Published by Baker Academic on August 17, 2021
Genres: Academic, Non-Fiction
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An internationally recognized scholar highlights the important role the North African church played in the development of Christian thought. This accessible introduction brings Africa back to the center of the study of Christian history by focusing on key figures and events that influenced the history and trajectory of Christianity as a whole. Written and designed for the classroom, the book zeroes in on five turning points to show how North African believers significantly shaped Christian theology, identity, and practice in ways that directly impact the church today.
Early North African Christianity begins by defining what he means by Africa, or as the title puts it, North Africa: He will be dealing with that northernmost region of the African continent while it was under Roman control. This is not, he says, Kenya or South Africa, but that portion of the land which stretched between modern day Libya and Morocco. The main focus will be those communities which are connected to Carthage. This will become very important for reasons which we will see later.
The first section deals with the story of Perpetua and Felicity, who were from Carthage, living under Roman rule. At this point in history, the objection to Christianity was not that they worshiped Jesus, but that they didn’t worship Roman gods and goddesses as well. The fear was that the spiritual neglect by the growing number of Christians would supernaturally endanger the Empire. After a somewhat lengthy (eight pages) introduction to the Roman persecution of Christians, we arrive at the story of Perpetua and Felicity. The story of Perpetua and Felicity are brief ones, told in brief interludes between several pages of theological application by the author. It is, at times, difficult to determine which of the two saints he is talking about at any given time. Felicity is almost forgotten, or else the two women are blended and morphed into a single tragic composite figure: a Christian woman who cared more about her faith than her family, and who died rather than renounce it.
The hope for any discussion of Perpetua and Felicity (but especially Perpetua) would be that it illuminates the competency of women in leadership even when existing in cultures where men retain power. In light of his extensive application work so far, Eastman makes a disappointing decision not to weigh in with any theological application whatsoever on the issue of women in leadership. Given Perpetua’s education and skill as a polyglot, this is an early and hard mark against the book.
Tertullian and Cyprian
The second section deals with Tertullian, also of Carthage, and roughly contemporaneous with Felicity and Perpetua. Tertullian was an apologist for the New Prophecy Movement and the Montanists, who were both considered heterodox at best. This explains why Tertullian does not bear the prefix of Saint. Eastman dedicates a great deal of time to Tertullian’s discipline and aestheticism, as well as his distrust in human intellect. This isn’t bad, and these chapters do allow Tertullian to speak for himself to a great degree, even if the author does tend to celebrate some of Tertullian’s more extreme stances. There is a great deal more meat to this section than the previous one. From political controversies to insightful descriptions of the Trinity, there is much to be appreciated in Eastman’s sketch of Tertullian.
Building on the momentum that Eastman found in writing about Tertullian, he then moves on to Cyprian of Carthage, again by setting the scene, and making it abundantly clear that Rome and Carthage were suffering from war, recession, disease, and the question of what to do with heavy immigration into the country—all issues that make Cyprian incredibly relevant to our day. Cyprian wrestles with the question of whether to stay during times of persecution, likely die, and leave Carthage without a bishop, or whether it would be better to flee to safety and direct his flock in a more clandestine manner. His initial choice to flee mirrors controversies that will erupt in Augustine’s day, and his eventual decision to stay makes him one of the great martyrs of Africa.
The fallout from this debate is given an entire chapter in the book, and for good reason. It sets the context for one of Cyprian’s most famous ideas: That it is worse to be a schismatic than an idolater. Getting at some of the core ideas of theology, Cyprian judges religious practices as a matter of survival, and not just intellectual pursuit, and this is an angle that few writers have gotten into as deeply as Eastman does.
Eastman then grants two chapters to what is frequently called the Donatist Controversy. First, he makes sure to name the sides by their leaders, not Catholics and Donatists, but Caecilians and Donatists. Next, he lays out the objections from both sides: Caecilians were orthodox, but brutal, and employed the force of the Church against an already persecuted group; Donatists were martyrs and faithful, but heretics in their theology. As with his treatment of Tertullian, the depth of content and the consideration for both sides is comprehensive and gratifying. This controversy, known mostly to students of church history, lays groundwork and terminology that is revisited again and again throughout the centuries. The chapter closes with a note about the use of Donatist as a pejorative term and boogeyman throughout the Protestant Reformation, and one gets the impression that Eastman isn’t so sure that certain players sided with the right team.
