Slow and Steady Growth: A Review of Alan Kreider’s “The Patient Ferment of the Early Church”

patient ferment

On the first page of Alan Kreider’s new book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, he asks readers to pause and consider a sometimes overlooked question, “Why did this minor mystery religion from the eastern Mediterranean—marginal, despised, discriminated against—grow substantially, eventually supplanting the well-endowed, respectable cults that were so supported by the empire and aristocracy?”

Kreider, a Harvard-trained professor emeritus at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, has spent much his career studying early Christianity. In The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, he draws together this lifetime of work into a readable yet detailed study the early Church’s growth, looking especially at the period before Constantine’s reign (p.4).

Kreider is by no means the first person to dwell on this topic. He is in conversation both with the stimulating works of people like Michael Green who emphasize the “clash of ideas” brought about by the presence of Christianity in the Greco-Roman world as well as the writings of those like Ramsay MacMullen who focus more on sociological/cultural factors (p.1).

A Tradition of Patience

Into this ongoing debate comes The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. How does Kreider’s work change the shape of this ongoing discussion? First of all, he argues that early Christian communities cared deeply about cultivating the virtue of patience:

Patience was not a virtue dear to most Greco-Roman people, and it has been of little interest to scholars of early Christianity. But it was centrally important to the early Christians. They talked about patience and wrote about it; it was the first virtue about which they wrote a treatise, and they wrote no fewer than three treatises on it. (pp.1-2)

Kreider’s study is wide-ranging, digging into Christian sources ranging from the homilies of Origen to the Syrian church order known to us as the Didascalia apostolorum (The Teachings of the Apostles), but he concentrates especially on the works of a series of North African writers: Tertullian, Cyprian, and finally Augustine.

In 204 AD, Tertullian penned On Patience (p.20). In it, he “establishes a biblical and theological basis for the central role that patience had been playing and would continue to play in the life of the Christian communities” (p.20). Kreider notes that in the wider Greco-Roman world, while there were some who admired patience, it was generally something for people who didn’t have a choice about it. For Tertullian, though, patience is ultimately rooted in the very character of God:

God is promiscuously generous; he shares the wonders of creation, the brilliance of the sun and seasons, with everyone—the just and the unjust alike (Matt. 5:45). God endures ungrateful, greedy people who worship idols. God does not compel belief, but “by his patience he hopes to draw them to himself.” (p.21)

We have to remember that Tertullian wrote these words at a time when North African Christians were living under the threat and pressure of potential persecution. Kreider weaves Tertullian’s words into his larger argument by suggesting that, in addition to reading On Patience as an essay on ethics, readers should “see it as a treatise on mission that helps us understand the ‘combination of relaxation and urgency’ that characterized the early Christians’ approach to mission” (p.24). For Tertullian, living a life marked by patience was supposed to spark intrigue in the hearts of outsiders, leading them to ask questions and inquire about Jesus’ teachings. Kreider argues that this theme shows up even more explicitly in the work of Cyprian of Carthage. In The Good of Patience, Cyprian told his fellow Christians that “[we] know virtues by their practice rather than through boasting of them; we do not speak great things but we live them.”

So, if patience was really so important for the private and public lives of early Christian communities, how was it formed? He turns to Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus to shed some light on the matter:

Bourdieu contends that the knowledge that truly forms us is more profoundly a part of us than our intellectual knowledge. It is “corporeal knowledge,” a “system of dispositions” that we carry in our bodies. Habitus is reinforced by story, the little stories of our family and community as well as the big stories that undergird our culture… Above all, habitus is formed by repetition, by the sheer physicality of doing things over and over so that they become habitual, reflexive, and borne in our bodies. (pp.39-40).

Thus, Kreider argues that for most early Christians, cultivating a patient habitus entailed a deliberate transformation of character. He notes that the early Church Father Irenaeus “insisted that the church’s overarching goal was ‘renewing [people] from their old habits into the newness of Christ” (p.157). Kreider goes on to observe that communities in the early Church relied especially on catechesis (spiritual formation and theological instruction carried out in preparation for baptism) and worship, centering especially on prayer and the celebration of communion, to shape the habitus of its members (p.2).

