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I’ll be driving up from Macon to Atlanta to attend a little bit of this year’s Society of Biblical Literature meeting.
Figuring out my Sunday schedule was fairly easy: In the morning I’ll be taking in the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism Section, where I especially am looking forward to Silviu Bunta’s paper on “The Convergence of Adamic and Merkabah Traditions in the Christology of Hebrews.” The late afternoon will find me at the Hebrews Group meeting, hosted by fellow biblioblogger Ken Schenk. After lunch, I’ll either goof off in the exhibit hall or see if I can work in a visit to the Didache in Context Section at least long enough for Perttu Nikander’s paper on “Orality and Writing in the Context of the Two Ways and the Didache.” Then I’ll be at the annual biblioblogger’s dinner before heading back home.
Saturday is a bit more perplexing. Much time in the exhibit hall is definitely indicated, but do I want to go to the Didache in Context Section’s discussion of The Eucharist in the Didache? Or do I want to double up on Hebrews?
I previously blogged about the Old Testament canon. Now I’d like to jot down some thoughts about the New Testament.
1. The Church Has Always Had a Bible.
Jesus and all of his original followers were Jews. As such, they were heirs of a centuries-long tradition of studying, preaching, debating, and praying the Scriptures of Israel. The Christian church accepted from the beginning the authority of the Old Testament as holy Scripture. They did this following the example of Jesus, who is seen in the Gospels reading the Jewish Scriptures in the synagogue and debating their interpretation with biblical scholars.
Even though the final decisions about the content of this Bible had not yet been ironed out, the church was able to hit the ground running on the Day of Pentecost with a collection of sacred texts from which they derived the basics of their theology, moral instruction, and liturgy. The various speeches in the book of Acts indicate in summary form how the early church interpreted the biblical story in light of the revelation of Christ, and every book of the New Testament interacts with the Old Testament in one way or another. The book of Revelation is dripping with Old Testament imagery from first to last; the book of Hebrews is best understood as a form of Hellenistic Jewish sermon drawing on a number of Old Testament texts; the letters of Paul reveal at numerous points an informed interaction not only with the sacred texts of Judaism but with common Jewish methods of biblical interpretation. All of this points to an early church steeped in Scripture from the very beginning.
2. The Church Has Not Always Had a New Testament.
It should be self evident, however, that the first Christian communities existed before a single word of the New Testament was committed to writing. It was within these communities that Christians hammered out their core beliefs, values, and practices, and it was for these communities that the New Testament writers wrote. This fact carries a number of implications, but let me suggest two that seem especially important in terms of the development of the New Testament canon:
(1) The texts existed within a wider framework of tradition. The texts served this tradition and were an organic part of it. The tradition included basic matters of theology, ethics, and liturgy, and on all points was informed by a close reading of the Old Testament through the light of God’s revelation in Christ.
As but one example, think about what we’re looking at when we read one of the Gospels. Even the most conservative of scholars agree that the Gospels preserve information about Jesus that was first handed down by word of mouth. In Paul’s letters (largely written before any of the Gospels — at least in their final, canonical form) we even find the technical rabbinic vocabulary of “receiving” and “handing on” an oral tradition (1 Cor 11:23-25; 15:3-7). Paul also urges his churches to hold fast to the traditions he handed on to them, whether oral or textual (2 Thess 2:15). Paul apparently understood that this tradition was authoritative for the early church. One might even argue it was “canonical.” But it was not committed to writing in a universally agreed-upon form.
(2) The texts only gradually became recognized as Scripture in their own right. Like the Old Testament canon, the new Christian writings were accepted as authoritative in the church in stages. The four Gospels were originally written and circulated separately as independent literary units, but by the late second century there was assumed to be a “fourfold” Gospel.
Similarly, Paul’s letters would have originally circulated only to the stated addressees (although some, like Ephesians, may have had a wider readership). In time, these came to be collected and regarded as authoritative. Second Peter 3:16 counts Paul’s letters among the “other” Scriptures. Depending on how one dates this text, it belongs either toward the end of the apostolic era or somewhat later, perhaps into the early part of the second century. At any rate, it is clear from the New Testament itself that Paul’s version of the Christian message was not universally embraced even among Christians during the Apostle’s lifetime.
