Christian Thought, Early

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Christian Thought, Early

Christianity offers a mixed legacy to the history of childhood. On one hand, the teachings of Jesus present childhood as the model for discipleship. Accordingly, newly baptized Christians regardless of their age were called infants (infantes ), and stories of conversion often depict a physical return to childhood. Letters from the earliest Christian communities follow the Hebrew scriptures in urging children to honor their parents (Exod. 20:12), but in addition advise parents to love their children and not to provoke them to anger (Titus 2:4; Eph. 6:4). Early Christian writers protested customary practices of abortion, abandonment, and exposure of children, and their sale into slavery or prostitution. Evidence from texts and practices point to a positive evaluation of childhood and children from the early Christian communities.

On the other hand, Jesus commends those who leave behind parents and children to become his disciples (Matt. 19:29; Luke 14:26). Christianity offered an alternative community of brothers and sisters in Christ, and membership in this new family often disrupted ties of biology and blood. A young North African noblewoman, Vibia Perpetua, took Jesus' teachings literally, abandoning motherhood to choose martyrdom instead. During a period of intense persecution (c. 202), Perpetua refused to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods, a move that landed her in prison and separated her from an infant son still nursing. Perpetua was martyred for her resistance; the fate of her son is not known. The story of Perpetua, recounted in Herbert Musurillo's Acts of the Christian Martyrs, remains one of the most vivid among early Christian martyrologies, but the impact on her child is not recorded. Two centuries later, however, North African theologian Augustine of Hippo (354430) tried to persuade another woman not to abandon her husband and children to live in an ascetic community of women.

From the first centuries of Christianity, material on childhood and children falls into three categories: descriptions of spiritual childhood, material on the care and education of children, and theological discussion of problems that childhood and children presented, specifically the issues of sin and suffering.

Spiritual Childhood

"Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it" (Mark 10:15). The teachings of Jesus himself presented childhood as a model for the spiritual life. Initiation into the faith returned one to childhood, and the rites of Christian initiation were replete with the symbolism of birth and infancy, motherhood and childbearing. In the first four centuries after the death of Jesus, most converts to Christianity were adults, who were literally "born again" into the faith. From the fourth century onward, infant baptism became more prominent. Newly baptized Christians were "infants" in name and in fact.

Christian faith reconfigured the family. Christ served as the true guardian of Christians, as Clement of Alexandria (c. 150215) argued in a treatise entitled "The Teacher." Christ teaches Christians, but the child models the spiritual life. Clement urged believers to emulate the simplicity, freshness, and purity of the child in their spiritual lives. A later theologian, Isidore of Seville (c. 560636), underscored the child's spiritual superiority to adults. On thin etymological grounds that puer ("boy" in Latin) derived from puritas ("purity" in Latin), he argued that a boy possessed virtues utterly lacking in adult males: he bore neither rancor nor grudges; he was immune to the charms of a beautiful woman; he did not think one thing and say another. Spiritual childhood existed as an ideal for the life of discipleship.

Not surprisingly, accounts of conversion borrowed imagery from birth. Recounting the story of his own conversion at the age of thirty-two, Augustine described himself weeping and flailing like a newborn. In a state of physical and spiritual vulnerability, Augustine saw a vision of Continence as "a fruitful mother of children" (p. 151). She urged him to take a few steps towards her, a scene that deliberately echoed the process of learning to walk. Childhood framed the narrative of conversion.

Care and Education of Children

Childhood functioned as a model for Christian spirituality, but the actual life of children was more problematic. In the Roman world children were routinely abandoned in rural places, in designated sections of the marketplace (lactaria ), or later, on the steps of churches. Early Christian writers like Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, and Tertullian in the second century and Lactantius in the third denounced the practice as infanticide, even as they acknowledged that not all exposed children fell prey to hunger or wild animals. More likely, children escaped death only to be raised as slaves or prostitutes. Tertullian and Lactantius admitted that extreme poverty might force parents into such a lamentable situation. Nonetheless, poverty in no way legitimated abandonment, as Lactantius made plain: parents who could not support their children should practice abstinence. Clement of Alexandria excoriated wealthy parents who abandoned children they could have afforded to raise. Christian writers urged restricting sexual intercourse to procreation, a move that has been popularly interpreted as fear of sexuality and the body. It is more likely that these early Christian theologians were troubled by the fate of children in a world that regarded them as disposable.

The Edict of Milan in 313 made Christianity a legitimate religious option within the Roman Empire, no longer threatened by persecution. Christians were granted the right to assemble, build churches, and retain property. Children placed on the doorsteps of churches found care in church-supported orphanages. Monasteries regularly received young children, and Christian families kept them supplied. The reasons for this practice of oblation were various. Given the dangers of childbirth and limited life expectancies, some children had no parents. In other cases, poor parents felt oblation would enhance their children's chances of survival, while parents of more modest means could not always afford a dowry or patrimony for all of their sons and daughters. Still other reasons count as religious: some parents sought some spiritual benefits in this world or the next; others offered their children out of a sense of gratitude, following the example of Hannah in the Hebrew scriptures (1 Sam. 1:2728).

