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

Book written by: Thomas C. Oden

Many Christians do not realize that Africa played a very important role in the development of Christianity.  This book discusses how this should be rediscovered and made known to others.  Thomas C. Oden, the author and also the general editor of the 28 volume The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, presents how this rediscovery can be done.  He encourages young African scholars to take the lead in this project and set up a website: www.earlyafricanchristianity.com.

Many Christians have forgotten that some of the most influential Church Fathers were from Africa.  These include the great St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Athanasius, St. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St. Cyprian of Carthage, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Pachomius, St. Anthony the Great, and others.  Many saints came from Africa like St Perpetua, St. Felicity, St. John Cassian, St. Monica and others. 

The Church Fathers listed above and others had been greatly involved in theological disputes of the time.  They proposed solutions to the disputes which were used to eventually resolve them at major councils like Nicaea and Constantinople.  Oden presents the case that the theologies of the theologians of Africa moved from Africa to Europe and Asia.

Thomas Oden proposes that present day Africans do not need to create a new theology, but to rediscover the theology that began on the continent with the Church Fathers before the Arab conquests.  However, not all Christians were wiped out by the Arabs.  Many have survived like the Copts in Egypt and other Christians in Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea and other places. 

Oden reminds Christians that there were major cultural and religious centers in North Africa, especially in present day Tunisia where Hippo and Carthage were located.  The Mediterranean coast of North Africa had a thriving civilization and culture that produce literature and art.  The Nile River ending in Egypt and starting in Ethiopia and up to Uganda and such still is the location of a thriving Christianity.  These Christians were able to survive the Arab conquest or even prevent its growth into their areas.

Another area that Oden points out as having a great influence on Asia and Europe was monasticism.  Monasticism started in the deserts of Egypt and eventually moved to Asia and Ireland.  Africa also had the influence of St. John Cassian, St. Augustine, and St. Pachomius.

Oden tries to be ecumenical in his approach of rediscovering how Africa shaped Christianity theologically.  He tries to include other denominations but his emphasis is Protestant which is to be expected.  He is inclusive in his approach to this which is at times hard to do. 

His presentation that Africa had a great influence on Christianity is correct, but many have forgotten that Africans did this in the early days of the Church.  Some “forgetting” is mostly due to racial prejudices which Oden and others highly suggest is not appropriate and that Africa, no matter the color of the skin of its people, had actually made major contributions to Christian theology and its teachings.  Africans have much to be proud of.

Thomas C. Oden is Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology and Ethics Emeritus at The Theological School and the Graduate School of Drew University, a chair he held from 1980 to 2004.  He is the senior editor of Christianity Today.  He is the general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and he is the author of The Good Works Reader (2007), Systematic Theology (2006), Turning Around the Mainline (2006), The Rebirth of Orthodoxy (2002), The Justification Reader (2002), and co-author of Ancient Christian Devotional (2007) with Cindy Crosby.  How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind is highly recommended to those interested in Early Church history, Africa, African Christianity, African history, theology, and the Church Fathers.

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