Finding Church: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I’ve spent a good bit of my adult life studying and thinking about the early Church. While much of my work has focused on the fourth century of the Christian era, I’ve also been intrigued by the generation of believers that immediately followed the time of the apostles. This is especially true as I have grown older. I think that this is owing to the fact that I have been able to access and have personal knowledge about much that took place in what must seem to others to be a very distant past. Let me explain.
I am writing this article in the year 2020. Now, if I were to tell you that I had heard personal stories and anecdotes from the 1930s about Archbishop William Temple (1881-1944) you might have to stop and think for a moment. Yet, this is absolutely true. One of my mentors, Bishop Michael Ramsey (1904-1988) knew Archbishop Temple and, in fact, had been selected by Temple to engage in some particular theological work. So, in 2020, I can speak with some “insider knowledge” about certain theological discussions that took place almost a century before. This isn’t some mystical clairvoyance. It is simply that I “knew the man who knew the man”.
My father, who was from the South, knew men who were veterans of the Civil War. He also knew men who had been born into slavery. As I was growing up, he told me their stories. In the year 2020, I could easily write down their names, their stories and where they lived with a host of details from over 150 years past. Many reading this can probably come up with similar examples.
Now, let’s turn to the shape and style of the early Church. The Didache was most likely written at the very end of the first century or the beginning of the second century. While I believe it was most likely written between 90-100 of the Christian era, let’s be very cautious and conservative and say it was written in the year 120. The time between Christ’s earthly ministry and the writing of the Didache is the same as the time between me writing this article and the theological discussions that took place between Temple and Ramsey in the 1930s. Like me, the writer of the Didache “knew the man who knew the man”. Indeed, depending on his age, the writer of the Didache may well have known or heard one or more of the apostles. This may also have been the case with the other Apostolic Fathers who wrote during this time period.
What they have to say about the Church, about their practices and their mode of worship, are, therefore, not flights of imagination or something invented on the spot. Moreover, they write about practices that seem to have been common knowledge among those who identified as Christians. Additionally, there is an amazing consistency spanning the first two centuries of the Church. Indeed, in the archeological work at Dura-Europos on the earliest known Christian church (a house converted for worship between 233 and 256) the specific architectural elements signifying a place of Christian worship line up withe the elements of worship we find in the Didache. The discovery in that place of parchment fragments with Eucharistic prayers from the Didache (written in Hebrew) only serves to highlight a consistent usage over the course of at least one and a half centuries.
This is not “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. It is known and it is documented.
For instance, in the Didache there are sections on:
Baptism, conferred in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays
Daily Prayer, including saying the Lord’s Prayer three times a day
Worship on “the Lord’s Day” and sharing in the Eucharist each Sunday
Now, much more can be said about the Didache, but what I want to point out in this small essay is that we know what “church” looked like for these early Christians. Not only do we know what it looked like, we also have a compelling argument as to how they learned what church looked like, and that was from the first followers of Christ who passed along what they had known and what they had seen.
(To be continued…)