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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

African foundations

Written by: on September 6, 2017

Thomas Oden in his book ‘How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind’ encourages readers to reconsider the foundations of Christian thought.  He argues that much has been lost by the European ethnocentrism of Christian teaching.  Neglecting the significant theological contributions of the early Christians based on the African continent negates the importance of their insights and encourages contemporary African Christians to defer to European thinkers instead of acknowledging the influence of their own ancestors on Christian thought.

In our current hyper-racial society the geographical term ‘Africa’ has connotations much broader than simply a continental land mass surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, and the Atlantic, Indian and Southern oceans.  Most conjure up images of dark skinned humanity or exotic animals.  Some may consider the religious divide between the largely Muslim North and the Christian South.  Yet, when we think of Christian patriarchs such as Origen, Tertullian, and Augustine

Artist rendering of Augustine

few probably imagine them as African.  They are usually depicted as European which suggests a racial bias not unlike that found in our own time.  Despite this, many have worked hard to point out the likely African nature of Augustine reconsidering his potential racial, ethnic and cultural heritage.  (Check out this blog by Father Alexander Lucie-Smith http://catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2017/08/07/was-st-augustine-black/)

Having just completed an M Div at a moderately progressive seminary one may think that recognition of the cultural heritage of the early patriarchs would have been highlighted, particularly in the present racial climate of the US.  However, this was never addressed and much to my own chagrin I never even questioned the inherent bias being presented.  A consideration of Oden’s perspective may have done much to encourage and raise the stature of the African and African American students pursuing this seminary degree alongside me.

Oden works hard to point out that he is not arguing for a reassessment of the African contribution for racial reasons but rather to remind readers of the debt owed to early African Christians and the significant South to North intellectual movement that occurred during the first few hundred years of Christianity.  This reassessment does much to mitigate the seeming inferiority of African Christians to their American and European trained brothers and sisters.  It has the potential to foster a greater sense of humility in the minds of those ‘evangelizing’ Africa from the West and a recognition that Christianity was not brought to Africa by missionaries post William Carey but had been present on the continent from the beginning.

I particularly enjoyed the connection made between African Christian thought and practice and that found in Ireland.  Again, it is easy to ignore the importance of the African contribution to Irish theology as well as monastic and evangelistic practices.  Yet, when one considers the immense influence that the Irish communities have had on Christian thought it behooves us to recognize from whence much of this understanding derived.

I found this text fascinating and have since purchased several copies to present to my M Div friends in the hope that they will be encouraged to begin some of the work suggested by Oden to further this much needed understanding.

About the Author

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Dan Kreiss

Former director of the Youth Ministry program at King University in Bristol, TN and Dean of the School of Missions. I have worked in youth ministry my entire life most of that time in New Zealand before becoming faculty at King. I love helping young people recognize themselves as children of God and helping them engage with the world in all its diversity. I am a husband, father of 4, graduate of Emmanuel Christian Seminary, an avid cyclist and fly-fisherman still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

5 responses to “African foundations”

  1. mm Jake Dean-Hill says:

    Great summary of the book. I loved your highlight of the fact that Augustine’s nature being African. Great work also bringing others along on the journey.

  2. mm Katy Drage Lines says:

    Welcome to LGP, Dan! I’m an alum of Milligan and lover of East Tennessee– glad you’re at King! Greet your King librarian, Emily Krug for me. 🙂

  3. mm Kyle Chalko says:

    Dan,
    Good synopsis. You covered and reminded me of some of Oden’s strong points from his point. More importantly you captured what the heart and purpose of Oden writing his book was for. Your illustration of the Irish was a good parallel.

    You mention the “likely African heritage” of some of the church fathers and it’s so funny that we still use the word “likely.” There seems to be extra work one has to do to prove African Authenticity to a significant contribution to theology or christianity, or perhaps anything. Your blog points out the significance of citizenship over ethnicity to Romans, and that is a very interesting concept. I wonder how the cultures across the world today would rank those two?

  4. Dan,

    I appreciated your post and observations, and love that you would purchase copies of the book to give away!

    When I was looking for an image for my post, I googled St Augustine and saw artists’ renditions (such as the one you posted) which fail to draw on his Berber heritage. I eventually gave up and chose a more representative photo. However, in your single image, the entire thesis of the book is highlighted – we’ve forgotten and neglected Christianity’s African heritage, and whitewashed even African Christianity’s leading icon.

  5. Greg says:

    Dan,

    Even though my M. Div. was finished over 20 years ago, I also reflected on the classes I took and the history that was taught. There wasn’t any emphasis given to the African heritage of these foundational theologians. Thanks for your insights.

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