African Theology Matters
African Theology Matters
The stated thesis of How Africa Shaped The Christian Mind by Thomas Oden is simple. African theology matters because, “Africa played a decisive role in the formation of Christian culture” (P9). I think the real impetus for this book though is a call to young Africans to rediscover the importance and influence of African Christianity. The rest of the book seeks to show why and how African theology matters.
By showing how to argue for the importance of African theology, Oden accurately proves his point. Oden shows how African Christianity led to the birth of the European university. He explains how exegesis of Scripture originated in Africa. Christian dogma was devised in Africa.The conciliar patterns of Africa informed European ecumenical decisions. Western forms of monasticism originated in Africa. Neoplatonic philosophy morphed from Africa to Europe. It was in Africa that literary and dialectical skills were refined. These seven points become seven steps toward making a case for the importance and renewed interest in African theology.
Oden challenges two assumptions about Africa that can inform two equally destructive assumptions about evangelical churches in the United Staes. The way he lumps Africa into one entity can serve as a metaphor for uniting evangelicalism in the United States.
Best: West & Big
When African theology matters, it becomes empowered to confront the false assumption that western theology is superior to African theology. This challenge to the West can make the West feel a bit uncomfortable. Owen’s challenge to the West can become a model for small churches to confront the popular American evangelical assumption that larger churches are better than small churches.
Challenging the assumption that the West is the best can be a metaphor for challenging that myth that all churches should be large and pursue satellite campuses. This is harmful for two reasons. First, there is a growing movement that is questioning whether mega churches are actually making disciples. More people are leaving the idea that larger is automatically better. Second, it is just reality that there are more smaller churches than there are larger churches. This is true in my tribe. Working with the Association of Vineyard Churches, USA last semester, I discovered that of the 611 Vineyard churches in the United States, 300 of them have under 100 members. Just like there are more christians in Africa and the number is growing, there are more small churches in the Vineyard than larger ones. This has important ramifications for pastors and models of success. The most important being the fact that every Vineyard pastor will at some point, if not their whole career, pastor a small church. Just like African theology matters, small Vineyard churches matter.
The Standard: West & Growth
When we say African theology matters, we are opposing the assumption that the West needs to evangelize Africa. With racism and the prejudice that comes with it, African theology has become part of Kipling’s White Man’s Burden. Oden not only points out that Christianity is growing explosively in Africa while it seems to be shrinking in the West, but he also points out that it is time for the West to accept missionaries from Africa. Just like the center of the Christian world is located in the southern hemisphere in places like Africa, God is using small churches around the world to expand His kingdom here on earth.
Oden reminds us that the story of the Exodus is an African story. Joseph’s odyssey took place in Africa. After Pentecost, the African eunuch from Ethiopia went back to Africa and started a movement still alive today in Africa. The point here is the importance of stories. This is true for small churches pastored by bivocational pastors. My research has taught me that at most denominational conferences in the United States, the only stories told are those of larger churches. Small church stories are rarely shared and bivocational pastors almost never take the keynote speaker’s stage. As a result, bivocational pastors tend to feel like failures. Oden alludes to this same phenomenon with African theology. It is time to rediscover the stories of Africa and the stories of bivocational pastors. As African theology matters, the ministry of bivocational pastors matters.
One Big Beautiful Mess: Africa as a Continent as a Metaphor for Evangelicalism
What is Africa? Who are evangelicals? Who is African? What is evangelicalism? There are so many different groups of people in Africa. There are so many different cultures and influences. Having traveled to Uganda almost every year since 2005, I have experienced how different Ugandans are from Egyptians even though technically they are both African. Oden answers that African identity questions with geography. Ignoring the Sahara Desert as a natural dividing space between Northern Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, Oden claims that geographers call it a continent and if it’s the continent of Africa it is African. The label of “continent” is good enough for Oden.
Like trying to lump Ugandans and Egytians into one continental tent, evangelicals are a tricky group to fit under one umbrella. I still hold to Bebbington’s “Four,” but there is an emerging movement in the United States who are questioning what it means to be evangelical. This morning I read about a filmmaker who graduated from Wheaton College and is making a documentary film questioning if every American Evangelical actually worships the same god. Just like the imperialists of the 1800s who came to Africa and drew lines on a map, there are many wedge issues in evangelicalism today that threaten to break apart the “evangelical continent.” Perhaps Oden’s approach to recover and rediscover African Christian influence in church history can pave the way for today’s evangelicals to recover and rediscover what unites us. For us today, when African theology starts to matter, evangelical theology can matter.
9 responses to “African Theology Matters”
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How is your dissertation affected by the fact that half of the Vineyard churches have fewer than a hundred members? Will your work be affected by the “failure complex” communicated by keynote speakers always being from larger churches? Will your work somehow communicate that bivocational pastors matter? (Treat all of that as one question, or choose…”)
Hi Marc. The current state of the Vineyard USA proves my research. Something needs to be done for bivocational pastors. I am trying to create a resourcing website to do that.
Your response encourages me in my nearly-daily prayer that all of our dissertations will have Kingdom impact.
Having traveled to Africa, you brought great insights to this post. You stated that “For us today, when African theology starts to matter, evangelical theology can matter.” I think that we’ve missed so much of the cultural elements of theology because we rarely focused on the diversity in scriptures. We often speak of the twelve tribes to show diversity but Oden is challenging us to become intentional in becoming country specific. Yes, Africa plays a significant role in Christianity but I believe this is a challenge for us to even consider the significance of other countries. Capetown will be my first trip to any African country so I’m intrigued in learning the historicity of our theology in Africa.
Thanks Garfield. SA is going to be great. I am looking forward to it. I agree that we have missed the cultural elements of theology. One thing we do each year at the Hub is have “International Sunday.” This is a day to worship in different languages and recognize different cultures.
Good job on your blog! But, could you please unpack your phrase that, “there are many wedge issues in evangelicalism today that threaten to break apart the “evangelical continent.” I have an idea where you are going with this, but I am not sure. Thanks!
Thank Aaron P,
It sad to say, that we are rediscovering the stories of Africa, which means (something forgotten or ignored) again: Why? Because for thousands of years, African stories, fables and myths was carried forward verbally from generation to generation, and sadly quite often forgotten.
Most traditional African folk tales, myths and fables have a moral point to them, or is use to educate, or entertain, or to explain animal behavior, educate on traditions or correct behavior.
On the other hand Christianity is embraced by the majority of the population in most Southern African, Southeast African, and Central African states and others in some parts of Northeast and West African and now we are rediscovering the Important Africans who influenced the early development of Christianity include Tertullian, Perpetua, Felicity, Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, Cyprian, Athanasius and Augustine of Hippo.
Do you find that amazing? It nice sharing with you! Great successful with your dissertation. Thanks for a great blog! Rose Maria
Aaron, I enjoyed the parallel between the insights from the book and the insights from your research. In reading this book we both resonated with our area of research, even though our topics are very different. As you, I am also concerned by the consumerist approach to church life, and the struggle of equating size with success. I pray the Lord will continue to give you good insights as you work on your dissertation (and future book).
Great insight into African Christianity and your analogy of the West- mega versus small. Interesting how time seems to “taint” reality.
Oden brought me to a different mindset of African Christianity and its role and importance in todays Christian world.
You mentioned “evangelizing Africa” versus realizing Africa’s power to evangelize the West. Do you embrace the notion that America needs to be reached from the outside? Has the “inside” become so tainted with false that truth cannot be embodied?