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Christianity's Deep African Roots

by Dr. H.C. Felder



Many people are under the impression that Christianity is a white man’s religion and that everything associated with it is white. They consider its theology to be white, created by whites to form a white religion. This misconception has caused many blacks to see Christianity as incompatible with black people. Furthermore, with the rise of “woke” culture in the church, it has even turned some Christians away from their faith. Understanding the vital role that Africans played in the early church may open the eyes and ears of those who have been deceived by the untruths of “woke” theology. 


After the death of Jesus, the apostles propagated the messages of Christ based on his teachings. Those apostles built upon those teachings, and we see this most notably in the writings of Paul, where he begins to put meat on the bones of what Jesus taught. After the death of the apostles, the early church fathers picked up the mantle and built upon the foundations that the apostles had laid. 


African Church Fathers

To show the impact that Africans had on the early church, we are going to examine the contributions of four of the most significant church fathers who happened to be African: Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, and Augustine of Hippo.


Tertullian (c 160 – c 240)

Tertullian was often referred to as “Tertullian the African” and was born in modern-day Tunisia. He has had such an impact on Christianity that he has been called “the founder of Western theology.”  Tertullian was born during a time when it was very dangerous to be a Christian. Christians were often blamed and persecuted by Roman authorities whenever a disaster struck the Roman Empire. (1)


Born into an educated class, Tertullian was well-educated. In his youth, he indulged his passions. Part of that was watching the gladiator games in the coliseums where gladiators fought to the death. At these games, criminals were killed by wild beasts for the pleasure of the crowd. These “criminals” included Christians since the Roman Empire had outlawed Christianity. During these games, Tertullian was amazed at how these Christians stood firm in the face of certain and brutal death. He was so fascinated that he researched Christianity, and after his investigation, he decided to become a Christian himself. He then turned his focus on writing in defense of Christians, who were a despised and victimized group.


His contributions to Christianity were significant. It was Tertullian who coined the term “Trinity.” He was the first to clearly distinguish the roles of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit while still emphasizing the oneness of God. Tertullian wrote several works attacking the heresies of his day and expounding on Christian beliefs, especially the Trinity. (2) This was very important during the early days of Christianity when the core doctrines were being formed. Many did not have a firm understanding of what Christianity was, and, as a result, many perversions arose. Tertullian’s work was crucial in defining and defending orthodox Christianity. (3)


Origen (c. 185 – c. 253)

Origen was born in Egypt to Christian parents. Origen’s father made the ultimate sacrifice for his religious belief by being martyred in 202 A.D., when Origen was just eighteen years old. (4) Origen took his faith very seriously, to the point where he castrated himself as a young man so that he could devote himself fully to following God and studying the scriptures. Origen himself was martyred in the persecution of Christians in 250 A.D. under Roman Emperor Decius. During this time, everyone in the Roman Empire was required to perform a sacrifice to the Roman gods and have it witnessed by a magistrate who would issue a certificate. Origen refused and was tortured to the point of death, revived, and pressed again to deny his faith. When he still would not renounce Christ, he would be tortured to the point of death again. His torturers eventually realized he would never recant, so they let him go. He would later, however, die from his injuries. (5)


Origen’s contributions to Christianity were significant. His main work was his commentary on the Greek Old Testament. Origen also wrote commentaries on New Testament books and wrote against various pagan attacks on Christianity. He took the ideas of Christianity into the mainline culture and engaged with the intellectuals of his time. According to tradition, Origen wrote over 6,000 works. (6) 


Athanasius (c. 295 – 373)

Athanasius was Egyptian, and although he received a Greek education, he always remained true to his Egyptian heritage. He was called the “Black Dwarf” by his enemies because he was short and dark-skinned. (7) He became part of the mainline church at an early age and was ordained bishop of Alexandria in 318 while he was still in his twenties. (8) Athanasius’s area of pastoral responsibility was along the Nile River, an area with a wide variety of subcultures and languages. He would be exiled five times by four Roman emperors, living in exile for seventeen of the forty-five years he served as bishop. (9)


Athanasius’ contributions to Christianity were significant. He was a tenacious defender of orthodox Christianity against a rising tide of heresies. So concerned was he with defending Christianity that he was prominent in formulating the Nicene Creed. (10) For the early church in the midst of heretical assaults, the Creed stood as a fundamental statement of what Christians believe. overs the Trinity, the nature of God, salvation, the Resurrection, and more, the Nicene Creed has stood the test of time and is still used as a test for orthodoxy in many mainline churches.


Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430)

Augustine was born in present-day Algeria, Africa. In his youth, Augustine was living with a woman he was not married to and fathered a son. After reading the letters of the Apostle Paul, Augustine was convicted and decided to live a holy life. (11) In 388, he sold all his property, gave all his money to the poor, and started a monastery. (12) Augustine remained a monk for life. He became a bishop and a professor, writing one hundred books, two hundred letters, and at least five hundred sermons. He died in 430 at the age of 76.


The contributions of Augustine cannot be overstated. He developed a comprehensive theory that became the theology of the mainline church at the time, which we know today as the Catholic church. His theology has also served as the foundation for Protestant churches as well. While bishop, he wrote fifteen books that showed the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. During the Reformation,  the 16th-century theological movement that challenged the authority of the Pope and ushered in the Protestant church era, Augustine’s writings were the most referenced, second only to the Bible. (13)


While the Roman Empire was still persecuting Christians, Christianity was maturing in Africa.  These African church fathers greatly influenced important theological tenets of our faith.  Christians worldwide, whether Catholic or Protestant, owe much of our understanding of theology, doctrines, and the Bible to these early African church fathers.


 


References:


  1. Carl Davis, A Brief History of Christianity in Africa, Kindle Edition, 108. 

  2. Davis, 108.

  3.  Tertullian was a prolific writer in the early church. But he also has a complex legacy, as he was excommunicated from the church when he joined the Montanist sect. See: https://orthodoxwiki.org/Tertullian

  4. Davis, 378.

  5. Davis, 378.

  6. Origen wrote extensively on theological issues, was ordained a priest and died a martyr’s death. However, he was also anathematized for heresy by the church. See: https://orthodoxwiki.org/Origen. While influential, his legacy is complicated. See also: “Origen | Early Christian Theologian & Scholar | Britannica.” 2024, January 31, 2024. http://britannica.com/biography/Origen.

  7. “Athanasius,” 2008, Christian History | Learn the History of Christianity & the Church, Christian History, August 8, 2008, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/theologians/athanasius.html.

  8. Davis, 611.

  9. “Athanasius.”

  10. Thomas Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind : Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2010), 47.

  11. Davis, 669.

  12. Davis, 699.

  13. Davis, 893.





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