by Alan Kreider
Paper presented at
Mennonite-Roman Catholic international dialogue
Anabaptists from their origins 475 years ago have had an uneasy relationship to the Early Church. One can sense this in an interchange that took place in Bruges in 1559 between Anabaptist candlemaker Jacques de Roore and his inquisitor, Friar Cornelis. Friar Cornelis repeated a charge which Anabaptists often encountered – they were in error because they ignored the witness of the fathers of the church. According to the account in Martyrs’ Mirror Fr Cornelis extolled the virtues of “St Ambrose, St Jerome, St Augustine, St Gregory” and nine other fathers whose names he reeled off. The candlemaker Jacques responded: “We [Anabaptists] are satisfied with the simple holy Scriptures; for all that is necessary for us to know for our salvation we find abundantly contained in them, and we need not to search the doctrines of men” (Martyrs’ Mirror 774ff). In this brusque answer Jacques was enunciating the Anabaptists’ general approach: the Bible is sufficient, and tradition – including the fathers of the early church – is superfluous to salvation and thus expendable.
However, the Martyrs’ Mirror records a second Anabaptist approach. Ten years after Jacques the candlemaker, another Jacques, the peddler Jacques d’Auchy, was being interrogated for heresy in Leeuwarden (Martyrs’ Mirror 600, 602). This Jacques, like the previous Jacques (and parenthetically the stereotypic Anabaptist in Voltaire’s Candide was named Jacques!), was informed by a priestly inquisitor that his error resulted from ignoring the fathers. Jacques’s first response was similar to the one we have already encountered: “I do not reject [the fathers], but I leave them undisturbed; for I find material enough in the Word of God to lay a good foundation.” But then Jacques began a new line of argument. On the basis of his own reading of the early Christian writers, he began to challenge the inquisitor’s understandings. “You yourself, my lord, know full well what Eusebius, one of the ancient fathers, writes in the eighth chapter of his fourth book. In writing of the primitive church, in what suffering and contempt they were, does he not say that the people regarded them as robbers, murderers, infanticides, and abominable men, and said that they committed incest with their mothers and sisters, shed human blood in their worship, and sacrificed their children unto idols; they were also considered seditious persons, accursed villains, and enemies of God and every creature, and were charged with many other wickednesses imputed to them by the world. Is it not so, my lord? As also the ancient writers Cyprian and Tertullian write.” This second Jacques, to be sure, was an Anabaptist, whose primary concern was to be faithful to the early Christian vision as recorded in the Bible; but he obviously had read some of the fathers and was eager to discuss what they said with people who disagreed with him.
It is self-evident that this second part of the Anabaptist tradition has been vastly weaker than the first. But I find it significant. As Walter Klaassen has documented, the Anabaptist tradition has from the beginning been suspicious of “Constantinian Christianity” (Klaassen 1981); as will emerge in a moment I have some sympathy with that suspicion. The Anabaptist tradition has always accorded a higher authority to Scripture than to tradition; I agree with that as well. But I regret that people in our tradition (for we Anabaptists have one, too) have often spoken in ignorance. We have made judgements about the fathers without taking the trouble to acquaint ourselves with their writings. In my view, this negligence has wounded the Anabaptist tradition. It has deprived us of rich resources which might open to us new possibilities that would help us where we are weak, call us to repentance, and inspire us to be more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. We might also find in the early Christians a common ground to share with sympathetic spirits in other traditions, including many Roman Catholics. Furthermore, since a reading of early Christian history from an Anabaptist perspective would, I believe, yield certain distinctive perspectives, our failure to give serious study to the fathers has arguably deprived the wider Christian world of insights that might become a blessing to others. I now sense among Anabaptist Christians an awakening interest in the early church, and for this I thank God.
I myself am a mature convert to the study of early Christianity. In recent years I have been drawn to examine Christianity’s early centuries through the lens of conversion (Kreider 1999). Related to this overarching interest has been a series of secondary investigations into the early Christian approaches to baptism, warfare, wealth, and the oath. I have found all of these studies to be intriguing; I have also found them deeply challenging to my faith and practice. In each of these areas of investigation I have found impressive continuities across the first five centuries of Christian history; I have also found changes – changes of understanding and changes of practice – as the centuries went by and especially in the two hundred years after the conversion of the emperor Constantine I. In this paper I would like to look briefly at some of these areas of continuity and change, especially with reference to my primary interest, conversion.
“Conversion”: the etymology of its ancient words (epistrepho, metanoia, conversio) all denote change. So also does its use in many languages today. But change of what? The classic studies of conversion in antiquity often restrict their attention. Thus Kurt Aland studied Glaubenswechsel – change of belief (Aland 1961); Arthur Darby Nock spoke of a “reorientation of the soul of the believer” (Nock 1933:7). But it is clear that the early Christians conversion meant more than beliefs. Recent scholars have pointed to other areas of change: Ramsay MacMullen has explored the dimension of experience, often involving supernatural power (MacMullen 1983); Wayne Meeks has concentrated on the area of belonging, involving the transfer of adherence to a new community (Meeks 1993). Roman Catholic writers , alert to the intiatory renewal expressing itself notably in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), have emphasised the dimension of ritual in conversion(Finn 1993; Harmless 1995). In my writing I, in the Anabaptist tradition, have highlighted changes of behaviour and lifestyle. But to do justice to the meaning of conversion to the early Christians I believe we must combine these emphases. So when I speak of conversion I mean a process of multidimensional change involving the candidate’s beliefs, sense of belonging, and behaviour, in a context of religious experience and brought to a climax in ritual. Belief, belonging, behaviour, experience, ritual – all are important if we wish to understand early Christian conversion.
To see these factors in operation, let us look briefly at the conversion of two early Christans. Justin was a Palestinian who became a Christian and moved to Rome where he became a significant thinker and teacher; he was martyred in 165. In passages scattered through Justin’s writing we can get an impression of what had been important in his conversion (Trypho 2-8; 2 Apol 12). For the young Justin, a world-traveler on a religious search, the discovery of liberating belief was obviously important: the sense that ancient prophecies had been fulfilled in the coming of God’s Son, Jesus Christ; also the awe-inspiring, “terrible power” of Christ’s words, which could free humans from necessity and compulsions. Coupled with these were the rites of Christian baptism, in which Justin had been washed, and which culminated in his incorporation in a new locus of belonging, a community of “those who are called brothers” (1 Apol 61). Equally important was the teaching which Justin received, and later passed on, which attempted to apply Christ’s teaching to areas of human behaviour which are often areas of compulsive preoccupation – sex, the occult, acquisitive materialism, xenophobic violence . In each of these areas, the church’s appropriation of Christ’s teaching enabled Christians to live as free people whose lives, and whose common life, were extraordinary (1 Apol 14). Justin does not say much about the experiential dimension of conversion, but we can infer from his baptismal language (rebirth, washing, illumination) as well as from his own testimony (“a flame was kindled in my soul” [Trypho 2.8]) that in the process of conversion he, like other early Christians, had been touched at the depths of his emotions.
