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Friday, September 20, 2013

My Work on Catechesis as Discipleship (Discipleship in the Fathers and Conclusion)

In spite of the transition away from specific language of discipleship in the Letters,[1] the apostolic fathers[2] revived the use of maqhthjs and its related forms in their writings. In the Gospels and portions of Acts the term “disciple” had a more general meaning, usually referring to someone who followed a master in a physical sense. We demonstrated that in the Letters Paul uses more appropriate terms for “imitating” the nature of Christ in the absence of his earthly presence. The Fathers demonstrate in their use of the word disciple that the term had developed a much more narrow, specific meaning in the generations after the apostolic age. Wilkins observes that the Fathers “tended to use disciple in a reverent sense that emphasized in context the technicality of the discipleship life of the Christian.”[3] This “technicality” is not monolithic, though; the Fathers nuance the goals and means of discipleship to accommodate the changing nature of Christianity in the post-Resurrection world.
            Ignatius of Antioch (d. circa 98-117ad) uses the term for disciple (maqhthjV) more than the other Fathers combined. Given the relatively narrow window of Ignatius’ life and writings to examine, though, it is important to note that everything Ignatius says about the disciple’s life is framed by his impending martyrdom at the hands of Trajan.[4] We are therefore left to wonder whether Ignatius would have explained the concept of Christian discipleship differently had he the opportunity or had his writings survived.  
            The relationship between martyrdom and discipleship is at least as complicated as the meaning of maqhthjV in the Fathers. Ignatius’ writings are telling in this way. Holmes comments that three factors led to the Bishop’s seeming “eagerness” to be fed to the beasts[5]: first, that Ignatius desired to imitate Christ in suffering that he might, through martyrdom, he will “truly be a disciple of Jesus Christ.”[6] Ignatius explicitly correlates suffering with discipleship, saying, “because of their [the guards’] mistreatment, I am becoming more of a disciple.”[7] Second, Ignatius may be demonstrating a fear of failure and attempting to fortify himself by announcing his fidelity to the discipleship program that he himself preached to his congregations. Third, Ignatius may see martyrdom as a galvanizing act for his fractured congregation, implying that being faithful unto death would remind his people of the nature of true discipleship for them to emulate.
            What is known about Ignatius’ vision of the disciple’s life is representative of the Fathers overall. Michael Wilkins identifies four primary ways in which the idea of “disciple” is used in the Fathers: disciple (in its explicit use as maqhthjV); follower; brother/sister, Christian, Saint; and imitator/imitate, example.[8] Ignatius is not concerned with writing a treatise on discipleship in his letters, however; instead he uses the idea of discipleship in multi-layered ways that would be familiar vocabulary to the audiences of his letters who looked to the Bishop’s life as testimony and for inspiration.[9]
            The meaning of the term maqhthjV is no longer ambiguous for the Church in the second century as it was in the days of Jesus. By the time of the Fathers the Church had come to understand discipleship as the essential nature of every believer in Jesus Christ. Gone is the terminology of literally following a master as the pagan philosophers; now every Christian is expected to imitate Jesus even in his physical absence. Wilkins generalizes the perspective of the Fathers vis-à-vis discipleship as “a personal relationship with Jesus and an assumed progress of growth, especially with the goal of imitating and becoming like the Master.”[10]
            The process of development within the life of the believer is the essence of the Fathers’ understanding of discipleship. “Becoming” a disciple is a life-long commitment, one that Ignatius sees as both the beginning and the end of the believer’s journey: “Having become His disciples, let us learn to live in accordance with Christianity.”[11] Whereas the Gospel writers understood the disciples loosely as those who followed Jesus physically, even for a brief time, the Fathers equate Christian discipleship to a progressive developmental identity that requires total-life devotion through the teaching of the tenets of Christianity and through the imitation of Christ.[12]
            Two other examples of early church discipleship emphasis are the Didache and the Apostolic Constitutions, both of which illustrate the concepts and expectations of believers of that era. The Didache, written most likely between 50ce and 150ce, was “to provide catechesis for the preparation of new Gentile converts in an extensive training at the hands of an instructor prior to baptism.”[13] Although the word maqhthjV does not appear in the document, the very nature of the document is of discipleship and was “intended…as a summary of basic instruction about the Christian life.”[14] It is apparent that by the time of the writing of the Didache[15] there was a need to distill and package those things that new converts would need to know in order to fit into an extant Christian community without necessarily being in the presence of the Bishop or founding believer. 
The existence of such a document in the early church is telling: the compilers of the Didache saw it necessary to help new converts assimilate into a congregation of more mature, experienced believers by instructing them on more than the elements of the Gospel. The Didache teaches a believer and a congregation about ethics,[16] eating,[17] baptism,[18] fasting,[19] prayer,[20] and the Lord’s Supper,[21] the sum of which a new believer would find overwhelming and would certainly take a great deal of time to properly internalize. For the Fathers, such a document as the Didache would have been an indispensable resource for those maturing in their discipleship in the small congregations of the age.
A second collection of documents that deserves mention from the age of the Fathers is The Apostolic Constitutions. The Constitutions is a collection of instructions for the ancient church concerning ethics, church polity, and a primitive canon law for the good order of Christianity.[22] The purpose of the collection appears to have been as a “manual of instruction, worship, polity, and usage for both clergy and laity.”[23] The nature of the instruction tends toward the Bishop’s leadership of the congregation and on the ordination of the deaconate. However, one helpful section deserves our attention here, that is, Book VII “Concerning the Christian Life, and the Eucharist, and the Initiation Into Christ.”[24]
The first section of Book VII is an expanded version of the Didache[25] and offers further advice on the ethical requirements of those belonging to Christ. As in the Didache, the term maqhthjV is not mentioned, yet the content of the Book is directly related to the expectations placed on believers in the ancient Church. It is evident by the content of the Constitutions that by the time of the Fathers a robust practice of catechism was in place for the instruction of new converts and in preparation for their baptism.[26]
What stands out in this Book is the language concerning the instruction of a disciple. Baptism, it seems, was not the beginning of discipleship, but rather its conclusion. In preparation for the official immersion of a catechumen, they were to be instructed in the:
…knowledge of the un-begotten God, in the understanding of His only begotten Son, in the assured acknowledgment of the Holy Ghost. Let him learn the order of the several parts of the creation, the series of providence, the different dispensations of [God’s] laws. Let him be instructed why the world was made, and why man was appointed to be a citizen therein; let him also know his own nature, of what sort it is; let him be taught how God punished the wicked with water and fire, and did glorify the saints in every generation and how God still took care of and did not reject mankind, but called them from their error and vanity to the acknowledgment of the truth at various seasons, reducing them from bondage and impiety unto liberty and piety, from injustice to righteousness, from death eternal to everlasting life.”[27]

