Seminar Holy Spirit - Khathide

The Holy Spirit and the African Spirit World

Dr Agrippa G. Khathide

Presented & recorded at ATS' Seminar on the Holy Spirit, 9 Oct 2013

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The African spirit world is one area that has been, for a long time, neglected or overlooked by the traditional (western) Christian theology. Even African theologians who were or are mentored by western oriented supervisors tend to show the same overlook either because of the desire to satisfy the requirements for their degrees or keep away the discussion of the African spirit world from the mainstream.

To illustrate this point, a story is told by Mbiti (1976:8) of an African theologian who had been trained in Europe where he attained a Doctoral Degree in theology. After getting his junior and senior degrees, in nine and a half years of study, he had to return home with the excess baggage which consisted of the Bible in the various languages he had learned, plus works by Bultmann, Barth, Bonhoefter, Brunner, etc.

On arriving home, there was a big welcoming occasion of relatives, neighbours, old friends, dancers, musicians and many others. In the midst of the dancing and jubilation, and after he had related his experiences overseas, there was a sudden shriek. It was his older sister who had fallen to the ground. When the well qualified theologian suggested that she be taken to hospital, he was told that the hospital is far. The theologian was then told that the woman was demon-possessed. When the African theologian tried to refer to Bultmann's explanation in the New Testament, he got a shock that Bultmann had demythologised spirit possession. Although this episode is fictional, it carries a significant truth Christians in Africa are confronted with, almost on daily basis.

The Spirit World of Africa

Even though New Testament scholars and mission theologians have overlooked the socio-historical spirit world of New Testament, the African worldview is akin to that world of New Testament times (see Malina et al 1996:14; Mugambi 1989:56g).

In Africa, the world was believed to be inhabited by beings both visible and invisible. Amongst visible beings and things were human beings, animals both domestic and wild. In the same category were plants, believed to be valuable and dangerous or poisonous for human life. The invisible beings included deity, ancestors and evil spirits. If the cycle of the seasons and rhythm of life in the community was interrupted by such occurrences as prolonged rain or drought, epidemics or earth quakes, it was believed that someone in the community had caused a breakdown in the balance of relationship, thereby offending the ancestors or spirits. In that case, diviners would be consulted to investigate who among the members of the community had caused the breakdown.

To restore the balance of relationships, the diviners would recommend the appropriate remedy, whether be it the offering of sacrifices to the offended spirits, the imposition of punishment to guilty individuals or otherwise. This serves to indicate that in African traditional life, the world was a religious reality. This vital aspect of the African religious life was regrettably omitted by western theologians and mission practitioners with disastrous effects (Pomerville 1985:77).

The Holy Spirit – A subdued Person

Equally overlooked in western (traditional) theology is the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual and the community of faith. In an article surveying the developments of pneumatology in the history of the western church, Menzies outlines the area in which it is underdeveloped. He also suggests reasons why the doctrine was neglected. Menzies (1979:69) shows that until Reformation the doctrine of pneumatology developed only in terms of the essential being of the third person of the trinity. The historic creeds of the church, as well as some western systematic theologies, testify to this underdevelopment.

Little is said about the function or mission of the Holy Spirit in theology during this period. Under the title The Reticent Spirit, Harry Boer sows concern about this silence on the Holy Spirit. He says that the Spirit had remained in the background in relation to other persons in the Trinity (Boer 1961:134). To Boer's observation, the Spirit had been overshadowed by the more concrete figures of the Father and the Son in theological reflection. His argument is that the very name "Holy Spirit" contributes to the obscurity of the third person of the Trinity in our thinking.

Several theologians have protested about this silence on the Holy Spirit by western theology. Michael Green (1975:12) speaks of the neglect of pneumatology as a "domestication of the Holy Spirit" in the west. The silence on the Holy Spirit is not only restricted to western mission theology. Willliam Menzies (1979:68,71) speaks of a "practical subordination" of the Spirit in Christian theology. This he attributes to the contextual focus of eighteenth and nineteenth century theologies. The creedal statements of the church in those periods testify to the low profile of the Holy Spirit in western theology. It is for this reason that Max Warren (1976:126), when referring to the neglect of the Spirit, speaks of Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement as "protest" movements.

Even in contemporary mission theology, the absence of the Holy Spirit is conspicuous. A good indication is the voluminous book by David Bosch (1991) Transforming Mission which had neglected the role of the Holy Spirit in mission. Early in the past century Roland Allen (1960:21) stated that missionary work, as an expression of the Holy Spirit, has received such slight and casual attention that it might almost escape the notice of a hasty reader.

