The African Identity of Lactantius, Augustine, and Tertullian (Part Two)

Christianity has always been at home in Africa, right from when our Savior found residence in Egypt till now. The story of how early Christianity came to Africa varies, but it is not hard to imagine how seeds were sown. Northern and Eastern Africa have always been open to Jerusalem, and the thought is that there existed Hellenistic Jews as far as Libya even before Christ was born.[1]

It does not surprise us therefore that it was a Libyan who carried the cross of Christ, or that John Mark knew the family of this Libyan, almost intimately (Mark 15:21). In fact, Thomas Oden suggests Mark himself was a Libyan.[2]

Beyond Simon and Mark, we have Africans in Jerusalem witnessing the Spirit’s divine mission at Pentecost (Acts 2:10). And thus, we would not be speculating to say that some of these Africans, moved by the Spirit’s testimony of the works of God through Christ came to faith themselves, as part of the 3000 that heeded Peter’s call (Acts 2:41). Indeed, we see some of these Africans commissioning Paul and Barnabas for ministry (Acts 13:1). All this is to say that Africans were drawn to Christianity at its very inception.

The earliest establishment of Christianity, considering the oral tradition of Coptic Christianity is the mid-fifth decade of the first century. Eusebius places Mark in Alexandria by AD 43,[3] and Libyan Tradition maintains that Mark founded the church in Cyrenaica around AD 66 before being martyred on May 8th AD 68.[4] Eusebius writes: ‘And they say that this Mark was the first that was sent to Egypt and that he proclaimed the Gospel which he had written, and first established churches in Alexandria.’[5]

The early second century saw the growth of Christianity, into the inner parts of Africa, for by AD 180 we have martyrs in Madaura and Scilli. Scilli was located 150 km west of Carthage and 60 km south of the cost and was a marble quarry site.[6] Tertullian’s conversion was before the end of the second century AD, and so was Clement of Alexandria’s.

In fact, at this same time, the African born Victor is Bishop of Rome and Sabellianism is already growing in Cyrenaica. ‘Perpetua and her companions were martyred on the 7th of March 203, the birthday of Getar Caesar, Septimius Severus’ son.’[7] From then on, Africa will produce profound theologians that will forever leave their mark on global Christianity, among them Athanasius Bishop of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage, Clement, Origen, Cyril, Arnobius, Lactantius, Augustine of Hippo and Alexander of Alexandria. This new faith will flourish in Africa, until the invasion of Islam in the eighth century.

Africa’s Contribution to Global Christianity

It is a fact that Christianity is a Catholic (or universal) Faith. Its message is not relative or dependent on geographical boundaries or time frames. Therefore, in asking this question ‘what did Africa contribute to global Christianity,’ I do not mean to be Afrocentric. But before my question ‘did the Ancient African Christian Writers identify as Africans’ makes sense, I find it prudent to rehearse their contributions to global Christianity.

Thomas Oden mentions seven areas in which Africa shaped the Christian mind: Academia, Exegesis, Dogmatics, Ecumenics, Monastic Communities, Philosophy, and Dialectics (Oden, 59).

In Academia, Oden cites how the unrivaled library of Alexandria was a model for university libraries all over Europe, ‘unexcelled for five centuries.’ “The history of the first medieval universities such as Padua (Italy), Paris (France), Salamanca (Spain) and Oxford (England) followed methods of text examination, circular patterns and philosophical imperatives that were refined in second century African Christianity as early as Pantaenus and Clement of Alexandria. Clément’s writing, the Stromateis, and Paedaogus reveal much of the method and content of education that became normative in the medieval university” (Oden, 44).

In the area of Exegesis, it is interesting to note how influential Origen was in developing the method of biblical interpretation, even for the Cappadocian Fathers. The Trinitarian formulations by the Cappadocians, for example, borrow much from Origen, even in their rejection of Origen’s idea of the Father being the only one who is Deity in Himself.

Indeed, Basil and the two Gregorys maintained Origen’s view of the primacy of the Father in their articulation of the Trinitarian unity. And, as Oden mentions, ‘Basil and the Gregories introduced Origen’s basic teaching and forms of exegesis of scripture to both Europe and Asia in their early collection called the Philocalia (c. 360)’.[8]

The influence of African Fathers in Christian exegesis is so vast that ‘the editors that produced the twenty eight-volumes of the Ancient Christian Commentary on scripture at Drew University were astonished 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’ (Oden, 45). The most followed African Fathers, ‘in specific details,’ and especially by John Chrysostom, Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Ambrose were Origen, Didymus the Blind, and Cyril of Alexandria.

