Alan Kreider at Bethel College, fall 2001

It is important for people in the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition to study the Early Church. There are two reasons for this. First, we Christians in the Anabaptist tradition, I believe, resonate with the Christians of the first three centuries; we find them in some ways reassuringly familiar. Second, we also find the Christians of the early centuries to be strange to us, but in their "disturbing strangeness" I believe that they can be a source of insight and healing for us. Both confirming and disturbing, the early Church is, I believe, more helpful to us today than the great church of Christendom -- the Church of Christian Europe and America to which everyone belongs. We are far more likely to learn things that are useful for our life and mission from Justin Martyr than from Thomas Aquinas or John Calvin.

So what can we learn about initiation -- about how people become Christians? Let's start with a statement of what it meant to be a Christian in the second century.

Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life . . . Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each one's lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth. They live in their own countries, but only as resident aliens (paroikoi). They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure every thing as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their food with each other, but not their marriage bed . . . They love all people, and by all are persecuted. They are unknown, and still they are condemned; they are put to death, and yet they are brought to life. They are poor, and yet they make many rich . . . They are reviled, and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect . . . To put it simply: What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world. Epistle to Diognetus, 5-6 (mid 2nd c)

Isn't that a powerful statement? Christians are involved in every society where they live; they devote themselves to its welfare; their way of life is not "eccentric." But it is distinctive. For example, the Christians had an unusual attitude to children. In ancient societies a child did not exist until its father had named it; and fathers were reluctant to have more than one girl child; dowries were expensive. So excess babies, especially baby girls, were taken to the local "sanitary landfill" to die of exposure. The Christians, who were committed to safeguard life, wouldn't do this. They went to the dumps, not to discard infants but to rescue the infants who had been left there, and they raised them as their children. Non-Christians observing this scratched their heads in wonder. This passage indicates other bits of intriguing Christian oddity. Christians shared possessions; they didn't seek revenge when attacked; they were buoyant even when persecuted.

Why, people asked, did the Christians behave like this? The key to the answer is in the Greek word in this passage, paroikoi, which translates into English as "resident aliens." The pre-Christendom Christians had a distinctive sense of self-identity. They knew that they were members of an international family; they had a deep and primary commitment to the family of faith that transcended blood and borders. So Christians were residents -- they could be at home anywhere; but Christians were also aliens -- they were foreigners everywhere. This was a good life, wholesome in itself and good news to others. Christians were confident that their life in Christ provided soul for their civilization. And they had no doubt that others were attracted, because the persecuted Christian movement was growing at an average of 40 per cent per decade.

How did Christians come to be "resident aliens"? What formed them into this distinctive, "resident alien" form of living? I believe that the answer lies to a large extent in the mode of initiation, in the way the Early Church incorporated its members. Christians were intriguingly odd because of the way the church's initiatory processes and rituals shaped them as Christians. I think we have a lot to learn from these. But I will demonstrate that when the church became big and coercive -- in the century after Constantine -- its initiatory practices had to change and did change, I believe for the worse. I am not alone in my reservations about this. Anabaptists have always criticized the Christendom system, in which Christians seek to achieve the kingship of Christ often by coercion, and today many others are similarly critical. In the U. S. as elsewhere Christendom is in decay and its practices are in disarray. By contrast, the Early Church's models appear vital and applicable and Mennonites are learning from them.

Let's look at a model of initiation from the third century as it might have been practiced in Rome and North Africa. This is only one model of early Christian practice. There were others, scattered across the Christian church that by the third century had spread widely across the Empire. But the model that I'm presenting, based on the so-called Apostolic Tradition, is influential and representative. It also is very different from the practice of the New Testament church. In Acts 8 the evangelist Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch immediately upon his confession of faith; and throughout the first decades of its history the Christian churches seem to have baptized converts quite promptly. But that was before persecution -- and before Christianity spread to areas where new converts to Christianity, unlike the Bible-reading eunuch, didn't know the Bible's story and were thoroughly immersed in the rituals and narratives of paganism. How could the church cope with would-be converts for whom the Christian story and lifestyle were strange? To do this the church's leaders changed initiation; they made it a lengthy process. Baptism no longer came immediately; it came only after months, at times even years, of preparation.

