by UrbanFaith Staff | Feb 23, 2023 | Africa, Black History, Commentary, Feature, Headline News |
Growing up in a black Baptist community, I didn’t hear much (if at all) about the Church Fathers. However, during seminary I realized that their influence was felt implicitly in the confessions we affirmed, hymns that we sang, the sermons preached, and the doctrines taught during Sunday school or new members’ class. Despite our general ignorance of their lives, the Church Fathers’ influence impacted our faith. These bishops, priests, deacons, and pious lay members of the ancient Christian Church contributed intellectually and pastorally to the development of both the East and Western Christian traditions (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant). They debated with both Christians and non-Christians over the meaning of Christianity’s central doctrines including the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, and the identity of the Church among others.
Many African-Americans, Christian and non-Christian, do not realize that some of the most influential of these theologians and pastors originated from northern Africa. Perhaps confusion about their origins begins within the Christian tradition itself. Despite being of North African descent, Clement, Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril spoke and wrote in Greek while Cyprian, Tertullian, and Augustine wrote in Latin. Hence, both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches refer to them as the Greek and Latin Fathers. Moreover, in the history of medieval Catholicism, European painters depicted some of these Fathers as white European men. Many of these paintings like Botticelli’s painting of Augustine are featured in Western museums and their replicas in textbooks of church history and theology. Despite these shortcomings, African-American Christians must know that the theological and philosophical contributions that these Fathers bequeathed on the formation of Christian doctrine continue to impact our faith and lives.
Tertullian (Illustration Credit: Tim Ladwig)
Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225) was born in Carthage, Tunisia. The son of a Roman centurion, Tertullian was the first prolific writer of Latin Christian literature, producing extensive works on a range of theological topics. Although not ordained into the priesthood, Tertullian contributed much to the Western Christian tradition. Tertullian was an apologist, defending the Christian faith against both pagans and heretics. Tertullian staunchly distrusted the use of pagan philosophy in understanding Christian faith. His famous rhetorical question, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?,” captured Tertullian’s conviction that Christian faith is understood through the teachings of the Judeo-Christian scriptures alone. However, Tertullian made some use of philosophical categories, especially in his teachings on Jesus Christ and the triune God. During his debate with modalists, those who affirm that God exists as a single monad that manifests itself in three “modes” or operations without having eternal distinction between them, Tertullian coined the term trinitas to describe the Godhead and adapted other Latin terms to explain that God eternally exists as one “substance” (substantia) in three distinct “persons” (personae). Although later in life Tertullian defected to the heretical Montanist movement, his works left an indelible impression on future Church Fathers, including the brilliant theologian and biblical commentator Origen (c. 185 – c. 254).
Origen (Illustration Credit: Tim Ladwig)
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Origen was the first theologian to expound Christian doctrine in a systematic way. Raised in a Christian home, Origen was educated by his father, Leonidas, who was martyred in the year 202 CE. A student of the Scriptures, Origen became a prominent Christian teacher in Alexandria and was a rigorous ascetic. He castrated himself and lived a frugal lifestyle. Moreover, Origen contributed to the Alexandrian school of allegorical interpretation of the Bible by writing extensive biblical commentaries. Origen also contributed to the development of the Trinitarian doctrine teaching that the Son and the Spirit were distinguished from the Father and yet existed eternally with the first person. He claimed that the Son is “eternally begotten” of the Father, the “source” or arche of the other two divine persons. Consequently, controversy arose through this claim that the Son and Spirit were subordinated to the Father, and the orthodox Christian Church later rejected it. Despite his major contributions to theology and biblical interpretation, Origen espoused views, such as the ultimate restoration of all things (Satan included!) and the pre-existence of the human soul that resulted in him being denounced as a heretic.
