The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: A Summary

Alan Kreider begins his marvellously titled book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, with some striking observations about mission in the early church. Kreider notes that while the early Christians produced three texts on patience (Tertulian, Cyprian, Augustine), they did not produce a single text on evangelism. Furthermore, early Christians did not encourage their catechumen or church members to spread the gospel, neither was “The Great Commission” (Matt. 28:19-20) used to promote worldwide evangelism, instead, it was mostly used as a Trinitarian proof text. In fact, Kreider tells us, the early church assumed that the 12 disciples had already fulfilled the great commission! Kreider even notes an interesting fact about how the early Christians used the word ‘Apostle.’ Apostles, in the mind of early Christians, were not people who evangelized and spread the faith, but rather, bishops “who in succession protect the apostolic truth.” There were virtually no famous missionaries (Kreider tells us of two, one likely legendary) and Christians did not open their worship services to the public. Neither was it easy to become a member of the church: potential members had to go through months or years of extensive catechesis.  “And yet, improbably,” Kreider writes, “the movement was growing. In number, size and geographical spread, churches were expanding without any of the probable prerequisites for church growth. The early Christians noted this with wonder and attributed it to the patient work of God.”

For the early Christians, patience was one of the highest virtues, “that virtue particularly ours” as Origen put it. In contrast, for the Romans, patience was a weak virtue for women and slaves. Instead, Romans valued decisive action. For the early Christians, the value of patience was grounded in the character of God, exemplified in His patient dealings with Israel, and Christ’s patient, long-suffering life. The prime example of patience is, of course, the patient suffering of Christ on the cross and the victory over Death that comes through the Resurrection. This was a powerful example for the early Christians who themselves faced persecution. As Kreider puts it, Christians were called to “wear their oppressors out with patience.”  In Tertullian’s treatise on patience, he connects impatience with the fall of man. Kreider writes:

Of course, Tertullian recognizes that there was a long human history before Jesus. The fall of Adam and Eve was marked by human impatience, which was ‘the original sin in the eyes of the Lord.’ Subsequently, humans committed repeated acts of impatience, which they backed up by the demand ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ In Tertullian’s view, such behaviour was unsurprising; the absence of patience is characteristic of a world in which ‘there was not yet faith.’ But when Jesus came, he—‘the Lord and teacher of patience’—changed things by uniting ‘the grace of faith with patience.’ For Jesus patience was not only a fundamental teaching—a praeceptum universum; it was also a practice—a disciplina. And the practice of patience, undergirded by the teaching of patience, prohibits humans from committing injury, even lawful injury in any area of human experience. So in keeping with the teaching of Jesus, Christians will not call others ‘you fool!’ They will not be concerned about the loss of property, which the Lord did not seek, and which they may gladly lose from theft or violence. ‘Patience to endure, shown on occasions of loss, is a training in giving and sharing,’ and, in accordance to Jesus teachings, believers will not inflict physical injury upon enemies.

Patience was the ground of all of early Christian ethics. Patience made it possible for Christians to live faithfully to the commands of Christ, even at the cost of great persecution. Patience forbade them from retaliating when they were attacked. Patience meant that early Christians were early defenders of religious liberty: “One is free to believe or not believe. With whom did Christ use force? Whom did he compel?” Patience was how the early Church approached mission. The goal was not to get as many people in the pews as possible—at the cost of hypocrisy and less faithful members. Instead, Christians focused on forming communities of character and virtue grounded on the teachings of Christ, which they believed would be the best way to attract people to the faith. As Cyprian put it: “We do not speak great things, but we live them.” The early Christians believed that the growth of the church was in the hands of God, their job was to be faithful to the teachings of Christ.

