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Presbyterion 37/1 (Spring 2011): 31-48


Clarence DeWitt "Jimmy" Agan III*

The topic of the imitation of Christthe shaping of Christian character and conduct according to patterns observed in the life of Christhas been largely neglected among Protestant and Reformed scholars. 1 As a result, the development of a biblically grounded hermeneutic of imitation has received little attention; that is, Protestant theological tradition has not identified the parameters that might help readers of Scripture distinguish proper use of Jesus' example as an ethical norm from that which is improper. 2 For instance, most Christians assume that as they read the Gospels they will discover ways in which they should be like Jesus. 3 But a Christian looking to the Protestant/Reformed tradition * Jimmy Agan is associate professor of New Testament and director of the homiletics program at Covenant Theological Seminary. He holds a PhD from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. 1 See E. J. Tinsley, "Imitation of Christ/' in A Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, ed. Gordon S. Wakefield (London: SCM, 1988), 208-09; see 208: "The idea of the imitation of Christ has an ambivalent status in the history of Christian spirituality. On the one hand it has been taken to be the classical and normative way of characterizing the Christian spiritual life and the role of Christ in it. On the other hand there are those, chiefly of the Reformed traditions, who have felt that the idea of the imitation of Christ matches ill with the Christian doctrine of grace and conceals a moral endeavour of a Pelagian kind" (emphasis added). For more recent discussion, largely critical of imitation and linking this critique to the teachings of Luther and Calvin, see Allster McGrath, "In What Way Can Jesus be a Moral Example for Christians?" JETS 34 no. 3 (1991): 289-98, and Michael Horton, "Following Jesus: What's Wrong and Right About the Imitation of Christ," Modern Reformation 18 no. 2 (2009):14-18. 2 For one brief but helpful exception to this general trend, see Daniel M. Doriani's contribution to Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology, ed. Stanley N. Gundry and Gary T. Meadors (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009). 3 Some such discoveries are clearly legitimate (e.g., "Jesus loved others, even at great cost to himself; I should do the same"), some clearly illegitimate (e.g., "Jesus never went to a movie; neither should I"), and others more ambiguous (e.g., "Jesus never married, so I will remain single;" "all preachers should use illustrations, because Jesus taught in parables").



for help would find little specific guidance on how to rightly interpret the life of Christwhether as it is presented to us in the Gospels, or as it is interpreted and applied in the Epistleswith imitation in mind. One might object: but isn't it dangerous to speak of imitating Christ? Why would we want to train people to read Scripture in a way that might lead them to emphasize works at the expense of grace, or to emphasize Jesus' moral example at the expense of his unique work as Savior? To this I offer a four-fold response. 1) Abuse does not negate proper use. The fact that some traditions (e.g., Pelagianism, Protestant liberalism) have misused the notion of imitating Christ does not negate the fact that Scripture (e.g., 1 Cor. 11:1; 1 Peter 2:21), including the teaching of Jesus himself (e.g., Mark 10:45; John 13:12-15), calls Christians to imitate him. 2) We must avoid false dichotomies. The New Testament itself posits no necessary tension between efforts at being like Jesus and reliance upon divine grace (cf. John 15:1-17; Phil. 2:1-13) nor between Jesus-asexample and Jesus-as-Savior (cf. 2 Cor. 8:9; Eph. 5:2, 25-33). To neglect either half of these pairs is to separate truths that Scripture holds together. 3) The church abhors a vacuum. Christians will read the New Testament, and especially the Gospels, with a "hermeneutic of imitation," no matter how much their tradition may warn against its dangers. The only question is whether their hermeneutic will be a sound one, benefitting from the reflection of scholars and pastors whose time and talents are devoted to careful thinking about such matters, or not. I would suggest that it is our duty to aid the church in this crucial area. 4) We must appropriate our entire tradition. While it is true that many Protestant and Reformed voices have warned against the dangers of imitating Christ, this tradition also has much to say about the theme that is positive. 4 For instance, the themes of self-denial and cross-bearing form the backbone of John Calvin's treatment of the Christian l i f e themes that Calvin summarizes in terms of conformity to and imitation of Christ. 5 Put simply, for Calvin, imitating Christ "is the rule of life."6 In Dietmar Lage, Martin Luther's Chrstology and Ethics, Texts and Studies in Religion (Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1990), puts it starkly: "Protestants often believe, particularly in terms of the tradition of the imitation of Christ, that Luther ended the tradition rather than reforming it" (3). Lage argues persuasively that this reading of Luther constitutes an over-reaction. 5 See Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, Library of Christian Classics 20-21, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 3.7-3.8, for the importance of self-denial and cross-bearing. For these two themes explicated in terms of conformity and imitation, see Calvin's comment on Matt. 16:24 in Calvin's New Testament Commentaries, trans. T. H. L. Parker, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1994-96), 2:194.



