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African Roots

Written by: on May 11, 2017

Introduction

While living in New York, an Egyptian Coptic Church built (1990) a new temple in Woodbury, New York.  I was amazed at their architecture and location to build their gathering place.  Of great interest is the name of the church:  St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Center/ St. Abraam Church.  This double name ties them back to St. Mark, one of the four evangelists/gospels.

Oden uses the Coptic church as a strong point of Africa’s long term influence on today’s church.  “For two thousand years they have been teaching that Jesus Christ is Lord, that God is the Creator, that the Holy Spirit works to reveal the purpose of God through the written Word.  Catholics, Protestants and Pentecostals can all join them in these eat confessions.”[1]

I started to research them while we were living there.  They were a bit clannish, but their central doctrine was close to my fundamentals of the faith.  I wasn’t sure if it was pure survival of their Coptic tradition or was it acceptability in a high-end, luxury portion of Long Island.  Whatever the case, they built a beautiful building in a prime location regardless of acceptability of the area churches.

The following is from their website, under “The Coptic Faith” (www.stabraam.org)

The Coptic Orthodox Statement of Faith

“The Nicene Creed”

We believe in one God, God the Father, the Almighty, Who created heaven and earth, and all things, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-Begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages; Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not created, of one essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made; Who for us, men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnated of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary, and became man. And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried. And on the third day He rose from the dead, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into the heavens; and sat at the right hand of His Father, and also He is coming again in His glory to judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom has no end.

Yes, we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Life-Giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who, with the Father and the Son, is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke in the prophets. And in one holy, catholic and apostolic church. We confess one baptism for the remission of sins.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the coming age. Amen.

Summary

Thomas Oden in his work, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind:  Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity, offers a informing and scathing edict to the Western church.   Oden states, “There soon may be almost a half billion Christians in Africa.  Now estimated at over four hundred million (46 percent of the total African population of 890,000,000 according to the Pew Forum), and rapidly growing, a significant proportion of global Christian believers at this time are residents of the continent of Africa.”[2]

Africa cannot be overlooked today, but Oden attempts to tie us back to Africa’s rich history in forming and shaping today’s view of Christianity.  We, as Westerner’s, want to claim our deep European and Mid-East history, negating the rich African heritage that influences us today.  Oden reconstructs history, from an African perspective.

Oden outlines his case with Chapter 2 – Seven Ways Africa Shaped the Christian Mind.  At first glance, that statement seems a bit of a stretch.  He seven points showed:

  1. How the birth of the European university was anticipated within African Christianity
  2. How Christian historical and spiritual exegesis of Scripture first matured in Africa
  3. How African thinkers shaped the very core of the most basic early Christian dogma
  4. How early ecumenical decisions followed African conciliar patterns
  5. How Africa shaped Western forms of spiritual formation through monastic disciplines
  6. How Neoplatonic philosophy of late antiquity moved from Africa to Europe
  7. How influential literary and dialectical skills were refined in Africa[3]

I may not have flinched as much when I recalled Oden’s statement in Chapter 1.  Oden stated, “Some Westerners will turn away from even hearing Africa’s ancient Christian heritage because of seated prejudices about the assumed unimportance of Africa to world history.”[4]  I had to examine my own heart to see if there were hidden prejudices that Oden had outlined present.

 

Analysis

One could argue that Oden is slanted and is trying to prove his view of Africa’s ability to shape the Christian mind.  At times his writing seems to be a bit “reaching”.  Yet when finished reading, I was more convicted than convinced.  I am not inferring that I do not agree with Oden.  I was reeling from exposure to solid truth.

 

 

[1] Thomas C. Oden. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind:  Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity, (Downers Grove, IL:  IVP Books, 2007),  97-98.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Ibid., 42-43.

[4] Ibid., 35.

About the Author

mm

Phil Goldsberry

12 responses to “African Roots”

  1. mm Marc Andresen says:

    Phil,

    Of Oden’s seven points of African shaping of the Christian mind, which do you find the most significant for the Church today? Why?