How did someone become a Christian in the third century? Let's look at the story of a Christian leader, Cyprian. By his early thirties Cyprian had achieved his professional goals; he was rich and successful. But he was unhappy. His life was unsatisfying -- he called it "darkness and gloomy night." He had superb food, elegant clothes, admiring friends -- but he felt empty. Worse, he felt himself to be a slave, addicted to luxurious living. But Cyprian had a friend, Caecilianus, who was said to be a Christian; Caecilianus was as happy as Cyprian was frustrated. Cyprian wondered: could I be content without all this stuff? Could I live like that Christian Caecilianus? Cyprian worked up the courage (after all, being a Christian was illegal) and asked Caecilianus: Do you think I could be free of my "gilded torments"? Caecilianus held out hope for Cyprian. He took Cyprian to a meeting of local Christians, who were screening people who were interested in exploring Christianity. The process in the Carthage church seems to have been as follows.

Cyprian, accompanied by his sponsor Caecilianus, went early in the morning to be interviewed by Christian teachers. The teachers asked Caecilianus whether Cyprian was a suitable candidate for Christian teaching. Then they asked Cyprian about his lifestyle: was he actively involved in violence? or sexual immorality? or activities associated with paganism? If Cyprian had been, the teachers would have told him to go away, change the aspect of his life that was unacceptable to Christian teaching, and then come back later to apply again. Why? Because they believed that only people who were living like Christians could understand Christian teaching. For them living took precedence over thinking. You didn't think yourself into a new kind of living; you lived yourself into a new kind of thinking.

Once he was accepted for teaching, Cyprian entered into a process of initiation that could last for years -- a period of teaching called the "catechumenate." Hopefully the catechumenate would culminate in his baptism. During this period Cyprian could go to church, but only to the first part of the service -- he could only stay for the readings of the Bible and the sermon. But he and the other catechumens (the people receiving teaching) had to leave before the parts of the service that were central to the early Christians -- the prayers and the communion. So the Church held Cyprian, powerful, rich, well-connected, at arms length. Cyprian was a catechumen, but he was still an outsider. The Church didn't say, "Well, he comes from a good family. Let's give him a fast track to membership." But the Church taught Cyprian. Together with other catechumens -- that is, people receiving life-forming teaching -- every morning before work Cyprian came to the house where the church met; he came with his sponsor Caecilianus, whom he called "the friend and comrade of his soul." That's a commitment of time, isn't it, on the part of both Cyprian and his sponsor? What did Cyprian learn in these sessions? He learned a new narrative -- the story of the Bible and of Jesus replaced the tales of gods and goddesses which he had learned from his parents. He learned new ways of living. He received the teachings of Jesus as a rule of life. Cyprian probably memorized these. But he also learned how to apply these to life: how do Christians deal with the typical addictions of sex, the occult, materialism, violence? How do they respond when they are persecuted, when they are interrogated? How do they view death? Cyprian learned a set of priorities in dealing with poor people that to his upper class family would be really odd: it is reported that "as a catechumen Cyprian loved the poor." Through this process the Church was resocializing Cyprian -- resocializing him into the lifestyle and habits of an alternative community, a community of "resident aliens." Note this: Cyprian could not move towards baptism unless his sponsor thought that he was ready and could answer searching questions posed by his teachers. The question was not, "Does Cyprian understand Christian doctrine?" Rather the questions were, "Has he [Cyprian] lived a good life while a catechumen? Has he honored the widows? Has he visited the sick? Has he done every kind of good work?" Only if his sponsor Caecilianus could answer "He has," could Cyprian move towards baptism.

