I have recently been reading Paul Bradshaw’s Reconstructing Early Christian Worship. It follows on from two previous books: The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship and Eucharistic Origins. Paul Bradshaw is an liturgical historian who is interested what we know of the practice of the Early Church. He describes himself as a splitter rather than an a lumper. A lumper is someone who makes connection and fits the pieces into an overall picture; a splitter looks at the evidence and is suspicious of any suggestion that goes far beyond the text.
In this most recent book he looks at his three areas of interest: Eucharist, Baptism and Prayer, and explores a series of questions. His method is to look at what various writers or Church documents in the early Church tell us but recognising the geographical differences. This requires a careful reading of the texts but also acknowledgement that the we only ever have glimpses of the picture. Imagine, for example, that in 100 years time this blog was the evidence for RCIA – what picture would you construct.
There are 3 chapters on Baptism: Catechumens and the Gospel, the Profession of Faith and Varieties of Anointing, The third traces the differences in the practice across the churches of pre and post-baptismal anointing, The first, Catechumens and the Gospel, ask the question at what point did Catechumens hear the gospel. In looking at the evidence from the first 3 centuries the possible answer seems to be surprising late. Initial formation seemed to been ethical — how to live.
The second chapter of the section, the Profession of Faith, builds on the first chapter. Bradshaw first suggests that a profession of faith seems to be a key element in the process of initiation and then makes the distinction that we cannot be certain that credal texts in early documents are a record of catechetical or liturgical use. Looking at 4th century Syrian sources he notes that there was shift from a profession of faith in Christ coming when catechumens began to hear the Gospel, to a fuller credal statement which is connected to baptism. In Roman practice he makes the interesting proposal that the text: ‘Do you believe…’ ‘I do believe’ is not just a consequence of Latin not have a word for ‘yes’ but that form of question and answer is that of a Roman contract. So he suggests that someone being initiated understood themselves as making a contract with Christ rather than just assenting to a set of beliefs. This has implications for infant baptism as a sponsor is, in Roman legal terms, a proxy making contract.
Bradshaw does not study and write about the past just so that we know about the past but is fully aware of its implications for the present. He is not though someone who wants to recreate the past rather he wants to do a couple of things. One, help us understand what we are doing at present within the history of what the Church has done and secondly not to get stuck with the idea that there is one way of doing or understanding something.