Book Reviews

How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind

Rediscovering the Africa Seedbed of Western Christianity

Thomas C. Oden Downers Grove, IL 2008-01-11

Oden brings his patristic expertise and focused studies in African Christianity to bear in this pioneering book. Oden is the retired Henry Anson Buttz professor of theology at the Theological School of Drew University and author of numerous works including The Rebirth of Orthodoxy (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003) and a three-volume Systematic Theology (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2006). He is also the general editor of the twenty-nine-volume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998-   ), and the forthcoming Ancient Christian Doctrine series on the Nicene Creed. He was Dallas Seminary’s 2009 Griffith Thomas lecturer.

How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind argues that the formative flow of early Christian thought was from south to north, rather than the commonly assumed belief that Christianity is a European transplant on African shores. Oden sets forth seven ways that African Christianity informed Western and world Christianity: (1) the Western concept of the university; (2) Christian exegesis of Scripture; (3) early Christian doctrine (Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Athanasius, Augustine); (4) modeling conciliar patterns for ecumenical decision-making; (5) birth and development of monasticism; (6) Christian Neoplatonism; and (7) the development of rhetorical and dialectical finesse. The book asserts the indigenous nature of African Christianity that developed along the Nile and Medjerda valleys and extended through Ethiopia and Sudan, possibly moving southward into sub-Sahara Africa through Bantu migration. Repeatedly the author affirms that “African Christianity has arisen out of distinctly African experience on African soil” (p. 13), that is, North Africa is as fully African as is southern Africa (p. 79). Indeed, the very term “Africa” was first applied to the Tunisian peninsula and gradually evolved to include the entire continent.

Oden invites a new wave of scholarship regarding African Christianity in that much is literally buried under the sand or may exist deep within sub-Sahara African traditions. It is easily forgotten that Alexandria was once the intellectual center of the world and a major location for both Jewish and Christian populations. The work opines that now is the time for the recovery of African orthodoxy, especially given the rapid expansion of African Christianity, the new hunger for intellectual depth, and “the perceived might of the Muslim world, coupled with the exhaustion of modern Western intellectual alternatives” (p. 101). Besides hoping for a renewed African orthodoxy rooted in its early fathers, Oden suggests that Christianity be reconciled with Islam, at least in the sense of “setting more realistic parameters of the tests that Christians face with Islam” (p. 134). Speaking of government intimidation of Christians in North Africa, Oden writes that Christians must “be protected by law, by police security and if necessary by proportional means of guaranteeing freedom of religion” (p. 136). With these various factors the author sets forth a tentative agenda for a consortium of scholars (especially African scholars) to plumb afresh the riches of the African heritage.

The book includes an appendix that traces African Christian development from Mark (the apostle to Egypt) and Apollos (Acts 18) onward to Philotheos, patriarch of Alexandria in A.D. 1000. An excellent bibliography and six maps are helpful in visualizing the locations of Nilotic and Numidian Christian centers.

How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind is a helpful challenge to consider the primacy of African theology in the first centuries of the church. Repeatedly Oden chides academics for its Eurocentric assumptions. “Even black nationalist advocates who have exalted every other conceivable aspect of the African tradition seem to have consistently ignored this patristic gift lying at their feet” (p. 11). Such repetition at times is belabored and, the point being made, detracts from the fertile content of the work. Yet the author’s intent is to encourage the nearly half billion African believers.

Oden also recognizes the current lack of evidence to affirm Africa as a primary seedbed of Christianity. Given the centuries of interplay between Alexandria, Athens, Palestine, Carthage, and Rome, acute readers will wonder if the case that North African theology was distinctly African may be overstated. Yet this book is a very good beginning to what Oden sees as a multigenerational task. Christian workers focused on Africa and the Middle East will find it most helpful.

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J. Scott Horrell
The author of From the Ground Up: New Testament Foundations for the 21st-Century Church, Dr. J. Scott Horrell is professor of Theological Studies at DTS. He has been a theologian in various world cultures including years spent as a missionary in Brazil. Along with cofounding and editing a leading Latin American theological journal, he has written several books in Portuguese and English. He especially loves to introduce students to a global understanding of Christian faith, often taking teams of them with him as he travels.
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