Saturday, February 06, 2010

Book Review: How Africa Shaped The Christian Mind

Length: 204 pages
Size: 5 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches
Binding: hardcover
Publisher: InterVarsity Press (December 2007)
ISBN: 978-0-8308-2875-3
IVP Order Code: 2875

In Mainline Protestantism, the center of orthodoxy has shifted to the Global South, specifically to the continent of Africa. For Catholics, the great continent is also of central importance. Amidst the threat of Islamic persecution the blood of martyrs has become the seed of the church in Africa. This is nothing new, of course. Orthodoxy and martyrdom in Africa reach back to the beginnings of Christianity. Now that Christianity is moving out of Europe and reemerging with vigor in Africa, it is important to look to the past in order to see the way forward. It is for this reason that the time is ripe for a book such as Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind.

Oden’s intended audience is ambitious. This book is for Christians and non-Christians. East and West. Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Those convinced and those skeptical. But, primarily he writes for children of African villages. That is where the history of African Christianity must be reinvigorated. Amongst those whose ancestors are the protagonists. From there it will permeate the world.

The book sets out to remind the world of Africa’s role in the formation of Christian culture, the roots of which are apostolic. Tradition tells us that St. Mark the Evangelist, the disciple of St. Peter, established the See of Alexandria. It is also the home of such giants of the Patristic era as Origen, Tertullian, Athanasius, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, and Augustine. It is the locus of the early Church’s fight for orthodoxy. The early ecumenical councils of the Church, which hammered out the doctrinal formulations of the Faith, owe a great debt to the local councils of Carthage, Hippo, Milevis, and Alexandria.

Some of the key points that Oden presents are:

-How the birth of the European university was anticipated within African Christianity.

-How African Christian historical and spiritual exegesis of Scripture first matured in Africa.

-How African thinkers shaped the very core of the most basic early Christian dogma.

-How early ecumenical decisions followed African conciliar patterns.

-How Africa shaped Western forms of spiritual formation through monastic discipline.

-How Neoplatonic philosophy of late antiquity moved from Africa to Europe.

-How influential literary and dialectical skills were refined in Africa.

All this serves to remind us that, contrary to common misconceptions, the intellectual history of Christianity moved from South to North and not vice versa. Oden tells us that the narrative that posits a southward movement of Christian thought from Europe to Africa stems from nineteenth century French Enlightenment, German idealism and British empiricism under the likes of Hegel, Troeltsch, Harnack and Bauer. Essentially it is born out of liberal Protestantism. Yet, its effects are far-reaching so as to influence liberal Catholic scholars as well.

Oden reminds us over and over again in the book that “the early African vision of the world history was shaped by brilliant writers—Lactantius, Origen, Athanasius, Cyril, Augustine and the post-Vandal monastic diaspora. These are the historians who have been neglected by European and American scholars.” However, the case seems a bit overstated. It very well might be the case amongst Protestant theologians, and especially liberal Protestant theologians, but no so in the Catholic tradition. Catholic theology in the twentieth century has given a great deal of attention to African Patristic writers following the Second Vatican Council’s call for Ressourcement. This call was taken up primarily by Nouvelle Theologie writers such as Congar, de Lubac, Bouyer, Danielou and Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI). Pope Benedict even devoted his general audiences from March 2007 to February 2008 highlighting the Fathers of the Church in which he included all the major African writers.

Oden is right to be concerned of this lacuna amongst Protestants, however. One ignores African Christianity, past and present, at his own folly. This book is a great start to spur on the awakening. It is indeed only a start as Oden himself admits. There are many places where the reader wishes he would delve in further and expound upon the topic of which he so passionately speaks. Alas, due to health concerns, that is not the purpose of this book. Rather, he has written to inspire younger scholars to take up the task of proclaiming boldly Africa’s great contribution to Christian thought. It is not an easy task. In order to do it sufficiently, one must be able to access primary texts, which means learning the primary languages of Latin, Greek, Arabic, and Coptic. There is also a need to translate these texts into the modern languages of French, English, Portuguese and (in order for African children to truly appreciate their heritage) the regional languages of Housa, Amharic, Swahili and Zulu. The renewal of African Christianity must be a truly international endeavor lead by African scholars. To help make this project a reality, Oden has set up the website The Center for Early African Christianity. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind and the website are great resources for anyone interested in African Christianity as well as the formation of Christian thought as a whole.

Many thanks to Heather Mascarello and the folks at InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this book!

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