K:JNWTS 31/1 (May 2016): 40
J. Patout Burns, Jr. and Robin M. Jensen, Christianity in Roman Africa: The Development of its Practices and Beliefs. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014. 670pp. Cloth. 978-0-8028-6931-9. $55.
This large volume is a review of the practice of Christianity in North Africa (excluding Libya and Egypt) during the first six centuries—that is, essentially the Roman period (180-455 A.D.), succeeded by the era of the Vandals (455-533) and the Byzantine states (533-698), to the spread of Islam (698). It treats the sacramental theology especially of the North African figures from Tertullian (ca. 160-225 A.D.) to Maximus the Confessor (ca. 580-662 A.D.). The book is not a survey of the history of doctrine for this period (though it does contain brief surveys of the historical and doctrinal narrative); rather the work is a detailed examination of the two distinctive Christian rituals (baptism and the Lord's Supper) from the surviving archaeology of the region (there is a beautiful section of 154 color plates featuring these remains) and the extant works of the Christian writers of this period (especially those native to North Africa, i.e., Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine, etc.).
After more than 500 pages of meticulous detail (very thoroughly footnoted) on the ritual practice of baptism (including infant baptism, cf. pp. 110, 168, 179-80, 212, 229f.) and the eucharist, one longs for the simplicity of NT worship and practice in the first century A.D. While this volume may not be intended as an apology for Roman Catholic sacerdotalism (Jesuit, J. Patout Burns, Jr., notwithstanding), it details the ritualistic superstition and rigamarole which entered the Christian communion from contemporary Roman pagan culture (cf. especially the telltale second paragraph on p. 233). All of which reinforces the observation that the church in North Africa from the late third century on was influenced by attenuation—that is, the syncretism of NT Christian worship to Roman imperial cult ritualism. Sadly, the pagan worldly culture with its superstitious religious rites pressed its stamp and image upon the church, and, more sadly, the church conformed to its world (the "present age" at the time).
We can only observe (and 600 plus pages confirm) that in the North African church's conforming to the (Roman) age, she was deforming the inspired and sole-sufficient Word of God. All of which causes those of the Calvinistic Reformation to rejoice in the re-discovery of the plain simplicity of NT worship and sacramental practice, while abandoning the "rags" and rituals of "popery".
—James T. Dennison, Jr.