Athanasius of Alexandria (Illustration Credit: Tim Ladwig)
Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296 – 373), an archdeacon and secretary to the bishop Alexander (d. 328) rose to acclaim by rigorously defending the full divinity of Jesus Christ and his co-equality with God the Father. Described as a very dark-skinned man of short stature, a hooked nose, and a reddish beard, Athanasius was known for his unrelenting convictions, especially his conviction that the eternal Son of God became human, famously penned in his most influential work On the Incarnation. Later Athanasius defended his position against the teachings of Arius. An Alexandrian priest, Arius (d. 336) taught that the Son, though divine, was a creature, thus sparking the so-called Trinitarian controversy of the fourth century. Arius coined the slogan which spread rapidly throughout Alexandria: “There was a time when [the Son] was not.” To counteract the spread of Arius’ doctrine, Athanasius argued that if Christ was not fully divine, he would have been unable to redeem humankind. Athanasius appropriated Origen’s doctrine of eternal generation and argued that the Son eternally exists and is equal with the Father while maintaining the Son’s distinction. The debate between Arius and Athanasius became so large that Emperor Constantine I convened a church council at his palatial estate at the Anatolian city of Nicaea in 325 CE. The first of seven ecumenical councils, the bishops ruled in favor of Athanasius’ position and rejected Arius’ teaching. The council affirmed that the Son was homoousias – “of the same substance” – with God the Father. This reinforced the orthodox position that only God could save humankind. The controversy continued on in the churches for several centuries; Athanasius endured five exiles by four different Roman emperors over a period of seventeen years. Eventually Athanasius returned to Alexandria where he died and was buried.
Augustine of Hippo (Illustration Credit: Tim Ladwig)
Arguably the most influential of the North African Church Fathers is Augustine of Hippo (c. 354 – c. 430) who single-handedly shaped the entire Western Christian tradition throughout the Middle Ages. A preeminent philosopher, bishop, and theologian, Augustine was born in Thagaste, an ancient city which is now Souk Ahras, Algeria. Augustine grew up in a household of a devout Christian mother, Monica, and a pagan noble father, Patricius, who later converted to Christianity. Augustine penned his journey of his life and his conversion to Christianity in the book Confessions, which is, arguably, the first biography written in Western literature. In this book, Augustine, in the form of prayer, describes his childhood and his education in Latin literature and philosophy, his self-described unruly personality, and his insatiable passion for women during his teenage years. As a young man, Augustine lived with a young woman who became his lover, and they had a son named Adeodatus. Despite being raised a Christian, albeit not baptized, Augustine joined a gnostic group called the Manicheans. After nine years, Augustine left the Manicheans and moved to Milan to teach rhetoric. It was there that he discovered Neo-Platonism and then the teaching of bishop Ambrose of Milan. In 387 CE Augustine converted to Christianity. In 391 CE Augustine was ordained to the priesthood and a year later became bishop of Hippo, now Annaba, Algeria. Augustine served as bishop until he died on August 28th in the year 430 CE shortly after the Vandals sieged Hippo.
Among Augustine’s other influential works include On Christian Doctrine, Enchiridion, and On the Trinity, a book which took Augustine twenty years to complete. Augustine’s fight with the Donatists over the meaning of the Church and his quarrel with the priest Pelagius over the doctrine of original sin and grace shaped the entire Western Christian tradition. Augustine’s other major work, The City of God, shaped the Western political philosophy. Furthermore, Augustine’s understanding of human nature has influenced, not without controversy, Western Christian teachings on human sexual relationships.
African-American Christians should understand the history of the Church Fathers for the purpose of understanding how Africans played a pivotal role in shaping Christian tradition long before the tragic event of the Atlantic slave trade. To be clear, the North African Church Fathers were not “black” in the modern sense. Indeed, these men were indigenous people of the African continent. Because of their own indebtedness to Greek and Latin philosophy, we do not have to agree with everything that the Church Fathers taught. However, we can celebrate their witness as fellow pilgrims on the journey of faith and as spiritual ancestors who “earnestly contended for the faith that was once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
Now, when I open the red “New” National Baptist Hymnal during worship, or when I study the Baptist confessions of faith for ordination, I sing and study with a new understanding and appreciation for what these men struggled to articulate. I also sing with amazement knowing that Africans significantly played a part in cultivating the entire Christian intellectual tradition. Despite my adolescent ignorance, I now reclaim these African Church Fathers as spiritual and intellectual ancestors who taught me not only to reverence the mystery of God through word, thought, and deed, but also to celebrate the African heritage of Christianity through the witness of a few faithful men of color.
