It was quite humbling to open the Spring 2011 edition of the Journal of Early Christian Studies and learn that my translation of Decret's Early Christianity in North Africa had been reviewed by the leading Patristics scholar J. Patout Burns of Vanderbilt University. Overall, Prof. Burns gave an affirming critique. He writes:
"Edward L. Smither has done a great service in translating François Decret's 1996 Le christianisme en Afrique du Nord ancienne, which provides a brief but reasonably comprehensive survey of the development of Christianity in Roman Africa from its beginnings through its unrecorded death by suffocation under the weight of Islamic civilization, perhaps as late as the eleventh century. . . Smither's translation of the French is readable and accurate. . . The French version is listed by Worldcat in only thirty-one libraries in the United States; this English translation has already doubled that availability of the study. This book might be well used as an introduction when students will read primary materials."
His general overview of the book is also quite useful for potential readers:
"After an introductory study of the Phoenician and Roman contributions to the organization and urbanization of the area, the narrative devotes a chapter to the origins of Christianity in the second and first part of the third century, relying on martyrdom narratives, archeological evidence of Christian burials, and the writings of Tertullian. Three chapters are then dedicated to the third century, detailing the conflicts with the Roman state in the mid-century persecutions, the development of church organization, and the elaboration of Cyprian's ecclesiology. The seventh chapter, the longest and perhaps most useful contribution of the book, provides a detailed account of the division of the Donatists from the Catholics and the schisms within the Donatist movement in the late fourth century. A survey of the other religious traditions—traditional Roman practice, Judaism and Manichaeism—at the end of the fourth century prepares for the study of Augustine, which is focused on the Pelagian controversy, the reformation of the African church under Aurelius, and the complex dealings of the African bishops with the Roman church and the imperial government. The final chapter sketches the Vandal and Byzantine occupations and the Arab conquest, using archeological evidence to date the end of African Christianity. The text is supplemented by two maps, a chronological table, an index, and the bibliography of the original French edition, which is largely in that language."
After surviving his critique, I contacted Prof. Burns and we exchanged some pleasant emails and discussed the possibility of going on a study tour together to visit some early Christian sites in Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Inshallah, we will.
To access the complete review, see Journal of Early Christian Studies 19:1 (Spring 2011), 145-46.
Below is a repost of an interview I did back in December with my former student Dayton Hartman on his blog, The Jude 3 Project:
Dayton: I remember enrolling in your course on the early church with some interest in the topic. However, I left the course with a passion for early church history. What professor, course, or book inspired your love for the early church?
Ed Smither: Initially, none of the above. After college, I spent 2 years living in North Africa and there became interested in the early African church and its fathers, including Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine. Later, however, this love for the early church was stoked by authors such as Henry Chadwick, W.H.C. Frend, Phillip Schaff, and Kenneth Scott Latourette.
Dayton: You have a great interest in one church father in particular, Augustine. Would you mind discussing why Augustine is a church father that Christians should be familiar with?
Ed Smither: This is a huge question! Augustine of Hippo (354-430) has been studied thoroughly for his contribution to philosophy and theology. He used his training in neo-Platonic philosophy to write on the problem of evil. Later, in his magisterial workThe City of God, he proposed an early Christian philosophy of history. In theology, he contributed greatly to the early church’s understanding of salvation, grace, the Trinity, the church, and, of course, the free will and predestination discussion. In his Confessions, regarded by some as the first autobiography, he narrates powerfully his journey to faith and his struggle to grow as a Christian. Of course, through his letters and works such as On Teaching Christianity and Instructing Beginners, we get a glimpse into his pastoral ministry—his “day job” for the last 40 years of his life. Not only did Augustine influence philosophy, theology, and pastoral theology in the 4th and 5th centuries, his legacy has continued through the Reformation to the present day. So to fail to study Augustine on at least some level, is to miss a chunk of the story of Christianity.
Dayton: You wrote an extremely useful book on Augustine entitled, Augustine as Mentor. What led you to write this book? Who would benefit from reading Augustine as Mentor?
