The January 2008 release of Thomas C. Oden’s latest book—How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity—hopefully marks a positive turning-point for African Christian historiography. Oden reminds us that Christianity has a much longer history than its Western European expressions, and that much of the theological vitality of the first five centuries was rooted not in Europe but in Africa. To assume that the African origin of theological pillars such as Tertullian, Origen, Lactantius, Clement of Alexandria, and Augustine was relatively meaningless or that they came from a part of the African continent that was not quite fully African but rather somehow European is part of a long tradition of bad historiography. The unrecognized fact is that between AD 50 and AD 500 the primary shaping of Christianity was at the hands of African theologians.
Long-standing prejudices about the unimportance of Africa (and even possibly stark racism) have stood in our way. Oden sees the prejudice of nineteenth-century liberal German historians and theologians (Harnack, Schleiermacher, Troelsch, etc.) as at the crux of this distortion. But Oden suggests that Africa distinctly shaped the Christian mind in at least seven ways: (1) the western idea of the University was conceived in Alexandria, where an unrivaled library became a model for universities all over Europe, (2) Christian exegesis first emerged in Africa, (3) African biblical interpreters shaped a majority of the important Christian doctrines, (4) Africa birthed the pattern of ecumenical conferences that settled major scriptural controversies in the Patristic Era, (5) the monastic movement arose first in Africa, (6) Christian Neo-Platonism emerged from Africa, and (7) Rhetorical and dialectical skills which were later so important in Europe were first developed in Africa. In summary, he notes that “during the formation of early ecumenical Christianity, Africa was more like a creative intellectual dynamo than a submissive sycophant.” Oden urges that there remains a huge amount of research to fill in the details of this story. He calls for the emergence of an army of young African scholars to immerse themselves in the ancient languages (Coptic, Arabic, Ge’ez) and literature and archeology to get the task accomplished. Christian Africa must rediscover its own historic genius.
During my twenty-six years in sub-Sahara Africa I have frequently heard it alleged (especially by Muslims) that Christianity is foreign to Africa, and is essentially “white man’s religion.” By contrast, they allege, Islam is more authentically African. And I have seen the tendency—frankly, a fairly modern one—to regard North Africa as not really part of Africa, but rather part of Europe or the Middle East (even Patrick Johnstone’s highly admirable Operation World gives in to that potentially misleading idea). But, says Oden, “Early African Christian Orthodoxy cannot reasonably be excluded or excommunicated from the rest of African history or disconnected from the definition of authentic Africa.”
In Nigeria modern Christian missionaries arrived permanently in the South only in the 1840s, while Muslims have enjoyed continuous settlement in certain parts of northern Nigeria for over 1,000 years. Nevertheless, few African Christians remember that (1) the African origins of the Christian faith run very deep in the first six centuries after Christ, (2) vital centers of Christianity continued in Northern Africa after the Muslim conquest into the Twelfth Century, and (3) pre-Islamic African wisdom had a profound influence on later Muslim scholarship. In this context Oden’s call for Christian Africans to rewrite the religious history of the continent in such a way that links the ancient Christian past with stupendous modern Christian growth in sub-Sahara Africa is not only appropriate but exciting.
I never tire of reminding people that Africa is the only continent in the history of the world to become majority Christian in a single century, and that Africa will likely in this century set the agenda for worldwide Christianity. And places like West Africa Theological Seminary (Lagos, Nigeria), where we have labored for the past nineteen years, are centers of hope as they put theological pillars under the often theologically amorphous explosion of Christian growth on the continent. And as we stand on the continental fault-line between Islam and Christianity Oden’s book is a great reminder that what we are doing is recovering a great Christian past, in which the entire Christian world owes a debt to early Africans.