Book review: ‘The Patient Ferment of the Early Church’
Alan Kreider, emeritus professor of church history and mission at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, has capped his career with a masterwork on the rise of the early church. All future scholars of the subject will need to take account of this volume and its innovative thesis. All Christian readers will be able benefit from reflection on what Kreider’s book means for renewal of the church in our own time.
The book’s subtitle, “The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire,” focuses the question: Why did the church grow so rapidly in the Roman Empire? Over three decades, Kreider explored primary and secondary sources in a quest for the answer.
He became convinced the conventional answers were wrong.
The church did not grow because of powerful missionary preaching and conversions on the pattern of St. Paul recorded in the New Testament.
It did not grow because its leaders were articulate and persuasive in teaching new religious doctrine.
Nor did it grow because its worship was attractive to outsiders. Indeed, it did not even allow unbaptized people to attend worship services.
The church grew, writes Kreider, because of its commitment to patience in a time of ferment.
This thesis requires a fresh and expansive definition of patience. Patience is rooted in God’s character, is not in human control, is not violent or in a hurry. Patience, among other characteristics, is hopeful.
The church endured persecution without expecting a sudden coming of God’s kingdom. Early church fathers wrote more about the Christian virtue of patience than about evangelism.
The church grew because it developed a new lifestyle intended to follow the ways and teachings of Jesus and because that lifestyle was interesting and attractive to other people. Kreider’s name for the lifestyle of the early Christian community, drawn from a French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, is habitus — the “system of dispositions” that we carry in our bodies.
Early Christians lived in unusual, countercultural ways. They responded to popular scorn and persecution with patient nonviolence. They cared for widows and for the poor. They showed their mutual love and respect in community in use of the kiss of peace.
It took time for new Christians to be converted to their alternative habitus. People looking on from the outside were attracted to the unanxious, noncoercive Christian lifestyle.
Peaceful human relationships were important to the Christian habitus. In modern times, Christian pacifists have intently focused on the question of whether Christians in the early church participated in military service. Kreider says the early church did not focus on conscientious objection as the central issue. Peace was the result of the more profound virtue of patience.
The healthful growth of the early church depended upon intentional and rigorous catechesis. It took time to teach potential church members the story of the Bible and for new ways of Christian behavior to become habitual. Catechism could take as long as three years. Before candidates were ready for baptism, they had to show that they were living according to the high standards of the Christian faith. Baptism was a moment of high emotional impact, involving naked entry into flowing water, anointment with the oil of exorcism and participation in the new member’s first Eucharist with milk and honey as well as bread and wine.
The conversion of Emperor Constantine in 312 undermined the church’s commitment to patience. Constantine intended to use the Christian religion as a unifying force in the empire. That project required coercion. In Kreider’s view, Constantine did not become a Christian until his baptism shortly before his death.
In one fascinating section, Kreider invites readers to consider a counterfactual “thought experiment” that suggests alternative policies the emperor might have adopted. For example, Constantine might have given Christianity the same legal status as pagan religions. He could have patiently left the growth of Christianity to God.
In the final chapter, Kreider offers a fresh interpretation of the writing of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, on the theme of patience. Augustine saw patience as an ambivalent virtue. He lacked the earlier emphasis on “a life that trusts God and therefore does not control things, is not in a hurry and does not use violence.” Augustine led the church in a trajectory “from patient ferment to impatient force.”
Kreider has said that he writes primarily for Mennonite readers. His view of the virtue of patience, the role of catechesis and other themes reflect his Anabaptist-Mennonite commitments. He also writes for general Christians and invites all of us to consider how the ways of the early church can be a source of spiritual renewal in our own time.
James C. Juhnke, of North Newton, Kan., is professor emeritus of history at Bethel College.
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