Pentecostals are quick to recognise this neglect of pneumatology. However, Melvin Hodges, a classical Pentecostal missiologist, is specific in describing the neglect. He describes the silence on the Holy Spirit as a neglect of an indispensible qualification for missions - the enduement of Pentecostal power (Hodges 1977:149). He links the relative success of Pentecostal missions directly with the place that Pentecostal give to the Holy Spirit - a place similar to that which New Testament believers gave to the Holy Spirit.

Deficiency in Missionary Training or is it?

The missionaries of the nineteenth century were well trained, equipped for all eventualities on the mission field. But from the recipients' point of view, there was definitely a lack in their preparation, especially in the areas of the African spirit world and the pneumatological studies. Western missions did not only understand the African milieu sufficiently, but they also failed to articulate the biblical view adequately so that the African could apply it in his or her Christian life. That life concerned a socio-cultural milieu dominated by the spirit world. The African lacked the necessary biblical models for living and coping with his environment as a Christian. It is for this reason that Sengwe (1981:95) believes that the African independent churches emerged to try to restore the "place of the supernatural" in African Christianity by providing such a biblical model.

But, as people living on the African continent, we need to understand that western missions are rooted in western development and expression of the Christian faith. Due to the impact of the Enlightenment in the western culture, with its emphasis on a rational, word-oriented faith, this faith was ill-prepared to understanding and empathized with the African culture. It was also ill-prepared to respond to the African culture biblically in presenting the supernatural as represented by New Testament and pneumatology (see Pomerville 1985:28)

The Experiential Dimension of Faith

The neglect of the dynamic dimension of the Christian faith and the failure to articulate the biblical views about the spirit world in African society were disastrous, to say the least. An emasculated, rational western gospel that was free of the supernatural could not possibly have filled the social and spiritual world in an African.

The discovery of a dynamic, power-oriented expression of the Christian faith was like a "resurrection" for African Christians. This took place increasingly when the scriptures were translated into the vernacular. The discovery of an expression of Christianity which spoke to the needs of the African in his or her cultural context and provided Christian means for dealing with the spirit world became the impetus for the African independency movements. The attack on traditional institutions in toto, not differentiating the good elements from the bad, is only the surface manifestation of the inadequacy. When the Bible was translated, Africans discovered a New Testament pneumatology that was so revolutionary for them.

The catastrophic nature of the missionary failure concerned the power of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life.

Some Africans have argued that the missionary failure arose from ethnocentrism rooted in a worldview that causes the western missionary to neglect the same dimension of the Spirit in his or her culture. African missiologists and ordinary Christians have contended that missionaries were withholding the full spectrum of biblical truth. However, what could be said is that western ethnocentrism kept missionaries from learning the African culture, resulting in them having awkwardness in dealing with the subjective and experiential dimensions of the S/spirit. What appears to be problematic to the western missionary is the African indigenous spirituality and its orientation to the dynamic-experiential dimension of Christianity.

Power Religion

The discovery of New Testament pneumatology has come as a great blessing to Africans. Their experience and expressiveness in matters of faith is no longer considered something outside Christian spirituality. Both the African spirit world and Holy Spirit allow for the expressiveness of faith.

There has been a fear, though, that allowing the expressiveness of faith may be a bridge to paganism (see Sundkler 1961:17,196) or a bridge to nativism (Oosthhuizen 1968). To respond to these concerns we can say that these are genuine efforts by Africans to contextualise the gospel for Africa, whether this is sufficient or not, is another matter altogether.

But having stated that, it is true that when the Holy Spirit is at work, the enemy gets an opportunity to show his presence. Take the story of Simon Magus in Acts 8:4-25. After hearing that Samaria had accepted God's word, the Jerusalem church sent Peter and John there to check out the reports. Peter and John did not invalidate the work of Philip by starting all over with the Samaritans, rather they pressed forward by praying for the Holy Spirit to fall on them. They placed their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. When Simon Magus saw that the Holy Spirit was given through the laying on of hands of the Apostles, he offered them money so that he could also do the same. It is clear that Simon wanted to control the Holy Spirit (See Khathide 2007:292)

This is the problem with power religion: to control, domesticate and commercialise the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have seen an emergence of these types of churches in Africa, where followers pay allegiance to their leaders rather than to Jesus Christ. The quest is to see the supernatural at all costs. In the episode, Peter tells Simon that he should repent of his wickedness and ask the Lord whether the intent of his heart might be forgiven him.