For further reading, see:
Drobner, H. R., and S. S. Schatzmann, The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007.
Oden, T. C., How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010.
Placher, W. C. A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1983.
Plantinga, R. J., T. R. Thompson, and M. D. Lundberg, An Introduction to Christian Theology. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Jason Oliver Evans is a licensed Baptist minister. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Speech Communication from Millersville University of Pennsylvania. He also earned a Master of Divinity at Duke University and a Master of Theology from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. His research interests cross the intersection of theology, ethics, and critical cultural studies. Evans is especially interested in the meaning of the Christian life and its relationship with sexuality, race, and gender in Afro-Christianity. He plans to pursue doctoral studies. Follow Evans’ blog, I Am a Son of God. Follow him also on Twitter at @joliverevans and Facebook.
by Angelita Clifton | Dec 14, 2022 | Africa, Black History, Commentary, Headline News, Heritage, Purpose |
(RNS) — Two months ago, I stood in Providence Baptist Church in Monrovia, Liberia, listening to the stories of Africans and Americans — the latter freed from slavery in the United States — who had banded together to establish the first republic on the continent of Africa two centuries before.
Providence, the oldest Baptist church in the West African country and the second oldest on the continent, was founded in 1822 by the Rev. Lott Carey, who had come as a missionary to the fledgling country and had brought a team of African American settlers home. Now, 200 years later, the Rev. Emmett L. Dunn, CEO of the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention, had brought a team of African Americans home.
I have traveled to several countries in Africa, and each one is imprinted on my heart in a special way. But hearing the stories of the African American settlers was cause to pause. I connected with the history of Liberia in a way I didn’t expect. I felt blessed beyond measure.
Landing in Liberia my spirit leaped like the baby in Elizabeth’s belly when greeting Mary, the mother of Jesus. The sights and sounds of Liberia greeted my senses, sending my head and my heart into overwhelming joy.
The Rev. Lott Carey. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons
In Liberia, I was at home. Home in the land of my ancestors on World Communion Sunday. Home, where a sense of “double consciousness” — a concept coined by W.E.B. DuBois to describe African Americans’ sense of dislocation from Africa and ourselves — liberated my thoughts and linked them to my theology in a free-spirited dance of deliverance.
It’s often said we must step back before we step forward. Walking in the footsteps of Lott Carey in the motherland afforded us the opportunity to do just that.
Born enslaved in 1780 in Charles City County, Virginia, Carey became a disciple of Jesus in 1807, purchased his freedom in 1813, and led the first Baptist missionaries to Africa from the United States in 1821.
After settling in Liberia, Carey and his pioneering missionary team engaged in evangelism, education and health care. He served as a missional and civic leader until his death in 1828.
Our pilgrimage relived aspects of this journey and the experiences of his team. We explored Providence Island, where Carey landed in Liberia in early 1822. Before we landed in Liberia, Dunn told us, “We expect that this journey into the past will bring home to us the love and sacrifice of those who walked this journey before us.”
The Door of Return at the Slave Castle in Cape Coast, Ghana. It was once dubbed “The Door of No Return,” signaling the last time enslaved persons would see their homeland. Courtesy photo
Our next stop in Africa took us nearly 1,000 miles east along the coast of the Assin Manso Slave River and the Cape Coast castle in Ghana, unofficially dubbed “the Door of No Return” by our Ghanian sisters and brothers, through which so many of our ancestors were shackled and shipped into the slave trade in the New World. It has become a portal for African Americans, pulling us back to Ghana.
Before walking to the Slave River, where my ancestors received their first bath after being captured and their last bath before being carted off to the Americas, we held a ceremony of protection over Lott Carey’s life. In my sanctified imagination, my African ancestors’ prayers came to fruition in the proclamation made that day. What was meant for evil, God had used for good some 400 years later.
