Early Christian Spirituality Pt. III

The previous posts have dealt with the underlying assumptions that drove the actions and overall worldview of the early Christians. You can read Parts 1 and 2 here.

Particular Practices

Perhaps there is yet another way to describe Christian spirituality that sums these up and gives a foundation as we enter to discuss particular practices in early Christianity. This of course would be none other than the concept of imitation. In every early Christian practice there was a statement of faith being made that hinged on their aim to be imitators of Jesus Christ. The second part of this paper will focus on those various aspects of life and worship in the early church and special attention will be given to how those practices played into their attempt to imitate Christ.

Baptismal Catechesis

The early spread of Christianity as portrayed to by the book of Acts is one of ethnic, gender, and diverse religious backgrounds. Once persecution struck the church in Acts chapter eight, the church was scattered to different parts of the world and the Gospel began to take root among the Gentiles, may of which were polytheists. It would be absurd to assume that Gentiles were fully initiated into the church without first being instructed in the beliefs and practices of Christianity.[1] Their background would have likely been pagan, so to fully initiate a pagan into church would be damaging to the body because the former pagan would still retain some former presuppositions. The same can be said for Jewish converts because becoming Christian would mean that they had to deny some Jewish presuppositions and take on a new Christian metaphysic. Therefore, Christian catechesis was intended to teach the convert how a Christian ought to think and act. It would have been a deconstruction of former thoughts, while simultaneously reconstructing Christian thoughts. Part of this deconstruction involved exorcism and a renouncement of Satan. This exorcism was not what is typically thought of today, specifically demon possession, but referred to the bondage and slavery of those who are in sin. Cyril of Jerusalem claimed that without exorcism, salvation was not possible because the soul could not be cleansed. However, through catechism and exorcism, the convert was set on fire and purified by the Spirit as gold is by the goldsmith.[2]

Furthermore, Early Christian catechesis did not only exist to construct a certain theology, but also to explain the Christian sacraments. What was about to take place in Baptism and its significance would likely not have been known, nor would Holy Communion communicate the Gospel to the untrained. This catechesis served as an explanation of these “mysteries,” their significance, and the role that imitation played in them.

The question of when this baptismal catechesis took place is not simple to pin down. There simply is no evidence to support a standardized time for catechesis. Some churches instructed their people prior to baptism while others catechized them post baptism. For example, Egyptian churches instructed new converts to fast for forty days in imitation of Jesus’ fast in the wilderness as they received instruction and were joined in fasting by the remainder of the community. The end of that fast was the preferred time for baptism of the catechumens as they were thoroughly tested before fully initiated.[3] The consistent factor is that baptismal catechesis was vital in early Christian spirituality for the explanation and preservation of the faith.

Baptism as Initiation

The origin of baptism can be traced to several different traditions, some of which are not distinctively Christian. The Jews, and the Jewish sect known as the Essenes practiced baptism as a repeated ritual of purification.[4] However, for Christianity, baptism is approached in a completely different way, not as a repetitious purification ritual, but as initiation into the body of Christ. The majority of contemporary American FCE tends to view baptism as an outward sign of an inward commitment. While this is not necessarily wrong, it does seem to be an incomplete understanding when set against the view of early Christian spirituality. There were certain benefits that a full member of the body of Christ enjoyed that a non-believer, or non-initiated believer did not enjoy, namely the Eucharist.[5] FCE membership seems to center around whether or not a person is allowed to vote on church matters, not whether or not they get to participate in Holy Communion.

The Role of the Community

            Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of baptism in early Christian spirituality was its communal nature. In contemporary American Christianity, baptism is often viewed as the individual’s statement of faith to the church body, yet the church body does not respond with a statement of faithfulness to the convert. The Didache alludes to the communal nature of baptism, saying, “And before the baptism let the one baptizing and the one who is to be baptized fast, as well as any others who are able.”[6] This seems to indicate that the community to which a convert was being baptized played a central role in the baptism itself. They were not simply spectators or bystanders, but active participants as they celebrated and welcomed the new sheep into the fold.

