When were the seeds of Christianity first sown on the continent of Africa? From a WELS historical perspective, one might recall the Synodical Conference’s start of mission work in Nigeria in 1936 or Wisconsin’s “Lutheran African Mission—Exploratory Expedition” to central Africa in 1949. We, however, certainly were not the first to bring the gospel to Africa. Others might cite the 19th century—the “Mission Century”—when concerted efforts in the West took the Gospel to the heart of Africa. The Gospel, however, had already been on the continent for centuries by that time. One could point to the Age of Exploration, when European explorers first navigated the coasts of Africa and other new territories. But even then there were already Christian communities on the continent that had been there since the earliest centuries of the Christian church.
Sadly, this historical reality has been often ignored or, at least, underappreciated by many in the Western Christian church for a variety of reasons. Many Christians in Africa are unaware of that ancient Christian heritage, as well. Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind is an attempt to address that common ignorance or misunderstanding among so many in Christianity.
This book could best be described as a “vision statement” for the future study of this underappreciated and often misunderstood era in the history of the Christian church, stemming from Oden’s extensive study and work with patristics. This book has also led to the creation of the Center for Early African Christianity (EarlyAfricanChristianity.com). This organization is devoted to educating African Christians in the Christian heritage that they have, particularly from the first millennium, and why it is important for African and Western Christianity today.
One of the real positives of Oden’s approach is that he does not limit “African” to Sub-Saharan Africa. While it is true that Christianity took longer to reach the heart of Africa, Christianity was already established across four billion square miles of North Africa in the first millennium. He counters the common Western misperception that “African” means Sub-Saharan Africa with a clear argument that North Africa is as much part of Africa as Zambia and the Congo. “The geography of the continent shaped the fact that African Christianity first appeared north of the Sahara in the first millennium, and then its second millennium saw exponential growth in the south. Both north and south have been blessed by an enduring heritage of centuries of classic Christianity” (13).
Unfortunately, Africa as a seedbed of early Christianity is ignored or dismissed for a variety of reasons. This is largely due to the fact that the Muslim conquest of North Africa wiped out centuries of Christian heritage in the region. At the same time, many today dismiss the prominent Christian communities in that region as simply Greek or Roman transplants rather than indigenous African communities. Oden argues that ancient Christianity is as much “indigenous” to Africa as many other cultural aspects that we consider “African” today. “If African Christianity is not yet indigenous, then the seventeenth-century arrival of many Bantus in Zululand is not yet indigenous. If first-millennium Christianity is not yet traditional in Africa, then the seventh-century arrival of Arabic cultures to Africa is not yet traditional. If fourth-century Ethiopian Christianity is not yet native to African culture, then the ninth-century arrival of the camel is not yet native to African culture” (31).
Oden contends throughout the book that what Africa gave to world Christianity makes it necessary not only for Western Christians, but especially African Christians to study. Due to the purpose of this book, he does not go into great detail on any one subject, but he opens doors for future study. In chapter 2, he proposes seven different ways that Africa shaped Christian thought—its exegesis, its dogma, its spiritual formation (including monasticism), etc. In chapter 7, he contends that the blood of African martyrs became the seed for European Christianity and still influences Christian views of universal history today. At the same time, he also speaks to the very real challenges that face those who study early African Christianity largely due to the fact that early African Christianity once existed in lands now dominated by Islam.
Nevertheless, there are some negatives to Oden’s “vision statement” for the study of early African Christianity. Oden is certainly a vocal critic of the Western historical-critical approach to church history, even demonstrating Harnack’s prejudicial approach to church history (57-59). However, Oden is an ecumenist of the most modern stripe.
As he demonstrates repeatedly in this book, Thomas Oden is a major proponent of “paleo-orthodox” ecumenism—the view that unity can be established only on the ecumenical creeds and the writings of the church fathers up until about the 7th century. In his case, Oden argues for unity on the basis of the substantial writings of the early African church fathers. Unfortunately, this ecumenical approach is unrealistic at best because it ignores the very real doctrinal differences among modern denominations and doctrinal issues that have arisen since the post-Nicene church. This approach is quite similar to the ecumenical endeavors of Georg Calixtus in the 16th century or modern Episcopalian ecumenism where the common denominator for unity is what was written in the first centuries of the church and everything else afterwards can be ignored. Oden also displays a tendency to be very redundant as the book goes on.
On a side note, this reviewer wonders how Oden would respond to Philip Jenkins’ The Lost History of Christianity, which does not focus as much on African Christianity, but more on Eastern Christianity (cf. WLQ review in Vol. 107:1, pgs. 77-78 for more information).
With all that said, this reviewer expected less vision statement and more actual history on this subject and therefore would probably recommend the Early African Christianity site as a better resource for those simply wanting history. However, for those who want to dig deeper into this area of early church history, this book can serve as a good companion to such study with plenty of interesting suggested topics for further study, directions one could possibly go, and where further research is needed. It can also be a useful companion for Oden’s goal of restoring appreciation for Africa’s early Christian history among Africans, particularly as national pastors are trained in central and western Africa. While this book may be a worthwhile companion, the reader will want to keep in mind the author’s rampant paleo-orthodox ecumenism throughout.
Thomas Oden (Ph.D., Yale University) was the director of the Center for Early African Christianity and Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. He was general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and the Ancient Christian Doctrine series on the Nicene Creed. He is the author of numerous theological works, including a three-volume systematic theology and studies on John Wesley.