Thanks to Adrianna of IVP for a review copy of this book.
It is still a prevalent but hopefully decreasingly common (thanks to the efforts of scholars such as Phillip Jenkins) view that Christianity is a “Western” (American or European) religion. Whereas Jenkins spends most of The Next Christendom showing that Christianity is growing most in Latin America, Africa and Asia, Thomas Oden’s new book, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, helps show the long history of Christianity within Africa, arriving long before both Islam and the camel. But Oden’s goal isn’t simply to show that Christianity has existed, or even thrived, for centuries in some places within Africa. Such a thesis isn’t remarkable for those who have even a superficial knowledge of church history.
Instead, Oden sets out to show that “Africa played a decisive role in the formation of Christian culture” (p9). Historians have been getting it wrong for some time by claiming that the greatest achievements in the early church were from Europe, especially Rome. Oden argues: “Well-meaning European and American historians have a tilted perception of the relation of African and European intellectual history in the third and fourth centuries, and thus at the apex of African influence” (p31).
“This is what the book is about: to state the African seedbed hypothesis in a measured way and begin to sort out the facts that support it” (p31). In doing so, Oden hopes to swing the pendulum back to appreciating Africa’s vital role in shaping Christianity as we know it.
In “Part One: The African Seedbed of Western Christianity” (chapters 1-5) Oden lays out the foundation of the rest of the book. Topics covered include the need to recover ancient texts and excavate ancient Christian sites in Africa (chapter one) and “Seven Ways Africa Shaped the Christian Mind” (chapter 2). He also argues for his definition of “African”, rejecting the idea that skin color should be the determining factor, but rather “if a text was written in Africa it will be treated as African” (p69). The same goes for the theologians/monastics/bishops he surveys. If they were from Africa (whether North African or Sub-Saharan), he counts them as African.
Oden wants his reader to understand that he is not trying to overstate his case, or to discount non-African contributions to the formation of Christianity. His desire is “ecumenical” (which he’ll admit is a bad word in some circles). His desire is to include Africa and Africans into the conversation, allowing their voice to be heard, not create an insular spirit among African believers. “If Africans were saying that they want their sources to come from Africa alone and not from anywhere else, then that would be deficient in the catholic spirit. But this is not the direction of African expectations. They seek a fair hearing for valid arguments based on evidence” (p93).
I’ll admit that this section of the book became a bit repetitive at points. Barely a page goes by without the reader being reminded that Christianity has long existed in Africa, that Africans were dealing with theological and pastoral issues before Europeans made them famous and so on. All valid points, to be sure, and indeed this is the very thesis of the book; but the repetition could have been avoided and trimmed this section a bit more.
In “Part Two: African Orthodox Recovery”, Oden points out why the retrieval of early African Christianity is important. “It is precisely from the ancient African sources that global Christianity can relearn that the church guided by the Spirit is never irretrievably fallen away from the truth” (p103). Rediscovering early African Christianity can also be instructive for the various forms of emerging African Christians. “They now have the benefit of learning about conflict resolution from their ancient African mentors. From that history they learn that not every difference of opinion is demonic and not every union is of God” (p107). As African Christianity grows, “The brilliant instruction and guidance of early African Christian texts and witnesses stand ready to nourish this regrounding” (p109).
For example, Oden notes that many of the early martyrs in the church were Africans, such as Perpetua and Felicitas in Carthage (modern day Tunisia). These African martyrs helped propel the church throughout the world. Also, the early African martyrs can prove inspirational to modern African Christian suffering persecution. “The meaning of the struggle of the early African martyrs begs to be understood in modern Africa” (p120).
Oden ends this section of the book with a biographical note of his growing interest in African Christianity, as well as an impassioned plea for others, particularly Africans, to pick up his vision of voicing the strength of early African Christianity. He confesses he’d love to do more, but admits his life “may be shortened by congestive heart disease” (p141, though we pray this is not true). He actually has helped set up a consortium called the Center for Early African Christianity (website: earlyafricanchristianity.com), to help facilitate this study.
Herein lies the true goal of the book, to spur on the next generation of African scholars to take up the challenge of studying early African Christianity. Oden makes many assertions throughout this book, but admittedly offers only a small amount of evidence to support his claims. What he does offer is provocative and enough to admit that he is probably correct. But much more needs to be done. For instance, it is one thing to show that African church leaders dealt with a certain issue a century before the Europeans did, it's another thing to show the European church leaders relied on the Africans in forming their decisions. This book is a challenge, a shot across the bow of young historians. If Oden is correct, that Africa did in fact play a more decisive role in the formation of Christianity than just about everyone realizes, then the Church will profit from the investigation he calls for.
This is a tremendous book and is worthy of being read by anyone who enjoys church history, or even African history. Thomas Oden has served the Church over the last few decades by editing the Ancient Christian Commentary Series (through IVP) and reminding us of the necessity of remembering our roots in the early church. This book continues his service to us all, may his vision be realized soon.