STUDENT POST: Africa’s Influence on Christianity

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series featuring outstanding excerpts from student papers at the BibleMesh Institute, which offers affordable online training for local churches, schools, and ministries. The author’s name has been withheld for privacy purposes.

North Africa’s gift to the Christian tradition includes the many talented scholars and theologians whose imagination and thinking played a decisive role in shaping what emerged as the Catholic tradition and contributed to the formation of Christian doctrine. The goal here is not to minimize the contributions by those outside of Africa. Instead the aim is to bring to the forefront the gains African people have given to Christianity. Which region of the world had the greatest influence on Christianity among all the peoples of the world is contestable. What is not arguable is that Africa has played a significant role in shaping Christianity’s writings, beliefs, and ethics since the church’s inception.

There are too many influential people to name who shaped Christianity by way of the African church. For brevity we will learn about several of the leading people who undeniably shaped the Christian church by way of Africa. Alexandria, with its Greek and Jewish populations, its learning and international horizons, was the ideal place for theological debate.[1] It was a breeding ground for Christian growth throughout the first three centuries.

St. Antony of Egypt was an early monastic. He was born in Egypt in 251. He took the teachings of Christ about renouncing everything so literally that he decided to give up everything and take up the life of a hermit in the desert. He lived in the desert for twenty years, and his action was copied by many in Egypt. The desert monastics invented a way of life in which the world was totally given up in pursuit of God.[2] This strong indigenous Christian movement would spread from Egypt to other parts of the world.[3]

St. Augustine was the most significant theologian in North Africa. Born in 354 in Thagaste, Augustine had great influence on Christianity. In Against the Pelagians, Augustine argued that all human beings born into the world, except Christ, inherit original sin from Adam. These arguments solidified the doctrine of original sin.[4] Augustine’s work would create baselines and standards for original sin and other Christine doctrines. Augustine’s contributions to the North African church and global Christianity loom large. Many of his publications that are still read today.[5]

Cyprian was born in Carthage in 200. “He constructed an important theological statement on the nature of the church and its leadership based on his interpretation of Matthew 16:18, 19 in which Jesus promised to build the church on ‘this rock.’”[6] The contribution Cyprian made to Christianity is great. During his life, Cyprian affirmed the authority of the Church, including the authority of bishops.[7] This single act by Cyprian is one that has lived on throughout the history of the Christian church. He was committed to the vision of the church and believed in his affirmations so much that he was martyred.

The first leader of the catechetical school was Pantaenus, and its most influential scholar was Clement of Alexandria, an early proponent of philosophical theology.[8] Pantaenus is significant to Christianity because of what the school of Alexandria stood for. The catechetical school of Alexandria was probably founded as a reaction against Gnosticism. Here the attempt was made to offer a reasoned and reasonable presentation of Christian truth, not only for the training of Christian believers, but also for pagans nurtured in Greek philosophy. This was a genuine missionary activity, though it did not look towards the native population of Egypt or the undeveloped peoples beyond.[9] Being the first leader of the school in Alexandria allowed Pantaenus to stir the minds of those who studied there in a way that was emulated by others across the world.

Origen, born in Alexandria in 185, became head of catechetical school in 205. Origen was the first major thinker of the early church seriously to tackle the intractable problems of Christology.[10] Leading the catechetical school at only twenty years old was a remarkable feat. His influence on Christianity can still be seen today. He worked for some forty years with collaborators on the Hexapla, a remarkable pioneering attempt to establish an accurate text of the Hebrew Bible consisting of six parallel columns of different translations.[11] Origen was not just a writer but a figure that changed the entire landscape of Christian thought. Origen offered a refutation of Gnosticism and an alternative Christian system that was more advanced that what Gnostics were offering.

Tertullian, the father of Latin theology, was born in Carthage c. 150. Carthage is where Tunisia stands today. Tertullian wrote a number of books defending the Christian faith against non-believers.[12] Against Marcion is his longest work. Tertullian defended the oneness of God and the goodness of the law.[13] Tertullian’s work and effort toward growing the Christian faith is still recognized today which makes this man from Carthage monumental in shaping Christianity.

[1] Bengt Sundkler and Christopher Steed, A History of the Church in Africa (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 11.

[2] Elizabeth Allo Isichei, A History of Christianity in Africa: From Antiquity to the Present (Grand Rapids, Mich. : Lawrenceville, N.J: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. ; Africa World Press, 1995), 28.

[3] Elias Kifon Bongmba, The Routledge Companion to Christianity In Africa (New York, NY: Routledge Religion, 2016), 27.

[4] Ibid, 33

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 31

[7] Elizabeth Allo Isichei, A History of Christianity in Africa: From Antiquity to the Present (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Lawrenceville, N.J: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. ; Africa World Press, 1995), 36.

[8] Bongmba, The Routledge Companion to Christianity In Africa, 29.

[9] Charles Pelham Groves, The Planting of Christianity in Africa (Cambridge: Clarke & Co., 2002), 37.

[10]  Isichei, A History of Christianity in Africa, 21.

[11] Isichei, A History of Christianity in Africa, 21.

[12] Pheko, The Early Church In Africa, 24.

[13] Everett Ferguson, Church History: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context, Second edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 71.