To help explain how Christians could form countercultural communities that lived strange and attractive lives to their pagan neighbours, Kreider introduces a new term: habitus. Our word habit, comes from this latin root, and is not very far removed from what Kreider is trying to describe. Habits are deeply engrained patterns of behaviour: things we do instinctively, without thinking. We usually think of very simple activities when we think of habits: brushing our teeth or saying our prayers. With the word habitus, Kreider is describing, not just our instinctive behaviours, but also our instinctive emotions, moral judgements, ways of seeing the world, ect. He is, in other words, talking about the ways our being part of a community, which is embedded in a story, forms deep habits of being— seeing, doing, feeling— within us. For example, think of how the Hutterites tell the story of our forefathers in the faith and the biblical story: not just as something that happened in the past, but as a story which shapes, informs, and guides our own lives, a story in which we ourselves are called to play a role. This story, the example of our peers and role models, and the daily repetitious life of communal life all work together to shape our habitus, to build it into our bodies. As Kreider puts it, “it is habitus that constitutes our profoundest sense of identity; that forms our deepest convictions, allegiances, and repulsions; and that shapes our response to ultimate questions—what we live for, die for, and kill (or not kill) for.” In other words, Kreider is saying that the deepest part of what makes us human is built into our very being: it is built into our bodies, it is “second nature to us.” Just like when we brush our teeth, out of habit, without thinking about it, habitus is that same type of instinctive, reflexive, habitual, knowing, that is built into our bodies.

Kreider contrasts the notion of habitus with mentalism: the mistaken idea that people are formed or changed primarily by rational argument or persuasion. On this view, the best way to make lasting transformation in how a person acts, sees or feels, is through the mind. One has to think here of long Hutterite sermons which try to convey information into the heads of hearers to change how they act. Is this really the best way to bring transformation? I think not. Much more powerful, is to try to shape the habitus, and thus form a person through their body. Music, art, conversation, storytelling, embodied practices, repetition of phrases, memorization of verses, habitual activities, are all ways of forming the habitus, and have much transformative potential. We should also point out here that the idea that the mind is separable from the body as dualists believe, is shown to be untrue. Our minds are embodied minds and we know not just, so to speak “in our heads,” but also collectively, through others, and in an embodied way through our bodies.

We will be talking about some specific examples soon, so don’t worry if this is sounding too abstract. The concept of habitus is essential for Kreider’s account because he is interested in showing how early Christians were able to form countercultural communities that lived differently than the pagans that surrounded them. In other words, the habitus of the early Christians was radically different than the habitus of their pagan neighbours. Kreider spends all of chapter three describing the “push and pull” that brought people to Christianity. People were “pushed” to Christianity by revulsion at the Roman habitus and “pulled” by the Christian alternative habitus. Kreider gives the example of the Roman gladiatorial games which formed within Romans a habitus of brutality, indifference to the pain of others, fear of authority, and so on. Krieder tells the story of the witness of early Christians who were brought to die in front of the spectators in the arena. He writes movingly of how these Christians, huddling together as the gladiators moved in to finish them off, “reflexively” did what “they had been habituated to do in their services of worship.” In a stunning act, the Christians subverted the Roman habitus of brutality with their own habitus of mutual love, embodied in the kiss of peace: “These disparate people, women and men, slave and free, poor and advantaged, ‘kissed each other so that they might bring their martyrdom to completion with the kiss of peace.’” Just think of how shocking and unsettling this act must have been for the viewers, so jarringly out of place in that spectacle of fear! Perhaps, some of them were so moved by the Christian witness, and so repulsed by the Roman lifestyle, that they sought to join the Christians themselves.

In stark contrast to many Christian churches today, early Christians did not make it easy for people to join! Potential members had to go through a long, multistage process, culminating in baptism. Kreider describes a four stage process in which the habitus—the instinctual ways of thinking, acting and seeing of the candidates—was transformed. As Tertullian so astutely put it: “Christians are made, not born.” The process began when, through relationships between believers and non-believers, a non-believer became intrigued by the Christian life and expressed interest in exploring Christianity or becoming a member. This Christian friend of the potential member, would play a key role in the process and was known as a “Sponsor.” The Sponsor would take his/her friend to meet with the Church leader for a discussion. This was the first step in the process known as the First Scrutiny in which the leader would ask the Sponsor to “bear witness” about the life of his friend. Would he be able to “hear the word” and be able to adopt the habitus of the Christians? Will he remain faithful to the Church?

