Not Really "What the Early Christians Believed"

November 2002By William J. Tighe

William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania.

A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More Than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers.  Edited by David W. Bercot. Hendrickson Publishers (P.O. Box 3473, Peabody MA 01961). 704 pages. $34.95.

“A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs,” begins the Introduction to this book, “allows the user to quickly ascertain what the early Christians believed on over 700 different theological, moral and historical topics, and it functions as an index to the writings of the ante-Nicene writers, specially as collected in the ten-volume work, the Ante-Nicene Fathers” (a reference work with a certain Protestant/Anglican editorial slant originally published in 1885-1887). Later on in the Introduction the editor, an Anglican priest, warns readers against making three mistakes: using the Dictionary “as a data-base for proof-texts”; taking every one of the various dicta of the Fathers as “dogmatic theological pronouncements”; and reading, anachronistically, a post-Nicene terminological exactitude into the words and phrases used by pre-Nicene Christians. While the last two of these three caveats are very much a propos, it is difficult to see how, given the manner in which this reference book has been organized, any reader, save one already well-versed in the Church Fathers, could profitably employ it, save as a source of proof-texts on dogmatic, moral, or practical matters. Thus the Dictionary is far from enabling the reader to ascertain “what the early Christians believed” about many important matters, without, in some cases, a great deal of supplemental research (as, for example, by consulting the classical work of the late J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines).

Not that there is anything particularly wrong with “proof-texting,” if it is for the purpose of giving an answer, in an apologetic context or otherwise, to a question of fact. Did, for example, the Christians of the first three centuries believe in the legitimacy and efficacy of prayer on behalf of the dead? Turn to the entry “Prayer” in this volume, and one finds seven divisions: (1) Admonitions on and descriptions of prayer, (2) Prayer postures and customs, (3) Lifting hands in prayer, (4) Praying with the Spirit, (5) Should Christians pray to angels and saints?, (6) Should Christians pray for the dead?, and (7) Should Christians pray to the dead?

Under number six above, one finds two scriptural citations (from 2 Macc. 12:40-42 and 2 Tim. 1:18) followed by nine patristic ones (one from the anonymous Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas [ca. AD 205], four from Tertullian [ca. 215], one from St. Cyprian [ca. 250], one from Arnobius [ca. 305], and two from the Apostolic Constitutions [ca. 390]). All of these support the practice of prayer and/or “offering” (i.e., probably having the Eucharist celebrated) for the Christian dead, while denying its efficacy or forbidding it for the non-Christian dead, save for one of the citations from Tertullian, which on the face of it could be read as denying the efficacy of prayer for the dead, but which seems actually (in the context of the other citations from his writings) to be denying the possibility of salvation for nonbelievers once they have died. This is pretty clear proof.

On the other hand, if one’s attention strays to the previous entry, “Should Christians pray to angels and saints?,” one finds two scriptural citations and four patristic citations, three of these latter from Origen and one from St. Cyprian. The two scriptural quotations (Mt. 6:9, the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, and Col. 2:18, with its negative allusion to the “worship of angels”) do not seem particularly pertinent to the Catholic understanding of the intercession of the saints, and while Origen clearly opposes “invoking angels” in (at least) one of the citations, whether he has Christian intercessory prayer or magical invocations in mind is not at all evident (the final citation, from St. Cyprian, is simply a reference to the passage in the Apocalypse in which the angel that appears to the Apostle John at the beginning of the book forbids John to worship him as though he were God). This is not at all clear, and if by chance the reader is aware of the excavations under St. Peter’s Basilica and elsewhere in Rome since the late 1940s, he might recall to mind the numerous second- and third-century graffiti scratched on and about locations associated in the tradition of the Roman Church with the temporary and permanent resting places of the remains of the founders and heavenly patrons of that church, Saints Peter and Paul, such as (to cite but one of myriad) “Peter and Paul, pray for Victor,” and wonder even more strongly how pertinent to the question are the entries of the Dictionary under this subsection.

What about infant baptism? Even in Catholic theological texts or instructional material produced over the past three decades, one sometimes sees the baptism of babies and children treated as though it were rare or even nonexistent in the early centuries of Christianity and only introduced into the practice of the Church as eschatological expectation cooled, a stance hardly calculated to rebut the Baptist notion that the practice of baptizing infants was one of those early corruptions of “Bible Christianity” that led to the creation of Catholicism. If we turn to “Baptism” in the Dictionary we find five sections: (1) Meaning of baptism, (2) Mode and description of baptism, (3) The question of infant baptism, (4) Who may baptize?, and (5) Baptism by heretics. Under the third of these we find six patristic citations: one from St. Irenaeus, one from Tertullian, three from St. Cyprian, and one from the Apostolic Constitutions. That from Irenaeus appears implicitly to support infant baptism, those from Cyprian and the Apostolic Constitutions clearly and imperatively uphold it, but that from Tertullian clearly opposes it. Is Tertullian the odd man out, or is he the only representative, amidst the “ongoing corruption of the Church” (as our Baptist debating partner might claim) of the “true Bible teaching”? The citation from Tertullian is in fact from his work On Baptism (chapter 18), and the Lutheran New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias, in his detailed analysis of this passage (Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries), proves clearly both that Tertullian had in mind only the children of pagans converting to Christianity and that he was arguing against the established practice of the Church, in his own native Carthage and elsewhere, of baptizing all such infants. Tertullian’s concern appears to have arisen from the possibility that if the convert parents were to die, the godparents would be unable to fulfill their commitment to secure the Christian nurture of the baptized infants (presumably because the children would be in the hands of the deceased parents’ pagan kinsmen), and that the children themselves, as “baptized pagans,” would be in a more dangerous spiritual condition than if they had remained unbaptized; and (as Jeremias goes on to argue) in another one of Tertullian’s works, On the Soul, he clearly presupposes and advocates the baptism of the children of Christian parents and the offspring of mixed marriages. (I myself, when I searched out and read chapter 18 of On Baptism, found there that Tertullian advocated the same delay in the case of young unmarried or recently widowed converts, until the latter had either married or shown themselves able to bear the burden of celibate chastity.) The Baptist argument falls to the ground, insofar as it is based on history, as opposed to privileging novel and unprecedented interpretations of Scripture. Nobody would gain the slightest inkling of all this from perusing the Dictionary, however, since only this one citation from Tertullian’s voluminous and variable writings appears in the subsection on infant baptism.

Thus this Dictionary, while its contents are frequently of great interest, is not particularly useful (save as a convenient source of “proof-texts,” despite its editor’s strictures). Nor is it “user-friendly” if the reader does indeed wish to discover “what the early Christians believed.” Where it is more useful is in its short entries concerning Church Fathers (Irenaeus or Polycarp, for example) or the generally more detailed ones on heretical teachers (Marcion or Valentinus — and many others) or dissident movements from Catholic Christianity (Monarchianism, Montanism, or Novatianism), where it provides useful contemporary descriptions. By all means consult it for reference purposes, but to find out what the early Christians believed, look elsewhere.

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