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Western Christianity and the African Seedbed

Written by: on May 11, 2017

Thomas Oden—How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity

 

Introduction

The late Thomas Oden was a theologian affiliated with the American United Methodist Church.  He was a prolific author of major theological works relating to Christian doctrine, orthodoxy, and spirituality. Oden was formerly the director of the Center for Early African Christianity and professor of theology at Drew University. He was the general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.

His stated thesis in this book is that, “Africa played a decisive role in the formation of Christian culture from its infancy. Decisive intellectual achievements of Christianity were explored and understood first in Africa before they were recognized in Europe, and a millennium before they found their way to North America.” [1]

 

Summary

According to Oden, Africa’s legacy to world history and especially Europe and Asia can be rediscovered. His aim in this book is to fill the historical void pertaining to African intellectual contributions to the ancient world. For him, “early African Christianity denotes all the early forms of Christianity in the first millennium existing in Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.” [2] It first appeared north of the Sahara in the first millennium, but grew exponentially during the second millennium in the south.

Oden argues that geographically, the Nile River and the Medjerda River form the seedbed of early Christian thought. Christian ideologies traversed to Europe from the Nile and the Numidian traditions which are the epicenter for the pre-European history of Christianity. He explains that in the first half of the first millennium, African intellect was highly esteemed and emulated by Christians in the northern and eastern Mediterranean. “Christian exegetes like Origen, Lactantius, Augustine, Plotinus, Valentinus, Tertullian, Marius Victorinus and Pachomius, south of the Mediterranean were teaching the Christians to the north. Africans were educating Syriac, Cappadocian and Greco-Roman teachers.” [3]

Oden outlines seven distinct ways Africa shaped the Christian mind in the earliest history of Christian teaching. The first way is the African influence regarding the western concept of a university.  “The vast learning community of philosophers, scientists, artists, and educators that surrounded the Alexandrian library of the third century provided the essential archetype of the university for all medieval Europe.” [4] Alexandria was transformed by Christianity and in turn gave rise to Christian scholarship. The second way is the influence of African Christian exegesis of Scripture.  Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa defined early Christian thinking on God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit for orthodox Christianity based on extensive exegesis of Scripture from Africa. They introduced methods of interpreting Scripture to Europe and Asia that were decisively shaped by African exegetes like Origen, Didymus the Blind, Tyconius and Augustine of Hippo.

The third way was that core Christian dogma in Christology and the Trinity were expounded and defined in Africa by Tertullian, Cyprian, Athanasius, Augustine, and Cyril decades before these theologies were analyzed in the Mediterranean north. Western Christian dogma was shaped first in Africa before it was ecumenically received worldwide.  The fourth way was the early African councils for ecumenical debate and resolution in Carthage, Alexandria, Hippo, and Milevis that would gradually serve as a template for achieving ecumenical consensus elsewhere.  “African churches developed highly sophisticated protocols and procedures for drawing together Christian leaders in councils to reach agreements on conflicted questions they debated through rigorous scriptural inquiry.” [5] The councils were widely used in African synods and consensual decision making became the beginnings of canon law despite cultural differences. Arianism, Sabellianism, Gnosticism, and Pelagianism were debated and largely decided in Africa before they were debated in other places.

The fifth way was the impact of the African desert, primarily in Egypt, which propagated worldwide monasticism. The foundation for the monastic communal life was built upon African Christian exegesis and liturgical traditions. The daily routines of African monks entailed the life of prayer, study and work, of sacrifice, and of radical discipleship. The African monasticism begun by Antony, Pachomius and Augustine flourished in Italy, France, Ireland and beyond.  African monasticism was disseminated from South to North—from Africa to the northern Mediterranean.

The sixth way is the emergence of Christian Neoplatonism in Africa. The earliest advocates of Neoplatonism resided primarily in the Nile Delta.  Clement of Alexandria and other teachers earlier on set forth distinctions between Christian orthodox teaching of God and the logos of philosophy. The seventh way is the refinement of dialectical skills in Africa.  Christian exegesis was moving from Alexandria to Caesarea and Antioch, likewise, advanced dialectical study of rhetoric was moving from Carthage to Italy through leading Christian figures such as Tertullian, Cyprian, Lactantius, and Augustine. They introduced advanced dialectical skills of rhetoric to the north.  The major European academic centers valued African rhetoricians over and above all others.

 

Analysis/Reflections

Although the author put forth a cogent argument for defending his thesis, he acknowledges that this work is what he terms, “an embryonic effort for others to nurture and improve upon.” His purpose is to encourage future generations of African scholarship to tell the story more comprehensively. Throughout the book he qualifies his findings with phrases indicating that more definitive scholarship is needed for conclusive evidence and challenges his readers to test his African seedbed hypothesis.  He rightly gives the charge to young Africans to rediscover their rich African Christian heritage and to “reevaluate prejudicial assumptions that ignore or demean African intellectual history.” [6]

I can appreciate the manner in which Oden handles the matter of “Africanness” concerning the early African Christian writers. He says the question invariably comes up as to the ethnic identity or skin color of these writers. He affirms that “for the purpose of this discussion, if a text was written in Africa, it will be treated as African. That is a simple, straightforward criterion, much clearer than speculations about ethnicity or pigment as decisive criterion for Africanness.” [7]

Oden asserts that, “both Muslims and Christians need to know much more than they presently know about North African Christian and Muslim history in order to enter with realism into these hazardous times.” [8] He goes on to say that there is an analogy between visiting archaeological sites and visiting ancient texts—both are buried in the sands of the desert and the fires of the Arab conquest. He believes they must be recovered by Africans and Christians of the North and the South, which could potentially lead to mutual interests in troubled Christian-Muslim relationship. I can’t help wondering just how far Oden believed this type of interaction will develop into anything meaningful, genuine, and sustainable.

