History has a way of reflecting the interests and assumptions of those who write it. All the great things we love and cherish had to originate somewhere, and coincidentally we trace their origins to our own ancestors. To combat the narrative in the West that Christianity was founded primarily around Rome by white Greeks, Oden displays how integral Africa was to birthing Christianity. Oden reviews early Christianity and discovers that much of early Christianity, and thus Christianity today, has its roots in Africa and African people and thinking. His main theses are; (1) much intellectual history flowed from Africa to Europe, (2) third century North Africans were truly African in every sense, not just Greeks in disguise, (3) early African Christianity was a true representation of Christianity.
Undoubtedly Oden’s main thesis is that much of the western intellectual history originated in Africa before getting to Europe (pg. 72). Oden suggests that we need to give more credit to Africa for the development of our intellectual history than has been given. He argues that instead of thinking that the west brought intellectual knowledge to Africa, we should realize that Africa first influenced the West (pg.91). A large reason for this is the reality that the third century Alexandrian library served as a precursor to medieval European universities. These universities followed the methods of text examination, curricular patterns, and philosophical imperatives refined in the ancient Alexandrian thinkers (pg. 44).
As we will see later, Africa made very significant contributions to the Christianity that developed in the West. Given the fundamental position that Christianity had in the West and the way Christianity has influenced the intellectual history of the west, we also can see how Africa has influenced the development of Western intellectual thought. For pre-Constantinian Christian thinkers found themselves in African intellectual centers like Alexandria, before they developed in Europe (pg. 95). Even our study of rhetoric and dialectical skills have roots in Africa. We see the movement coming from African land to Europe from leading thinkers like Tyconius, Tertullian, and Augustine (pg. 56). It would definitely be an overstep to say all of western intellectual history is indebted to African wisdom and thinkers. However, it must be acknowledged that Africa has had significant influence on the foundations of Western thinking.
Oden recognizes that with this central claim, he must tackle to insidious assumption that North Africa wasn’t really African. That North Africans were really Greek or Roman, not African (pg. 94). This prejudice seems to be a defense mechanism for Westerns to protect their imagined superiority. Oden points out that if the writings of Philo, Synesius and others were written in France, they would be considered French. However, they were written in Africa, but for some reason there’s resistance to call them African (pg. 69). Hellenism undoubtedly had a profound influence on all the areas that it touched, and Greek really did become a universal language across vast amounts of the world. But Hellenism didn’t entirely sub-plant the cultures that were there. The leaders may have written publicly in Greek but persisted to speak their African culture using thoroughly African metaphors (pg. 66).
Indigenous cultures also influenced the Hellenism that they came in contact with. As such, we can see that the Hellenism in Africa had become thoroughly Africanized by the time Christianity was developing (pg. 67). We can see in Augustine that African thinking was infused in his way of thinking. He used metaphors that attest to him being indigenously African (pg. 68). Again, even though Hellenism and Greek language was pervasive everywhere it went, to think that people born and raised in Africa around other Africans who showed evidence of African thinking, weren’t truly African, seems to be influenced by prejudiced assumptions.
The last thesis is to show that African Christianity, which was truly African, was also truly Christian. One-way Oden goes on to display this is to show the acceptance African Christian thinking and methodology was accepted by Christians in other areas (92). Showing acceptance was displayed verbally, by continued association with African Christian thinkers, and giving a high status and honor to the See of Alexandria (pg. 106). Some even say that the best form of flattery is copying. The way early African Christian thinking had been built upon by other Christian thinkers would indicate this early African Christian thinking was authentically Christian. We see the influence of African thinking in exegesis, doctrine, monasticism, and conciliar patterns.
The Cappadocian fathers were influence by African exegesis like those by Origen (pg. 45). Definitions of Christology and Trinity were heavily shaped by concepts found in Africa by Tertullian, Athanasius, Augustine, Cyril, and Cyprian (pg. 47). Monasticism itself was birthed in Africa, in the Egyptian desert (pg. 54). Early Christian thinkers borrowed heavily and freely from their Christian counter parts in Africa. This extensive borrowing is evidence that the early African Christianity was authentic Christianity, and so we should consider the way we view current African Christianity today. Especially since our Western Christianity is so heavily indebted to this early African Christianity.
For my paper, I really want to look at how AICs in South Africa interacted with mainline Christian Churches during the apartheid. One of the main things I have received from this book, is the early and deep history Christianity has in Africa. As I think about how institutionalized Christian churches and AICs would interact, it’s important to remember that although there are indigenous African religions, Christianity itself is also indigenous to Africa. As such, the model of pursuing ecumenism and edifying theological discussion, has a deep history in Africa for those in South Africa to draw on in an attempt to work together against the horrors of Apartheid.
Oden has done terrific work on arguing for and showing the impact early African Christians and thinking had on the development of Western thinking. He consistently acknowledges and iterates that more work needs to be done though. More research needs to be done to discover texts and evidence that can give more detail to the exchange of intellectual material from Africa to Europe. We need to be careful not to think that all of Western intellectual history and Christian thinking is founded solely in Africa. Yet, we must begin to give more credit to Africa for its contributions to the development of the western world and Christianity as a whole.
Oden, Thomas C. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: The African Seedbed of Western Christianity. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2007.