Nyamiti, Charles

1931-2020
Catholic Church
Tanzania , Kenya

Charles Nyamiti

We begin this tribute in honor of Rev. Prof. Fr. Charles Nyamiti with the following obituary announcement. Originally written in Swahili, the obituary was published on the website homepage of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA), Nairobi, Kenya, on May 20, 2020, a day after Nyamiti’s demise in his country home of Tanzania.

His Excellency Paul Ruzoka of the Catholic Archdiocese of Tabora is announcing the death of Father Charles Nyamiti on May 19, 2020, at 5:00 am at the hospital of St. Anna, Ipili – Tabora. The funeral of our Grandfather Professor Fr. Charles Nyamiti is expected to take place on Thursday, May 21, 2020, at 10:00 am at the cemetery of the Archdiocese in Itaga. Information may reach to the Priesthood Community in Tabora and wherever they are, to Religious, relatives and all friends wherever they are. [1]

Nyamiti had spent most of his career as university professor and scholar at CUEA in Nairobi from 1983 to 2019. He then returned to his home archdiocese of Tabora, where he died on May 19, 2020. Today, Africa mourns Prof. Nyamiti, the vibrant pioneer of inculturated African Christian theology and a founding scholar of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa. Called to the glory of heaven in the early hours of May 19, 2020, in his country home of Tanzania, the remains of this great pioneer African theologian and first-class scholar were laid to rest on Thursday, May 21, 2020, in his home archdiocese of Tabora after the funeral mass at the cathedral. His writings were seminal contributions leading to the global recognition of what we call today African Christology and African Christian theology in general. Nyamiti is indisputably a central figure among pioneer African theologians. His writings have helped to restore the dignity of African people and to rehabilitate the long scorned African religious and cultural heritage, making it into an indispensable source for authentic African Christian theology among the theological sciences of our time. Today, it is no longer taboo to discuss or write about African theology and Christology in theological faculties across the globe, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Nyamiti and others of his generation of African theologians. This was something unthinkable until recent times in many universities and faculties of theology in the Western world and elsewhere, including Africa itself, where the local churches are still under the heavy monitoring influence of the mother churches from the Western hemisphere. Furthermore, many students of theology, Africans and non-Africans alike, can freely discuss or write their licentiate and doctoral dissertations on themes of African theology, as well as on the thought of pioneer African theologians. Like many others, I have benefitted from the pioneering work of African scholars of Nyamiti’s generation ever since my years as a university student.

Biographical Note

Charles Nyamiti was born in 1931, one of three brothers and four sisters, to Christian parents, Theophilus Chambi Chambigulu and Helen Nyasolo, who belonged to the Wanyamwezi people of Tanzania. Nyamiti’s great interest in blending his Christian faith with an African worldview through theological reflection was a logical result of the cultural socialization his parents gave him growing up surrounded by Wanyamwezi culture and Tanzanian philosophy. After the usual primary and high school education, Nyamiti studied for the priesthood at the prestigious Kipalapala Major Seminary in Tabora, Tanzania, where he acquired his philosophical and theological formation. At that time, the emphasis in philosophy was Thomistic philosophy, which was to have tremendous influence on him. Much of his published literature depends on the Thomistic methodology of metaphysical and theological investigations and reflections. Ordained a Catholic priest in 1962, Nyamiti was sent to Louvain University in Belgium from 1963 to 1969, where he graduated with a doctorate in Systematic/Dogmatic Theology and a certificate in Music Theory and Piano. From Louvain, he was sent to Vienna, where he studied Cultural Anthropology and Music Composition, graduating with another doctorate and licentiate respectively. Nyamiti then returned to Tanzania where he served as a professor at his alma mater, Kipalapala Major Seminary, from 1976-1981. During that time, he also served as a co-worker in some neighboring parishes. In 1983, Nyamiti moved to Nairobi to found what is today CUEA. He continued to serve at CUEA, even after retirement, until he returned to his home archdiocese of Tabora, Tanzania, in 2019. As a university professor and an eminent theologian, Nyamiti was a global scholar, always in high demand throughout the academic world. For over ten years, he was consultor to the Vatican Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, a co-editor of African Christian Studies, and a founding member of the Ecumenical Theological Symposium of Scholars from Eastern Africa and of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT). He was a resource person for the Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops. Nyamiti’s academic and scholarly input, apart from his numerous publications, is also evident from the students he inspired and mentored. Since his theological perspective and methodology are Africa-oriented and specifically rooted in an African worldview and in Christianity, Nyamiti influenced many young minds and inspired them to work on theology and philosophy within the African context and perspective. Among the many people who wrote their doctoral theses on Nyamiti’s works are the Finnish scholar Mika Vahakanga, the Lutheran scholar Stephen Munga who published a book on Nyamiti as champion in the inculturation trend, and Mana Buthelezi, an expert in liberational perspectives. Many other students in Africa, Europe, the Americas, and Asia have written their licentiate and doctoral dissertations on the theology of Nyamiti.

