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Christianity in Roman Africa: The Development of Its Practices and Beliefs.

Christianity in Roman Africa: The Development of Its Practices and Beliefs. By J. Patout Burns Jr. and Robin M. Jensen, in collaboration with Graeme W. Clarke, Susan T. Stevens, William Tabbernee, and Maureen A. Tilley. Grand Rapids, Ml: Eerdmans, 2014. Pp. liii + 670. $55.

This volume represents a splendid collaborative effort by six well-known scholars of late-antique archeology, art history, theology, and church history; it took shape from the team's initial 1996 visit to Christian sites in Tunisia and at subsequent conferences. The several authors' integrative approach is plain throughout, as they combine literary evidence with theology and material culture. The time is ripe for this book. In the past 30 years, the study of early Christianity has burgeoned into a multidisciplinary field, yet no one has attempted to produce an entire volume correlating theology and archeology with devotional practices. Throughout late antiquity, sporadic crises forced the African church to grapple with pressing theological problems that demanded pastoral solutions. African Christians prized holiness and purity above all; the church must be "without spot or wrinkle." The authors demonstrate that Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine emphasized a theology centered on the church's mediating role in Christ's redemptive work. Boundaries were established (catechetical requirements, baptismal rites, and penitential procedures) to safeguard members and guarantee "the efficacy of its rituals" (xlviii). Burns and Jensen meticulously trace the shifting of those boundaries as circumstances compelled leading churchmen to refine doctrine and discipline. No other Christian community in the Roman Empire ever formulated an ecclesiology as comprehensive and rich as did the North Africans.

Initial chapters survey the history of African Christianity from the late second century to the Arab conquest. Later chapters delve into practices including baptism, the Eucharist, penitential rites, clerical orders, marriage, death and burial, and the cult of the martyrs. Chapter 1 's rare details about gruesome conditions suffered by confessors imprisoned during Decius's persecution (250-251 CE) testify to Clarke's mastery of Cyprianic material. In chapter 2, Tilley aptly prepares readers for Donatism's theological vicissitudes. Chapter 4, "organized" (xxviii) by J., examines Christian material culture in North Africa, displaying her expertise with detailed analysis of baptismal fonts, basilicas, liturgical furniture, martyrs' shrines, and cemeteries. A great strength of J.'s work is its correlation of architectural structures with the rites performed therein, guiding readers to a deeper understanding of liturgical practices. Particularly noteworthy is the section on basilicas and shrines at Carthage. Many sites have suffered spoliation by successive invaders and primitive excavation techniques. J. does readers a great service by distilling salient facts from myriad European archeological reports. Brief discussions of disputed artifacts and complex sites would, however, enhance this section. Stevens's and Tabbemee's archeological expertise are much in evidence here as well. The photographs and drawings are excellent.

Chapters 5-12 constitute the core of the volume. Readers learn that baptism was key: converts renounced idolatry and entered an exclusive community. Deviation from these established communal norms spelled disaster. "For Tertullian and Cyprian, baptism administered only within the true church conferred the Holy Spirit. Therefore, they insisted that anyone baptized 'outside' (i.e., in schismatic or heretical sects) must be rebaptized. (Tertullian dealt solely with heretical baptism; Cyprian with schismatics.) Many Africans disagreed, insisting only on imposition of hands for such converts to receive the Holy Spirit" (176). The issue reached a fever pitch after the Decian persecution with Cyprian and Stephen, bishop of Rome, opposing each other. The authors analyze the baptismal controversy thoroughly, but insightful works by Paolo Bemardini, Geoffrey Dunn, and Allan Brent need more acknowledgement. Yvette Duval's articles deserve mention as well. She has demonstrated that many bishops boycotted Cyprian's great council of 256 because they disagreed with him about rebaptism. Cyprian's letters also indicate that some Mauretanian bishops favored Stephen's view. Such examples would reveal that many Africans in Cyprian's era (and earlier) subscribed to the Roman Church's sacramental theology, rudimentary though it was.

This additional information would be useful when assessing the early years of the Donatist controversy. The controversy erupted during Diocletian's persecution (303-305 CE) when some clergy handed over the Scriptures to civil authorities, an act regarded as apostasy by Donatists. The authors duly note that the Council of Arles (314 CE) condemned African rebaptism and mandated the West's practice of imposition of hands only. However, readers are left with the impression that all African Christians had to conform (201), though, in fact, Catholic Africans already followed Western practice. B. and J. mention the Donatist Council of 336 only in passing, yet it witnessed Donatus's capitulation to Mauretanian bishops who refused to rebaptize converts from Catholicism. The authors highlight the Donatist Council of Bagai (394 CE) for accepting schismatic baptism, but surely the Council of 336 constituted a stunning breach of Cyprianic principles when Donatus received apostates (ex-Catholics) without the purifying rite of penance. Lastly, Optatus's work deserves more attention. It propelled Augustine to a mature ecclesiology, enabling him to preserve the best of Tertullian and Cyprian. These critical comments notwithstanding, this volume is an extraordinary achievement and sets a new standard for early Christian studies.

DOI: 10.1177/0040563915605266

Jane Merdinger

Lake Tahoe, Nevada
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Author:Merdinger, Jane
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 15, 2015
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