The Forgotten African Roots of Christianity
This week on Advent Next, a theological podcast for curious faith discussions, we are exploring the contributions of non-western African Christianity to the foundations of Christian faith. We will also be discussing the African-American religious experience with Christianity during the span of slavery in the United States. This week’s recommended reading is a book by Thomas Oden entitled “How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity.” Our guest today is Dr. Trevor O’Reggio, chair of the history department at Andrews University and a specialist on Reformation History.
African Intellectual Contributions
“The greatest center of early Christianity was an Afro-Asiatic city, Alexandria. This is where the great early theologians of the church were centered. Athanasius, Alexander, Tertullian, and origin, even Augustine himself, the father of medieval theology, almost all of them are African.”
Some of the greatest intellectual contributors to our modern understanding of Christianity, including the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, came from the African fathers of the faith.
“When we come to the New Testament, we know that the first non-Jewish convert to the early church is African who then takes the religion back into Africa. When we look at the actual development of the early church, we see that this was primarily an African/Asian (modern Turkey) religion.”
The Movement of Christianity from East to West
We not only discuss the dominance of eastern Christianity in the early centuries, we also discuss how Christianity became a religion of the east, to a religion of the west.
“[Christianity] began to move toward the west and the north with the ascension of Constantinople. If you recall when Constantine took over the empire, he moved from the west, and he made Constantinople in Turkey his new capital. Since there were many varieties of Christianity, he tended to give preference to a certain brand of Christianity, which is going to emerge and control what we call Western Christianity.”
With the rise of Constantine and the preference he gave to the bishop of Rome, western Christianity began to ascend to power. However, it wasn’t until around 1000AD that Christianity in the east began to lose power due to the rise of Islam.
“As Christianity was taken over in the west by the bishop of Rome, there was another Christianity in the east and in the south, which was thriving. But with the rise and emergence of Islam, that Christianity, which was very strong in the countries I identified (Morocoo, Tunsia, Algeria, Egypt, Sudan) would eventually be replaced by Islam.”
A Slave’s Introduction to Christianity in America
Finally, we explore how Christianity had been shaped by its European baptism, along with how it was used to justify the enslavement of Africans in America. While this was never the Bible’s original intention, the culture in which Christianity had preeminence influenced the way it was interpreted.
“By the time the American Christians came to the Americas, Christianty and Western culture had become one. Western culture had essentially co-opted Christianity. Christianity was now being interpreted primarily by the eyes of Europeans. Essentially it was a Eurocentric religion.”
“A religion that essentially says to you, your place as a slave has been foreordained by the gods of Christianity. This was not a religion that was receptive to African slaves. The religion was reinforcing their status as slave and saying that the god of the Christians was in agreement and condoned the enslavement of Africans in the Americas. The religion became a tool to justify slavery, a tool to try to pacify slaves to make them more obedient and servile to their white masters.”
“The turning point for slaves in the introduction to Christianity took place during the Great Awakening. For the first time black slaves responded in great numbers to the Christian message. Revivals tend to break down barriers. This was the first context in which large groups of whites and blacks met together.”
Advent Next: Life and Faith Discussions for the Next Generation
O'Reggio, Trevor; Arsenault, Kendra; and Odinma, Michelle, "The Forgotten African Roots of Christianity" (2019). Faculty Publications. 1473.
FAR Report 2020