A second conversion story is that of Cyprian, who in the mid third century was the leading bishop in the North African church and who was martyred in 258. Like Justin, Cyprian grew up in a pagan family. But Cyprian’s family was exceptionally privileged, and he developed into a patrician rhetor who had all of the benefits of his class – “sumptuous feasts”, costly clothing that glittered “in gold and purple”, a fawning retinue of retainers (Ad Donatum 2-8). But despite wealth, power and prominence, Cyprian was unhappy. He observed the Christians, such as Caecilianus, whose lives had the freedom of contentment. His life, he knew, was full of “gilded torments”; but could he, a “slave of luxury,” become free? Typical of the people of his class, he was imprisoned by his prosperity, which had taken hold of his inner being; luxury was “actually a part of me . . . and indigenous to me”. Cyprian’s concern was not about belief; he was not worried whether he could believe what the Christians believed. He, at least in his written account, was not primarily concerned about belonging, whether he could associate with a suspect movement made up of all social classes. No, Cyprian’s concern was with behaviour: could he live as they lived? Could he simplify his life? Could he share his possessions? Could he change? Through his time as a catechumen, in which he learned to “love the poor” (Vita Cypriani 4, 6), Cyprian began to change. But it was especially in ritual, in the waters of baptism, Cyprian reported, that he received the power to change. In the washing of baptism, “by the agency of the Holy Spirit,” Cyprian experienced “a second birth”, as a result of which things that had been impossible became possible. Even an aristocrat could change. Cyprian like other Christians could give his goods to the poor; he could dress in simple clothing; he could live without fear of death. The converted Cyprian, in his own words, had become “a new man.”
Through conversion, Justin and Cyprian, no doubt like innumerable early Christians about whom we know nothing, underwent change in belief, belonging and behaviour. For them conversion meant becoming extraordinary. Through conversion they joined an alternative community living by deviant values. Through conversion they had become resident aliens (paroikoi); they had become odd. Their conversion had involved what Wayne Meeks has called “resocializing into an alternative community” (Meeks 1993:12), rehabituating people into the ways of a community which was socially inclusive locally and was globally aware, re-reflexing people so they would live by the teachings of Jesus Christ.
By converting to Christianity people became vulnerable to persecution. Lethal persecution was relatively rare in the Roman empire; it was far less likely that a Christian would be fed to leopards in the amphitheatre than that they would be subjected to harassment by supicious neighbours. A frequent epithet used for adherents of the Christian superstitio was “insane”(Passio Scillitanorum 8; Martyrdom of Agape, Irene and Chione 3; Justin 1 Apol 13). The Christians, having departed from the dominant solidarities and values of ancient society, were suspect of all sorts of enormities. They were rumour-worthy. They were question-posing. Why, people wondered, do they meet secretly at night for meals? What do they eat? Why do they exchange a kiss across lines of class and gender? Why do they share their wealth? Why do they refuse to admit soldiers who kill? Why do they provide decent burial for the poorest members? Why do they rescue unwanted babies – especially useless, unproductive, female babies – from the refuse tip? Why do they have a disproportionate number of women? To many of these questions, pagan critics could give answers that imputed nefarious motives to the Christians. At times, rumours such as these could enable people to whip up local populaces into pogrom-making fury.
Nevertheless, despite persecution, despite the opprobium that adherence to Christianity could bring upon a convert, the Christian church grew rapidly. Recent estimates by scholars indicate that by the eve of the legalization of Christianity in 312 there were over five million Christians scattered unevenly throughout the Roman empire (Stark 1996:7). This is approximately one sixth of the imperial populace, a remarkable figure. But conversion at this rate, though remarkable, is credible; as Rodney Stark points out, it presupposes an average conversion rate of 40 per cent per decade, which is the rate of growth of the Mormon church in the past century (Ibid 7). Early Christian growth, like the recent growth of the Mormons, came about as a result of millions of conversions.
How did these conversion take place? Not as a result of attractive worship services. From the time of Nero onwards the Christian churches adopted a policy of excluding all but baptized believers from their eucharists, and all but believers and catechumens from their services of the word. Christian worship was for the Christians themselves; their services were occasions to worship God, not to attract outsiders (Kreider 1995:9). Nor did conversions happen as a result of the Christians’ public witness: Christianity was an illegal superstitio; its adherents could not speak in the public forum. To be sure, the early Christians produced some apologists, who gave account of the faith and practice of the Christian communities, for the edification of the members of those communities and if possible as a means of communicating to interested outsiders. The Christians also spoke of their faith quietly, privately. As a pagan critic put it, “the Christians are silent in public, chattering in corners” (Caecilius, in Minucius Felix,Octavius 8.4). And people listened to them because Christians lived in ways that were distinctive and attractive. As Minucius Felix put it: “We do not preach distinctive things; we live them!” (Ibid 38.6) An early fourth-century Egyptian church order, the Canons of Hippolytus (19), urged: “May [the lives of Christians] shine with virtue, not before each other [only], but also before the Gentiles so they may imitate them and become Christians.” This cannot have been easy; there is evidence of numerous cases in which Christians did not live out the vision of their communities. And yet the writers also reported that conversion had changed people, in ways that were intriguingly attractive. Illustrative of this is the North African pagan husband of a Christian wife who “knows her changed for the better: thus even he himself is . . . a candidate for God” (Tertullian, To His Wife 2.7).
For people to be converted in this manner, the early Christians relied upon a life-transforming conversion process. This took differing shape as it developed in various parts of the empire. Our most precious indication of this is the third-century Apostolic Tradition, which seems to reflect practices in North Africa as well as Rome. From it and other – primarily fourth-century – documents, Roman Catholic pastoral theologians have developed the RCIA, which has had transforming influence on the initiatory practices of many denominations today, including the Mennonite Church in the USA(Versluis 1995). Catholic scholars have noted four stages in this conversion process as it functioned in the third and fourth centuries.
Stage 1. Evangelization: in this stage Christians made initial contacts with the potential convert. Often a Christian’s life, or even the Christian community, was profoundly attractive to a non-Christian, who asked a Christian to be his sponsor (assuming a male candidate), introducing him to the church.
Stage 2. Catechumenate: the candidate needed to withstand an initial scrutiny of his motivation, his marital status, and his work to establish whether “he was capable of hearing the word.” The church’s leaders were convinced that people who did certain kinds of things – sculptors who made idols, soldiers who killed – were unable to understand the church’s message and to fit into the extraordinary community that they were seeking to join. For a considerable time – up to three years in the Apostolic Tradition, up to five years in Spain (Canons of Elvira 11) – the candidate, accompanied by the sponsor, would every morning go to a catechetical session. In these sessions they were taught the narratives of the Christian tradition; they also were taught how Christians were to behave. At this stage, behavioural change was the primary emphasis; the catechumens were being rehabituated to fit in with the values of the Christian community. They might move beyond the catechumenate only when their sponsors had borne testimony to them in a second scrutiny. Have they, like Cyprian, been willing to change their lifestyle and priorities?
Have they lived good lives when they were catechumens? Have they honoured the widows? Have they honoured the sick? Have they done every kind of good work? (Apostolic Tradition 21)
When those who brought them could bear witness to each, “He [or she] has,” they were able to move into stage 3.
Stage 3. Enlightenment: this stage, in the weeks prior to Easter, was a time for teaching the candidates what Christians believe, for imparting to them “the gospel”, and probably for equipping them with the creed and teaching them the Lord’s Prayer. It also was a time for repeated exorcisms – a “detoxification of the dominant order” (Willimon 1992: 59). This stage, enlightenment, came to a climax in powerful rituals of the Easter vigil, in which the candidates disrobed, were anointed, were immersed three times in water in the name of the Trinity, and emerged as people who belonged. This belonging was expressed through common prayer with the people of God, sharing in the kiss of peace, and communing in the eucharist. And this was not the end: now each candidate – now become one of the “faithful” – “shall hasten to do good works.”
Stage 4. Mystagogy: there was a fourth stage, which the Apostolic Tradition hints at (22). “If there is anything else [about baptism or the eucharist] which ought to be said, the bishop shall say it privately to those who have received baptism.” This postbaptismal instruction in the inner meaning of the rites was greatly developed in the following century, when it came to be known rather elegantly as the mystagogical catecheses.
