Winter Books
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Issue Date:  October 7, 2005

By O.M. Bakke; translated by Brian McNeil
Fortress, 348 pages, $18
The making of a Christian child


What was it like to be a child in the early Christian church? Did you participate in worship or attend school? What did your parents expect from you and how did they treat you? How did the church’s teachings influence you and your family on these subjects? How was your life different from that of a non-Christian child growing up in the Greco-Roman world? O.M. Bakke, associate professor of church history at the School of Mission and Theology in Stavanger, Norway, begins to answer such questions with his book When Children Became People.

Dr. Bakke’s focus is on children and childhood during the first to the fifth centuries. Aiming to understand the extent to which Christianity made an impact on what adults thought about children and how they treated children in day-to-day life, Dr. Bakke approaches his material from the perspective of theological anthropology and social history. He groups sources by thematic topic (for example, abortion and infanticide, education, worship) and then, within the topic, discusses the material chronologically. By doing this, he is able to discuss both what Christians thought about children and what they taught about the treatment of children.

The author begins by looking at children in the Greco-Roman world. He analyzes the negative assessment of childhood found in pagan philosophical writings of the time in which children are seen as less than fully human because they lack the ability to reason. Why have children, then? Most of the sources suggest it’s to guarantee an heir and to provide a parent with help and support in old age. Dr. Bakke then gives an overview of how a typical Greco-Roman family would function, discussing the large number of children growing up in blended families because of remarriage; the role of nurses and pedagogues in a child’s upbringing and education; and the responsibilities fathers, mothers and children each had in a family.

After providing this larger context, Dr. Bakke looks at patristic teachings about the nature of children. The primary question raised in this section concerns a child’s nature in a moral sense. Is a child innocent or not? We learn that from the first to the third centuries, the church fathers, following the lead of Gospel passages, associated children with simplicity and purity. It was not until the fifth century and the Pelagian debate that Augustine posited children as sinners from their birth, condemned to eternal punishment if they should die unbaptized.

The church fathers apparently had a different attitude toward the worth of young children than pagan ethicists did. For Christian writers, all human beings, including babies, were of value because they were created by God. This led the patristic authors to prohibit commonly accepted practices of the day such as abortion (in the Western church after full formation, in the Eastern church from conception on), exposure of infants during the first few days of life, and infanticide. Beginning in the third century, these early church leaders also emphasized the connection between a parent’s duty to raise a Christian child properly and the question of eternal salvation. Children were to be obedient. Teenagers were to be separated by gender so that sons would remain abstinent until marriage. Any child leaving the home was to be under constant supervision. Among the methods used to enforce these early Christian ideals of conduct were limited contact with the pagan world, good role models and, to a much greater degree than in the pagan world, corporal punishment. Should a child fail to meet the standards the church fathers listed, the eternal salvation of the child -- and, according to some patristic writers, the parents as well -- was at stake.

Another topic Dr. Bakke discusses is the role of children in worship, including their participation in hymn singing and in the sacraments. And he treats the thorny question raised by such narratives as the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity: What should a parent do when faced with the conflict of caring for a child or leading a life of Christian perfection and, in many cases, martyrdom? The most common answer -- one that Dr. Bakke gives but then tries to back away from by putting possible but unsupported limits on it -- was to abandon the children and become a hero by following God, even if it was to your death.

Dr. Bakke is a clear writer who provides lots of guidance and summaries throughout the text. He is doing some groundbreaking work in this book. Nevertheless, there is a major weakness in the work, one of which Dr. Bakke himself is aware. Almost all the sources drawn upon are literary ones written by upper-strata, elite male Christians, and these letters, treatises and church orders are prescriptive rather than descriptive material. How closely these sources reflect the reality of the life of well-to-do Christian families, much less families of lower social strata, is uncertain. We don’t know, therefore, whether the picture that Dr. Bakke paints for us is one of an idealized world as the church fathers see it, one that captures some of what life would have been like for Christian children in those centuries or, most probably, some unknown amalgam of the two.

Susan De George teaches religion and philosophy at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 2005

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