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The Legacy of Ancient African Christianity

The Legacy of Ancient African Christianity

By Michael Glerup, Ph.D.
Global South Conference Cairo, Egypt
October 5, 2016

I bring Greetings from Thomas Oden my mentor, colleague and friend and the author of How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind.Thomas Oden's Story: previously committed to novelty; made a commitment to be unoriginal.

In this work he proposes a South to North hypothesis. The common misperception is that intellectual leadership typically moved from the North to the South, from Europe to Africa.

But in early Christian history, the flow of intellectual leadership seems much more to have moved from Africa to Europe. But this has yet to be fully demonstrated.

These arguments await explicit unpacking, but sifting the evidence remains the task of a generation of future scholars, many of them from Africa, to restudy the flow of ideas from Africa to Europe, and better describe their impact.

Oden writes, "I am convinced, however, that when the evidence is rightly digested, it will again reshape modern African Christian identity and motivation."

This focus on the work of Early African Christians was the culmination of 20 years of work. Surprising discovery: to find such a large percentage of texts from Africa or influenced by African writers among the patristic comments on verse after verse of scripture.

Many leading themes of the widely read homilies of John Chrysostom and Theodoret and Ambrose followed Origen and Didymus and Cyril in specific details. During the fourteen years of investigating patristic texts that were required to edit the commentary, this was one of our most unexpected discoveries Slide: What do we mean by early African Christianity?

Five centers of Christianity and six cultural encounters: Carthage & Numidia (Afri and Punic), Cyrene & Libya (Greek and Libyan), Alexandria & Egypt (Greek and Egyptian) Ethiopia (Aksum and Sabaean), Nubia (Nubian and Egyptian) Slide: Episcopal Sees in Late Antiquity.

Please note the breath of Christian Expansion. From Ireland to China. (Side bar: map designed by Italian so Italy is at the center.) Cardinal Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, in an address given at Catholic University of America, (context: the absence of Christianity in the formation of the EU Charter) made the case for three legacies that were fundamentally important to formation of Western Christian Culture or the Western Christian mind. These legacies, I would argue are rooted in African Christianity and expressed in the lived experience of early African Christians. Last year in September the Abbey of St Maurice celebrated its 1500 year of existence.

The abbey was inaugurated in 515 in remembrance of St. Maurice and his fellow Christians in the so called Theban legion. St. Maurice was an Egyptian from Thebes, modern day Luxor, Upper Egypt, an area over 400 miles from the cosmopolitan center of Alexandria. Maurice served as an army officer of the Theban Legion, which was composed of Christians from Upper Egypt. Roman Emperor Maximian ordered his troops to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods to ensure victory over his opponents. Maurice and his fellow soldiers refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods remaining faithful to Christ. After repeated refusals to offer sacrifices and subsequent commands to kill civilians (Christians) they withdrew from the army encampment near Lake Geneva to St. Maurice-en-Valais, where Maximian punished the legion by decimation (twice), that is, killing every 10th person.

Finally the entire legion over six thousand men were put to death. From Coptic Feast Day of St. Maurice: ``Emperor, we are your soldiers but also the soldiers of the true God. We owe you military service and obedience, but we cannot renounce Him who is our Creator and Master, and also yours even though you reject Him.

In all things which are not against His law, we most willingly obey you, as we have done hitherto. We readily oppose your enemies whoever they are, but we cannot stain our hands with the blood of innocent people (Christians). We have taken an oath to God before we took one to you, you cannot place any confidence in our second oath if we violate the other (the first).

You commanded us to execute Christians, behold we are such. We confess God the Father the creator of all things and His Son Jesus Christ, God. We have seen our comrades slain with the sword, we do not weep for them but rather rejoice at their honor. Neither this, nor any other provocation have tempted us to revolt.

Behold, we have arms in our hands, but we do not resist, because we would rather die innocent than live by any sin.'' Christians refused slaughter innocents. Christian possess a moral integrity which is known by what they do and what they refuse to do. St. Maurice is a model of courage and refusal to be compelled to do evil. Another example of Christian understanding of moral integrity was Pachomius (C. 292-347). Pachomius is popularly referred to as founder of cenobitic (community) monasticism, he was born in Upper Egypt, south of Thebes, to pagan parents.

At the age of twenty (312), he was drafted into the Roman army. At the beginning of his military service, Pachomius and the other recruits were locked up in prison. Tired, hungry, and frightened they were visited by local Christians, who provided them food and drink.

Pachomius was genuinely touched by their kindness, and the experience would later shape his view of Christianity and his monastic commitments. After his release from the army in 313 he was baptized, three years later he became a monk and apprenticed under Palamon the hermit.

