The Great Contribution: Early Christianity in Africa
The assertion that Christianity is the “White Man’s Religion” is an unsubstantiated and yet increasingly popular claim among some circles in the black community. But what if we could demonstrate that Africans played a significant role in the development and preservation of Christianity’s central text—the Bible? How might that contribute to shaping the narrative concerning the supposed conflict between being “black” and being a Christian?
This is something that I stumbled upon as I was studying church history in general. Just a few years ago, I decided to do a personal study on how the books in our Bible came to be understood as inspired scripture. To my surprise, as I dug into the subject, I found myself confronted with the substantial influence of African Christians in the early church as the biblical canon was being established. I would like to take a few moments to share some of the highlights of what I encountered.
What Had Happened Was...
In the first few centuries of Christian history, the early church grappled with how to best conceptualize and articulate the ins and outs of what God has revealed about Himself and His Triune nature. Naturally, the question arose: What are the boundaries of this discussion? To put it differently, “What is the standard by which ideas about God are being measured so that they can be discerned to be true or false?” This is where the process of “canonization”—the acknowledgement and affirmation of the texts that God inspired as His revealed Word -- comes into play.
The word “canon” here simply means “standard”. The idea here is that not everything being written about God is reliable for guiding a disciple of Christ toward the truth of God. There is some “fool’s gold” out there and the early church understood the importance of being unified in distinguishing God’s specially revealed truth from everything else. Consider how people today look to the internet as a source of information. For whatever reason it seems that for some folks if you put it on a meme or if it’s somewhere on the internet then it simply must be true. So often I come across “former Christians” who seem to have a poor grasp for sound theology and were left vulnerable to be led astray by what I call “memeology”.
Obviously, you shouldn’t go around believing something just because it’s on the internet. Likewise, in the centuries of the church, they recognized that there were a lot of people writing about Christ but everything that glitters ain’t gold. As the church was growing and people were saying this or that under the banner of this Christian movement, it was imperative that believers get a handle on what the Church was to stand on as God’s Word. Now, this process of canonization is crucial to the mission of the church because at the time that the Christian movement emerges it is competing amongst a market place of religions and philosophies. The last thing you want is to have this movement, that is founded on the blood of Christ, tainted and hampered by misinformation seeping in from influences that are foreign to the teachings of Christ and more broadly what God was doing in the earth.
Which writings can be vouched for as having accurately and reliably conveyed what God intended to reveal to mankind? Which of these writings can be read in our churches and endorsed to disciples of Christ as that which believers can base their walk with Christ on?
What is the standard or “canon” for the church? Historians look to the writings among early Christian theologians, records from church councils, and so on to find themes as to what were the guidepost criteria/rules of thumb by which a document was affirmed to be canon or not. Examples of these criteria for discerning what writings were to be understood as inspired scripture are as follows:
A. Is the document widely circulated among the church?
B. Was the document written by an apostle or direct associate of an apostle?
C. Is the document consistent with apostolic doctrine?
Consider the following example of how historians can look to historical events to discern why the early church would have deemed particular writings to have satisfied that first rule of thumb. In 180 Ad Christians, in Scilliam North Africa were undergoing persecution from the governor of that region. This group of North African believers was questioned by the governor and ultimately sentenced to death for refusing to renounce Christianity. During the investigation of these individuals a box was brought into the courtroom containing property which belonged to that church. When asked about the contents of the box these soon to be martyrs reported that in the box were “Books, and the writings of Paul, a Just man”. These historical events taking place in North Africa are the sorts of things that historians can look to and infer:
A. Obviously, this body of believers understood Paul’s writings to be authoritative and of value such that they took great care to preserved them.
B. Paul’s writings must have been in circulation among the early church for which they are later considered canon.
As we move forward in our discussion here, I want to highlight specific examples of how Africans directly influenced the process of canonization in the early church.
I’d like to begin with one of my favorite figures of the early Church— Origen. Origen is reportedly born to Christian parents in Alexandria, Egypt around 200AD. Accounts of Origen’s life suggest that when Origen was a young man his father was taken to be martyred for Christ. Origen was determined to go with his father to be martyred alongside him, but Origen’s mother prevents him from doing so by hiding Origen’s clothes so that he can’t go. This young man goes on to be one of the most prolific and influential scholars of the early church. He would go on to write about 6,000 works and is considered to be the father of systematic theology. Among the written works of Origen, we have some monumental contributions with perhaps the most notable being “The Hexapla”. What Origen did with The Hexapla was take 6 Hebrew and Greek variations of what we call the Old Testament and he put them into one document. Each of these translations were aligned in columns such that The Hexapla was essentially the first comparative study Bible and perhaps early rudiments of textual criticism of the Bible.
