Rome and the African Church in the Time of Augustine

By Bonner, Gerald | The Catholic Historical Review, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Rome and the African Church in the Time of Augustine


Bonner, Gerald, The Catholic Historical Review


Rome and the African Church in the Time of Augustine. By J. E. Merdinger. (New Haven:Yale University Press. 1997. Pp. xvi, 267. $40.00.)

The theme of this book is more limited than the title would suggest. Dr. Merdinger is concerned with African appeals to Rome, upon which her verdict is that "the pope's advice was eagerly solicited by Augustine and his colleagues in some cases, whereas at other times they were very disturbed by papal interference in what they considered to be a strictly intramural affair" (p. ix). This may sound like ecclesiastical opportunism; but in the fifth century the powers and immunities of individual ecclesiastical provinces were less clearly defined than they were later to become and need to be evaluated by contemporary circumstances and not by the assumptions of later ages. A century ago, Englishspeaking scholars of different communions, like E W. Puller and John Chapman, although immensely learned, interpreted the events of the patristic age in the light of the ecclesiological beliefs of their own communions. At the end of the twentieth century we can recognize that the Fathers did not anticipate either the Reformation or the Vatican Council of 1870. Canon law was in its infancy, though ecclesiastics were beginning to acquire an interest in exploiting it. One may regret that Merdinger, in her introductory chapter, does not say something about the development of canonical legislation in the fourth and fifth centuries: of the Macedonian bishop Sabinus, who made a collection of conciliar decrees favoring his own party (Socrates, HE I, 8); of Basil of Caesarea, writing his canonical letters to Amphilocius; of Theophilus of Alexandria denouncing John Chrysostom, whom he believed, wrongly, to have received into communion the Four Tall Brethren, whom Theophilus had expelled from Egypt: "I think you know the regulations of the canons of Nicaea, which forbid a bishop to judge a dispute outside his own area. If not, please learn them and keep clear of complaint against me. If I am to be judged it should be by Egyptians, and not by you, who are seventy-five days' journey away" (Palladius, Dialog. 7). Chrysostom was himself to rebuke Epiphanius of Cyprus for uncanonical behavior in ordaining a man in Constantinople without securing John's authorization (Socrates, HE VI, 14). Bishops, sensitive to their prerogatives, could now appeal to conciliar decrees, and especially to those of the great and holy synod of Nicaea, to uphold their rights. The Africans were no exception to this rule, despite a general regard and affection for the Roman see.

Merdinger's book falls into two parts. In the first, after an introductory general chapter, she deals with the background to the fifth century in the persons of three distinguished theologians: Tertullian, Cyprian, and Optatus of Milevis, all of whom, in different ways, illustrate the attitude of the African Church to Rome: respect, combined with independence. In this context she might have made more of the behavior of the African bishops in the condemnation of Pelagius as illustrating the African attitude to Rome. The Africans were happy enough to appeal to Pope Innocent I to excommunicate Pelagius and Caelestius (neither of whom, it may be observed, was a member of their own Church), but when Innocent's successor, Zosimus, sought to reopen the case, they flatly opposed him. Augustine was never more the canon-lawyer manque than in his famous declaration: 'hvo councils have already sent letters to the Apostolic See; rescripts have been received; causa finita est-`leave to appeal refused"' (Serm. 131, 10). Merdinger sees Augustine, if not necessarily as the initiator of the reforming Council of Hippo of 393, as E L. Cross believed, then at least as the enthusiastic collaborator of Aurelius of Carthage in that enterprise (p. 66).

The second part of Merdinger's study concerns the legal aspect of the relations between North Africa and the papacy in Augustine's time. …

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