 

Notes

  1. Thomas Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2007), 9.
  2. Ibid., 13.
  3. Ibid., 28.
  4. Ibid., 44.
  5. Ibid., 49.
  6. Ibid., 9.
  7. Ibid., 69.
  8. Ibid., 37.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Claire Appiah

12 responses to “Western Christianity and the African Seedbed”

  1. mm Marc Andresen says:

    Claire,

    How will this book impact your dissertation and your work in Rwanda? What is its greatest potential for your research?

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Marc,
      Thanks, for these very good questions to ponder. The greatest potential of Oden’s book for my research is that it validates my own research objectives. Even though I am endeavoring to probe my research topic from a widespread pool of scholars culturally, intellectually, and globally, I am especially interested in giving voice to primary sources of indigenous African scholars. In other words, I give as much credence to the work of African scholars as I do to non-African scholars. I’m not buying into the presuppositions and assumptions of many social scientists around the world that they are inferior. The consequence for my dissertation is that it will reflect what Africans are articulating and demonstrating to be the realities of their own life experiences.

  2. mm Garfield Harvey says:

    Claire,
    Great blog and perspective. You pointed out that the author says that there’s “realism into these hazardous time.” When you watch the news or read about religious differences, it rarely involves an understanding of the historicity of the countries involved in theology. Reading this book brought a great reality of how much we often neglect countries and their influences, although we find them listed in scriptures. As we search for a balance between religion and culture, we can’t always gauge the tension. However, Oden challenges us to search a little deeper than the surface. While this book focused on Africa, our search could lead us to an appreciation of other countries.

    Garfield

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Garfield,
      Thanks for replying to my blog with your keen insights. You have really caused me to think about the religious, cultural, historical, and political significance of the countries and regions mentioned in the Bible. As Christians, we tend not to follow or make connections to what God has done in the past, or what He is doing in those areas in our times. We tend to forget about them unless they present an international crisis. As a result, we have been missing out on appreciating our valuable Christian heritage. But, Oden has changed that for us. He mentioned that a study of Asia and other places could be just as productive, but his extensive research was on Africa.

  3. Hi Claire. I know you are working with Africans with your research. What do you make of his argument that if it is written in Africa it is treated as African? Does that presume too much?

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Aaron,
      I don’t think it presumes too much when one views Oden’s attempt at simplicity and understands the context that gave rise to the statement. His claims are in response to the backdrop of conventional cultural and ethnic biases of the Western world.
      Oden argues that early African Christianity is the product of African intellects who were born, nurtured and culturally indigenized on African soil. Their theological roots came out of African experiences and struggles; their lives were formed and informed by the indigenous religious communities of Africa. He makes a case that they were true Africans, not just in a geographical sense, but in spirit and temperament—bred and indigenized by families living for generations in Africa.

      But, historically these African intellects have been regarded as essentially Greek or Roman and having no association with Africa. The prevailing bias from Europe was that any African influences were likely to be inferior and backward, and if any good ideas appeared in Africa, they must be attributed to Europeans. According to that bias, the greater the competency in international, academic, commercial and political languages, the less African they would be. The more provincial, the more truly African. The more cosmopolitan, the less African.

      .

  4. Pablo Morales says:

    Claire, excellent summary. Thanks. I was also left wondering about what Oden thought regarding the relationship between Muslims and Christians in Africa. Because I am not familiar with the context, I wonder how much of it is wishful thinking or really attainable. Since you have been in Africa before, do you have any insights in this matter?
    Pablo

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Pablo,
      After reading chapter nine, “Seeking the Reconciliation of Christianity and Islam Through Historical Insight,” I still don’t see the basis for Oden’s confidence in this becoming a reality in the amelioration of Islam-Christian relationships. I don’t know much about Islam beyond only one graduate class I took and the personal experiences of visiting Morocco on two occasions. Theologically, Morocco is Islamic. Politically Morocco is a monarchy. Geographically, Morocco is located in north Africa. Strategically, Morocco has affinities with the Arab world. Generally speaking, Moroccans in the public sector are not readily open to interaction with outsiders whom they conspicuously view with guarded suspicion. They intentionally display aloofness and indifference to persons who are not Muslims or Arabs. I didn’t get the impression that any of them had the least bit of interest in any aspect of Christianity or persons who adhere to its tenets.

  5. mm Phil Goldsberry says:

    Claire:

    Not only should young Africans research their spiritual roots, we all need to revisit the trail that Oden led us down. Why do you think that the Western church has revolted and rejected the African Christianity that Oden brings to light?

    Phil

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Phil,
      You ask why I think that the Western church has revolted and rejected the African Christianity that Oden brings to light? The short answer to the question is that it has to do with the mindset of the West Oden calls “intellectual prejudice.” The expanded answer to the question is found in Pablo Morales’ blog in which he astutely expounds this concept, as only Pablo can do.

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