In the final weeks before baptism, two things happened. First, exorcism: the Church's exorcists exorcized Cyprian daily. We have no records of third-century exorcistic prayers, but we can imagine that the exorcists named Cyprian's addiction to luxury and glamour as a spiritual force and cast it out; this would be, in the words of William Willimon, a "detoxification of the dominant order." Second, teaching: the Church's catechists taught Cyprian indispensable things that they had saved until now: the beliefs of the church, based on the local creed; also the basic prayer of the church, the Lord's Prayer. Cyprian memorized these; he also tried to understand them. Note: the early church didn't start with theology; it ended with theology, because that was what made sense of the lifestyle of the resident alien that the candidates had already learned to live.

All of this culminated in a grand initiatory ritual -- baptism. And, although small-scale and private, it was grand; ritually it was extremely impressive. Typically baptism was on Sunday, often at Easter or Pentecost, but the final preparations went on throughout all the previous week. These preparations included fasting and praying and being exorcized. The initiation process came to a climax on Saturday night. The community's leader, the bishop, came to Cyprian as he came to each candidate, looked him in the face, and exorcized him a final time. Breathing in his face, he signed him with the cross, on his forehead, ears and nose. Then Cyprian, along with the other candidates, spent the night in vigil, praying and fasting, while teachers read from the Bible, concentrating on stories of liberation such as the Exodus. At the first hint of dawn, when the rooster crowed, the baptisms began. Cyprian and the others were brought to a place where there was water, if possible flowing water. It was a private place. Why private? Because the candidates then took their clothes off; they were baptized stark naked. They even had to take their jewelry off! The candidates then stated definitively: "I renounce you, Satan, and all your service and all your works." Whereupon the deacons and deaconesses anointed the candidates head to foot with the "oil of exorcism." Gleaming with oil, Cyprian then descended into the water with a deacon. When he recited from the creed, "I believe in one God, the Father almighty," the bishop baptized Cyprian. Was his baptism by submersion, with the bishop pushing his head beneath the water three times as Cyprian states the creed? Or was it merely immersion: standing in water, with water liberally poured over his head and body? We can't be sure. What we do know is that Cyprian then came out of the water, put on his clothes, and entered the church where the community was waiting. There, he was anointed once more, signed with the cross yet again. Now, at last, Cyprian and the other candidates experienced what they had been denied during the period of their catechumenate: definitive welcome and belonging. Cyprian prayed with other Christians; he and others exchanged the holy kiss; and he came to the table of the Lord where they received, for the first time, not only bread and wine, but also milk and honey -- they had come to the promised land. Cyprian belonged; the whole ritual incorporated him and the others tangibly into the people of God. How did Cyprian experience this rite? His account indicates that it was deeply empowering. He had despaired that he could ever live as a lover of the poor, as someone who was free of the materialism of his culture. He had thought that his addictions were incurable. But now, he reported, thanks to "the water of new birth" and the work of the Holy Spirit, the impossible had become possible. He wrote: "What before had seemed difficult began to suggest a means of accomplishment." It was possible, by God's grace, to experience "liberty and power" as a resident alien.

This was potent. People responded in differing ways. But Cyprian, like many others, was faithful to death; he was martyred in 258, eleven years after his baptism. Other communities baptized in other ways -- and their members' behavior was at times less intriguingly odd than that of Cyprian. But the really big changes took place beginning fifty or so years after Cyprian's death, as the emperor Constantine in 312 legalized Christianity and eventually, on his deathbed in 337, was baptized as a Christian. The most notable change was in the number of people wanting to become Christian. No longer were Christians subject to persecution such as that which had killed Cyprian. Indeed, to be a Christian was to share in the Emperor's religion, and the religion that was gradually becoming the religion of the imperial establishment.