fact, Calvin can affirm, without denying the saving grace of Christ, that following Christ's example is the most effective way to summarize the believer's call to holiness: Christ, through whom we return into favor with God, has been set before us as an example, whose pattern we ought to express in our life. What more effective thing can you require than this one thing? Nay, what can you require beyond this one thing? For we have been adopted as sons by the Lord with this one condition: that our life express Christ, the bond of our adoption.7 Likewise, despite their strong opposition to liberalism and its "moral influence" theory of atonement, even B. B. Warfield and J. Gresham Machen affirmed the central place of imitating Christ in the believer's life.8 For these reasons, giving careful thought to developing a hermeneutic of imitation is not only a worthwhile but also a necessary endeavor. In this article, I propose to examine the hermeneutic of imitation modeled for us in the Didascalia Apostolorum, a third-century "church order" primarily addressing the duties of bishops and deacons and related matters. This document, originally written in Greek but surviving only in translation, 9 contains around twenty passages that shed light on the early church's appropriation of the imitation motif. I do not suggest Calvin's New Testament Commentaries, W246, commenting on Phil. 2:5 (Paul "persuades us to imitate Christ, because this is the rule of life"). In his comments on Heb. 5:8, having acknowledged that "[t]his passage not only speaks of the example of Christ, but goes further and says that by His obedience Christ has blotted out our transgressions," Calvin nonetheless concludes that "if we want the obedience of Christ to be of advantage to us, we must copy it" (ibid., 12:6667). 7 Calvin, Institutes, 3.6.3. 8 B. B. Warfield, "Imitating the Incarnation," a sermon contained as an appendix to The Person and Work of Christ, ed. Samuel G. Craig (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1950), 563-75. See particularly 563: "'Christ our Example/ After 'Christ our Redeemer/ no words can more deeply stir the Christian heart than these." J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), 93: "The imitation of Jesus has a fundamental place in Christian life; it is perfectly correct to represent Him as our supreme and only perfect example." 9 The earliest translation, generally believed to be the most faithful reflection of the Greek original, is in Syriac. Other translations are in Latin (fragments only), Arabic, and Ethiopie. For an introduction, see R. Hugh Connolly, Didascalia Apostolorum: The Syriac Version Translated and Accompanied by the Verona Latin Fragments (Oxford: Clarendon, 1929; repr. 1969), and Alistair Stewart-Sykes, The Didascalia Apostolorum: An English Version, Studia Traditionis Theologiae 1 (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2009). Connolly's translation is considered the standard English text.



that these passages represent the high point of Christian thinking about the imitation of Christ, or that what they have to teach us is more significant than what we learn from Scripture itself. However, careful attention to these portions of the Didascalia can help us to frame a hermeneutic of imitation positively, to the extent that they model wise handling of biblical texts and themes, and negatively, to the extent that they model poor approaches that should be avoided. We will divide the relevant texts into six categories, discussing each in turn before drawing some overall conclusions. 1 0