Nyamiti’s Theological Vision

Patrick N. Wachege, Nyamiti’s biographer, gives the following summary of Nyamiti’s theological vision:

His vision for African theology is the realization of an African theology of reconstruction. A kind of African theology which will authentically and scientifically marry the inculturation approach with the orientation of liberation theology adhering strictly to orthodoxy and relevance to our changing society and new economic, political and cultural realities. He would wish to be remembered most in this realization, through the students who have successfully passed through him and in his published works. [2]

Nyamiti’s works reveal his theological methodology to be metaphysical, speculative, systematic, and in some cases, abstract in a deductive sense. He chose to publish more articles than books, thus having only few major monographs and many published articles, too numerous to mention – some of which are “books” in and of themselves – to his credit. Internationally renowned scholars like Karl Rahner did the same. As a result, Rahner has to his name twenty volumes of combined articles titled Theological Investigations. We look forward to the day CUEA will collect and publish Nyamiti’s numerous articles in volumes under the theme of “African Inculturated Theological Inquiry.” CUEA owes that to Nyamiti, to Africa, and to the global academic community. In his theological endeavor, Nyamiti and Karl Rahner have much in common. Like Rahner, Nyamiti was a hardworking, bold, studious, deeply Catholic, and orthodox scholar. However, like other genuinely creative theologians, people suspected him and misunderstood him at a critical stage when he was developing his methodology for African theology. But he never gave up. He remained authentically African as well as a devout, orthodox Catholic. Throughout, he never tolerated nonsense in his search for knowledge and truth and always stood by his principles.

Trends in Nyamiti’s African Theology

Although Nyamiti laid out his theological methodology and perspective in several papers, he did so most fully in Christ as Our Ancestor: Christology from an African Perspective (1984). Benezet Bujo, the celebrated Congolese African theologian, recognized the exceptional initiative in Nyamiti’s work. However, he criticized him for trying to fashion African theology on the model of European speculative scholastic and neo-scholastic tradition. To this criticism, Nyamiti responded, “Does eating African rice with a European spoon make the rice also European?” Both theologians took the African understanding of “ancestor” as a point of departure for their reflection, although they developed it along different lines.

