DMINLGP

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

Ancestry.com?

Written by: on May 11, 2017

It has become very popular recently to submit personal DNA to ancestry.com in order to explore one’s origins. Should the Church wish to engage in this process the search through our theological DNA must begin with How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity, written by Thomas C. Oden.

Oden’s research question is, “How did the African mind shape the Christian mind in the earliest centuries of Christianity?” [1] He states, “My task is to show that the classic Christian mind is significantly shaped by the African imagination spawned on African soil. It bears the stamp of philosophical analyses, moral insight, discipline and scriptural interpretations that loomed first in Africa before anywhere else. The seeds spread from African north.” [2]

This book makes a strong case for the depth of our theological and ecclesiastical origins in the work of African scholars and leaders. Oden gives at least strong beginnings for the historical validity of early theological influence flowing from South to North, not the opposite. “The Christians to the south of the Mediterranean were teaching the Christians to the north. This flow of intellectual leadership in time matured into the ecumenical consensus on how to interpret sacred Scripture and hence into the core of Christian dogma.” [3] He discusses seven arenas of mental influence flowing from Africa: academia, exegesis, dogmatics, ecumenics, monastic communities, philosophy and dialectics. [4]

Oden demonstrates that there is a long history of sophisticated God-focused people’s in Africa. “Many Jews had lived multiple generations in Africa, especially in the great international city of Alexandria, for two or three centuries before the coming of Christianity. This is evident from their extraordinarily influential translation into Greek of the Old Testament, the Septuagint.” [5]

Corroborating witness for the longevity of African cultural and intellectual substance is found in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders To Better Understand the Bible. In this volume Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien write about a common misunderstanding of the problem of Moses marrying a Cushite woman. “It is clear that her ethnicity is the source of [Moses’] siblings’ disapproval. [But] The Cushites were not demeaned as a slave race in the ancient world; they were respected as highly skilled soldiers. It is more likely that Miriam and Aaron thought Moses was being presumptuous by marrying above himself. [6]

An experiential case-in-point regarding the depth of African Christian origins is embodied in Chief Peter, a Christian leader from Nigeria. When I met him in Uganda, the summer of 2016, I learned that he can trace is lineage to the sons of Noah. The farthest I can trace my own family is to the 19th century A. D. in Ireland. The Irish may have saved civilization, [7] but Africa contributed to its foundation.

(After writing the previous comment I read further in Oden, “How the Irish wold take the lead in this movement [of monasticism] is itself a longer story than I can tell here, but it has been told winsomely by Thomas Cahill in How the Irish Saved Civilization. The threads of evidence of African liturgical and exegetical influences in Ireland need to be carefully unpacked by astute historians…” [8])

Leadership and Global Perspectives? How is this for perspective: The West owes far more of a debt and of respect to our African theological roots than what is typically assumed. The new perspective is that the respect-highway typically runs backwards.

With the many themes and threads that might be traced through this book, I focus briefly on hermeneutics. “Hermeneutics is the art of understanding” [9] It is frequently thought of in the context of understanding literature, in general, and the Bible, in specific. Cross-cultural hermeneutics involves the engagement of this process with people of cultures different from our own. In the research for my dissertation, which is focusing on creating an international learning community, I have explored the value of cross-cultural hermeneutics. Several of the statements made by Dr. Oden reinforced the high value given to studying and interpreting Scripture with people of other cultures, and valuing the exegetical work done by ancient African Christians.

We in the West would like to believe that we are the scholastic leaders in the hermeneutical effort. But Thomas Oden makes a strong case for hermeneutics, as well as many other aspects of the Christian faith and tradition, being conceived and given birth in Africa. “Global Christianity has benefited [sic] incalculably from these meticulous works of African exegetes and moral theologians (notably Athanasius, Augustine and Cyril).”  [10]

“The rules and methods of interpreting Scripture were decisively shaped not only by Africa’s greatest scientific investigator of sacred texts, Origen, but also by fourth- and fifth-century African exegetes like Didymus the Blind, Tyconius and Augustine of Hippo.” Oden also says, “The normative early Greek and Latin Bibles before Jerome (the Septuagint and the Old Latin Bible versions) were both products of Africa…patterns of interpretation became decisive for later studies in…exegesis.” [11] It was also the hermeneutical work of African scholars that set the course for how the Church debates and settles disagreements.

The deep wish of Thomas Oden was for thorough research into the African contribution to Christendom, and that young African scholars contribute significantly to this effort. “Ideally it should be an international consortium of scholars, which is what the website on early African Christianity (earlyafricanchristianity.com) seeks to encourage and supply with a steady flow of active research information.” [12] If his wish is ever fulfilled the results would be at least as substantive as Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.

