Evangelism in the Early ChurcH
The sociologist-turned-historian Rodney Stark once remarked, “Finally, all questions concerning the rise of Christianity are one: How was it done? How did a tiny and obscure messianic movement from the edge of the Roman Empire dislodge classical paganism and become the dominant faith of Western civilization?”1 For many of us, the question isn’t merely academic. If it worked before, might it work again—whatever “it” was? Can the Church’s mission today learn from the experience of the ancient Church?
The trouble is, the formula for the early Church’s evangelistic success remains elusive. Or maybe such a formula never existed. This is what Alan Kreider argues in his thought-provoking book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire (Baker Academic, 2016). It may surprise folks accustomed to books and conferences on evangelistic methods, but “if the early Christians had strategies for converting people, they did not teach these or write about them” (81). After the generation of the Apostles there is virtually no concerted effort to preach to unbelievers. “According to the evidence at our disposal,” writes Kreider, “the expansion of the churches was not organized, the product of a mission program; it simply happened” (9).
Well, not quite. Kreider actually has a lot to say about how and why Christian growth “simply happened.” He calls it “patient ferment.” To explain this phenomenon, Kreider appeals to habitus, a concept drawn from Aristotelian philosophy but adapted and popularized by the French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu. One’s habitus is the culturally mediated set of dispositions that structure one’s reflexive behavior. Readers who find this too jargony will be glad to know that, at least for Kreider’s purposes, habitus can be replaced with “way of living.” Becoming a Christian in the ancient Church meant learning a new way of living or habitus, a long and arduous process in which repeated bodily practices were at least as important as doctrinal instruction. As individuals prepared for Baptism over several years, their catechesis focused heavily on moral transformation, and the “scrutinies,” rites in which a catechumen’s moral progress was examined, were not just formalities. Are this person’s business practices honest? Is he abandoning sexual immorality? Does he practice works of mercy? Is there evidence that his habitus is being conformed to Christ? After Baptism, one’s Christlike habitus was strengthened especially in communal worship and prayer.
For Kreider, the heart of the Christian habitus, the distinctive Christian virtue, is patience. Kreider explores patience in Greek authors such as Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, but he assigns special importance to a North African “tradition” of patience, represented by Tertullian of Carthage, Cyprian of Carthage, and Lactantius. Christian patience was a privileged form of divine imitation. It meant unhurried faithfulness, trust in providence, and a refusal to indulge in coercion or violence of any kind. Patience allowed for the slow, almost imperceptible ferment of the Spirit. The Church grew not through overt outreach, but through its relaxed and serene witness to the Gospel, which attracted non-Christians, one by one.
The Deformation of the Church’s Mission?
But the story Kreider wishes to tell doesn’t have a happy ending. Kreider admits that already by the middle of the third century some of the Church’s ferment was spoiling. But the real beginning of the end came with Constantine, who promoted the Church without submitting to its regimen of habitus-reformation. (Constantine was only accepted to the catechumenate and baptized in 337, just before his death.) Seeking purportedly Christian ends through the means of imperial coercion, Constantine set dangerous precedents. Theological justification for Constantinianism was provided by Augustine, whom Kreider also diagnoses with a Roman aristocratic habitus never reformed by Christian patience (283, 290, 295). In a book marked by its gentle tone, Kreider’s frustration (not to say impatience!) with Augustine is striking.
Kreider’s historical and theoretical claims, particularly regarding “coercion,” need to be sifted much more carefully than present space allows. The historical picture sometimes seems oversimplified so as to sharpen the alleged Constantinian break. I’ll limit myself to one example: attitudes toward heresy and schism. Kreider flags Augustine’s devaluation of the sufferings of (heretical) Pelagians and (schismatic) Donatists, yet he fails to note that Cyprian, too, insists that “the grievous irremissible sin of schism is not purged even by martyrdom.”2 For Kreider, Constantine’s view of heresy as “full of venomous poison” gives “unfettered expression to his impatient habitus” (270). But this is in fact perfectly traditional language for heresy. “Impatience” with false teaching is discernible in both Testaments of Scripture (e.g., Jer 8:8–13; 2 Pt 2:1–22), and indeed in Jesus himself (e.g., Lk 11:45–52). The second-century martyr-to-be Ignatius of Antioch warned Christians in Tralles against heresy’s “deadly poison.”3 The champions of Kreider’s North African “tradition” of patience also use such language. Tertullian compares heresy to fever,4 and Cyprian calls heretical teachings “murderous diseases and poison.”5 Lactantius, too, refers to false teaching as poison,6 and denies that heretics are rightly called “Christian.”7 In short, no clear-cut shift from “patience” to “impatience” appears. Kreider’s overarching paradigm doesn’t persaude.
