How Africa Shaped the Christian Mindby Thomas C. Oden
Length: Approximately 7 hours. To read (197 pages)
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Can anything good come from Africa? Some might erroneously answer no. Some in Jesus' day thought the same of His hometown (Jn 1:46). Thomas C. Oden, in his book How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, shows that much good has come from Africa by its influence on Christian thought.
Who should read this?
Everyone. Christianity has existed for nearly two millennia. Therefore, we have a diverse and rich spiritual ancestry that should be explored and celebrated. So Christian, pick up this book and get to know your family heritage.
Africa. Significance. Exegesis. Dogma. From a historical standpoint, Africa in the first six centuries played a massive role in giving shape to the Christian mind. Dr. Thomas Oden presents seven ways that Africa sculpted the Christian mind. The two ways that stand above others in their significance are exegesis and dogma. These will be the focal point of this discussion.
To begin with, according to Dr. Oden, “The rules and methods for interpreting Scripture were decisively shaped not only by Africa’s greatest scientific investigator of sacred text, Origen but also by fourth- and fifth-century African exegetes like Didymus the Blind, Tyconious, and Augustine of Hippo” (45). For Dr. Oden, it was not only some of the early African Christians that exercised what modern Christians now employ in exegesis, but there were many, and this was passed on through generations and carried to other geographical locations, even the minds of the West.
These ways of thinking about and doing exegesis look very similar to what the orthodox church in toto practices. This is of great importance due to the many heresies or divisions that arose in the first several centuries of the church and the many that continue to plague the church today.
The early African scholars like Origen laid the foundational principles for exegesis that are now being used by conservative exegetes today. It is true that not all of Origen’s ideas of interpretation were passed down and some were harshly rejected by even his peers and conservatives now. However, his approach to the Old Testament and the historical-grammatical level of his interpretations have been championed by many members of the orthodox church after him. One example early on is Augustine who posited that it is the goal of the interpreters as grasping the meaning intended by the biblical author as he was under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
This is significant regarding how early and modern Christians combated and the heresies and settled disputes amongst divided Christian sects. Today in evangelical seminaries of the west the pursuit of the author’s intent of the Scriptures is still the goal of hermeneutics and until the author’s intent is reached the process of interpretation is incomplete. By putting the focus on the text of Scripture itself, the early Africans would dismantle heretics. Also, they had a platform by which they could analyze the many different views that arose as the Church spread and began to receive less persecution from the government.
Dr. Oden asserts that the way Origen and other early African Christians practiced exegesis was not significantly different from those of Europe and Asia. In fact, Oden believes that the differences are often exaggerated amongst modern scholars (46).
Not only did early African Christians shape the way in which exegesis and biblical interpretation were done, but they also shaped early Christian dogma. Dr. Oden agrees when he says, “Western Christian dogma was formed with precision in Africa before it became ecumenically received worldwide” (47).
For example, the concept of the Trinity was developed by first explained by Tertullian was what is now what is used by evangelical Christians. Before any of the ecumenical creeds were established the early Christians from Africa established the terms and explained the concepts that would later be adopted as the true and only way of viewing the triune nature of God.
Furthermore, the debates in which the creeds were established were argued by and amongst Africans. To say that Africa has no significance to the development of the Christian mind is blind to history. It is evident that many of ideas were not merely passed from the North to the South, but were instead passed from the South to the North.
It was not until the Arab conquest where many Christians were expelled or killed that there was a movement of Christianity from the North to the South. The significance of Africa in Christian thought can be exaggerated, but this is not what is commonly practiced. Africa is the root of many ideas and practices that later were taken up and used by the Church in toto.
Africa. Significant. Exegesis. Dogma. Dr. Thomas C. Oden presents that Africa played an essential role in the development of the Christian mind. Notably, early African Christians were pivotal in the concepts of exegesis and the formation and articulation of dogma before the ecumenical Creeds. One must not ignore the truth that Africa is significant to the history of Christianity and how Christians have thought and continue to think today.
After reading Thomas C. Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, I am left with no doubt that Africa played a critical role in the formation of what Christians now think and practice. Personally speaking, there are ways in which Dr. Oden’s book instructed, corrected, and challenged my understanding of how Christian tradition and thought developed. This will be the subject of the remainder of this paper.
This reading challenged my thinking about Christian tradition by first making me think about the significance of Africa in the development of Christianity. I have read portions by many of the authors that Dr. Oden mentions, but have often in my head unintentionally paid no attention to the fact that they were from Africa. That the culture they were born into was African and not American nor European. I seemed to have in my previous study of these men’s writing assumed that they were mainly Greek or Roman imports.
