NORTH AFRICAN CHURCH FATHERS:
THE CLASH BETWEEN CHRIST AND
CULTURE AND THE FREEDOM OF MAN
By Richard Chowning
The conflict between Christ and culture and the freedom of man are the two most crucial topics of discussion in contemporary mission circles around the world. The meeting of evangelical churches at Lausanne, Switzerland and the Vatican II gathering of Catholics dealt extensively with these issues. Much of the dialogue was novel. Some allusions were made to scripture but, regretfully, recounting of how the church through the ages has viewed these topics was scarce. The church fathers of North Africa before 500 A.D. have provided us with abundant material concerning their encounter with cultural systems and men within them.
Augustine of Hippo, Origen and Clement of Alexandris, and Tertullian
and Cyprian of Carthage are the most influential of these church fathers.
They were Italian immigrants living in a foreign environment, North Africa.
This setting qualified them as cross-culture communicators of the teachings
of God. They are famous for their uncommon mixture of excellence in scholar-
ship and evangelism. This paper is an attempt to reveal, from their writings
and practices, how they dealt with culture and the freedom of man.
I The Clash Between Christ and Culture:
The North African church fathers were confronted with two groups of cultures: the beliefs of the natives of the continent and those of the elite immigrants who settled there as a result of the expansion of the Roman Empire. Augustine wrote City of God to expose the differences that existed between these cultures and that of God., the church(Latourette, 1975, p.241). He observed that the "earthly city, based upon force, pride, the love of human praise, the desire of domination, and the self-interest of the Roman Empire" was in direct contrast to the church (Latourette, 1975, p. 256). Augustine was not alone in his criticism of the contemporary societies, this iconoclastic attitude was common to all of the North African church fathers. Tertullian, according to Michael Green, was the most extreme, as witnessed by his statement in De Praescriptione 7, "with our faith we desire no further belief" (Green,1971, p. 19).
This disapproval did not hinder the church fathers from identifying with
the unsaved when and wherever possible to insure understanding and acceptance
of the gospel. Even Tertullian told multitudes "we live among you, eat the
same food, wear the same clothes, have the same habits and the same necess-
ities of existence" (Green, 1971, p. 41). To identify with the Roman Empire
he often proclaimed that Christians were better subjects of the Emperor than
pagans (Latourette, 1970, p. 131).
Identification was often achieved by borrowing specifictraits from the target cultures. G. Ernest Wright finds that the early church borrowed frequently from the surrounding cultures: In general, it may be said that there was the greatest freedom in borrowing from the surrounding culture, and tension arose over such borrowing only when it threatened the basis of community faith or when its reinterpretation in biblical setting was too slow to keep pace with the deepening of insight into the implications of the faith (Wright, 1954, p. 153).
"Spoiling the Egyptians" was a phrase often used to describe this diffusion
(Green, 1971, p. 19). It took many forms, some of which were planned, others
were the result of the background and training of the church fathers.
Clement's teachers included a Syrian, an Egyptian, an Assyrian, and a
Palestinian Hebrew (Pamphilus, 1966, p.191). This education gave him in-
sights into the workings of many cultures. The influence of these instruct-
ors and the writings of Stoics, especially those of Epictetus, were seen in
his work. Latourette observes that Clement "based much of his ethics on what
he had learned from Stoicism" (Latourette, 1970, p. 260).
Augustine's sojourn in search of truth, as recorded in his Confessions,
led him to be a disciple of Manichaeism and Neoplatonism for brief periods
(Latourette, 1970, p. 172). At age thirty-two he was employed as a teacher of
Rhetoric in Milan (Broadbent, 1931, p. 24). The study of contemporary
philosophies of the world and his experience in oratory and writing are
evident in his teachings as a Christian. This background facilitated his
reception among the educated.
Cyprian's similar experiences as tutor of Rhetoric identified him with
students of philosophy and reason (Latourette, 1970, p. 288).
Origen received instruction in Neoplatonism from the intellectual
Ammonius Saccas (Latourette, 1970, p. 20). His interest in this syncretistic
form of Christianity was so keen that he spent much time pouring over Greek
literature to the point of becoming a scholar in that field (Eusebius, 1966,
p. 219). He confessed that Greek philosophy was instrumental in the format-
ion of his own conceptions of the Christian faith (Broadbent, 1931, p. 9).
His Christian parents were by far the greatest influence on his life, prepar-
ing him as one of the foremost theologians of his time and for centuries
after his death (Latourette, 1970, p. 253).
This background assisted the North African church fathers in deliberate
plans to identify with the unsaved.
Clement and Origen intentionally presented their faith in the same
manner as the philosophers propagated their beliefs (Latourette, 1970, p.