Monastic rules attest to the practice of oblation and acknowledge its attendant problems. The monastic rules of Basil the Great (c. 330379) required witnesses be present when parents offered a child to a community. Basil also insisted that at the age of sixteen or seventeen oblates make their own decision whether or not they wished to remain in religious life. The sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict, which gradually came to regulate monastic life in the West, assumed there would be children in monasteries. While imposing stiff punishments for childish pranks, the Rule nonetheless counseled mutual regard: children were to honor the older members of the community; the elders in turn were to love them.

Theological Issues of Children and Childhood

Children of poverty faced a spectrum of dangers ranging from hunger to abandonment, but disease and death cut across class lines. Indeed, the perils of childhood deeply impressed the early Christian writers, and with the end of persecution they turned their theological attention to children.

The plight of the Holy Innocents (i.e., Herod's slaughter of "all the male children in Bethlehem and in all the region who were two years old or under" [Matt. 2:16]) loomed large in the imagination of Christian men and women in late antiquity. Sermons considering Herod's cruel slaughter of the newly born (Matt. 2) proliferated in the late fourth and fifth centuries in the West. These infants had died without the rite of Christian baptism, and theologians speculated that they were baptized by the tears of their mothers and their own blood. They were the first Christian martyrs.

Nor were biblical children the only ones under scrutiny. Augustine, himself the father of one son, Adeodatus, observed children closely and put their world without language into words. In his autobiography he lamented the many beatings he received as a child at the hands of schoolmasters who were "behaving no better than I" (Confessions, 1:9, p. 12). With similar compassion Bishop of Antioch John Chrysostom (347407) noted the simple trust of a child: no matter how badly its mother treated it, the child always longed for her. As bishops Chrysostom and Augustine spent a great deal of time caring for the physical and spiritual needs of children. Behind their observations one glimpses the hard life of children in the ancient world.

Eastern and Western views. As theologians from Eastern and Western Christianity reflected on the plight of children, however, a striking difference emerges. Western church fathers focused on a legacy of inherited sin; too often children died without the redeeming effect of baptism. Eastern church fathers worried about untimely infant death; too often children died before they could be educated or inducted into the life of faith that baptism inaugurated.

In the West Augustine focused debate on the legacy of Adam's sin, passed on by parents to their children. Original sin infected even the infant, and Augustine cited as evidence a newborn's jealous rage when, even after it had been fed, it saw another infant at the nurse's breast. Yet Augustine acknowledged stages in the life cycle, and these marked an increasing moral responsibility. An infant could neither speak nor reason; in addition, it was too weak to harm anyone. Infants were not innocent, but they were also not wholly sinful. Without speech and the capacity to reason, they were literally non-innocent, non-nocens. With the acquisition of speech, the child gained the capacity to understand commands and to obey or disobey them, and thus had a degree of moral accountability. With adolescence the ability to reason and comprehend basic laws of human equity conferred greater accountability. Augustine illustrated this stage of the life cycle with an adolescent prank. As a youth he joined a group of young boys in stealing pears from a neighbor's tree. The boys were not hungry; they knew without being told that what they did was wrong. Their culpability as adolescents was therefore greater than if they had been infants or children. Augustine's theology featured a graduated accountability for sinning, beginning with infancy. For this reason Augustine urged infant baptism, as salvific redress of their inherited sin.

Eastern church fathers focused on the untimely death of infants, which cut short a life of ongoing formation in the Christian faith. In a treatise entitled "On Infants' Early Deaths," the great Cappadocian theologian Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335394) tried to reconcile divine justice with the suffering and death of infants. Infants had had the opportunity neither to err nor to do good: what could they expect from eternal life? Without wishing to grant these tiny souls the rewards of the good, who had struggled successfully against temptation, Gregory settled for an afterlife of increasing participation in God and knowledge of divine goodness. He found in infancy an innocence born of ignorance, not Augustine's "non-innocence" begotten in sin.

Eastern church fathers remedied this ignorance with education, and from their pens emerged a whole literature on child rearing. Chrysostom charged parents with the Christian nurture of their children. In the treatise "On Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children," he offered a taxonomy of biblical stories appropriate to the child's place in the life cycle. Parents ought to teach infants and young children biblical stories, being certain to abstract the appropriate teaching from each. Older children eight to ten years of age were ready for more fearsome stories of divine punishment: the flood, the destruction of Sodom, and so on. Chrysostom advised waiting until a child was fifteen before relating stories of hell and grace.

Contrasting Chrysostom's graduated program of religious education with Augustine's graduated accountability for sin, one glimpses the difference between the Eastern and Western church fathers' approach to childhood. A comprehensive assessment of the impact of Christianity on childhood remains incomplete because the voices of the children themselves remain silent. The evidence available comes solely from the hands of adults, who view childhood through the distortions of time and theological interest.

See also: Catholicism; Islam; Judaism; Protestant Reformation .


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Martha Ellen Stortz

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Christian Thought, Early