Book Review: Oden, Thomas C. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2010 pp.203

The African Seedbed of Western Christianity

Rarely does one come across a book that grips you like, HOW AFRICA SHAPED THE CHRISTIAN MIND REDISCOVERING THE AFRICAN SEEDBED OF WESTERN CHRISTIANITY. Reading the book is an absolute delight!

Did you know African Christianity has had a much longer history than European or Western Christianity? Maybe, or maybe not! Did you know that some brilliant minds – Athanasius, Augustine and Cyprian – were truly Africans, not just in a geographical sense but also in spirit and temperament.

Thomas Oden explores the question: How did the African mind shape the Christian mind in the earliest centuries of Christianity? He demonstrates how the classic Christian mind was significantly shaped by the African imagination spawned on African soil.

African Christianity

The book is divided into two sections. Part 1 deals with outlining the African seedbed of Western Christianity, and Part 2 deals with the design for its recovery.

Seven Ways Africa Shaped the Christian Mind

Historical facts suggest that intellectual achievements were explored and understood first in Africa (50 and 500 CE) before reaching the Western World. But, the profound ways Africa has shaped Christianity have not been studied. Oden illustrates seven ways Africa shaped the Christian Mind (Chapter 2).

  1. The Birth of the European University was anticipated within African Christianity
  2. Historical and Spiritual exegesis of Scripture first matured in Africa
  3. African thinkers shaped the very core of the most basic early Christian dogma
  4. Early ecumenical decisions followed African conciliar patterns  
  5. Africa shaped Western forms of spiritual formation through monastic discipline
  6. Neoplatonic philosophy of late antiquity moved from Africa to Europe
  7. Influential literary and dialectical skills were refined in Africa

Our Long Forgotten History

Perhaps, Africa has contributed to Christian life, thought, and experience far more than we know or can imagine. Oden’s (brilliantly titled) Chapter 7: “How the blood of African Martyrs became the seed of European Christianity”, essays the “forgotten story” of grit, determination and sacrifice of early African Christians.

It is impossible to study Christian history, ignoring the history of the Church in Africa. However, most Africans (as well as the rest of us) do not recognize that early African Christianity arose out of distinctly African experience on African soil.

Christians of the Global South have not had the opportunity to either appreciate or learn their own histories.  “This is so true of Africa as well”, relents Oden. The early African Christian story – of faith, courage, tenacity and remarkable intellectual strength – must be told.

Our Stories must be told

African Christians need “to hear it told, told now, and told accurately”. The story begs to be told in its factual truth. And therefore, we must rely on genuine historical inquiry. They deserve it. This storytelling needs to be so simple that anyone, including children, can easily grasp it. Only then can it find power, voice and reach!

A treasure trove of wisdom and experience- Great Christian intellects and their defining texts, inspirational lives, resilient faith – is bequeathed to African Christians by history. The task at hand for African Christianity, then, is to embrace its own brilliant intellectual heritage. The best option is, perhaps the simplest: “to reclaim what rightfully belongs to it”.

Oden calls African Christians to address the dearth of research on the flow of intellectual movements from Africa to Europe. Further, the early African Christianity contributions to the culture and history of all of Africa ( and indeed to global Christianity need to be studied).

The Need for African Voices

Today, the world Christian population is predominantly located in the Southern Hemisphere. This favourable condition presents a great opportunity for Christians in the Global South. The rapid numerical expansion of Christianity in Africa can easily propel research on the early African heritage of World Christianity.  

 It is, then, incumbent on African scholarship to present its history with textual, archaeological and paleographical evidence. But, more importantly, the public presentation of this evidence needs to be in an African voice for maximizing its reach.

African Christians need to tell their story. Oden hopes this story will not be just for the West. Instead, he sincerely wishes the story will find ready hearers, first in the African continent and then, equally in Asia.

“One Faith, Two Africas” (Chapter 4) is a passionate plea for reconciliation between the two Africas, North and South, Coptic and Sub-Saharan. Oden claims such a reconciliation within Africa will exponentially increase the gifts of Africa to the world.

A Birthright that awaits a discovery

Oden, then, sets forth a basic vision for a theological and historical reassessment of early African Christianity and suggests pathways for further research. The challenge, then, for young Africans (and those of us in the Global South) is to rediscover the textual riches, intellectual depth and spiritual insight of ancient African Christianity.

To borrow Oden’s words, “All Christians on the continent of Africa have a birthright that awaits their discovery”. Perhaps, as Christians in the Global South, we must allow ourselves to dream again! The future of Global Christianity may well depend upon it!

This book is a great one to own, read and reflect!

Samuel Thambusamy is a PhD candidate with the Oxford Center for Religion and Public Life.