“The Decline of Covenant in Early Christian Thought”

“The Decline of Covenant in Early Christian Thought” is a chapter by Noel Reynolds in the useful new book, Early Christians in Disarray (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2005) that explores the rapid loss of emphasis on covenants in the early centuries of Christianity. While there are hints of the restored covenant framework of the Gospel in some early Christian writings, it is true that in reading early documents such as those grouped in the Apostolic Fathers, there is relatively little overt emphasis on covenant relationships – in spite of the many affinities for LDS thought one finds in such documents (e.g., when it comes to issues like faith and works or obedience and repentance, many of the earliest documents sound like something out of an LDS General Conference, sometimes in stark contrast to the theology of those who claim to represent “historic Christianity”). So how did the issue of covenants fade away so quickly?

Reynolds refers to the work of the non-LDS scholar, George Mendenhall, who observed that the early Christians did regard themselves as a community bound by covenants, but this covenant framework was affected by cultural forces. Mendenhall noted that the term “covenant” itself referred to the Law of Moses for those in Israel, and for the Roman Empire the word referred to illegal secret societies. Thus, Mendenhall concludes that “the old covenant patterns [soon became] not really useful as a means of communication, and may have been dangerous in view of the Roman prohibition on secret societies” (George Mendenhall, “Covenant” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary (New York: Abingdon, 1962), pp. 722-3, as cited by Reynolds, p. 305). Other scholars such as Daniel Eleazar have made similar observations.

One can see how these forces would also lead to problems with maintaining sacred ceremonies and rituals that were not for public consumption.

In any case, I find Reynolds’ chapter to be a helpful discussion about this aspect of change in early Christianity. Many more interesting details are there. A recommended read (and buy the book – it’s excellent).


Author: Jeff Lindsay

4 thoughts on ““The Decline of Covenant in Early Christian Thought”

  1. One can see how these forces would also lead to problems with maintaining temple ceremonies.

    Which ceremonies, Jeff? The Jewish ones?

  2. To clarify, I reworded that statement to “maintaining sacred ceremonies and rituals that were not for public consumption.” I refer to private, sacred elements of early Christianity such as the “chrism,” the prayer circle, or other elements that may have connections to the Endowment or other aspects of the restored temple ceremony.

  3. Ah, I see.

    Well, here is where I think I depart from a lot of Mormons. The temple was a Jewish building. If the early Christians (and I mean VERY early Christians) utilized it, they did it under a Jewish “umbrella,” ie, participating in Jewish festivals, Yom Kippur, etc. because early Christianity was essentially a Jewish phenomenon, or “Messianic Judaism.” Even further is the fact that it was destroyed in 70 AD, and at that time Christianity didn’t have much of a distinct and separate identity, but was just a wee speck on the religious consciousness of Rome (if even noticed by authorities yet).

    There are two excellent scholars who have hammered this out quite well, and point out good evidence which suggests the early Christians were, at best, ambivalent regarding the temple:

    1. Wright, N. T. The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992. See especially pages 365-366.

    2. Longenecker, Richard N. The Christology of Early Jewish Christianity. Regent: Vancouver, B.C., 1970.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think Christians had some of the ceremonies you’re talking about here, but in my opinion, I just think it’s a bit naive to say this stuff was done in the (Jewish) temple and not in, say, one’s own home or upper room or something. In fact, Justin Martyr was one of the early patristic writers who “opened the doors” of the Christian “secret meetings” to the world so that Christians weren’t viewed as suspect — evidence that they did have ceremonies “not for public consumption” but that these rituals were done behind their own closed doors.

    Jeff would you see some of these early ceremonies as actual proto-Mormon ceremonies, or just lines of coincidence geminate to any form of religious ceremonial rite?

  4. The issue about the location of the ceremonies is a good one. I tend to think they wouldn’t have been done in the Jewish temple either. I don’t think that entails there weren’t ties to Judaism in it though. And I tend to agree that the Christians didn’t really start to distinguish themselves from the Jews until after the destruction of the temple (especially the second destruction and creation of a Roman City). By then, of course, the number of gentile converts had as much to do with it though.

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