The final comment in this blog is about the author himself. Until mid-life Thomas Oden’s tent was pitched in the liberal camp of Christendom. But his life was changed by and in Patristics. In an interview with Al Mohler Oden said, “…by my 40th year, I became deeply invested in listening carefully to the classical Christian consensus … of the ancient Christian writers and their interpretation of Scripture.” [13] His growth brought him to appreciate classical Christianity through ancient Christian writers. He pulled up his tent stakes and moved into the Evangelical Christian world.

1. Thomas C. Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2007), 9.
2. Ibid., 10.
3. Ibid., 28.
4. Ibid., 42-59.
5. Ibid., 47.
6. E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders To Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2012), 60-61.
7. Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York, NY: Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, 1995).
8. Oden, 74.
9. “Gadamer’s Hermeneutics.” T-Space. A web site captured and archived for the University of Toronto Libraries. Accessed April 9, 2017.
http://wayback.archive-it.org/6473/*/https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/citd/holtorf/3.10.html.
10. Oden, 51.
11. Ibid., 45.
12. Ibid., 74.
13.http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/december/died-thomas-oden-methodist-theologian-who-found-classical.html

About the Author

mm

Marc Andresen

I have a B. A. in Music from San Diego State University and received an M. Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1977. July 1 2015 I retired after 38 years in pastoral ministry. The passion and calling that developed in the last 20 years is leadership training in cross-cultural contexts, as my wife and I have had many opportunities to teach in Eastern Europe and Africa. I have been married for 38 years and have two adult children, one daughter-in-law and a beautiful granddaughter. My hobbies are photography and British sports cars.

9 responses to “Ancestry.com?”

  1. Hi Marc. Great summary. Do you agree that your Irish heritage is influenced by Africa?
    Does this book help you with creating a school in Oregon for people from Eastern Europe?

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Aaron,

      I do agree that Irish heritage is influenced by Africa, but more as a faith-statement rooted in Oden than by personal knowledge and discovery. I accept the validity of Oden’s work, when he traces the journey of theology from Africa to Ireland, and back to Africa.

      I would have to think about how this affects students from Eastern Europe. I think the influence would be for students from all points to have an attitude adjustment about scholastic origins. Perhaps one of the most important contributions to offering training to other-nation students is the humility Oden’s book should build into all of us: we are all learners

  2. Claire Appiah says:

    Marc,
    Thanks for another thought-provoking and engaging blog. You always manage to glean something of substance from our readings, especially that has direct application to your research project. You quoted Oden regarding the contributions of African exegetes to global Christianity. How might these contributions inform your creation of an international learning community, if they do at all?

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Claire,

      The beauty (one beauty) of Oden’s work is that it establishes that Christianity, in its DNA, IS an international learning community. Think of Pentecost, with the nations drawn to Jerusalem, Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, the work of Origen, Athanasius, etc etc… From the birth of the Church we have been an international learning community. There is a degree to which we aren’t creating anything new. We are simply expanding what God has been doing for 2,000 years, to form one more expression of that DNA.

      My granddaughter has red hair, but neither my son nor his wife have red hair. However my granddaughter has great-great grandmothers on both sides of the family that are Irish. So there has been this aspect of Irish DNA living beneath the surface for several generations. It has now surfaced once again.

      I am hoping that our international learning community is the same thing.

  3. Pablo Morales says:

    Marc,
    Clever introduction and helpful insights. Thanks. This semester I researched the topic of inclusive worship in a racialized society, and discovered a couple of authors who also turned to ancient Christianity to inform their current ministry. I wonder if it is becoming more common to find Christians who are to some degree dissatisfied with the current state of the church and find in the writings of the early church a better way of doing ministry.

    This is my first time reading Oden, and other of his books seem like a good future read. One of them was about his own spiritual journey that you alluded to.
    Pablo

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Pablo,

      A few years ago one of the buzz-phrases was “ancient-future.” There was (and may still be) a movement among the emerging generation to connect with ancient things of the church, and yet applying them today in a different way from the current practices.

      I love being connected to our origins and determining how to make the ancient things workable today.

  4. Marc,
    Wow what a complete review and interpretation of this author and his works. I find it interesting the interconnection of Ireland and the rest of the world in evangelism and in deep study of the word. What was the most surprising thought that Oden brought to you?

    The fact that we are all interconnected in our faith and the origin of our beliefs is quite interesting to me.

    Kevin

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Kevin,

      I have to confess that I never thought geographically about the homelands for Origen, and Athanasius, and all those church fathers. I never realized the Africa connection. It was a wonderful surprise.

      So this book brings a parallel message to The Silk Roads – learning the depth of early contributions to culture and theology from the non-west. We need to keep this in mind. It helps me as I work with international students.

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