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Out of Africa

Written by: on June 1, 2017

How Africa Shaped The Christian Mind

Who knew? Christianity did not begin and was not primarily shaped in the West! The culturally insensitive would think that it did and that it was – that we are at the centre of the universe; that Christianity moved North to South and that it is a recent import to Africa. Not so, argues Oden. In fact, as he edited the 28-volume Ancient Commentary on Scripture, of which I have a couple of exemplars on my shelf at home, he and his fellow scholars were struck by the richness and depth and extensive range of African scholars and theologians, such as Augustine and Athanasius, who had contributed so greatly to exegesis of the Scriptures. Indeed, he argues, Africans have contributed to the development and growth of Christianity in seven particular areas: the Western idea of the University, exegesis of Scripture, dogmatics, conciliar patterns of ecumenical decision-making, monasticism, neo-platonism, and rhetoric.

Oden also argues that, in the face of the rise of Islam on much of the African continent, and the onslaught of Western popular culture and intellectual influence, it is the orthodoxy of early African witness to the apostolic faith that will prove to be vital for the coming generations. This work is a call to arms for scholars to mine the rich archeological, historical and theological depths of Africa to create the resources for a new kind of ecumenism – a bastion of orthodoxy against these relative newcomers of the West. It is interesting to observe that, in an Anglican context, it is often the conservative African bishops who are now standing up for orthodoxy against their more liberal British and American counterparts.

“Whether from Catholic, Protestant, Coptic or charismatic perceptions, believers arc growing ready to listen to the uniting voices of classical consensual African Christianity. It is amazing to see the new energies that are emerging out of this uniting work of the Spirit – the vital communities of prayer, scholarship, preaching, teaching and discipleship” (p. 108).

Oden also raises the predominance of Pentecostalism in Africa in recent decades and the inherent challenges of this:

“The rising charismatic and Pentecostal energies in Africa are stronger emotively than intellectually. They may not sufficiently sustain African Christians through the Islamic challenge unless fortified by rigorous apologetics.” (p. 99). Oden believes that the intellectual resources necessary for African Christians to meet the challenges of contemporary Christianity are all available in abundance within early African Christianity.
Oden holds little hope in the abilities of Western modern relativism to preserve truth and is calling for African theologians and scholars to stand up and be counted. From what I have seen in the British context, I would say a loud “Amen” to that.

About the Author

Geoff Lee

9 responses to “Out of Africa”

  1. Mary Walker says:

    Geoff, it was surprising for me to learn that there are nearly half a billion Christians in Africa. I told a friend from Ligonier ministries that and he was immediately interested in reading Oden’s book. I hope that many scholars will take up Oden’s challenge and do further study in this area.
    The time is certainly right. Here in the US though apartheid is pretty much outlawed, racial prejudice still exists. I think it’s time to set the record straight. Seeing that some of the most intellectually gifted Christians who ever lived were actually from Africa should help erase the notion that the folks from the south are more backward than northerners.
    I also think this book will really enrich out trip this fall.
    Thoughtful post, thank you.

  2. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Geoff great summary of the key points of his book. One thing I say is that he assumes that Pentecostalism and Charismatic “energies” in Africa do not contain intellectual sustainability but I would push back on that. I know that much of what has sustained their Christianity in Africa is exemplified in their engagement with the Spirit, as well as, carrying on the core elements of the origins of Christianity for centuries. I do agree that it is imperative for African leaders and scholars should rise up and take their place in telling the “epic story”.

    • Stu Cocanougher says:

      Christal,

      Of the African churches I have encountered and worked with personally, and in my research, there are two issues that need to be addressed.

      1) Many African pastors have little or no theological training. 2) Some pastors are heavily into prosperity teachings.

      Owen’s book challenges African pastors to claim their legacy as Biblical scholars.

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      I agree to an extent, Christal. I think it is easy for non-Pentecostals to look at Pentecostal engagement with the Spirit as less intellectual than that of the more “refined.” It is difficult for us to gauge a cultural intelligence. It seems more important to tell the stories and make sure everyone knows them. A lack of teaching does not automatically translate into a lack of intellectualism.

  3. mm Katy Drage Lines says:

    I think you (and Oden) are correct that, if the wave of Pentecostalism is to be sustained (and remain orthodox) in Africa, it will need to find intellectual legs to stand on; Oden suggests that classical (African) Christianity is the place for that. While I want to nod my head with that, I also recognize the need for contextual theologizing to occur (as introduced in this track by our text from Stephen Bevans). For Pentecostal (and really, all) churches in Africa, a foundation in orthodoxy as introduced through the consensus of the early (primarily African) church, is essential; just as reimagining, creating new metaphors, contextualizing the Good News is the walls that build up the church in particular places.

  4. Jim Sabella says:

    Enjoyed your post Geoff. I see that you too picked up on the Pentecostal references. Any writing about Christianity in Africa would be sorely lacking if it did not include Pentecostalism. Although, on one side, I do agree with Odean—scriptual integrity and doctrine are very necessary. I did take except to Odean’s “emotive vs intellectual” position on Pentecostalism in Africa as I have seen as much problems with a purely intellectual expression of faith. I think that the African expression of Pentecostalism is largely based on the circumstances of absolute powerlessness, and so the expression of transformation and empowerment is an expression from the heart to God. Enjoyed your post.

  5. Lynda Gittens says:

    Geoff,

    I am glad you addressed the other faiths that are in Africa. Islam is big in some Africa countries. Many religions saw an opportunity to promote their beliefs and as you travel you see many of them. I was in awe as I traveled Ghana to see the many religions. Why? My lack of knowledge.
    Some churches are establishing Bible colleges to educate the upcoming minister/pastors. But we have to also realize that many of our old school pastors taught from the Holy Spirit. That’s all the training they needed.

  6. Kristin Hamilton says:

    This is a great summation, Geoff. I think the only way to engage a continent of churches in rigorous theology is to tell the stories of those who “pioneered” it. Too often we skip from the Bible to today without hearing the words and knowing the stories of the ones who shaped the way we think today. Of course, knowing their stories humanizes the theologians, which may well lead some to question some of their interpretations.

  7. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    What? We’re not the center of the universe?? That’s a shocker. The formation and history of African Christianity is an interesting topic. The part that caught my attention was the monasticism of Africa. I just never attributed that to Africa.

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