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Repost: The Wealth of Egypt

From Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses:

The loftier meaning [of the Israelite’s plundering the wealth of Egypt] is therefore more fitting than the obvious one. It commands those participating through virtue in the free life also to equip themselves with the wealth of pagan learning by which foreigners to the faith beautify themselves. Our guide in virtue commands someone who “borrows” from wealthy Egyptians to receive such things as moral and natural philosophy, geometry, astronomy, dialectic, and whatever else is sought by those outside the Church, since these things will be useful when in time the divine sanctuary of mystery must be beautified with the riches of reason.

Those who treasured up for themselves such wealth handed it over to Moses as he was working on the tent of mystery, each one making his personal contribution to the construction of the holy places. It is possible to see this happening even now, for many bring to the church of God their profane learning as a kind of gift. Such a man was the great Basil [of Caesarea], who acquired the Egyptian wealth in every respect during his youth and dedicated this wealth to God for the adornment of the Church, the true tabernacle.

In this classic of Christian mysticism, Gregory reads the entire story of Moses as an allegory of the spiritual life. Whenever the bare historical details of the text create moral or rational difficulties, he finds a “spiritual” meaning beneath the surface. This is what he did with the detail that the Israelites on their way out of Egypt plundered the wealth of their former oppressors. He equates the “Egyptian wealth” with the learning of pagan cultures–the Egyptians of Moses’ time and the Greeks and Romans of his own. He praised Basil the Great for his extensive learning in pagan arts and sciences.

One of my majors in college was geography, and as a Neutestamentler I have also had some training in the study of history. Both are “field-encompassing fields.” You can’t just learn history or geography; studies in those fields will eventually lead one to dabble in a handful of other disciplines. Sociology and linguistics are more or less obvious examples, but sometimes a historian must go even further afield. He or she may be called on to learn a little astronomy to interpret the timing of events such as comets and eclipses as an aid to establishing ancient chronology, agriculture and animal husbandry in order to understand farming practices and technology, medicine in order to interpret physical conditions described in texts written before the advent of modern medicine, and so on. The field-encompassing nature of these disciplines is probably one of the main reasons I am personally drawn to them, which may be a highly academic way of confessing that I have a very short attention span.

Hopefully, however, I’ve acquired a small bit of “Egyptian wealth” in this sense. A liberal arts education exposes one to a little bit of a lot of disciplines (science, economics, history, mathematics, etc.)—for some, enough to make them think they know something; for others, enough to convince them there is much more to learn. In the spirit of Gregory, I would like to think that my meager “wealth” is at God’s disposal, to bring beauty to his spiritual house.

Not every Christian would agree with Gregory about the value of this “Egyptian wealth,” however. Tertullian famously asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” By that he meant, What does profane learning have to do with the things of the spirit? There are plenty of Tertullianists around today who reject the idea that Christians can learn anything from unbelievers. There was a fairly recent outbreak of this attitude at Patrick Henry College when a couple of faculty members wrote a paper about “The Role of General Revelation in Education.”

Others—thankfully the majority over the course of Christian history—have seen the wisdom of learning whatever can be known, even if pagans teach it. Justin Martyr was an early proponent of this view, which is also found in Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and many others. These heroes of the faith would have agreed with the concluding paragraph of the paper cited above:

When we examine the writings of any author, professed Christian or otherwise, the proper question is not, “Was this man a Christian?” but “Is this true?” Nor should we spend much time looking for points of disagreement. Rather we should focus on taking what has been rightly said and submitting it to the service of Christ.

I hope my students figure this out early in their college careers. When they take their classes in economics, physics, or English literature, they are storing up treasure they can place at Christ’s disposal. It doesn’t matter where that knowledge came from. It only matters if it’s true.

 

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How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: A Drive-by Book Review

Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind is obviously born of deep passion to recover the roots of early African Christianity and especially to encourage African scholars and theologians themselves to dig deeper into the literary sources and make their own case for the central role Africans played in the shaping of the consensual orthodoxy of the patristic era. Oden explains how his work as editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series led him to realize how many early Christian thinkers—not only Augustine and Athanasius but Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, Lactantius, Optatus, and many others—were products of an African cultural milieu.

He argues passionately that these figures were no less “African” because they mainly lived in the northernmost districts of the continent, and that most if not all of them were both culturally and ethnically at home with the various indigenous African peoples—Berber, Punic, Coptic, Nilotic, Ethiopian, etc.—who lived and died far from the Hellenized cities in which they often ministered, and among whom they often lived. (Athanasius’ frequent exiles among the various Nilotic peoples of Upper Egypt comes to mind.) From these major population centers, Christianity spread into Africa’s interior, as far as the headwaters of the Nile in Uganda and certainly to the Sudan and Ethiopia during pre-Constantinian times.

In the end, to deny that these giants of faith were truly “Africans” or that their practice of the Christian faith was an “indigenous African religion” is to strip these terms of any rational meaning. Oden’s fondest wish would be for young African Christians from throughout the continent to reclaim these figures as their own. He is, in fact, rather distressed that so many African theologians have been influenced more by European and North American modernism (and postmodernism) than by the indigenous, nearly 2,000-year-old Christian traditions of their own continent.

