Writings of the Early church such as The Didache, The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, Ignatius’s Letters, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, and Justin’s First Apology deal, in some ways, with the formation of Christians’ faith and the promotion of the Christian life and its values. Although Christianity had its foundation in the Jewish tradition, it developed soon its own religious system theologically and practically. These writings are not only a reliable testimony of the development of the Christian faith and its departure from Judaism. They also show modern readers the importance early Christian writers gave to the balance between cognitive/intellectual knowledge of God (e.g. catechisms, religious instructions, creeds) and Christian piety (religious devotion). In other words, one observes that in these writings the knowledge of God has also an affective and experiential dimension. Christianity was a way of life that was much more than intellectual.
This ancient text seems to be sort of a moral cathecism and book of church order for the early Christian church, especially for the second generation of Christians. It is thought that it was written around 70-80 CE to deal with Christian morality (ethics), sacraments (worship), and leadership (prophets). The first part is noteworthy because the first six chapters address how individual Christians should live according to the Christian faith. The reference to Deut. 6 in Chapter 1 is clear and this suggests the text was addressed to a Christian-Jewish community which was familiarized with Jewish tradition and customs of the first century. The text’s closeness to the Jewish tradition also is reflected in Chapter 2 which resembles the Ten Commandments. This particular fact shows the writer’s emphasis on the affective character of religious instruction following Jewish piety. For Judaism, both the Shema Yisrael and the Ten Commandments had a creedal character. They were a good example of Jewish religious devotion. For example, the Shema Yisrael is the first prayer Jewish children learned (they currently follow this tradition). As one sees, the author of the Didache invites Christians to express their devotion to God and put their faith into practice. Chapters 3-6 take the form of Wisdom literature, especially the Book of Proverbs. This also suggests the application of such wisdom in a person’s daily life.
In general terms, the author of the Didache appropriates Jewish tradition in order to introduce the Christian faith. Thus, after such appropriation, the text moves to deal with the Christian practice of Baptism and the Eucharist in Chapter 7-10. It grabs one’s attention that the Eucharist prayer as presented here is an early form of the prayer. Besides, Chapters 11-16 deal with church leadership. He writes, “Appoint therefore for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, meek men and not lovers of money, and truthful and approved, for they also minister to you the ministry of the prophets and teachers.” (Ch. 15) It is important to mention that Christian leadership in this text has an itinerant character. Leaders seem to move from city to city taking care of the people of God. The Didache seems to suggest that the emerging Christian community has not been completely separated from Judaism. The “new” religion still depended on its original source.
First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians
As the Didache, the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians shows a Christian church that still has strong connection with Jewish tradition and its communal practices. The letter is dated around the end of the First century. It is commonly accepted that it was addressed to the third generation of Christians (cf. 44:2; 44:3). The text is precise in indicating the context where it happens, although it does not indicate that Clement was the one who wrote the letter. It says, however, that it is a letter written by the church of Rome to the church of Corinth.
Clement addresses in his letter a significant issue which arose in the Corinthian church, mainly the lack of unity among Corinthian Christians, a product of internal divisions in the congregation. Certain people were against the established authority of the local leaders (bishops and deacons) and stirred a controversy in the community when those leaders were removed. In this respect, Clement tries to approach the problem offering instructions so that the church can avoid a bad reputation.
Besides this, the letter lets us know about worship and leadership practices in the early Church—the voluntary submission to Christian appointed leaders, one of them. The letter itself has four major parts. Chapters 1-3 Clement discusses the former environment of the church pointing out the unity of the Corinthian church. Clement argues that there are some spiritual vices (e.g. envy, division, etc.) in this church that are detrimental to its spiritual wellness and calls congregants to show piety and humility. Clement also calls the persons who created division to repent by giving examples through Scripture and the Roman society about the importance of communal order and hierarchy. Clement’s emphasis on the desired character of Christian leaders (e.g. humbleness) shows us that early Christian Church strongly emphasized that their leaders reflected congruency between their personal beliefs and public deeds and actions. In other words, Clements encourages the church of Corinth to demonstrate their Christian piety by showing spiritual virtues. The way individual Christians behave in the community of faith also matters. It matters to God and it matters to the community itself. Thus, faith formation seems to have a personal/individual dimension and a communal dimension. The formation of piety is not only a matter of private devotion, but it must be also reflected in the community of faith. Christians must show humility and imitate past heroes of faith such as the prophets and Christ himself.