Other portions of the New Testament were eventually also accepted, but sometimes only after a good bit of debate over many years or even centuries. Even as late as Eusebius of Caesarea (c. AD 300), the books of James, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, and Jude were acknowledged to be “disputed.” Some Christians also held the book of Revelation in deep suspicion. Others had doubts about Hebrews because of questions about its authorship.
At the same time, some books were read in some churches or commended for private devotion that did not ultimately get included. Foremost among these were the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Peter, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas. The Didache was also apparently popular in some locales, and is acknowledged by Athanasius as having some value for Christians. Weekend Fisher has made an admirable attempt at objectively “scoring” the weight of historical attestation of all these books, and you may want to check out her results (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10).
Church fathers acknowledge that heretical groups had their own Scriptures. The Ebionites had the Gospel to the Hebrews and a variant form of the Gospel of Matthew as well as the Clementine literature; the Gnostics had an abundance of unique texts–the Gospel of Thomas, the Exposition of the Soul, etc. None of these can be credibly dated earlier than the middle to late second century, however, and do not seem to have ever been serious contenders for inclusion in the canon of orthodox Christianity. [NB: I’m eager to read April DeConick’s work on Thomas; she argues for an early orthodox kernel of material within GThom. If Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas requires me to adjust what I have written in this paragraph, I’ll alert you to that fact in a later post.] Frankly, a cursory reading of most of this material tends to make one grateful that these texts not only didn’t make the cut but were never even in the running!
[Update: Ben Witherington has posted on his blog a paper from one of his doctoral students critiquing Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities. The paper deals in much greater depth with the question of why the existence of books like Gospel of Thomas does not constitute a threat to the traditional understanding of canon formation that I am espousing.]
3. The Canonization of the New Testament Took Place in the Church.
So, the early Christians not only had a growing number of texts at their disposal for use in their worship and teaching, they also had an informal understanding about what their spiritual tradition was. They called this understanding the “rule of faith,” which can be understood as a somewhat fluid summary of the community’s beliefs and values: of what it understood the Bible, both Old and (later) New Testaments, to teach. There is no one “canonical” wording of this rule, but here is that of Irenaeus in his Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching (late 2nd century):
This then is the order of the rule of our faith, and the foundation of the building, and the stability of our conversation: God, the Father, not made, not material, invisible; one God, the creator of all things: this is the first point of our faith. The second point is: The Word of God, Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was manifested to the prophets according to the form of their prophesying and according to the method of the dispensation of the Father: through whom all things were made; who also at the end of the times, to complete and gather up all things, was made man among men, visible and tangible, in order to abolish death and show forth life and produce a community of union between God and man. And the third point is: The Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied, and the fathers learned the things of God, and the righteous were led forth into the way of righteousness; and who in the end of the times was poured out in a new way upon mankind in all the earth, renewing man unto God.
Astute readers will note both the trinitarian structure of this rule as well as the verbal parallels to later creeds of the church.
Decisions about how to interpret the Bible — and what books belonged in the canon — were largely answered by recourse to the rule of faith. Texts in conformity with the rule were accepted; texts that violated the rule were rejected. And all texts were interpreted with the rule of faith as a template or interpretive grid. Irenaeus compared the biblical interpretations of the Gnostics, for example, as if someone took the tiles of a beautiful mosaic picture of a king and rearranged them so as to make a shoddy picture of an animal instead (Against Heresies 1.8.1). They used the same data, but came to the wrong conclusions because their interpretations fell outside the rule of faith.
4. The Canonization of the New Testament Did Not Take Place in a Vacuum.
The canonization process took place as the early Christians ironed out their beliefs and its Scriptures in polemical confrontation both with the Jews and with heretical or schismatic elements within the church. We can remember of the most significant challenges by recalling the Three M’s:
(1) Marcion. Marcion was a semi-Gnostic teacher active in the middle of the second century. He published the first “Christian” canon based on his conviction that Paul was the Jesus’ greatest interpreter and that there was an uncrossable divide between the Law of Moses and the gospel of Christ. Marcion’s canon thus had no Old Testament at all, ten of Paul’s letters (the Pastorals are excluded), and a severely version of Luke’s Gospel. This resulted in an overly restricted canon.
