Thursday, April 29, 2010

Patristics: The Didache, Part II

In Part I we reviewed the moral precepts laid out in the First Century Christian writing called The Didache. Specifically, we looked at its strong teaching against abortion. The Didache describes the Christian moral outlook in terms of “the way of life” versus “the way of death” – in much the same way that Pope John Paul II spoke of “the culture of death” and the “Gospel of Life.” We also recalled that the early Christians accepted the teachings of their church leaders as authoritative and binding. Concerning one who preaches and teaches the Word of God, The Didache instructs the faithful to “honor him as the Lord.” This is corroborated by other First Century Christian writings which state that the authority of Church leaders is drawn from the authority of Christ. So too, the Bible tells us that those who hold authority in the Church deserve our obedience.

But what about doctrine? The early Christians may have been similar to Catholics on moral issues and obedience to the hierarchy, but what about specific matters of faith? We will examine now a few examples from the text of The Didache:


On baptism The Didache has something interesting to say concerning the proper form of the Sacrament:

“And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have not living water, baptize into other water; and if you can not in cold, in warm. But if you have not either, pour out water thrice upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.”

Full immersion is the preferred method of baptism in the Catholic Church today. But the general form of the Sacrament in most parishes is a pouring of water three times on the head while invoking the Trinity, just as described in the passage above. Considering the scarcity of water in some Middle Eastern locations (where Christianity first took root) and the secretive nature of the Church during times of persecution (making it difficult to gather in open areas near fresh water), the pouring of water was certainly used as a matter of practicality. First Century Christians would have been well aware of this form as practiced in their local churches.

Now some Fundamentalists or Evangelicals today might be surprised to discover that First Century Christians were not the “immersion only” baptizers that they are imagined to be. In fact, they resemble the Catholic Church in their sensible approach to this Sacrament.


Concerning confession of sins and doing penance we find in The Didache a few references that should pique our interest. First this:

“Be not a stretcher forth of the hands to receive and a drawer of them back to give. If you have anything, through your hands you shall give ransom for your sins.”

We can understand from this that the First Century Christians had some sense that our good actions, our charity, can counteract in some way our personal sins. Our good works can affect the state of our soul. This may imply some form of indulgence (that is, the remission of punishment owed for a sin) or penance. At any rate, the early Christians believed that if we give charitably to those in need, our actions can “give ransom” for our sins, thus covering over our past transgressions. This means that even believing, practicing Christians (the audience of The Didache) have an ongoing need of removing the stain of sin from their souls. This is not unlike the Biblical principle stated in 1Peter:

“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms.” (4:8-10)

Did this also involve a verbal “confession” of sins, or was it simply the individual response of every believer to God’s grace? A second passage we find in The Didache seems to allude indirectly to an answer:

“In the church you shall acknowledge your transgressions, and you shall not come near for your prayer with an evil conscience.”

The phrase “in the church” does not make clear whether the Church provides a formal confessional-style airing of a person’s sins, a public renouncing of sins, or some other style of verbal confession, but we can again turn to Scripture for further clarification, where we read:

“…If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” (James 5:15-16)

The Bible plainly says that verbal “confession” of sins to another Christian is the norm. If we consider all of these things together we must assume that the early Christians “confessed” their sins to someone “in the church,” and did some form of penance or charitable service to “give ransom for their sins” or to “cover over their sins” in some way. Regardless of the precise form, this sounds very similar to Catholic confession and penance.

The Lord’s Supper (Eucharist):

The First Century Christians gathered on Sundays to share the Eucharistic feast. In the text of The Didache it is interesting to note how the other Sacraments are related to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. For instance, confession of sins prior to reception of Communion was essential…

“…every Lord's day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving [Eucharist] after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure…”

First we must note that the offering of bread and wine was seen as a “sacrifice” – not a mere symbolic meal – and it was a sacrifice that could be sullied by the sinfulness of the participants. Confession was necessary before reception of Communion. And who was allowed to participate in this sacrificial meal?

“…let no one eat or drink of your Thanksgiving (Eucharist), but they who have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, Give not that which is holy to the dogs.”

So the Sacraments of baptism and penance were both linked directly to the Eucharist, both leading toward and preparing the Christian for participation in the Sunday gathering. Only baptized Christians who had gone to confession were allowed to come forward and receive Communion. Likewise, for Catholics today the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of spiritual life; the other Sacraments (such as Baptism and Confession) point toward the Sacrificial Reality of the Eucharist and prepare us for Communion in His Body and Blood.

Eucharistic unity:

Among the First Century Christians, the unity of the Church was an important component in the sharing of the Eucharist. If a person stirred up division among his fellow Christians or was at odds with the rest of the congregation this would prevent him from receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. The Didache warns us that if we allow someone who is in conflict with their fellow believers to receive the Eucharist we would again profane the “sacrifice.”

“…let no one that is at variance with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations.”

This unity among Christians was not applied merely to the local congregations, but extended to the whole Church throughout the world. Under the Kingship of Christ, all of the local churches are gathered into one Kingdom as the universal Church. The Didache expresses this idea in Eucharistic language:

“Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom; for Yours [Father] is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever.”

The same Eucharistic unity was expressed by Ignatius of Antioch (as we previously examined in his writings):

“Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever you do, you may do it according to [the will of] God.” (From Ignatius’ letter to the Philadelphians)

Leadership within the Church:

We recall that Ignatius wrote of unity under the leadership of a bishop. The Didache affirms this practice of appointing bishops at the head of local churches:

“Therefore, appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, and not lovers of money, and truthful and proven; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers. Despise them not therefore, for they are your honored ones, together with the prophets and teachers.”

The Didache also tells us that from our leaders we should expect unity of doctrine – not a system of individual interpretation, but a strict adherence to the norms laid out in this ancient text:

“Whosoever, therefore, comes and teaches you all these things that have been said before, receive him. But if the teacher himself turn and teach another doctrine to the destruction of this, hear him not…”


Many Christian groups today claim that the ancient Church was a loose collection of local churches, unorganized and free of any hierarchy or human authority. They claim that Christians of the first few centuries believed and worshipped as Evangelical Protestants do today, relying on individual interpretation of Scripture and a limited understanding of doctrine. These ancient Christians supposedly rejected the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist as well as confession of sins, and practiced only full emersion baptism…

None of this is true, according to The Didache. And furthermore, when we consider together all of the First Century Christian writings we have studied so far, we find that the early Church was remarkably united under a defined hierarchy and had a strong sense of the sacramental realities that Catholics hold today.

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