The Center for Early African Christianity
“We must go back and reclaim our past so that we can move forward; so we understand why and how we came to be who we are today.”
– Ancient Akan principle of Sankofa
There are soon to be a half billion Christians in Africa. The Christians of Africa are growing faster than in any other area of world Christianity. It is to their future that this effort is dedicated. They deserve to have an accessible way into understanding early African Christianity, its faith, courage, tenacity, and remarkable intellectual strength. The global Christian mind has been formed out of a specific history, not out of bare theoretical ideas. The rapid growth of the African church presents great challenges and risks as well as significant opportunities. The African church’s effectiveness in influencing a promising future for Africa and world Christianity might easily be undermined through church division, teachings counter to the received tradition, persecution, all of which threatened early African Christianity. Christians in Africa face many difficulties: poverty, war, famine, disease and AIDS. Yet, Dr. David Niringiye, Assistant Bishop of Kampala, Church of Uganda writes, “Africa’s crisis is not poverty; it is not AIDS. Africa’s crisis is confidence. What decades of colonialism and missionary enterprise eroded among us is confidence… We Africans must constantly repent of that sense of inferiority.” Kwame Bediako suggests these many years of self-doubt have resulted in a “crisis of identity:” the subtle and profound self-perception particularly in sub-Saharan Africa that Africa lacks intellectual substance. This is compounded by the common misconception that in the history of Christian intellectual leadership that the movement was from Europe to Africa, north to south. But this cannot be validated by Christian history! Contrary to common assumption, the flow of Christian intellectual leadership largely moved from Africa to Europe—south to north. Africa has tried to address these issues of inferiority and crisis of identity by importing Western approaches that accommodate themselves to current African folk religion, or try to infuse largely Western ideas like liberation theology or post-colonial theory in order to recreate an African context in its own image rather than anything truly indigenous. But has the situation improved dramatically in the last 20 years by implementing these ideas? From our vantage point, the effect of these ideas has been to worsen the situation rather than improve it. So what should be done? From where should the solution come? We suggest that maybe our search has been misguided. Maybe the solution lies in Africa itself, though buried in the sands of forgetfulness.
Sankofa and the Recovery of Wisdom
Sankofa is the mythical bird whose head is faced in the opposite direction to its body collecting eggs or seeds of wisdom. It collects these seeds because it knows that these seeds have a potential for life. This depiction of sankofa highlights the fact that even though the bird is advancing, it periodically makes it a point to return and examine its past, in the belief that this is the only way to a better future. Deeply embedded in the African imagination is the knowledge that there is wisdom in learning from the past to both understand the present and shape the future. Implicit in the myth of Sankofa is the deep study and reading of African history and culture and the application of its lessons to the experiences of Africans. Similarly we suggest the solution for deepening African Christianity and strengthening it for the challenges of the 21st century is not something that should be imported from outside Africa. Africans are rightly wary of such solutions. Rather, the solution has been there all along in Africa, the teaching and life of the early African church through such leaders as Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine, Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril of Alexandria. It is to be found in the memory of the lives of the ancient desert fathers and mothers. These Christian leaders and saints arose out of a distinctly African experience on African soil. They were born as Africans, struggled in the African setting, nurtured within untold generations of indigenous African cultures. They are not European imports. They felt the sweat and knew the thirst of African deserts and mountains. They understood the resistance of local religious practices and customs to the transformative message of the gospel. In response, they developed small learning communities and theological curricula, which formed participants intellectually, spiritually, and ethically to such a degree that, if called upon, they would be able to resist the pressures of local religious conformity even to the point of death. Intellectually, these writers played a decisive role of the formation of Christian culture from its infancy. They profoundly shaped world Christianity and were instrumental in the formulation of some of the most decisive intellectual achievements of Christianity. Contrary to common perception the intellectual leadership of Christianity largely moved from Africa to Europe—south to north. Early African Christian leaders figured out how to best read the law and prophets meaningfully, to think philosophically, and teach the rule of faith, long before the patterns became normative elsewhere. Inattention to this south to north movement has been unhelpful (even hurtful) to the African sense of intellectual self-worth. Lack of attention given to this distinguished literary and intellectual history has helped to propagate the erroneous claim that Christianity is late development in African religious history and therefore should not be considered an indigenous or traditional African religion.
