Many Christians have forgotten the very important role Africa played in the development of Christianity. Author Thomas C. Oden, also the general editor of the wonderful 28-volume The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, presents a possible path to rediscovery, encouraging young African scholars to take the lead in this project. A website to facilitate the project is www.earlyafricanchristianity.com.
Some of the major Church Fathers were from Africa - the great St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Athanasius, St. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St. Cyprian of Carthage, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Pachomius, St. Anthony the Great, and more. Many saints also hailed from Africa, like St Perpetua, St. Felicity, St. John Cassian, St. Monica and others. These Church Fathers were greatly involved in theological disputes of the time. Their proposed solutions were used at major councils like Nicaea and Constantinople. Oden presents the case that these theologies moved from Africa to Europe and Asia.
Oden proposes that present-day Africans need not create a new theology, but rediscover the theology that was born on the continent before the Arab conquests. Not all Christians were wiped out by the Arabs; many have survived, such as the Copts in Egypt and other Christians in Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea and other places. Oden encourages scholars and archeologists to search for Christian ruins in North Africa, little of which has been done, in part due to the opposition of Muslim governments.
Oden reminds Christians of the major cultural and religious centers in North Africa, especially in present day Tunisia where Hippo and Carthage were. The Mediterranean coast of North Africa had a thriving civilization and culture that produced literature and art. The Nile River from Egypt and Ethiopia to Uganda still is the location of thriving Christian communities able to survive the Arab conquest or even prevent its growth into their areas.
Another great influence on Asia and Europe was monasticism, which started in the deserts of Egypt and eventually moved to Asia like St. Basil the Great, to Europe through St. John Cassian, and up to Ireland. Africa also had an influence on St. John Cassian, St. Augustine, St. Pachomius and others’ works, as well as on St. Benedict, who is considered the Father of Western Monasticism. The Benedictines are credited with saving Greek and Roman cultural works and with spreading Christianity in many areas of Europe.
Oden tries to be ecumenical in his approach of rediscovering how Africa shaped Christianity theologically. Although his emphasis is Protestant, he is inclusive , which is at times hard to do. His presentation that Africa had a great influence on Christianity is very correct, but many have forgotten that Africans did do this in the early days of the Church. Some “forgetting” is mostly due to racial prejudices, which Oden and others highly suggest is not appropriate, and that Africa no matter the color of the skin of its people, actually made major contributions to Christian theology and its teachings.
Thomas C. Oden is Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology and Ethics Emeritus at The Theological School and the Graduate School of Drew University, a chair he held from 1980 to 2004. He is the senior editor of Christianity Today. He is the general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and the author of The Good Works Reader (2007), Systematic Theology (2006), Turning Around the Mainline (2006), The Rebirth of Orthodoxy (2002), The Justification Reader (2002), and Ancient Christian Devotional (2007), co-authored with Cindy Crosby. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind is highly recommended to those interested in early Church history, Africa, African Christianity, African history, theology, and the Church Fathers.