Next, Oden argues that primary Christian dogmas were mainly formulated in Africa, as the battle against heretic conceptions of Christ’s divinity and humanity raged in Alexandria and its adjacent areas. Heresies such as Gnosticism, Arianism, Montanism, Marcionism, Manichaeism, and Pelagianism ‘were all thoroughly argued as problems of biblical interpretations in Africa before these arguments reached clear definitions in the Rhone and Rhine and Orontes Valleys. What Irenaeus and Hippolytus of Rome learned about Gnosticism was learned largely from African sources (Valentinus, Basilides, the Sethians).’[9]

The promptings of the Nicene Creed were in Africa, with Bishop Alexander and Athanasius at the center of the battle against Arianism. In addition, conversations concerning the Trinity had already happened in Africa, with Tertullian coining the term Trinitas, expressing the tri-unity of God. The call for Chalcedon in the mid-fifth century was by Cyril of Alexandria against Nestorius of Constantinople. Refutations against Pelagianism were vibrant in Hippo before their condemnation at the Council of Carthage (418) and the Council of Ephesus in 431. In addition to these are conversations concerning the restoration of the lapsed, which was at the center of the Donatist schism. In all this, Africa was setting a precedence that the rest of Christendom would follow.

In speaking about the ecumenical consensus followed by both the East and the West to settle doctrinal controversies, it is important to note that Africa was the hatching ground for Ecumenism. ‘African Churches, especially in Madjerda Valley under Cyprian, developed highly sophisticated protocols and procedures for drawing together Christian leaders in councils to reach agreements on conflicted questions.’

It is with Cyprian and Aggrippinus and ‘African-born Pope’ Victor that ‘the impulse for conciliarity first developed,’ says Oden. Oden continues to argue that this penchant is ‘thoroughly African in character, context, and disposition’ (Oden, 49).

Both Basil in the East and Benedict in the West ‘followed African monastic patterns that were disseminated from the south to the North (from Africa to the northern Mediterranean) by Evagrius of Pontus and John Cassian, and Honorius and others.’

Also, may we not underestimate the influence St. Anthony’s monastic life as recorded by Athanasius on men like Ambrose and the West. The Egyptian deserts were hatching grounds for this monastic ideal later adopted by Christianity in Europe and Asia. And lest we also forget, Oden reminds us that ‘from Origen, Athanasius and Cyril came the mature doctrines of spiritual ascent, theosis and a defined canon of scripture’ (Oden, 52, 55).

Then also, Neoplatonism grew out of Africa. I think this is something that took me by surprise as I read Oden’s book. I had taken it for granted that Neoplatonism influenced most of the early Church Fathers, especially in Africa. What I had not thought much about though was the origin of this Neoplatonism. And Africa it was! ‘Philo, Ammonias Saccas, and Plotinus—the central players in Neoplatonism—were all Africans.’[10]

How much Neoplatonism influenced early Christian thinkers beyond Africa remains to be discovered. But Christian thinkers like Clement of Alexandria, and Augustine were greatly influenced by Neoplatonism, and their influence goes beyond Africa. Indeed, Augustine remains the single most influential theologian in the west, other than St. Paul, perhaps. Also, Victorianus, an African Neoplatonist philosopher, was prominent in Rome.

Lastly, in considering the influence of Africa on the Christian mind, we remember its contribution to the advancement of dialectical skills. The advanced persuasive study of rhetoric migrated from Madaurus, Sicca, and Carthage to Italy, argues Oden, through Africa’s leading thinkers like Tertullian, Cyprian, Arnobius and his student Lactantius, as well as Augustine. ‘African rhetors were frequently found moving from African locations to Europe. They introduced many rich subtleties of African communication talents, literally passion and dialectical skills to the north Mediterranean’ (Oden, 56).

In the next article, I will consider the expressions of the African identity in the life and works of the early African Christian leaders.


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[1] Oden, C. Oden. (2012, Jul 27). Libyan Christianity 1: A Libyan History Awaiting Discovery. Retrieved from On 2017, Dec 4.

[2] Oden, C. Oden. (2014, June 6). Libyan Christianity 2: Christian Beginnings in Cyrene. Retrieved from On 2017, October 17.

[3] Oden, Print. Page 158.

[4] Oden, Print. Page 159.

[5] Schaff, Philip. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II Volume I (Eusebius: Church History, Book II, Chapter XVI) Michigan: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, originally printed in 1885. Accessed via

[6] Wilhite, E. David. Ancient African Christianity. New York: Routledge, 2017. Print. Page 58.

[7] Wilhite, Print. Page 87.

[8] Oden, Print. Page 45

[9] Oden, Print. Page 47

[10] Oden, Print. Page 55.