What are we to make of this succession of rites and practices? Many things stand out: the stand-offishness of the church at accepting new candidates, each of which needed to be carefully vetted before being admitted to the catechumenate; the catecheses’ emphasis not on concepts but on behaviour; the involvement of the entire community, through the presence of the sponsors, in modeling Christian behaviour and encouraging the candidates’ re-reflexing; the overwhelming ritual power of the initiatory liturgy in the Easter vigil; and the sense of belonging, of homecoming, in the neophytes’ first communion. The Anabaptist mind is likely to be somewhat mystified by the ritual complexity of this conversion process, but absolutely compelled by its ethical seriousness. For everything in it was designed to secure the formation of Christian people whose lives, and whose communal life, would be extraordinary, question-posing, and which might thus lead to church growth without compulsion, by natural means of attraction.
Of course, not all Christians lived as the catechists taught. Cyprian was offended by the luxury of Carthaginian women (Of Alms and Works 14); Origen reported that people gossipped during services in house churches (Hom on Exodus 12.2); the third-century church order called the Didascalia Apostolorum (2.61) complained that people avoided coming to church for fear of being asked to support the church’s poor people. Furthermore, the inculturation of the gospel in the Greco-Roman culture was inevitably taking place. At its best, the Christians were finding sympathetic analogues to the gospel in the ideas and symbols of antique society (Wessels 1991:31-36). As the third century proceeded, the growth of the church became formidable, and growing numbers of influential people, even decurions, were joining the church (Wischmeyer 1992). But even these could behave in ways that were extraordinary. When a Roman official was interrogating Bishop Phileas of Thmouis, the official commented enviously that Phileas was rich enough “to feed and take care not only of yourself but of the whole city.” But Phileas remained extraordinary. Even when his interrogator pressured him, he would not swear an oath: “It is not permitted to us to swear. For the holy divine scripture declares, ‘Let your yes be yes and your no, no.’” (Acts of Phileas 5, 11). For his inconvenient extraordinariness Phileas was executed in 306 or 307.
In the early fourth century, the Christians in the Roman empire were tested by the severe empire-wide persecution which consumed Phileas. This persecution ended in 312 with Constantine I’s victory at the Milvian Bridge on the edge of Rome and his decision to grant toleration to the Christians. After the issue the Edict of Milan, Christianity was no longer a superstition; it, like many other religions in the Empire (various paganisms and Judaism) was a religio licita. Soon the emperor, according to his biographer Eusebius, was admitting his own pro-Christian bias. Constantine admitted Christian bishops to his entourage; he gave tax breaks to Christian clergy; he presided at the ecumenical Christian council of Nicaea; he subsidized the construction of splendid basilicas in various parts of the empire; and, with the collaboration of his mother Helena, he fostered Christian archaeology in Jerusalem.
But Constantine has always been controversial. Historians have debated whether Constantine was converted. Cynics, who view Constantine as an areligious opportunist, contend with Constantine’s apologists, who view him as having had “a moment of psychological conviction” after his vision and dream in 312, when he had had his famous vision of the sign of the cross in which he was to conquer (Kee 1982; Barnes 1981:43). I agree with neither approach. I prefer to consider Constantine’s story in terms of the well-established Christian processes of conversion. If one does this, three things stand out. First, Constantine was not “converted” in 312. According to Eusebius, remained an outsider until his last year. He may have presided at the council at Nicaea, but he was not allowed to attend Christian services (Vita Constantini 4.22). Second, in 337, when Constantine sensed that he was approaching death and applied for baptism, the church authorities required him to go through the well-established four-stage conversion process. Constantine’s approach to the churchmen was suitably contrite. He expressed his desire to “be destined henceforth to associate with the people of God and unite with them in prayer as a member of the church.” Further, in the early Christian tradition he also promised to change his lifestyle: “I will prescribe to myself from this time such a course of life as befits his service” (Vita Constantini 4.61-62). The churchmen, who must have been amazed, if not bemused, at what was happening, made Constantine a catechumen, gave him the “necessary instructions” (how much one would like to know what they taught him) and baptized him (Batiffol 1913; Yarnold 1993; Kreider 1999:36-37). Third, Constantine’s experience in the baptismal ritual was powerful: he was “astonished at the manifestation of the power of God.” And, in response, he changed his lifestyle. In keeping with the early Christian rejection of luxury, he refused “to clothe himself with the purple any more” (Vita Constantini 4.62). Whereupon, within a few weeks, this great, transitional figure died.
Constantine’s conversion didn’t immediately change everything. But some changes soon made a big difference for the Christian communities. For one thing, Christians were no longer subject to persecution. Constantine opposed religious compulsion (“It is one thing voluntarily to undertake the conflict for immortality, another to compel others to do so from the fear of punishment” [Vita Constantini 2.60]). Throughout his reign and for much of the fourth century there was a competitive religious environment, in which Christianity had to contend with Judaism and certain forms of paganism that were still vital (Meeks and Wilken 1978). But even in the fourth century, Christianity now enjoyed distinct advantages against its competitors. Except for a brief period under emperor Julian I (361-363), after Constantine I Christianity was the emperor’s religion: it was good for one’s career at court, and even increasingly for one’s standing in local society, to be known as a Christian. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the church began to grow even more rapidly. Throughout the fourth century conversions burgeoned in number. Finally the upper classes began to convert, even the last group to hold out against Christianity – aristocratic males (Brown 1972). There was an understandable fear among churchmen that converts were lacking in integrity. In Jerusalem Cyril was aware of this; so also in North Africa was Augustine of Hippo, who regretted that there was a “host of depraved persons who in mobs fill the churches in a bodily sense only” (Cyril, Cat 1.5; Augustine, De Cat Rud 7.12). Whatever the motivation of its members, which had always been various, the one uncontrovertible statement that one can make about the post-Constantinian church was that it was now big.
Bigness, of course, brought a new range of problems, and many aspects of the church’s life were forced to change. The churches’ worship underwent what Orthodox liturgiologist Alexander Schmemann has called “amplification” (Schmemann 1975:93). This was a great period for the emergence of forms of worship that could be at home in huge basilicas; the rhetorical sermon came into its own, and churchmen invented new dramatic liturgical gestures such as the offertory procession. At the same time, the more intimate, relational forms of worship atrophied. Ambrose was aware of this. He critically surveyed developments in Rome where the church, Ambrose believed, had ceased to practice footwashing in the baptismal liturgy. “Beware,” he warned his Milanese hearers, “perhaps it [the church in Rome] has deviated (declinauit) because of its large numbers” (De Sacramentis 3.5). A similar liturgical deviation began to take place with reference to the kiss of peace (Kreider 1987).
In this world of rapid growth and significant changes, what happened to patterns of conversion? There was much continuity. Preachers such as Cyril of Jerusalem and John Chrysostom built on early Christian motifs, developing a rich theology of baptism. In one of his mystagogic teachings, Cyril inspired the newly-baptized people:
In one and the same action you died and were born; the water of salvation became both tomb and mother for you . . . A single moment achieves both ends, and your begetting was simultaneous with your death (Myst Cat 2.4).
Baptism was not only washing and illumination, as Justin had taught. It – drawing on Pauline themes from Romans 6 – was the occasion of one’s death to the old life and resurrection into eternal life. Further continuity is evident in the four-stage liturgy of conversion. Building on earlier models this liturgy, with regional variations, in many places became more elaborate. When Catholic pastoral theologians developed the RCIA, it was primarily upon these highly-elaborated fourth-century models that they built.
