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Church, Book, and Bishop. Conflict and Authority in Early Latin Christianity.

Church, Book, and Bishop. Conflict and Authority in Early Latin Christianity. By Peter Iver Kaufman. Pp. ix + 166. Map. (Explorations.) Boulder, Colo. & Oxford: Westview Press, 1996. ISBN 0 8133 1817 3. Paper n.p.

This is a study about the maintenance of order and discipline in Latin Christianity from its origins to the sixth century. Kaufman focuses on the elites of western Christianity, especially bishops (whom he names `executives' to draw attention to their managerial function in tending church affairs). His thesis is that `commerce and conflict with nonconformists shaped religious conformity' in the early church (p. 133) and that the chief shapers of that conformity were bishops. His interest is in the `drama of leadership development' in the Western church. He seeks to reconstruct the early church's `management strategies', the `strategies of selection, interpretation, and distribution' of authority that made it possible for elites `to defend conformity against nonconformists and secessionists, to combat diversity and perceived novelty, and ... to reinforce policies of exclusion and reintegration' (p. 2). He has tried to take the advice of his students to heart and offer a book that shies away from a catalogue of `many strange-sounding names, faraway places, and long-ago dates'. His is not intended to be an encyclopedic study of leadership in early Latin Christianity. Rather he offers representative case studies in the management of conflict and the building of consensus in the early church. What results is a splendidly depicted series of scenes of early Latin bishops struggling to bring order to often endemic chaos and to present a persuasive articulation of ecclesial authority.

Through five chapters Kaufman investigates sites of `executive' authority and ecclesial conflict in the first five centuries. The focus throughout is not on non-conformity and conflict, but on the distribution and use of authority that enabled bishops cogently to articulate their positions and bring institutional conformity to chaotic situations (p. 161). After a chapter on the formation of ecclesial elites in the first two centuries, a chapter is devoted to the ambivalent career of Tertullian, at once apologist of and polemicist against those who wielded episcopal authority. A third chapter focuses on leadership in the midst of crisis and conflict, first with reference to Cyprian and the supporters of Novatian, then to the course of North African rigorist conflicts and their `resolution' by imperial and Latin ecclesiastical authorities, and finally with respect to the court of battles of Hilary and Ambrose against pro-Arian celebrities. A chapter devoted to Augustine picks up and develops the theme of the relation of sacred book and Catholic Church introduced in the chapter on Tertullian, especially with reference to the Manichaean, Donatist, and Pelagian controversies. The study concludes with a discussion of the emergence of the apostolic see and its bishop Gregory as the single most important authority in the west. Throughout, text and context are treated together in the conviction that they are mutually illuminating.

The study begins in the midst of chaos. Second-century Christianity inherited the wind of disorder, according to Kaufman, following Bauer (pp. 7-13). The earliest Christians, `almost addicted to confusion and conflict' (p. 14), made use of their addiction to bring self-definition. Clement and Ignatius with their respective insistence on the proper succession of leaders and unity around a single bishop helped to bring institutional order out of chaos (pp. 14-19). Marcionite and Gnostic rejection of Old Testament writings and theology resulted in efforts to define the sources and limits of legitimate authority (pp. 19-25). Thus churches, furnished with bishop and book, were enabled to keep order and guarantee `the orderly transfer of spirit, keys, and authority' (p. 13). Here Kaufman's rhetorical style gets the better of him. It is debatable whether even Clement of Rome envisioned such a guarantee, though that is certainly how he was interpreted by later authorities, Protestant and Catholic alike, no doubt discovering in Clement the concerns of subsequent centuries. He is on more solid ground when he depicts Irenaeus as deploying the tools of conformity (a right succession of leaders rightly interpreting Scripture according to a normative Pauline Christianity) as an instance of the way conformity was enforced (pp. 23-25). Still, one is left wondering whether second-century Christians, even when under the control of bishops, were as conforming and orderly as Kaufman's analysis would leave one to believe. A significant omission in his discussion, for example, is the limitations placed on and channeling of women's authority in ancient Christianity, a topic which has received much scholarly attention in the last two decades. The regulations concerning the authority of leaders in the Pastoral Epistles is very much formulated with a view to curtailing the authority of women and provide a unique opportunity to identify how conflict arising from the assertion of power by women helped to shape male ecclesial hierarchy in the early church.

Kaufman does not, however, shy away from complex data. A chapter devoted to Tertullian (pp. 27-46) reveals its author to be not only a gifted writer but a keen analyst of historical data. Kaufman furnishes convincing contexts for an often faceless apologist. He deftly traces the career of Tertullian from pro-episcopal apologist for Catholic orthodoxy to Montanist critic. In the face of dissent and chaos, initiated by Gnostics or Marcionites, Tertullian was first and foremost a tireless interpreter of Scripture as he defended the Rule of Faith as normative for Christian belief. Kaufman offers a good introduction to the issues at stake in biblical interpretation as first Gnostic and then Marcionite exegesis of Scripture were rejected and the Bible was read as the church's own book (pp. 28-40). A discussion of Tertullian's view of the usefulness of heresy for the progression in understanding and definition of Christian teaching and his view that this was a Spirit-guided process helps make understandable his shift to Montanism (pp. 45-46). Kaufman shows how Tertullian's twofold insistence that the church was aided by the presence of heresy to tease out the truth of its proclamation more clearly and that it was guided by the Holy Spirit in that progression, not only to detect the truth lodged in Scripture but to live it, pre-disposed him to be sympathetic of the New Prophecy. Kaufman accounts for Tertullian's emigration to Montanism both by reference to his rigorism and his exegetical convictions. Here he nicely contrasts an impatient apologist and polemicist with the administrative and disciplinary realities of `executives' tending an often chaotic church (pp. 40-45).