Indicative of this change was the cross. The early Christians rarely depicted the cross; it was like the electric chair, the clearest sign of failure and social disapprobation that society could muster. But now the emperor took the cross and "impressed [it] on the very shields of his soldiers;" and, our source continues, Constantine "commanded that his embattled forces should be preceded in their march, not by golden images, as heretofore, but only by the standard of the cross" (Vita Constantini 4.21). So the cross underwent symbolic transformation. It was no longer a sign of suffering and shame; it no longer represented the empire's ultimate rejection of someone who challenged its values. Now often gold and jeweled, the cross represented the empire's domestication of Christianity. And the message to waverers was clear: if you want to get ahead in life, it's not a bad idea to become a Christian.

This was bound to change initiation. But not immediately -- the mass Christian culture called Christendom took several centuries to develop, and its distinctive institutions didn't appear at once. Instead, throughout Constantine's reign and the rest of the fourth century there was much continuity of initiatory practice. The catechumenate and the baptismal rituals were now increasingly standardized; local variety lessened as the century progressed. The most notable change was one of scale. Suddenly things were bigger and more impressive. As the number of catechumens became inflated, the setting of baptism became grander; this is the era of the gloriously decorated hexagonal or octagonal baptismal fonts.

Throughout the fourth and fifth centuries, four other changes occurred in the initiatory practices of the church.

  • It became easier to become a catechumen. The scrutiny of professions withered. In Jerusalem, Cyril did not ask whether the candidates were soldiers who killed; he rather inquired whether they were "drunkards and boasters" and obedient to their parents.
  • The catechists' teaching changed. In general they now concentrated on doctrine, warning the candidates of a variety of heresies, rather than on practice, instructing the candidates how to live as Christians. In Milan, where Ambrose based his catecheses upon the Old Testament patriarchs and wisdom literature instead of the Sermon on the Mount, there does seem to have been a lowering of the hurdles. In general, there now seems to be less emphasis upon doing good to poor people and loving the enemy than there had been.
  • The rituals of initiation and baptism became more formidable and frightening. "Awesome" was the word which they used; but this did not mean "kinda neat." It meant something that chilled you to the core, that scared you silly, that caused your hair to stand on end. The theology of baptism that was now widely adopted in both West and East was that of Romans 6, dying to the old self and rising to new life with Christ. The ritual to express this sequence of death and resurrection was submersion in baptismal fonts; pouring water on those standing in water was replaced by kneeling in the water -- naked, of course, for it's a matter of rebirth -- and having the bishop hold one's head under the water three times in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Scary enough, one might suppose. But the fear was heightened by the tendency, present earlier but now common, not to tell the candidates about baptism and the subsequent eucharist until they had experienced them. It was sound pedagogy, no doubt, to tell people the meaning of what had just both terrified and delighted them. But the conscious aim was conversion. In an era in which the masses were becoming Christian and standards were inevitably falling, the initiatory rites now became, in the words of Prof. Paul Bradshaw of Notre Dame, "the means of producing a powerful emotional and psychological impression upon the candidates in the hope of bringing about their conversion." What neither the sponsors nor the catechists had been able to do, the rites themselves were now to do. They don't seem to have been all that effective. As Augustine, the great bishop of Hippo in North Africa complained, "We can't convert the vast majority to a good life, can we?" (Sermon 80.8)
  • In the fifth century, following Augustine, infant baptism became the standard, invariable form of initiation. This change, as much as anything, moved the West into Christendom. Augustine was a master practitioner of the traditional initiatory practices of the Church. He was a wondrously gifted evangelistic preacher who inspired and scared people to enroll for baptism; he prepared an introductory book for catechists that was unrivaled for centuries; and he was himself an insightful catechetical speaker. But intellectually and theologically, by developing the doctrine of original sin and by sheer force of character, Augustine made infant baptism the norm for Christian initiation. Henceforth the baptism of infants quamprimum -- as soon as possible after birth -- became a spiritual necessity. And thereby Augustine subverted the program of initiation which he had inherited from the Early Church.