Other changes in the substance of conversion were also taking place. In the first place, the liturgical journey of conversion changed in significant ways. The character and content of several of the four stages shifted. In many parts of the empire, stage 2 – the catechumenate – was no longer protected by a scrutiny of the candidate’s job, motive and marital state; entry into it was almost conditionless. In Augustine’s case, the rituals that made him a catechumen (the signing of the cross and the tasteing of the salt) came to him “from the time I came from my mother’s womb” (Conf 1.11.17). Augustine experienced not infant baptism, which was evidently still not customary in a pious North African home presided over by Monnica; instead he experienced an infant entry into the catechumenate.
The catechumens, easily made, were now called Christians; but they were not regularly catechized. They milled in and out of churches, attending or not attending the services of the word at will and behaving as they chose. Every year, as Lent approached, preachers harangued them to enroll their names to become competentes and enter stage 3 – enlightenment. If they did this, they were then seriously catechized, but only for a relatively brief period (according to local custom for a month, six weeks, the Lenten fast), not for three years as in the Apostolic Tradition. Stage 3 was punctuated by several scrutinies, but these were not occasions to investigate whether the candidate cared for poor people; the scrutinies were rather exorcistic, to make sure that no alien spirit remained in the candidate (Poque 1955:26-33). Stage 3 culminated in the Easter vigil with the initiatory rituals which were now more “awe-inspiring” than ever. The emotional impact of these was heightened by the fact that in various churches the candidates were given no explanations of the rituals (terrifying exorcism, disrobing, anointing, submersion) until they experienced them. Anglican liturgical scholar Paul Bradshaw has observed that these initiatory developments took place in churches in which flocks of baptismal candidates had been admitted without rigorous examination of their lifestyle. He notes, “the rites now became . . . the means of producing a powerful and psychological impression upon the candidates in the hope of bringing about their conversion” (Bradshaw 2001). After the Easter eucharist the candidates entered stage 4, in which they received explanation of the meaning of the secret mysteries they had experienced.
A second change in conversion has to do with the content of teaching. Everywhere the preoccupation of the fourth-century preachers and catechists was primarily correct belief, but not (Chrysostom is an exception here) transformed behaviour. Avoiding the many heresies that were circulating the empire was of paramount importance; behaving in the extraordinary way as taught by Jesus and as inculcated by the early catechists was evidently less generally a goal. And so, many catechists lowered their standards. “Little are the things that you are renouncing,” Cyril reassured his candidates in Jerusalem (Cat 1.5). Early Christian emphases upon converting lifestyle away from accumulation and towards sharing withered. As Rita Lizzi, who has monitored the preaching of three generations of fourth-century bishops in northern Italy has noted, “In order to encourage the conversion of the wealthier citizens, the bishops modulated their preaching, dealing in an appropriate fashion with the topics of wealth and alms-giving” (Lizzi 1990:167). The same tendency is evident in Augustine’s correspondence with the Roman aristocrat Volusian. In response to Volusian’s concern that Christian teaching which emphasized nonviolence and limitless generosity was “contrary to the laws of the state,” Augustine replied reassuringly. Jesus’ teachings applied solely to “the interior dispositions of the heart.” At least in the case of an eminent aristocrat, Christian conversion would require a change of belief, but not of behaviour (Epp 136, 138).
A third change in conversion had to do with the advent of coercion. In the last two decades of the fourth century, the free market in religion ended. Impatient with the fact that despite favours and pressures only one half of the imperial population had become orthodox Christians (MacMullen 1984:118), bishops such as Ambrose urged Theodosius I and his successors to speed things up. Theodosius obliged, and in successive imperial edicts made orthodox Catholic Christianity a religious monopoly. In an edict of 380, Theodosius prohibited “heretical” Christian groups from engaging in public worship; twelve years later he forbade the public practice of pagan worship (CT`16.10.2; 16.1.2). From this point on, for over a thousand years, error had no rights. In 529, Justinian I issued an edict which made conversion compulsory and required the baptism of all infants (CI 1.11.10). Charlemagne improved on this; in the Saxon Capitulary of the 780s he encouraged the Christianization of Saxony by making it a capital offence to refuse to be baptized (Fletcher 1997:215). In the area of financial support there was also compulsion. The admonitions to tithe, which had notably been absent in the pre-Christendom church (e.g., Irenaeus, Demonstration 96), appeared in the late fourth century. By the sixth century the admonitions became demands, and tithing became compulsory ; the second council of Mâcon (585) required Christians in Gaul, on pain of excommunication, to pay a tenth of their harvest and earnings to support the church (Kreider 1995:43n). Until its abolition, which in many countries took place quite recently, the compulsory tithe was a source of continual aggravation in the life in Christendom (Murray 2000).
Of course these laws were not always observed. Since the local representatives of the imperial government were often in a weak position, they had to rely on the collaboration of local elites. At times the local grandees were reluctant, allowing various kinds of laxity, including de facto paganism, to remain active in towns and especially on agricultural estates. But there are many instances, from the late fourth through the sixth centuries, of forcible conversions (MacMullen 1997:ch 1). Churchmen watched approvingly as troops destroyed pagan temples: cowed and intimidated, the temples’ former adherents often agreed to become Christians. The laws put pressure on people to submit themselves for baptism. Augustine, writing to a Donatist bishop, spoke approvingly of the large numbers of people who had been converted to “Catholic unity by the fear of imperial laws” (Ep 93). And where a Christian landlord chose to compel his peasants to stop pagan practices, this pressure could be very direct. In Gaul, a century after Augustine, Bishop Caesarius of Arles urged the local magnates:
Chastize those whom you know to be [guilty of pagan worship]; warn them very harshly; scold them very severely. And if they are not corrected, beat them if you have the power; and if they are not improved by this, cut off their hair too. And if they still persevere, bind them in iron shackles, so that those whom the grace of God does not hold, a chain may hold (Sermon 53.2).
As a result of this admixture of “flattery and battery” (MacMullen 1984:119), by the sixth century, in areas which historically had comprised the imperial heartlands, the population of Europe was entirely Christian. A new civilization, called Christianitas in Latin and Christendom in English, had come into being. And the mission of the church now began to spread to the unchristianized peoples beyond Christendom – the English, the Frisians, the Saxons, the Danes – where the Christianization of the masses was procured top-down, through the conversion of kings who would coerce the adherence of their peoples (Fletcher 1997). Constantine’s conversion was the preponderant model for the conversion of others. And according to Christendom understandings, this was the only model that could work. Professor Henry Mayr-Harting, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, has argued that “Missionary work [in Anglo-Saxon England] could not succeed without the support of the king” (Mayr-Harting 1991:98). The early Christians might have begged leave to differ. But this model was now well established, and was given further symbolic power by the conversion of Clovis, king of the Franks. Clovis’s baptism, according to Gregory of Tours, was liturgically in the classical tradition – with white baptismal robes and the rest. But there were also things that would have struck a third-century Christian as novel – for example, the reassurance of Bishop Avitus of Vienne that baptism would “bring more strength to your arms” (Hillgarth 1986:77). The king’s baptism was accompanied by the baptism of three thousand of his troops. If the king or his troops had been catechized or required to change their behaviour, records of this have not survived.