Center for Early African Christianity
In Southern Africa, according to C. T. Keto, the old men tell the story of a group of hunters who had been sent on a mission to obtain wild game from a certain spot a long ways from their village. On the way, after traveling, several miles they see a limping antelope. One of the men says, "Let us kill that antelope for food and continue our journey afterwards." They then ran after the limping antelope. The faster they ran the faster the animal ran. Soon they had lost their way and had gotten into territory unknown to them. They discovered that a limping antelope could still run faster than men. Lost, weary, and hungry, the men turned back toward their village empty handed. When approaching Africa there are many “limping antelopes” that may be chased with no benefit. Therefore we must stay focused on our objectives, knowing our own gifting and sense of calling. As we move forward we continue to ask ourselves what are we most passionate about? And what can we do better than anyone else? Our passion comes out of our story, particularly the story of Tom Oden. Tom, a product of the intellectual mentorship of Bultmann, Tillich, Heidegger and the experimentation of the sixties, thought that to be a theologian was to struggle to create something new, to see things differently than others before him, and to demonstrate the relevance of Christianity to an ever changing and disinterested culture. In the 70’s, a colleague challenged Tom’s identity as a theologian and called him to task for his lack of historical grounding. Tom took his challenge to heart and for the next five years he immersed himself in the study of the early church. He was never the same. No longer was he blown about by the latest intellectual fad; he was captured by the greatness and goodness of God. Out of his years of study, his vocation slowly emerged. He tells it this way, “Even though I didn’t know it clearly in my early days. I now think that my vocation has been from the very beginning to become an advocate of classic Christian orthodoxy.” This change in direction, this acceptance of his vocation, was against the unanimous advice of his friends and university colleagues. He understood their bewilderment. He would not have believed it unless he had traveled the path himself. He continues, “My vocation has grown directly from my own hunger for roots, my failed search for roots in modernity, my historical grounding beyond my former world of compulsivity.” Tom, like many of generation, was an orphan of modernity. He, like many, in Africa suffered from a “crisis of identity.” It was only when he stopped and examined the seeds of the past did he understand his suffering and subsequently embrace his future. This future included the conception and production of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, a 28 volume commentary on the Old and New Testament by Christian writers of the first eight centuries. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture did what very few of today's students of the Bible could do for themselves. With the aid of computer technology, the vast array of writings from the church fathers--including much that is available only in the ancient languages--have been combed for their comment on Scripture. From these results, scholars with a deep knowledge of the fathers and a heart for the church have hand-selected material for each volume, shaping and introducing it to today's readers. Each portion of commentary has been chosen for its insight, its persuasive power and its faithful representation of the exegesis of the early church. In addition to its publication in English, we also have begun publication in Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Italian, and Spanish translating from the church father’s original languages. To accomplish this task we developed a worldwide team of translators, theologians, historians and scholars. If you would have asked a scholar of early Christianity in 1993 if this project was possible? Advisable? You would have been greeted with a mixture of disbelief and laughter. Yet, here we are, with over 300,000 English volumes sold and volumes available in the mother tongue of over two-thirds of the world’s population. Our passion is the study of scripture in the company of the great minds and saints of the first millennium, particularly the writers who were formed on the continent of Africa. We are passionate about the well-being of the Christian church worldwide and particularly our brothers and sisters living on the continent of Africa. We are passionate about transformation. Why? because we have been transformed. We too know what it means to be lost and to live in the world without hope, desperate for a better future. Our renewal or rebirth in Christ Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, was profoundly influenced and shaped by our reading of these ancient African Christian texts. Our purpose is not to presume to set a theological agenda for African Christians but to resource African Christians as they rethink their own agenda using classic African sources. Our desire is to come along side Africa Christian leaders helping them collect seeds from their past in order to equip them to answer the questions, pressures, challenges they are facing today in order that they might shape a better future. The resources are already there, waiting to be discovered. The resources are in Africa. The wisdom is in the texts of Africa. The matrix is the soil of Africa. We desire to make these classic sources available in order to equip 21st century Africans to become the leaders of 21st century Christianity, even as they were leaders of early Christianity.