The Faith of Our Fathers: Reclaiming the (North African) Church Fathers
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 (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).
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 (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.
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.