So conversion, which had always entailed change, had by the fifth century in my view itself changed. Even in a world in which almost everyone was Christian, conversion was still very much in the Christian vocabulary. Preachers used it when they called baptized Christians – lay and clerical – to repent of their loose behaviour or to cease engaging in pagan practices. “Be converted and do penance . . . Be converted to a better life” (Caesarius, Sermon 108, 167). Christians also used language of conversion when someone was professed in a religious order; by the eighth century this had come to be the primary meaning of conversio. And when the pagans who still remained, whether within Christendom or on its fringes, adhered to Christianity and submitted themselves to baptism, Christians were glad to call this conversion. But the social function of conversion was no longer what it had been up to the end of the fourth century (Meeks 1993:21, 26). No longer were converts joining a movement that was extraordinary; no longer were they associating with a network of communities of resident aliens. By the fifth century to become a Christian was to become ordinary, to become not a resident alien (paroikos) but a well-adjusted resident (parochianus), a parishioner. From Augustine’s time onwards to resist becoming a member of the dominant Christian culture of the empire took a combination of fortitude and stealth. For now it was Christians who ruled society, seeking to achieve a society that would institutionalize Christian values and glorify God. A laudable aim, one might think, but Christians forgot what for their predecessors was a commonplace, “It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion” (Tertullian, Ad Scapulam 2; see also Irenaeus, Adv Haer 5.1.1; Cyprian, Ad Quirinum 3.52; Diognetus 7.4). In Anabaptist perspective , this amnesia changed, indeed distorted, something essential to the Christian faith. So the Christendom authorities harried the pagans, who like the early Christians engaged in clandestine religious observances afraid of the knock at the door. For a thousand years Christians applied to pagans, Jews and heretics the language that the pre-Constantinian pagans had applied to them: “insanity”, “madness.” Christians such as Caesarius continued to appropriate the language of persecution and martyrdom to refer to dimensions of their own experience: “All sinners persecute the good, not with sword and stones, but by their life and morals . . . [Whoever bears] witness to Christ for the sake of justice is without doubt a martyr” (Sermons 181, 52). If only Caesarius and other Christendom leaders could have comprehended that they, in their treatment of the pagans, the Jews and the heretics, were now the persecutors.
So Christendom was built on conversions of many sorts. Some of these were voluntary; others were forced. Some converts experienced significant change in belief and behaviour; others were simply going through the motions, doing what was required – and no more – to belong to their Volk and their region. The result was predictable: in many cases the conversions changed the Christians very little. The Christians, lacking careful catechism and a significant initiatory process, were bound to reflect the values which had dominated their society before the arrival of Christianity. A recent writer, a Catholic historian who has been attuned to missiological insights, questioned whether this should be called not the conversion of Europe but “the Germanization of Christianity” (Russell 1994).
However this may be, in the ensuing centuries the civilization of Christendom developed great cultural richness. I myself have been its beneficiary in countless ways. When I was a child my favourite hymn was “Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts” – with a text attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux. My first recollection of being moved by music is of listening, at age six, to a recording of the first movement from Mozart’s Requiem. I will never forget my initiation, when I was 14, to Chartres Cathedral; I was deeply stirred, and my adolescent Mennonite mind imagined that I would give my life to save that cathedral! More recently, as an adult seeking to become mature I have experienced breakthroughs while meditating on biblical passages under the guidance of a Jesuit retreat giver. The Christendom heritage is in many respects treasurable; I am drawn to it. And yet, as I have studied history and experienced life in Europe as an Anabaptist, I have discovered that there was a downside to Christendom – a use of power, violence, wealth and prestige that I believe conflicted fundamentally with the founder of Christianity whom I have come to know as my Lord. How could I fit this discovery together with my emotional affinity to the cultural monuments and spirituality? I continue to live with this inner dissonance.
What I have come to believe is that Christendom, for all its noble attempts to realize a Christian society on earth, and for all of the aesthetic glories of its monuments, involved an inversion of conversion. And not only of conversion. There was also a turning upside-down of other practices that had been present in Christianity’s first three or four centuries, but which now, turned upside-down, became characteristic structures of Christendom. I shall mention three samples.
The first sample of these structural inversions had to do with the oath and truth-telling. Lycurgus, a fourth-century Athenian, observed that “the oath is the bond that maintains democracies ” (Against Leocrates 79. Why? Because the oath, the “provisional curse”, was necessary to ensure truthfulness in the courts, honesty in the marketplace, and loyalty to the body politic. However, in first-century Palestine the Matthaean Jesus broke with this ancient civic wisdom. He said, “I say to you, do not swear at all . . . Let your word be ‘Yes,Yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” And in his epistle, Jesus’ brother James underlined this prohibition as something that was important “above all” (Matt 5.34, 37, James 5.12). In the early centuries of the church, most Christians who wrote on this subject refused to swear oaths under any circumstances (Kreider 1997; Kreider 1997a). According to Clement of Alexandria, they did so because they, as Christians, were “addicted to truth” (Stromata7.8). The martyr Apollonius stated, “We have been ordered by him [Jesus Christ] never to swear and in all things to tell the truth . . . for from deceit comes distrust, and through distrust in turn comes the oath” (Acta Apollonii 6). Cyprian stated, as one of 120 precepts to to pass on to catechumens, “That we must not swear” (Ad Quirinum 3.12).
Yet in the fourth and fifth centuries things changed. Despite the fact that Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom and Hilary of Poitiers all denounced oath-taking, new practices were coming in. The laity seem to have taken the lead. John Chrysostom reported that, to his consternation, in Antioch ordinary Christians people were swearing on all kinds of occasions: “Whether we are buying vegetables and arguing over two obols or are threatening our servants in our anger, we always call God as our witness” (Baptismal Instructions 9.45). Furthermore, in their attempt to give additional solemnity to oaths, they were placing their hands on the Gospels or even going to local synagogues; “the oaths that were taken there were more awesome,” he reported with disgust (Hom against Jews 1.3). The imperial authorities also required Christians to change. Before Constantine the emperors had required swearing by pagan gods. In this tradition the fourth century imperial laws began to require Christians to swear in lawcourts and in the army. How should the theologians adjust? Augustine was acutely afraid of false-swearing; with his sense of the divine fear he was aware that perjury would lead to the end of the curse’s conditionality – “the stench of a dead soul” (Sermon 180.3). However, responding to the complexities of life, Augustine provided a rationale which enabled Christians to swear, but only if certain conditions were met – if there was “great necessity”, or if it was for some greater good, such as to enable people to believe “what it is to their benefit to believe” (De Serm Mont 1.17.51; Sermon 180.10). By the sixth century, the Justinian Code declared that the lawcourts could not function without the Christian oath (CI 2.59.1-2).
So oath-taking spread in Christian Europe and its practice pervaded society. In the Middle Ages and up to the nineteenth century countless ceremonies and transactions required an oath to be valid. Bishops swore to be obedient to the pope (but not Anglican bishops, who swore to be obedient to the British monarch) and to be doctrinally orthodox; students swore to obey their university’s statutes; businessmen secured contracts by oaths; litigants, lawyers, witnesses in courts of law who gave testimony swore compulsory oaths to verify their veracity. When the Reformation broke out in the early sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformers were as devoted to the oath as were their Catholic counterparts. According to the Swiss Reformer Heinrich Bullinger, reflecting (but certainly not quoting) the pagan Lycurgus, the oath is “the bond, which holds together the whole body of the common good” (Bullinger 1561:fol 181b). The oath was a Christendom practice par excellence. The sixteenth-century Anabaptists challenged this: “if you fear the Lord and . . . are asked to swear . . . continue in the Lord’s Word which has forbidden you so plainly to swear, and let your yea and nay be your oath as was commanded, whether life or death be your lot” (Menno Simons 1552:519-520). Quakers picked up the critique, noting that in practice the oath did not work: swearing did not lead to truthfulness in court house or counting house. I do not have space here to trace the decline of the oath in modern societies, or to discuss the pervasiveness of perjury throughout the experience of Christendom (Moore 1903:558, 564). What I can note is this: oath-taking is a characteristic structure of Christendom which represents a repudiation of early Christian practice. It is a symbol of an extraordinary movement becoming ordinary; and I believe that partly as a result of this structural inversion truthfulness has been a major problem in Christendom and post-Christendom societies.