    • mm Phil Goldsberry says:

      Marc:
      Great question. I would lean toward 1 and 2. The idea of universities and exegesis coming from Africa was a stretch. Oden did a good of convincing me.

      Phil

  2. Hi Phil. Thanks for the info on the Coptic church. Cool! I did a little research on Coptics the week before Easter after two of their churches were bombed in Egypt….I mean in Africa. 🙂
    What are some ways you think Oden is slanted and reaching?

    • mm Phil Goldsberry says:

      Aaron:
      My statement was not meant to be derogatory. At first blush his statements seemed to be a reach, but Oden did a good job of justifying his statements. In a world that is screaming “fake news”, I wondered if Oden was pressing an agenda.

      I was “illuminated” by Oden and then convicted of my bias.

      Phil

  3. mm Rose Anding says:

    Thank Phil,
    Great blog, I like to make a few comments on your statement, “Oden attempts to tie us back to Africa’s rich history in forming and shaping today’s view of Christianity”. Why? Because African Christians were thus often put in the intolerable position of being obliged to turn their back on their own culture and heritage, and rely on imported European ideas. This served to reinforce the perception that Christianity was culturally alien to Africa. This led many Africans to resent Christianity and the West.

    The historical fact is that Christianity came to Africa before it came to Europe and North America. It is a dynamic world-wide faith that has been part of Africa for nearly twenty centuries.

    The book of Acts tells us that the Gospel spread from Jerusalem to Judea and then to Samaria. This can be seen in the story of Philip who was told to witness to an African, an important Ethiopian government official (Acts 8:27-39). The gospel captured the hearts and minds of many Ethiopians. Today’s Ethiopian Coptic Church claims that its apostolic tradition is about 1,650 years old. It goes back to the tradition that narrates how the Ethiopian king travelled to the Nile delta, sat under the teachings of the patriarch Athanasius, and became himself the first bishop of Ethiopia.

    It is amazing how the early missionaries tended to regard traditional African religions as evil, primitive, and superstitious. They extended this negative attitude toward African culture as a whole. What do you think happened to ancient African Christianity?
    Thanks Rose Maria

    • mm Phil Goldsberry says:

      Rose:
      African Christianity was marginalized, much like todays church in America. Our nation is less than 300 hundred years old and look at the church and its “story” in our world today.

      Phil

  4. Claire Appiah says:

    Phil,
    Thanks for the insight on the Egyptian Coptic Church, which is of course very different from the Orthodox Ethiopian Christian Church I visited with a liturgy similar to the Roman Catholic mass. I sense some conflicted feelings you possibly have about Oden’s book. What might be some valid arguments he presents that you can embrace and what claims does he make that are strong enough to make you feel convicted? Overall, what is your assessment of Oden’s work for our reading this week?

    • mm Phil Goldsberry says:

      Claire:
      AFTER reading Oden, I see a balanced story that makes sense. What was shocking was how ???? has ostracized African Christianity and turned Africa into a group of uneducated and unorganized people.

      I appreciated the balance of truth and how it affected history. It was a great book to read.

      Phil

  5. Pablo Morales says:

    Phil,
    Good summary and interaction with the book. I’m intrigued about the way in which the book convicted you. Maybe we could talk more about it in our next video session.
    Pablo

  6. Phil,

    I was very interested in the Coptic subject for the same reasons that Aaron P mentioned. The bombings around Easter pushed me to research why they would be the target of bombings within their own country. Interesting that is “Africa” isn’t it?

    I agree with you that this book was to convince of Africa being a foundation but there being little evidence for the author to point to concretely. What do you think he was missing? What do you think we are missing? Where is the established truths that he was pointing to?

    Thanks for your work.

    Kevin

    • mm Phil Goldsberry says:

      Kevin:
      The Biblical accounts are undeniable, is the first round of acceptability. The actual historical impact has validity. The 7 points, Oden seems to outline a respectable defense. I am not sure of every piece of his defense, but I do not have a reason to not doubt its validity.

      Phil

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