Imitation

            As for what exactly happens when a person is baptized, a full consensus regarding the theology of baptism is missing in early Christian spirituality. However, what we do have is a rich view of numerous things that transpire upon baptism. Baptism was thought to be an imitation, or reenactment of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan river. In those moments of baptism when Jesus arose from the water, the heavens opened and the Spirit descended and the Father proclaimed, “ This is my one dear Son; in him I take great delight (Matt 4:17).” So also when the Christian is baptized the Father speaks to him as his adopted child.[7] Cyril of Jerusalem speaks of baptism as imitation in this way, “O strange and inconceivable thing! We did not really die, we were not really buried, we were not really crucified and raised again, but our imitation was but in a figure, while our salvation is in reality.”[8] In other words, to the early Christian baptism was imitation and a signet of the believer’s union with Christ.

The Water

One of the great metaphors for baptism in the Holy Scriptures can be found in Exodus 14 and Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea. Upon seeing the enemy approaching the people of Israel were afraid, but Moses charged them saying, “Do not fear! Stand firm and see the salvation of the Lord that he will provide for you today.” Then God did a great saving act through Moses, he parted the Red Sea and the people of Israel passed through on dry ground. Not only did they pass through, but also the enemies of Israel were swallowed up by the water. Therefore, is it fair to say that God saved Israel by means of the water? Cyril claims that baptism is “a ransom to the captives; the remission of offences; the death of sin; the regeneration of the soul; the garment of light; the holy seal indissoluble; the chariot to heaven; luxury of paradise; a procuring of the kingdom; the gift of adoption.”[9] What is missing from early baptismal literature is the strong emphasis on the connection of baptism to Romans 6.[10] While this connection could be drawn from such quotations as that of the previous quote by Cyril, mimicking Christ’s burial and triumph was not the central focus, rather new life. The early Christian placed emphasis on the water because it symbolized the Holy Spirit. The water represented life and refreshment, not death. The Didache gives further insight to the nature of early Christian baptism:

Now concerning baptism, baptize as follows: after you have reviewed all these things, baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in running water. But if you have no running water, then baptize in some other water, and if you are not able to baptize in cold water, then do so in warm. But if you have neither, then pour water on the head three times in the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.[11]

Now what seems to be the case is not the method by which a person is baptized, but the proclamation of the Triune God and the water. The Didache first commands that baptism is to be distinctively Trinitarian. This is one of the two non-negotiable aspects of baptism. The second is the use of water. It does not indicate a strict “immersion only” baptism, but leaves room for variation because access to pools of water were likely difficult in the Middle East. The emphasis is on the water—it was preferable that it be living, or moving water to portray the living and moving Holy Spirit. In addition, the water was to be cold if possible to symbolize the refreshing nature of the Spirit and his affects on those whom He indwells. It was this indwelling Spirit that moved in the person being baptized, refreshing them and giving them new life that was the emphasis of early Christian baptism, not primarily the method. In John 3 Jesus tells Nicodemus that in order to have eternal life one must be born of water and the Spirit, or born again. This passage drove the early Christian’s understanding of baptism because Jesus equates the water with the Spirit and the necessity of rebirth.

What can be gleaned from this summary of baptism in early Christian spirituality is that it was the means by which one was identified as a member of the Christian church. This practice was heavily communal and did not simply involve the one being baptized, but also the entire body to which the believer was being baptized. The baptism itself carried significant theological statements; specifically that it was Trinitarian and the celebration of new birth and new life in the Spirit. Contemporary FCE often debates the mode by which one should be baptized (e.g. sprinkling, pouring, immersion), but the early Christian was concerned with what the Spirit was appropriating to the convert by grace, through faith, and through the baptismal waters. Prior to this initiation, the convert did not enjoy the benefit of the Eucharist, to which we now turn.