(2) Montanism. At the other extreme was Montanism, which also seems to have been been born in the middle of the second century. Montanus and his followers emphasized immediate spiritual experiences and claimed special revelations and visions, which they wrote down in additional sacred texts. This resulted in an overly expanded canon.
(3) The Mishnah. The Mishnah is the codification of Jewish oral traditions, many of which undoubtedly reach back to the first century AD. It provides a authoritative interpretation of the Law and thus a guide to the proper understanding of the biblical texts of Judaism. Since the church also claimed to interpret rightly the texts of the Jewish Bible, production of the Mishnah (c. AD 200) called for a corresponding development among Christians.
The New Testament canon in its present form was basically settled by the early third century, although some books (e.g., Hebrews, Revelation) were not yet universally accepted and others (e.g., Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas) were not yet definitely excluded. In his Paschal Letter of AD 367, Athanasius gives us the first extant New Testament canon list matching the twenty-seven books Christians acknowledge today. This effectively settled the matter in the East; in the West, the Council of Carthage (397) arrived at the same canon as Athanasius.
Patterns of Christian Meals
In my previous post, I only discussed Christian meals that have an explicit Eucharistic element. Other sources are ambiguous, and scholars have debated for some time whether certain texts (e.g., the Didache) are describing the Eucharist or some other form of Christian banquet. Finally, some documents take pains to insist that the meal they are describing is not the Eucharist.
Part of the problem is almost certainly our tendency to impose later understandings of what constitutes a “proper” Eucharist. Jesus shared meals with his disciples (and with the outcasts of society) throughout his earthly ministry, and all of those mealtimes factor into the first Christian patterns of meeting and eating together. The Last Supper has a special place because it was the last meal before the crucifixion, and therefore was especially remembered by at least some early Christian communities.
In The Shape of the Liturgy, Gregory Dix suggests an almost surgical disentanglement of the Eucharist from the agape, leaving an agape-free Eucharist as the regular custom by the time of Ignatius (ca. 110). He takes great pains to highlight the theological and liturgical acumen that went into discerning precisely what needed to remain a part of each observance. He is probably correct that the separation was accomplished with great sensitivity to the underlying Jewish meal liturgy, and I am willing to agree that it was probably accomplished in most regions by the early decades of the second century, if not sooner.
But there is in fact evidence to suggest that the separation took some time to accomplish. First, there is the evidence of combined Eucharistic agapes well into the 2nd century and beyond. Furthermore, even when the Eucharistic nature of the agape was explicitly denied, there are tantalizing hints that in an earlier stratum of tradition one might have read a different story.
The final separation is attested in the Apostolic Tradition, where the author took great pains to hammer home that the agape is not to be construed as a Eucharist in any sense (ApTrad 26:2). Even here, though, there are indications that the agape is more than a simple meal. There is the explicit requirement for the clergy to officiate, and there are exhortations to sobriety and decorous conversation. Above all, the “blessed bread” is forbidden to catechumens. Indeed, in describing an agape, Apostolic Tradition 26:5 declares, “A catechumen shall not sit at table at the Lord’s Supper.” In short, had Ignatius’ contemporaries possessed prayer books, they are unlikely to have thrown them out overnight to embrace the liturgical innovation of celebrating the Eucharist apart from a meal.
Liturgical texts for agapes are rare and often subject to varying interpretations. There is enough evidence, however, to suggest some overall structures. Occasionally, we are even in a position to suggest the wording of actual prayers. For the most part, however, we are forced to use our imagination in applying what we know of the “normative” Justinian liturgical pattern to the “alternative” situation. Some of the most primitive Eucharistic prayers, for example, might have been used at a combined Eucharistic agape.
A Syro-Egyptian Pattern
We begin with the most commonly encountered structure, found in Syria, Egypt, and Asia Minor. In both the Didache (Syria, ca. 100) and the Canons of Hippolytus (Egypt, ca. 340), we encounter a combined Eucharistic agape, with the Eucharist positioned at the beginning of the meal. There is also a 4th century Egyptian treatise On Virginity in which one finds an agape very similar in structure to that of the Didache.
