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Church forged in an African fire

17 April 2015

John Binns considers a formative place and time for the Christian West


Christianity in Roman Africa: The development of its practices and beliefs

J. Patout Burns Jr and Robin M. Jensen

Eerdmans £35.99


Church Times Bookshop £32.40 

TWENTY years ago, two authors and four collaborators set themselves an ambitious task. Their aim was to describe the life and practices of the Church of the region of North Africa, using not only theological texts, but also archaeological remains, mosaics, and other pieces of art, and placing these within a social context.

We discover that the faith of this region had a formative influence on the Western Church. Roman North Africa covers the present-day nations of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya. Here, Christians first translated the Bible into - and used - Latin, and a succession of theologians - Tertullian, who was the first Christian theologian to write in Latin; Cyprian; and Augustine - formed a theological tradition that spread into Europe. In contrast, the early Christian communities of Italy and Gaul spoke Greek.

While the Greeks struggled to find definitions to convey the mysteries of the Trinity and the nature of Christ, the Roman bishops were confronted with more practical challenges. The Church was divided over the charismatic prophecy of Montanism in the early third century; the treatment of those who renounced Christ in the various persecutions; then between Donatists and Caecilians in the fourth century.

These bitter arguments forced them to think through what the Church is, and especially how an earthly organisation can be the means of salvation. They were concerned with the right forms of government, the practice of worship and sacraments, and so the building of a holy community. Western Christianity was born out of struggle with practical and disciplinary concerns.

This story is presented in three sections. The first is a history of a turbulent period of the life of the Church, including persecutions, Vandal invasions, and the Arab conquests in the seventh century which overcame and absorbed the Christian Church in the region. The second, and longest part, describes the sacraments and other practices. These show how baptismal discipline developed, and how the eucharist changed from being a household agape based around a domestic evening meal to a morning liturgy for the whole church, presided over by the bishop.

Then there are descriptions of penance; of ordination; of burial; and then of the conditions of marriage, virginity, and widowhood. A third section summaries the theme of holiness, which has reappeared through the earlier chapters.

The main sources used are not lengthy theological works, but sermons and letters, which arose out of the events of the lives of the churches, and show the concerns and anxieties of Christians. Archaeological research shows what kind of buildings were used, which in turn influenced liturgical practice. The book includes 153 coloured illustrations and ground plans to introduce the reader to important sites.

The range of evidence and the careful exposition of themes in this book show us a Church grappling with issues of faith and salvation. Out of this turbulent and evolving history, the Church of the West was formed. It reminds us that the Church of the West has its roots in Africa.

The Revd Dr John Binns is Vicar of Great St Mary's, Cambridge, and an Hon. Canon of Ely Cathedral.

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