Patient Ferment and the New Evangelization
Nonetheless, Kreider’s keen and challenging insights shouldn’t be missed. Kreider not only claims that the early Christians didn’t develop evangelistic strategies; he seems suspicious of those who do. To plan is to attempt to control, and to control is to be impatient. “With Constantine we move from mystery to method” (267). On the book’s final page Kreider warns against “facile generalizations” and “how-to formulas,” for these would be “impatient responses” (296). Still, he makes it clear that he hopes for contemporary believers to learn from and adopt the early Church’s approach. I share Kreider’s hope, but I don’t think we need to be quite so wary of “method.” Scripture tells us that God unfolds a definite “plan” (Acts 2:23; Eph 1:10; 3:9). St. Paul certainly strategized, as did later missionary greats. And aren’t Kreider’s own proposals of habitus-formation also a sort of programmatic strategy? Still, we should remember that, while planning can foster evangelism, it never constitutes evangelism.
Kreider notes that stringent membership requirements helped preserve the witness of the Church, which “did not try to grow by making people feel welcome and included” (149). He criticizes Augustine’s ecclesiology of a mixed body of saints and sinners, wheat and tares, for the habitus of individual Christians is the Church’s witness (81, 125). Yet Pope Francis and his predecessors have called for an increased readiness in the Church, precisely as the Church, to serve individuals at every level of commitment or non-commitment.8 More deeply, Augustine saw that the Church’s witness isn’t fundamentally the virtuous performance (i.e., habitus) of its members, but its existence as a communion formed by the love of God in Christ rather than its members’ virtue (a view I also detect in pre-Constantinians like Ignatius, Origen, and Cyprian). This is what the Catechism teaches: “The Church is born primarily of Christ’s total self-giving for our salvation, anticipated in the institution of the Eucharist and fulfilled on the cross” (766).
But Kreider is right that communal and individual witness is paramount for mission. In 1975, Blessed Paul VI taught that “for the Church, the first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life.”9 Pope Francis stresses the need for ongoing, patient, liturgical formation to accomplish this: “God’s word, listened to and celebrated, above all in the Eucharist, nourishes and inwardly strengthens Christians, enabling them to offer an authentic witness to the Gospel in daily life.”10 Kreider is also to be thanked for demonstrating that Christians should not mute their demanding moral and liturgical distinctiveness on the assumption that assimilation to the world increases attractiveness.
Finally, Kreider’s emphasis on patience is a salutary exhortation to take the long view. Even after Pentecost, Christianity took centuries to make more than the occasional blip on the wider culture’s radar. We don’t need the evangelism program that’s going to change everything at once. What’s called for is patient fidelity to sound doctrine, worship, and life in Christ. We can entrust results to the Spirit. In the Catholic Church, however, indifference toward evangelism is more prevalent than impatience. Perhaps we can distinguish between an impatience that might accost strangers with threats of hellfire, and an urgency that echoes St. Paul’s zeal for making Christ known.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention that Alan Kreider passed away in May 2017. By all accounts, he lived a life deeply dedicated to seeking peace and pursuing it (cf. Ps 34:14). Let us pray for his enjoyment in Heaven of the perfect shalom for which he longed on earth.
1 The Rise of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), 3.
2 The Unity of the Catholic Church, 14, in St. Cyprian, The Lapsed, The Unity of the Catholic Church, Ancient Christian Writers, 25, trans. M. Bévenot (New York: Newman Press, n.d.).
3 Trallians, 6.2, in Early Christian Fathers, trans. & ed. Cyril C. Richardson (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 100.
4Prescription Against Heretics, 2.
5 Ep. 73.4.2, in St Cyprian of Carthage, On the Church: Select Letters, Popular Patristics Series 33, trans. A. Brent (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006), 198.
6 Divine Institutes, 5.1.
7 Divine Institutes, 4.30.
8 See, e.g., Evangelii gaudium, 27, which calls for “an effort . . . to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open.”
9 Evangelii nuntiandi, 41.
10 Evangelii gaudium, 174.