Monday, June 26, 2017

Précis: Bauer’s Forgotten Region: North African Christianity (David C Alexander and Edward L Smither)

A Précis of

Chapter 7 from Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christian Contexts: Reconsidering the Bauer Thesis. edited by Paul A. Hartog, Pickwick Publications, Eugene, Oregon, 2015.

Alexander and Smither consider North African Christianity excluding Egypt and the surrounding areas. While this area is admittedly later than Bauer’s focus, they intend to use the area as a test case to look at Bauer’s assumptions and methods. Bauer worked on areas with much less thorough documentation as to how Christianity
arrived and in what form. The evidence for other competing and original forms under Bauer’s magnifying glass is also scant. North Africa, though about half-a-century later, is very well documented.

In sum, Christian emergence in Roman Africa manifested considerable diversity within
a core unity; successful resistance to an established church at Rome precisely on the issue of right beliefs; and a broad commitment to a Christian experience which centered on the action of the Spirit in the world and both ‘apostolic’ and Jewish Scriptures. That is, it seems to be a microcosm of many characteristics that stand in contrast to Bauer’s reconstruction of ‘earliest Christianity.’ (p. 168)

The authors begin a review of “The Origins of North African Christianity” that probably came from both Rome and the Near East. “North African Christianity emerged quickly from 180 onward as a demographically and linguistically diverse entity.” (p. 170) It had demonstrable contact with Christianity in Asia Minor, the East, and Rome. “As it relates to Bauer’s thesis, it is worth noting that the multiple potential sources for Christianity in North Africa did not lead to multiple emergences or competing entities. That is to say, our earliest testimonies to Christianity in North Africa (180-202/3) represent clearly distinct communities….Yet the general character...from all these groups are largely indistinguishable.” (p. 170-171) This is not consistent with Bauer’s model.

The authors turn to consider what makes up the distinctive character of this region’s Christianity. Aside from its literary production, its focus on martyrdom, and use of a conciliar method for making decisions, the authors highlight the unique rural focus and longevity of the North African church. This region give a clear example of how Christianity could develop that has very distinctive characteristics but could not be considered “a new ‘competitor’ Christianity in the religious arena of the time. Ascription of such local varieties to unknown earlier versions of Christianity is invalid in the North African case since the distinctive features are reflected within diverse communities….these diverse communities shared a conscious affinity to unity and assumed apostolic continuity.” (p. 174)

Bauer made use of Tertullian several times to support his case, though he did not include the North African church in his geographical survey. So why does Bauer consider Tertullian significant? “[W]e will show why Tertullian matters to Bauer and then argue why Tertullian ought to matter more to him.” (p. 174) “Bauer depicts Tertullian as an unreliable polemicist who resides completely within a separatist community.  ....[O]f interest to Bauer because of his apparent simultaneous commitment to ‘heresy’ and ‘orthodoxy.’”(p. 175-176) Tertullian provides an example against Bauer’s Thesis that Rome had the power and influence to coerce other areas into submission to its standard of orthodoxy. This is manifest in a couple ways, first, Tertullian affirmed the core of orthodoxy even while advocating what has been described as Montanism (which he began to defend about A.D. 207). Second, Tertullian and the North African church successfully resisted and even rejected decisions and influence from the Roman church. Tertullian’s work Against Praxeas (around A.D 220) was written specifically against a Roman Bishop. That Roman bishop was a heretic espousing monarchianism and patripassionism. Through this Tertullian formulated Trinitarian vocabulary that both represented the historic teaching handed down to him, and, at the same time, forms the basis for orthodox language about the Trinity to this day. In this work he also rejected that the bishop of Rome was the divinely appointed head of the church, but that the pastor of each congregation was in reality “a Peter for his church.” (177) This North African attitude toward Rome continued through the mid 5th century.

The authors turn to consider the nature of Tertullian’s Montanism, the relevance Bauer made of this issue, and what can be gleaned from the actual documents with respect to the nature of Tertullian’s confession of faith. The fact that after Tertullian began defending Montanism he did his best work on the Trinity and made his strongest appeals to the Rule of Faith runs contrary both to Bauer and to what is generally assumed of Montanism. Tertullian demonstrates that he did not break with orthodoxy where he formally articulates what he means by the Rule of Faith at least 3 times, of which one is made before his defense of Montanism and two are after. (pre-Montanism Praescr 13, after he began defending Montanism: Virg, 1, Prax 2).