Becoming a Christian

The North African Christian writer Tertullian noted in the second century, "Christians are not born, but made." Christians from the beginning construed their religious affiliation as a matter of choice and felt the imperative to spread the message and persuade as many others as possible to make the same choice. Even in established Christian communities in the fourth and fifth centuries, Christians continued to be "made": an infant born of Christian parents still had to be formally brought into the religion, through education and initiation. As the example of Augustine shows (see Text 11), even in the late fourth century it could be expected that a child of Christian parents would explore and study before officially entering the Christian fold.

"Making" a Christian was perceived in both internal and external terms. On the one hand, following the legalization of Christianity, when the profession of Christian faith could no longer lead to potential torture and execution, Christian devotion became an increasingly internalized matter. Public profession of faith was imagined to reflect a profound inner orientation to God that eclipsed all other loyalties. Even a man or woman who had been raised in a Christian family might therefore value an experience of conversion, a radical turning away from the old life and embracing the new life of Christian dedication. The circulation of conversion narratives in this period provided an important (if often overly idealized) touchstone by which to measure this internal reorientation of the self.

But the making of a Christian was also an arduous external process: doctrinal and scriptural formation, under the care of experts, preceded full entry into the Christian fold. In some respects, Christianity retained many of the characteristics of Greco-Roman "mystery cults": participation in secretive communion with the deity (through the Eucharist) could only come after a rigorous and detailed period of instruction (catechesis), followed by a culminating rite of initiation (baptism). In the centuries after our period, as societies in the eastern and western ends of the Mediterranean world grew uniformly Christian, baptism of infants became the norm, and the intense experiences of conversion and instruction were transferred into the daily rhythms of liturgical and sacramental life. In the fourth and fifth centuries, however, a profound sense of becoming still permeated the making of Christians.

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