Alan Kreider. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire

Jennifer Otto

The Conrad Grebel Review 34, no. 3 (Fall 2016)

Alan Kreider. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016.

What accounts for the growth of the Church in the three centuries between Jesus and Constantine? Alan Kreider seeks to answer this question in The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. In Parts I and II, Kreider describes two factors in the growth of the early church that he claims have been underappreciated by previous scholars: “patience” as the church’s peculiar virtue, and a distinctive and attractive “habitus,” or set of embodied habits, inculcated by catechesis and worship. The author likens the growth of the Church in the first three centuries to fermentation—a slow, natural process of expansion powered by a living force within.

In Part III, Kreider takes a closer look at early Christian community life, worship, catechesis, and baptism, arguing that each demonstrates dedication to the practices of “patient ferment.” These practices, he contends, resulted in the slow, steady growth of the church, powered by attraction rather than an intentional missiology. In Part IV, he posits a break in the process of “patient ferment” during the fourth century, and suggests that Constantine and Augustine introduced ‘impatient’ missional strategies of force and coercion that betrayed the values of the early church.

Kreider convincingly shows that Christianity in the first three centuries grew primarily as a result of person-to-person interactions and not as the result of public preaching or organized missionary activity. His emphasis on the imperative of the reformation of catechumens’ lifestyle in early Christianity is a valuable corrective to those who would understand conversion as a one-time decision rather than a process. However, his contention that a distinctively “patient” Christian lifestyle powered the spread of the early Church is problematic.

In Kreider’s view, Christian “patience,” which the author defines as “not controlling events, not anxious or in a hurry, and never using force to achieve [its] ends,” was attractive precisely because of its stark contrast with dominant Roman values (2). He asserts that “when ancient Latin writers used the term patientia, they didn’t have heroes in mind; they were thinking of subordinates and victims” (20). He supports this claim with a citation of an illuminating article by Robert Kaster which, to my mind, makes a very different point than Kreider intends. Patientia, Kaster says, “more than any other Latin word I know, can be used to express either high praise or grave condemnation . . .  [patientia] correspond[s] to dispositions that, in English, might range from ‘endurance’ to ‘patience’ to ‘forbearance’ to ‘passivity’ to ‘submissiveness.’”[1]  It can be used by Latin writers to describe both a commendable virtue in heroes and an ignominious characteristic of the weak.

A close reading of Tertullian’s De Patientia reveals that Christians and Romans alike considered patientia to be both vice and virtue. Kreider’s assertion that “[Tertullian] writes to help the believers think Christianly about their lives so that they would differentiate themselves from their neighbors who did not grasp the power and profundity of a patient lifestyle, and even more from philosophers who were unwilling to recognize patience as a virtue,” leaves me baffled, since Tertullian actually says the opposite (20). At the treatise’s outset, the Roman writer claims that patientia is universally praised: “the good of [patience], even they who live outside it, honour with the name of highest virtue.”[2] He goes on to affirm that the philosophers are uncharacteristically unified in their “praise and glory” for patientia. And yet he also admits that there are ignoble varieties of patientia, condemning, among others, men who “patiently” endure marriage to overbearing wives for the sake of keeping the dowry.[3]

If a distinctive, ‘patient’ habitus doesn’t explain Christianity’s early growth, what does? Unfortunately, Kreider does not evaluate other theories that might shed light on this question.  Throughout his study, he is too eager to draw sharp lines between the habitus of Christians and “Romans,” failing to appreciate that all Roman Christians, regardless of their re-socialization into a Christian way of life, remained Romans. In particular, his attribution of Constantine’s malicious rhetoric about Jews and heretics to his unreformed “pagan” habitus, rather than to well-established Christian discourses of the first three centuries, strikes me as an attempt to disavow disagreeable ideas and practices whose roots in earliest Christianity run uncomfortably deep (269-71).

Jennifer Otto, Post-doctoral Fellow, University of Erfurt, Erfurt, Germany


[1] Robert Kaster, “The Taxonomy of Patience, or When is Patientia Not a Virtue?” Classical Philology 97, no. 2 (2002): 133-44, 135.

[2] Tertullian, De Patientia 1.7

[3] Ibid., 16.2