Origen went on to launch a sort of graduate school program, if you will, where his students could go deeper in the scriptures after having completing studies at the Alexandrian Catechetical School. When it comes to the New Testament Origen’s work is significant because we can glean from what he writes commentaries on and quotes from which books this early Christian scholar from Alexandria, Egypt recognized as being authoritative and instrumental in the discipleship of believers. In his writings, Origen affirms each of the 27 books of our New Testament as being valuable for Christian instruction. While Origen is a crucial part of our biblical heritage as we’ll see he doesn’t have the final say on canonization.
Let’s turn our attention to another early Christian theologian from Alexandria, Egypt—Athanasius. Athanasius is probably best known for the role he played in defending the orthodox doctrine of the Triune nature of God leading up to and at the Council of Nicaea. Nowadays, there are a million and one conspiracy theories about what happened at the Council of Nicaea. As a Christian apologist over the last few years I’ve encountered ridiculous claims like:
“Jesus was invented at the Council of Nicaea.”
“The Bible was written at the Council of Nicaea.”
“Constantine took over and or ‘changed’ the church and Christian doctrine at the Council of Nicaea”.
Somehow, today’s “Youtube and Memeology scholars” have everything to say about the Council of Nicaea except what ACTUALLY happened at the Council of Nicaea. Historians glean from a number of sources such as correspondence between figures in the church following the Council at Nicaea to piece together what happened there. What is interesting is that Athanasius is eventually installed as the bishop of Alexandria and part of his duties flow from one of the minor decisions at the council of Nicaea. There was debate about what date should be used to celebrate the resurrection/Christ as the Passover lamb and it was decided that every year the bishop of Alexandria would send out a letter to the churches appointing the celebration date for that year. Athanasius sent 45 of those letters in which he would also address other matters of concern for the Church. In the 39th, Athanasius lists out the books to be included in the New Testament for use in the church and it is the same 27 books that we have in our Bibles today. As a matter of fact, this is the actually the earliest document we have affirming the exact set of New Testament documents we have today.
On another note, in 340AD Athanasius finds himself in exile for a second time; this time in Rome. He was well received during his time in Rome as a respected theologian. Prior to his stay in Rome—among Alexandrian theologians— books like Hebrews, Jude, and 1 John were accepted as authoritative yet there was some debate in Rome and the more western branch of the church concerning these books. Historian F.F. Bruce notes that there are indications that Athanasius was influential in addressing the resistance to these books in Rome. According to Bruce, the evidence suggests that after the time of Athanasius’ visit, the Western church of that time began accepting those works just as the Alexandrian theologians did and you don’t see that controversy among them moving forward.
St. Augustine of Hippo, North Africa
Saint Augustine of North Africa flourished between 354 and 420AD. In Saint Augustine’s writings he affirms the same 27 books that were listed by Athanasius and prior to that affirmed by Origen. What is truly remarkable here is the timing and influence of Augustine. At the end of the 4th century moving into the 5th you have a number of councils in Carthage conducted under the leadership of Augustine. It is at the council of Carthage in 393 AD you have for the first time a council weighing in on the question of what writings were to be canonized. in a definitive move the council leaned heavily on the works of St. Augustine and list out the same New Testament documents as being canonical along with the Old Testament books that Augustine had affirmed. We don’t have the records from that particular council, but we find this ruling on the Canon reiterated in records from the later council at Carthage in 397AD and again in 419AD at the sixth Council of Carthage. This is crucial because these councils—greatly relying upon Augustine—set the tone for later discussions about Canonicity and are indeed the backbone of later considerations like what we find at the council of Trent or even in the writings of Luther.
Much more could be said about this topic as it points to a broader conversation concerning the impact of the early African church in Christian history. For anyone interested in further discussion on that I would recommend a book authored by Thomas Oden, “How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind”. Or of course (shameless plug) you could take a listen to my Tru-ID Podcast particularly the episode in which I interviewed Dr. Vince Bantu. With that being said, I pray this article has been a blessing to the reader and would encourage you to keep in mind that Africans have been neither bystanders nor late comers to God’s sovereign Kingdom work in the earth. As a matter of defending the faith amidst objections to Christianity that have been gaining traction in the black community, we must be prepared to convey that fact of Christian history.
NOTE: For anyone interested the source I used for this article is as follows. Bruce, F. F. (1997). The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Pr.