Thomas Oden—How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity
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.” 
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.”  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.” 
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.”  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.”  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.
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.” 
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.” 
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.”  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.
- Thomas Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2007), 9.
- Ibid., 13.
- Ibid., 28.
- Ibid., 44.
- Ibid., 49.
- Ibid., 9.
- Ibid., 69.
- Ibid., 37.