Ed Smither: The book was originally my PhD dissertation at the University of Wales. While reading for a research topic in Augustine, I became impressed by his approach to discipling other spiritual leaders in the early African church. As most have studied Augustine for his philosophy or theology, I thought that a study of his pastoral theology and discipleship would be a fresh contribution. While I think that this book would help students and teachers of early church theology, I would be most encouraged if modern pastors read it and reflected upon Augustine’s model in light of their own ministries. That said, this is not a “how to” book on discipleship or spiritual formation; rather, it is a “how did” book. It’s up to the reader to determine what can be useful for today.
Dayton: What else have you written? Anything in “the works?”
Ed Smither: In terms of books, I translated François Decret’s Early Christianity in North Africa (2009) and have written some articles on early Christian evangelism and discipleship. Also, because I work in intercultural studies, I am presently completing a PhD in Missiology (University of Pretoria) with a dissertation on Brazilian evangelical missions in the Arab world. This project may be published as a monograph. Currently, I am working on a book length project on mission in the early church, which should be available in 2012. For other publications, see www.edsmither.com/publications.
Dayton: You spent a number of years in global missions work and you still remain active in mission efforts today. How important do you believe it is for Christian to see first-hand the realities of a lost a dying world?
Ed Smither: As the Great Commission passages (Matt. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:15-16; Jn. 20:21; Lk. 24:44-49; Acts 1:8) are all over our Bibles and the Bible itself is a story of God’s redemptive plan for the nations (Gen. 12:1-3; Ps. 67:1-2), to believe the Scriptures naturally means that we are engaged in global missions efforts. While some are certainly called to go to the nations, everyone can send, support, pray, and even go short-term. We are all invited to participate in some manner in the mission of God.
Dayton: Of what importance is knowing church history to apologetic endeavors?
Ed Smither: First, a number of church fathers (i.e., Tertullian, Augustine, Athanasius) provide winsome models for defending orthodoxy while engaging with the world around them. Also, a number of them dealt with issues that still face the church. Tertullian challenged the heresy of modalism, Athanasius defended the deity of Christ, and Augustine insisted upon man’s sinful nature. Reading their responses to heretics might also prove helpful for our challenges.
Dayton: What would you recommend as a “first step” for someone wanting to become more familiar with church history?
Ed Smither: Enroll at Liberty Seminary and take Patristics or History of Christianity I with me. If not, pick up a well-written introductory book. I recommend Bryan Litfin’s Getting to Know the Church Fathers, Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language, or Roger Olson’s The Story of Christian Theology.
Dayton: There is a great deal of talk today about Christianity returning to the faith of the early church. What are your thoughts? Has modern Christianity really lost something that early Christians had?
Ed Smither: Thomas Oden has correctly asserted that orthodoxy is remembering correctly what the apostles learned from Jesus. Yes, we must continue to guard the good deposit of faith that was handed down to the earliest Christians and that has been preserved through the centuries through the Scriptures. Given this foundation of faith, I do think that the modern church and ancient church can have a stimulating conversation regarding approaches to ministry, mission, and other church practices. That said, we must read the church fathers on more than a superficial level and not confuse “recovering the early church” with lighting candles in worship or wearing t shirts with Celtic crosses on them.
Dayton: How has your study of church history served to growth your faith in Christ?
Ed Smither: The church fathers have become friends who have invited me into their struggle to walk with Christ and to understand the Gospel and articulate sound doctrine. Their insights on Scripture have illuminated my own; so yes, they have greatly inspired me in my walk with Christ. That said, I don’t want to romanticize the early Christians because they believed and practiced some things that I certainly find troubling.
Dayton: In closing, what word of advice would you give to those looking into church history, specifically the early church? Should we just assume that they lived close to the time of Jesus and the Apostles so they must have gotten everything right? Or are there guidelines we should use in examining their thought and theology?
Ed Smither: As I alluded to in the last question, while the early Christians had less historical distance between themselves and the Lord, this does not mean that they were spared from error or given to read the Scriptures with the lenses of their cultural context. As convicted evangelicals, we must measure all teaching and practice according to the canonical Scriptures.
Dayton: Thank you for your time Dr. Smither! You can learn about Dr. Smither by visiting his website: http://www.edsmither.com/