I remember having a conversation with a Christian brother who was curious about why I’m so passionate about racial justice and the lack of multi-ethnicity within local churches. At one point in the conversation he asked, “I get as a minority you care about other minorities, but honestly what have people of color contributed to Christianity and theology?”
The question shocked me. After a moment of stunned silence, I said, “Besides the Bible, core theological doctrines, and defending orthodoxy, I’m not sure.”
He replied, “Well, name a theologian of color I would know.”
“How about Augustine of Hippo, who was a black African?” I answered.
My friend then became the one in stunned silence. A minute or so later, he denied Augustine was black. I wasn’t surprised by his reaction. In fact, my encounter with him is sadly pretty on par for what many conversations with white brothers and sisters in evangelical circles look like.
The reason many evangelicals in general, and white evangelicals in particular, don’t know about the contributions of people of color to our faith is because the American church is rooted in the European church and history. During the Renaissance, European customs and values changed the way historical Christianity was seen and understood. We must remember that first century Christianity was started through an ethnically and socially oppressed group of Jews. The Christianity of Europe was popularized by an ethnically and socially privileged group of monarchs. As a result, the Christianity we’ve inherited has been largely interpreted through a narrative that centers European culture and art as normative and every other race and culture as “other,” and one consumed with colonization, expansion, and conquest.
This European version of our faith, through art, turned Jesus and many church fathers from ethnic minorities into white men. These changes, along with the desire for conquest, also changed how Scripture was interpreted. Many European Pilgrims and settlers saw themselves represented in the Bible as Israel, God’s chosen people. Their conquest was also seen as God’s blessing and divine will that they, like the Israelites, overtake the lands and wipe out the cultures of “barbarian” peoples. These barbarian people groups were primarily African, Native American, Indigenous Central and South American, Indian, and Asian.
But the people groups that Europeans saw as opportunities for conquest, God saw and sees as His image bearers whose cultures and narratives are opportunities to bring Him glory. As faithful worshipers of Jesus we should join God in bringing Himself glory through all people by going back to the Bible and to our church history. With the first, we should seek to see and understand the multi-ethnicity of God’s Word. With the second, we ought to recognize, understand, and honor the contributions of people of color, specifically black people, have made to our faith.
The Contributions of Africans in the Old Testament
In many of our churches today it is often assumed that the nation of Israel in the Old Testament was a homogenous people, a people whose skin colors were various shades of white to maybe light brown. We think this way in part, because Victorian art has taught us to. Early films, such as The Ten Commandments, where Charlton Heston played Moses, also depict the Israelites as white-skinned. Israelites, though, tended to be brown, and Moses’ levitical line of priests included a black priest during the time of the Exodus. His name was Phinehas, and he was in the line of high priests. We are introduced to him in Exodus 6:24-25:
24 The sons of Korah: Assir, Elkanah, and Abiasaph; these are the clans of the Korahites. 25 Eleazar, Aaron’s son, took as his wife one of the daughters of Putiel, and she bore him Phinehas. These are the heads of the fathers’ houses of the Levites by their clans.
We can know a lot about Phinehas just from his name. During the time of the Exodus, the kingdom of Egypt (an African kingdom) worked closely with another kingdom along the Nile to the south, the kingdom of Cush, which was made up of mostly black Africans. What does geography have to do with Phinehas? One thing: Phinehas’ name was Egyptian, and in the Egyptian language, “ph” was used as a definite article.
Professor of Biblical Studies J. Daniel Hays explains in From Every People and Nation, “Thus his name translates as ‘the Negro,’ or ‘the Nubian,’ or ‘the Cushite’: that is one of the black people who inhabit the land of Cush” (2003, p.81). Other Old Testament commentators go so far as to say that Phinehas was a common name for the time and was used to signify a person with very dark skin or a “true” African.
Phinehas is important to our faith because he was a black man who served God as a priest. But there are two other facts about Phinehas we should remember.
- Phinehas saved Israel from the wrath of God. In Numbers 25 Israel is in the wilderness, on the verge of falling into unbelief. The cause of their apostasy was Moabite women. The men of Israel went against God’s command and became sexually involved with the Moabites, leading to Israel’s worship of Moabite gods. In Numbers 25:10-13 Phinehas, in an act of righteous anger, kills an Israelite and Moabite who were flouting their sin publicly. Phinehas’ actions caused God to not pour His wrath on Israel and to offer Phinehas His covenant of peace.