Nyamiti’s Christology

Nyamiti attributes to Christ the title of “Brother-Ancestor.” Hence, while Bujo places Christ, the Proto-Ancestor, at the transcendental level, Nyamiti chooses to place Christ, the Brother-Ancestor, at the “biological” level. In this respect, Nyamiti chooses a restricted meaning of the term “ancestor.” For him, the most appropriate meaning of the term for theological purposes is the understanding of ancestor as the immediate parent of given individuals. Within this context, Nyamiti applies the human ancestral relationship (analogically) to the inner life of God (the Trinity) to show that there is a kind of ancestral kinship among the divine persons. The Father is the Ancestor of the Son, the Son is the Descendant of the Father. These two Persons live their ancestral kinship through the Spirit whom they mutually communicate to us as their ancestral oblation and Eucharist. The Spirit is reciprocally donated not only in token of their mutual love as Gift but also on behalf of the homage to their reciprocal holiness (as oblation) and gratitude to their beneficences to each other (as Eucharist). This type of relationship can only be realized in the Holy Spirit, and it is always lived by mutual donation of the divine Spirit between ancestor and descendant. On how we are related to Christ as our “Brother-Ancestor,” Nyamiti employs a number of arguments. One of these is his claim that the goal of the activity of the earthly Jesus was to show that we can call him our “Brother-Ancestor.” That goal was the restoration of our primordial beatitude which includes our divine adoptive state as offspring lost because of our sins. In other words, this was the bridging of the gap, brought by the fall, between us and our heavenly Ancestor. This was also the objective of Jesus’ prophetic, pastoral, and priestly offices, each of which, in its own way, embodies and manifests his power and excellence. This same objective was also the goal of Christ’s Ancestorship itself. To achieve it, the eternal Descendant hypostatically assumed our humanity, and thereby became forever our Brother-Ancestor and, at the same time, bridged the unhappy gap by uniting divinity and humanity in an intimacy that infinitely surpassed the one before the fall. Therefore, Nyamiti affirms that Christ is our Brother-Ancestor because through him and in the divine Spirit, we have been reconciled with God and made partakers of the Trinitarian life. Likewise, through Christ the Ancestor, we, his descendants, have contact with the Spirit, whom Christ offers us as a Gift (that is, a free and gratuitous donation), but not as oblation. We communicate the Spirit to Christ and through him to the Father—as expression of love, homage (oblation), and thanksgiving. But we do not offer him as a free Gift, because, as descendants of the Logos and the Father, we have the duty and the responsibility to communicate him to them as that which is due to them by strict right. Nyamiti compares this to the intrinsic function of grace, especially as conveyed through the sacraments. Again, Nyamiti notes that by actually restoring unto us our happy condition and friendship with God, Christ factualizes his own Ancestorship. His ancestral activity was, moreover, brought about gradually and will be fully accomplished at his second coming, when he will not only completely bridge the gap by erasing all sin and its consequences in us, but will also restore our personal intimacy with God and transform our being in a way that immeasurably exceeds our primordial happy condition. For besides being our Creator and divine Brother in grace as he was before the fall, he will then become our Brother-Ancestor in the fullest and most factual sense of the term. Furthermore, Nyamiti notes that God could become our Ancestor without the mediation of his incarnate Son by bestowing on us his divine life. But it was his will to establish his ancestorship to us through Christ. He thereby deepened our descendancy in him and raised our human ancestors to a higher level. Indeed, through Christ, God’s Ancestorship somehow acquired characteristics of human ancestorship. In the Incarnation, God has become—like human ancestors—an Ancestor through a man (Jesus). Just as human ancestors can operate mystically only after death, so also can God’s ancestorship bear its fruits for us only after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through the communication of the Holy Spirit. Again, Nyamiti argues that through the Incarnation, God’s ancestorship has become like human ancestorship by including mediation between God and men (Christ, the one mediator). In other words, through Christ, God has assumed unto himself the human qualities of ancestorship. In this way, thanks to his Ancestorship, Christ has, in a certain sense, humanized the Ancestorship of his Father and brought it closer to the African type. Thus, through the redeemer, the Father’s immanent Ancestorship has become economic. Indeed, the ultimate goal of Christ’s Ancestorship is to make us adopted descendants of the Father, since our descendancy in the Father is “an added quality of our grace of sonship.” Nyamiti adds that by incorporating the human ancestors in himself, Christ does not suppress their human natural mediation. He united them to himself as family, clan, or tribal ancestors. Hence, ancestral veneration, even when Christianized, is essentially different from the “cult of the saints.” The former is necessarily connected with blood relationship, whereas the latter transcends such relationship. It is for this reason, according to Nyamiti, that the cult of the saints may not be replaced by ancestral veneration. For in this matter too, the principle of the Incarnation holds good: through Christ, human ancestorship is divinized without losing its human qualities. But the ancestors become—through Christ—even more powerful and efficient than before, since their mediation becomes mystically united to that of Christ. Thus, humanity in its totality, including its ancestorship, was destined to be incorporated and perfected in Christ. All this is in keeping with the principle that grace does not destroy nature but presupposes it and perfects it. However, critics say that one major pitfall in Nyamiti’s Christology is his attempt to incorporate the past (that is, pre-Christian) ancestors into the life of Christ, the Brother Ancestor. It is not clear how the life of Christ is imparted to these biological ancestors, whether it is on the basis of a common grace (as Nyamiti seems to say) or by a kind of universalism derived from the efficacy of the resurrection. If Christ is the mystical and spiritual Brother-Ancestor, how can he be related to biological ancestors who are not strictly within the community bound together by faith? Be that as it may, Nyamiti remains a major voice in relating scientifically and systematically African Ancestral Christology to the mystery of the Trinity. Most of his critics have focused on the moral and cultural implications of African Ancestral Christology.

