Thomas C. Oden graduated into heaven last year, after a journey of spiritual inquiry and academic career that led him to write several books. Among them was the Ancient Christian Doctrine Series. Through that research Oden realized how much of our Christian theological heritage comes from ancient African theologians. This discovery surprised him, because he was under the common impression that Christianity moved from Europe to Africa, and thus it has often been considered by many Africans as an imported religion from the West. Therefore, in order to portray a more accurate description of the African influence in Christian thought and to encourage Christians in Africa to look deeper into their own history, Oden wrote How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind. He argues, “The pretense of studying church history while ignoring African church history is implausible.”
Although Oden is cognizant of the fact that not everybody defines Africa in the same way, he develops an argument that treats the entire African continent as one geographic unit. With that understanding, he argues that the early development of Christian thought did not move from Europe to Africa, but the other way around. “Decisive intellectual achievements of Christianity were explored and understood first in Africa before they were recognized in Europe, and a millennium before they found their way to North America.” The African influence in western Christian thought is summarized into seven main areas. Oden argues that Africa gave us the concept of the university, the exegesis of Scripture, a body of Christian doctrine (as postulated by famous theologians like Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius and Augustine), the ecumenical decision-making approach to theological issues, monasticism, Christian Neo-Platonism, and refined rhetorical and dialectical techniques. Furthermore, because of the current growth of Christianity in Africa, the increasing hunger for a Christian faith rooted in intellectual depth, and the presence of a strong Muslim population, Oden encourages African theologians to rise to the task of engaging in Christian thought just as the early African theologians did.
Reading Oden reminded me of Silk Roads. Both Oden and Frankopan were moved to rethink their approach to history in an effort to free our historical perspective from the fallacies of ethnocentrism. Thus, both authors are insightful and provide us with a broader global perspective. In the case of church history, Oden succeeds in showing us that African scholars did shape a large part of the Christian thought that we inherited in the West. He also challenges us not to be entangled in what he calls intellectual prejudice. I was intrigued and challenged by this concept, as it connects with my own area of academic research. He says, “A demeaning prejudice has crept into historical lore that these great figures were not Africans at all-merely Europeans in disguise. This is a fairly recent Western intellectual prejudice. It suggests that the African intellectual tradition cannot even claim its own sons and daughters, especially if they happened to have been articulate, or if they were sufficiently astute to speak in the common international, academic, commercial and political languages of the day. According to that bias, the greater those competencies, the less African they would be.” 
The intellectual prejudice that Oden denounces is rooted in a central-marginal worldview, in which some believe that there is one superior culture/race at the center and all others are considered marginal or inferior. He observes, “Almost every turn in African Christian history is misjudged if it lives by the premise that Europeans have a natural advantage built into their intellectual DNA.”
The idea that some races have a superior intellect rooted in their biology can be found early in American history. In the book Notes of the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson argued “I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” For two centuries this idea was developed even further by a generation of scientists who argued that the Caucasian race was morally and intellectually superior to all, and that among the vast array of what was considered inferior races, the black race was at the bottom.
Oden opened my eyes to the fact that this mindset of intellectual superiority still shapes the life of many Christians today—a thought that I find alarming. Odd points out, “There is a prejudice at work here: suspect anything of intellectual value that comes from the African continent as having some sort of secret European origin.”
Perhaps we tend to trust the familiar and distrust the unfamiliar, yet my concern is that in doing so we can suffocate the Body of Christ. I realize that intellectual prejudice does not only come through the narrative of races, but it can also be found between genders, social class, or across denominational lines.
Oden reminds me that intellectual prejudice can entangle the church. If I am to grow as a leader with global perspectives, I must learn to value the intellectual contribution of other members of the body of Christ beyond my ethnicity, social class, or gender. If I am to lead Ethnos Bible Church effectively, I must instead be characterized by intellectual humility and by a heart that celebrates diversity. In the words of Oden, “orthodox Christians do not admit skin color as a criterion for judging Christian truth. Never have. Never will.”
