Intro to North African Patristics

The North African Church gave Latin Christianity some of its most influential writers during the late antique period.  The most famous of these writers is Augustine of Hippo.  After his death in 432, the North African church falls into obscurity, harassed by Vandal overlords.

This at least, is the perspective of modern writers.  For the early medieval Christian, however, North Africa continued to produce prolific and influential writers such as  Fulgentius of Ruspe and Victor of Vite.  Eventually, the province was reincorporated into the Roman Empire by Justinian’s general Belisarius, and its bishops were able to participate in the great debates shaping theology in the East during the three chapters controversy.  It is from this province that the Heraclian dynasty, which recaptured Syria and Palestine from Persia, originated.  During their rule, several writers later revered by Byzantine Christianity were exiled to North Africa for a time, among them Maximos the Confessor and Sophronios of Jerusalem.  Sophronios eventually gave the keys of Jerusalem over to Muslim conquerors, and in a few short years, the Muslim empire encompassed North Africa to the Atlantic ocean.  After this time, our information on North African Christianity becomes scant.  Those who were able emigrated to Sicily and Sardinia, Southern Gaul, and Spain.

Spain, in fact, becomes the primary heir of the spirit of North African Christianity.  Although writers in Southern Gaul fought over the merits of Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, and Augustinian predestination, it was Spanish writers who refused to be drawn into such particularised debates.  They managed to keep the theology of the province in a more or less balanced fashion.

Because my interest lays in the theology of the Visigothic and Mozarabic Spaniards, a passing knowledge of the themes taken up by the North African fathers is helpful.  One current of thought which may have passed to Toledo from Carthage concerns the matter of the Filioque clause (although this is more likely to have come from Africa via Southern Gaul); another concerns the unity of the Body of Christ with the Word.  With this in mind, then, we can focus our chronological examination of North African writers, and survey their positions regarding the relationship of individual, church and Trinity, particularly as this relates to communion or the achievement of unity between them.  How is the individual incorporated into the Church?  How are the individual churches of Africa, Rome, Asia to be considered one?  What secures their unity?  How are the persons of the Trinity One God?

Although i do not attempt a synthesis of a single North African school of thought on these issues, I can point to certain recurring themes.  The role of the Holy Spirit in effecting the communion of the individual with God and in vivifying the Church is paramount.  The Holy Spirit is also responsible for providing god’s gift of grace to the individual through the Church, and in so doing incorporates the believer into the Church.  Chief among these gifts is charity, and it is charity, safeguarded by the bond of peace, which allows the various local Churches to enter into communion with one another.  The Holy Spirit is also allowed to act in the world as a result of the charity manifested by the church in her individual members.  On these topics, a broad consensus exists between all North African Fathers, and through them these ideas percolate to the rest of the Latin speaking Christian world.

This is not to say these ideas are uniquely North African.  Because the writers constantly refer to writings which tradition had handed down to them, most of which became Scripture to us, the themes and images they take up are shared by other Christians both inside the Empire and outside it (in Persia, Armenia, and Ethiopia, for example).  However, their manner of synthesis remained influential on Western writers until the Central Middle Ages.

The place of the Holy Spirit within Trinitarian life, however, is more complex.  It is this vexing question which still occupies theologians concerned with the divergence between Eastern and Western approaches to Trinitarian theology.  In some times, all blame has come down on Augustine for misleading Latins into their Filioquian ideology.  Yet we must keep in mind that Augustine was not novel in his claims, and he partook of a tradition which existed already, both in his province of Africa, and in Southern Gaul.

In taking up the question, we must confront a certain ambiguity.  The term “Spirit” can refer either to the entire Godhead, or to the third person of that Godhead.  This is especially true in the case of earlier writers.  By the time of Augustine, it seems an analogy is drawn between the mission which the Holy Spirit fulfills in the Church and in the individual soul on the one hand, with the function of the Paraclete within the Divine Life itself.

Subsequent to Augustine, the implications of this analogy are traced out into a unified movement from God the Father to the individual:  The Holy Spirit, as the gift of the Father to the Son, is sent by Jesus to the Church, in order to enliven the Church by the provision of grace, which is itself a divine thing, and by which that love with which we love God is poured into the heart of the individual Christian.  The Spanish Church Fathers will take up the question of the movement of the Holy Spirit from the Word to the Body of Christ more fully.

Finally, as the twilight of Christian North Africa approaches, Maximos the Confessor relates this development to the image of the Church as the body of Christ, who is now defined as possessing two energia, human and divine.  This contrasts with the Spanish approach of the Church as body of Christ because she is the bride of Christ, and a bride bonded by a bond of love, manifested by peace within the Church.  The two approaches are not irreconcilable, as the later Eastern development and incorporation of Maximos’ thought into the doctrine of theosis reveals.

Such then, are the broad outlines I have been able to distill from the writers we will present in subsequent posts.  The manner in which the Church Fathers “did” theology was holisitic.  theology was one indivisible whole, oriented towards the communion of God and humanity via the medium of Divine revelation.  (Peter Brown makes a nice case of this shift in emphasis from philosophical dialectic to revelation in his essay on The World of Late Antiquity, Chapter 2, section iv).  The theologians of the ancient world were aware of this, so that even in works which would appear to fall into a neat category (e.g. “On the Holy Spirit”), we find very clear connexions to other fields of (modern) theology, such as ecclesiology.

I have tried to parse out these themes into the three broad topics I mentioned at the outset, namely Trinity, Church, and Individual, without doing too much violence to the integrity or coherence of the author’s thought.  the order in which I examine these topics, however, varies from author to author, depending on the priorities which concern him during his tenure or lifetime.