The Eucharist

If one had to choose a focal point of Contemporary FCE worship based on our practice, the answer would likely be corporate song, and the proclamation of the word. These have come to define the liturgy of most American Evangelical churches, even churches that would declare themselves “non-liturgical.” Liturgy is simply the way in which a church conducts themselves when they meet. Therefore, the category of “non-liturgical simply does not exist for any Christian body.

Origin of the Eucharist

            The Eucharist finds its origin in Judaism in the practice of the Passover meal. The sacred Passover meal was a means of expression for the Jew regarding his relationship to the divine. Meals have always been a means of expressing a relationship between people and in Judaism, the people participated in the Passover as a declaration of God’s acceptance of them and a celebration of their deliverance. [12]

Christianity picks up many of the major themes that are found in the Passover meal. It remains an expression of God’s adoption and acceptance of them, as well as a proclamation and celebration of salvation. Foundationally, the difference is in the assumptions. The Eucharist meal is not the Passover, neither is the Passover the Eucharist. There is a foundational assumption that sets the two apart and that is the Eucharist declares acceptance and salvation by way of the crucifixion and resurrection of the God-Man Jesus Christ.

Center of Worship

 This declaration came to be the centerpiece of early Christian spirituality. After baptism, a convert was fully initiated into the church and enjoyed all of the rites that accompanied that membership. It was at the Lord’s Table that the people of God gathered, not only to remember what Christ had done, but also to observe the “eschatological messianic community here and now.”[13] The final Great Banquet Supper of the Lamb was celebrated not only as a future reality, but also a present celebration. The Eucharist solidified the Christians identity as truly belonging to the community of faith, and like baptism, the Eucharist was communal.[14]

Their presence at this meal was a sign of their reconciliation to God and their membership among the elect to who would one day feast together in God’s kingdom, and the intimate fellowship with one another that they experience around the table was a foretaste, an anticipation, of the union that they would enjoy for ever with God. The whole meal even was thus both a prophetic symbol of the future and also a means of entering into that future in the present.[15]

In addition, The Didache gives instructions for how Christians were to celebrate the Eucharist and in each section, the writer gives the church something to proclaim together.[16] Therefore, the Eucharist was not only communal, but it was also confessional. As the community participated in the Eucharist, it was believed that in the elements of the bread and the wine, they were actually partaking in the body and blood of Christ. In this participation, they were believed to be made into the same body and the same blood with Christ, and in so doing, shared in the divine nature.[17]

Eucharistic Community

      As previously stated the Eucharist defined early Christians—they were a Eucharistic community. As the center of their worship, it was impossible to truly be considered Christian, void of the Eucharist because in it, those who belonged to the community of faith were defined. Therefore, it was impossible for early Christians to read passages such as John 6, which reads, “The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood resides in me, and I in him,” and not think of the Eucharist. For them it was the primary identifier in their union with Christ and the rest of the church.

The next post will conclude this series on Early Christian Spirituality and I will do my best to offer a brief comparison of Early Spirituality with the Spirituality that we see in Contemporary American Evangelicalism.


[1] Paul Bradshaw, Early Christian Worship, (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press), 1996, 3.

[2] St. Cyril of Jerusalem,  Lectures on the Christian Sacraments: The Protochatechesis and the Five Mystagogical Chatecheses, Popular Patristics Series, Edited by F.L. Cross, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press), 1977, 45.

[3] Bradshaw, 13.

[4] Ibid., 2.

[5] Paul Meyendorff, Christian Spirituality, 350.

[6]  [6] The Apostolic Fathers, 3rd ed., Edited by Michael W. Holmes, (Grand Rapids: Baker), 2007, 355.

[7]  Ibid., 352.

[8] St. Cyril of Jerusalem, 61.

[9] St. Cyril, 50.

[10] Paul Meyendorff, Christian Spirituality, 352.

[11] The Apostolic Fathers, 355.

[12] Bradshaw, 38.

[13] John D. Zizioulas, Christian Spirituality, 29.

[14] Ibid., 30.

[15] Bradshaw, 40.

[16] The Apostolic Fathers, 359-361.

[17] St. Cyril, 68.

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