In the Canons of Hippolytus there are two descriptions of an agape. One is for a funerary meal and the other is for an ordinary “Lord’s Supper.” The Lord’s Supper pattern begins with the Eucharist, received standing. Then comes the fellowship meal. The meal is concluded with the lighting of lamps and psalmody.
Whereas earlier commentators disputed the Eucharistic character of the meal ritual depicted in Didache 9-10, the growing consensus is that this is in fact an ancient Eucharist. In Didache 14:1, believers are to confess their transgressions to one another before the Eucharist, “that your sacrifice may be pure.” Aaron Milavec suggests that the corporate confession was omitted at a baptismal Eucharist, as is depicted in chapters 9-10, for pastoral reasons (The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary [Michael Glazier, 2003] 77).
The cup and the bread are both consecrated in a single prayer before the meal, in distinction to the New Testament pattern (cf. 1 Cor 11). Surprisingly, the cup is mentioned first in the prayer of thanksgiving, a pattern only repeated in the shorter textual tradition of Luke 22. Didache 9-10 presents a rather straightforward Jewish religious meal, but with no mention of a second cup associated with the final prayer. The consecration of the cup and the bread consists of three brief prayers, each concluding with a chatimah or ascription of praise. Many interpreters believe these simple praise sentences were chanted by the congregation.
At the conclusion of the meal is a final prayer that bears strong affinity to the Jewish birkat ha-mazon or table grace. Originally, the prayer would have almost certainly been spoken over a cup, which would then have been shared by the participants. In its current context, the cup is nowhere to be found.Following these prayers is a brief section that has been construed as a kind of liturgical dialogue:
May grace come, and may this world pass away.
Hosanna to the God of David!
If any is holy, let him come; if any is not, let him repent.
Marana tha! Amen.
There is no shortage of possible interpretations of what this text is and what it is doing in its current context. Lietzmann simply says it has been mis-placed in the textual tradition. Senn suggests it is not a liturgical piece as such, but an exhortation to the reader. Jeremias believes Didache 9-10 describes the non-Eucharistic portion of an agape, and that these words form a transition to the Eucharist proper with which the meal concludes.
Milavec has suggested that these brief praise acclamations “represent the spontaneous shouts or chants of various members of the congregation who were caught up by the future expectation wich which the prayer leader closed the official prayer” (71). He further speculates that these sentences may have served to “prime” the prophets for their charismatic prayers of thanksgiving. By this interpretation, which has much to commend it, these words form a transition between the meal and the symposium. Judging from 1 Corinthians 12-14, the exercise of spiritual gifts in the earliest churches took place at precisely this point-after the conclusion of the meal.
Finally there is the meal structure found in a treatise dubiously attributed to Athanasius of Alexandria called On Virginity. Whether or not Athanasius wrote it, this instruction for female monastics reflects Egyptian practice in the 4th century.
Apart from the absence of any mention of a cup, the basic pattern of the meal described in On Virginity follows closely that of the Didache rite, and shows clear literary dependence on that source. The observance proceeds in three movements. Before the meal, while the nuns are still standing, there is a bread-blessing rite which includes:
- A threefold sign of the cross
- A prayer over the bread, with a wording virtually identical to that of Didache 9.
- The Lord’s Prayer
- Sharing the broken bread
Next comes a common meal, at which catechumens and “careless and frivolous women” are to be excluded. After the meal, all rise and there is a final blessing that “appears to be remotely derived from the first paragraph of the old Jewish berakah after meals” (Dix, 94):
Blessed be God, who is merciful and nourishes us from our youth, who gives food to all flesh.” Fill our hearts with joy and good cheer, that everyone everywhere might have sufficiency, abounding into every good work in Christ Jesus the Lord, with whom to you belongs glory, might, honor and worship, together with the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.
This does not seem to be a Eucharistic consecration. While it may simply be the communal meal of the monastic community, one wonders whether perhaps we have here a form of Communion from the reserved sacrament. The practice of Communion outside of the Eucharist was of course a well-established tradition by this time. Most commonly, Communion would be in the form of pre-consecrated bread only, although occasional mention is made of the practice of dipping the pre-consecrated bread in ordinary wine. The recitation of the Lord’s Prayer as a pre-Communion devotion was first being introduced in this general period, it being first attested in the Mystagogical Catechesis of Cyril of Jerusalem around 380. Certainly the presence of a prayer patterned on the Didache‘s Eucharistic prayer is significant. Whenever else this prayer form appears in an Egyptian text (for example, in the anaphora of Sarapion of Thmuis and in the Der Balyzeh papyrus) it is as part of a Eucharistic consecration.