 Thomas C. Oden. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity (Kindle Locations 47-48). Kindle Edition.
 Ibid., 43-44.
 Ibid., 490-493.
 Thomas Jefferson and William Harwood Peden, Notes on the State of Virginia (Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Virginia by the University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 172.
 Oden, 542-543.
 Ibid., 545-548
6 responses to “Intellectual Prejudice”
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You wrote, “Oden encourages African theologians to rise to the task of engaging in Christian thought just as the early African theologians did.” His concern is based, in part, on the strong Muslim presence.
How do you think a rediscovery by Africans of their own intellectual history and contributions will be a guard against Islam?
By the way, I love your comparison to Silk Roads; great insight. And thank you for pointing out the issues of prejudice that we must oppose.
Marc, the topic of Christianity in Africa is new to me, so I’m not sure that I can give you a well-informed answer. However, I imagine that many Muslims may perceive Christianity as an American product. Thus, understanding the ancient roots of African Christianity may help people correct that misconception. Also, a church that is theologically stronger is better equipped to engage in intelligent theological conversations with a world that is affected by so many false ideas about God, Jesus, and Christianity. That is what I imagine would be the outcome of an African church that is in tune with her ancient Christian heritage.
Thank you for the reminder of Silk Roads. Of course. Nice one.
Can you flesh out “intellectual prejudice” a bit? How is it different from any other prejudice? What do you mean by that?
Aaron, Oden introduced me to the concept of intellectual prejudice. What I understand from his book is that intellectual prejudice is the idea that a person from a certain geographic location or a certain ethnicity is intellectually inferior to others. In this particular case, Oden points out that there is a tendency among some Christians in the West to look down on Africans, especially black Africans, perceiving them as people who are not intellectually sophisticated as europeans or americans. I was reminded of the NT perception, “can anything good come from Nazareth?”
I explain that this tendency can go beyond race. A pastor in Dallas may think that a pastor from a small church in Oklahoma may not be a good candidate to preach at his church, or a male student may underestimate the academic ability of a female teacher.
I remember a story that my father shared with me. As a Latin American missionary, he was visiting some of his supporting churches in the U.S. He would preach with an interpreter at each church. On one occasion, after the sermon, a tall white man asked to talk to him. He confessed that before the sermon started, he wondered in arrogance “what can this Latin american man teach me?” The sermon touched his heart, and he wept as he shared his testimony with my father.
Without realizing it, any of us can look at people through the eyes of racism or sexism that is hiding under the surface, and underestimate their ability to contribute to the theological depth of the Body of Christ. This is the intellectual arrogance that we should avoid as leaders with global perspective.
Thanks for your usual well-articulated and insightful blog. When I got into the reading of Oden’s book it immediately seemed reminiscent of Frankopan’s, Silk Roads and Oden even alludes to the Silk Road phenomenon in this text. But, I gleaned a lot from your analysis and comparison of the two books and the similar objectives of the two authors. You intuitively stated, “Both Oden and Frankopan were moved to rethink their approach to history in an effort to free our historical perspective from fallacies of ethnocentrism. Thus, both authors are insightful and provide us with a broader global perspective.”
Also, you are spot on in your comment, “I realize that intellectual prejudice does not only come through the narrative of races, but it can also be found between genders, social class, or across denominational lines.” A blog excellently done. Thank you.
Thanks, Claire. This semester I had to research the history of race in the United States. I was saddened by what I learned. Reading Oden made me realize that much of the underlying prejudice that I found in my research still affects the way some Christians evaluate the intellectual abilities of Africans, especially if they are black Africans. Because I did not grow up in a racialized society, I feel alarmed by how much of this attitude still affects the church today. I look forward to traveling to South Africa and learning about their experience with racial reconciliation. Thanks again for your encouragement!