A second structural inversion which constitutes Christendom has to do with participation in warfare. This subject is controversial, far more so than the oath, which few scholars have cared enough about to take seriously. In my research on conversion, it has become clear to me that in the first two centuries rejecting violence and loving the enemy were practices that candidates for baptism were expected to learn. No Biblical passage occurs more frequently in the early Christian writings than the admonition to enemy love from Matthew 5 (Köhler 1987:541f; Kreider 1995:11n). Indeed, if the apologists are to be trusted, enemy-loving would seem to have been an important part of the early Christians’ self identity. A sample of this comes from Athenagoras of Athens:
What then are the words in which we are nurtured? ‘I say to you: Love your enemies, bless those who curse you; pray for those who persecute you, in order that you may be sons of the Father in heaven.’ Among us you may find uneducated persons, workmen, and old women, who if by discourse are unable to present the benefit which comes from our doctrine, by deed demonstrate the benefit which comes from this persuasion. For they do not call to mind the words, but they exhibit good works. When they are struck, they do not strike back. When robbed, they do not go to law. They give to those asking and they love their neighbours as themselves (Legatio 11.2-4).
For the Christians of the early centuries, enemy-loving seems to have been part of a principled rejection of all killing – whether in the amphitheatre or in abortion. One of the reasons that the early Church grew so rapidly was because they refused to abort unwanted children. Instead they went to the local refuse tips to rescue babies – especially infant girls – which pagan parents had rejected. This may also help to explain why there was such a high proportion of females in the early Christian congregations (Stark 1996:104). And there was a strong sense in some documents that the extraordinary Christian approach to violence and killing was part of Christianity’s witness (Justin, 1 Apol 16). Of course, as is invariably the case, empirical Christians didn’t always do what their theologians taught. An illuminating passage in the sermon commonly called 2 Clement (13) shows that there was a fear that the church’s witness would be besmirched by the behaviour of its members: “When [the pagans] see that we fail to love not only those who hate us, but even those who love us, then they mock at us and scoff at the Name.” To provide a way of nurturing peace within the Christian congregations, the leaders, building on Matthew 5.23, instituted the practice of peacemaking in every eucharistic service. In close association with the unitive actions of prayer and the eucharist, Christians were to make peace with each other. In North Africa as well as Syria, peacemaking among the Christians was essential to worship. “Our peace and brotherly agreement,” wrote Cyprian, “is the greater sacrifice to God” (Lord’s Prayer, 23). It also was essential to the community’s witness. As the Syrian Didascalia Apostolorum (2.54) put it: “If you preach peace to others, still more it behoves you to have peace with your brothers . . . [so that] those who are saved may be increased.” All of this was undergirded by a widespread appropriation, by Christians in many parts of the empire, of the “swords to ploughshares” passage from Isaiah 2 and Micah 4 (Lohfink 1986). Origen could treat this as a commonplace: “For who of all believers does not know the words in Isaiah? ‘and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Letter to Julius Africanus 15). Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Athanasius also saw this passage as fundamental to the Christians’ self-identity: Christians were members of communities which “had converted our weapons of war into implements of peace” (Justin, Trypho, 110.3).
But what did Christians do about military service? Evidence is inadequate and complex, and the debate has been lengthy (Hornus 1980; Helgeland 1985; Brock 1994). But the following seems relatively clear. From 170 or so there is evidence of Christians in the legions, although from Celsus’s report their presence there must have been unusual (Origen, Contra Celsum, 8.68). Nevertheless, in the 190s Tertullian reports, with eloquent disapproval, that there were Christians in military units in North Africa, and further that these were determined to develop a Christian rationale for their presence there (De Corona). The celebrated third-century church order, the Apostolic Tradition (c 16), refused to admit soldiers to the catechumenate a) if they were officers (“who have the power of the sword”) or b) if they took life: “A soldier under authority shall not kill a man. If he is ordered to, he shall not carry out the order . . . If he is unwilling, let him be rejected.” Ancient historian Ramsay MacMullen has observed that in the third century the imperial civil service was militarized, as a result of which “many a recruit need never have struck a blow, outside a tavern” (1963:v). One can imagine that, as Tertullian admitted, it was possible – although physically and spiritually precarious – to serve in the legions without killing or engaging in idolatrous worship. But Tertullian also informs us (De Idololatria 19) that the laymen in the legions were developing Christian arguments to justify not only presence in the military but, by implication, killing. They pointed to the warring of Old Testament patriarchs; and, in the New Testament, they recalled the presence of Christian centurions. Above all, they appealed to the advice of John the Baptist to repentant soldiers as recorded in Luke 3.14: rather than saying do not kill, John said “do not extort money, do not intimidate people, and be content with your wages.” Tertullian was unimpressed with the laymen’s theologizing – he called it “playing around with the subject.” For him the evidence of Christ’s teaching and action was decisive: “the Lord, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.”
As the third century melded into the fourth century things began to change. No third-century theologian justified killing in warfare, but Origen called for Christians to be “a special army of piety”, praying for emperors “who fight in a just cause” while “keeping their right hands pure” (Contra Celsum 8.73). Evidence of Christians in the legions also becomes more frequent (for some recent evidence, see Barnes 1995). After the accession of Constantine, as the number of Christians in the empire increased, so also did the number of Christians in the legions. Churchmen made some adjustments: in canon 3 of the synod of Arles (314), they agreed to discipline any Christians who “throw down their arms in time of peace” (though not of war). In the church orders the successive fourth-century revisions of the Apostolic Tradition reflect the churchmen’s attempts to adjust to the new situation (see attached sheet). In the Canons of Hippolytus (13-14) of the 330s they introduced, for those soldiers who had transgressed against their insistence that they “not kill in any case,” a system of canonical penance. Later in the century, the Testamentum Domini (2.2) (possibly from Asia Minor) introduced John the Baptist’s caveats to soldiers – no extortion, no intimidation, no discontent – as instruction for catechumens; but baptized Christians were still not to kill. Finally, the Apostolic Constitutions of the 380s dropped the prohibition of killing for catechumens or believers. In its place are John the Baptist’s caveats. All that is left of the Apostolic Tradition’s wording is “if he refuse them, let him be rejected” (8.32.10). In the church orders, Jesus and the early theologians had been bested by the Baptist, who had been championed by laymen in the legions.
Of course, in due course the liturgy and theology caught up with the theologizing and practice of the laity. Surviving evidence indicates that enemy loving and killing in warfare ceased to play a role in the conversion of new believers – on these subjects the catechists became mute. As to peacemaking in the churches, there still was an active emphasis upon reconciliation prior to the eucharist: churchmen continued to take seriously Jesus’ admonition about reconciliation before worship, and the holy kiss continued to be practiced. But this was one of the relational elements that were diminished in the liturgies of the Christendom church. In many places, the kiss of peace got pushed aside by the offertory procession (Kreider 1987:40). Everything was now big, amplified. The provision for face-to-face forgiveness and behavioural change was now superseded by admonitions to attitudinal change: people were to “be affected in conscience” and to “be at peace in our own minds” (Apostolic Constitutions 2.54). At the same time, the vision of the church as a peaceful community, rooted in Isaiah 2, was transformed by some writers and forgotten by others. Early in the fifth century, Cyril of Alexandria attributed the conversion of swords to ploughshares, not to the work of God through the church, but to the successes of the Roman army:
Many peoples were . . . conquered by Roman weapons and so converted. Therefore those who live under the power of the emperor no longer have to fear enemy attacks. In such measure have peace and wellbeing already come to them, that they no longer need the art of war. Instead, they turn themselves gladly and joyfully to the work of peace. They pursue farming and are involved with agriculture. In this way they convert their war equipment, so that the sword can be used as a ploughshare and the lance as a sickle (Comm on Isaiah 2).