If the potential member passed the First Scrutiny he would move on the second stage of “hearing the word” or Catechumanate. Here, the Sponsors played a key role in accompanying the catechumen through the process, offering guidance, support and acting as a role model. This stage was all about forming the character of the catechumen. Candidates were instructed in the Christian narrative and the teachings of Jesus. They memorized bible passages and learned new songs, as well as being instructed in the practical implications of Jesus’ teachings for daily living. The emphasis was on morals and changing the habitus of the candidates. Candidates were also formed by the practices they engaged in, such as learning the sign of the cross, praying, caring for the poor, as well as being formed by the diverse community of believers they now associated with. This was a patient process that took around three years, though it could take longer or shorter than that. Kreider writes: it took “as long as it took for the candidates character to be formed, for their habitus to be changed, for them to experience what Orthodox theologian Vigen Guroian calls ‘deep ontological repair.’” At the end of this second stage, catechumen would have to pass through a Second Scrutiny, in which their character was assessed.

Upon passing the Second Scrutiny, candidates would move on the third stage of “hearing the gospel” or Baptismal Preparation. Here candidates would learn the rule of faith of the community they were becoming a part of, and learn more in-depth doctrines, such as the Trinity. Another key part of this stage was exorcism, and candidates would go through almost daily exorcisms. This culminated in the Third Scrutiny in which the Bishop himself “exorcised each candidate so that he knew each one was holy, good and undefiled.” This all sounds strange to our modern ears, ‘exorcism’ just isn’t a category most of us have. Perhaps this exorcism entailed “liberation” from false allegiances and captivity to principalities and powers that the candidates had fallen under. In the worldview of the biblical authors certainly, political powers and spiritual powers were inextricably linked.

Finally, the candidates would be ready for Baptism. After spending the night before in prayer, fasting and hearing exhortations, the baptismal ceremony took place on Sunday morning. Kreider describes the process:

The candidates gather near flowing water, often no doubt outdoors in the sea or a river. The water is blessed. And then, as the Apostolic Tradition calmly puts it, ‘let them strip naked.’ Vulnerable, ‘divested of the distinguishing marks on which the hierarchy of ancient society depended,’ the candidates got down into the water. Each one renounces Satan and is anointed with the oil of exorcism. Then, giving answers to three creedal questions, each one is baptized three times in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They die to their old selves, and then they arise as Christians who are newly alive. They are anointed with the oil of thanksgiving, put on garments, and enter into the church.

We see in this long and complex process a key piece in the formation of the distinctive witness of the early Church. By transforming the habitus of potential members it was able to create a countercultural community. Within the Church itself, the liturgical practices the community engaged in, such as common meals, eucharistic meals, common prayer, and the Holy Kiss, were all key to transforming the habitus of believers. Kreider notes that sermons were of secondary importance—and usually lasted a mere six to fifteen minutes—to the communal prayer. Christians prayed out loud, from their hearts, appealing to God to help them. Christians stood close together and could overhear each others prayers, allowing members to be able to respond to the needs of others. Kreider argues that the perceived power of Christian prayer was one of the main things that attracted non-Christians, and also the main thing the baptized were initiated in—only the baptized could take part.

One of the most striking examples of a liturgical practice that embodied a countercultural habitus was the Holy Kiss. Kreider notes that kissing played a key role in Roman society:

…in public life the kiss was demonstrative and utilitarian; it was ‘a symbol of social stratification and status, a ritual of hierarchy’… The kiss of greeting had its place in court ceremonies; depending on rank, people kissed the hem of the emperor’s robe, his knee or his hand… Rank was all important and only equals ‘kissed on level.’

How striking then, that this practice was adopted and subverted by the Christian community. After common prayers, all believers, regardless of social standing or wealth would exchange a “kiss of peace,” a habitus which embodied their common status and equality in the family of Christ as well as being a tangible expression of love and reconciliation.   

