< Previous
Next >

4. Of the Secret Discipline, the Disciplina Arcani, of the Ancient Church, Apostolical Constitutions, etc.

Antiquities of the Christian Church
CHAPTER I. A General View of the Organization and Worship of the Primitive Church

4. Of the Secret Discipline, the Disciplina Arcani, of the Ancient Church, Apostolical Constitutions, etc.

As frequent references will be made to these in the subsequent work, a brief explanation is given for the information of the common reader. No intimation is given either in the Scriptures, or in the writings of the apostolic fathers, or by Justin Martyr, that any rites or ordinances of religion are to be concealed from the people. Irenaeus, Tertuilian, and Clemens are the first who make mention of any such custom of the church. But it afterwards became customary to celebrate the sacrament with an air of the most profound mystery, and indeed to administer baptism, and to perform most of the appropriate rites of religion with cautious secresy. Not only were unbelievers of every description excluded from the view of these rites, but catechumens also, and all who were not fully initiated into the church and entitled to a participation in its ordinances. From all else the time, and place, and manner of administering the sacred rites were concealed, and the import of each rite was a profound mystery which none was at liberty to divulge or explain. To relate the manner in which it was administered, to mention the words used in the solemnity, or to describe the simple elements of which it consisted, were themes upon which the initiated were as strictly forbidden to touch, as if they had been laid under an oath of secresy.

Not a hint was allowed to be given, nor a whisper breathed on the subject to the uninitiated. Even the ministers, when they were led in their public discourses to speak of the sacraments, or the higher doctrines of faith, contented themselves with remote allusions, and dismissed the subject by saying: The initiated know what is meant.* They never wrote about them except through the medium of figurative and enigmatical expressions, for fear of giving that which is holy unto dogs, or casting pearls before swine.

These mysteries were particularly – the manner of administering baptism; the unction or chrism; the ordination of priests; the manner of celebrating the Lord's supper; the liturgy or religious service of the church; the knowledge of the holy Trinity, the creed, and the Lord's prayer. Such was the secret discipline of the ancient church, the disciplina arcani above mentioned.

The reason which led to the introduction of this discipline probably was, the persecution to which the early Christians were subject. Under these circumstances they very naturally would conceal their worship as far as practicable from the observation of their enemies by whom they were surrounded. This precaution is distinctly indicated in the foregoing letter of Pliny. Accordingly this secret discipline gradually fell into disuse after the time of Constantino, when Christianity had nothing to fear from her enemies. 

Apostolical Constitutions and Canons

These two collections of ecclesiastical rules and formularies, were attributed in early ages of the church to Clement of Rome, who was supposed to have committed them to writing from the mouths of the apostles, whose words they pretend to record. The authority thus claimed for these writings has, however, been entirely disproved; and it is generally supposed by critics that they were chiefly compiled during the second and third centuries; or that at least the greater part must be assigned to a period before the first Nicene council. We find references to them in the writings of Eusebius, Epiphanius, and Athanaslus, writers of the third and fourth centuries. A modern critic supposes them not to have attained their present form until the fifth century.

The Constitutions are comprised in eight books. In these the apostles are frequently introduced as speakers. They contain rules and regulations concerning the duties of Christians in general, the constitution of the church, the offices and duties of ministers, and the celebration of divine worship. The tone of morality which runs through them is severe and ascetic. They forbid the use of all personal decoration and attention to appearances, and prohibit the reading of the works of heathen authors. They enjoin Christians to assemble twice every day in the church for prayers and psalmody, to observe various fasts and festivals, and to keep the sabbath, (i.e. the seventh day of the week,) as well as the Lord's day. They require extraordinary marks of respect and reverence towards the ministers of religion; commanding Christians to honor a bishop as a king or a prince, and even as a kind of God upon earth, – to render to him absolute obedience, – to pay him tribute, – and to approach him through the deacons or servants of the church, as we come to God only through Christ! This latter kind of (profane) comparison is carried to a still greater extent; for the deaconesses are declared to resemble the Holy Spirit, inasmuch as they are not able to do anything without the deacons. Presbyters are said to represent the apostles; and the rank of christian teachers is declared to be higher than that of magistrates and princes. – We find here also a complete liturgy or form of worship for christian churches; containing not only a description of ecclesiastical ceremonies, but the prayers to be used at their celebration.

This general description of the contents of the Books of Constitutions is alone enough to prove that they are no productions of the apostolic age. Mention also occurs of several subordinate ecclesiastical officers, such as readers and exorcists, who were not introduced into the church until the third century. And there are manifest contradictions between several parts of the work. The general style in which the Constitutions are written is such as had become prevalent during the third century.

It is useless to inquire who was the real author of this work; but the date, and probable design, of the forgery are of more importance, and may be more easily ascertained. Epiphanius, towards the end of the fourth century, appears to be the first author who speaks of these books under their present title, Apostolical Constitutions. But he refers to the work only as one containing much edifying matter, without including it among the writings of the apostles; and indeed he expressly says that many persons had doubted of its genuineness. One passage, however, to which Epiphanius refers, speaks a language directly the reverse of what we find in the corresponding passage of the work now extant; so that it appears probable that the Apostolical Constitutions which that author used have been corrupted and interpolated since his time.

