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Core Hypothesis of CEAC

Core Hypotheses for Discussion

First International Consultation on Early African Christianity

April 11-12, 2008, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Thomas C. Oden

Center for Early African Christianity, Drew University

1. Christians on the continent of Africa have a birthright that awaits their full discovery. But in subtle ways they seem to have been barred access to it as a result of long-standing preconceived notions and biases. So their heritage has remained sadly unnoticed, even in much of Africa.

These great ancient North African intellects whose ideas were formed on African soil are still regarded as if they were essentially Greek or Roman, hardly African at all. This is a form of self-deprivation that African Christianity must get beyond.  It is absurd for Africans to disown their own illustrious theological roots that sprang out of the African struggle. It is ironic to misconceive this denial as if it were a true defense of African identity.

The challenge that lies ahead for young Africans is to rediscover the textual richness of ancient African Christianity This will call for a generation of African scholars to reevaluate unexamined assumptions that ignore or demean African intellectual history.


2. In ante-Nicene Christian history the flow of intellectual leadership moved largely from Africa to Europe – south to north, with Christian thought cradled and nurtured in Africa. This point must be savored unhurriedly: The Christians to the south of the Mediterranean were teaching the Christians to the north. Africans were informing and educating the very best of Syriac, Cappadocian and Greco-Roman teachers.

It is a common misconception that the flow of intellectual leadership in early Christianity moved from Europe to Africa, not vice versa.  Africa’s vast effects on Europe have not been adequately grasped. Even today many African-born scholars trained in the west seem all too ready to play the role of advocates of modern European ideologies. Christianity on the African continent has a much longer history than is portrayed by many of its modern western expressions. The Maghreb and Nile valleys have played a decisive role in the formation of world Christian culture from its infancy.

This misperception caused many European historians to fail to analyze adequately the close engagement of early African Christian teaching with indigenous, traditional, and primitive African religions in the north of Africa throughout the first millennium (Berber, Pharaonic, early Coptic, and nilotic cultures). Inland African cultures (especially in the Medjerda and Nile basins) were the main testing ground for early Christian dialectical models of the relation of Christianity and culture. These models were hammered out on the ground in Africa before they were transmitted to Sicily, Palestine, Syria, Anatolia, and finally inland Europe. Modern chauvinism has wrongly assumed that Africa was inexperienced in understanding cultural conflict resolution and only needed larger doses of European enlightenment to solve its difficulties. Many have thus missed entirely the literary richness of the distinctive African Christian imprint on the proto-formation of Europe and the formation of the Christian mind. These misjudgments have been passed on through the graduate study programs that have warped scholars of all continents subliminally.

In the first half of the first millennium, the Christian intellect blossomed first on the African continent. It was sought out and emulated by Christians all over the northern Mediterranean and the Near East. The common misperception is directly the opposite. It is imagined that intellectual leadership typically moved from the north to the south, as if naturally or predictably from Europe to the African continent. But in the actual texts of Christian history, the flow of exegetical and intellectual leadership demonstrably moved largely from the African continent to Europe and the Near East --- south to north. It remains the task of a generation of future scholars, with increasing numbers of them from Africa, to restudy these causes and better describe these effects.

This flow of intellectual leadership in time matured into the ecumenical consensus on how to interpret sacred scripture, and hence on the core of Christian dogma.  Inattention to this south to north movement has been unhelpful (even hurtful) to the African sense of intellectual self-worth. It has seemed to leave Africa without a sense of distinguished literary and intellectual history. This is a history that Africa actually already rightly owned but which has remained buried and ignored. The trajectory of monasticism from Africa to Ireland and then back Europe only to return again to Africa as a Europeanized experiment is one of the most astonishing of all the stories of the preservation of civilization.


3. An international team of scholars has now almost completed the twenty-nine volumes of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture over two decades.This labor of love has taught us how significant were the earliest layers of African exegesis to the rest of world Christianity. It took years of working daily in the history of exegesis for those of us editing the Ancient Christian Commentary to recognize how profound had been the African influence on subsequent scriptural interpretation. Nowhere in the literature could we find this influence anticipated or explained. Everywhere it seemed to be ignored or resisted. It came only from decades of hands on work with texts written on the African continent. Finally we learned to trace the path of scripture interpretation back from Africa to Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Nisibis, and Rome.

How did Africa come into my consciousness as a powerfully transforming influence?  I did not learn this from Euro-American mentors.  I did not learn it from the contemporary historians, who steered me consistently away from classical African Christianity toward modern European intellectual history.  I learned it only from reading the ancient African sources directly. So I come personally to this subject through a unique experiential route: years of pondering the early African exegetical writers (Minucius Felix, Clement, Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian, Marius Victorinus, Lactantius, --- all born before Athanasius--- then Didymus, Arnobius of Sicca, Optatus, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, Shenute of Atripe, Quodvultdeus, Victor of Vita, Fulgentius) at a time when many were being grossly neglected.