A Western Pattern
The western pattern also places the bread (and possibly the cup) before supper. The relevant texts from Rome and North Africa have no overt Eucharistic reference. Evidence for this form of worship-meal comes primarily from the Latin text of the Apostolic Tradition and the description of an agape found in Tertullian’s Apology. From Cyprian (Epistle 63, 16), we learn that the western agape involved sharing a common cup, at least in North Africa.
The Latin Apostolic Tradition gives a bread-blessing rite followed by a cup. Each participant is to speak the blessing over his or her own cup, following Jewish custom. This is essentially a bare-bones Jewish meal, without even mention of a grace after the meal, although perhaps there was one.
Tertullian’s description of the agape (Apology 39) is a more fleshed-out version of the same pattern. In fact, if Cyprian’s common cup is associated with Tertullian’s concluding prayer, the Jewish pattern is reproduced almost perfectly.
Here is Tertullian’s description in full:
We do not take our places at table until we have first tasted prayer to God. Only so much is eaten as satisfied hunger; only so much drunk as meets the need of the modest. They satisfy themselves only so far as men will who recall that even during the night they must worship God; they talk as those would who know the Lord listens. After water for the hands come the lights; and then each, from what he knows of the Holy Scriptures, or from his own heart, is called before the rest to sing to God; so that is a test of how much he has drunk. Prayer in like manner ends the banquet. (Apology 39:17-18)
The pattern is thus:
- Beginning Prayer (all standing)
- Hand-washing and lamp-lighting
- Hymnody (including “table talk” and/or charismatic expressions?)
- Concluding Prayer
Tertullian noted that the agape both begins and ends with prayer. Can we interpret him to imply that there was an opening prayer over the bread and a closing prayer over the cup? It is tempting to do so, and the church’s rule of secrecy (disciplina arcani) surrounding the details of the liturgy might be legitimately invoked as the reason he omitted reference to these symbols in a document intended for outsiders. But there is no way to know for sure where Cyprian’s common cup should go. Assuming the opening prayer is a bread-blessing (as in all known agape structures), placing the common cup directly thereafter would produce the same format we find in the Apostolic Tradition. Placing it at the end of the meal gives us the original Jewish domestic liturgy.
It is not inconceivable that the cup would have been omitted entirely under the pressure to create a clear distinction between the agape and the Eucharist. But if that were the case, however, one would expect mention of the cup in the earlier source (Tertullian) and omission of it in the later (Cyprian).
An Egyptian Pattern
A final pattern is found only in the Ethiopic text of the Apostolic Tradition and a passing comment in the Ecclesiastical History of Socrates (ca. 440). These sources are probably too late to be totally reliable guides to pre-Constantinian practice, but they are included for the sake of completeness, and because of the apparent antiquity of the practice that Socrates describes.
In this pattern, the rituals surrounding bread and cup come after the main meal. In the Apostolic Tradition the observance is emphatically not to be construed as a form of Eucharist, while in Socrates it is explicitly a combined Eucharistic agape.
First let us look at what Socrates wrote:
The Egyptians in the neighborhood of Alexandria, and the inhabitants of Thebaid, hold their religious assemblies on the sabbath, but do not participate of the mysteries in the manner usual among Christians in general: for after having eaten and satisfied themselves with food of all kinds, in the evening making their offerings they partake of the mysteries. (Ecclesiastical History 5:22)
This Egyptian observance stands out on a number of counts. First, the Eucharist (“partaking of the mysteries”) comes after a meal, even though the general custom in Socrates’ time was to fast before Communion. Second, it takes place in the evening. Sunrise was the customary time for the Eucharist from the second century on, but an evening meal was the original practice, attested in Pliny’s Letter to Trajan. Finally, the meal takes place on the Sabbath rather than Sunday, whether at the beginning of the Sabbath (i.e., Friday night) or the end of the Sabbath (i.e., Saturday night), is not specified. All three of these features suggest great antiquity. If Socrates is to be believed, he provides evidence for the persistence of a combined Eucharistic agape well into post-Nicene times.
