Wendy Elgersma Helleman and Musa A. B. Gaiya. Early Christianity: A Textbook for African Students. Langham Press, 2019.
Wendy Helleman’s co-authored textbook on early Christianity has been called “significant,” “timely,” “substantive,” “indispensable,” “in-depth,” and “comprehensive.” I would also like to add the words “a redemptive influence” to the mix as this is the centre of our mission statement at Global Scholars Canada.
Let me back up for a moment: Global Scholars Canada is a rather humble-sized organization of three part-time staff servicing the work of about 12 transnationally-oriented scholars. But I’d like our friends to realize that scholars are not just intellectuals lost in thought in stale libraries: their daily goal is to transform lives and communities worldwide.
You see, our scholars do not only teach emerging leaders and thinkers: they influence disciplines, departments, and university curriculum by their research and writing. Wendy Helleman’s text, co-written with her colleague Musa A. B. Gaiya, specifically introduces African students to the beginnings of the Christian faith as it spread through Asia Minor, into Africa and Europe in the first few centuries until the fall of the Roman Empire. Moreover, its not just a generic text, but it comes with a Christian perspective that is deliberately accommodating to African beginnings, Muslim perspectives, and women’s roles. This is significant for the inter-faith, gendered landscape of African universities today.
So for one, in an academy where most texts on early Christianity are either written from a secular “religious studies” perspective or from the vantage point of Western (European) Christian scholarship, this is a new take—from the angle of Africa. It covers all the most important names, movements, controversies and events that an introductory text on Christian faith ought to cover, including background into the inter-testamentary period—the Jewish and Roman context from which the faith was sprung. But it very deliberately highlights Syrian, Persian, Arab and other Far Eastern influence—the other direction from Europe. The story of monasticism (ch. 3) begins with the Egyptians Anthony and Pachomius, as well as Ethiopian contributions. Chapters 5 and 6 examine the Donatist controversy from different angles as it impacted Christian developments in North Africa in the crucial years after Constantine and legalization in the empire. The list of African names central to the development of the Christian faith is actually quite long: Didymus the Blind in Alexandra; the martyrs Perpetua and her servant Felicitas; the missionary Bishop Theodore of Nubia; the Tsad-kan or nine saints who helped in the domestication of Christianity in Ethiopia, and their musical disciple, St. Ayared; Clement of Alexandria and Origen, defenders of the faith against Gnosticism; Cyprian the ecumenist; Athanasius of Alexandria, the famous opponent of Arianism; Tertullian, the one who coined the term “trinity”; and of course, Augustine of Hippo whose Confessions are said to be one of the world’s first autobiographies. Christianity, one comes to see, is deeply indebted to Africa.
This textbook arises out of a course that the authors taught together at the University of Jos, Nigeria, where a third of their students were Muslim. Muslims approach the history of Christianity with suspicion, believing the scriptures to be corrupted and the divine status of Christ to be a grievous error. So the text is careful, recognizing its mixed readership. Half-way through the book, when introducing the question of Jesus’ divinity, even though Islam is hundreds of years away yet, the authors signal the reader: “Islam, while it accepts Jesus as a great prophet, born of a divine spirit, rejects Christian recognition of Jesus as divine, as the Son of God; such honour they regard as a perversion of Jesus’s own teachings” (187). Still, in giving the history of Christianity, Helleman and Gaiya demonstrate that early Christian leaders were convicted about Jesus’ divinity, and this was solidly established by early church councils. The Quran, they contend, adopted Docetic beliefs about Jesus and Gnostic views about his crucifixion, as the Quran’s account can be traced back to apocryphal gospel sources (219).
There is also special attention paid to the role of women in this text—their role in the New Testament as well as in the early church and in the monastic movement. In fact, drawing on Rodney Stark, they argue that women were among the first to be attracted and committed to Christianity—in part for its rejection of abortion and infanticide, but also because of its embrace of female participation. Dr. Helleman tells me that this part of the text has been well-received, as women are moving into clergy positions in Baptist, Brethren, and charismatic traditions in Africa. She says, “At the university more than half of our students are typically women, and it is appropriate for them to focus on this aspect of the study of Early Christianity, to encourage them in their contribution.”
Women, in fact, were among the first martyrs, which brings us to one more aspect of early church history that is relevant to the African situation: the prevalence of persecution and martyrdom and the profound suffering and testing it brought to Christian commitment. “Martyr” in Greek literally means “witness” and Dr. Helleman has said that the record shows that the support that the Christian community had for those tortured was a tremendous encouragement for the faithful to persevere. When they died with dignity, with compassion for their persecutors, they were testifying to the love of God in Jesus Christ. The stories of martyrs, both then and now, remind readers of the persistent reality of evil, and the spiritual forces that continue to resist and attack the church, rejecting its witness to the cross—the redemptive possibility that comes from sacrificial love.
Our global scholars are also witnesses who have given their lives for the gospel in a different way. They have made their vocation the pursuit of becoming a “redemptive influence” in the academy—by their love for their students and colleagues, by their teaching from a Christian perspective, and from their research, which stretches their witness from the classroom to the networks of study and learning across many borders. Scholars change culture by making strategic contributions to the conversations and policies that shape institutions. For a Christian, its a delightful, challenging gift and a worthy calling—a contribution to the expansion of God’s kingdom of love, light and life.