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The Catholic Historical Review 90.1 (2004) 98-100
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Christ in Celtic Christianity: Britain and Ireland from the Fifth to the Tenth Century. By Michael W. Herren and Shirley Ann Brown. [Studies in Celtic History, XX.] (Rochester, New York: Boydell Press. 2002. Pp. xii, 319. $75.00.) [End Page 98]
This book examines the hypothesis that the literary and visual images of Christ in the early churches of Britain and Ireland were formed in a context that was profoundly influenced by Pelagianism. The extent of the Pelagian heresy in the British Isles is not agreed by historians of the period, with some arguing that the evidence is just too thin to make any definitive statements. Certainly the authors here base some of their own arguments on silences as well as surviving evidence. Although some might find this a controversial approach, this book presents a nuanced and very well researched argument for a coherent Christology current in the early churches of the British Isles.
The book is divided into seven chapters. The first chapter is a clearly written description of the development of monasticism in the British Isles between 400 and about 850. The second chapter examines the theology of Christ in Insular theology, while the third examines the evidence for the Pelagian heresy in Britain and Ireland. The fourth chapter is devoted to the arguments for a Common Celtic Church. The second half of the book then moves to examining the images of Christ as found throughout the areas included within this Common Celtic Church. Literary images are that of Christ the perfect monk, the Heroic Christ, Christ the worker of miracles, and Christ the Judge. The final two substantive chapters describe in detail the surviving visual images of Christ, both nonrepresentational and representational.
Herren and Brown make no claims for finding previously unknown evidence for Pelagianism. What they do is to examine literary and visual evidence and argue that there was enough in common between the practices of Irish and British churches from the fifth and mid-seventh centuries to suggest that there was a "common Celtic church" at this time under the influence of Pelagian or semi-Pelagian theologies. They are careful not to push this argument too far and to put qualifiers on the definition of this "common Celtic church." This argument is bound to find both critics and supporters; however, it is an important contribution to the field.
One of the pleasing features of this book is the accessible style in which it is presented. While setting out complex historical and theological arguments, the authors have been very careful to ensure that all terms, sources, people, and historical events are introduced and thoroughly explained. For the non-specialist this book thus provides a coherent explanation of Pelagius and the context in which he and his followers operated as well as a history of the early British and Irish churches.
In keeping with their stated intention of making the book accessible, the authors and their publisher have also included a substantial section of source material in the original languages at the end of each chapter. This both cuts down on the bulk of the excellent footnotes and ensures that the quotes used in the body of the argument can be read in context. The chapters on the visual evidence are accompanied by plentiful black and white plates as well as line drawings. [End Page 99]
Overall this is an important book, and its argument on the significance of Pelagianism will need to be considered by all those writing on the early church in Britain and Ireland in the future.
University of Melbourne