The church must become the people of Soweto : Manas Buthelezi’s existential-Christocentric understanding of the church

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Title: The church must become the people of Soweto : Manas Buthelezi’s existential-Christocentric understanding of the church
Author: Hankela, Elina
Other contributor: Helsingin yliopisto, teologinen tiedekunta, Systemaattisen teologian laitos
University of Helsinki, Faculty of Theology, Department of Systematic Theology
Helsingfors universitet, teologiska fakulteten, Institutionen för systematisk teologi
Publisher: Helsingfors universitet
Date: 2006
Language: eng
Thesis level: master's thesis
Discipline: Dogmatics
Abstract: The aim of this study has been to discern what Manas Buthelezi (1935-), a black South African Lutheran theologian and later also a bishop, regards as the requirements a church has to fulfill in order to be credible in the apartheid society. Buthelezi’s dissertation and several articles written between the years 1968 and 1993 are the sources of this study. Also the lectures held in Heidelberg in 1972 are referred to. Systematic analysis is the method used. The question of the credibility of the church is studied through three concepts that play an important role in Buthelezi’s ecclesiological thought, namely the wholeness of life, incarnation and liberation. The notion of the wholeness of life stems from the African tradition. Buthelezi takes the concept into the Christian church: the church should realize that God is the Creator of all life and Christ the lord of every aspect of human existence. Life is one entity coram Deo. However, the church is not to become the world; solidarity between the two must remain critical as the church is also called to play a prophetic role in the society. The church is in an open relationship with the world. It has a unique message of forgiveness and reconciliation. Nevertheless, the message is not a possession of the church but it is addressed to the whole world. The meaning of incarnation comes close to that of the wholeness of life. Following the example of Christ’s incarnation, the church must become human in the reality of the people. The church in Soweto is to become the people of Soweto, that is, the church must become as vulnerable as the people are. An incarnate church cannot be immune to the oppression that people experience, because the people are the church. The church is therefore bound to suffer. Buthelezi’s theology of the cross is pragmatic: the suffering of the church aims at the liberation of the oppressed. At times the physical presence of the church by the side of the suffering people is the only way to preach the incarnate gospel. In the South Africa of the late 1960s onwards the liberation of the oppressed black people was high on the agenda of Black Theology. As a leader of the early South African Black Theology, Buthelezi is concerned about the racial injustice in his country. He urges the churches to join the struggle against it as one people of God. The notions of liberation and the wholeness of life emerge in Buthelezi’s holistic understanding of liberation that involves the inner liberation of the black spirit and the liberation of the economic, social and political aspects of life. Interpreting Tillich’s correlation method in the South African situation, and also paralleling other liberation theologians, Buthelezi takes the existential situation of the people as the starting point for liberation. The gospel has to respond to the existential questions of people. The church is called to work for the liberation of society but it must also be liberated itself. Buthelezi initiated the LWF statement on the status confessionis in South Africa (1977). In line with the statement, he calls for church unity on the human level. For the unity to be true, it has to be experienced on the grassroots’ level. All the three concepts covered urge the church to come down from any ivory tower and out of any spiritual haven it might hide in. A lot of the credibility of the church derives from the behavior of the people. Buthelezi’s concentration on how the people who constitute the church should live their faith leaves less attention to how God constitutes the church. I have labeled Buthelezi’s understanding of the church existential-Christocentric due to the emphasis he lays on the need of the church to take the existential situation of the people seriously and on the other hand, on Christ as the exemplar for the church.
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