I would have never come out and stated that but in the recesses of my mind I never really saw that these men were, in fact, African and this influenced the way they communicated and understood Christian truth.
In addition to the fact that many of the early African Christians were African, Dr. Oden presented that many of the ideas that the North had come from the South. Passively, through my study of Church history, I never noticed how many concepts were first articulated in the South and then were adopted by the North. Dr. Oden points out that commonly western scholars hold that the North was the source of truth. In such a claim there is a passive, maybe even overt, prejudicial view of Africa and the people from there.
This corrected my presuppositions that Africa as a whole was and is not intellectual. Thankfully, Dr. Oden made me begin reflecting on my own modern tendency to subvert Africa and other areas South of Europe and North America. The example gives the route that African monasticism took to Ireland. The author postulates that the practices of Irish monks were indisputably African. This evidences the claim that the North did not exclusively have influence, but that the South, in fact, played a pivotal role in shaping European and Asian Christianity in the North.
Next, this book made me wrestle with the aspect that Africa played a detrimental role in the intellectual aspects of Christianity. Like I stated earlier, I tended to wrongly think of the early African Christians as if they were not African, but imports from the North. Dr. Oden repeatedly dismantles this. The practice of rhetoric and the way in which education was done in Africa plays a role in how the Church continues to operate.
For example, I never really thought about the role of rhetoric in preaching or writing and how this was commonly presented and used by the early Christians in Africa. Augustine would frequently use his rhetorical genius to explain the great truths of the faith and encouraged aspiring Pastors to do likewise. African Christian intellectual practices like many ideas in history traveled from the South to the North and were pertinent in the development of the intellectual traditions practiced by Christians today.
Another area Dr. Oden’s book instructed me is the part that African conciliar patterns influenced the process in which the ecumenical councils practiced. Before any of the ecumenical councils, the early African Christians exercised an ecumenical and communal aspect to church debate. African Christian leaders would come together and debate over issues as they arose and decisions would be made by way of a vote.
When I read this, I began to realize that many churches and denominations govern themselves similarly to early African churches. For instance, the Synod not only the term but the general aspects of the Synod are still practiced in Presbyterian denominations. Not only Presbyterians use the general principles of the African councils, but even Southern Baptists in their common congregational style of government bears some resemblance to the communal aspect to decision making. However, the Presbyterian model seems to be more akin to the African practice.
Lastly, this reading instructed me in the truth that the exegetical practices I have been taught and many of the theological categories in which I think were first articulated clearly in Africa. The term and concept of the “Trinity” were first used and articulated in Africa.
The explanation given by Tertullian was later used in the ecumenical counsels and still is used in many systematic theologies that are now being read today. Also, the idea of authorial intent being the goal of the interpreter in exegesis was explicitly presented by Augustine, who was African. It was not Augustine alone in Africa who sought the intent of the Author, but he employed what was past too from Africans like Origen. Origen though tended to allow his philosophical assumptions get in the way of letting him stick with the authors intended meaning.
Dr. Oden is a terrific writer and demonstrates in-depth knowledge of the subject of this book. As a scholar of early church history and historical theology, this is well researched and documented. He even provides a helpful literary chronology of Christianity in Africa for the first 1000 years.
Another strength is in his purpose for writing the work. Yes, he aims to give a summary of African Christianity and its influence on Christian thought. However, he also uses the work as a call to arms for others to pick up the mantle and explore the topic to a greater depth. Notably, he hopes for African scholarship to take up this task. In a time where Christianity is often said to be the white man’s religion or colonial religion, studying early Christianity show that such notions are false.
The brevity and design of this work leave some parts less detailed than desired. However, this is a work that is calling for more work to be done, so this weakness hardly diminishes the value of the work.
The title and thesis of the book are that early African Christianity has influenced Christian thought. Oden spends only one chapter of nine listing seven of the ways Africa shaped the Christian mind. In my opinion, this is a weakness. I expected to find whole chapters on areas of Christian thought that are rooted in early African Christianity. Even with these two weaknesses, it is still a book worth reading.
It is quite clear that Africa played a part in the development of modern Christian traditions. Dr. Oden’s work does an excellent job of introducing this fact in an accessible manner. It is a necessary work and should be read and the applications he suggests in the appendix should be applied. Early African Christian’s laid many of the foundations of Christian intellectual pursuits, Church decision making, Biblical interpretation, and theology.
Also, the story of Christianity reveals that it is not adequate to say that all ideas and practices came from the North in Europe and Asia and went south to Africa. Historical evidence illuminates that there are many instances in which the ideas and practices of the early Church came from Africa in the South and went north into Europe and Asia. Overall, Africa is of great importance to Christianity in many ways and should be viewed and presented as such.