A case can be made, and in fact has been made, that the Christian faith most Christians profess today — its creedal affirmations — comes from Africa. From one of two major locations in Africa: Alexandria (Egypt) and Carthage (the Maghreb). Thomas Oden, in his new book, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, argues this and many more things in his attempt to resurrect awareness of the significance of Africa in shaping Christian theology. You can say it all comes down to Athanasius (Alexandria) and Augustine (Carthage), to the Western tradition through Rome and the Reformation and to the Eastern Orthodox tradition up into Turkey, Armenia, and Russia.
Why should Tom Oden, a white American professor, tell this story? Let African theologian Tite Tienou say: “Who are you [Tom Oden, Tienou responds]? You are the one who has spent decades digging into the evidence. Don’t hold it back” (36).
Oden’s enthusiasm for his discovery is palpable — on every page. He’s on a crusade to correct a major mistake made in the history of understanding the origins of Christianity — more at the bottom of this post on that topic. Now, to the big idea.
“There is, however, a precolonial African Christianity that does not depend on Western or European sources.” This point of Oden’s brings to expression a visceral reaction Oden begins with in his introduction — the mislabeling and ignorance of traditional African religion and the origins of ecumenical orthodoxy.
Think of Origen, Lactantius, Augustine, Plotinus, Tertullian and Pachomius. Thus, the Christians to the south of the Mediterranean taught the Christians to its north.
Oden: “It took years of working daily in the history of exegesis for those of us editing the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture to realize how profound had been the African influence on every subsequent phase of scriptural interpretation” (29).
How did it happen that we have ignored the African origins? “Well-meaning European and American historians have a tilted perception of the relation of African and European intellectual history in the third and fourth centuries, and thus at the apex of African influence” (31).
The major mistake can be laid at the feet of Hegel, Harnack, Troeltsch and Nietzsche and it goes like this: Christianity was contaminated when it was infected with Hellenism, from which it learned abstractions and dualisms. This theory, Oden is arguing in sketch in this book, is overturned by learning that the origins of the Christian way of thinking were in Africa and shaped, not by the influence of Athens and Rome, but by the way Africans did things in North African places like the Maghreb and Nile valley. Here are seven things the Christians all picked up from Africa:
1. The University form of education — Alexandria.
2. Exegesis — prior to the Alexandrian/Antiochene debate there was the influence of the African, Origen.
3. Theology — the dogma of the Church emerged out of African articulations.
4. Ecumenical councils — shaped by African councils.
5. Spiritual formation — monasticism grew up out of African soil.
6. Neoplatonic philosophy — shaped in African soil.
7. Dialectics and literature — again, think of Tertullian, Cyprian, etc.. Africans.
There is what he calls a “very deep distinctly modern European prejudice” to minimize Africa and maximize Hellenism and to devalue the Christian faith. It’s time to fix that, so says Oden.