Other significant writings of this period are Ignatius’s letters. For example, in the Letter to the Magnesians, one of the topics Ignatius addresses is false doctrines (Ch. 8), the Judaizing of the Christian faith (Ch. 10) and his call to church unity (Ch. 13). A significant portion of the letter is dedicated to discussing leadership and Christians’ duty to respect their leaders and submit to them (Cf. Ch. 3, 4, 6, 7). It is clear here that Judaism had certain advantages regarding the promotion of religious morality and piety in their leaders. The Gentiles had to adapt instead their old worldview to the new demands of the Christian faith. The call to submit to church leaders is a constant message promoted in the early Church both in the NT as in other non-canonical writings, especially among the Gentiles. For example, Paul addresses this same issue in his Letters to Timothy and Titus (I Tim 3:1-16, Titus 1:6-9). The question that arises here is: If faith is personal, why does faith formation seem to be strongly connected to Christian communal practices such as leadership and worship?
In his Letter to the Romans, Ignatius basically makes a request to the Christians living in Rome of not interfering with his martyrdom because he would like to die and be with the Lord. This fact shows Ignatius’ strong sense of Christian piety. Besides his martyrdom, Ignatius also refers to church order when he writes about of bishops, elders, and deacons. It is important to note here the emergence of the church hierarchy.
In his Letter to the Smyrneans, Ignatius addresses the false belief of Docetism and offers a series of arguments against this doctrine. Overall besides his fights against Docetism and Judaizing, Ignatius has concerned again about church order and the leadership of the early Church. Ignatius’ themes developed in his letters suggest the challenge of the new Christian faith in promoting a healthy balance of knowledge of the ‘Christian doctrines’ and the exemplification of Christian morality in a leader’s life. It is important to note here that Ignatius would not dintinguish ‘Christian doctrines’ from morality as modern Christians do.
Martyrdom of Polycarp
Another writing of the early Church is related to Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who was a disciple of John, according to the Christian tradition. The Martyrdom of Polycarp recounts his death. It is worth mentioning that the struggles early Christians faced during the Roman Empire. Many Christians paid a high price for professing their faith publically, an aspect that highlights the paramount of Christian piety in their lives. Polycarp’s phrase ‘God’s will be done’ when the police officer was looking for him to arrest him and take him to martyrdom reflects his devotion and trust in God. Such devotion was demonstrated, for example, when he was incited to apostate Christ so that he would be free. Polycarp rejected such an invitation remaining faithful to the Christian message. Polycarp’s example demonstrates a mature faith in God and a strong trust in Him.
Justin Martyr’s First Apology
Another significant work of the early Church is Justin Martyr’s First Apology. In the excerpt provided here, the author deals with Christian worship. Discussing the practice of baptism, Justin claims that our washing of sins during the rite of baptism is also called illumination (Ch. 61). This statement is interesting because the knowledge of God is not only about acquiring intellectual knowledge about God. Wilken, in this respect, writes: “The knowledge of God has to do with how one lives, with acting on convictions that are not mere premises but realities learned from other persons and tested by experience.” Illumination is understanding beyond human cognition. With Justin’s apology, one also observes the consolidation of the new Christian faith. Justin is writing around 155 CE. This represents the fourth or fifth generation of Christians. The separation between Judaism and Christianity is clearly observed, and now the Christian faith had to be defended under its own terms.
As Wilken highlights in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, the early Christians had to answer people’s questions by