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How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity

by Thomas C. Oden

Oden makes a plea for a growing generation of young African scholars to discover their heritage, to recover the spiritual and intellectual roots of Christian thought formed by early African Christianity.

InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, 2007. 204 pages, $19.00.

Reviewed by Dick Robinson, senior associate pastor, Elmbrook Church, Brookfield, Wisconsin.

Despite the title, Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind is not so much an argument as a conviction about the heady influence of early African Christianity on subsequent European Christendom. Yet reading this little book was a shockingly happy experience. Oden, the distinguished patristics scholar and editor of InterVarsity Press’ Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, makes a plea for a growing generation of young African scholars to discover their heritage, to recover the spiritual and intellectual roots of Christian thought formed by early African Christianity.

Oden takes notes and names names. He suggests that African faith shaped much subsequent Christian thought: the library at Alexandria foreshadowed the birth of the university; rules and patterns of biblical exegesis were rooted in African biblical study; Christology, Trinitarian doctrine, and orthodox scriptural interpretation grew out of African experience; African conciliar methods prefigured the great ecumenical work of Nicea and Constantinople and other church councils; monastic practices of prayer, study, and work spread to Europe from the deep deserts of Africa; neoplatonic philosophy—for good or ill, but indisputably influential in Christian thought—migrated out of Africa; and rhetoric and dialectic rules and skills were honed in Africa. This intellectual vigor of Africa, urges Oden, needs to be uncovered by rigorous study by African scholars.

African Christian biography includes many of the greatest Christian theologians and martyrs of the early Church: Augustine and Athanasius, Tertullian and Origen, Cyprian and Clement, Marius Victorinus and Minucius Felix, Perpetua and Felicity, Lactantius and Pachomius. Lest we think that Latin names and Greek language betray them as transplanted Europeans, Oden reminds us that all were born, lived, studied, and wrote on African soil out of an African experience and an embrace of the gospel.

It is common today to talk about the surprising demographics of the majority Church in the southern hemisphere. If we knew Christian history rightly, we might not be so surprised. Much of the intellectual and spiritual vigor of the first half of the first millennium of our heritage was shaped in the African South and moved to the European North. If we think otherwise, Oden suggests, it may be because of our assumptions of Western intellectual and cultural superiority, and a lack of understanding of third and fourth century Christianity. A hundred years before Constantine, Oden concludes, African Christianity was an “intellectual powerhouse” for early Christian thought.

Past and present African faith may yet come together in an African orthodoxy, through the Spirit, uniting believers from Catholic, Protestant, Coptic, Pentecostal, and African Independent Christian movements, resulting in “vital communities of prayer, scholarship, preaching, teaching, and discipleship” (p. 108). Central to the recovery of African dimensions of Christian history will be the work of African scholars responding to this invitation to reclaim their heritage.

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