[The following is a draft of some concepts I have shared with students over the last three decades.]
E. Glenn Hinson was the faculty director of my focus area of study in Patristics for my doctoral program at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He introduced me to the realities that early Christianity was caught in a dialectic tension between assimilation and accommodation to Roman culture. The underlying question he repeatedly raised was whether a practice or a Biblical exposition represented the church’s willingness to adapt itself to culture with or without altering its core beliefs and/or practices. In other words, as the church expanded its reach there were aspects of Roman culture that could be absorbed without altering established patterns. Some aspects of culture are benign in their affect. Other aspects of culture if adopted would require the church to fundamentally alter its way of being in the world.
In one of my papers for Dr. Hinson I argued that Clement of Alexandria represented well this tension with his vocabulary. Specifically, he used the term “pedagogue” as a title for Jesus. A pedagogue was a slave entrusted to served as a tutor and guardian for a young boy (Paul had used the term in reference to the role of the law in preparing for the arrival of Christ – Galatians 3.). My argument was that Clement demonstrated assimilation in his use of a familiar term that he then carefully defined in a manner that was uniquely Christian; By his definition of the term he was intentionally attempting to confront and alter Roman culture rather than accommodate to it. My argument ran contrary to dominant scholarship of the time, which argued that Clement should be seen as a key figure in the Romanization of the church, a position I do not altogether dispute.
The issue is that Christianity began very much as a Jewish movement that saw itself as the fulfillment of Judaism (the true Israel) and an alternative society to that of the world, i.e., the Roman Empire. Within five centuries Christianity in the West had come to see itself as the heart of the Roman Empire and the sustainer of all that was good in Roman culture. How did that transition take place and how did the transition affect the faith of the church? I elsewhere have argued that Christianity in the West remains married to Roman culture or at least to a Roman view of society. This is nowhere better seen that in modern Evangelical portrayals of the family. For this post, my thesis centers on the transition of the “mysteries” into the “sacraments.”
Cultural adaptation takes place on many levels and is typically first apparent in things like attire, music, and art. For the most part these are issues of assimilation. The Gospel can be sung with the aid of pipe organs or steel guitars, full orchestras or a lone acoustic guitar, praise teams or robbed choirs. Style will affect the content but need not distort it. Language may be a tool of assimilation, but it is also the primary source of accommodation. There is perhaps no better example of this than the affects of translating the original New Testament manuscripts and the early Christian practices from Koine Greek to Latin.
When the early church used Greek as a universal language, it described its liturgical and communal practices with the vocabulary of the New Testament. “Mystery” or “musterion” became an important word for them. “Mystery” had as its fundamental meaning something that had to be revealed in order to be known; it could not be discovered. From the Scriptures they learned that the incarnation of Christ was the great mystery of God. They further discovered that the incarnation of Christ was extended to the church, which was after all His body. By the mid-second century, the “mysteries” were thought of as those activities of the church that gave expression to the unity of Christ with the church, especially the events contained in their shared worship. I am convinced that at their heart the mysteries were those ritualized practices that proclaimed “Christ is with us.” Chief among these were baptism, the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, Ministry of the Scriptures (Old and New Testaments - reading & exposition), extensive prayers, hymns & spiritual songs, the laying on of hands in prayer, and the sharing of the kiss of peace.
In time Latin replaced Greek as the common language of the Empire. The church followed suit. The Greek word “musterion” came to be translated as the Latin “sacramentum.” The mysteries of Christ became the sacraments of the church. The mystery expressed in water baptism became the sacrament of baptism. “Sacramentum,” which appears to have as its primal meaning “to touch the chin,” was the word used when a soldier took an oath of enlistment. The oath was between the soldier and the general. The soldier did not join the Roman army; he joined the Roman General’s army. The oath was bilateral. The soldier swore to obey all of the general’s commands and the general swore to accept responsibility for the obedient actions of the soldier.
The word “sacramentum” was chosen because the church had come to think of itself as the “milita Christi” or Army of Christ. Baptism was enlistment into the Army of Christ; the rite of baptism was then a sacramentum. Very quickly “sacramentum” was the preferred translation for “musterion” for all of the liturgical practices considered the mysteries. This single translation signifies extensive accommodation to the culture of Rome.
Judaism was a communal culture with limited and Scripture-regulated hierarchy (granted the system had been largely Hellenized by the first century C.E.). Rome had a culture of empire with unbounded and power-regulated hierarchy; the one with the power rules. For the earliest Christians “mystery” constituted the church as the body of Christ. By the fourth century “sacrament” constituted the church as the Army of Christ. “Christ with us” in mystery was replaced with “Christ over us” through sacrament as the primal paradigm. This fundamentally shifts the mission of the church from conversion/inclusion to conversion/dominion. The mystery of spiritual gifts being bestowed through any member was being replaced with a theology of grace distributed by clergy through the sacraments. Clement of Rome’s early second century dictum that the bishop was the first among equals (i.e., the presbyters) was replaced with the inscription that the bishop is the “Vicar of Christ” and the seat from which he presided over gatherings was now called “the bishop’s throne” just like Caesar’s throne. In short, the church had ceased to see itself as a mysterious contrast culture to Rome; it had come to see itself as the redemption of Roman culture with all the overtones of Cicero’s ordered society and Plato’s Greek Republic. The adoption of “sacramentum” for “musterion” signaled a wholesale accommodation to the Roman culture of power and control was underway.
It is not my argument that the church became apostate in this transition. Cultural accommodation seldom results in a sudden abandonment of the core of the faith. It is my argument that a trajectory that would easily intersect with apostasy was set. The church has ever sense weaved its way in and out of the great mystery that Christ is incarnate by the power of the Spirit in the life of the church.