The accounts and experiences of miracles are pervasive among Christians in Africa. Millions of people claim this experience. It is incontrovertible that the miraculous is a significant part of the Christian experience in Africa. As Craig Keener says in his two-volume work Miracles, this phenomenon cannot be easily dismissed.
The experience of miracles in Africa is largely attributable to the fact that the societies are open to the occurrence of such. The attribution of any unexpected event to divinity by the Hausa expression Ikon Allah (“The Power of God”) captures people’s perspective of life and the way the world functions. So also, the names people give their children often connect God with his actions. There is in this worldview a constant and free interaction between the spiritual and physical realms. God or gods and the spirits are believed to be immanent and are invoked in every situation.
African cosmology perceives life in terms of cause and effect. Sickness or misfortune are interrogated for causalities—who caused it? What human agent used spiritual powers to cause the sickness or misfortune? Or what did this person do to bring this upon themselves? No event is random. Every life situation is laced with spiritual meaning. This view of life resembles the disciples’ view of the man born blind in John 9. They probed for the causal factor—who sinned that he was born blind, him or his parents? Jesus said neither. It happened to display God’s power. Jesus went ahead to heal the man. Jesus’ answer was revolutionary but still within the same “genre”—the attribution of the incident to God’s action. This comports very well with the way people in Africa understand daily events. This is true for all classes of people in the society, the rich and the poor, as well as those with Western education and those without it.
Western Missionaries and Indigenous Churches
It was into this world that Western missionaries introduced Christianity. Historically, when Christianity enters a new frontier, it raises new issues for the church to address and expands its knowledge of God and the gospel. For the most part, the brand of Christianity introduced to Africa was deficient in responding to the questions Africans were asking. It dismissed Africans’ most pressing questions too easily.The cessationist theological disposition of the missionaries treated miracles as long vanished with the death of the apostles and the canonization of the Scriptures. Western missionaries wrongly believed that establishing hospitals and other mercy ministries were the answer to Africa’s questions of spiritual power encounter. As a matter of fact, “earlier Western missionaries tended to neglect or repudiate supernatural elements of special interest to Africans, like witchcraft and healing.”Craig Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, Vol 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011), 312-313. The cessationist theological disposition of the missionaries treated miracles as long vanished with the death of the apostles and the canonization of the Scriptures.
But as indigenous African people embraced Christianity and began to read the Scriptures for themselves, they saw a God who worked miracles of healing the sick, casting out demons, and the like. This resonated with them because they believed they inhabited a world in which power encounters occurred. Some indigenous believers began to experience miracles in answer to their prayers. Numerous revivals broke out in different parts of Africa and the world. Indigenous churches were birthed when Africans encountered opposition from missionaries; for example, the African initiated churches are strong precursors to the Pentecostal movements in Africa today. The African initiated churches arose in the early part of the last century, including the Aladura (praying ones, or owners of prayers) church, Cherubim and Seraphim, Kimbanguist Church, Apostles of Johane Maranke, and others—their leaders emerged from mainline churches within the Anglican, Methodist, and Baptist denominations. They broke ranks with missionary churches and drew a large following because they believed in the miraculous and they trusted God to perform healings of all types.
Prayer, Expectation, and Miracles
Another factor contributing to the experience of miracles in Africa is the difficult existential situations under which the people live. Bereft of government, family, personal, or social safety nets, African Christians are compelled to rely on God for their daily provision. God becomes their first and last resort—in fact, their only resort. Their lives and the lives of their children depend on it. As a result, their prayer life is shaped and fueled by their lived experiences. When most African Christians say the words of the Lord’s prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and “deliver us from evil,” they are praying about actual, literal and urgent needs. These are not empty platitudes. Tim Stafford described this accurately when he said:
For many people, miracles are not a question of theology but a matter of hope and desperation. Their understanding of what to expect shapes the way they think and live as Christians. It shapes the way they reach out to unbelieving neighbors and co-workers. It affects how they respond to trials and sickness. It greatly shapes how they think about God.Tim Stafford, Miracles (Bloomington, MN: Bethany, 2012), 8.
With desperate and persistent prayer comes the expectation that God will do the miraculous. The more inclined people are to believe in miracles, the more they are prone to experiencing or witnessing them. Even though I believed God could do miracles, it took a while before I witnessed miracles in our church. The first miracle I witnessed happened in our youth group when we prayed expectantly for the recovery of one of our members who was in a coma. His prognosis was grim. He walked out of the hospital in 11 days. After his recovery, the doctors said they did not do anything for him. Such stories and more dramatic ones are common in Africa. It seems African Christians have mastered the appropriation of Jesus’ promise as amplified in James 4:2.
