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

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How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity. By Thomas C. Oden. Downer's Grove: InterVarsity, 2007, 204 pp., $19.00.

Thomas Oden's How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind is born of ecumenical concerns that are both historical and political. The project arose out of his work on the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and his subsequent involvement as director and editor for the Center for Early African Christianity (http://www.earlyafricanchristianity.com). This work serves the Center as an initial foray into the basic thesis of the primacy of African influence in early Christianity and as a research plan and sourcebook for further scholarship. From a historical perspective he argues that the spiritual and intellectual vitality of early Christianity flowed north from Africa into Europe. Politically, Oden hopes to promote a ressourcement for modern African Christians who are often divided racially, geographically, and ecclesiologically.

Oden begins his work with a substantive introductory chapter that clearly states his primary thesis that "Africa played a decisive role in the formation of Christian culture" (p. 9). His claim that the impact of the African teachers mentioned in his work (Augustine, Athanasius, Clement, and Tertullian, among others) have never been adequately studied sounds quite odd until one reads more closely. It is not that these figures have lacked such study (as a brief perusal of Oden's bibliography will attest) but that they have not been studied or recognized as Africans. He is right in asserting that the common perception of such North African Christian intellectual giants is that these individuals were more Greek or Roman than African. Herein lies the crux of the issue. Oden wishes to reclaim these individuals for Africa and to demonstrate his thesis, thereby laying a foundation for viewing Christianity as an indigenous African religion.

In order to accomplish this goal, Oden spends a significant amount of time defining various terms in this introduction. He argues that the "Christian mind" (by which he means "the history of literature, philosophy, physics and psychological analysis" found within the Christian worldview) is based in large part on ideas and literature from Africa; thus, the "Christian mind" is ultimately a product of the "African Mind" (p. 10). While his use of the term "African Mind" is here clearly cultural, his use of the term "Africa" throughout the rest of the work is specifically geographical. He defines "African Christianity" as "all the early forms of Christianity in the first millennium in the four billions of square miles of Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco" (p. 13). The difficulty with this geographical description is the complex nature of the various cultures found on the continent in the first millennium, cultures that included the "Nilotic, Berber, Libyan, Numidian, Nubian, Ghanaian, and others" (p. 16). One begins to wonder how one can speak so generically of an "African Mind" in the midst of such multiplicity. Nevertheless, the same charge could be made against speaking culturally of European Christianity, but Oden is quick to define "Europe" geographically as well.

The remainder of the introductory chapter is used to point out the importance of Africa as one of the three great land masses of the ancient world and to show the centrality of the sees of Carthage and especially Alexandria which, according to its traditional association with Mark, held pride of place on the African continent. Oden argues for the development of a consistent "ecumenical consensus on exegesis, doctrine and liturgy" that bound the disparate communities and cultures of Africa together into one voice (p. 23). To demonstrate this, however, Oden points out that much research remains to be done and that this research must take into account both the written traditions of the north and the oral traditions of the south. …