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Africa, or How the Holy Spirit has cared for the Church

Written by: on May 31, 2017

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.”[1]

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.”[2] 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.[3]

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.”[4]

Oden also noted that “the rapid spread of early African Christianity was due in part to the heartbreaking African history of martyrdom.”[5] 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.”[6]

 

 

 

[1] 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

[2] Thomas C. Oden. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007). 9.

[3] Ibid. 73.

[4] Ibid. 74.

[5] Ibid. 117.

[6] Ibid. 103.

About the Author

Mary Walker

7 responses to “Africa, or How the Holy Spirit has cared for the Church”

  1. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Mary I enjoyed your post. Your passion for history is so evident in this post. I thought about you when I was reading this book because of how he laid out the historical context of the origins of Christianity. I was not aware that he had just passed away in December.

  2. mm Katy Drage Lines says:

    Nice summary, Mary. I was one of the many who mourned Oden’s death last year. I first “met” him in his systematic theology trilogy, introduced by my seminary professor (who also got his PhD at Yale– I wonder if he knew Oden??). Thankfully, my wacky mentor brought up all sorts of non-western theologians, and females, too! It was in his classes I was first introduced to Kwame Bediako, Kosuke Koyama, and Mercy Amba Oduyoye. Oden’s texts filled a nice place in their midst, as he himself would say that our theological grounding must remain in the early church.

    • Mary walker says:

      Thank you, Katy. I really look forward to So. Africa more with you along! Stu has been too? I think our cohort is going to have the most amazing time!!

  3. Lynda Gittens says:

    Mary, Mary, Mary,

    You did it again and again. Your excitement for history almost makes me want to indulge. (smile) I am glad you brought to the conversation the female martyrs. Woman both young mothers standing up as a Christian and being persecuted for it.
    As a mother, would I stand up as a Christian knowing that would separate me from my newborn?

  4. Kristin Hamilton says:

    Like you, Mary, I love history and this book drew me in with the timelines and evidence presented. I am more hopeful, however, that Christians and Muslims can work together as one of our seminary professors, Dr. Delamarter, travels to Ethiopia to photograph ancient texts for Christians and Muslims alike in order to discover and preserve history. One thing he has warned us of is our Western tendency to lump all of Islam together. Those who are bombing and killing people are radicals and are disavowed by Muslims all over the world, just as we disavow that “Christian” white supremacist that killed two men on a Max train here in Portland. Those of us who disavow terror can work together on matters that bring us closer to peace.

    • mm Katy Drage Lines says:

      Yes, Kristin! PeaceMAKERS. After 9/11, when things were still so uncertain, our family felt very vulnerable in Kenya. We were comforted and encouraged by our African neighbors, and especially by Muslim shop owners. All of our relationships with Muslims in town were very positive (Kip was even invited to break Ramadan fast with them occasionally). Unfortunately, we haven’t done a good job of building relationships with Muslims here in America. I confess I don’t have friendships with anyone here (though my boys do). Once we know someone though, a face-a name-a friend, it becomes much harder to lump them into a stereotype.

      • Kristin Hamilton says:

        I love that, Katy. I love that you were well cared for by your Muslim friends, and that you seek ways to make friends. You are so right that it’s harder to view anyone as “them” once you have become friends.

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