This consortium is looking toward continuing their post-ACCS work at Drew University where the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies has creating the Center for Early African Christianity. The hope is that a network of African universities and seminaries will lend a hand in making the history of early African Christianity an increasing focus of international study, composed of a consortium of scholars mostly in Africa but extending the world over.


4. The goal is to produce previously untranslated texts for scholars, and stories for the children of Africa, through the new web-site: An international consortium of schools and scholars is being drawn together for the purpose of enabling and encouraging this research, with three aims:


·         to translate and distribute key texts of early African Christian teaching in a cost effective way both through printed publications and digitally to global Christians who are interested in early African Christianity;

·         to enlist an international team of translators, linguists, historians, and information technology specialists who will work in African universities and educational centers to pursue these texts and ideas;

·         to bring contemporary African theological reasoning to a deeper level of awareness of its own rich tradition of patristic sources written on African soil, shaped by and shaping many cultures in Africa and beyond for more than a millennium.


Translators are needed from the four major source languages of Christianity in the first millennium of African history –Arabic, Coptic, Greek, and Latin – into the major international languages spoken in contemporary Africa –French, English, and Portuguese – but also into the major regional trade languages --- Housa, Amharic, Swahili, and Zulu. A number of pace-setting universities in Africa have encouraged us to establish programs where the pertinent language studies will be pursued. 


Internet and digital technologies provide a new arena and huge data bases for getting in touch with the texts of the early African tradition in a way not even imaginable before. Now the search is on for undiscovered or unnoticed ancient African texts, including both paleographic and funerary inscriptions and literary works. 

The works of early African Christian writers will similarly be made available in searchable form, giving scholars and pastors the ability to make easy searches of key words and texts, subjects and authors. Scholars, educators and leaders who have requisite historical and language competencies will be invited to participate in this project of translation, dissemination, publication, and study of the texts and wisdom of early African Christianity.

The projects of the Center for Early African Christianity will limit their publications to African sources focusing on texts written on the African continent before 1000 C.E. This will include studies that demonstrate the influence of these texts and ideas upon the early formation of Europe, as seen in movements of spiritual formation, in conciliar acts, in exegesis, in doctrinal teaching, in penitential practice, in the vision of universal history, and in liturgy, polity, rhetoric, and ethics. The core hypothesis yet to be fully defended: African Christianity has an intellectual history equal to or unexcelled by either Europe or Asia before the late-fourth century. By the time of Basil and Jerome, the east and west had already learned its most important lessons from Africa.

This consortium has no hidden purposes other than to make contemporary African Christianity strong in intellectual leadership. We have no western advocacy interests, but rather the opposite: African advocacy within global Christianity.

There is a vacuum in the virtual world of web communication that this project is already beginning to fill, with over 100,000 hits in its first three months of operation. It will correlate digital and print publishing efforts among scholars, translators, reviewers, and publishers to accomplish these purposes.

The story of early African Christianity needs to be told to African children in villages and cities.  The story deserves to be told in a simple way. Though it will be heard by a global audience, it first must find a way of reaching the African child.

It is a story of heroic proportions, replete with intrepid characters and surprise endings. It is not a myth, but a real history. It is the actual story of African believers facing faithfully life and death choices, centuries of demeaning slavery, and intractable dehumanization. It is timely today for Africa mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. Its time has come.


5. A new African Ecumenism is coming to life as a result. Whether from Catholic, Protestant, Coptic, or charismatic perceptions, Christian believers are growing ready to listen to the uniting voices of classical African Christianity. It is amazing to see the new energies that are emerging out of this uniting work of the Spirit--- the vital communities of prayer, scholarship, preaching, teaching, and discipleship. 


The central confession, liturgy, prayers and scripture of the Proto-Coptic tradition were once closely shared with both the Byzantine and Latin traditions of Africa in the ancient sees of Alexandria and Carthage. This ancient ecumenical core has never been entirely absent in Africa during the last twenty centuries. That core is largely identical with early consensual African Christianity. It has remained intact in global Christianity and now is gradually reawakening in Africa with full vitality.


The Coptic tradition from Egypt to Ethiopia has had the most sustained experience with living for centuries under dhimmi conditions of Islamic governance. The Copts have shown tremendous staying power, yet their literature has been largely ignored in the West and to a lesser extent by the African intelligentsia. The doctrinal core of Coptic Christianity is not substantively different from what is being taught by sub-Saharan evangelicals and Catholics, but the sub-Saharan south has remained emotively and linguistically distant from the north of Africa. The south of Africa has benefited far less than it could have from the sense of history that has been sustained in the north of Africa. SubSaharan African Christians are far less prepared for the growing dialogue with Islam than those in the North. There is inadequate recognition in southern Africa that the steady Coptic tradition of the north has maintained this cohesion on behalf of all contemporary African Christians over two perilous millennia. In the coming conversation with Islam, Africa has a great store of experience that many world Christians have not yet had and by which many may benefit. These spiritual resources have enabled Christians for centuries to remain peace-loving citizens and, when necessary, to stand up gently and peaceably within the limits of Islam. If African Christians are called to face another thousand years of Islam, let us hope they face it with an accurate memory of their own first thousand years in Africa.