Africa’s Ideas Contributed to the Early Christian Church
The spread of Christianity on the African continent prior to colonization can be traced to the regions that were parts of the Roman Empire, such as Carthage or Egypt, where some of the first Christian communities were located. Despite being far from the center of the vast country, the African theologians significantly contributed to the advancement of Christianity, introducing the new interpretations and ideas that are recognized in the Christian doctrines even today. Kreider claims that the school of Carthage was the primary source of African Christianity and had a significant impact on the whole Roman Empire and the early church. The key concepts with which the African scholars were concerned are those of the role of the church in the community as the only mediator between people and Christ.
The impact of African ideas on early Christianity is directly reflected in the work of three notable theologians of the Roman Empire of that period, all of whom were Africans. Patout Burns and Jensen define Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine as the most influential personalities in the early church’s history. Tertullian’s writings concerned almost all rituals that were practiced in the church in that period and became the first significant theological works written in Latin instead of Greek. Cyprian, about 50 years after Tertullian, contributed to the discussion of the role of the church and sacramental practices in connecting people to God. Later, Augustine combined their ideas and developed the fundamentals of Western Christian theology. The main themes of their works bear the key concepts of African Christianity – the role of the church in performing Christ’s mission, and its holiness.
The African contribution to the identification of Christian doctrines was decisive for the development of the church at its early stages. The works of Augustine, who elaborated the Pauline understanding of the church that represented Christ’s body and the vision of Jesus as the only savior, had a fundamental impact not only on the Roman but also on the Greek church. He further developed these ideas into the doctrines of inherited guilt and original sin, justifying the necessity of divine grace. According to Patout Burns and Jensen, the major emphasis of African theology was on the community and the connection of the church to people and God. They also made their contribution to understanding the concepts of life and after-life, sin and grace, God, and Christ.
The African theologians had an immense influence on fundamental concepts and visions of the early church as they worked in the era of the formation of major practices and doctrines. Works of Tertullian, Augustine, and Cyprian helped to connect the spiritual beliefs to the real communities through the understanding of rituals and practices that were crucial in the connection to God. They also worked on defining and specializing such spiritual practices as ordination and consecration. The focus of the African church on the community resulted in the development and regulation of everyday practices, such as marriage, the commemoration of the dead, and care for the sick and dying, connecting the church to people.