On the whole, it appears probable, from internal evidence, that the Apostolical Constitutions were compiled during the reigns of the heathen emperors towards the end of the third century, or at the beginning of the fourth; and that the compilation was the work of some one writer (probably a bishop), of the eastern church. The advancement of episcopal dignity and power appears to have been the chief design of the forgery.

If we regard the Constitutions as a production of the third century (containing remnants of earlier compositions), the work possesses a certain kind of value. It contributes to give us an insight into the state of christian faith, the condition of the clergy and inferior ecclesiastical officers, the worship and discipline of the church, and other particulars, at the period to which the composition is referred. The growth of the episcopal power and influence, and the pains and artifices employed in order to derive it from the apostles, are here partially developed. Many of the regulations prescribed, and many of the moral and religious remarks, are good and edifying; and the prayers especially breathe, for the most part, a spirit of simple and primitive Christianity. But the work is by no means free from traces of superstition; and it is occasionally disfigured by mystical interpretations and applications of Holy Scripture, and by needless refinements in matters of ceremony. We find several allusions to the events of apostolical times; but occurrences related exclusively in such a work are altogether devoid of credibility, especially as they are connected with the design of the compiler to pass off his book as a work of the apostles.

The Canons relate chiefly to various particulars of ecclesiastical polity and christian worship; the regulations which they contain being for the most part sanctioned with the threatening of deposition and excommunication against offenders. The first allusion to this work by name is found in the acts of the Council which assembled at Constantinople in the year 394, under the presidency of Nectarius, bishop of that see. But there are expressions in earlier councils and writers of the same century which appear to refer to the canons, although not named. In the beginning of the sixth century, fifty of these canons were translated from Greek into Latin by the Roman abbot Dionysius the younger; and about the same time thirty-five others were appended to them in a collection made by John, patriarch of Constantinople. Since that time the whole number (eighty-five) have been regarded as genuine in the east; while only the first fifty have been treated with equal respect in the west. It appears highly probable that the original collection was made about the middle of the third century, or somewhat later, in one of the Asiatic churches. The author may have had the same design as that which appears to have influenced the compiler of the Apostolical Constitutions. The eighty-fifth canon speaks of the Constitutions as sacred books; and from a comparison of the two works, it is plain that they are either the production of one and the same writer, or that, at least, the two authors were contemporary, and had a good understanding with each other. The rules and regulations contained in the Canons are such as were gradually introduced and established during the second and third centuries. In the canon or list of sacred books of the New Testament given in this work, the Revelation of St. John is omitted, but the two epistles of Clement and the Apostolical Constitutions are inserted. 

Die beyden vorzüglichsien Antagonlsten sind: Eman. a Schelstrate de dirsciplina arcani. Romae, 1685. 4. Ed. Patav. 1743. 4. Guil. Ern. Tenzel, Dissertat. select. P. II. Vergl. Bingham, Orig. torn. iv. p. 119 seq. Neüere Schriftsteller iiher diesen Gegenstand sind: Herm. Scholliner, Disciplina arcani suae antiquitali restituta. 1756. 4. Ueber religiöse Mysterien u. s. w. München, 1818. 8; Th. Lienhart, De antiq. Liturg. et de disciplina arcani. Argentor. 1829. 8; Th. Crüger, De disc. arc. vet. Christianorum; Jac. Zimtnermann, De disciplina arcani vet. eccl. nostra aetate non usnrpanda. Tigiir. 1751; J. L. Schedius, De sacris opertis vet. Chr. s. de disciplina, quam vocant, arcani. Goett. 1790. 4. Eine vorziigliche Monographie ist; G. C. L. Th. Frommann, De disciplina arcani, quae in vetere eccl. chr. obtinuisse fertur. Jen. 1833. 8. Man vgl. auch: Die Religions. Wanderungen des H. Th. Moore belenchtet von einigen seiner Landsleute. Aus dem Engl. Cöln. 1835. S.359–78. Das Urtheil Neander's über die Arcan-Disciplin (Allg. Gesch. der chr. Rel. u. Kirche. T. I. S. 357) ist ungerecht.

Riddle's Christ. Antiq. p. 120–23. Coinp. also Otto Krabbe über den Ursprung und Inhatt der apostolischen Constitntionen des Clemens Romanus. Hamburg, 1829. 8; Dessili)ben, De codice canonum qui Apostolorum nomine circumferuntur. Goetting. 1829. 4; Ed. Regenbrnht, De Canonibus Apostolorum. Vratisb, 1828. 8; J. S. v. Dreg, Neue Unters. über die Constitutionen und Canones der Apostel; ein hist. krit. Beytrag zur Literat. der Kirchengesch. und des Kirchenrechts. Tübingen, 1832. 8.

(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)


search 🔍



privacy policy