Ancient Christianity:
The Development of its Institutions and Practices
By Angelo di Berardino
ICCS Press, pp. 718. $89.95

Review by John Mason Lock

As a young college student discovering the beauties of the catholic tradition, I bought a copy of a book that, as I recall, was entitled, The Faith of the Fathers. It was billed as a collection of patristic texts but in fact was more of an anthology of short quotations spanning five centuries in the space of a moderately-sized volume. Next to each passage were various numbers, each keyed to a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. What I had stumbled upon, as I only realized much later, was a collection of patristic proof-texts intended to authenticate contemporary Roman Catholic doctrine and practice. Protestants have also been guilty of such selective readings of the Fathers in order to validate preferred doctrine or practice. The problem with such collections is that they are selective in the extreme. Like parading out proof-texts from the Bible, the partisan —biblical or patristic — merely shows that he is not really interested in the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) or in the breadth of ancient Christian teaching and practice.

Thankfully we have counterexamples of patristic and historical analysis that strive for greater objectivity and lesser dependence on desired outcomes in the analysis of historical evidence. Such an example has recently been published by a Roman Catholic historian and academic Angelo Di Berardino, former president and professor emeritus of patrology at the Augustinian Patristic Institute in Rome. The book, Ancient Christianity: The Development of Its Institutions and Practices is notably published by ICCS Press, which according to its website, is a joint venture of the Institute for Classical Christian Studies and the Center for Early African Christianity, Thomas Oden being the name principally associated with these ventures. Oden is well known for his retrieval of early Christian writers in the two series he co-edited, the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (IVP), a catena of patristic exegesis on every book of the Bible, including the apocrypha, and the Ancient Christian Texts, featuring entire commentaries from ancient authors, many translated for the first time into English. Not surprisingly, Berardino’s volume is dedicated to Oden, as the entire book has an irenic and ecumenical flavor characteristic of Oden and his associates.

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It seems to me that the church historian enters a particularly fraught field. The inclination to use the outcome of research as a weapon in contemporary ecclesiastical disputes is strong. Berardino well summarizes the potential pitfalls for the church historian when he writes:

Normally we generalize disparate and fragmentary texts, presenting a false picture. Or we imagine a homogeneous situation in the absence of information to the contrary. Or perhaps we project subsequent ecclesiastical rulings onto earlier situations in order to provide an explanation. When the ancient authors read the sources that we also read today and use, they had no critical editions — an obvious point but one that rarely enters into the conversation. Another relevant point that is often overlooked is that the meaning of the terms used… changes over the years and they often had a different meaning then than they have today. (255-256)

Berardino capably avoids turning into a Roman Catholic apologist or an anti-Protestant polemicist through the course of this massive work.

By contrast, he carefully presents to a range of Christian practices classed under 15 heads. The subjects include baptismal practices, the development of clerical orders, liturgy, marriage and families, virginity, death and burial, and charitable and social work. In treating each of these subjects, Berardino coordinates various “angles”: “historical, theological, sociological, and liturgical” (337). This multidisciplinary approach gives a sense of depth and texture unusual to books in the field. It has been said that the past is a foreign country. Many Christians throughout history have been prone to project their ecclesial experiences and concerns onto the early Church, assuming that it looked and acted just like their own. Berardino ushers the reader into the foreign country of the early Church, giving the reader a sense of the range and texture of early Christian practice. Far from uniform or standard, Berardino shows the development and variety of Christian practice that would only much later be standardized in the denominational forms we know today.

In his treatment of the development of baptism, for example, Berardino takes us into that “foreign land” by outlining the extended period of catechesis and formation that preceded baptism especially in the centuries prior to Constantine when infant baptism was not as yet widely practiced. Using archeological sources, Berardino documents the use of full-immersion baptism as well as the customary practice of baptizing in the nude and the employment of deaconesses to ensure modesty. One really gains a sense of how foreign and even strange such historical practice is from our own contemporary practices.

Not limiting himself to the well-worn paths of famous patristic texts, Berardino cites from an amazing range of sources, including church canons, letters, secular harangues against Christianity, inscriptions, and New Testament apocrypha such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla (a very popular work in the ancient world purporting to be a history of the apostle and a virgin Thecla, who is memorable for her marvelous acts and austere renunciation of corporeal pleasures). It would be easy to get a lopsided historical sense from merely reading and studying the principal texts of the orthodox “winners” such as Irenaeus, Cyprian, Augustine, Chrysostom, and Basil to name a few. Even those who are interested in such writers likely have spent little time in such the range of sources that Berardino has. These lesser-known sources give a greater sense of the breadth of Christian experience and practice. Canons, for example, as he points out on multiple occasions, show not only the prescriptions of various church councils, but also suggest that the prohibition indicates what was in fact happening at least in some quarters. You don’t formulate a canon, in other words, unless there is a practice which one is trying to eradicate or dismantle. Appreciating this diversity, it becomes much more difficult to say things like “the ancient Church did this” or “the Fathers taught that” without some equivocation or nuance.

As the introduction makes plain, “Ancient Christianity” is not the product of a coordinated academic endeavor. Rather the volume “is a summation of lectures over the past thirty years.” The depth of Berardino’s learning is remarkable, and the nuance of his scholarship is in notable contrast to the editors of The Faith of the Fathers. Perhaps characteristically of the form from which they are drawn, the text does suffer from a number of typographical errors. There is a reference to Canon 7 of the Statues of the Ancient Church, and perhaps most amusingly, in an extended discourse on ancient calendars, our author states that “the month was always based on the movement of the sun around the earth”! These scattered errors, far from distracting from the text, give an air of authenticity to the whole experience, like an occasional gaffe or verbal misstep in the course of a semester-long class. Reading this volume felt like taking a class with a charismatic and mature professor who presents a lifetime of learning with the ease of a master craftsman.  What makes this volume more than just a transcription of lecture notes, however, is the amazing wealth of bibliographical citations. Berardino, or his editor, has done the hard work of finding all the references to the myriad of citations, giving the interested student or scholar much useful fodder in investigating these topics further, either in the ancient sources or in contemporary scholarship.

The reader of “Ancient Christianity” will come away with a greater sense of the texture and development of early Christianity, and I suspect it will feed a catholic and ecumenical impulse to see how orthodoxy and orthopraxis are not static concepts but living realities through space and time.

About The Author

Fr. John Mason Lock is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Red Bank, New Jersey. Born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he was nurtured spiritually at St. John’s Cathedral and St. Mark’s on-the-Mesa.

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