Oden’s case is convincing as far as it goes, but it is really more of a Prolegomenon to the study of early African Christianity. (And he has launched a research project to continue the work, Early African Christianity.) When it comes to specifics, Oden is disappointingly sparse. In part, this is surely because many of the primary sources, written originally not only in Greek and Latin but also Coptic, Ge’ez, and—yes—Arabic have yet to be translated.

Still, I would have wished for at least a little bit of help in understanding what precisely Oden sees as the “genius” of early African Christianity: what it was that the early church learned in Africa before teaching it to the broader Christian world. If you read something like Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization or even George G. Hunter’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism, you come away with at least a tentative sense of what makes “Celtic Christianity” tick. In How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, there is occasional reference to the “African metaphors” that shaped the thinking of Athanasius and the rest, but there is very little meat on those bones. The nearest we get to specific examples of how African culture left its mark on its first Christian adherents is (1) a moving chapter on the African martyrs as a challenge to the idea that orthodoxy is nothing more than the truth as told by the “winners,” in which one finds (2) a single reference (tied to the continuity of the communion of saints) to the value of honoring the ancestors, and also (3) this tantalizing sentence: “These metaphors—Eucharist, faithfulness to death, martyrdom and ascetic discipline—were constantly interwoven in early African exegesis of Scripture” (123).

In the end, a more accurate title for the book would have been achieved by dropping its first word. Oden is clear that “Africa Shaped the Christian Mind.” As to how, a reader will have to do a bit of additional homework to find out. For my part, I think I’m going to start by re-reading The Spirituality of African Peoples by Peter J. Paris to sensitize myself to the key themes he lays out, then attempt to bring them into my subsequent readings and re-readings of early African theologians.

Related:

The Earliest Liturgy: Developments

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)
  • Meal
  • 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”)
  • Lamp-ceremony
  • Psalmody
  • 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?

technorati tags: agape, apostolic tradition, communion, didache, eucharist, lord’s supper, de virginitate

Happy Are the People Who Know the Festal Shout

This story from the Chicago Sun-Times mentions “Nigerian warrior cries” as part of the procession of an Anglican church to its new worship space after formalizing‚ quite peaceably, the article suggests‚ a split with the Episcopal Church in the USA and alignment with the Anglican Church of Uganda. Douglas LeBlanc of GetReligion followed up on this strange detail, and learned the truth: what the reporter heard was not war cries but ululation, a form of vocalizing common in African worship and, it seems, in the American congregation described in the article.

The notice reminded me of the ancient Christian practice of “jubilation.” Eddie Ensley studied this phenomenon and wrote it up in Sounds of Wonder (Paulist, 1977). More recently, Janice and Richard Leonard rearranged Ensley’s material for publication as an entry in the fourth volume of Robert Webber’s The Complete Library of Christian Worship (StarSong, 1994): “A Brief History of Jubilation” (280-308).

Jubilation is a spontaneous form of wordless vocalizing. The Fathers considered jubilation a natural response to supernatural grace‚ a form of prayer that even children could learn. John Chrysostom encouraged his people to jubilate: “It is permitted to sing psalms without words, so long as the mind resounds within” (On the Psalms). Augustine described jubilation as God praying through the believer when one does not know how to pray properly (cf. Rom 8:26):

Lo and behold, he sets the tune for you himself, so to say; do not look for words, as if you could put into words the things that please God. Sing in jubilation: singing well to God means, in fact, just this: singing in jubilation. (Commentary on Psalm 32 [33 in Hebrew numbering]).

Jubilation was thus not considered the same thing as speaking in tongues. It was understood to be a learned behavior, even a spiritual discipline. It was common to find reference to the practice in Psalm 89:15: “Happy are the people who know the festal shout, who walk, O LORD, in the light of your countenance.”

Wordless singing exists in several secular forms, such as yodeling, “scat” singing, and “yo-he-ho”-type work songs. The ululating mentioned in the post linked above probably fits the category as well. Apart from the African practice of ululating, the closest religious parallel is probably what the African-American churches sometimes call “moaning,” an antecedent to spirituals. According to Bradford Keeney:

Moans are melodically dressed with melismas, having a unison and heterophonic tone, and are typically expressed in a slow and sustained manner. Surge singing is where the lead voice and congregation melodically and rhythmically decorate hymns with moans and vocal embellishments.

The phenomenon is also described as “a kind of blissful rendition of a song, often mixed with humming and spontaneous melodic variation.” It is a form of spontaneous, joyous praise that builds on other musical expressions.

From the fourth to the ninth centuries a particular form of liturgical jubilation would begin with an improvised flourish on the final syllable of “alleluia” and might continue for up to five minutes of wordless singing. Other ancient and medieval sources describe jubilation as including such phenomena as hand clapping, cooing, dancing, and even what modern Pentecostals might call “holy laughter.” Although this custom is not explicitly attested before the fourth century, it may correspond to New Testament references to “spiritual songs” (Col 3:16) or “singing in the spirit” (1 Cor 14:15). Some even suggest the origins of jubilation go back to synagogue practice (Donald P. Hustad, “Music in the Worship of the New Testament,” The Complete Library of Christian Worship, vol. 4 (StarSong, 1994) 192).

