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Why a Center for Early African Christianity (CEAC)?

by Joel Elowsky

Is there a need for the Center for Early African Christianity to exist? This is the question we asked a group of around twenty five leading scholars, pastors and church leaders from the continent of Africa back at our very first consultation in Addis Ababa in 2008.  Among the group invited to this consultation were many gifted theologians and pastors. And yet, when the question was posed, the resounding, unanimous answer of all of those gathered around the table was: Yes. The Center for Early African Christianity fulfills a vital role for the African church of the 21st century. Everywhere we have gone in the past three years, from Addis to Dakar, from Alexandria to Johannesburg, from Accra to Kenya, from Kampala to Ogbomoso, from the Congo to Zambia, from Mozambique to Tunisia, the response has been the same: Africa needs the Center for Early African Christianity.

Here are the reasons that Africans have told us that the Center is so vital to Africa:

(1) Africans, and African Christians in particular, are looking for indigenous roots for their religion on the continent of Africa. They are often told that Christianity is the white man’s religion, a relatively recent import from the West compared to other religions in Africa. Our work shows this is not the case.

(2) Our message to Africa and, more specifically, to African Christians is that Christianity is the indigenous religion of Africa. It has been on the continent since the time of Christ and was a thriving center of Christianity for centuries. Those of us at the Center have been working with the ancient fathers of the church for the past 15 years on the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. There is a familiarity and expertise we have in working with the fathers of the ancient church that Africa does not yet possess. Our center is dedicated to fostering that familiarity and expertise among African Christian scholars so that they can benefit from the insights that we have taken for granted. When Africans hear about the flourishing Christian community in Carthage that by the 5th century had over 600 bishops present at a church council; when they are confronted with the courage and insight of a Cyprian or Tertullian who stood tall in the face of persecution, when they see evidence of the insightful Biblical interpretation of someone like Origen whose interpretations of Scripture were taken up in Palestine, Cappadocia and beyond, when they see the theological genius of Athanasius’s argument on the Trinity or Cyril of Alexandria’s exposition of Christology; when they begin to appreciate the courage of the many early martyrs like Perpetua and Felicitas and learn of the desert fathers who fought heroic spiritual battles, emerging victorious; when they come to understand the immense influence of someone like Augustine on world Christianity in so many areas—all of these Africans—they begin to realize that Africa has a Christian patrimony that was unrivaled in the ancient world. The message is clear: if early Africans could meet the challenges of their day and thrive, what is holding back Africans today?

(3)We do not presume to set an agenda for the African church. Rather, we listen to what their concerns are and help facilitate answers that will address those concerns. We exist to promote scholarship by and for Africans today. We want Africans to learn from their ancient African fathers and mothers in order to inform their present and future. The center is committed to the study of early African Christianity because the seeds of African Christianity’s future have lain dormant for too long in the soil of its past. Africans can lay claim to many of the leading voices of early Christianity—but they don’t know it. The current narrative in many parts of Africa is that Christianity is a recent import from colonial times; that it is “the white man’s religion.” Much of Africa, and the West as well, is unaware of Africa’s rich Christian history centuries before the colonizers came. Names like Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, if known at all, are considered as products of the Latin or Greek world, as if they came from Rome or Athens. The reality is that they wrote and spoke in Latin and Greek; but they were born, lived, studied, wrote and many even died for their faith on the continent of Africa. They are Africans. The leading intellectual giants of the Christian tradition were largely from the “dark” continent on the other side of the Mediterranean opposite Rome. But they are the ones who have given world Christianity much of its current shape and form.

But what difference does this make for the Africa of the 21st century which is faced with AIDS, poverty, civil war, famine, disease? These challenges facing Africa reflect a deeper challenge. One of Africa’s own church leaders, Dr. David Niringiye, Assistant Bishop of Kampala, Church of Uganda puts it this way: “Africa’s crisis is not poverty; it is not AIDS. Africa’s crisis is confidence. What decades of colonialism and missionary enterprise eroded among us is confidence… We Africans must constantly repent of that sense of inferiority.” The late Kwame Bediako agreed, suggesting these many years of self-doubt have resulted in a “crisis of identity.” The subtle and profound self-perception particularly in sub-Saharan Africa is that Africa lacks intellectual substance and therefore does not have the ability to solve its own problems. This subtle self-perception has led and continues to lead to a cycle of dependence on others, particularly the West, for a solution to Africa’s problems. But if Africans learn from and see how their Christian forbearers on the continent faced many of the same issues and challenges and not only overcame them but constructed a society and culture unrivaled throughout the empire, they will begin to realize that many of the solutions to 21st century African problems are within their grasp. But first they have to believe they can solve them.

Besides this crisis of confidence, a second problem identified by Africans is the lack of depth found in current African Christianity. There has been explosive growth, just as there was in the earliest centuries of African Christianity. But African Christianity is in many ways a mile wide and an inch deep. Africans are asking us to help deepen the Christian faith on the continent. What better resource than their own African fathers who themselves provided a depth not only for the African Christianity of their day but for Christianity throughout the world?

“But what are a bunch of white guys from North America doing telling Africans about African Christianity?” This was an actual question from a student in the Baptist Seminary of Ogbomoso, Nigeria where we were leading a graduate seminar last year. This is a question we feel acutely. Rather than allowing us to answer, however, the President of the Seminary answered for us: “Perhaps these scholars from the North have seen something we Africans have missed because we don’t know our own history; perhaps we are also too close to our own situation and have missed ‘the forest for the trees.’ Sometimes you need someone from outside to help you see what you are missing.”

As Yale scholar Lamin Sanneh has often noted in his work with our center, Africa’s future is in the hands of the church. The church in Africa, in turn, can extend its imagination of what is possible only if it recognizes and embraces the enormous accomplishments of its past—from that time when it worked out the truths which would prove to be the foundation stone of western Christianity. If it took intellectual work of the highest order to create those foundations so long ago, we must assume that it will take the same energy and passion of today’s African Christians as they construct the new foundation for the church in Africa which, in turn will lead Africa into a brighter future for the 21st century and beyond. Why CEAC? We want to enable Africans and African Christians to see what they have been missing. We believe world Christianity is ripe to receive once again the gift that has been and can again be Africa’s gift to the world.

– Rev. Dr. Joel Elowsky, CEAC Director of Research

Posted in Africa

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