Two passages that do not mention the imitation of Christ are nonetheless instructive for us, as they reveal what such imitation might involve. The first occurs in a discussion of heresies and schisms, and warns against imitating the Old Testament characters Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and their followers, for "everyone who imitates them shall perish even as they." 1 1 To be an "imitator" of these men or their adherents apparently means to do as they didthat is, to participate in a blasphemous departure from God's purposes. But, the Didascalia warns, one should imitate what these Old Testament figures did only if one wishes to experience a similar fate. Thus the concept of imitation in view entails observing the life-pattern of a biblical character, including the ultimate outcome to which that pattern leads, and determining to pursue (or avoid!) a similar pattern in one's own life. The same logic is especially apparent in the Didascalia's comments related to the endurance of suffering by Christians, and by martyrs in particular: to imitate Christ means to pursue in one's own life patterns similar to those observed in his, which leads through the depths of crucifixion and on to the heights of resurrection. In another text, the Didascalia uses the language of imitation to describe similarities between mourning and Sabbath-keeping (5.20). The point is not that mourners decide to forego bathing because this is a feature of Sabbath observance among Jews, nor that Jews intentionally adapt their Sabbath customs to reflect the good example of mourners. Rather, those engaged in this "imitation" are engaging in similar conduct according to a divinely intended correspondence of which they

Even if the argument of Stewart-Sykes in the introduction to his translation is correct, and the Didascalia is the product of several authors and editors, the conclusions of this article remain helpful. The possibility that the document may represent more than one voice does not significantly impact our goal of discovering how the imitation motif was handled in the early church. 11 Didascalia 6.4; Connolly, 197. See Num. 16.




themselves are unaware. 1 2 The concept of imitation in the Didascalia is therefore broad enough to encompass a spectrum ranging from 1) correspondence to a moral example, intentionally and consciously sought by the "imitator," to 2) correspondence to a divinely-instituted pattern, which may not involve moral similarity or the intention of the "imitator." As we consider other passages from the Didascalia, we will have occasion to revisit this spectrum, and to consider further gradations on it. CATEGORY 2: THE BISHOP AS IMITATOR OF CHRIST In 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul calls the Corinthians to become his "imitators" (,) as he is an imitator of Christ. The Didascalia similarly assumes that Christian leaders, and bishops in particular, should lead exemplary lives, with Christ as their pattern. For instance, the bishop 1 3 should refrain from evil so that those under his care may "be imitators of his good works." This principle is grounded first by an appeal to Scripture (Hos. 4:9, "And it shall be like people, like priest" 1 4 ), and then by an appeal to Christ: "For it behoves [sic] you to be an example for the people, for you also have Christ for an example." 1 5 No specific biblical warrant is supplied for this exhortation, and no particular patterns for imitation are cited. Yet the passage clearly calls for the bishop to consciously seek moral similarity to Christ, as the people should to the bishop. The overall argument is that Sabbath observance represents a state of perpetual mourning instituted by God to punish Israel for rebellion against Moses (and, in him, ultimately against Christ); thus, "most men in their mourning imitate the Sabbath; and they likewise who keep Sabbath imitate mourning" (5.20; Connolly, 191). Both involve refraining from lighting lamps, bathing, preparing meals, and working. While its interpretation of Sabbathkeeping is not to be commended, this passage sheds helpful light on the Didascalia's concept of imitation. 13 Care must be taken to distinguish the "congregational" bishop of the early centuries from the "monarchical" or "diocesan" bishop of later centuries; the former functioned as the leader, and especially the primary teacher, of a single congregation, while the latter exercised authority over multiple congregations, and came to focus more on governance than preaching and teaching duties. For these distinctions and an overview of the historical development of the office, see Everett Ferguson, "Bishop," in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, 2nd ed., 2 vols., ed. Everett Ferguson (New York and London: Garland, 1997), 1:182-85. The role of the bishop in the Didascalia may be compared to that of a modern-day pastor, though the document gives less stress to lay leaders ("presbyters") than Presbyterian government does; see Stewart-Sykes, Didascalia, 56-62, for further discussion. 14 Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture citations are from the ESV. 15 2.6; Connolly, 36.