After seven years, he settled in the abandoned village of Tabennesi (Upper Egypt), where others joined him. At his death in 347 over five thousand monks lived in the nine monasteries he had founded. Pachomius was the beneficiary of Christian moral action- he was visited and cared for in prison by local Christians, though he himself was not a Christian. This example of compassionate service became a key principle for the leadership of the Pachomian communities-- compassionate servanthood. (Image from the german archaeological mission in Egypt and the identification of the monastery Apa Paul.)

Yesterday Fr. Bill introduced us to Cyprian the bishop of Carthage. In one of his works Cyprian describes a horrific conditions during the time of a plague outbreak. (The image shown is a recent excavation in Egypt of what are believed to human remains of those that died during the outbreak.) Cyprian described it as a "hateful disease" that attacked numberless people. The local populace, fearfully abandoned their sick friends and relatives in the streets. Cyprian writes "There lay about over the whole city, no longer bodies, but the carcasses of many."

Cyprian continues, "No one regarded anything besides his cruel gains. No one did to another what he himself wished to experience..." Cyprian challenged the Christian community in Carthage that to understand that their duty to cherish their own, that is Christians, extends to those outside the Christian community, to those who had, at other times, persecuted Christians. He reasoned God continually makes His sun to rise, and from time to time gives showers to nourish the seed, exhibiting all these kindnesses not only to His people, but to aliens also. And if a man professes to be a son of God, why does not he imitate the example of his Father?"

Cyprian argues that in this life we are all one human family deserving of kindness as our God, the Father, exhibits to us. (Side bar: the Good Samaritan. Jesus reframed the boundary setting question "Who is my neighbor?" by with the more important question "Who was the neighbor?")

This is the second legacy Christianity (African Christianity) gifted to Western culture the idea of a universal humanity or human family. The North African figure, Tertullian, was mentioned yesterday in Fr. Bill's address.

If you have studied Tertullian you know that theologically he was ahead of his time: At the beginning of the 3rd century he argued for the full divinity of the Holy Spirit. 175 years before the Council of Constantinople where the Spirit's divinity was tentatively recognized. He was the first to use the expression Trinity (Trinitas); he set the standard terminology on the Trinity-- persona and substantia; also he was the possible source of the Filioque clause "I conclude that the spirit comes from nowhere else but the Father through the Son" (Against Praxeas).

Not as well-known is his argument for the fundamental right of religious freedom or freedom of religious conscious.

In Ad Scapula he wrote, "It is a fundamental human right [humani iuris], a privilege of nature [naturalis potestatis], that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man's religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion--to which free-will and not force should lead us."

Right worship of God must be free of coercion. Another North African scholar made a similar argument at the beginning of the fourth century. Lactantius (c. 260-c.330), a Christian apologist, a teacher of rhetoric was the tutor to the son of Constantine. In his work "Divine Institutes" he wrote: Religion is to be defended not by putting to death, but by dying, not by cruelty but by patience, not by an impious act but by faith [...]. For if you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, and by tortures, and by doing evil, it will not be defended but polluted and profaned. For nothing is so much a matter of free will as religion.

Fundamental to what it means to be human is freedom of religious expression or consciousness. This is the third legacy gifted to the west by early Christians --the notion that freedom makes humanity most like God and is humanity's greatest possession.

Along these lines early Christian writers, especially those working the Alexandrian context made a distinction between image and likeness in Genesis 1: 26. For these commentators, the image referred to an inborn capacity of human beings for relationship and identification with God and likeness referred to the fulfillment of that design acquired through the dynamic union of humanity with God. The ancient reading of the passage was as follows: "let us make man in our image, after our likeness." The Greek word used to translate the Hebrew suggests a process rather than a state.

As a result, human beings originally created in the image of God will be transformed through the glory of God and in the end will image God's likeness. Key ideas: transformation is possible. A fact that the western church has seemed to have forgotten but is reminded by its brothers and sisters from the south. Second, created in the image and likeness of God, humans are responsible, that is they are made capable to respond to God's call in Jesus Christ. They are responsible to God's call in the two-fold command to love God and love their neighbor.

Augustine later reconfigured this idea of dual responsibility in form of dual citizenship. As Christians we belong to the City of God and live in the City of Man. Secured in our citizenship in the city of God, we are called to be responsible citizens in the city of man; to responsibly engage our local, national, and global communities. Yet without demanding these communities fulfill some utopian vision.

Early African Christians have illustrated that as a result of our dual citizenship, in some instances to be responsible citizens we will need to resist, even to the point of death. In other instances we will need to provide services, feeding and caring for prisoners and the sick that are necessary for societal well-being, especially when our local and national governments fail to act. Three legacies--moral integrity, united and universal humanity, and freedom-- that shape how we live out our dual citizenship in the church and society today. All grounded and exemplified in Early African Christians and their communities of worship.

Michael Glerup (Ph.D., Drew University) serves as the research and acquisitions director for the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and as the operations manager for the Ancient Christian Texts series. He continues his research in the history of exegesis as the director of the Early African Christianity Projects and as the executive director of the Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University.

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