249). It was debated in open forums, systematized, and pitted against the
prevalent philosophies. From a study of the works of the Stoics, Chaeremus
and Cornutus, Origen gleaned the allegorical mode of interpretation usual in
the mysteries of the Greeks. He applied it to Jewish scripture Eusebius,
1966, p. 239) Eusebius recounts the writing of Clement's first book The
knowledge of True Philosophy (Eusebius, 1966, p. 232). It contained a
discussion of the gospel, specific exhortations to the Greeks and teachings
of fasting and pedagogy. "He made use of opinions held by the multitude of
both Greeks and barbarians" (Eusebius, 1966, p. 233). He wrote in a style
typical of the prevailing philosophies.
Demons were a common topic in the writings of philosophers and in the
conversation of the masses. Tertullian, Cyprian and Origen went a step
further by writing at length concerning the exorcism of evil spirits Green,
1971, p. 192).
Tertullian popularized Latin words when preaching and writing to
attract his fellow Italians and to promote their understanding of the gospel.
The most enduring is his use of the word "trinity" for the relationship
between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Bruce, 1958, p. 256).
It would be mistaken to assume that North African church fathers borrowed from the philosophies and traditional religions of their time because they whole heartedly condoned these systems. Their criticism of these teachings were pointed and passionate. Tertullian often lambasted the philosophers for contradicting one another. He "held reason, the reliance of the philosophers, to be a false guide to truth" Latourette, 1975, p. 84). He urged that the gospel "is by all means to be believed because it is absurd" (Latourette, 1975, p. 85). Plato was his favorite target, but he also ridiculed Homeric poems that pictured immoral gods who fought among themselves Latourette, 1970, p. 124).
The greatest written debate between Christianity and culture was not composed by Tertullian but Origen. Celsus, a philosopher, wrote True Discourse as a scathingattack on such Christian beliefs as: the folly of reason, non-participation in war, the novelty of Christian doctrine, and the relationship between man and God (Latourette, 1970, p. 122). Contra Celsus (Against Celsus) was Origen's reply in defense of Christianity. In addition to the answering of the above charges was an apology of Jesus' miracles and other supernatural aspects of the Faith (Latourette, 1975, p. 82).
Clement often scoffed at the Egyptian practice of paying divine honors to animals (Latourette, 1970, p. 122). Augustine's City of God castigates critics of Christianity and mocks their beliefs (Bruce, 1958, p. 338).
The fathers did not criticize students of philosophy or traditional religion for their eagerness to learn but "induced them to exchange their former zeal for the study of divine things" (Eusebius, 1966, p. 249).
Specific practices of the unsaved were attacked as well as their beliefs. Tertullian took exception to oath taking when borrowing money from pagans (Latourette, 1970, p. 264). He realized the hardship this placed on believers, never the less he thought it sinful and thus forbidden. Christians were not allowed to practice certain trades because of their association with idolatry (Green, 1971, p.47). Disciples could not take part in war (Bruce, 1958, p.181), but non-Christians could be converted without resigning from the Roman Army (Bruce, 1958, p. 181). Clement discouraged the church from asking exorbitant prices for their goods as was the practice of non-believers (Latourette, 1975, p. 246). Latourette notes that "most of the fathers were against the spectacles like the circus, gladiatorial events, and the theater" (Latourette, 1970, p.269, 270).
C. Other Results of the Clash:
Reflection on the immorality and ungodliness of the pagans caused the fathers to pay particular attention to making their lives examples of holy living. Unfortunately on occasion their reaction went to an extreme. F.F. Bruce deduces that "it was the strong Puritanism in Monetarism" that attracted Tertullian to the sect (Bruce, 1958, p. 220). In response to the materialism of the aristocracy and the self-indulgences of the masses, Origen and his students fasted often, slept little, and made the floor their beds (Eusebius, 1966, p. 222). Norman J. Bull asserts that Origen ascetic living as mutilating himself (Bull, 1967, p. 275). Latourette seems to elaborate on that point by testifying that Origen made himself a eunuch in rejection of the sexual habits of non-believers (Latourette, 1975, p. 149). Augustine was an active evangelist but he lived like a monk, gathering his clerical household into a community Latourette, 1975, p. 233, 237). Bull asserts that "Augustine lived the last thirty-four years of his life in a monastery" (Bull, 1967, p. 230).
The North African church fathers reacted in the extreme to their contemporary societies and in like manner theresponse to Christianity wand its followers was often radical.
When Origen was just seventeen his father was arrested by the troops of the emperor for not sacrificing to the gods. He was given opportunity to recant, Origen encouraged him to remain faithful and even tried to join him in prison but was restrained by his mother. Finally his father was killed (Eusebius, 1966, p. 217) and in 250 A.D. Origen himself was beheaded by the servants of the Emperor Severus (Bull, 1967, p. 98). Cyprian was martyred under Valarian (253-260) who declared that the "clergy must sacrifice or die" (Bull, 1967, p. 152). Thousands of Christians died during the first three centuries after the inception of the church.
