In every culture, people have co-opted terms to describe the manner in which to best represent Christ. To the Jewish mind in the first century, he was seen to fulfill offices from the nation’s covenantal past—titles such as prophet, priest, and king. No single term adequately described the totality of Jesus, so the combination was used to try and convey the totality of who Jesus was and how the church was to understand his life and mission. For those living in the Western world, the role of Jesus is inherited through centuries of debate concerning his divinity and centrality to the Christian message. The titles which the church bestows upon him, Christ or Lord, have lost significant meaning because they have become synonymous with Jesus himself due to frequent usage. These terms have a rich meaning and, in their original context, conveyed a dramatic connotation. In contexts where terms have become stagnant or have no frame of reference, existing terms must be utilized
This essay will examine an African perspective on the role of Jesus, that of ancestor, and demonstrate this understanding through the illustration of Colossians 1:15-20. The goal of this exercise is to understand how a non-Biblical title for Jesus may communicate truth about his position among his people.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
Titles such as “firstborn over all creation” place Jesus in a category of universal ancestor, as all of humanity descends from him. Examining the Lukan genealogy reinforces this notion, as the author draws the physical lineage of Jesus back to the creation of the first man (Dietrich 2002:61). The significance of the firstborn also conveys a place of prominence among other ancestors. As the elder brother of other ancestors, he has the role of spiritual authority, community mediator, and protector of the clan (Pope-Levison 1992:102-3). This understanding places him as the representative of God to the world.
For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
In addition to having an eminent relationship to creation, the text continues (in verses 16 and 17) to describe his action in creation, stating that “by him all things were created…all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together”. While other texts will convey the pre-existence of Christ, the understanding of ancestor places him as an integral part of the spiritual reality, not only as an originator, but as one that represents the meaning for creation and the unity of all things (“in heaven or on earth, visible and invisible”) He becomes the key to understanding the meaning of creation and the community’s relationship within it.
The African worldview does not categorize the world in terms of Western dichotomies of natural and spiritual, but rather views all of creation—near and far as well as past, present, and future—as belonging to the continuation of a common spirit. This spirit-world includes the presence of ancestors and distinguishes significance for future descendents. (Pope-Levison 1992:94)
And he is the head of the body, the church…
To continue the thought of the previous section, as Christ holds all things together, he also holds together the church. Jesus as ancestor establishes him as the head of the community which descends from him. In this instance, it is not his physical descendents, but those who have followed after him in faith through a new covenant with God. Nyamiti notes that the traditional (read Western) approach to Christology has focused entirely upon the person of Jesus and not the connection between him and the church. He writes that they have “paid almost exclusive attention to the Head, but not to the whole of Christ, Head and members” (Nyamiti 1984:48, in Tennent 2007:126). Ancestor Christology frames the church as the continuation in the spirit-power of Christ expressed in the community which has followed him. The person of Jesus is thus the defining and formative personality which the community is seeking to replicate in their life together.
The significance of recognizing Jesus as a common ancestor can also begin to address cultural and ethnic tensions that exist within the African context. Broad differences between different regions of the continent as well as differences due to nationalism, tribalism, and ethnic prejudice can begin to be addressed by the local church when it frames its existence in originating from the same source. This invites participants into a new and larger tribal affiliation which supersedes the former distinctions that divided them. This terminology also reinforces the right that the African church has to belong to the global church, as they can trace their roots back to Jesus himself, rather than trace their faith through the missionary efforts of Westerners. In speaking to their Nana Yesu, or Ancestor Jesus, the imagery in the collective mind of the church is reiterated that Jesus can speak to the African heart without Western translation (Bediako 1998:110).
…he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have supremacy.
A reading of the gospels will reveal that life after death is not unique to Jesus. Before the resurrection of Jesus, there is described the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mt. 9:23-26; Mk. 5:38-42; Lk. 8:49-55), Lazarus at Bethany (Jn. 11:43-44), and a crowd of saints at the time of Jesus’ death (Mt. 27-52-53). Again, for Jesus to be the firstborn does not necessitate chronological position, but designates importance. In the question of Jesus’ relationship as ancestor to other cultural and spiritual ancestors, his position as firstborn establishes his authority over them. He has become the “proto-ancestor” who more fully illuminates what the traditional ancestors sought to convey.
To understand Christ as “firstborn among the dead” in the ancestral sense affirms his continued presence within the practical life of his descendents. He is not relegated to an ethereal existence, but inhabits the tangible life of the community as he directs its life and provides a template for what it means to live a faithful life. Not all physical ancestors receive this distinction, but as they are established as prominent ancestors, they possess this spirit. “An ancestor’s ‘re-instatement establishes his continued relevance for his society, not as a ghost, but as a regulative force for the social relations and activities that persist as a deposit, so to speak, of his life and career’” (Bediako 1997:219).
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all thing, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Ancestor Christology also takes seriously the role that Jesus has as the mediator through whom God acts through in relation to creation. God, in his supremacy, cannot directly approach the lesser levels of creation, nor can humanity interact directly with the Supreme Being. Jesus as ancestor inhabits what has been termed a “second tier” between the two groups and represents each to the other (Tennent 2007: 123). This ancestor earns this capacity by living a life that deserves veneration. As Bediako writes, “…Christ, by virtue of his Incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension into the realm of spirit-power, can rightly be designated, in African terms, as Ancestor, indeed Supreme Ancestor”(1997:217). To view Christ as ancestor reminds his descendents of his continued relevance for interpreting life and provides the example of what it looks like to fully live the life that is purposed for creation.
In beginning to examine the manner in which ancestor can be a term to communicate the role of Jesus and his relationship to the church, we affirm the need for the gospel message to be translatable to differing contexts. These local theologies can more adequately form the minds of the local church because they inhabit existing worldviews. This essay has taken a broad look at a general concept pervasive in much of African traditional culture, although every context will present possible templates upon which to present an image of Christ that is understood by the minds and hearts of the people. From this place of resemblance, the uniqueness of Christ can begin to be expressed in a contextually appropriate manner.
Bediako, Kwame. 1997. Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
_____. 1998. “The Doctrine of Christ and the Significance of Vernacular Theology” International Bulletin of Missionary Research. 22, no. 3 (July 1998): 110.
Dietrich, Walter and Ulrich Luz. 2002. The Bible in a World Context. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing.
Nyamiti, Charles. 1984. Christ as Our Ancestor: Christology from an African Perspective. Gweru, Zim.: Mambo Publishing.
Pope-Levison, Priscilla and John Levison. 1992. Jesus in Global Contexts. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.