In many early Christian communities, joining the Church was neither quick nor easy. In order to become a full member, most had to go an extended period of catechesis that often lasted a few years, during which time they were known as catechumens. Kreider explains that by the end of this preparatory period:

[T]he catechumens had encountered visions of new life and bodily actions that enticed them and stretched them into ways of behaving that at times they found uncomfortable. They wondered: could they become the kind of persons in thought and reflex that they were catechized to be? Could they embody the Christians’ habitus? As they struggled with these questions, and as their thinking and behavior gradually changed, the catechumens learned patience. (p.183)

Following baptism, Kreider argues that the patient habitus of early believers was built up through worship practices (p.184). Sermons, prayers, and the celebration of Eucharist all gave shape to the worship lives of many early Christians. These activities “formed the character of the Christians, aligning them with God’s purposes and habituation them to the surprising ways of Christ’s church” (p.184).

Holy Impatience

The last section of the book turns to the coming of Constantine’s reign.Throughout the third century, it’s clear that Christian communities were steadily growing. However, Kreider argues that a “transformation of patience” occurred during the course of Constantine’s long reign (p.274). While Kreider rightly acknowledges that there is considerable debate regarding the extent of Constantine’s changes, he nevertheless argues that a fundamental shift occurred:

With Constantine we move from mystery to method. The emperor could influence the growth of the correct religion—Christianity—by using means and methods, including the power and manipulation of the state… Constantine’s reflexes were those of a Roman administrator, not of a faithful member in the Christian tradition. Constantine thought impatiently, instrumentally. (p.267)

Augustine of Hippo, the “ecclesiastical lion” who wrote his little-known treatise On Patience in 417 AD, stands at the end of the formidable tradition of patience in early North African Christianity. In Kreider’s understanding, the vision of patience advocated by Augustine was “novel” to the ongoing life of the Church, and it “justified a missional revolution that was taking place” (p.280). In On Patience, Augustine is similar to his North African predecessors in that he understands patience to be a key attribute of God and citing numerous biblical examples of patience.

However, Augustine argued that, “patience, for all its beauty, has its limits; it must never stand in the way of actions that love seems necessary” (p.282). In Kreider’s eyes, the significant shift from Tertullian and Cyprian to Augustine is this: “For earlier Christians patience had been the ‘highest virtue’; for Augustine it has become an ambivalent virtue: it ‘might be bad—if not directed to a just cause—or good, if it was” (p.282). However, Kreider suggests thatt:

The earlier views that refused to place highest value on urgency and effectiveness were not idealistic; they were the church’s tradition, its seasoned wisdom. Further, they were the teachings of the hard-bitten martyr Cyprian. When Augustine displaced these teachings, advocating methods that Cyprian would have considered impatient, he entered into conflict with his great predecessor.” (p.287)

Thus, Kreider’s views Augustine’s work as rationalizing a new understanding of patience that ended up helping justify the more violent measures that would be repeatedly used against heretics and other enemies of the Church during the future centuries of Christendom (p.295).

Conclusion

Alan Kreider’s The Patient Ferment of the Early Church makes a beneficial contribution to the subject of growth in the early Church, especially by paying sustained attention to the ways in which the beliefs and practices of early Christians were integrated into an overarching view of life: patient words and patient actions must go together. Near the end of Eugene Peterson’s masterful book on spiritual theology, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Placeshe strikes a similar note when he writes that, “Impatience is antithetical to a congruent life… Formation of spirit, cultivation of soul, realizing a lived congruence between the way and the truth—all this is slow work requiring endless patience” (p.337). I think that readers find in Kreider’s work rich soil for recovering the historical heritage of Christians throughout history who have (all too rarely) tried to make patience central for both spiritual formation and missions in the world.

Even in the midst of Kreider’s exploration of Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine, there were a few moments when I would have been keen to learn more about how patience was understood by many of the Eastern Church Fathers during this time period. Maybe subsequent studies can help fill out this desire of mine. Also, I sometimes wondered how much the lives of early Christians measured up to their ideal visions of patience. While Kreider does at times acknowledge the presence of hypocrisy in the early Church, I at times wondered if some readers will get an unrealistic impression of an idyllic pre-Constantinian Church that was free from hypocrisy and strife.

Don’t dwell on those minor critiques though. Kreider’s hypothesis is interesting, and his efforts have resulted in a stimulating, refreshing, and challenging read. By looking into a side of the early Church’s life that is all-too-rarely given significant attention, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church just might help some contemporary Christian communities to spend less time worrying about growth strategies and more time working to become deeply formed spiritually so that their words and deeds can flow together into an inviting testimony of Christ’s presence to those around them.

*Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic Publishing for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. 

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