The Africa Factor
How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of
reviewed by L. P. Fairfield
The thesis of this book can be stated simply: Africa played a decisive role in the formation of Christian culture. For the past fifteen years, Thomas Oden has presided over the publication of The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, presenting the best of Christian exegesis from the Church’s first thousand years.
In the course of his labor, he began to notice the preponderance of North African sources in Christian theology, from the third through the sixth centuries in particular. Alexandria and Carthage were the earliest major centers of Christian thought: Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril from the former, and Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine from the latter (with many other lesser lights from each).
Conventional wisdom in the Western academy for two hundred years has assumed that the Roman Empire was a littoral civilization, where intellectual influences flowed from north to south across the Mediterranean. From the Eurocentric perspective of nineteenth-century Western universities, Alexandria was an offshoot of Athens, and Carthage took its culture from Rome.
Not so fast, Oden began to think. In the early third-century documents, such as Origen’s work in Alexandria, he began to sense the influence of a Christian culture that had been actively processing the gospel for more than a century.
Alexandria was not simply a clone of Athens and the entrepôt for all the religions and philosophies of the Middle and Near East. It spoke for an indigenous Christian culture that stretched up the Nile into Nubia and Ethiopia.
This early Nilotic Christianity drew on ideas and values that had matured in that valley since the unification of Egypt under the Pharaohs three thousand years earlier. Oden proposes that Origen read Hellenism through these lenses as he shaped a distinctly Alexandrine Christianity.
He also came to believe that third-century Christianity in Carthage had its roots in the Medjerda valley (the Maghreb), which stretched three hundred miles westward. The first North African martyrs, from Scilli in Numidia, were lower-class men and women with non-Roman names. Their deaths in 180 revealed a confident Christian community in the Berber and Punic hinterlands of Carthage. In the next generation, Tertullian represented this indigenous culture as much as he did the ethos of the Roman law courts whose rhetoric he mastered.
These African riverine cultures received the gospel by the early second century. Oden believes they heard it and read it with distinctively African ears and eyes. He offers this hypothesis boldly, recognizing that only a fresh reading of the early texts will test whether it was actually so.
This kind of scrutiny will require that scholars master the indigenous languages of the Nile and Maghreb valleys and the cultures they represented. Only in that way can they discover whether Origen and Tertullian depended for their presuppositions on the African hinterlands rather than on Athens and Rome across the sea, and the extent to which Athanasius in Alexandria and Augustine in Hippo Regius drew on specifically North African Christianity, and exported it northward across the Mediterranean.
Out of Africa
Oden does not shrink from stating his “out of Africa” hypothesis extravagantly. His second chapter outlines “Seven Ways Africa Shaped the Christian Mind.” He argues that the Library of Alexandria foreshadowed the European universities. Christian exegesis of the Bible matured in Alexandria.
Early encounters with heresies like Gnosticism and Marcionism forced the initial development of Christian theology in North Africa. Neo-Platonic Christianity was a case in point. Christian rhetorical skills were first honed in North Africa. Third-century bishops there, such as Cyprian, shaped the conciliar forms of church government. Egypt famously led the way in the growth of monasticism. And so on.
All these contributions were distinctively African. North Africa was linguistically, intellectually, and culturally as closely linked to the continent to the south as it was to the Mediterranean world to the north. Therefore, African Christianity today is not simply a nineteenth-century Western missionary implant, but also the heir to an ancient, profound, and authentically African tradition.
Aware of his advancing age, Oden offers a bombshell, an attempted Copernican revolution, a challenge to Christian Eurocentrism, and a cri de coeur. He is throwing down a challenge.
The second half of this brief volume outlines the research program that would put Africa in touch with its Christian roots. Oden is inviting a new generation of Christian scholars to read the North African patristic literature and test his hypothesis. In particular, he is calling for a new generation of specifically African scholars to recover their early Christian heritage.
In this critical moment, African Christians suffer from post-colonial feelings of theological inferiority, as if their own continent did not have its own rich—and written, not merely oral—Christian culture. Cut off from the orthodox theological heritage of their earliest centuries, African Christian leaders are apt to borrow worn-out modernist theologies from the post-Christian West. Sub-Christian Marxist and Romantic ideologies do not survive well in competition with Islam or with indigenous religious movements that (ungrounded in the traditions of the undivided early Church) mix Christianity with other, less helpful local ingredients.
How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind is a manifesto. Oden offers his hypothesis bluntly and with scarcely any argumentation. Some of his ideas may not pan out. We may find in the end that the direct dispersion of monastic culture may not have run immediately from the Wadi al-Natrun in Egypt to southern France to Skellig Michael off the coast of Kerry. Other of his intuitions may well find the evidence that bears them out.
But the long-term value of a daring hypothesis may not lie in its empirical verification in every detail. It may stimulate, as Oden’s does, an alternative vision, open up fresh questions, and inspire a new research program that, in turn, generates new possibilities. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind is very likely to do all three.
For more information on Oden’s project, see www.earlyafricanchristianity.com.
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“The Africa Factor” first appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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