How ironic is it? In a whitewashed slave castle used to destroy the African spirit, a group of spirited African Americans reconnected with a long-lost history, historically whitewashed in American culture and the church universal.
My Bible says, “Be steadfast and persevering, my beloved sisters and brothers, fully engaged in the work of Jesus. You know that your work is not in vain when it is done in Jesus’ name.”
It was in that spirit that the last leg of our journey in homage to Lott Carey ended with saluting our ancestors on the same shores where they passed, returning where no return was promised. In the Twi language of Ghana, “sankofa” is a word meaning “go back and get it.” We did.
(The Rev. Angelita Clifton is president of Women in Service Everywhere and an associate minister at Fountain Baptist Church in Summit, New Jersey. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
by Omar Suleiman, RNS | Feb 8, 2022 | Africa, Commentary, Headline News, Social Justice |
(RNS) — Over the past week, much of the world was gripped by the heartbreaking story of Rayan, a 5-year-old boy who had plunged 104 feet into a well in Morocco. For five days thousands of people went to Tamorot in northern Morocco to help and pray, while around the world hundreds of millions followed closely. On Saturday evening (Feb. 5), hopes rose as he was pulled out of the deep shaft, but the jubilation was short-lived as the news broke within minutes that he had passed away.
Images of Rayan, his grieving mother and the heroic rescue effort united much of the world around what practically no one could find disagreeable: the hope that an innocent child caught in devastating circumstances could be reunited in health and safety with his worried parents.
For many of us as Rayan departed this world, we still pray for that reunion in the next life, and are moved to contribute to his grieving family in any way that we can.
For readers of Scripture, Rayan’s time in the well brought to mind the story of Joseph, the son of Jacob (peace be upon them), in the Quran, similar to that of the Bible. In the Quran, however, Joseph’s time in the well is a focal point of an entire chapter that offers comfort to those facing a trial.
Rayan, certainly, was not thrown into the Moroccan well by envious brothers, as Joseph was. Poor infrastructure seems to have been the main reason for his death, and the fact that no one was to blame made it easy to gather everyone in sympathy.
But I can’t help but wonder while watching this unfold how differently the story of Rayan would be told, or if it would be told at all, had he been a child stuck in a crater caused by an airstrike from a military drone. Or if he was a refugee who had slipped to his death in a camp.
Figures are not for a blameless child to die due to unnecessary war. Some 1,600 children died or were maimed in Afghanistan every year for two decades, according to Save the Children, which also estimates that 25 children die or are injured each day in conflicts around the world.
Cruelty to a child is one of the few things that can still elicit a pure human reaction from most of us. It’s why the mother of Emmett Till wanted to leave the casket open after her son’s brutal murder. In her own words, “I wanted the world to see what they did to my boy.” By doing so, she sparked the civil rights movement.
It’s why the image of baby Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee who washed ashore at a Turkish resort, shocked the world in a way that statistics never could. It’s why the image of over 60 Palestinian children on the cover of The New York Times did more to humanize the plight of the Palestinian people than almost all the coverage of the bombardment of Gaza combined. And it’s why the image of young Jakelin Caal, who died trying to cross the border into the United States, shook so many of us to our core.
We despise the unjust death of children, but when children die in war we feel complicit in that injustice, either through our participation in harmful policies or silence about the consequences. Many of the powers directly responsible for children’s deaths are aware of our disgust and will try to thwart coverage or sympathy that may lead to direct challenges of their use of force.
We’re told to sympathize with the child who resembles Joseph. It’s far harder for us to see ourselves as the brothers who threw him into the well.
While the brothers of Joseph were driven by envy, we’re driven by greed or apathy. The reason doesn’t matter to the child. Our repentance is to do what we can for that child, and the other children who need our help.
Rayan was a beautiful, innocent child who brought out the best of his countrymen, and the purest of sentiments from around the world. How do we then reckon with the harm of so many unholy wars and man-made tragedies in which so many beautiful children die in ugly ways? What is the work we need to do so that they may live in dignity and calm?
(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)