Last Sunday, our confession contained a quote from St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.).
Augustine, Bishop of the African city of Hippo, may be the most influential Christian thinker in the church's history, outside of the biblical writers themselves. His writings, most famous among them Confessions and City of God, helped give definition, clarity, and shape to the early church's theology on topics such as original sin, predestination, and the nature of man. Augustine also spoke into topics such as sexual ethics and the evil of slavery.
Further, Augustine's impact has gone well beyond his own time period. His "just war theory" has impacted government and military policies for nearly two millennia. The Reformation is indebted to the work of Augustine, as well. It was, in part, Luther's rediscovery of Augustine's works that ignited a passion to reexamine the Scriptures anew.
However, Augustine is only one of the "African Church Fathers" whom the church is indebted. The African beginnings of the early church cannot be overstated. Christianity was birthed in Israel but was nursed in the cradle of Africa. The impact that African thought has had upon Christianity is important for the church to recognize and study. There are three reasons we should study the African church fathers.
The African Fathers Shaped Christian Theology
Christianity spread to Africa en masse by at least the 2nd Century A.D., but the Bible tells us that the first African conversion to Christianity happened a mere year after the ascension of Christ. In Acts 8, Philip encounters the Ethiopian eunuch whom he baptizes. From there, the Gospel spread to Africa and African thinkers began influencing the theology of the early church. Tertullian (160-225 A.D.) was an early African thinker who made numerous doctrinal contributions and was the first known theologian to coin the term trinitas ("trinity") to explain the Godhead. Athanasius (293-373 A.D.), among many other contributions, made clear the biblical canon in his festal letter in 369 A.D. We are indebted to the likes of Augustine, Tertullian, and Athanasius for shaping the theology of the early church.
The African Fathers Protected the Early Church from Heresy
The African Fathers were able to withstand the onslaught of heretical teaching during the first few centuries of the church. A number of heresies, often related to the divinity and humanity of Jesus, arose and necessitated attention. No heresy gained more traction than Arianism. Arius, an Alexandrian priest, began teaching that Jesus was not eternally God, but was created by the Father. Arius famously claimed, "There was a time when [the Son] was not." This controversy lasted most of the 4th century A.D. but was famously addressed during the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. During the this first ecumenical council, the early church rejected Arius's teaching and confirmed the long-held belief that Jesus was "of the same substance" as the Father and was eternally God.
The Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed clarified the church's position upon the nature of God. These creeds, formed by African theologians, have been confessed by churches for over 1600 years. If not for the African Fathers tirelessly fighting to preserve our faith, the early church may have given way to heretical teaching.
The African Fathers Reveal the Need for Black History Month
My church history professor in seminary drilled this mantra into our heads: "Church history is a category of divine providence. Thus, church history is a subcategory of theology proper (i.e. the Doctrine of God)." God has worked sovereignly throughout human history to bring about his will. It's important that we study how God formed his church and that includes black history. Forgetting the African roots and contribution of the early church is harmful for at least two reasons.
For one, it can be easy to "whitewash" church history. As a white guy from Alabama, though I knew Jesus was Jewish, I pictured him as a white guy, someone who looked like me. We do the same with the church fathers. Studying church history will reveal that black history is intricately intertwined. In fact, this is not limited to the church fathers. Black Christians have had a major impact on the church in America. Men such as Lemuel Haynes, George Liele, and Richard Allen shaped Christianity in our country. It's important that we discover, or re-discover, black history in our church history because the contribution of black theologians and pastors have been ignored, overlooked, or downplayed to the detriment of the church.
Secondly, the African Fathers combat a common misconception that Christianity is a "white man's religion." This could not be further from the truth. Christianity has a rich, African heritage that led to the conversion of Europe to Christianity, not the other way around. The African Church Fathers remind us that we need to study black history because it is a part of our common history as God's people.
For Further Reading:
"Oneness Embraced" by Tony Evans (Pay special attention to chapters 5-11)
"Baptists in America: A History" by Thomas Kidd