Nyamiti’s Ecclesiology

Nyamiti also has something to say on the relevance of Ancestorship Christology to African ecclesiology (the African reading of Christian community, the Church). He speaks of the Church in terms of what he calls “Koinonia in Ancestors.” By this, he means that African ecclesiology is inseparable from the idea of the tripartite Church, and therefore is radically incompatible with a purely secular ecclesiology. The Church is related in various ways to Christ, the Ancestor. He is the ancestor of all Church members who are his descendants. In this way, he is the ancestral link of the tripartite Church—the triumphant Church in heaven, the suffering Church in purgatory, and the militant Church on earth. Nyamiti argues that Christ shares his ancestorship with the members of the triumphant Churches, namely with the saints in heaven and purgatory—including the African ancestors who died in him. Through him, these are ancestors of the members of the militant Church on earth, and of every earthly human being. Thus, the Church is the extension of Christ’s Ancestorship to human communities. The implication of this for members of the Church has much to be desired, notes Nyamiti. For it implies the exercise of our Savior’s ancestral function by the individual believer “in, and by means of, the Church through the incarnation, through his prophetic, pastoral and priestly functions through his healing ministry, through his divine Spirit, and through the saints in the next world.” Nyamiti notes that this is carried out in the spirit of koinonia borrowing from the Trinitarian life. In this way, the Church, which is the continuation of the mystery of Christ in human communities, witnesses through these functions and lives of her members that she is indeed the medium and organ of Christ’s ancestorship to humankind. However, critics say that Nyamiti has devoted less attention to the basic difference that exists between the baptized in Christ and the African ancestors. Those who make up the tripartite Church are the baptized in Christ. The members of the suffering or triumphant Churches are Christians who followed and bore witness to Christ, the risen Lord. But how the African ancestors, who neither witnessed the Paschal mystery nor are baptized in Christ, could be counted members of the tripartite Church is not well developed in Nyamiti’s theology. But at least, he has shown us the way for developing an African Ancestral Ecclesiology.

