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How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind

Chapter 2

Seven Ways Africa Shaped the Christian Mind

Key Names, Locations, and Terms

Alexandria Population: 250,000. Founded in 331 BCE by Alexander the Great, it became the capital of Egypt under the Ptolemaic dynasty and developed into "the busiest port in the ancient world,"61 exporting immense amounts of wheat to feed Rome. Rome's dependence on Egyptian wheat led to Roman rule in 80 BCE, but Roman control greatly increased after Octavian's victory over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in 30 BCE.

With its huge library and collection of famous scholars… Alexandria was the intellectual center of the Greco-Roman world. But it was even more important as a religious center. Here a very large Jewish population mingled with an unusually vigorous paganism. It was in Alexandria that the Old Testament was translated into…According to tradition, St. Mark is credited with bringing Christianity to the city, and he is believed to have been martyred there in the year 62 for preaching against the worship of Serapis, a god paired with the goddess Isis and first heard of in Alexandria. The story of St. Mark's death is probably mythical, but no doubt it served to inspire subsequent generations of Alexandrian Christians. (Rodney Stark, Discovering God)

Exegesis means “to bring out,” and implies a drawing out from the bible its meaning.

Septuagint (LXX) is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (Torah) produced during the third and second centuries BCE by unknown Jewish translators. The name derives from the legend that seventy elders translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. In any case, the Septuagint served as the primary translation of the Old Testament for early church. It was the first great translation project of history and transmitted Hebrew concepts into the thought world of Hellenism.

Dogma/Doctrine the formal teaching of an institution (church). A useful differentiation between theology and doctrine is that doctrine is what is taught by the church, and theology is the open-ended reflection on revelation. Over the course of time theological reflection may be accepted as doctrine or it may be rejected but it is all theological.

Ecumenical derived from the Greek oikoumenÄ“ which means “the inhabited world.” As a result, at least in its usage in the book, ecumenical refers to decisions or doctrinal formulations that have worldwide applicability or acceptance. These decisions are concerned with establishing and promoting unity in the Christian church.

Monasticism from the Greek word monachos, a solitary person. Monasticism describes the life chosen by religious women and men who separate from society for purposes of spiritual development. It embraces both the life of the hermit living in solitude and monks living in community—cenobites.

Neo-Platonism A system of philosophy developed in Alexandria in the 3rd century. Platonic in its inspiration, it incorporated Aristotelian and Stoic ideas with oriental mysticism.

Rhetoric the art of public speaking; the study of writing or speaking as a means of persuasion. Persuasion was achieved through an appeal to emotion, rational argumentation, or the character of the speaker.

Seven ways Africa Shaped the Christian Mind

  1. The western idea of the University was conceived in Alexandria.
  2. Christian Exegesis (biblical interpretation) first matured in Africa.
  3. African biblical interpreters powerfully shaped most of the important Christian doctrines.
  4. Africa was the region that first set the pattern and method for seeking wider ecumenical consent on contested points of scripture.
  5. The African desert gave birth to worldwide monasticism.
  6. Christian Neo-Platonism emerged from Africa.
  7. Rhetorical and Dialectical Skills were sharpened in Africa for the Europe’s benefit.

Other Scholarly Reflection on the Seven Ways Africa Shaped the Christian Mind

(1) See above Alexandria

(2) On Africa’s influence on a Christian reading of the Old Testament
Origen assured the Old Testament a permanent place in the Christian church not by an abstract theory but by working his way through the entire Old Testament, book by book, sentence by sentence, and word by word. Origen provided the church with the first Christian commentary on virtually the entire Old Testament. Seldom, if ever again, would there be any doubt that this book had its proper and rightful place in the Christian Church… Origen’s work made it certain that the church would retain the Old Testament as part of its Bible. He also provided the first real Christian interpretation of the Old Testament. His interpretation influenced other interpretations for centuries
--Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J.

(3) The Importance of African Biblical Interpreters
Although I cite many writers….I found that I turned constantly to four: Origen (Alexandria) in the third century, Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth, Augustine in the fifth, and Maximus the Confessor in the seventh. In the early church these four stand out as the most rewarding, the most profound, and the most enduring. They can be read as living interpreters, not just as historical sources. Yet few will quarrel with the conventional wisdom that Augustine stands at the summit. He is the most discerning, his thought flows at a deeper level, his range of interests is greater, he wrote with more elegance, and he has been most influential, at least in the West.
Robert Louis Wilken, “Introduction” The Spirit of Early Christian Thought

(4) Patterns of Ecumenical Consent
Councils were formal gatherings of bishops that appeared early in the history of the church as a responsible means to address pressing issues concerning faith and practice. Tertullian mentions in On Fasting (13) that churches, in Asia Minor gathered together to discuss the deeper questions for the “common benefit.” At the insistence of Pope Victor (African by birth) councils were gathered in Syria, Palestine, and Pontus to settle the issue of the date of Easter. Cyprian refers to two councils that gathered before his tenure. Seven councils were held during his tenure. The following is an excerpt from Cyprian (Letter 55)

According, however, to what had been before decided, when the persecution was quieted, and opportunity of meeting was afforded; a large number of bishops, whom their faith and the divine protection had preserved in soundness and safety, we met together; and the divine Scriptures being brought forward on both sides, we balanced the decision with wholesome moderation, so that neither should hope of communion and peace be wholly denied to the lapsed, lest they should fail still more through desperation, and, because the Church was closed to them, should, like the world, live as heathens; nor yet, on the other hand, should the censure of the Gospel be relaxed, so that they might rashly rush to communion, but that repentance should be long protracted, and the paternal clemency be sorrowfully besought, and the cases, and the wishes, and the necessities of individuals be examined into, according to what is contained in a little book, which I trust has come to you, in which the several head s of our decisions are collected. And lest perchance the number of bishops in Africa should seem unsatisfactory, we also wrote to Rome, to Cornelius our colleague, concerning this thing, who himself also holding a council with very many bishops, concurred in the same opinion as we had held, with equal gravity and wholesome moderation.

(5) Origins of Monasticism:
Origen, the great Alexandrian theologian, was not a monk, but not a few historians have, with good reason, regarded him as the precursor of monasticism and even father of the religious life. In fact, we find in his life and writings the principal elements that have distinguished the monastic life from others. Evagrius of Pontus, Cassian, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa, that is some of the greatest witnesses in the history of monasticism, were truly his disciples in the spiritual life. To a special degree, the monks of Egypt were fervent practitioners of the spirituality of Origen….
The Historical Atlas of Eastern and Western Christian Monasticism (p.30)

From New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia: The introduction of monasticism into the West may be dated from about A.D. 340 when St. Athanasius visited Rome accompanied by the two Egyptian monks Ammon and Isidore, disciples of St. Anthony. The publication of the "Vita Antonii" some years later and its translation into Latin spread the knowledge of Egyptian monasticism widely and many were found in Italy to imitate the example thus set forth. The first Italian monks aimed at reproducing exactly what was done in Egypt and not a few -- such as St. Jerome, Rufinus, Paula, Eustochium and the two Melanias -- actually went to live in Egypt or Palestine as being better suited to monastic life than Italy.