The Uniquely African Controversy: Studies on Donatist Christianity

African Controvery

Anthony Dupont, Matthew Alan Gaumer, and Mathijs Lamberigts are the editors for the edited volume, The Uniquely African Controversy: Studies on Donatist Christianity. This edited volume provides a much needed resource in Donatist studies. David G. Hunter comments on how the volume managed to assemble “a wide range of experts from a variety of disciplinary and cross-disciplinary perspectives.” (vii) He then speaks of the “rich and remarkably diverse set of approaches to the central problem of ‘Donatist’ Christianity: legal, paleographical, Biblical, literary, socio-economic, and, of course, historical-theological.” (vii) The volume’s breadth and depth is apparent from the beginning.

There are seventeen articles in the volume. The range of contributors along with the scope of the project is breathtaking. There are articles from seasoned experts like Maureen Tilley and relative newcomers like Alden Bass. (vii) It tackles a range of issues such as martyrdom, patron-client relationships, pre-baptismal exsufflation, and critical readings of Augustine and Optatus. Because of space constraints, I will restrict my review to an article written by Maureen Tilley. Maureen Tilley is one of the leading experts in Donatism and her contribution to the field cannot be properly expressed. Her recent passing highlights the massive void that she leaves behind and the beautiful legacy that she has imparted to all the scholars who wish to interact with Donatist studies.

Maureen Tilley remarked in 2010 that “studying Donatists and Donatism needs to be more sophisticated.” (127) Her article in the volume, “African Asceticism: The Donatist Heritage”, is a further exploration of this statement. There are two avenues of approach that she advocates: “i) a movement away from the merely political and economic to the religious combined with the political, and ii) an interest in developments within Donatism as the political and religious landscape changed between 303 and 420.” (127) She observes that the asceticism practiced by the Roman Catholics and the Donatists were incredibly similar. As a result, some Donatist sermons were misattributed to Roman Catholic writers for many years. (128) It is worth noting that asceticism in North Africa was prevalent. Roman Catholics and Donatists incorporated ascetic practices within their own communities. How these ascetic practices manifested themselves slightly differed between the two groups. For example, the practice of celibacy “had a long and venerable history. … Virgins had special status within the church and were at least sometimes financially supported by the church community.” (128) Yet, when it comes to how this was observed, the “Donatists were stricter about distinctive garb than Catholics.” (129) While both group shared similar beliefs, how their beliefs were manifested within their particular church culture differed.

Closely connected with asceticism is the act of suicide. “To consider suicide as an ascetic act, we need to consider the connection between martyrdom and suicide. Martyrdom was a respectable death among all Christians in North Africa, (sic) Suicide as an honorable death had a long history within North Africa generally where revered military heroes preferred suicide to capture and loss of honor.”(135) When forced to decide between committing a dishonourable act or to commit suicide, suicide is seen as the preferred option. For example, “Dido was held up as an example that it was better to burn one’s self than submit to a second marriage.” (135) By engaging in this behaviour, the Donatists are trying to display their shared heritage with the long line of martyrs who chose death over denying or disobeying Christ.

Tilley’s article challenges the myth that Donatism is a static movement that did not change along with the political and religious events of the time. Instead of thinking about Donatism, perhaps we need to start thinking about Donatisms. Too often, when looking at theological disputes, we can sometimes forget that theology and its expressions are also affected by political, social, and economic reasons. Tilley urges us not to make the mistake of thinking that theology happens in a vacuum.

This edited volume is full of other notable mentions. Oftentimes, edited volumes can feel like it is a collection of articles haphazardly collected and forced to fit some sort of structure resembling something cohesive. This edited volume reads and flows like a book; each article builds upon each other and manages to show a vision of Donatism that is both robust and innovative. It treats the subject matter in a serious but creative way. Its desire to approach the issue through various lenses makes it highly engaging for the reader as they are put through the paces of looking at Donatism with new eyes and fresh insights. This is a piece of work that deserves to be in the book shelf of anyone who is seriously interested in learning more about Donatism.


Sid D. Sudiacal, PhD Candidate

McMaster Divinity College, Canada

Categories: (H) Book Review

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