The Ethiopic text of the Apostolic Tradition describes a more elaborate observance than the Latin text noted above. Like the Latin text, the Ethiopic text begins with bread- and cup-blessings and then a common meal. The Ethiopic text, however, gives a much fuller picture of what transpires after the meal is completed (ApTrad. 26:20-32). First the deacon brings in lamps and the bishop offers a prayer. After the lamp-lighting the children and virgins are invited to sing psalms. The banquet ends with a second ritual involving both bread and a cup:
And afterwards the deacon holding the mingled cup of the oblation shall say the Psalm from those in which is written “Hallelujah,” [likely a later interpolation: “after that the presbyter has commanded: ‘And likewise from those Psalms.'”]. And afterwards the bishop having offered the cup as is proper for the cup, he shall say the Psalm “Hallelujah.” And all of them as he recties the Psalms shall say “Hallelujah,” which is to say: We praise him who is God most high: glorified and praised is he who founded all the world with one word. And likewise when the Psalm is completed, he shall give thanks over the cup, and give of the fragments to all the faithful (ApTrad. 26:29-32).
The basic structure is thus a confused or mutilated version of the Passover Seder as it would have been practiced in the second or third century:
- An initial bread-blessing, by the bishop
- Blessing of cups, by each participant individually
- Meal (and “table talk”)
- The the first part of the Hallel, by the deacon
- A prayer over “the cup of oblation”
- The second part of the Hallel, by the bishop
- A prayer of thanksgiving over the cup
- The people share broken bread
The concluding cup and bread ritual may be a reminiscence of primitive Eucharistic customs, but we are not in a position to offer conclusive proof. Put alongside Socrates’ remark about Alexandrian agape practice, however, the possibility remains open.
Next: Why Did Eucharist and Agape Diverge?
Having laid out something of the biblical exegesis that informs the traditional understanding of baptism among Baptists, I’d like to distill a couple of important values this groundwork implies. In other words, what did Baptists think they were doing by latching onto the idea of believers’ baptism?
First, of course, Baptists were attempting to emphasize baptism as initiation into the Christian life. Having concluded that baptism and faith go hand in hand in the New Testament, it was natural to question whether baptism could do and be what the Bible described in the absence of a credible profession of faith. For Baptists, the Christian life properly begins with faith, which is outwardly expressed through baptism.
A Believers’ Church
Second, Baptists practice believers’ baptism out of a deep desire for a believers’ church. Of the two, my sense is that this is the more pressing concern, so it may be worth the effort to unpack it a bit.
Baptists are all over the map theologically. There are Calvinistic Baptists, anti-Calvinistic Baptists, charismatic Baptists, liberal Baptists, etc. There is very little in Baptist doctrine that isn’t echoed by someone else, somewhere. If there is an exception to this rule, it is in the realm of ecclesiology (although we helped shape the thought of Pentecostals, independent evangelicals, and others). Baptists have a distinctive doctrine of the church. More precisely, we believe the church should be an intentional Christian community.
Nobody forces you to join a Baptist church‚ not even your parents. You join because you want to. We understand this to be in harmony with the practice of the early church, in which believers’ baptism was, if not the exclusive practice, certainly normative.
For example, the early church universally observed a period of pre-baptismal instruction (catechumenate) enjoined upon all new converts. The basic pattern for this instruction was in place by the second century and is evident in both the Didache and Justin Martyr. Both of these early sources describe a period of instruction of indeterminate length followed by one or two days of fasting and prayer immediately before the baptism itself:
Having first said all these things [i.e., the ethical instructions of chapters 1-6], baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. … But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whatever others can; but you shall command the baptized to fast one or two days before. (Didache 7:1, 4)
As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. (Justin, First Apology 61)
The catechumenate could vary in length from a few weeks to as long as three years, according to time and place. Generally, however, the longest periods of instruction are only attested in later sources. Eventually, the three-year catechumenate became standard throughout the Christian world.
