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A theological question: teaching the atonement in a Tanzanian context

Before the Throne of God Above, Rock of Ages, And Can it Be: these are some of the hymns I sing to Elliot as I rock him to sleep. They are the hymns I love because their themes stir my heart. They’re about the work of Christ on the cross, and about knowing that I am no longer an object of condemnation in the eyes of God. They swell to include the fantastic hope of being face to face with God one day.

Consider how these themes play in a Tanzanian context.

John Mbiti, writing generally about African indigenous worldview, says:

Belief in the continuation of life after death is found in all African societies, as far as I have been able to discover. But this belief does not constitute a hope for a future and better life. To live here and now is the most important concern of African religious activities and beliefs. There is little if any concern with the distinctly spiritual welfare of man apart from his physical life… There is neither paradise to be hoped for nor hell to be feared in the hereafter. The soul of man does not long for spiritual redemption, or for closer contact with God in the next world.

Those very themes which are so dear to me, and so prominent in my reading of Scripture may be ho-hum to Tanzanians, or even seem irrelevant. In this context, liberation theology seems to have a lot to offer, and I’m still trying to work out how I feel about that!

This brings me to one of the questions that’s been simmering for me as I’ve worked at listening to Tanzanian voices and African theologians: how do you talk about the atonement in a Tanzanian context? Maybe a question before that is even should you talk about the atonement in a Tanzanian context, but as I read the gospels, and Jesus’ own preoccupation with his death and resurrection, I feel that we must!

I’m a long way off having answers on this question, but the ideas that I currently have are:

  • to emphasise the victory elements of the cross
  • to think about accessing a King Jesus gospel rather than a ‘Plan of Salvation’ gospel
  • to develop a practical theology of the cross, kind of like Death By Love, but aimed at Tanzanian life and culture
  • to remain hooked into the Mission as Transformation discussion to see where and how the atonement features there.

Categories: Tanzania Uncategorized Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

4 replies

  1. Thanks for your thoughts Tamie. Could this be why the prosperity gospel is big in Africa?
    On the King Jesus gospel idea… it could incorporate ideas of God being Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Created to have God as King which was impacted by the Fall, redeemed (restored) back into being able to come into God’s presence (bring petitions, pleas, give thanks and praise) and sanctified in preparation of the King’s return. Jesus’ parables could bring out these elements, which may help connect such ideas with those you live with.

    1. Hi Devan, this certainly plays into the prosperity discussion (I’m sure you’ve seen Arthur’s recent posts.) One pastor friend said to us that prosperity gospel is big because the missionary gospel only spoke to the afterlife (‘get into heaven’) without addressing every day issues. There’s a hole there that prosperity gospel fills.

  2. Hey guys, have you thought any more about this, further down the track? :) [I’m currently writing some college projects on contextualization and atonement in non-Western cultures].

    For example, if this is true of African society: “There is little if any concern with the distinctly spiritual welfare of man apart from his physical life.”

    How do you think continual reading of the bible end-to-end would re-shape and speak into this culture world-view?

    In other words: whilst we want to think about how to adapt our theology and way of speaking to the context, how and when do locals within the context let Scripture enlarge/critique their worldview?

    Any thoughts welcome!

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