What Has Practice to Do with Theology? – By Bradley Peper

Bradley Peper on J. Patout Burns Jr. and Robin M. Jensen’s Christianity in Roman Africa

J. Patout Burns Jr. and Robin M. Jensen, Christianity in Roman Africa: The Development of Its Practices and Beliefs, Eerdmans, 2014, 724pp., $55
J. Patout Burns Jr. and Robin M. Jensen, Christianity in Roman Africa: The Development of Its Practices and Beliefs, Eerdmans, 2014, 724pp., $55
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Traditionally, studies in early Christianity have emphasized one area of inquiry over another, inevitably fostering an intellectual partitioning of the subject of investigation: doctrine or devotion, speculative or pastoral, theology or practice, textual or material. The last fifteen to twenty years of patristic scholarship, however, have witnessed a growing trend toward abandoning these older categories of inquiry and creating new avenues of integrated exploration; some clear examples of this include Robin M. Jensen’s Understanding Early Christian Art (2000), Everett Ferguson’s Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy (2009), and more recently, Adam Ployd’s Augustine, the Trinity, and the Church: A Reading of the Anti-Donatist Sermons (2015). J. Patout Burns and Robin Jensen’s collaborative work, Christianity in Roman Africa: The Development of Its Practices and Beliefs, fully exemplifies and promotes this growing trend of a more integrated, interdisciplinary approach to early Christian studies. Overall, Burns and Jensen attempt to demonstrate that ritual, thought, and social context constantly and reflectively communicated with one another to produce a unique form of Christianity in North Africa. To achieve this, they canvass both the literary and material remains throughout Christianity’s history in North Africa, from its earliest evidence in the second century to its virtually complete supplantation by the Arab invasions in the seventh century. The layout of the book mirrors their objective and method in a clear fashion. The material is arranged in three, as the authors note, “unequal stages.” The first section serves as a general, yet detailed, introduction to the history of Christianity in North Africa with the final chapter standing almost as a transitional interlude surveying the archeological evidence for the rest of the book. The second section is the centerpiece. It examines the literary and archeological evidence for the rituals and social structure pivotal in the development of North African Christianity. The final section functions as a denouement to the work; it places holiness as both the driving definitional problem for North African Christians and the region’s distinct contribution to theology in Western Christianity.

There are two particular contributions that make this work historiographically notable. First, although Christianity in Roman Africa has an encyclopedic benefit, the book is guided by a thesis, which is not common in a work of this size and scope. Burns and Jensen understand African Christianity as developing its own distinct school of theology that is no less influential or profoundly intellectual than those from other regions. Whereas Greek thought was more concerned with Trinitarian relations, the North Africans were more preoccupied with the role of the Church in salvation; their contribution was ecclesiological in nature. After examining how salvifically central the Church was to North Africans in their thought and practice, Burns and Jensen show how the challenge of (re)defining holiness in the face of various ecclesial and social crises from the Donatist schism to the persecution of Christians by Roman authorities imbued the North African religious life and mindset.

Since ecclesiology is the overall object of study, Burns and Jensen examine not just what North African Christians thought about the nature and role of the Church but rightly correlate it with how it was expressed ritually and visually as well. They explore eight practices in this work: baptism, eucharist, penance, orders, marriage/consecrated life, death/burial, the cult of the martyrs, and practices of individual piety. Of these practices, one of the more fascinating, and often overlooked, is the Christian practice surrounding death and burial. Burns and Jensen show that, while Christians adapted particular practices to suit their beliefs — for example, omitting social status or familial relationship from epitaphs for the dead — they maintained a good number of traditional practices from their surrounding culture. Even more interesting is that many of the death and burial practices, such as feasting with and praying for the dead, remained relatively unchanged from time of Tertullian to Augustine, unlike other ecclesial practices. An especially illuminating and much needed study is their discussion of clerical development. Burns and Jensen demonstrate that, while there was continuity among North Africans regarding the clergy’s roles in governing and sanctifying its people, significant developments with respect to clerical status and jurisdiction emerged as a result of controversies experienced within the Church. Augustine, for instance, developed a more sacramental understanding of ordination, which correlated with his understanding of baptism, to respond more effectively to the Donatist polemic. Although Burns and Jensen do not deal with later clerical developments in the West, as it is beyond the scope of their work, readers will surely gain a clearer historical basis from this chapter for understanding how particular claims, especially with regard to the priesthood and the papacy, will eventually arise in the Catholic Church.

What also makes this work historiographically distinct is that it is, and has been from its origins, a fundamentally collaborative study. Beginning with conversations at the 1994 North American Patristics Society, a research team formed, involving some of the most reputable specialists in North African Christian history: J. Patout Burns, Robin M. Jensen, Maureen Tilley, William Tabbernee, Graeme Clarke, and Susan Stevens. Following a trip to Tunisia in 1996 funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the team arranged semi-annual seminars at national meetings where other specialists joined to deal with particular practices and the theories influencing them in North Africa. Christianity in Roman Africa is the culmination of this dedicated, collaborative study and scholarship over the past twenty years. Not only was the background research collaborative, but also certain portions of the book were contributed to and drafted by other individuals than the principal authors. The advantage of such an approach is the production of a mutually researched, composed, and reviewed work that lacks superficial treatment and historiographical infelicities of particular topics more commonly seen in works by a single author.

This is a magisterial work that belongs on the shelf of anyone who is interested in exploring the history of Christianity in North Africa. With 723 pages, 153 color illustrations and drawings, three robust indices (separated by person/groups, places/monuments, and subject), and other helpful resources, both scholars and non-scholars alike will find invaluable. There are, of course, some limitations; many, however, correspond to the strengths of the work and are thus unavoidable. For example, because this work is governed by a thesis directed toward the development of ecclesiological thought and practice, particular themes and topics prominent in North African theology are not covered, since they either do not interact directly with practice (for example, Trinitarianism, apocalypticism, etc.) or there is not enough extant material and literary evidence to correlate with thought (for example, pilgrimages, etc.); the authors openly recognize this limitation and address it in their introduction. Occasionally, there are omissions whose inclusion would have rounded out the work. While the first section canvassing the history of Christianity in North Africa discusses Quodvultdeus and Fulgentius, there is no mention of them or their thought in subsequent sections. Although neither bishop significantly altered their ecclesiological heritage, their inclusion in the following sections would have provided a better sense of completion to the book. All of these limitations are minor and unavoidable in a work accomplishing so much. Any criticism raised ultimately cannot detract from its historiographical contribution and import.

Burns and Jensen demonstrate that practice and theology were so intertwined in the religious expressions of North Africans that any form of historical reconstruction not taking both into account will inevitably be lacking. Their work forces the reader to consider seriously not only the speculative aspects of patristic theology but also its lived experience as a proper mode and influence of theological expression. While North Africa is certainly fertile ground for this type of integrated, interdisciplinary study given the abundance of extant literary and material evidence, Christianity in Roman Africa provides a paradigm for future research in all geographic regions of early Christian history.