There was, of course, some baptism of children before Augustine. In the third century Apostolic Tradition there was the baptism of the "little ones" "who cannot speak for themselves." Scholars working with the epigraphs in the catacombs have found children who were baptized. Here is a sample:

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." (Ferguson 1979:42)

This was not infant baptism as we know it; it was the emergency baptism of a sick child one year and ten months old who died within hours of her baptism. Parents were concerned that for their children to be eternally safe they must be "baptized by water and the Spirit" (John 3.5); so they prevailed upon churchmen to baptize their children, and the churchmen relented. There also, especially in North Africa, was the baptism of some infants. Origen, the great theologian, reported that baptism was "administered even to infants"; Cyprian even argued that it was appropriate to baptize infants because of "the contagion of the ancient death" (Ep 64). But neither Origen nor Cyprian developed a coherent theology for baptizing infants. And all evidence indicates that -- although there were some baptisms of children and infants in the Early Church -- the baptism of adult converts remained the normal practice even into the fifth century.

With Augustine things began to change. In the second half of Augustine's episcopacy, in the 410s, he was engaged in theological dispute with the Pelagians about the origin of sin. Out of this debate came the doctrine of original sin, which provided a rationale for baptizing newly born infants as soon as possible, and the occasional practice became normative. According to the doctrine of "original sin," every newborn inherits from Adam a human will that is unfree, that is "curved in on itself," and that in its guilt incurs the divine wrath. Only baptism, which expresses God's free and unmerited grace, can provide for the salvation of any human, infant or adult. But the infant cannot understand! Precisely: it is the pre-rational person who most totally has to rely upon the gracious act of God. But the infant may die before it is baptized. That is too bad, for the child will receive eternal punishment, but it is a result of the eternal, inscrutable, predestinatory will of God. Augustine wrote: "Often when the parents are eager and the ministers prepared for giving baptism to the infants, it still is not given." And why? Because the parents were too slow, or the minister inefficient? No: "because God does not choose" (The Gift of Perseverance 12.31). The result of this was a tremendous urgency to baptize the infant as soon as possible after birth. The baptism of every infant became an emergency baptism.

"A baptismal revolution" -- this is what Scottish patristics scholar David Wright, the leading expert on the origins of infant baptism, calls the result of Augustine's formulation of the doctrine of original sin. It was this formulation that shaped the baptismal practice of Christendom. Although it took several centuries to be worked out in practice, by the seventh century everybody in confessedly Christian lands was baptized soon after birth; in case spiritual necessity did not persuade the parents, the imperial laws required this. So every person in the now Christian West was a Christian, a baptized Christian. And baptism became atrophied or minimalized. No longer was there an extended initiatory process; no longer was there a catechumenate or a vehicle for teaching young Christians; no longer was there a rite that inspired awe. No longer did the sponsor vouch for the character of the candidate; henceforth the sponsor answered in place of the candidate -- and promised to see that, eventually, he or she would learn the Creed and the Lord's Prayer. The immersion of infants was gradually replaced by sprinkling; and the study of baptismal fonts shows how, as the Christendom centuries proceeded, baptism became both higher and dryer. The rite became not considered but automatic, done not with great celebration at a high festival such as Easter or Pentecost but in private, in the middle of the week, by a priest or if necessary by a midwife. And the result was a civilization in which Christians were not resident aliens but residents. They are baptized, as a matter of routine, into a society in which everyone has to be a Christian.

It was against this kind of approach to baptism -- coercive and automatic -- that the sixteenth-century Anabaptists rebelled. The Anabaptist leaders did not have the sources or the time to study the documents and archaeology of the Early Church. What would they have made, I wonder, of what I have said in this lecture? Would they have rejected everything that came after Acts 28? Probably some would. But other Anabaptists might have been intrigued, finding as they listened to the early Christians evidence that confirmed some of their deep intuitions. After all, before Augustine changed the rules, there is vastly more evidence of believers baptism than there is of infant baptism. And Menno would have rejoiced to note that, in the pre-Constantinian writings on baptism, the Johannine theme of "new birth" was often central.

