Essay / Theology

Coptic Theology with Vince Bantu (Reading Theology African)

We read a lot of classic theology from ancient Africa.

By “we” I mean the students in two programs: Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute and Talbot School of Theology’s Master of Arts, Classical Theology. Both programs are very Great Booksy, driven by the reading and discussion of primary texts, and both programs read a lot of theology.

By “classic theology from ancient Africa,” I most definitely include heavy hitters like Tertullian and Augustine from Roman Africa, as well as Athanasius and Cyril from Alexandria. We read ’em.

But here’s the thing: Like most of the other readers we know, we tend not to read these texts as if their African origin had anything to do with them. In our paperback translations, Tertullian’s a Latin lawyer; Augustine seems Roman or maybe (at the most ethnic) Milanese or something; anybody from Alexandria seems obviously Byzantine. If we’re not careful, Africa sorts without remainder into a “West or East” dichotomy in our minds. If we’re not careful, all these authors can even get homogenized into a monocultural, classical haze.

So we’re trying to learn how to be more careful. We read a lot of classic theology from ancient Africa, but we are trying to learn how to read it as African.

We want to do it right, so we’re in the middle of  three-year project called Reading Theology African. Our goal is to develop pedagogical approaches that equip teachers and students to read works by authors like Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, and Augustine in a way that attends to, rather than effaces, their African character. You can read an introduction to the project here; take a look back at our first major event (with Dr. David Wilhite) here; and see a few lessons learned about Tertullian here.

So far we’ve paid attention to Roman North Africa. This year we’re moving our focus to Alexandria. In particular, under the guidance of Dr. Vince Bantu, we’re going to be looking at a seventh-century Alexandrian figure who will help us grasp Coptic Christianity as an African phenomenon. That figure is Benjamin I, Patriarch of Alexandria from 622-661, sometimes called the greatest Coptic Pope. A small group of students will be discussing his homily “On Cana of Galilee” on Weds Nov 6 at 3pm (PDF here). And Dr. Bantu will be giving a public lecture on “Egyptian Christological Identity” that evening at 7:30. We are going straight into the middle of theological conflict in the politically complicated seventh century. Ultimately, as readers of fourth-century Alexandrian christology (Athanasius and Cyril in particular), we’ll want to make our way back in time to those texts and figures. But we’re trusting that a close look at Benjamin I will give us an orientation to larger situations that we’re in danger of overlooking.

If you’re interested in this project, shoot me a note at my e-mail address, or find me on Twitter. We’ll get some resources online at some point, but for now this is a project you need to be in La Mirada to benefit from.


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