This is not the whole story, however. Elsewhere we read that the bishop has authority to offer forgiveness to straying Christians not just because Christ is his example, but because he has "put on the person of Christ." 16 Imagery from the Gospels supports the point: "For as a wise and compassionate physician, [Christ] was healing all who were afflicted by sins. . . . You, bishop, are set over the church as a physician; do not therefore cease to offer medicine to those who are sick in their sins." 17 By virtue of his office, the bishop shares in the authority that Christ wielded on earth. Thus Christ is upheld not only as a pattern for Christian morality, but as the divinely-intended pattern for Christian ministry. Put another way, the logic employed here involves both moral similarity (bishops should do as Jesus did, thus serving as an example for all believers) and ministerial analogy (unlike other Christians, bishops serve in a role that is analogous to that of Jesus, especially as regards restoration of sinners). In terms of the spectrum mentioned above, we have now identified three gradations related to imitation: moral similarity, ministerial analogy, and simple correspondence. The duty of the bishop to imitate Christ's mercy toward sinners is a recurring theme in the Didascalia. At 2.21 the exhortation is general: the bishop must not disregard God's mercy toward those who repent; he who does so "takes not the example of Christ, nor considers those who repented of their many transgressions and received of Him forgiveness." 18 Thus the bishop must keep scriptural examples before his eyes, that he may "learn by comparison the healing of souls." Two such examples follow. The first is an extended citation of 2 Kings 21/ 2 Chronicles 33, illustrating God's mercy to a repentant Manasseh. The second features a loose paraphrase of John 8:1-11, preceded by an admonition to obey "our Saviour and our God, to do as He also did with her that had sinned." 19 Because Christ, "our Saviour and King and God," is their "pattern," bishops should "imitate Him," embodying a litany of fifteen character traits including meekness, compassion, and freedom from wrath. Like Ephesians 4:32-5:2, the Didascalia links the imitation of God with the imitation of Christ, with particular regard to mercy. Of note is the seamless combination of the unique and the exemplary: Jesus is, on the one hand, Savior, King, and God; on the other, a pattern to be imitated. While one Gospel narrative is cited, the text implies that any account of Jesus' mercy to sinners ("those who repented") carries exemplary force. Finally, we note that for the Didascalia, the force of Jesus' example does not depend on precise correspondence between his 2.20; Connolly, 64. Ibid.; Stewart-Sykes, 138-39. 18 2.21; Connolly, 68. Stewart-Sykes, 140, notes that the reference to Christ's example may be a later addition. 19 2.24; Connolly, 76.
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situation and that of the bishopthat is, while Jewish elders bring an accused adulteress before Jesus, no reference is made to elders bringing an accused sinner before the bishop for judgment. The concept of imitation at work here entails correspondence to a moral principle seen in Jesus' life rather than an external or superficial similarity. Elsewhere the Didascalia asks whether the bishop should forbid those under church discipline to attend public worship. An appeal to the example of Jesus 20 settles the question: "But thou shalt by no means forbid them to enter the Church and hear the word, O bishop; for neither did our Lord and Saviour utterly thrust away and reject publicans and sinners, but did even eat with them." 21 The Pharisees' criticism of Jesus for eating with sinners and tax collectors is loosely cited, and Jesus' reply regarding the sick who need a physician (Matt. 9:1-12; Mark 2:15-16; Luke 5:30-31) supports a call for the bishop to reach out to "those who have been convicted of sins and are sick."22 The same point has already been made more succinctly: "And again, when Zaccheus required it of him, the Lord received him in repentance." 23 Here, particular Gospel narratives are cited on the assumption that Jesus' relations with the morally compromised are paradigmatic for Christian leaders (and, to the extent that the people are to imitate leaders, for Christians in general). As observed earlier, the situations in view are not precisely parallel: those with whom Jesus affiliated were not put outside the Christian church by a process of formal discipline; and the bishop is urged to receive offenders into Christian worship, whereas Jesus shared table fellowship with them. Nonetheless, Jesus' example of mercy to sinners retains its hortatory force. In addition to receiving sinners as Christ did, the bishop is called to bear the sins of others: "For thou art an imitator of Christ: and as He took upon Him the sins of us all, so it behoves [sic] thee also to bear the sins of those under thy charge." 24 That Christ bore the sins of others is Two factors lead me to view the present text differently from those in which some aspect of Jesus' life is appealed to as a precedent (see below, "Category 6: Christ's Example as Precedent"). First, the idea that Christian leaders should model their ministry on that of Jesus is one that naturally emerges from the Gospel texts themselves, whereas "precedents" address issues that arise apart from the text. Second, the question of how a bishop should deal with those under discipline is not merely a procedural one, but has to do with the character of the bishop. Whereas texts dealing with precedents tend to reason from what Jesus did to what the Christian/leader/church should do, texts like the one under consideration tend to address larger concerns, reasoning from what kind of person Jesus was to what kind of people Christians/leaders/the church should be. 21 2.40; Connolly, 104. 22 Ibid. 23 2.39; Stewart-Sykes, 161. 24 2.25; Connolly, 81.