And how about the twenty-first century Anabaptists? I find it fascinating, as one myself, to survey the evidence which I have presented. I am heartened, not only by the early Christians' practice of believers baptism; I am also encouraged by the manifest attempt of the catechists to teach the ethics of Jesus -- think of Cyprian who "loved the poor." I am also struck by how fruitful it is to speak of our Christian existence today as that of "resident aliens." And I am excited to see many Christians today, in post-Christendom, rediscover the baptismal seriousness of the early Christians. Especially inspiring here are our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, who have revived catechesis with the Rite for the Christian Initiation of Adults, and who have in many places constructed large baptismal fonts which are designed for the immersion of adults.

But as I listen to the Early Christians and converse with them, I also find that they have much to teach me and other Mennonites. Let me in conclusion mention three things that I think we might learn from these distant brothers and sisters. In the first place, the early Christians can teach us a lot about the importance of teaching in preparation for baptism that is experiential. I believe that we are today as powerfully shaped by a pagan surrounding society as people were in Cyprian's day; our values, instincts and drives are thoroughly catechized by television and advertising. The propagandists and advertisers want us to be addicts, people who imagine ourselves free and may talk about the "free world" but are as enslaved as Cyprian was. How are we Christians, in the face of this, to impart gospel values, the teachings of Jesus, and genuine freedom? What is our catechesis like? We Mennonites are working on this: Mennonite leaders have prepared Welcoming New Christians, which has drawn on early Christian initiation and Anabaptized it. But the question that the early Christians pose for us remains: what is it, in our culture today, that will teach us how to live as resident aliens and thus prepare us for baptism? Several early Christian practices might point to an answer. For example, in preparing people for baptism, our pastors could give to the baptismal candidates more than information and ideas; they could also assign the candidates to supervised work-study placements, in which the candidates would learn about God's concern for the poor by working in a soup kitchen, night shelter, or retirement home. Further, in their baptismal teaching, our pastors and teachers could consider doing what the early church did, having exorcisms, prayers of "detoxification," which name the spiritual powers of our day and denounce them in Jesus' name. I think it's going to take something drastic if we Mennonites are to be resident aliens in our disjointed world; and remember, these are not my ideas -- they are the ideas of the early church.

Second, I think that the early Christians can teach us about the power of ritual. I grew up in a Mennonite church that emphasized words and ideas and good intentions. The rituals of baptismal preparation were reticent -- a few classes with the pastor -- and the ritual of baptism itself was wet, and meaningful, but not very expressive ritually. When I met Baptists in England, I discovered that the ritual of baptism was important for them in a way that it wasn't for me. One of my great pleasures in recent years has been to teach the Early Church in England to Baptist seminary students, who thought that they knew how to baptize and to show them a video of early Christian baptismal practice. They were moved by a richness of ritual that transcended anything in their experience. There is a power in the ritual of the early church that we only faintly glimpse. We may not want to baptize as the early Christians did. We may think that what they did was ritually over the top. But they pose questions for us. Do our baptismal rituals adequately express what is going on as we, in our society, die to our old values, renounce Satan, rise to newness of life, declare that Jesus is Lord, and become "resident aliens?" If our reticent rituals do not express this well, what should we change?

Finally, I have learned from Cyprian and the early Christians that the gracious God is really present when we baptize. When Conrad, Felix, and George knelt in the upper room in Zürich in 1525 for the first Anabaptist baptisms, God was really there. Not necessarily in the water itself, but in the action and the event. I have come to believe that baptism doesn't simply bear testimony to something that God has already done, although it must do this. It also is an occasion in which the sovereign God can show up and do something, something healing, transformative, and new. Baptism thus makes a difference. It frees us from the fears and addictions that bind us; and it receives us into communities of "resident aliens." We Christians will be at home everywhere but fully at home nowhere, able to make a distinctive contribution to our troubled world. "What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world." May it be so!