Mark Shaw and Wanjiru M. Gitau
Publisher: Cumbria, UK: Langham Global Library, 2020. pp. 368. $29.99, paper.
Reviewed by Robert Gyakye Coleman

As African Christianity continues to become a significant player in world Christianity, the need to be familiar with its nature and history is increasingly coming to the fore. The present work by Shaw and Gitau, which is the revised edition of Shaw’s earlier book The Kingdom of God in Africa: A Short History of African Christianity contributes to meeting this need. But it does more, however. It contributes to the discussions regarding the “Africanness” of Christianity. Mark Shaw serves as a professor of Historical Studies and also as director of the Centre for World Christianity at Africa International University in Nairobi, Kenya, while Wanjiru M. Gitau teaches World Christianity and Practical Theology at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida, USA, and also serves as a research fellow of Virginia Theological Seminary in Virginia, USA.

The authors trace the two-thousand-year history of the existence of Christianity in Africa which fulfills the book’s aim of portraying “the African church’s long struggle to be an effective witness to the one it worships as risen from the dead” (p. 16). The church in African has wrestled and continues to wrestle with the kingdom of God. The book begins with an introductory chapter that discusses four major approaches that have been adopted in the writing of African Christian history – Missionary Historiography, Nationalist Historiography, Ecumenical Historiography, and the perspective of World Christianity. The remainder of the book is divided into four main parts. Part one, entitled “The Imperial Rule of God: Beginnings to AD 600,” consists of three chapters and has as its focus the examination of how the gospel was first translated into the African context. Part two is entitled “The Clash of Kingdoms: Medieval African Christianity (600–1700)” and is comprised of three chapters that look at the theocratic understanding of Medieval African Christians as well as the theocratic mission of the Portuguese to Africa’s coasts. Part three is under the title “The Reign of Christ: African Christianity in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” and contains four chapters highlighting the evangelical emphasis on the rule of Christ in the hearts Africans in the early modern era. Part four, entitled “The Kingdom on Earth: African Christianity in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries” consists of three chapters that provide an update of Christianity in modern Africa.

The authors take a World Christianity approach in their task of telling the African Christian story since they believe it builds on the strengths of other three major approaches. They assert that “the discipline of World Christianity is shaped by this quest to move beyond euro-centric approaches and … focuses on both non-Western expressions of Christian faith and non-Western perspectives on the movement of this Christianity around the world” (p. 9). The presentation of the story of African Christian history is enriched by the authors’ insightful theological reflections which help to put the history in a theological perspective. This is consistent with their belief that “Christian perspectives on African Christian history are a necessary part of doing proper Christian history” (p. 5). What becomes clear through the narrations of the various episodes of African Christian history and the authors’ reflections is that the various generations of the African church have succeeded only in portraying aspects of Christ, but have never captured “the whole Christ” (p. 17). The African church has endeavoured to appropriate the gospel of the kingdom for her society variously, through theocracies, social actions, and also through the evangelical emphasis on the reign of Christ in the heart of the African.

This revised edition is not a radical expansion of the first edition, although parts have been rewritten and some headings have been altered; it is slightly bigger but with slightly fewer pages. Chapter one has been rewritten and is no longer under Part 1. Whereas the earlier edition’s chapter one discussed only two major approaches to the writing of African Christian history – missionary and nationalist historiographies – the revised edition discusses four. Also, the previous edition’s study followed H. R. Niebuhr’s tripartite pattern of kingdom approach – the kingdom as the (1) sovereign reign of God, (2) redemptive rule of Christ, and (3) coming utopia of justice. The revised edition has sympathies for the World Christianity approach.

There have been some rearrangements too. For example, graphic illustrations, which were confined to the appendix in the first version, have now been made an integral part of the main text, thus eliminating the inconvenience of having to flip pages back and forth while reading. A few more graphic illustrations have been added as well. The last chapter (chapter 15) in the earlier edition entitled “The Presence of the Kingdom – Lessons from the African Story” has been removed. That chapter comprised a review of the ways in which the authors believed the presence of the kingdom had been witnessed to by African Christianity (as noted, this was influenced by Niebuhr’s model), and the suggested lessons that may be drawn from them. The change in the approach seems to have influenced this removal. The present work includes no preface. While there seems to be an espousal of a different approach to the study, the thrust of the theological reflections in the revised edition is the same as that of the earlier edition: African Christianity has struggled without success to achieve a balanced witness to the gospel of the kingdom.

In chapter after chapter, the authors present the story of African Christianity in an engaging and fast-paced manner which makes it difficult to lay the book aside. A downside of the book is that, because of the riveting nature of the African Christian history and the engaging way in which the authors present it in many of the sections, a curious reader may be left in a position where he wants to know more. The concise nature of the book, however, makes that impossible. The book, it seems, is intended to serve as an introductory text, as was captured in its first edition’s subtitle “A Short History of African Christianity.” Since the authors attempt to capture the two thousand-year history of African Christianity in a concise single-volume, only succinct overviews are presented on the various topics. This acknowledgement notwithstanding, in light of the fact that Pentecostalism/Charismatism has seen phenomenal explosion in recent decades, and is now the face of African Christianity, I would have expected the authors to have given a lot more coverage to its practices and theology than they do. Also, not much discussion is given to the subject of the evolution of formal theological education across the continent. Certainly, theological education has played a significant role in the African church’s “struggle to be an effective witness,” whether one is looking at seminaries or Bible schools. Recent trends also show that Pentecostals/charismatics, who previously abhorred formal theological education, have started embracing it. These are significant aspects of the story of God’s kingdom in Africa. A reader who seeks in-depth treatment of particular subjects in this book may follow up from the works listed in the book’s impressive bibliography.

Overall, the book is very readable and an excellent resource for introducing students to African Christian history. It is engaging, well researched, enriched with critical theological insights, and is a great contribution to the literature on world Christianity. Thus, this is a valuable book for any who have an interest in the history of African Christianity and will serve well both the casual reader and the beginning student of African Christianity.

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