Ancient African Christianity

An Introduction to a Unique Context and Tradition

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David E. Wilhite
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , June
     2017.
     436 pages.
     $49.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780415643771.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Ancient African Christianity, David Wilhite seeks to unpack what it meant to be an African Christian in the “first millennium” (2) after the emergence of Christianity. As the subtitle of the book suggests, his goal is to investigate what is unique about African Christianity in this period. This is a question that has occupied Wilhite, beginning with his dissertation that looked at what made Tertullian African (Tertullian the African, de Gruyter, 2007) to the present work. Wilhite is drawn to this question because the Africanness of ancient African Christians has been neglected in scholarship (362).

What did it mean to be an African Christian in the first millennium of Christianity? Wilhite attempts to answer this question by first identifying the African Christians of this period as those who lived in the Roman province of Africa or Roman Africa  (located west of Egypt, including modern day Tunisia and parts of Libya, Algeria, and Morocco, which, after the fall of Rome, became Islamized in the latter part of the first millennium and was no longer known as Roman Africa). These Christians sometimes identified themselves, or were sometimes identified by others, as African Christians. Eschewing essentialist and racial designations of identity, Wilhite insists that despite the complexity of the identities of Africans in the period under consideration, there are still elements that marked out African Christianity as distinct. These include the Punic influence (seen especially in the importance of martyrdom, understanding of divinity, and Punic names); the critique of Romanitas or Romanness (seen especially in the works of Tertullian and Augustine); “rigorist” practice of Christianity (seen especially in Tertullian, Cyprian, and the Donatists); and the influence of the ecclesiology of Cyprian of Carthage (especially seen in the fierce independence of the African churches), among others. Wilhite is aware that what he sees as unique characteristics of ancient African Christianity may not be limited only to this context, but he insists, in the twelve chapters that make up this work, that any understanding of ancient African Christianity, especially its theology, will benefit from a consideration of these unique characteristics.

This is a carefully sourced book that has considered the major developments and issues in the study of ancient Roman African Christianity. These issues include rethinking the question of “heresy” and “orthodoxy” in the treatment of the Donatists and the reassessment of questions concerning the beginning and end of Donatism (195-214), Tertullian’s attitude towards a variety of issues (108-128), and the complex relationship between Christianity and Islam in the waning days of north African Christianity (321-56). Ancient African Christianity is therefore significant because it is a one-stop-shop in engaging important issues and current scholarship dealing with ancient north African Christianity.

One problem the book raises, however, is that of attributing unique identities to ancient north African Christianity. Given that many of the characteristics found in this context, such as the importance of martyrdom, the “rigorist” practice of Christianity, and fierce independence, may be found in other forms of ancient Christianity (especially next door in Egypt), why is ancient north African Christianity unique? Wilhite acknowledges this difficulty but posits, without demonstration, that they were more significant in Roman Africa compared to other places in the world at the time.

A second issue the book raises is that of map-making. First, the fact that the book has no maps makes it difficult for beginners to use (unless instructors provide maps). It therefore seems to be directed at those who are already familiar with the area under investigation, vitiating the claim that the book is also directed at non-specialists (10). Even with the description given in the book, non-specialists will have a hard time discovering where Roman Africa was located.

Related to the question of map-making is the unclear use of “African” in the title of the book. Anyone who picks up a book today and sees “African” in its title will no doubt think of contemporary Africa. Wilhite quickly dispels this view by defining the “African” he has in mind at the very beginning of the book (2-3). In his attempt to avoid an anachronistic understanding of Africa, Wilhite limits his definition of Africa to Roman Africa. However, the impetus for his work is the very contemporary quest to account for the place of Africa (based on its current map) in the history of Christianity, especially as seen in texts such as Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind (IVP Academic, 2009) and Dominque Arnauld’s Histoire du christianisme en Afrique: Les sept premiers siècles (Karthala, 2001). Wilhite tells us how Africa was understood in the ancient world but he does not tell us why it should be understood that way today. Thus, even though he wants to reclaim African Christian identity in his work, Wilhite’s African Christianity is still located within the context of Western Christianity. As he notes, “the real contribution found in the present study is that even ‘western’ Christianity needs to be further studied in terms of regional variations” (364). The African Christianity studied in this book thus appears to be a variation of western Christianity; it speaks about “Africa” without actually speaking about Africa.

This difficulty notwithstanding, scholars of both ancient and contemporary African Christianity will benefit from engaging with this book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Tonghou Ngong is associate professor of religion and theology at Stillman College.

Date of Review: 
September 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David E. Wilhite is currently professor of theology at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary.

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