Early African Theologians

Africans have been in the story of Christianity from time immemorial. There was Christianity in Africa as early as the 1st century. The Jews have been interacting with Africans from as early as the 7th century BC. This is about the time when Joseph was sold to merchants who again sold him to Potiphar, an Egyptian Captain in the army of Pharaoh. Joseph then lived and worked in Egypt for the rest of his life (Genesis 39:1-2). Contrary to popular belief today that people in ancient times did not travel around a lot, Scripture shows us numerous interactions of people from Ethiopia to Israel and back. An example is the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). Such movements enabled people to interact with one another, and Africa played a significant role in such interactions. 

A good number of Africans are responsible for articulating unique theological terms and elaborating Christian doctrines that are helpful for us, even playing a central role in our faith today. Please note that I have used the term articulate and not form. All theological truths are in Scripture, meaning they are in the bible from the book of Genesis to Revelation. This means that the early African church fathers didn’t devise doctrines from a vacuum but read the bible and derived the doctrines from the scriptures. This article will highlight some African men who articulated essential Christian doctrines

Origen Adamatius (AD 185-253) 

Origen Adamantius was born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt. He was raised in a Christian family, and it is believed that his parents became believers upon his birth. His Father died as a martyr. Origen viewed his dad as a hero for being brave and standing for his faith, even to the death. He, too, sought to do the same. 

During his time, the false teachers of that age taught a heresy called docetism, which taught that Christ was a spirit that appeared to look like a man. The teachers denied that Christ came in human flesh. Origen, however, stood by the teaching of the incarnation of Christ, which affirmed that Jesus was fully God and fully man (John 1:14). Justin M.Gohl, a historian, said this about Origen’s belief “For Origen, when Christians come into contact with the text, they are coming into contact with the Logos (Jesus Christ) Himself. Through this contact, the Logos instructs and transforms the Christian soul into His own likeness (see 2 Corinthians 3:18).” This is in line with Scripture, which states that Jesus was God and he existed with God even before time began (John 1:1-3). God came on earth in the person of Jesus and emptied himself by taking on flesh (Philippians 2:5-11). He was in every way a man since John testifies of it by saying that they (the apostles) saw him, touched him and heard him speak as you would another human (1 John 1:1-4). 

Origen, however, erred on the question of the Trinity by believing that the persons of the Trinity are immaterial. He also erred in soteriology by asserting that every rational being will have the same end, essentially denying the eternality of hell. 

Tyconius (AD 301-400) 

Tyconius was a very influential African theologian of the first century. He was of the school of thought that the church should only have saints, not sinners. Around this time, there was major persecution of Christians. Tyconius believed that the clergy who renounced their faith because of persecution and then came back to church in repentance were not to be accepted in the church. The Roman Catholic Church declared his stand heretical and allowed the clergy back to service so long as they showed true repentance. Tyconius and his followers became among the first groups to desiccate themselves from the Roman Catholic. 

By and large, present-day Tunisia, Algeria, and the lower parts of Libya were predominantly Christian, following the teachings of Tyconius until the 7th-8th century when the Arab Muslims invaded those areas and destroyed the Church.

Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) 

Augustine of Hippo was born on 13 November 354 and died on 28 August 430 at 75. His full name was Aurelius Augustinus. He was a native of Hippo, the Morden-day area of Annaba in Algeria. He is in the league of the most influential philosophers of all time. He is accepted and loved by both Roman Catholics and protestants. His important works include the Confessions of St. Agustine, where he highlights his life and how he came to encounter God and his saving grace. He also wrote ‘The City of God’ and ‘On Christian Doctrine’. He was influenced by Tyconius and plunged himself into the study of Scripture, especially the epistles of Paul. 

In the Pelagian controversy, which denied original sin, Augustine elaborated on the doctrine of original sin. Augustine states that every human inherited the sinful nature that Adam acquired after the fall (Romans 5:12). He emphasised that only by grace can a man be saved from sin (Ephesians 2:8). St. Augustine refused the Catholic doctrine of universal salvation and taught that salvation is only for those who believe in Jesus for the remission of their sins (John 3:16). 

St. Athanasius (AD 276-373) 

St. Athanasius was a native Coptic speaker from Alexandria, Egypt. He was so influential that he was ordained bishop at twenty-nine before the legal age. He is responsible for the Athanasian creed, which explains the Trinity and the incarnation of God the Son. Unlike Origen, Athanasius explains through Scripture that God exists eternally in the person of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. In part, the creed reads: “That we worship one God in trinity and trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence.” On the incarnation of the Son, the creed says,” He is God from the essence of the Father, begotten before time; and he is human from the essence of his mother, born in time; completely God, completely human.” In his opposition were the Arians, who disputed the equality of Christ to the Father. The Arians were later declared heretical by the Catholic Church. 

Tertullian (AD 197-220) 

It is debatable whether he was a native African. However, we know he lived in Carthage and was a bishop there. Tertullian was a strong defender of the Christian faith against the Roman government at the time, which persecuted Christians. He argued that the Christians, unlike other people, were more virtuous and peaceful. In his work Ad Nationes and Apologeticum, Tertullian challenged the pagan view of Christianity as a vice worthy of punishment. On the contrary, he proposed that rather than being worse than the Roman pagans, Christians lived a more exemplary life (Romans 13:1-2) and should be freed from unjust punishment. He even urged the Roman official Scapula to cease persecution of Christians since Christians incidentally proved to be faithful servants of the emperor in everything save those who walked contrary to the Scriptures. 

Moreover, Tertullian immersed himself in the study of Scripture and sought to understand the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He found that the heretics of his time were demeaning the nature of God by ascribing his deity to other substances, gods or aeons. Worse, they were divorcing the Father and the Son from one another, reducing their persons to one. Tertullian got convinced by Scripture that God is one (Mark 12:29) in substance and three in persons (2 Corinthians 13:14). He used the word Trinitas to explain the relationship of the persons of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. The word Trinitas then gave us the word Trinity, which helps us to explain God. Thanks to Tertullian, a prolific scholar and theologian, today we can, with some level of ease, explain God being one in substance and three in persons. 

These and many more men and women were part of the earliest times of Christianity in Africa. During these times, Christianity had yet to go as far deep into Europe as some may think. There’s also a very high likelihood that it was not in the Americas, thus destroying the argument that Christianity is a white man’s religion. Christianity was preached to Africans in the North as early as the new testament times. 

Therefore, we should be glad and grateful to God for how he had us in his grand plan of salvation. It is also humbling to know that God has no favourite race. In his eyes, there is no race, tongues or any prejudice (Galatians 3:28); for those who have believed, we are all his children, saved by Jesus who gave his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:25). Considering what Christ did for us, we, therefore, ought to seek to glorify God with our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:20). 







Justin M. Gohl, “Origen,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).




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