In an interview with Christianity Today Thomas Oden said that he dreamed that his epitaph would read:
“He made no new contribution to theology.” The dream somehow said to me …that my calling as a theologian could be fulfilled through obedience to apostolic tradition.”
Mourned by many, Thomas C. Oden went to be with the Lord and the apostle Mark, Apollos, Simon of Cyrene, Augustine, Athanasius, Tertullian, Origen, Clement, Perpetua, and Anthony last December, 2016. He left behind a wealth of material on early Christianity that he sincerely hoped others, especially Africans, would add to.
In his book, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity, Thomas Oden reminds Christians that the shapers of Christian Orthodoxy were African. Augustine, Athanasius, Tertullian, Origen, Clement, Anthony, and Pachomius became very familiar to me in my Church History class in seminary. But my professor did not tell me that they were all African. Nor did he mention Perpetua, a martyr and the first female Christian writer. This silence about many of these roots of orthodoxy led me to believe that anything important came from white, European males. Not stated, but somehow implied was the idea that all of these great church fathers and mothers must have studied in Rome or Antioch. Surely Africa was too backward for the rigorous intellectual exercises of theology.
Thomas Oden presents convincing evidence (though he wished more of it were available) that Africa “played a decisive role in the formation of Christian culture.” His presentation is not just for scholars (though he hopes many more will carry on the work) but for children of African villages. They deserve to learn and be proud of their history. It has been hidden too long.
Oden argues that the flow of Christian thought was from the south to the north and not a European transplant on African shores. He sets forth seven ways that African Christianity informed not just Western theology but that of the whole Globe.
(1) the birth of the European university was anticipated within African Christianity;
(2) Christian historical and spiritual exegesis of Scripture first matured in Africa;
(3) early Christian thinkers – Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Athanasius, Augustine – shaped the very core of the most basic early Christian dogma;
(4) conciliar patterns for ecumenical decision-making were modeled;
(5) Africa shaped Western forms of spiritual formation through monastic discipline;
(6) Neo platonic philosophy of late antiquity moved from Africa to Europe and
(7) Influential literary and dialectical skills were refined in Africa.
One of these ideas (5) is a case in point – the trajectory of monasticism from Africa to Ireland to Europe and then back to Africa in a thousand-year cycle.
This was especially interesting to me because of my love of history and because I am part Irish. I have also read Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization and was very familiar with St. Patrick and his work in bringing the gospel to Ireland as well as founding monasteries where one of the chief occupations was making copies of the Scriptures. (Copies of the classics were made too; that’s how the Irish “saved” civilization. Yeah, yeah, I know Patrick was born in Briton and taken to Ireland as a slave. Is it just possible that people were more globally minded in some ways than we are today?)
But I don’t want to miss the significance of Oden’s caution that the unpacking of this story be done by astute historians who know the pertinent languages and have access to all of the primary source documentation possible from all over the United Kingdom. Done by African scholars, the study will take on deeper plausibility for Africans. Undertaken by Northern Hemisphere investigators there exists a danger that the presentation will be tainted with the marks of post-Enlightenment historiography. “Ideally it should be an international consortium of scholars.”
Oden also noted that “the rapid spread of early African Christianity was due in part to the heartbreaking African history of martyrdom.” Martyrdom is a global phenomenon transcending all cultures and time.
Two early African female martyrs, Perpetua and Felicitas were martyred on March 7, 203. It is said that their brave deaths inspired many to be more courageous witnesses for Christ. They were buried in Carthage and a basilica was erected on the site of their tombs. Perpetua’s diary, considered one of the most beautiful pieces of ancient Christian literature, represents the earliest Christian text written by a woman. Her writings were held in such esteem that St. Augustine warned his listeners not to put them on a level with canonical Scriptures. Truly another great Christian from Africa.
Oden also included a very helpful timeline of the history of Christianity as an appendix. It covers the first century (apostle Mark, Apollos, the holy family’s flight to Egypt) to the end of the first millennium (Philotheos, patriarch of Alexandria (979-1003)).
Thomas Oden has left a wealth of information for future scholars to build on. Many artifacts are literally buried in the sands of Africa. In many cases the tension between Christians and Muslims (who have destroyed ancient churches and built mosques over them) will make it difficult. Oden hopes for peaceful dialogue leading to cooperation. I pray that is could be so. However, that is one thing about Oden’s assumptions that I am not too sure about. He wants people to see themselves as “Africans”. But for many in Islam their religious identity is primary. I think it would be great to continue to find the seeds of orthodox Christianity buried in African soil, but after last week’s attack by Muslims on a busload of Christians killing over 20 people, I am not so sure.
Nevertheless I agree with Thomas Oden that one outcome from studying African Christianity is that – “It is precisely from the ancient African sources that global Christianity can relearn that the church guided by the Spirit is never irretrievably fallen away from the truth.”
 Kate Shellnutt. Died: Thomas Oden, Methodist Theologian Who Found Classical Christianity (Christianity Today, 12/8/2106) http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/december/died-thomas-oden-methodist-theologian-who-found-classical.html
 Thomas C. Oden. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007). 9.
 Ibid. 73.
 Ibid. 74.
 Ibid. 117.
 Ibid. 103.