Augustine and Pelagius
No history of North African Christians would be complete without a chapter on Augustine of Hippo, but Eastman points out that Augustine tends to dominate the conversation, erasing many other important players. This is an important note to make while introducing the bishop.
Eastman includes a worthy biography, detailing his family connections, aristocratic status, rebellious youth, his time with the Manicheans, and his family. He then dedicates a chapter to Augustine’s theological milemarkers such as original sin, trinitarianism, and God’s Kingdom, describing these concepts without endorsing or criticizing them. Eastman has been a mostly impartial viewer, which is both good and bad. He isn’t writing an apologetic for Augustine’s stances, but he also steers clear of what I would consider a necessary critique of certain concepts.
In the closing chapter, Eastman tackles the debate between Augustine and Pelagius, one of the most influential and long-lasting, but also misrepresented theological quarrels in the history of the Church. As far as treatments of Pelagius in books on church history go, Eastman’s is far from the worst, but I have the following critiques:
- He cites Augustine’s responses to Pelagius as accurate representations of Pelagius’ beliefs, but does not cite Pelagius’ writings, some of which have been available in English for more than 30 years, and which have served to exonerate Pelagius from many of the particulars by which Augustine condemns him. The two most prominent authors and translators of Pelagius’ defenses, B.R. Rees and Theodore de Bruyn, are not mentioned, nor is Peter Brown’s excellent detective work on the subject.
- While he mentions Augustine’s unrelenting attacks on Pelagius over the years, he does not mention the fact that repeated church councils and synods exonerated Pelagius on the basis of his argumentation from the Greek text of the Christian scriptures, and it took Augustind and the church of Carthage enlisting the help of a secular emperor to get Pope Zosimus to reverse the exonerations and replace it with an excommunication.
- The text describes Augustine’s and Pelagius’ debate in strictly theological terms while missing the fact that the two men inherited their rivalry from Jerome and Rufinus, their respective mentors, and that the debate initially stemmed from Rufinus “stealing away” Jerome’s primary patron, Melania the Elder.
- Augustine’s and Pelagius’ stances directly relate to how they viewed the creation of a soul. Augustine believed that it was created from the souls of the parents, while Pelagius believed it was crafted by God. Eastman simplifies this debate considerably.
Surprisingly, these are relatively minor critiques compared to how this debate is usually handled by church historians. To be completely fair and up front, Pelagius and his tradition are one of my academic focuses, and it may be that correctives to what was once “common knowledge” have not circulated as fast as I would have liked.
The timing of the book is somewhat curious. The interest in diversity in church history has outpaced the thirst for knowledge about African geography. Many, many people will see the word African in the title and expect more representational diversity than it actually affords. Augustine and Tertullian are already being injected into Black History Month discussions in more conservative circles, despite neither man being what we would, today, call Black. I fear that this book inadvertently, and through no fault of the author, suggests a similar theme. This is, of course, the state of the Church’s self-awareness, and I expect many will be disappointed by a book that delivers so much, but not what they were expecting.
Eastman’s narrative style is engaging and evocative and the work he does to set the context for his biographies is worthy of appreciation, though it sometimes overwhelms the actual subject of the biography. It is hard to imagine fitting more information into such a small book without the flow of it becoming cumbersome. It is somewhat unfortunate that he writes with such an inconsistent depth—incredibly comprehensive on one subject and painfully bare (or even outdated) on another—because his treatments of Tertullian, Cyprian, and the Donatists, deserve five stars, and are exactly what I was hoping for, as a corrective against the contemporary lack of representation of Felicity and Perpetua, and the misrepresentation of Augustine’s attacks on Pelagius. The opening and closing of this book are a missed opportunity in an otherwise fantastic volume on church history.