Book review, “How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind,” by Thomas Oden

Through his work as editor of Intervarsity Press’ forays into making ancient Christian commentary more accessible to modern people, Thomas Oden became much more aware of early African Christians’ contributions to the faith.  He became convinced that early African Christianity was the “seedbed” for European Christianity, reversing the popular idea of Christianity as a Western faith that has just come to Africa recently.  This book, then, is a call for intensified research into ancient African Christianity especially by African scholars.  He believes that it will provide a more solid base for African Christian identity than is often claimed by African Christians now.

He believes that Africa shaped the Christian mind in several ways:

  • the library of Alexandria provided the genesis of the idea of the university
  • influential ancient Biblical exegetes like Origen and Cyril of Alexandria
  • some of the great contributors in the development of orthodox doctrine, like Tertullian, Athanasius, and Augustine
  • the churchwide councils built on African church practices of assembling bishops
  • monasticism spread from Africa
  • the first Christian Neoplatonists and rhetoricians, like Lactantius, Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine, came from Africa

Oden describes each of these briefly in Chapter 3, and believes that each (along with many other ways that Africa influenced Christianity) needs further research.  My first thought was that much of what he discussed was accomplished in the Greco-Roman context, but Oden argues that many of the African Christians, even if Greco-Roman in name, were shaped by the indigenous cultures of the Nile and Medjerda river valleys.  He rejects the differentiation between sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa that many Africans and non-Africans make, and writes that early African Christianity can provide a common identity for African Christians and can be a source of healthy self-respect in that it refutes the Eurocentric idea that anything worthwhile in African culture came from Europe.

Oden believes that too much of African Christian identity comes from modern European ideas, meaning that African Christian writers make the ironic mistake of ignoring a genuinely African Christian heritage while importing modern European theories to explain their identity:

The almost frenetic quest for a new African Christian identity would have been far less turbulent if it had been less forgetful of African patristic exegesis.  Intead it rerooted itself in nineteenth-century European forms of philosophy, historicism, psychology and sociology.  The price paid for this historic identity loss is that modern African Christianity has had to look desparately for some other way to relate to African traditional religions, when it already possessed viable traditions of ecumenical teaching all along.  It could have been already instructed through its own historical experience concerning the Spirit’s work of the preparation for the gospel through African traditional religions.  It could have also recognized that despite this diversity there is a unified center for Christian teaching: the primitive African baptismal confession, which in time gained ecumenical confirmation….

In much African theology since 1960 it seems as if all the old standards compulsively has to be reviled and rejected in order for something truly African to be newly invented.  That sort of revolutionary conceit was derived not from indigenous African sources.  It came from modern Enlightenment ideas far more at home in eighteenth-century France than twenty-first-century Africa.  It taught some Africans to bitterly oppose their own heritage, and thus to ignore the early African influences on European Christianity.  These influences were wrongly imagined to be alien to Africa. (96-97)

Oden’s book is an interesting introduction to the topic, but more suggestive than substantive (as he intended it to be).  There aren’t any footnotes because it’s really more of a research proposal based on his vast experience with ancient Christian texts.  The book is strong when Oden calls for an African Christian identity grounded in the apostolic witness and work of the Holy Spirit throughout African Christian history, but weaker when he talks about this grounding as an urgently-needed solution to African Christian woes.  He even argues that the study of ancient African Christian texts will help to reconcile Christians and Muslims on the continent.  Without great knowledge of my own about African Christianity and without supporting evidence from Oden, I was not persuaded.

Oden’s book was an interesting read.  If you’re interested in researching the subject it might be a good place to start, but there are probably better ways to get into the field.  Oden writes that a website, http://earlyafricanchristianity.com, has been started to coordinate research efforts.  I hope that Christian scholars do indeed take up the quest of researching this topic.

I also posted about Peter Leithart’s article on “What Africa Can Teach the North” here.

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