Most church music of the patristic era was of an improvisational nature. This applies not just to jubilation or other forms of “spiritual song,” but to improvised psalm-singing and hymnody as well. Ensley (283) quotes L’encyclopédie de musique to this effect:

The first Christian authors … describe the rich, exuberant coloraturas sung without a text and the alleluia songs as overwhelming melody of joy and gratitude sung upon the inspiration of the moment. A large number of the melodies that have come down to us still have traces of improvisation.

The spontaneous, improvised form of early church music is underscored by a passing reference in Tertullian to the practice singing at an agape meal: “After manual ablution, and the bringing in of lights, each is asked to stand forth and sing, as he can, a hymn to God, either one from the holy Scriptures or one of his own composing ….” (Apology 39, emphasis added).

In this light, John Chrysostom described singing in worship as a charismatic experience, with the church cantor as a “prophet” and music a form of “prophecy”: “The prophet speaks and we all respond to him. All of us make echo to him. Together we form one choir. In this, earth imitates heaven. This is the nobility of the church.” (Ensley, 283).

technorati tags: jubilation

What Were Baptists Thinking?

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 [1955] 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.)

technorati tags: conversion, baptism, faith, holy spirit, sacrament

The Wealth of Egypt

From Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses:

The loftier meaning [of the Israelite’s plundering the wealth of Egypt] is therefore more fitting than the obvious one. It commands those participating through virtue in the free life also to equip themselves with the wealth of pagan learning by which foreigners to the faith beautify themselves. Our guide in virtue commands someone who “borrows” from wealthy Egyptians to receive such things as moral and natural philosophy, geometry, astronomy, dialectic, and whatever else is sought by those outside the Church, since these things will be useful when in time the divine sanctuary of mystery must be beautified with the riches of reason.

Those who treasured up for themselves such wealth handed it over to Moses as he was working on the tent of mystery, each one making his personal contribution to the construction of the holy places. It is possible to see this happening even now, for many bring to the church of God their profane learning as a kind of gift. Such a man was the great Basil [of Caesarea], who acquired the Egyptian wealth in every respect during his youth and dedicated this wealth to God for the adornment of the Church, the true tabernacle.

In this classic of Christian mysticism, Gregory reads the entire story of Moses as an allegory of the spiritual life. Whenever the bare historical details of the text create moral or rational difficulties, he finds a “spiritual” meaning beneath the surface. This is what he did with the detail that the Israelites on their way out of Egypt plundered the wealth of their former oppressors. He equates the “Egyptian wealth” with the learning of pagan cultures–the Egyptians of Moses’ time and the Greeks and Romans of his own. He praised Basil the Great for his extensive learning in pagan arts and sciences.

One of my majors in college was geography, and as a Neutestamentler I have also had some training in the study of history. Both are “field-encompassing fields.” You can’t just learn history or geography; studies in those fields will eventually lead one to dabble in a handful of other disciplines. Sociology and linguistics are more or less obvious examples, but sometimes a historian must go even further afield. He or she may be called on to learn a little astronomy to interpret the timing of events such as comets and eclipses as an aid to establishing ancient chronology, agriculture and animal husbandry in order to understand farming practices and technology, medicine in order to interpret physical conditions described in texts written before the advent of modern medicine, and so on. The field-encompassing nature of these disciplines is probably one of the main reasons I am personally drawn to them, which may be a highly academic way of confessing that I have a very short attention span.

Hopefully, however, I’ve acquired a small bit of “Egyptian wealth” in this sense. A liberal arts education exposes one to a little bit of a lot of disciplines (science, economics, history, mathematics, etc.)—for some, enough to make them think they know something; for others, enough to convince them there is much more to learn. In the spirit of Gregory, I would like to think that my meager “wealth” is at God’s disposal, to bring beauty to his spiritual house.

Not every Christian would agree with Gregory about the value of this “Egyptian wealth,” however. Tertullian famously asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” By that he meant, What does profane learning have to do with the things of the spirit? There are plenty of Tertullianists around today who reject the idea that Christians can learn anything from unbelievers. There was a fairly recent outbreak of this attitude at Patrick Henry College when a couple of faculty members wrote a paper about “The Role of General Revelation in Education.”

Others—thankfully the majority over the course of Christian history—have seen the wisdom of learning whatever can be known, even if pagans teach it. Justin Martyr was an early proponent of this view, which is also found in Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and many others. These heroes of the faith would have agreed with the concluding paragraph of the paper cited above:

When we examine the writings of any author, professed Christian or otherwise, the proper question is not, “Was this man a Christian?” but “Is this true?” Nor should we spend much time looking for points of disagreement. Rather we should focus on taking what has been rightly said and submitting it to the service of Christ.

I hope my students figure this out early in their college careers. When they take their classes in economics, physics, or English literature, they are storing up treasure they can place at Christ’s disposal. It doesn’t matter where that knowledge came from. It only matters if it’s true.

technorati tags: education, gregory of nyssa, liberal arts, moses