The catechumen is to be taught unto a knowledge-level understanding of the meta-narrative of Scripture. This certainly would not have been a quick, momentary thing that let to an immediate baptism; rather the disciple would have invested much time into the process of learning the truths of the faith and would have (presumably) demonstrated sufficient growth to proceed in instruction.

Though every era of the lives of God’s people discipleship has been a key to understanding the relationship those people are to have to their God and to one another. This limited survey has hopefully provided a sufficient demonstration of the pervasive nature of discipleship terminology and themes in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and in the era of the Fathers. After such a survey, it should be clear that discipleship is neither an exclusively Christian idea and that this life of following the Master has been the demand of God upon God’s people from the beginning of God’s redemptive activity until today. Much more will be said about the nature of discipleship below in terms of the realistic expectations of maturity implicit in these terms and themes.

[1] See above, Discipleship in the Letters.
[2] Info about ANF.
[3] Wilkins, Following the Master, 323.
[4] Cf. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 166; 169-70.
[5] Holmes, 169.
[6] Ignatius, Romans, 4:2.
[7] Ibid, 5:1.
[8] Wilkins, Following the Master, 317-322.
[9] Wilkins comments that Ignatius uses the term maqhthjV in contradictory ways, sometimes referring to Christians in general, and at other by using the word in its historic “follower” meaning. It is unnecessary to force a clear definition or delineation in the use of maqhthjV or its cognates, though, since the communities to which Ignatius would have written would have also used the concept of disciple in multi-layered ways representative of the emerging identity they were forging in the competitive atmosphere of the second-century Roman Empire.
[10] Wilkins, Following the Master, 323.
[11] Ignatius, Magnesians, 10:1.
[12] The theme of imitation will be treated more thoroughly below.
[13] Draper, The Apostolic Fathers: the Didache, 179. Draper concludes that the Didache is a document most concerned with the adaptation of Torah Judaism into the revelation of Christ in the Church. He says, “It presents us with a moment frozen in time, a community which still lived within the Jewish world-view and practice, competing with the successors of the Pharisees for control of the same social space. It remains focused on the Torah and its fulfillment in practice, even though it admits Gentiles without requiring them to become Jews.”
[14]Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 335.
[15] There is scholarship demonstrating that the Didache is a composite document pieced together over generations and that it reflects the evolving needs of a specific Christian community. He does, however, leave open the possibility that future discoveries and insights will bring more clarity to the origin and literary development of the document. See Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 336-7.
[16] Cf. Didache, 1:2-5:2.
[17] Ibid. 6:3.
[18] Ibid. 7:1-4.
[19] Ibid, 7:4-8:1.
[20] Ibid. 8:2-3.
[21] Ibid. 9:1-10:7.
[22] Schaff, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 7,
[23] Donaldson in Schaff, ANF, 874.
[24] Schaff, ANF, 1025-54.
[25] See above.
[26] See The Apostolic Constitutions, Book VII, Sec. III.
[27] Schaff, ANF, vol. 7, 1048.

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