Early Christianity outside the Roman Empire/The Sacraments in Aphraates

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



The teaching of Aphraates about the Sacraments throws most curious and instructive side-lights upon the mind of the Church in the fourth century. As in the case of his doctrine of the Trinity and the person of Christ, it is not so much the orthodoxy or heterodoxy as the utter independence of Aphraates which strikes the modern reader. The good bishop goes on in his easy simple style with a tone of assured authority and unconsciousness of serious opposition, and it is only when we pause and try to fit his utterances into the schemes of doctrine and practice with which we are familiar that we realise that we are moving in another world. The Church of Aphraates, like the Church of S. Athanasius, is the legitimate child of second-century Christianity, but it has come by another line of descent and the cousins have not all things in common.

With regard to the Lord's Supper Aphraates is comparatively normal. In the Eucharist the faithful partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. It must be taken fasting, but the fast must be such as once for all was prescribed by Isaiah, "for always is fasting from evil things better than fasting from bread and water[1]." The fasting of Abel and Enoch, of innocent Noah, of faithful Abraham, of unrevengeful Joseph are to be our models. "If purity of heart be absent, the fast is not accepted. And remember and see, my beloved, that it is well that a man should cleanse his heart and keep his tongue and cleanse his hands of evil; for it is not fitting to mix honey and wormwood. For if a man would fast from bread and water, let him not mix with his fasting abuse and cursing. Thou hast but one door to thy house—that house which is a Temple of God; it doth not beseem thee, O man, that by the door where the King doth enter in should come forth filth and dirt! For when a man will fast from all that is abominable and will take the Body and Blood of the Messiah, let him take heed to his mouth whereby the King doth enter in. Thou hast no right, O man, through that same mouth to give out unclean words! Hear what our Saviour saith: That which entereth into a man doth not defile him; but that which cometh forth from the mouth, that defileth him[2]." The fast here enjoined is metaphorical, but there can be no doubt that Aphraates teaches the doctrine that our Lord is physically present in the consecrated elements.

We may pause by the way to note Aphraates' singular and picturesque explanation of the three days and three nights among the dead which Christ had predicted for Himself. In his discourse on the Passover[3] he says that our Lord gave His Body and Blood to the disciples at the Last Supper. But, he argues, he whose body is eaten[4] and blood drunk is already counted among the dead. The three days and three nights are to be reckoned from the time of the Supper, and, as Aphraates puts the three hours' darkness as one whole night and the ensuing time of light on Good Friday afternoon as one whole day, he has no difficulty in making up the required number. Moreover, he adds, this is why Christ kept silence before Pilate and the Jews, for it was impossible that one who is counted among the dead should speak.

These things, however, belong to the curiosities of exegesis: they do not have much bearing upon the general history of Christian Doctrine. It is otherwise with the theory of Baptism as presented to us in Discourse VII.

The majority of the references to Baptism in Aphraates contain little that is especially startling. Christian baptism is the true circumcision[5]; it is administered, as we have already seen, in the Names of the Three Persons of the Trinity[6]; by baptism regeneration is conferred, sins are washed away[7], and the body is preserved in the Day of Judgement[8]. "From baptism do we receive the Spirit of the Messiah. For in the same hour that the priests invoke the Spirit, the heavens open and it cometh down and broodeth upon the waters, and they that are baptized are clothed with it. For from all that are born of the body the Spirit is far away, until they come to the Birth by water, and then they receive the Holy Spirit[9]." In accordance with ancient custom the rite of baptism is performed at Easter[10].

All this is normal, regular, almost commonplace. Suddenly we are transported into a different planet. Baptism is not the common seal of every Christian's faith, but a privilege reserved for monks. The passage where this amazing view is enforced is so important that I give it at length. In the Discourse upon Penitents, after reciting the story of Gideon who by the trial of water picked out his three hundred from ten thousand men, and after quoting our Lord's words that many are called but few chosen, Aphraates goes on to say[11]: "Wherefore thus should the trumpeters, the heralds of the Church, cry and warn all the Society of God before the Baptism—them, I say, that have offered themselves for virginity and for holiness, youths and maidens holy—them shall the heralds warn. And they shall say: He whose heart is set to the state of matrimony, let him marry before baptism, lest he fall in the spiritual contest and be killed. And he that feareth this part of the struggle let him turn back, lest he break his brother's heart like his own. He also that loveth his possessions let him turn back from the army, lest when the battle shall wax too fierce for him he may remember his property and turn back, and he that turneth back then is covered with disgrace. He that hath not offered himself and hath not yet put on his armour, if he turn back he is not blamed; but every one that doth offer himself and put on his armour, if he turn back from the contest becometh a laughingstock."

This is a strange exhortation, strange at least, to us Westerns. Perhaps it was not so much Constantine's fault as the fault of his spiritual advisers that his famous baptism was so long delayed. But indeed this deliberate reservation of baptism for the spiritual aristocracy of Christendom shews us that we are dealing with a view of the sacraments quite other than the Catholic view. Those who are not yet baptised may nevertheless, according to Aphraates, belong to the Society of God[12], and if they do not volunteer for the sacramental life they are not blamed.

I need scarcely remind you that Aphraates is not alone in holding this theory of the sacraments. It was the theory of the Marcionites, and we shall see that it was enforced with even greater rigour by the unorthodox party in the Syriac-speaking Church. Something like it also reappears in the Paulicians and Cathars of a later day[13]. So also, I suppose, Buddhism is a community of monks: the people are adherents, not members of the body.

It is very difficult to pass a true judgement upon Aphraates' conception of the Christian life. So much depends on the amount of influence which the inner community had upon the mass of the people, or, looking at the matter from another point of view, how much the unbaptised lay Christian felt himself to be a member of Christ. Unfortunately we have very little evidence on these points.

One thing at least is certain. We who live in a sacramental system of Christianity, whether we be Catholics or Protestants, ought to be deeply grateful to the true instinct which produced the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. It is not by chance that Dom Parisot in his ingenious Introduction to the writings of Aphraates was unable to find any reference to this institution, for I suspect that our Persian Sage would have recoiled from the thought of such a ceremony with horror. We are so accustomed to the solemnisation of weddings that we may easily come to think of the act as natural and inevitable, but the words of Aphraates teach us that it was not always so regarded. It is surely no light gain to Christian society that the bridal feast has been hallowed with the blessing of the Church.

With this we must take leave of Aphraates and the orthodox circles of the Syriac Church. I hope I have succeeded in leaving upon you a favourable impression of the Persian Sage. As a theologian, his modesty in speculation and his abstinence from abusive language are virtues rare in his own age and admirable in all ages, while his independent knowledge of the Bible has hardly been equalled among the Fathers[14]. As a writer and as a theologian he is greatly superior to his more famous contemporary S. Ephraim, the poverty of whose thought is scarcely more appalling than the fecundity of his pen.

  1. iii 8.
  2. iii 2.
  3. xii 6, 7.
  4. In xii 9 (Wright, p. 222, line 3) we must read ʾakîl: the ms. has ʾekal (or ʾâkêl).
  5. xii 9.
  6. xxiii 63: see above, p. 36.
  7. iv 19.
  8. vi 14.
  9. vi 14: cf. Gwynn, p. 371.
  10. xii 13.
  11. vii 20.
  12. Q'yâmeh dAlâhâ.
  13. See especially the Cathar ritual in Mr Conybeare's Key of Truth, pp. 160—170.
  14. It must have required no small amount of courage, as well as intelligence, to reject the application of Lam iv 20 to Christ: cf. Just. Ap. i 55; Tert. adv. Marc., iii 6, etc.