Christianity in Roman Africa
Thanks to the end of a busy semester and some recent quiet days at the beach, I was able to finish Burn's and Jensen's fantastic tome Christianity in Roman Africa: The Development of Its Practices and Beliefs (Eerdmans, 2014). The fruit of over twenty years of scholarship by a team of historians, theologians, an art historian, and an archaeologist, this volume is without a doubt the definitive work on early African Christianity in the Patristic period.
The first four chapters offer the historical backdrop and, in particular, chapter 4 provides a thorough survey of archaeological evidence. Chapters 5-13 explore major practical and theological themes of the African church including baptism, preaching and the Eucharist, dealing with the lapsed, the clergy, marriage/virginity/widowhood, Christian burials, the cult of the martyrs, Christian disciplines, and the church.
Among the book's many strengths is the rich support from primary literary sources from the African fathers. The reader is invited to explore Tertullian's treatises, Cyprian's treatises and letters, and Augustine's works, sermons, and letters--a great basis for many years of study and a catalyst for new research.
What makes this book unique is the authors' methodology of reviewing standard literary sources combined with visual and archaeological evidence. Jensen's training as both a church and art historian provides huge insights as do the contributions of Susan Stevens, a leading archaeologist who has spent the last few decades digging in North Africa. So the approach of evaluating literary and visual texts allows the African church story to be told with greater clarity and color.
The authors also do an excellent job of capturing African Christianity in its contexts, particularly as the church struggled to grow and live in a largely pagan context. Related, though the literary evidence is largely based on Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine's writings, these three are not explored in a vacuum. In Augustine's period, the Donatist church and thinkers are given a fair hearing as African Christians in their own right.
The only downside of the volume was the significant repetition of ideas and claims throughout the book. While the book is strengthened by thoroughness and the contributions of multiple authors, some macro-editing would have saved the work from some unnecessary repetition.
In addition to the thorough scholarship that will surely be valued by students of the period and region, today's pastors will also benefit from the practical aspects of chapter 12 on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and have much to ponder and apply from Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine's thoughts and practices on these spiritual disciplines.
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