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The Reformation’s African Roots

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Five hundred and two years ago—on October 31, 1517—Martin Luther publicly posted his Ninety-five Theses in Wittenberg, Germany, and the Protestant Reformation began.

No doubt you’ve heard this fact before—it’s the stuff of ninth-grade history class and the answer to the $200 Jeopardy! question, right up there with “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

Despite its widespread acceptance, however, this may not be the best place to start the Reformation story. Yes, Luther’s publication of the Ninety-five Theses ignited spiritual flames that permanently altered the landscape of human history. Yet there is more to the Reformation story than just that one moment. There are many vital threads and theologians that came before this bombastic German monk. Were it not for these prior influences, there would have been no Reformation in 16th-century Europe.

Before Luther in Wittenberg, there was Augustine in Algeria. Before Calvin in Geneva, there was Cyril in Egypt. Before Zwingli in Zürich, there was Tertullian in Tunisia. These African theologians had a profound influence on Reformation theologians. Indeed, many of the influential texts of the 16th century—including The Book of Concord and Calvin’s Institutes—are loaded with references to African theologians.

The Reformation in Europe has roots in earlier theologians in Africa.

Where to Begin?

I recently taught about the Reformation at a Congolese pastors’ summit. This group of roughly 30 pastors had been displaced from the Congo and came to North America as refugees. Many had spent time in refugee camps in Tanzania before making the journey to the United States. They had gathered together in Lansing, Michigan, from all around the country: Chicago, St. Louis, Louisville, Kansas City, Des Moines, and elsewhere.

My task was to give an hour-long presentation on the origins and influences of the Reformation. As I sat down to prepare my presentation, I had to determine when, historically, to begin the conversation. My first thought was to begin in Germany in the 16th century. This, after all, is where many teachers began teaching me the story of the Reformation.

Still, it felt rather obtuse for me to begin the lesson in Western Europe. Tertullian once asked the question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Here I was asking a similar one: “What has Wittenberg to do with the Congo?”

This question led me to consider the aim of the Reformation as a whole. Luther, Calvin, and other reformers sought to clear obstructions from biblical authority and gospel grace. They worked to eliminate misguided beliefs and practices. The five solas of the Reformation were razors for removing unorthodox teachings that had entered the Christian faith. The Reformation was largely about keeping the church out of heresy.

A similar thing had happened in Africa more than a thousand years earlier.

Africa—especially from the first through the third century—was a powerful force for keeping the church out of heresy. Tertullian (AD 155–240) fought in Carthage to keep the church from adopting misguided gnostic teachings. Athanasius (AD 269–373) labored in Alexandria to keep the church from accepting a false understanding of Christ’s divinity. Augustine (AD 354–430) worked in Hippo to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity as a hedge against falsehood. Many African theologians were, and remain, a bulwark against heresy.

Like these African theologians, Luther and Calvin sought to right theological wrongs. In fact, Luther’s writings reveal that he was strongly influenced by several African theologians, including Augustine, Cyril, and Tertullian. Calvin relied heavily on Augustine and Cyprian (both from Algeria) in his Institutes. And it’s stunning how well-represented Africa is in many Reformation confessional texts. For example, The Book of Concord includes numerous references to African theologians in its catalogue of testimonies. It’s myopic to think of the Reformation apart from the influence of African theologians.

 

It’s stunning how well-represented Africa is in many Reformation confessional texts. It’s myopic, then, to think of the Reformation apart from the influence of African theologians.

“What’s past is prologue,” we hear in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It’s true: looking to the past can help us look to the future. And recognizing the Reformation’s African roots has practical implications for the church today.

1. Global Reformation

Realizing that the roots of the Reformation extend into places like Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt changes the scope of the Reformation. It was a global movement that drew upon the influences of several different continents. This history makes it easier for us to put the insights of the Reformation into conversation with our modern globalized society.

2. Deep Indebtedness

Christianity, both past and present, benefits from the theological contributions of this continent. One way we can express our gratitude for the contributions of Africa is by spending time reading theologians such as Augustine and Tertullian.

3. Present Partners

I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work with many pastors and laypeople from Africa. An influential personal mentor of mine, pastor Zerit Yohannes, is from Eritrea. Their theological fortitude in the face of persecution and heresy has been both convicting and inspiring. It’s important for us to not only honor Africa’s past influences, but also recognize their present contributions. If the past really is prologue, then this continent will continue to be a bulwark for Christianity.

Gratitude for Africa

This Reformation Day, as you consider the momentous events of the Reformation, don’t just think about Wittenberg or Geneva. For the Reformation’s roots stretch to places like Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt.

What has Wittenberg to do with the Congo? Plenty.

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