I read and review scores of books by current authors describing how they think contemporary Christianity is to be practiced. But what did early Christians think about how they were to practice their faith? Two early documents are included in this short book as examples of the earliest nonbiblical Christian writings. There is also a lengthy Introduction by Rowan Williams.
I was introduced to the Didache several years ago. It is the earliest document we have that explains training disciples in Christian faith. It dates to the late first century and is anonymous. It contains instruction on ethics, baptism, and the Eucharist. It emphasizes the Two Ways, one to life and the other to death. The Christian practice described in this document may be thought of as radical today. The saying, “Jesus is Lord,” really had teeth. Believers were to actually live out a radical commitment to the commandments of Jesus.
The Shepherd was written by a former slave named Hermas and dates to the second century. Hermas received visions and revelations. Some of it has parable like visions, such as making a building from stones. Other parts contain teaching from an angel on Christian living and the character traits one is to have.
Reading this book reminded me how our contemporary Christianity is so different from that of the early church. The Didache seems to require a great deal of instruction before a new believer could be baptized. Fasting was common. One should pray three times a day, after the model of the Lord's Prayer. Only the baptized could participate in the Eucharist. Itinerant prophets who asked for money were to be considered false prophets. So were ones who stayed longer than one or two days.
I found the Shepherd a little more difficult to appreciate. The teachings of the angel were clear. One is to be patient and not have anger, for example. “For the Lord lives in patience, but the devil lives in an angry temper.” (Loc 385/784) But the visions were allegorical. Even though the angel explained them, they did not have the impact on me like the Didache did.
I recommend this short book to Christians who would like to know how Christianity was practiced by early Christians. It brings to light some of the craziness of the contemporary Western church.
My rating: 4/5 stars.
Rowan Williams was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. A theologian and a poet, he is master of Magdalen College in Cambridge and chancellor of the University of South Wales. He is the author of many books.
Plough Publishing House, 102 pages.
I received a complimentary egalley of this book from the publisher. My comments are an independent and honest review.