Nyamiti’s African Spirituality

For Nyamiti, all our supernatural activities (prayer, good works, reception of the sacraments) become the means for deepening human and divine ancestorship for us. Just as human descendants have the duty to be in regular contact with their ancestors through prayers and ritual offerings, so also Christians must be in contact with their heavenly Ancestor through religious activities and works that befit Christian existence. The holier a person is, the better ancestor or descendant he or she is, whereas a person in the state of sin has lost the basis for divine ancestorship and is badly disposed for filial relations with his or her ancestors. Furthermore, Nyamiti argues that since ancestors are archetypes of nature and behavior, as well as sources of tradition, Christians are bound to respect Christian tradition and to imitate their heavenly Ancestor. The great model here is Christ himself. In the same vein, in time of need and affliction, Christians should always turn to their divine Ancestor, for ancestors are also helpers and protectors. Christians who limit their efforts to earthly means in a time of difficulty act against African customs and fail to fulfil their ancestral duties to God, who is then entitled to punish their negligence. Finally, Nyamiti contends that, since African ancestors desire as many descendants as possible, it is the duty of filial piety for Christians to try to win as many converts to Christianity as possible. This implies that applying the idea of “ancestor” to God should lead to a renewed missionary spirit among Christians. In any case, critics say that in spite of the positive aspects of Nyamiti’s ancestorship model as it relates to the works of inculturation of Christian mystery in Africa, the fact is that the presence of lesser deities (and ancestor veneration) in African Traditional Religion still creates a great problem in the search for an authentic African Christology, ecclesiology, and spirituality. Be that as it may, none of the critics have given us anything new other than what has been said already by Nyamiti and a few others.

How and Where I Encountered Prof. Nyamiti

Nyamiti’s inculturated theology, especially his African Christology, formed the central point of my doctoral thesis in Rome between 1994 and 1998 when I was studying at the Pontifical Urbaniana University. Later, as a professor myself in this same university after my studies, I not only taught Nyamiti’s work in my class on African theology but also encouraged a good number of my students to choose topics for their dissertations related to Nyamiti’s theology, as well as the thought of other renowned pioneer African theologians. Thus I first met Nyamiti through his writing. It began when I was contemplating a topic for my licentiate thesis. I approached one of my professors at the Pontifical Urbaniana University to ask him to be the moderator for the thesis. I wanted him to direct my proposed thesis on Christology and proclamation in a pluralistic society in the light of Pope John Paul’s encyclical Redemptoris Missio. Looking at me and the theme, the professor, who is not an African but rather a Vietnamese scholar, a third world theologian, challenged me in a way I never imagined. The professor told me that the topic I had chosen was good but that it was Western in context, content, and scope. He told me that there was nothing new I would write on that others had not already written on. Moreover, he said that the topic addressed a context other than my African context; that no matter what I wrote, my work would never be judged original nor would it address my African context and scope. Then came the bombshell. The professor told me that some African scholars were talking about “Christ as our Ancestor,” “Christology from an African perspective,” “models for an African reading of the Mystery of Christ,” and so forth. He said that even though he did not completely share their views, he would like me to go, research the topic, read up on it, and come back. “If you think you can write about it, that will be good. Otherwise, we will look for another topic,” the professor told me. He gave me one month to do this and come back to him. That was how I met Nyamiti and other pioneer African theologians, anthropologists, and philosophers of note in a very personal and deep way. After my licentiate dissertation, which more or less was on elements in African Traditional Religion for an African reading of the mystery of Christ, I continued with the research in my doctoral thesis, entitled “Trends in African Theology since Vatican II.” In each of these moments, the thought of Charles Nyamiti loomed large. I first met Prof. Nyamiti in person during the 2000 Year Jubilee International Missiological Congress in Rome. It was a great privilege to say I was instrumental in inviting him and two other African scholars as resource persons and speakers at the event. The International Missiological Congress, held on October 17-20, 2000, at the Pontifical Urbaniana University, Rome, where I teach, was on the theme of “Christology and Mission Today.” The Congress was jointly organized by the Pontifical Urbaniana University and International Association for Catholic Missiologists (IACM). I was then the executive secretary of IACM. As a member of the planning committee for the International Missiological Congress, I insisted that, in choosing the speakers to invited, Africa and the other continents must all be equally represented. I put forth the names of three African scholars, Professors John S. Mbiti, Charles Nyamiti, and Benezet Bujo. Later, the committee and the Vatican officials invited them to the Congress. Indeed, it was a great opportunity for me to appreciate the contribution of these great African scholars to the development of African theology. You can imagine how happy I was sitting and socializing with these great men, our “ancestors” and legends in African theology, especially considering how young I was then in the university teaching profession. That was the first and the last time I spoke personally with Prof. Nyamiti. But I have never ceased to meet and dialogue with him through his numerous publications. In addition, I continue to encounter him through his former students from CUEA, now my students in Rome.

