Oden, Thomas C. and Joel C. Elowsky with Cindy Crosby. On the Way to the Cross: 40 Days with the Church Fathers. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011. 160 Pages. Paper. $15.00. http://books.ivpress.com (LHP)
Oden, Thomas C. Early Libyan Christianity: Uncovering a North African Tradition. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011. 336 Pages. Paper. $22.00 http://books.ivpress.com (LHP)
There are not too many Muslims in Wyoming. Yes, there are some, but conversations are few and far between.
Consider this as an opportunity to spend next Lent with the Church Fathers. Next, consider spending a whole year with them, and then a lifetime.
How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind helped me see how missionaries from Africa helped plant Christianity in the West, beginning with Europe. Early Libyan Christianity helped me understand how influential and vibrant Libya was in early Christianity.
Oden, Thomas C. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007. 208 pages. Cloth. $19.00. www.ivpress.com (LHP)
Years ago, I began a surprising correspondence with a young pastor in the African nation of Cameroon. He faces many challenges pastoring a congregation because of the unique challenges posed by the rapid expansion of Christianity on that continent. And many Christians in Africa are unaware of their ancient Christian heritage.
"Africa has played a decisive role in the formation of Christian culture. Decisive intellectual achievements of Christianity were explored and understood first in Africa before they were recognized in Europe, and a millennium before they found their way to North America" (9) This clear thesis encouraged me to read the whole book in one sitting. I simply did not want to put it down.
633 million Christians in Africa by 2025 (10). What does this mean? Thomas Oden's book is has arrived at just the right time. The author honestly struggles with the term that is Africa (16ff, 80ff) and demonstrates how oral tradition have endured. This leads to other questions.
"….why is Christianity so often perceived in Africa as a Western colonial import? How can Christians in Northern and sub-Saharan Africa [later described as "Two Africas," Chapter 4], indeed how can Christians throughout the world, rediscover and learn from this ancient heritage?" (publisher's website)
It may be because of that oral tradition and the lack of a "written intellectual tradition" so important to western scholars and Africans today (28ff). Harnack (57) and other liberal continental "theologians" are also to blame. "….the exegesis and theology and liturgy that were first refined in Africa finally returned to Africa in the prayerbooks and penitential practices of both Catholics and Protestants, but in forms that seemed unrecognizable as African. Indeed, by the time [Christianity] returned, it seemed alien to Africa…" (75).
Answering the questions Oden raises may also help the church respond to Islam and also to be more familiar and comfortable with "catholicity," both in the term and in its reality. "The aim of catholicity in Christian teaching is to reflect the wholeness of apostolic truth to the whole world. The criterion is the accurate attestation of truth, not the egalitarian goal of making all voices equal" (92). He criticizes modern liberal ecumenism, seeing "earlier evangelical ecumenism [was] closer to ancient ecumenism" (115).
Africa's gifts to the Christian tradition are enumerated (42-43). Oden backs up his assertions somewhat briefly. I wish there were more. Perhaps this will be part of the larger project he envisions.
"Theologian Thomas C. Oden offers a portrait that challenges prevailing notions of the intellectual development of Christianity from its early roots to its modern expressions. The pattern, he suggests, is not from north to south from Europe to Africa, but the other way around. He then makes an impassioned plea to uncover the hard data and study in depth the vital role that early African Christians played in developing the modern university, maturing Christian exegesis of Scripture, shaping early Christian dogma, modeling conciliar patterns of ecumenical decision-making, stimulating early monasticism, developing Neoplatonism, and refining rhetorical and dialectical skills.
"He calls for a wide-ranging research project to fill out the picture he sketches. It will require, he says, a generation of disciplined investigation, combining intensive language study with a risk-taking commitment to uncover the truth in potentially unreceptive environments. Oden envisions a dedicated consortium of scholars linked by computer technology and a common commitment that will seek to shape not only the scholar's understanding but the ordinary African Christian's self-perception" (publisher's website).
I see this book as a natural companion to the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. That set will soon be supplemented by "the five-volume Ancient Christian Doctrine series…the Ancient Christian Text series…and the series of volumes titled Ancient Christian Devotional, all published by InterVarsity Press" (148). These are ambitious projects. Equally ambitious is Thomas Oden's desire to make texts available "in a low-cost, reader-friendly format, many of them for small group use by both lay and clerical readers in the villages and cities of Africa" (145). Perhaps those books, and this neat book will find their way to African pastors like my friend in Cameroon and the readers of this issue of QBR.
The volume concludes with a "Literary Chronology of Christianity in Africa in the First Millennium," (157ff) and a Bibliography.
"Thomas C. Oden (Ph.D., Yale University) recently retired as Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology at The Theological School of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. He is general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and author of numerous theological works, including a three-volume systematic theology" (publisher's website).
This resource, as well as the author's future plans would complement the ongoing work in Africa by the Lutheran Heritage Foundation.
The Rev. Paul J Cain