The North African church fathers faced the clash between Christ and the surrounding cultures by identifying with them, subconsciously as a result of their background, and intentionally whenever it was appropriate for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. In order to protect the church from syncretism and to pierce the hearts of men, they criticized the maladies and falsehoods of society. Extreme asceticism and persecution resulted from their critique of those outside the church. It is important to remember that the church grew faster during this period (1-500 A.D.)than any other time in history (Latourette, 1975, p. 65). There is much to learn from how these church fathers handled the unavoidable clash between Christ and culture.
II. The Freedom of Man:
The freedom of man is a biblical doctrine. How it is worked out existentially is a similar dilemma to the clash between Christ and culture. Is man free to accept or reject the Lordship of Jesus Christ? How can man obtain ultimate freedom? Can man truly be free in the structure of the church? These basic questions were asked many times as the North African church fathers ministered to mankind.
A. Freedom in Salvation:
Strictures, formality and coercion were characteristic of the contemporary religions. The Roman Empire often legislated obedience to the state religion and the indigenous religions of North Africa suppressed the people by fear and superstition. Freedom is one of the main points of the biblical message of salvation and the early church fathers emphasized it when proclaiming the gospel.
Men were prodded by spears and threatened with death if they would no sacrifice to the gods or worship the emperor. In contrast to this legislated faith, Tertullain wrote, "it is not part of religion to compel religion, which should be adopted freely, not by force" (Broadbent, 1931, p. 9). The voluminous writings of these evangelists is a monumental witness to the fact that they believed Christianity needed to be proclaimed and explained to give man a clear choice between it and the various belief systems of the time. They did not force acceptance of the Faith but did warn of the coming judgment and the punishment awaiting unbelievers (Green, 1971, p. 251).
B. Freedom in Christ:
Augustine's City of God and Confessions are both filled with direct teachings and allusions to the freedom of man under God. He taught that man alone cannot redeem himself no matter how he goes about it. He went to the extreme in teaching determinism and predestination, but he was correct in asserting that in Christ man's power of creativity is greatly enhanced by the freedom he has from sin (Latourette, 1975, p. 176-82). His confidence that insight into divine things is clearer after entering Christ is seen in the statement "believe that you may understand" (Latourette, 1975, p. 260). There are divine teachings, according to Augustine, that are impossible for the uninitiated to understand, but one who is in the "city of God" is free to comprehend the heights and depths of God's wisdom. He exhorted, "love God and do what you like" (Bull, 1967, p.114). Love Jehovah and be free to do those great and noble deeds that your soul has always desired but was prevented by sin from accomplishing. Confessions is a recounting of Augustine's struggles to be free. He makes it plain that he only found freedom in Christ (Saint Augustine, 1942, Book 8, p. xii).
C. Freedom in Church Structure:
The Catholic faith had already begun to crystallize in Rome, but the North African church fathers often challenged its confining nature. Origen, as an adolescent, shared his insights from scripture with bishops before he was appointed a bishop. Demetrius, then Bishop of Alexandria, censored and eventually excommunicated him for not holding strictly to the Catholic doctrine of separation of Laity and clergy (Broadbent, 1931, p. 10). He believed the church was composed of all those who were on the roles of the Church of Rome (Briadbent, 1931, p. 8). The Hexapla and Tetrapla produced by Origen were a tremendous contribution to the free study of the Word. They were arrangements in parallel columns of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament and various Greek translations of it (Eusebius, 1966, p. 236).
Tertulliam demonstrated his freedom from the authority of Rome by
joining the Monetarists in an effort to return to the primitive diety of the
church. He declared "where but three are, and they of the laity also, yet
there is a church" (Broadbent, 1931, p. 13).
Cyprian may be the only exception to the free spirit of the North African fathers. E.H. Broadbent observes that "Cyprian was not for the freedom of mind, but thought the Catholic Church of Rome had all authority" (Broadbent, 1931,p. 11). It seems he was ambiguous on that point because Lattourette records that "while looking up to Rome as the chief church in dignity, (he) regarded every bishop as having all the powers of the group and at most esteemed the Bishop of Rome as only the first among equals (Latourette,1975, p. 133).
Freedom, then was a major doctrine taught and practiced by most of the
North African church fathers. The prominence of this doctrine in their work
contributed to their success as evangelists. The modern missionary would do
well, especially when finding himself in an overly oppressive culture, to
stress the freedom of man in Christ. It should be taught in word and in
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