Another episode that Luke relates is the story of the Philippian slave-girl (Acts16:16-18-see Khathide 2007:297-300). On their way to the place of prayer, a slave girl who had a spirit of divination - isangoma, followed Paul and Silas shouting "these men are servants of the most high God, who are telling you the way to be saved" (Acts 16:17). She carried on doing this for many days. But there is no record that anyone was converted as a result of her revelation. The evil spirit was not trying to draw people to God, but to cause confusion. Paul became so troubled by this continued shouting that he commanded the spirit to come out of her in the Name of Jesus Christ. The results were immediate- "at that moment the spirit left her" (Acts16:18). But the consequence of Paul's exorcism was that her owners lost a source of income. Paul did not want unwelcome publicity.

In the episode we see a demonstration that Christians have other options than consulting fortune-tellers, izangoma and pagan soothsayers who are clearly inferior. The correct identification of what is true by the demonised girl, as it is common with most mediums, usually leads to more enslavement by satanic forces. Such imitation of the truth by mediums, who are basically agents of the kingdom of darkness, is aimed at drawing people away from God.

In Africa today, after reading this story, we can ask several questions, like how this woman correctly identifies Paul and Silas as servants of the Most High God? Were the ancestors involved in helping her indentifying Paul and Silas as such? Most importantly, she told the truth about their mission - "who are telling you the way to be saved". Luke also incriminates the exploration of human beings like the poor slave girl through merciless owners in their profit.

Though the slave girl spoke the truth, Paul is unsettled by the confession. In itself the confession was true provided that it came from the heart of a believer and in the form of declaration of faith. Paul is rightly disturbed by the girl's pronouncement, for it does not only leave a false impression, but also comes from Satan, who by using this demonised girl, is trying to diminish the effectiveness of Paul's ministry. Kistemaker (1990:593) contends that if Paul had accepted the acknowledgement without discernment (a gift of the Spirit) he would have given the devil credit and thus approved his motives.

The Antagonistic Role of the Spirit

In the Old Testament we read about the antagonistic motif whereby Yahwe is powerfully wrestling against those powers and forces which oppose his liberating and gracious authority. The whole Old Testament (and New Testament as well) is filled with descriptions of how Yahwe Adonai, the covenant God of Israel, is waging against those forces which try to thwart and subvert his plans for his creation. He battles against those false gods which human beings have fashioned from the created world, idolised and used for their own purposes (Verkuyl 1978:95).

In the New Testament the Holy Spirit pursues the theme of antagonism against every force and power that seeks the allegiance and worship of human beings. In Africa, the Holy Spirit wages war against gods, spirits and ancestors that are opposed to the will of God. Even those agents of power religion that assume the place of God are opposed by the Holy Spirit. To participate in mission is quite impossible unless one also wages war against any form of opposition to God's intentions wherever it be found, whether be it in the churches, the world of the nations, or one's own life.


In the world of Spirits, the Holy Spirit champions the cause of God's righteousness and holiness. He is not just any Spirit. He is the Spirit of Christ. He is charged with the responsibility of glorifying Christ in the world. The Holy Spirit ensures that Jesus Christ remains above all forces and powers in Africa and the world.


Bosch, David J. 1991. Transforming Mission. Paradime Shift in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll: Orbis Broks

Hodges, Melvin L. 1997. A Theology of the Church and its Mission . Springfield : Gospel Publishing House

Khathide, Aggrippa G. 2007. Hidden Powers: Spirits in the First-Century Jewish World, Luke- Acts and in African Context. Kempton Park: Acadsa Publishing.

Kistemaker, Simon J. 1990. New Testament Commentary. Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles. Grand Rapids :Baker

Malina, B., Joubert, S, and Van Der Watt, J. 1996. A Time Travel to the World of Jesus. Halfway House: Orion Publishers

Mbiti, John S. 1976. Theological Impotece and the Universality of the Church, in Anderson G. H. and Stransky T. F. (eds). Mission Trends No 3, 6-8. New York :Paulist Press

Menzies, William W. 1979. The Holy Spirit in Christian Theology, in Perspectives in Evangelical Theology. Kantzer, K (ed). Grand Rapids: Baker.

Mugambi J. N. K. 1989. The African Heritage and Contemporary Christianity. Nairobi: Longman Kenya.

Oosthuizen, G. C. 1968. Post-Christianity in Africa: A Theological and Anthropological Study. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Pomerville, Paul A. 1985. The Third Force in Missions: A Pentecostal Contribution to Contemporary Mission Theology. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers.

Sengwe, Ngoni. 1981. Identity Crisis in the African Church. Evangelical Mission Quarterly 17 (2) 91-99

Sundkler, B. G. M. 1961. Bantu Prophets in South Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Verkuyl, Johannes 1978. Contemporary Missiology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Warren, Max 1976. I Believe in The Great Commission. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans

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