An interesting though somewhat difficult new book by Anglican thinker Myron Penner contains an anecdote regarding a Congolese-Canadian theologian by the name of Dr. Mabiala Kenzo.
Kenzo had delivered a lecture to faculty and students at an evangelical Christian college about how Jesus is portrayed by modern African theologians and writers. Afterward, a student expressed concern: Before they begin trying to understand Jesus through their own culture, he said, shouldn’t Africans first affirm the formula regarding Jesus’ two natures (divine and human) that had been devised at the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451?
According to that formula, Jesus is “truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood ... one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God, the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Kenzo responded to the student with an excellent question of his own: “Must I, as an African, first study and learn Greek philosophy and master its conceptual categories before I can convert to Christianity and believe in Jesus?”
This certainly isn’t how the New Testament describes the conversion and calling of apostles, let alone of ordinary Christians. The Bible commands neither philosophical study nor theological training. Consider this passage, for example:
“Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him. And when he had gone a little further thence, he saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the ship mending their nets. And straightway he called them: and they left their father Zebedee in the ship with the hired servants, and went after him” (Mark 1:16-20).
Penner, who knows Kenzo, suggests that a childhood experience lies behind the question with which the Congolese theologian responded to the student’s concern.
In order to be considered a citizen of his own country, to be able to travel freely within what was then known as the Belgian Congo, to hold an official job and get a passport, Kenzo's father, who was a respected man in their community, had to be “naturalized” by Belgian officials.
Two officials visited his home to observe the family eating with knives and forks and following European etiquette while sitting in chairs at a Western-style table rather than sitting on the ground, African-style, and using their fingers.
The final test was for Kenzo’s father to accompany one of the officials into the living room while the other remained in the kitchen. They were then to converse in French, loud enough that the man still sitting at the table could hear it.
If the officer in the kitchen was unable to tell which one was speaking — that is, if Kenzo’s father could speak Belgian-accented French well enough — naturalization would be granted, and he would receive a coveted matriculation card and become a legal citizen of the country in which he’d been born.
In the Belgian Congo of the 1950s, when native Congolese were finally permitted by colonial authorities to travel out of the country, the Belgians created two categories: The “evolues” or “evolved” were contrasted with the “indigenes” or “indigeneous.” Only the “evolues,” those who held the matriculation card that Kenzo’s father was obliged to earn, could eat in white men’s restaurants, drink in white men’s pubs or journey overseas.
To Kenzo, as Penner tells the story, the insistence that Africans must understand Jesus by means of a fifth-century Greek creed, rather than on the basis of their own encounter with the Savior in the New Testament and their own prayers, seemed just one more specimen of foreign imperialism. And, frankly, it’s hard to blame him for that.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, edits BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.