Monday, February 7, 2011

Hippolytus' Apostolic Traditions

Dix, Dom Gregory, ed. The Treatise on The Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome. London: Alban Press, 1992 reissue.

Hippolytus' Apostolic Tradition attempts to lay out in order the historic practices of the Church as, according to Hippolytus' understanding, she had always engaged in worship and order. Written about 215, Hippolytus seems to have been dealing with a dispute about appropriate developments in liturgy. He, on the conservative side, objected to developments being accepted among the Roman Christians under the leadership of Callistus.
This treatise appears to have been mostly ignored and lost, rather than serving as a document which sparked widespread reform or opposition. Though there were a few ancient translations of it and some comments on portions during the Medieval period, the work has not been found complete in any manuscript. It has been pieced together from fragmentary remains recently, within the last two centuries.
It is a good thing to discover such ancient writings and have the opportunity to study them again. A discovery like this opens a window on what was considered timeless and historic liturgy by saints who were living and worshiping after some 175 years of Christian history. By seeing what they saw as the timeless liturgical tradition we may gain insight into the traditions we hold dear.
The text of Apostolic Traditions is divided into an introduction and three main parts. The first part treats clergy, the second part laity, and the third part church order. Particularly notable in the first part is the distinction among biships and presbyters. Both are considered clerical offices, while the deacons are not. It seems to be assumed that any sizeable community will have a bishop and several presbyters. The bishop ordains presbyters, while other presbyters act in agreement. Deacons, unlike presbyters, are not considered a clerical office but work to support the bishops or presbyters. A confessor who is imprisoned or killed for his faith is considered a presbyter but does not need to be ordained. Also of note, in chapter four we see a liturgy which has been retained through the centuries to our time by congregations preparing to receive communion.
In the second portion of Apostolic Traditions we see various practices related to the laity. It is assumed that people converting to Christianity will receive substantial catechesis prior to baptism or reception of communion. In the event of the arrest and martyrdom of a catechumen the Church would consider the catechumen to be baptized. Baptismal rites are discussed in some detail, including fasting and exorcism.
In the third portion of Apostolic Traditions we see a smattering of typical matters of local church order, including the way bread and wine are distributed in communion, practices of having meals together, treating food offerings as opportunities for the bishop and congregants to dine together, typical times for fasting and prayer, the assembly of deacons and presbyters on a daily basis for instruction and prayer, and provision for the poor. Of particular note are times of prayer discussed in chapters 35 and 36.
As an epilogue, Hippolytus urges readers to keep the traditions passed down from the beginning. This is an important safeguard against all sorts of heresies. We are also well advised to consider historic Christian practice as important. There is much to be gained by an awareness of the lives of saints who came before us.

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