Farther west in North Africa, Augustine never once cited Isaiah 2.4 and its Micah parallel (Lohfink 1986:202). Peace would be possible eschatologically, and in people’s hearts, but “there is no peace in this life” (Enarr in Ps 48.17).
By 416 an imperial edict stipulated that only Christians could serve in the Roman legions. Theologians gradually made their peace with the new situation (CT 16.19.21). From the Stoic tradition Ambrose borrowed understandings of circumstances under which warring would be justified. To these Augustine added his concern about purity of “the interior dispositions of the heart.” But the argument which Augustine apparently considered irrefutable was based on Luke 3.14, and he cited it often: “The sacred forerunner of the Lord certainly . . . did not prohibit them to serve as soldiers when he commanded them to be content with their pay for the service” (Ep 189.4; cf Ep 138). Churchmen such as Basil of Caesarea prescribed a three-year exclusion from communion for “those whose hands are unclean”, which was profoundly embarrassing to later canonists (Ep 188.13; Viscusso 1995). But canon law was quite clear in prohibiting the clergy to participate in war. As Eoin de Bhaldraithe points out, this was “simply an example of conservatism: the law that originally was general was now retained for an elite” (1990:57-58). Benedict’s Rule perpetuated this prohibition of killing for those in religious orders (4). But by the fifth century, killing in warfare, which the early Christians had seen as an offence to their enemy-loving and peacemaking vision, had now become an accepted, justifiable part of the order of things. As with the oath and truthtelling, in the area of killing Christianity had experienced a structural inversion. The Christendom church, in my view, had ceased to be extraordinary and had become ordinary.
The third area in which structural inversion occurred as Christendom dawned had to do with baptism – the baptism of adults who could speak their consent and remember their promises was replaced by the baptism of newly born infants. Throughout the first four centuries, the baptism that we have observed as we have examined the four stages of conversion – although admitting of a great deal of local variation (Bradshaw 1992:169) – was preponderantly that of adults who had been scrutinized and catechized and who, when the time was adjudged right, were able to say, “I renounce you, Satan, and all your service and all your works”, and “I believe” (Apostolic Tradition 21). Of course, even in the Apostolic Tradition, there were the parvuli. Squeezed somewhat uncomfortably into the liturgy that was designed for “those who can speak for themselves” was the baptism of these little ones “who cannot speak for themselves;” in their case someone else – a parent or a sponsor – was asked to confess the faith and make the promises in their behalf. In North Africa, by the mid-third century Bishop Cyprian had repudiated Tertullian’s hesitations about infant baptism; in a famous letter (Ep 64 ) he justified baptizing infants even earlier than the eighth day on the grounds of “the contagion of the ancient death.” But current scholarship, based not on imperatives of a later theology but on evidence of actual practice at the time, indicates that the baptism of newborn infants was exceptional, even in North Africa. As we have seen, Augustine’s pious mother Monnica cared for her newborn’s spiritual welfare by providing not the waters of baptism but the salt of the catechumenate (Conf 1.11.17). This seems to have been true elsewhere. David Wright lists the nameable children of pious fourth-century homes – Ambrose, Basil the Great, Ephraem Syrus, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Macrina, Jerome, Rufinus of Aquileia, John Chrysostom, Paulinus of Nola – who were baptized in adulthood, not as infants (1997:393). Of these, Chrysostom stated that in Antioch they practiced “even the baptism of infants” (Baptismal Instructions 3.6), while, in Cappadocia, Gregory thought it important that, where health permitted, the baptism of children should be delayed until they were at least three when they could understand what they were promising and “begin to be responsible for their lives” (Oratio 40.18). Of course, as inscriptions show, in the third and fourth centuries children were baptized at many ages, including at times before they were three. But Professor Ferguson (1979) has demonstrated that these early baptisms were followed almost invariably by the death of the child; they were emergency child baptisms, not habitual infant baptisms. A third-century inscription from the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome shows the pattern:
Sweet Tyche lived one year, 10 months, 15 days. Received (grace) on the 8th day before the Kalends . . . Gave up (her soul) on the same day. (Ferguson1979:42).
Tyche’s parents had probably taken John 3.5 to heart, and wanted her to be “born of water and Spirit” and thus to enter the after-life in safety. And the church authorities, without having any coherent theological rationale for their position, had said yes to the pressure of laymen – parents who loved their children(Ferguson 1979:42-44; Wright 1987)
In the fourth century, the number of adult converts was huge. In Antioch, the annual total of baptizands could reach a thousand (Piédagnel 1990:250); but it was never large enough for the preachers. Chrysostom, the Cappadocians, and Augustine all urged the catechumens in their world to stop temporizing and to submit themselves to baptism: the “exhortation to baptism” is a characteristic fourth-century patristic form . Augustine excelled at it. But it would disappear in the fifth and sixth centuries, in part because the various forms of official suasion left few adults unconverted, and partly because of the spread of infant baptism. In the West this is primarily because of the theological influence of Augustine of Hippo. In theological combat with the Pelagians, and arguing from the practice of baptizing newborn babies, Augustine elaborated the doctrine of original sin which saw the baptism of the infant as essential to the infant’s eternal salvation and thus as pressingly urgent (Pelikan 1971:317-318). Augustine’s theology thus followed where the parental concern of earlier centuries had gone before, and the baptism of every infant could be seen as an emergency. The liturgies of the church took a long time to reflect this new reality, but by the eighth century liturgies had come to be written specifically for the baptisms of those who could not speak for themselves (Whitaker 1970:166; Didier 1965). David Wright, the patristics scholar who has worked most seriously on this issue, has called this development a “baptismal revolution” (Wright 2001).
The consequences of this shift from the primacy of adult baptism to the omnipresence of infant baptism were all embracing. In terms of the process of conversion, things were truncated: the leisurely four-staged conversion journey of the pre-Augustinian church was no longer appropriate. Instead there were two stages: stage A, which was the baptism soon after birth, with promises made by godparents, conferred belonging in the Christian church and civilization; and a lengthy stage B, in which the parents and godparents were to instruct the child in the essentials of Christian belief and behaviour. After 479 in the West, confirmation might punctuate stage B (Fisher and Yarnold 1992:149), but there rarely seems to have been effective catechism associated with confirmation. In many places, churchmen were satisfied if the believers knew the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed (Jegen 1967:209). The early Christians would not have called this conversion! Liturgically, baptism also suffered. It became disconnected from the major feasts of Easter and Pentecost, and was scattered throughout the year. The baptismal ceremonies themselves shrunk: in comparison with the “awe-inspiring” rites of the third- and fourth-century church they were humdrum, routine, at times slapdash. The evolution of the shape of the baptismal fonts is eloquent of this trivialization of baptism. The Catholic liturgical scholar A. Khatchatrian has indicated this in schematic form, as baptism over the centuries became higher and dryer (Khatchatrian 1982; see attached sheet). Lutheran liturgical theologian Anita Stauffer bewails this development:
As affusion (pouring) replaced immersion and submersion by the late sixteenth century, fonts became minimal. In time they resembled birdbaths, then salad bowls, and finally teacups. The rich biblical and patristic understandings of baptism as birth, burial and bath had been lost. It became impossible to interpret the font as womb or tomb or even as bathtub. One cannot bathe, not to speak of drown, in a fingerbowl (Stauffer 1994:14).