established first through the citation of Isaiah 53:2-5 and 12, and then through a more sweeping reference: "And in David and in all the prophets, and in the Gospel also, our Saviour makes intercession for our sins." According to the Didascalia, then, Christ's priestly example is portrayed not only in the Gospels, but in the Old Testament as well. What it means for the bishop to "bear the sins" of others is clarified by the reminder that Christ "is without sin. Therefore, as you have Christ for a pattern, so be you also a pattern to the people under your charge; and as He took upon Him our25 sins, so do you also take upon you the sins of the people."26 Here again we see the principle of ministerial analogy. That Christ remains uniquely "Saviour" and sinless suggests that the analogy is not to be pressed at every point; thus we need not insist that the bishop's sin-bearing is identical to that of Christ. Rather, the passage seems to argue from greater to lesser: if the (greater) Savior bore the (greater) burden of being the sacrifice for sin, then surely the (lesser) bishop should be willing to bear a (lesser) priestly burden. Given that preceding chapters have discussed the bishop's role in restoring offenders to fellowship, the sin-bearing in view appears to be pastoral care for sinners, including the call to repentance, discipline, restoration, and assurance of pardon to the contrite. The Didascalia calls the bishop to imitate Christ, not to duplicate his work. CATEGORY 3: THE DEACON AS IMITATOR OF CHRIST The Didascalia applies the principle of ministerial analogy not only to the office of bishop, but also to that of deacon. Thus, following a comparison of church leaders to their Old Testament analogues,27 we find a Trinitarian analogy: "let [the bishop] be honoured by you as God, for the bishop sits for you in the place of God Almighty. But the deacon stands in the place of Christ And the deaconess shall be honoured by you in the place of the Holy Spirit."28 While the deacon's duty to pursue likeness to Christ is not developed here, we are not surprised to find an extended treatment of this theme later, in Didascalia 3.13. To define the nature of the deacon's ministry, this text cites in full Matthew 20:26-28 (cf. Mark 10:44-45), in which Jesus exhorts the Twelve to servanthood on the basis that "the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." The Didascalia then offers an exhortation of its own: as Jesus laid down his life, "So ought you the

Connolly has supplied this word; the original is less explicit. Ibid. 27 Bishops correspond to high priests; presbyters to priests; deacons, together with widows and orphans, to Lvites. 28 2.26; Connolly, 88. The text goes on to compare presbyters to the apostles, and orphans and widows to the altar.




deacons also to do, if it fall to you." Another Scripture citation, from 30 Isaiah 53:11 LXX, emphasizes Jesus' willingness to serve others. This in turn is the basis for a second exhortation: "If then the Lord of heaven and earth 'performed a service' for us, and bore and endured everything for us, how much more ought we to do the like for our brethren, that we may imitate Him. For we are imitators of Him, and hold the place of 31 Christ." Finally, we read a brief reference to the foot washing of John 32 13, which Jesus "did that He might show us an example of charity and brotherly love, that we also should do in like manner one to another. If then our Lord did thus, will you, deacons, hesitate to do the like for 33 them that are sick and infirm, you who . . . bear the likeness of Christ?" As we have seen earlier, the Didascalia here employs a greater to lesser logic in its exhortations to imitate Christ; we may now observe that this logic is also characteristic of the Gospel texts cited (Matt. 20:28, "even as the Son of Man...;" John 13:14, "If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also..."). Such logic is likely what enables the Didascalia to call for imitation of Christ's self-sacrifice without any apparent concern for undermining his uniqueness. Self-sacrificial service is an appropriate response to Christ's work, but it does not bear the same weight as his death, which is a ransom (cf. the citation of Matt. 20:28) and the means of justification (cf. the citation of Isa. ttlX)?^ But who should respond to Christ's work with such service? Clearly this responsibility belongs to deacons, who "bear the likeness of Christ." 3 5 Yet it appears to belong to all believers as well: it is "we"a group distinct from "you" deaconswho are Christ's imitators, "we" who should love one another

3.13; Connolly, 150. "To justify the righteous, who hath performed well a service for many..." (Connolly, 150); LXX, ev -. The LXX uses the verb to describe an action performed by "the righteous [one]," who is vindicated or "justified" by YHWH. By contrast, in the Hebrew text YHWH speaks of his "servant" (a noun form) who "justifies" or makes righteous the "many," as reflected in the ESV: "the righteous one, my servant, [shall] make many to be accounted righteous." 31 Ibid. 32 Connolly has inserted the phrase "an example of" for clarity. 33 Ibid. 34 Perhaps such a distinction accounts for the Didascalia's partial citation of Isa. 53:11, omitting the phrase, "and he himself will bear their sins." 35 In addition to the Trinitarian analogy observed earlier, this phrase likely draws on the associations of the title , which provides a lexical link to the Ransom Saying and a conceptual link to the servant imagery of John 13 and Isa. 53.




as he did. 36 By virtue of their office, deacons are understood to have a particular duty to imitate Christ by caring for those in need, but this is a duty in which all Christians share. CATEGORY 4: ALL CHRISTIANS AS IMITATORS OF CHRIST One other passage from the Didascalia calls all Christians to imitate Christ's example. Addressing the question of how to deal with an offender who has been put out of the church, the document advises believers to remain stern with him but also to "come in 37 and plead for him. For our Saviour Himself also was pleading with his Father for sinners." 38 A loose citation of Luke 23:34 proves the point. 39 After such intercession, the bishop should determine whether the offender is repentant. If so, the bishop should dismiss the offender with a rebuke and with instruction to pray for forgiveness during a period of fasting. Three features of this passage are noteworthy. First, Luke 23:34 is understood to have exemplary force despite the differing circumstances in view: Jesus' prayer was an individual plea for his crucifiers at the moment of their violence against him; by contrast, the church's prayer is corporate intercession for a straying member who has been put out of the fellowship, and is offered at the culmination of a process of discipline. Nonetheless, insists the Didascalia, it is good to be a people who pray for those outside the fellowship, because Jesus was such a Savior. Second, the greater-to-lesser logic observed earlier may be implicit in this text as welli.e., if Jesus could pray this way during his crucifixion, then surely the church can pray in a similar way under circumstances far less trying. Finally, we note that the idea of imitation is only selectively applied, for even though Jesus had occasion to deal with repentant offenders, the Didascalia does not appeal to his example in its instructions to the bishop. Had it done so, perhaps the bishop would be exhorted to assure repentant people that they had already been forgiven (Luke 7:48; cf. 19:9)! At this point, at least, it appears that the church may Since the Didascalia claims in one passage to be written by Matthew, the pronoun could be taken to refer to apostles, though nothing in the context suggests that this is intended. 37 The situation envisioned seems to be that the one under discipline is seeking to enter a gathering for public worship. Believers should forbid him entry, but then come in to pray for his restoration. 38 2.16; Connolly, 52. 39 "My Father, they know not what they do, neither what they speak: but if it be possible, do Thou forgive them" (ibid.). Cf. Luke 23:34: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." For a thorough summary of the text-critical issues surrounding this verse, concluding in favor of its authenticity, see David Crump, Jesus the Intercessor: Prayer and Christology in Luke-Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 79-85.



