The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (2016), by Alan Kreider – A Book Review
The central thesis of this book is that “The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire,” was largely due to the fact that early Christians trusted in the “patient ferment” of God and their way of life together. Kreider notes that, after the early apostolic period, the church of the first three centuries settled into a pattern of faith and life that was decisively not missionary in character or practice. And yet the church grew steadily, reaching into the farthest corners of the Roman Empire.
This shocks contemporary, Christian sensibilities. In modern times the missionary impulse lies deeply imbedded at the heart of Christian identity, especially in the evangelical world. Indeed, without a missionary drive in the church, many evangelical churches would find it hard to articulate why they even exist. But it is somewhat unsettling to face the fact, that in spite of its best missionary efforts, the church – at least in North America – seems to be losing ground in the 21st century.
I too find it difficult to comprehend how the early church grew steadily against all odds for at least three centuries without having a missionary catalyst or program at its core. It is interesting to note, however, that during this time at least three major treatises were written about “Patience” and none on “Missions.”
So, in response to the book, we face two challenges; one, to understand what explains the phenomenal growth of the church in these early centuries, and two, what if any lessons we can extrapolate for the church of the 21st century. In this review I will only be able to scratch the surface, but I hope my musings will create further reflection and dialogue.
First, the phenomenon itself: Writers of early church fathers, including Justin, Clement, Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian and Lactantius reveal that “patience” was considered to be one of the central dynamics at play with respect to church growth during these centuries. They insisted that:
With patience at its core, the “habitus” – or lifestyle – of Christians was seen to be uniquely different from that of their pagan neighbors. And with the conviction that being Christian meant following Jesus in all of life, it was clear to Christians that any pagans wishing to join them had a long, slow and deliberate journey of “habitus change” ahead of them; a transformation that could not be left to chance. It seems that pagans noticed that Christians were most eloquent when they were not in control of situations but intuited that another way of living was possible. It was the way of Jesus that focused on the character, bearing and behavior of ordinary Christians. But adjusting lifestyles accordingly would not be easy.
So it is not surprising that during these centuries Christian leaders frequently wrote “apologies” – that is treatises on what the Christian life looks like and why – instead of lengthy “doctrinal statements” that Christians had to “believe.” It is noteworthy that in the 4th century, after the church and empire had made peace with each other, this dynamic was almost entirely reversed – lots of writing about orthodoxy (theological beliefs) and little about orthopraxy (Christian practice)!
When intrigued pagans expressed interest in joining the Christian Way because of distinctive, Christian lifestyles they witnessed, they first became catechumenates, often lasting three years. This time was broken up into four sections, separated by times of scrutiny in which mentors had to bear witness that the pagan seekers were indeed learning to live according to the Christian habitus. Finally, after baptism, catechumenates were admitted to the full Christian worship service which included hearing the gospel, biblical readings, short homilies, prayers, fellowship meals along with the Eucharist, and the kiss of peace.
In the final chapters of the book, Kreider takes pains to show how this centuries-old tradition of church growth got up-ended in the fourth century once the church and empire started working hand-in-hand. Now Christians learned to be in a hurry, to trust their strategies and state-sanctioned use of force for church growth, emphasizing orthodoxy over orthopraxy, and persecuting any and all Christians among them who did not adhere to standard theological dictates. Patient ferment mutated into impatient forms of control, power, coercion and a two-tiered Christianity in which only the clergy were asked to follow Jesus directly. The masses of illiterate Christians were exempted in order to be able to serve the needs of the empire with impunity.
Although I found the book somewhat repetitive in places and academic in tone, I did not find it a difficult read. Although I have studied patristics before, I had never read one work that provided such a comprehensive overview of the first three centuries of Christianity, nor how it malformed itself so dramatically in the fourth century.
Even though I realize one must be careful not to draw implications of this story forward 1600 years too readily, I am left with some questions to ponder: