“The Didache is the most important book you've never read,” starts Tony Jones, in his latest book, The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing & Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community.
And while Tony's examination of this ancient Christian manuscript is engaging and thoughtful, I just don't know if I'd go quite that far. I enjoyed reading this book- well-written, I think well-researched... but the main premise is something I find myself wanting to push back against somewhat.
The Didache, according to The Teaching of the Twelve, records "a primitive Christianity" of about the same era in which the synoptic Gospels were composed, and seemingly unfamiliar with the theology of the Apostle Paul.
And in that, it's a helpful look at some of the rhythms of the early church. The question, of course, is what can/does that early Christianity mean for us today?
Tony attempts to answer that question as he examines the Didache, by also looking at a small, modern community of Christians who call themselves the Cymbrogi- a house church of sorts which includes Trucker Frank, a friend we've gotten to know from some of Tony's other works.
The Cymbrogi take from the Didache a very praxis-oriented approach to their walk with Jesus. They are in search of that primitive Christianity that "emphasizes how you live."
Tony writes, "The Didache's vision of communal life in Christ is powerful and potentially transformative. For the Cymbrogi, the Didache's primitive rhythms of faith have changed them personally. Each one of them I've spoken to has professed that the raw, organic Christianity that they find in the Didache and now attempt to practice is exactly what they've been looking for all along." Tony continues, "The Didache offers something of an alternative to what many know of Christianity. The real power of the Didache is its ability to remind us of what is truly important in Christianity: showing the love of Jesus to the world."
Okay... Here's where I start to wonder.
First, I've spent the last six years trying to work out what simpler, more organic, less programmatic church looks like. So, I resonate with those who want us to move in that direction- less about dotting every supralapsarian "i" and crossing every postmillenial "t", and more about actually living out the missional, incarnational life of a follower of Jesus.
But... I've read the Didache. Tony even includes his own, very good and helpful translation in the book. If you'd like to read to read it, you can check out several translations here. It will take maybe ten minutes to read. It's short.
And to be honest, The Didache, while interesting, is just not all that great. I mean... it's a fascinating glimpse into early Christianity but not terribly poetic, insightful, or inspiring... it's largely a list of do's and don'ts. (I think Tony would disagree with my characterizations here...)
Second, pretty much everything found in the Didache can be found (or at least inferred) in the New Testament. But much that's in the New Testament is missing from the Didache.
For instance, if you are looking for insight into Who Jesus Is, you'll be frustrated by the Didache. If you want to know what the Good News of Jesus is, again... you'll be frustrated. The Didache takes much of the Sermon on the Mount and other sayings of Jesus, bundles them together with other teaching on right and wrong and forms a very black and white, very down-to-earth guide to behavior. I imagine it was a helpful crib sheet for people who prior, to having the epistles of Paul and others, nonetheless were learning about the Good News of Jesus, and wanted to know how that Good News would and should impact their behavior.
Put in that context, helpful. Removed from that context? I think it could easily be construed as a very moralistic guide to doing right; and in that sense, it could easily lead someone to think- If I just live this way, I guess I'll be okay. And to be honest, when I hear people talking about a Christianity that "emphasizes how you live" specifically over and against how you believe, I worry we're just setting ourselves up to make the equal and opposite error of the one we are trying to correct. I think there's a lot more to Life in the Way of Jesus than simply how you live- it's certainly not less than how you live- but it's also most assuredly more.
It seems as if Trucker Frank and his friends appreciate the Didache just as much for what it doesn't say as for what it does- and that to me, is a problem. Trucker Frank says early in the book, "Everything was new to them [the Didache community] and the Didache captured our desire to get back to a Christianity without the doctrines and creeds."
As I read that, the only thing I could think of was, "Really? Really? A doctrineless, creedless Christianity?"
To me, the idea of a Christianity "untainted" by 2,000 years of Church history or even the epistles of Paul and other NT writers is less-than-appealing. What would we have without the doctrine and even early creeds captured in the NT, without the clarifying instructions of Paul, Peter, James, John, Jude and others? And without much of the definition brought by those early church fathers/mothers just after the Apostles?
Well, for one thing, an immature church.
There's this desire among some, and it seems to be renewed and rediscovered every generation, to get back to a "1st Century" Christianity. And while I understand the desire to simplify, to scale back some of the excesses, I can't help but think when I read some of that, "Careful! The ration of baby to bathwater is significant!"
Tony makes the point that "Before Christianity became doctrinalized by Ignatius and his theological heirs, conversion to the new faith was much more along the lines of apprenticeship." And we could absolutely do with a recovery of that impulse! But, the underlying assumption seems to be that the early Church had a pure, unadulterated form of Christianity that pretty quickly got off-track when all sorts of things like doctrine and clergy and structure began to be introduced.
I have a different view. The early church had a small handful of folks among them who had walked with Jesus, been taught by Him, seen Him and been sent by Him. The rest were relying on two things- those folks' testimony and their own imperfect understanding of what God's Spirit was doing among them. The truth is, they struggled mightily to understand just what the meaning of this Jesus was. The Apostles certainly didn't get it while Jesus was walking with them, and even Peter, one of the ones closest to Jesus, had at one point to be reminded of just what the Gospel meant in how he treated others (Gal 2:11). These folks were slow to understand all that the Good News about Jesus meant, how it impacted and changed them, and what it meant for the world. They did the best the could with what they had, lived prayerfully as they tried to figure it out, but frequently got it wrong, and were lucky that God used people like Paul, Priscilla and many others to "more adequately teach them the way of Jesus."
In other words, far from having it "right" and then getting off track, the early church was immature, still very much working it out, but slowly growing up.
And while they were in some senses "closer" to the time of Jesus, they didn't necessarily have any better insight on Him than we do- in fact, I tend to think that with a completed canon, four Gospel witnesses, the influence of Peter, Paul, and the other Epistle writers, and 2,000 years of the Spirit working on, in and through us... we (generally speaking) may actually have a more mature outlook on the faith, the Gospel and life in the way of Jesus today than they did then.
I agree with Tony that the Didache gives us a fascinating glimpse into an early, unsolidified Christianity- a simpler, less defined faith.
But... the desire of folks today to get back to an early, primitive Christianity sometimes seems a bit like the desire of a High Schooler to go back to First Grade- it's not moving in the right direction. Yes, there are many useless accretions we've picked up over the centuries, things we would do well to lay down. But a "Christianity without the doctrines and creeds"? No.
Did the earliest Christians get the Trinity? Of course not- they were wrestling with their knowledge of the One true God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and this Man who claimed to be the I Am of the Old Testament and yet spoke to His Father in heaven, who said He would return to that Father and send the Spirit of God on them... I'm pretty sure they many were often confused... but with God's help and the teaching of Apostles like Paul and Peter, figuring it out. Why in the world would I want to let go of all that we've learned, and how we've grown?
Church History is by no means a spotless record. There's a lot Christians have to answer for. But in one sense, it's a record of us learning, figuring it out and REALLY screwing up along the way. Why would we want to go back to a time before we learned those lessons? How would we ever keep from making the same mistakes?
While I very much appreciate the desire to wrestle with early conceptions of Christianity, to study, discern and live out orthopraxy, I can't help but think: Are these folks taking the New Testament this seriously? And if not, why not? Regardless of your view of inspiration, high or low, or whatever, the New Testament is AT LEAST as authoritative as the Didache, right?
So, while I may learn some useful things from the Didache (how to baptize, that the earliest Christians were specifically and emphatically against abortion, etc) a Christianity centered on practice is just as out of balance as a Christianity that is all about belief. The second may produce people who argue endlessly about doctrine and are no practical good in the world, but the first produces people whose relationship with God is defined largely on the basis of what they do or don't do and while that might at first seem like an improvement, what it leads ultimately to is just another religion where we're all on the scale, doing our best to live up.
No- we DON'T have it all figured out. The Church is still growing up in all things into Christ. It's good to always be evaluating- But let's not mistake primitive for better. It's not. Often, it's a pretty clear downgrade. The Didache-influenced "pre-Ignatian" Christianity Tony describes here just doesn't do it for me. I want a post-Ignatian, post-councils, post-Reformation, post-Christendom Christianity that contextualizes the Gospel of Jesus Christ for right here, right now. In some ways that may look simpler, more organic and streamlined- but it won't throw out 2,000 years of what we've learned and wrestled with in terms of our knowledge of God.
I think Tony has done a great job with the Didache- with sussing out what it means and how much of it can be helpful in grasping the mindset of early Christians.
But I'm not sure he's really looked very critically (at least in this book) at the very idea of "a primitive Christianity", and that seems like an oversight.
As I finished this, I couldn't help but thank God we have the NT. Because if all I had was the Didache, I think I might be in trouble. I certainly wouldn't know what the Gospel was, who Jesus was, and I'd be ignorant on many, many other mission-critical issues as well.
If I'm looking for a guide to faith and practice, to something that will give me a vision of communal life that will transform me and those I journey with, that will point me reliable towards life in the way of Jesus, I really don't have to look farther than the Bible I already have.
But, if you are looking for a good, thoughtful treatment of the Didache itself, and perhaps a more-
positive look at the house-church/primitive church movement, check it out.