This structural inversion of baptism had consequences for many aspects of the societies of Christendom Europe. Let us consider only its impact on two of these – the laity and the clergy. Generally speaking, the laity were in the church, not because they had chosen to respond to the Christian good news, but because of societal inevitabilities. Their parents, by having them baptized as newborn infants, had done in their behalf, with the best of intentions, what everybody did and indeed what the law required. So, from the sixth century onwards, the militia Christi of Christendom was made up of conscripts. They were poorly catechized; but they were expected to respect the clergy, to come to church, to pay a tenth of their income to the ecclesiastical establishment, and to stop engaging in pagan practices. Throughout the history of Christendom there are records of people rebelling against these expectations. In Caesarius’s Arles, the congregations misbehaved in church, and were so eager to leave the services that Caesarius had to lock the doors so they would stay to hear his “very moving sermons” (Vita Caesarii 1.19, 27). Preachers such as Martin of Braga repeatedly had to remind the laity to stop engaging in the “worship of the Devil”: burning candles at stones and trees and springs, muttering spells over herbs and the like. They must “think what pact you made with God in that very Baptism.” For they had promised to renounce the Devil, that is “if you were already able to reply, or certainly he who promised for you and received you from the font said” (On the Castigation of Rustics 15). That was the problem. In a church without effective catechism, whose members were there because of the promises that others made on their behalf and whom the authorities compelled to go to church and to pay for its operation, there was bound to be stonewalling. Further, there was bound to be syncretism, not only in religious observances but in ethics. Lay Christians, in a world Christianized by these means, were bound to live ordinary lives, shaped by the values and techniques that were deeply embedded in the customs and psyches of their folk. If they chose like the early Christians to live extraordinarily, loving their enemies, sharing their possessions and the rest, ordinary Christians thought that they were insane. As Augustine overheard lukewarm, long-time, Christians telling recent converts who wanted to take Jesus’ hard sayings seriously, “You’re going to extremes . . . it’s lunacy!” (Sermon 88.12)
Inevitably, the structural inversion which changed the character of baptism also affected the clergy of Christendom. This is a point that I am newly investigating, but my initial explorations indicate the following. A church that was big, public, teeming with members, required charismatic public gifts that had not been required of the leaders of the early domestic congregations. Many signs indicate that the leaders recognized their own importance to the large churches of Christendom. Their language is significant: in the “ship of the church” the clergy were “mariners”, while the laity were “passengers”, or, to use pastoral language, the clergy were “shepherds” and the laity were “brute creatures” (Apostolic Constitutions 2.58). Architecture is also significant: it is symbolic that walls emerged to separate the “sanctuaries” where the clergy did their holy things from the domain of the laity. A distinctive clerical clothing developed as well. In 428 Pope Celestine I took objection to this. It was a “novelty” for clerics to dress differently from laymen. Clerics were to be distinguished from “the common folk”, but “by our learning, not by our garments . . .” (PL 50.431-1; Cristiani 1947). This development of a caste of professionals superintending the operation of big congregations was so important it was bound to lead to theological justification. So theologians now elevated ordination to a new level of significance. The clerics were the extraordinary Christians. Eusebius of Caesarea saw them as men who, “wholly and permanently separate from the common customary life of mankind . . . appear to die to the life of mortals . . . [and perform] the duty of a priesthood to Almighty God for the whole race.” The laity, in contrast, live by “a kind of secondary grade of piety” (Dem Ev 1.8). A more subtle theologian than Eusebius, Gregory of Nyssa developed exalted understandings of the transformation that occurred in ordination: the benediction which is bestowed on the priest in the ordination prayer “makes him venerable, honorable, and separated from the common man . . . While continuing to be in all appearances the man he was before, by some unseen power and grace the unseen soul is transformed for the better” (Bapt. Chr.). To express and articulate this reality ritually, the liturgies of ordination became increasingly elaborate. So also did the rites of monastic profession, in which the newly professed monk’s death to his old life was symbolized by his lying under a funeral pall; indeed, some writers not only called monastic profession “a second baptism” but viewed it as more important than baptism (Malone 1951:125; Foley 1989:15). It is thought-provoking to relate these developments to baptism itself. Chronologically, the efflorescence of clericalism coincided with the routinization of baptism; the priesthood gained its extraordinary qualities at the same time as baptism became ordinary, indeed inevitable, and lost social significance. The developing rites of ordination and profession underscore this coincidence. The clericalization of the church is the obverse of the structural inversion that impoverished baptism.
We have at long last come to the end of this Jacques-eyed view of the origin of Christendom. I am an Anabaptist who, like Jacques d’Auchy, has found the early Christians to be instructive. I view it as an impoverishment that Mennonite scholars have often generalized about the early Christians and talked glibly about “the fall of the church” without having done their homework. I wonder: have Mennonites feared that if we read the Fathers we are on a slippery slope, bound to become Catholic? Have we, like the sixteenth-century Anabaptists (who at least had the excuse of persecution to justify their response), been reactive to Catholicism, and fearful of it? I see signs that this is now changing, and I rejoice in this (e.g. Finger 1998; Schlabach 2000).
My own journey has been one of sensing God’s call to study early Christianity, and then, in my fifties, bit by bit, learning about it. My knowledge will always be in part, and I will never know the early Christians as I would like. But I have learned a great deal already – from the early sources, from recent Catholic writing and from Catholic friends – which has inspired me and stirred my imagination. I have encountered things that I believe can address areas of perennial weakness in Mennonite life: our rationalistic worship; our ritual illiteracy; our lack of comfort at the eucharistic table. And I have seen contemporary Anabaptists learn from Catholics in areas that we thought were our strengths. For example, initiation. With Baptist and Mennonite seminary students, I have watched videos of the renewing effects of the RCIA in a Texas parish, and of contemporary baptism by immersion in Catholic parishes that have built baptismal fonts built on fourth-century models. Like the students, I was moved and humbled. Or peace. Like any Mennonite who cares about radical discipleship and who has participated in the peace movement I have met, and been instructed by, Catholics who are more faithful to Jesus than I am. I have also been stirred as Catholic leaders, at the highest level, have enunciated a theological vision that I think is faithful to early Christianity, and which has profound relevance to our own time:
It is clear today, perhaps more than in previous generations, that convinced Christians are a minority in nearly every country of the world . . . As believers we are a company of witnesses engaged in a difficult mission. To be disciples of Jesus requires that we continually go beyond where we now are (Challenge 1983:78-79).
As the bishops indicate, we no longer live in Christendom. We cannot legislate Christian morality; we cannot compel Christian orthodoxy or observance. We – all of us, Catholics as well as Mennonites – share a strange belonging growing out of our incorporation into the body of Christ. In post-Christendom we are a missionary who are called to share the lot of the “insane”, of those whose allegiance to Christ leads to deviant belief and behaviour (Clapp 1996:98-99). In the post-Christendom world, I believe that the early Christians, especially those of the early centuries, can offer us models for common life and evangelization which are extraordinary, and which can be extraordinarily relevant. I believe that a Jacques-eyed reading of early Christian history can help accentuate this relevance; for we Mennonites, on the basis of our unique history, have sensitivities and questions that enable us to see things in the early materials that may elude others. But we dare not sing on our own. We, Anabaptists as well as Catholics, are members of the choir of God’s polyphony. God has given us all parts to sing, each of which is necessary if the music is to cohere and the harmony is to resonate. We get in trouble, indeed we mar the choir and dishonour its Director, if we attempt to ignore or silence each other; and this, in my Jacques-eyed view, is the tragedy of Christendom as well as of much Mennonite history. But God’s church is built on strong foundations, and God is always reforming it. My hope is that our Catholic siblings will learn that they can sing their part in the polyphony better as they rethink the history of Christendom and reexamine their approach to the structural inversions to which I have pointed here. My hope is also that we Mennonites can be healed by learning from those whose predecessors persecuted us and by repenting of our pride. And my belief is that, by God’s grace, the resultant polyphony can have great missionary potency in the post-Christendom world that God loves so much.
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