- Like Abraham, Phinehas’ faith was counted to him as righteousness. Psalm 106 recounts Phinehas’ faithful act in preventing God’s wrath from being poured out on Israel. Verses 30-31 say, “But Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was checked. This was credited to him as righteousness for endless generations to come” (NIV). There are two takeaways we should understand from this text:
- First, Phinehas was an intercessor. In verse 30, the psalmist places Phinehas next to Moses as a fellow intercessor on behalf of Israel. This puts Phinehas in an elevated position.
- Second, verse 31 uses the phrase, “this was credited to him as righteousness.” This phrase only occurs twice in the Bible. The first time is in Genesis 15:6 in reference to Abraham. The second is here in Psalm 106 in reference to Phinehas. Through Abraham and Phinehas, God was already teaching that the true Israel is made up of those who are justified by faith in God and nothing else.
Through the life of Phinehas we see that God included Africans among His chosen people—before the Exodus. Further, we see how Phinehas, an African, was a leader in Israel, served as an intercessor, and had his faith counted to him as righteousness. The only other two men in the Old Testament spoken so highly of are Moses and Abraham.
The Contributions of Africans in the New Testament
In the New Testament we have the Ethiopian eunuch. He appears in Acts 8. It should come as no surprise that an Ethiopian was interested in the Messiah and was found reading from Isaiah. By this time, the Cushites were called Ethiopians. That means Ethiopians had been a part of Israel’s story since the Exodus. What is unique about this Ethiopian is his position as a eunuch and his encounter with Phillip, one of Jesus’ apostles.
Luke refers to the Ethiopian as a eunuch five times in Acts 8. Most commentators believe Luke belabors the point, because eunuchs were excluded from full membership within the people of Israel. Assuming this Ethiopian was a convert to Judaism, he still would have been excluded from several aspects of Judaism, including worship in the temple. However, because of the cross and resurrection of Christ, the eunuch could be fully included in the people of God.
In addition, the conversation between Phillip and the Ethiopian was initiated by the Holy Spirit’s prompting (Acts 8:29). One of the first evangelistic narratives we have in church history is between a Greek-speaking Semitic Jew and a black African eunuch! This takes place before the conversion of Paul, and several years before Paul’s “Macedonian call” to take the gospel to European soil. It also takes place before Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, which means the Ethiopian eunuch was one of the first Gentiles to take the gospel westward toward “the ends of the earth.” We also know through church history that the Ethiopian eunuch was faithful in taking the gospel to Africa; by the fourth century Christianity was firmly established in Ethiopia.
The Contributions of Africans in Church History
Though numerous church fathers were men of color, we will focus on two African men: Augustine of Hippo and Athanasius. Augustine, who is most known for his books The City of God and Confessions, was the son of a Roman father and a Berber mother. The term berber was often used as a derogatory phrase by Roman occupiers in Africa. To be a berber meant you were indigenous to that part of Africa, spoke the local African dialect, and were dark-skinned. In early church history arguably no other church father has had as much of an impact as Augustine in shaping contemporary Christian theology. Doctrines Protestants hold to today that were shaped by Augustine are predestination, original sin, and our understanding of the Trinity.
In my studies of Athanasius I learned he was called the “black dwarf” because he was a short man with very dark skin, a crooked nose, and a reddish beard. Protestantism has Athanasius to thank for our understanding of the Trinity as one God, existing as three persons, with each person being fully God. Athanasius famously defended this view of the Trinity against the heresy of Arianism. The debate between Athanasius and Arius became so big that Constantine I called for a church council, which officially labeled Arianism as heresy at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.
Christians around the world today stand on the shoulders of African men like Phinehas, the Ethiopian eunuch, Augustine, and Athanasius. These men stand in the pantheon of Christian history as great men God has used to build and protect his church. This Black History Month, I challenge you to learn more about the contributions of Africans and African Americans to the shaping, growing, and defending of our Christian faith. Doing so will help us see beyond ourselves, our preferences, and our comforts, and better appreciate them and their contributions.