Kaufman next turns to a discussion of the course of the Novatianist Schism and the Arian controversy in the Latin West (pp. 47-73) to support his over-arching thesis that in Latin Christianity religious conformity was forged through conflict. Again he offers select illustrations--this time Cyprian and his opponents, Hilary and Ambrose and theirs--to show how conflict helped to define the contours of early Christian leadership. The case of the Novatianists is presented as a further development of the issues surrounding rigorism introduced in part with his discussion of Tertullian. Kaufman carefully reconstructs (pp. 49-57) a complex debate to show how ecclesial administrative difficulties created by persecution and pardon enabled bishops to articulate and defend their claims to power and authority. Imperial patronage offered church leaders a new occasion to determine the basis and limits of ecclesial authority (pp. 57-73). In his discussion of the new situation that emerged with the accession of Constantine Kaufman shows how regional consensus could be achieved in the West through `imperial intervention, conciliar deliberation, episcopal leadership, and various combinations of the three' (p. 73). Constantine's attempts to bring closure to the North African division surrounding the case of Caecilian by referring it to Bishop Miltiades of Rome nicely illustrates the new pact between Church and Empire to negotiate disputes that emerged in the fourth century (pp. 58-61). Here Bishop and Emperor were in cooperation. However, the course of the Arian controversy in the West provides Kaufman with a more complex example of how power was articulated when the two parties were antagonists. Hilary, Eusebius of Vercelli, and later Ambrose are presented as leaders defining the reaches of ecclesial authority in instances where emperors were judged to have overstepped their limits (pp. 64-73). His examples of the types of episcopal leadership offered in the fourth century are well selected. However, an otherwise fine discussion of the relation of imperial to ecclesial authority would have been complemented by reference to the appropriation of judicial authority over ecclesiastical affairs, given to Damasus and his allies by Gratian's rescript of 378, or by analysis of the trial and execution of Priscillian in 386. Both are instances of conflict resulting in the extension of ecclesial power in Latin Christianity and point ahead to later developments special to the western Church.

By situating him in the social context of a crumbling western Empire and a divided North African church, Kaufman contextualizes Augustine's ecclesial thinking as a response to crisis and discord (pp. 78-85). His Augustine is a pragmatic theologian with his eyes open to the threat of an exclusivist Christianity on the one hand and what Kaufman calls `neopaganism' on the other, unafraid if necessary to use imperial power to bring schismatics to heel. In fashioning a theological, scriptural, and political legitimation for the idea of the church as a school for sinners Augustine was able to withstand the claims of both Donatists and Pelagians to insist upon or create the perfect church on earth and thus provided a definition for the church that was to serve not only Augustine's time but that of generations to come. Kaufman directs his focus to Augustine the anti-Donatist (pp. 85-96) and anti-Pelagian (pp. 96-101). Bishop and Church figure centrally in the discussion, but not Book, and though Kaufman in the course of his discussion of the arguments of either side of the debates describes characteristic exegeses of significant biblical passages, Augustine as biblical scholar is not addressed in sufficient detail. This is unfortunate since Augustine's theology of Scripture is intimately related to his ecclesiology.

A final chapter is devoted to the church of the fifth and sixth centuries. Kaufman, building on the work of Peter Brown, shows how bishops made use of the popular devotion to saints to promote and bolster their positions by calling on them to lend otherworldly support to this-worldly ends and by the strategic deployment of relics (pp. 104-110). Kaufman traces the vicissitudes of the Roman see as its claims to jurisdiction were accepted or contested in Italy and beyond in the century between the Councils of Chalcedon and Constantinople (pp. 111-18). However, the jewel in the crown of Latin episcopacy belongs to Gregory the Great (pp. 118-30). Kaufman's Gregory is, if romantically, the pope who would rather be a monk. As the man of the hour he was all that Latin Christianity needed in the wake of the western Empire's final collapse: a shrewd politician to promote and protect the apostolic see's interests in Europe and beyond (pp. 118-22), a pastoral guide pouring his ecclesial and exegetical wisdom into his Pastoral Rule (pp. 122-27), and a wise Bishop orchestrating the authority of the Roman church over newly evangelized territories at the farther reaches of the west (pp. 127-30). Kaufman leaves his chronicle with Pope Gregory assigning pre-eminence of London over York. In leaving the story there he set the stage for his more specialist work on religion and politics in Tudor England.

Kaufman's study of church, book, and Bishop in early Latin Christianity is written in the finest tradition of narrative historiography. The power is in its telling. There are some notable omissions: Jerome, the place of asceticism in the West and its orchestration by ecclesial authorities, and the strategic patronage of bishops especially by powerful Christian women. Often there is too much about Bishop and Church and not enough about Book. The marriage of exegesis and ecclesiology is often implicit in Kaufman's story of the Latin church but deserves more explicit treatment. Nonetheless, this is a thoroughly enjoyable introduction not only to the significant turning points in the story of the Christian West, but to issues in ecclesiology that continue to occupy and divide its contemporary theologians situated as they are amidst the ambiguities and chaos of a contemporary world.
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Author:Maier, H.O.
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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