Origen once described the early Church communities as “another sort of country, created by the Logos of God.” Origen is describing the new world that Christians carried in their bones, encountered in their worship and brought fourth in the world through the care for the destitute. Christians were indeed members of a new kingdom, part of “another sort of country,” adventurers taking the first steps into a new world that stood in stark contrast to the passing age that they had left behind. Kreider articulates the Christian difference by drawing on Justin Martyr:

But Christians, Justin claims, have been liberated from the old habitus in order to enter into a new habits, a new morality… in sex, continuance; in place of magic, dedication to God; in wealth ‘bringing what we have in common fund and sharing with everyone in need’; in violence and xenophobia, ‘living together and praying for our enemies, and trying to persuade those who unjustly hate us.’

It was not their words or fiery preaching that attracted people to the Christian churches—as we noted above, Christians did not engage in public preaching or street evangelism—it was the sense that there was something strange, new and beautiful about these people and the way they lived. The way the early church spread the gospel was, as Kreider’s marvellous title tells us, by “patient ferment.” By the non-coercive way of the cross. Christians simply lived faithfully and patiently, leaving the rest in the hands of God. It was not their job to compel people to join or to try to steer the course of history, that was in God’s hand. Their job was faithfulness:

The earlier Christian tradition was based on an understanding of God’s work as manifested in the life, teaching and resurrection of Jesus. The word that summed this up for them was patientia…In their patience-shaped perspective, history is safe in God’s governing hands. So people who worship God and follow Jesus do not need to control things; they do not rely on the power the state to vindicate their point of view; they do not fret their brows or hurry; and they never ever impose their views by coercion and force. And somehow, spontaneously, carriers of the gospel show up—slave women, business people, people of no account—and the church grows, spottily, unsystematically, and by ferment.

But Kreider’s history doesn’t end there. In the final part of his book, entitled “The Transformation of Patience,” Kreider discusses the shift that took place through the emperor Constantine, and then in the theology of Augustine. Kreider begins his account with the historical background to Constantine’s rule. Just prior to Constantine becoming emperor, Christians had undergone a renewed persecution after forty years of peace. When, in 312, Constantine had a conversion experience in a decisive battle for control over the Western Empire, and subsequently began favouring Christianity over paganism, Christians must have felt great relief. (How one thinks about the Constantinian shift—Christianity gaining cultural and political power—will necessarily impact how one thinks about Christianity’s role in contemporary politics, especially in America) Something fundamental had changed for Christians. They were no longer the embattled minority, but suddenly had access to the highest reaches of political power. Clergy, who only a few decades ago had associated with the lowest of the low, now associated with the most powerful man in the empire. Kreider describes this shift:

…the bishops courted by the court, found it hard to keep their values and their habitus intact. Given their changed context, it was also a challenge, one imagines, to keep their biblical exegesis sound and their theological thinking straight. As theologian Richard Niebuhr once remarked, ‘It is wonderful what a simple White House invitation will do to dull the critical faculties.’

In promoting Christianity, and persecuting pagans, Constantine approached religious policy, not as a Christian—Christians had long been promoters of religious liberty—but, Kreider notes, as a traditional Roman:

He approached [religious policy] as a traditional Roman with Christian affinities who was convinced that the religious cult played a central role in unifying society. Concord in religion was central to his policy; it was the means of securing divine blessing for all of society.

One has to think here of Christians who want a “Christian nation” to secure God’s blessing and avoid God’s wrath. Are these Christians thinking more like Romans than Christians?

In his use of state power and coercion to promote Christianity, Constantine broke radically with how earlier Christians had spread the faith. Rather than trusting God, and prioritizing faithfulness, Constantine started thinking “instrumentally” about mission. While Christians before Constantine hadn’t given any thought to “missionary methods” or effectiveness, leaving the growth of the Church in the hands of God, Constantine employed the power of the state, in order to bring growth to the church. It was a shift, from patient ferment, to impatient coercion, or as Kreider puts it, a shift from “mystery to method.”

