The Rebirth of African Orthodoxy

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Thomas C. Oden
  • Ada, IN: 
    Abingdon Press
    , April
     2016.
     176 pages.
     $24.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781501819094.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Rebirth of African Orthodoxy is the second iteration of another book by Thomas C. Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity (HarperOne, 2002). In the earlier book, Oden showed how traditional Christian spirituality is being revived despite the deleterious effects that modernity has had on the faith. The apparent success of that work, especially in Africa (4), led him to seek to tailor the work to a specifically African Christian audience. The result of this endeavor is The Rebirth of African Orthodoxy, in which he seeks to show that contemporary African Christianity is increasingly being influenced by the orthodox faith that developed between 100-750 CE (3), especially in North Africa and Ethiopia. Anyone who has been following Oden’s work would recognize that this argument is connected to the one he made in one of his groundbreaking books, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind (IVP Academic, 2007), where he argues that ancient North African Christianity shaped much of global, especially Western, Christianity. In the Rebirth of African Orthodoxy, however, he aims to show how contemporary African Christians themselves are appropriating elements of the faith honed by ancient African Christians. The book is written in the form of seminar lectures, with ten lectures to be delivered and discussed in ten sessions, plus a concluding bibliography that includes texts that purportedly connect ancient and contemporary African Christianity.

The main merit of this work is that it continues Oden’s quest to show the importance of ancient African Christianity to contemporary global Christianity in general and African Christianity in particular. His call that contemporary African Christianity should engage the wealth of ancient African Christianity is one that needs to be heeded. However, the claim that the book focuses “primarily on Africa and Africans living either on the continent or in the vast African diaspora” (3) is hardly substantiated. Much is said about the nature of ancient African orthodoxy but the connection between ancient and contemporary African or African diaspora Christianity is hardly made. In fact, it is not clear what it means to say that we may discern ancient African orthodoxy in contemporary African Christianity (3). The “Bibliography of Orthodox African Writers: Classic and Contemporary” found at the end of the book (159-74) includes “Coptic, Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal/Charismatic, and African Instituted Churches…under the general heading of African orthodoxy” (159). Oden then tells us that “the only qualification for inclusion is that these African theologians and writers, however diverse, have a heart for Christianity in the early centuries in which it was formed on the African continent” (159). While some of the writers listed in the bibliography may be clearly connected to ancient African Christianity, it is not clear how others listed, such as Mercy Amba Oduyoye, E. Bolaji Idowu, V. Y. Mudimbe, or Takatso Mofokeng “have a heart for” ancient African Christianity. Apart from the Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox writers, few of the other writers and theologians listed make any attempt to link ancient and contemporary African Christianity.

Furthermore, stating that Pentecostal/charismatic and African Initiated Churches reflect ancient African orthodoxy vitiates the very attempt to draw boundaries around the meaning of orthodoxy to which much of the book is dedicated, thus making orthodoxy to be any and every form of Christianity in Africa. For example, the Friday Masowe Apostolic Church in Zimbabwe is a Pentecostal church that does not make use of the Bible, relying instead on the Holy Spirit for revelation. If taking the Bible seriously is one of the marks of ancient African orthodoxy, as Oden insists (91-99), then this form of Pentecostalism does not fit what the book is about. It might perhaps have been more helpful if the book had taken specific forms of African Christianity or writers and show how they fit within the early African Christian orthodox tradition rather than making generalizations that do not fit certain contemporary expressions of the Christian faith in the continent. Anyone who wishes to use the book to demonstrate that contemporary African Christianity is connected to ancient African orthodoxy would have to find a way to make the connection clearer than the author does by using specific churches or writers.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Tonghou Ngong is Associate Professor of Religion and Theology at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Date of Review: 
May 3, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas C. Oden, the retired Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology and Ethics, is an ancient ecumenical evangelical with a passion for orthodoxy. For over thirty years he taught at Drew University and came under the influence of his “irascible, endearing Jewish mentor” Will Herberg. Herberg bluntly told Oden that he would remain “densely uneducated” unless he “read deeply in patristic writers.”  This focus on patristics (the early church fathers) helped professor Oden to realize that modernity is over. As he probed the early church writers for several decades, he incorporated and rechanneled his activism and idealism for the modernist social gospel into a recovery of the classic religious tradition.  Scripture found new life in him, which means he repented an enthrallment with progressive social causes in favor of a stable two-thousand year memory, which he defines as orthodoxy.

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