Conclusion

Today, Africa mourns Prof. Charles Nyamiti just few months after the demise of John S. Mbiti, another great pioneer of African theology. “How are the mighty falling?” Mbiti rehabilitated and brought into the limelight the latent theology hidden in African Traditional Religion (ATR and philosophy), to make it compete as an equal partner and as a religion in its own right with other great religions of the world. Charles Nyamiti, however, for his part, “baptized” the African religious and cultural heritage and helped to establish it in theological education as a major source for an inculturated systematic and scientific African Christian theology. With great perseverance, a sense of purpose, tenacity, and doggedness, but always sustained by his love and faith in Jesus Christ and the Church, Prof. Nyamiti through his numerous writings, publications, conferences, and other academic and pastoral engagements, gave the Church an inculturated African Christology—an African scientific and systematic theology per se, acceptable across cultures and lands. Nyamiti, through his numerous writings and scholarly productions, developed a theological methodology of inculturation that is truly African and truly Christian. With it, he raised the study of African Christian theology to the same level as the study of traditional Christian theology in faculties of theology and religious studies across the globe. Adieu, Prof. Charles Nyamiti. May the Angels and African “Ancestors,” our Saints in the faith about whom you have written so marvelously, receive you in the Kingdom of God in heaven! Amen!

Francis Anekwe Oborji


Notes: [1] Signed by Nyamiti’s bishop, Archbishop Paul Ruzoka of the Catholic archdiocese of Tabora, Tanzania, the above is our English translation of the obituary announcement. [2] See P. N. Wachege, “Charles Nyamiti: Vibrant Pioneer of Inculturated African Theology,” in African Theology: The Contribution of the Pioneers, edited by B. Bujo and J. Ilunga Muya (Nairobi, Kenya: Paulines Publications, 2006), 149-162.

Selected Works by Nyamiti:

Nyamiti, Charles. African Tradition and the Christian God. Spearhead Series, no. 49. Eldoret, Kenya: Gaba Publications, 1978. ——-. “Approaches to African Theology.” In The Emergent Gospel: Theology from the Underside of History, edited by S. Torres and V. Fabella, 31-45. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1978. ——-. The Way to Christian Theology for Africa. Spearhead Series. Eldoret, Kenya: Gaba Publications, 1984. ——-. Christ as Our Ancestor: Christology from an African Perspective. Gweru, Zimbabwe: Mambo Press, 1984. ——-. “A Critical Assessment on Some Issues in Today’s African Theology.” African Christian Studies 5 (1989): 5-18. ——-. “The Church as Christ’s Ancestral Mediation: An Essay on African Ecclesiology.” In The Church in African Christianity, edited by J. N. K. Mugambi and L. Magesa, 129-177. Nairobi: Initiatives Publishers Ltd., 1990. ——-. “The Methodology of African Theology.” In SIST Symposium Series 1 (1992): 129-145. ——-. “African Christologies Today: Assessment and Practical Suggestions.” In Paths of African Theology, edited by R. Gibellini, 62-77. London: SCM Press; Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1994.

Secondary Sources:

Oborji, F. A. Trends in African Theology since Vatican II: A Missiological Orientation. Rome: Leberit SRL Press, 1998. Wachege, P. N. “Charles Nyamiti: Vibrant Pioneer of Inculturated African Theology.” In African Theology in the 21st Century: The Contribution of the Pioneers, vol. 2 , edited by B. Bujo and J. Ilunga Muya, 149-162.Nairobi: Paulines Publications, 2006.


This biography, received in 2020, was written by Francis Anekwe Oborji. He is a Roman Catholic priest and Professor Ordinarius of Inculturation and Contextual Theology at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome.