Tuesday, January 01, 2019

The Early Church: What's the Scorecard?

We study the early church to our benefit. We romanticize the early church at our peril.

This is best seen in the earliest, apostolic era churches. They were a mess. They tolerated immorality that would outrage the proverbial sailor and endorsed heresies of Osteenian levels. Now we can say, and it is no doubt true, the God providentially used these troubled churches so that Paul could write the corrections and rebukes that make up the theology section of the New Testament. But nevertheless we are faced with the reality that it only takes a few years (months?) for any non-vigilant church to sink into the mire. Even if their founder is the apostle Paul. Should we assume that after Paul’s intervention the church universal righted itself and the next few hundred years was a golden era? I don’t think so. Which is not to say that we cannot learn from the early church. But we should approach the subject with eyes wide open.

What many of us tend to do is cherry-pick.1 We find something in the early church corpus that supports our doctrine, we name it and claim it, and then run away before we read something that we don’t like.

For example, on baptism. Perhaps the most important early church document is the Didache (I’ll e-smack you if you say “no, the most important early church document is the bible”) most likely from the late 1st century. In Chapter 7 it speaks of baptism:
And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have not living water, baptize into other water; and if you can not in cold, in warm. But if you have not either, pour out water thrice upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whatever others can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.
We Baptists like to point out that this appears to endorse immersion with sprinkling an option only when immersion is impractical. Game over man. However we tend to gloss over the part about living water, fasting, and especially the preference for cold water. 2, 3 So we take what we want from the Didache and leave the rest.

 Another early document, almost as old as the Didache, is Hippolytus’ The Apostolic Tradition (c. 215). This document is sometimes invoked to support paedobaptism, or at least to support the claim that the practice is very old (and no doubt the practice is, indeed, ancient). 4

Setting the baptismal mode debate aside, 5, 6 Hippolytus gives us a fascinating glimpse at the practice of baptism in the very early Roman church. Those preparing for baptism, catechumens, in addition to undergoing exorcisms and much fasting, were to be trained in the Word for three years (ch. 17). This is in great contrast to the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8, who appears to have been trained by Philip for about three hours (or less). Do the Presbyterians (and Catholics) who appeal to Hippolytus require fasting, exorcism, and three years of training? In my experience: they do not (although the Catholics probably come marginally closer). So we take what we want from Hippolytus and leave the rest.

The documents of early church are an invaluable source of useful information. But there is no evidence that they got things more right than the modern church. And in some ways it would be surprising if they did. So we need to study the early church carefully and avoid those big, juicy cherries.

1 By “many of us” I mean that I have done so, and so I assume, without justification, others have as well.

2 Ha! My sons were baptized in the living waters of a New Hampshire lake. OK it was summer, but it was still New Hampshire. They have an authentic Didache baptism. Oh, except for the fasting part.

3 One of my secret fantasies that will someday get me excommunicated is to dump, surreptitiously, a bucket of ice into the baptistry. Simple thermodynamics tells us that it won't change the temperature of all that warm water very much, I just want to see the looks on the faces of the pastor and the person being baptized when they enter and see the cubes floating on the surface.

4 “The children,” Hippolytus wrote, “shall be baptized first.” (Ch. 21)

5 The eternality (and fruitlessness) of the debate over the mode of baptism, which ultimately is rooted in the fact that the bible is silent on the matter and the examples of baptism in the New Testament are nebulous in regards to children, leads me to believe (probably another in my list of heresies) that it doesn’t matter. If it did, the bible would have been clear. The lack of clarity, I’ll always believe (without proof), is God’s way of saying: I’ll dispense grace through baptism however it pleases me. That said I am a Baptist, and I fully support credo-baptism, but as a great and reasonable and God-glorifying tradition, not as dogma.

6 The only comparably endless debate is between physicists and mathematicians in regard to who invented calculus. The smartest people in the room say Newton, while the mathematicians say Leibniz.


  1. re: footnote 3 - The next time someone is baptized at Grace, they had better keep an eye on you.

    1. They'll never see it coming!