Constantine himself, never officially became a member of the church, until he was baptized on his deathbed in 337. Kreider notes two changes that the example of Constantine’s conversion, along with his forceful promotion of Orthodoxy, had on the Church. First, Kreider notes the roots of a perverted idea of baptism:

[Constantine’s baptism] by implication expressed a theological idea that would have a huge future—that baptism is necessary not, as in the past, to enter into the abundant, faithful life as a disciple of Jesus Christ but rather to avert eternal damnation.

Second, Constantine’s use of state power to promote Orthodoxy, and his use of force to root out heresy, along with his late baptism, had the effect of shortening and transforming the process of catechesis:

After Constantine, catechists largely avoided teaching behaviour; instead they focused on belief, shaping the thinking of believers whose theology would be orthodox. Often catechetical programs were considerably shorter than they had been before Constantine.

In his final chapter, entitled “Augustine and Just Impatience,” Kreider turns to Augustine. Writing in 417, in the midst of the Donatist crisis, Augustine wrote On Patience, the third early Christian text on the subject. While the texts on patience written by Tertullian and Cyprian focused on the outward actions of a patient life, Augustine was much more concerned with inner motivations. For Cyprian and Tertullian, acts of violence and attempts to control others, were the result of impatience. Augustine saw things differently: “Not all who suffer are sharers in patience.” For him, patience was only good if it was directed towards a just cause. It must be rooted in love. Kreider summarizes the difference: “For earlier Christians patience had been the ‘highest virtue;’ for Augustine it has become an ambivalent virtue: “it might be bad—if not directed towards a just cause—or good if it was.” Patience takes the backseat to actions motivated by “love.” Kreider notes that Augustine’s views on patience were embodied by his struggle with the heretics:

…in his conflicts with the pagans, Donatists, and Pelagians, Augustine was able to deploy ‘love’ to justify strong armed policies—state-imposed fines, confiscation and exile—that seemed urgently necessary to him.

We see here the same reasoning that motivated Augustine’s concept of “just war”, or to use Kreider’s witty term, “just impatience.” Patient faithfulness has given way to impatience. Part of Augustine’s motivation was that he had begun, following in the footsteps of Constantine, to dream of a “uniformly Christian society.” Augustine was building the foundations of Christendom. This shift, Kreider notes, “entailed a radical reassessment of the Christian tradition and a demotion of patience within it.” Augustine was now giving justification for the use of power, coercion and violence to bring about “just ends,” and so rejected the earlier tradition “that refused to place highest value on urgency and effectiveness.” The patient faithfulness of earlier Christians, who eschewed violence, worldly wealth and power would no longer do. Christians had to attend to the practical dimensions of maintaining an empire. And so, the idea of ‘two-speed’ Christianity, first proposed by Constantine, was now brought into further theological articulation by Augustine:

Augustine was not worried about a habitus of impatience because patience was a matter for monks and clerics, not laypeople. As we saw in chapter 9, a century earlier Constantine had responded to Lactantius by suggesting a two-level ethic, and now we encounter Augustine tending in the same direction… In his Questions on the Gospels (dated around 400) Augustine emphasizes the importance of believers who “do the things that pertain to the world [saeculum].”… In their work the lay people do things that are necessary for the functioning of society… But the importance of laypeople is not their distinctiveness. For them distinctiveness would be proud, self-vaunting. Instead, their calling is to live with what historian Robert Markus calls ‘mediocrity.’ It is to maintain the saeculum… not to imagine how the teachings and way of Jesus could transform the workers and their mill so that others may come to believe.

And so we come to the conclusion of The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. Krieder’s history leaves us with much to ponder in our post-Christian society. Could the return of Christianity to a powerless minority status lead to a rediscovery of the virtue of patience? Can the patient ferment mission model of the early church, be a helpful one for churches to adopt in a postmodern, pluralist setting? Could the early Church’s insistence on habitus transformation be a healthy antidote to our disembodied lives in the modern world? I think the answer to all of these questions is yes.  Kreider’s book shows us the moral witness of a Christianity that did not speak great things, “but lived them.” In that light, the contemporary church is itself in need of a “patient ferment” and a patient transformation of a disordered habitus.

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