Although infant baptism was all but universally accepted, adult baptism was the norm. The very existence of a catechetical process implies that the normative experience of Christian baptism was of an adult “who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching” (Justin, First Apology 65). An Anglican investigation has concluded,
It is clear that the doctrine of baptism in the New Testament is stated in relation to the baptism of adults, as was also the case (with two or three exceptions) in the writers of the first three centuries. In every recorded case of baptism in the New Testament, the Gospel has been heard and accepted, and the condition of faith (and presumably repentance) has been consciously fulfilled prior to the reception of the Sacrament. (Baptism and Confirmation Today  34, quoted by G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament [Eerdmans, 1962] 310.)
Although Tertullian is not the most authoritative source for patristic theology, it should be noted that he was opposed to infant baptism:
And so, according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children. For why is it necessary—if (baptism itself) is not so necessary—that the sponsors likewise should be thrust into danger? Who both themselves, by reason of mortality, may fail to fulfill their promises, and may be disappointed by the development of an evil disposition, in those for whom they stood? The Lord does indeed say, “Forbid them not to come unto me.” Let them “come,” then, while they are growing up; let them “come” while they are learning, while they are learning whither to come; let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ. Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the “remission of sins”? More caution will be exercised in worldly matters: so that one who is not trusted with earthly substance is trusted with divine! (On Baptism 18)
Origen was the first Christian writer to state the belief that infant baptism was of apostolic origin, although it has been argued that Origen himself may have only become acquainted with the practice later in life (Beasley-Murray, 306). The first clear attestation of the practice to my knowledge is the third-century Apostolic Tradition, commonly (although debatably) attributed to Hippolytus of Rome.
In the fourth century, there was a “widespread hesitation about infant baptism”(Beasley-Murray, 306) that was only set aside due to the influence of Augustine’s sacramental theology. Gregory of Nazianzus recommended the baptism of children (but not infants) “if any danger presses.” But for those who are not in any danger, he still preferred that they finish their pre-baptismal instruction:
But in respect of others I give my advice to wait till the end of the third year [of the catechumenate], or a little more or less, when they may be able to listen and to answer something about the Sacrament; that, even though they do not perfectly understand it, yet at any rate they may know the outlines; and then to sanctify them in soul and body with the great sacrament of our consecration. (Oration 40, 28)
Even when the practice of infant baptism was not questioned, the custom of postponing baptism was somewhat common. The list of saints who were baptized as adults even though they grew up in Christian homes includes Ambrose, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Jerome, and many others. Thus, while few disputed the validity of infant baptism, many apparently questioned its pastoral wisdom. Many would have agreed with Tertullian’s assessment: “If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay: sound faith is secure of salvation” (On Baptism 18)
A Fellowship of Disciples
Baptists read these data and see a church striving to maintain itself as a fellowship of the faithful. The disciplina arcani or witholding the particulars of their liturgical practice and theology from the unbaptized feeds into the same impulse. When, in the fourth century, Christianity gained newfound popularity under the auspices of emperor Constantine, Baptists would have applauded the early monastics who fled to the desert to create new forms of intentional Christian community in the face of growing laxity within the church as a whole.
The Baptist ecclesiological critique of many denominations today is that they have slipped away from this intentionality in the same way the Constantinian church did: by baptizing not only converts but also their children, who have not yet professed faith and perhaps never will.
The existence of an intentional catechumenate preceding baptism argues strongly for the idea that the early Fathers saw the church as an intentional community of believers. When, following Constantine, this became less and less a reality, the monastic movement began as a counter-cultural attempt to hold onto this vision of the church as a committed group of believers, with strict entrance requirements and a commitment to a common life. Later on, the magisterial Reformation (Lutherans, Reformed, and Anglican) did away with the monasteries, but did not put anything in their place as a way for committed believers to form intentional communities of faith. In a sense, they managed to out-Constantine the Catholics!
In both of these areas, affirming baptism as the introduction of believers into the life of faith and in the desire to preserve the church as an intentional faith community, I would argue Baptists have it right–and that they are in concert with the earliest church.
At the same time, the undisputed fact that from at least the early third century, Christians were baptizing infants, requires a re-evaluation of these long-held Baptist positions. Is it possible there is more in the New Testament about baptism and conversion-initiation than we have previously seen? We’ll see if that is the case in my next post. (But first, you may want to take a detour to consider another loose end.)