Faith and Reading the Scriptures
Closely related to the point above is faith. Though one can argue from Scripture that faith was not always the precondition for Jesus’ miracles, Scripture is also replete with passages where Jesus associated miracles with faith. In fact, the reason Jesus did not do many miracles in Nazareth except a few healings was because of the people’s lack of faith (Mark 6:5). Jesus commended people who exhibited faith. Christians in Africa have strong faith in the power of God to intervene in their affairs. Their desperation causes them to call on God whom they believe still works miracles. They expect him to intervene. And true to their belief, he does show up! The issue of miracles in Africa is existential.In Africa’s reading of the Scriptures, especially the book of Acts, the Bible comes alive in very tangible ways. It is a power encounter—a declaration that the power of God is greater than the forces of darkness. It is also a declaration that the kingdom of God has come. In Nigeria, many churches hold all night prayers on the first day or last Friday of the month from 10pm to 6am in anticipation of the manifestation of God’s prevailing power over Satan and the powers of darkness.
In Africa’s reading of the Scriptures, especially the book of Acts, the Bible comes alive in very tangible ways. They see God doing miraculous signs and wonders as the gospel advances. The advancement of the gospel into new places is accompanied by the demonstration of the power of God in extraordinary ways. Reports abound of people in various regions of the world experiencing miraculous healings attesting to the power of God. Today stories abound of Muslims seeing visions of Jesus resulting in conversions; of people reporting miraculous healings, protection and deliverance in the face of attacks. Christians from Africa and the majority world see in the divine miraculous acts of God a fulfilment of Joel 2:28 and its expression in Acts 2:17-19, “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh . . . And I will show wonders in the heavens and signs on the earth below.” This, for African Christians, is Scripture come alive!
The declaration “I will” by God, attests to the divine agency of miracles as portrayed in Scripture and as construed in the minds of African Christians. Ultimately, we must affirm that God is the one who chooses to act. The prerogative is primarily God’s through his Spirit—the Spirit blows where it wishes (John 3:8). There is no absolute certainty of where he will act or that he will choose to act at all because many prayers have not been answered in the miraculous ways that people expected. The unusual events that have happened in response to prayers usually transcend normal physical processes.
What of Western Christianity?
While this is not a polemic in defense of miracles in African Christianity as against Western Christianity, it is appropriate here to comment on the Western church. Is it true that miracles are not being experienced among Christians in the West? Is it possible that the West’s tendency to seek naturalistic explanations for every event often results in false appeals to coincidence, human agency, or nature instead of giving credit to God? Must affirming miracles negate human agency? Must miracles always bypass all human agency? Is it less of a miracle when God heals through institutions like the hospitals, or must miracles always be explained apart from hospitals? Shouldn’t Western Christians, like their African brothers and sisters, hold these tensions simultaneously? In the Bible, human agency and divine miracles are not mutually exclusive—the healing of Naaman readily comes to mind (2 Kings 5). God was the healer, but Naaman had to go to the pool and dip his leprous hands. Psalm 127 suggests that while humans are to keep awake (labor over the city), it is God who ultimately watches over the city.
Is it possible that the West’s tendency to seek naturalistic explanations for every event often results in false appeals to coincidence, human agency, or nature instead of giving credit to God?
However, accounts of miracles coming from African Christianity easily get dismissed by some Western Christians who think it falls short of their evidential criteria. Sadly, this judgment betrays Western prejudice. As one scholar writes:
The fundamental assumption that western paradigms have universal validity contaminates understanding of non-Western realities . . . Unfortunately, even assessments that take the religious dimensions of contemporary globalization seriously are weakened by the secular rationalist tendency to treat western modes or categories as definitive.Jehu Hanciles, Beyond Christendom: Globalization, African Migration, and the Transformation of the West (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008), 375-376.
That said, it behooves the church in Africa to check itself against gullibly embracing every claim of miraculous experience. After all, miracles are not the exclusive preserve of Christianity. Remember even Pharaoh’s magicians counterfeited Moses’s miracles. The task therefore is that of testing the spirits—this leads to the balance against credulity on the one hand and naturalistic skepticism on the other.