have benefited from a more consistent use of Jesus' example to shape its vision of ministry. CATEGORY 5: MARTYRS AS IMITATORS OF CHRIST One of the major concerns of the Didascalia is the encouragement of those facing death because of their commitment to Christ. Not surprisingly, the theme of likeness to Christ appears frequently in this connection. Indeed, one passage asserts that the correspondence of the martyr to Christ is so strong that seeing one is seeing the other: "for through him you see the Lord our Saviour, inasmuch as he has been found worthy of the incorruptible crown, and has renewed again the witness of (His) passion." 40 A second text moves beyond the description of correspondence to an explicit prescription to imitate Christ, and suggests that martyrs are simply giving expression to a duty shared by all Christians: Now every one who learns any craft watches his master and sees how . . . he executes the work of his craft; and he himself copies him.... We, then, who have our Lord for master and teacher, why do not we imitate His teaching and His conversation? For He left riches and favour, and power and glory, and came thus in poverty; and moreover He parted with Mary . . . and with His brethren, and with His life itself, and endured persecution even unto the cross. And these things He endured for our sake, that He might redeem us. . . . If then He suffered thus for our sake, to redeem us who believe in Him, and was not ashamed, why do not we also imitate His sufferings, while He gives us endurance?41 The context goes on to contrast Christ, who suffered for the sake of his people, with his followers, who endure suffering for their own sake that is, to demonstrate the reality of their love for Christ and their willing choice of suffering for him. A concluding exhortation calls for sacrifices reminiscent of Christ's: "Let us then part with our parents and our kinsfolk, and with all that is in this world, and even with our life."42 Four features of this passage deserve mention. First, we note its focus on two aspects of Christ's "craft" in particular, his self-denial and willing endurance of hardship. Supporting this focus are echoes from two Pauline texts that, in their own contexts, call for the imitation of Christ: Philippians 2:5-8 ("though he was in the form of God," "even death on a cross") and 2 Corinthians 8:9 ("though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor"). 43 Second, for the Didascalia, there is 5.1; Connolly, 161. 55; Connolly, 164. 42 5.6; Connolly, 165. 43 Recently, many have argued that Phil. 2:5-11 makes no appeal to imitate Jesus' example; see especially Ralph P. Martin, Carmen Christi: Philippians ii.5-11 in Recent Interpretation and in the Setting of Early Christian Worship, SNTSMS 4
41 40



significant overlap between obeying Jesus' teaching and following his example. When Jesus calls others to deny themselves, to renounce father and mother, to bear a cross, or to lose their lives (note the citation in the preceding section, 5.4, of Matt. 10:33; 10:37-39; and 16:25), he calls them to a path that he himself knows how to tread. Third, the theme of gratitude seems to be implicit. The proper response of one who is thankful for Christ's redemptive suffering "for our sake" is to gladly endure suffering that demonstrates love for him. To be sure, this is not the only motivation provided by the context, 44 but it is the one most immediately connected with the imitation motif. Finally, the text explicitly links ability to imitate Christ to strength that Christ himself gives ("while He gives us endurance"). Perhaps the thought is that the kind of faithfulness Christ models is beyond merely human moral capacity; he whose example makes the demand must also offer the strength to meet it. Also encouraging martyrs, but in terms that again suggest application for all Christians, is a passage that cites Luke 6:40 to prove that death at the hands of persecutors is a privilege: For the Lord our Saviour has said: 'There is no disciple better than his master: but every one shall be perfected as his master/ Now our Lord consented to all these His sufferings that He might save us; and He submitted to be beaten, and that men should blaspheme Him and spit in His face, and to drink vinegar and gall; and at last He endured even to be hanged upon the cross. Let us therefore, who are His disciples, be also His imitators. For if He bore and endured all things for us . . . how much more ought we, for our own sakes, to be patient when we suffer?45 This exhortation is followed by the promise of resurrection, and (several paragraphs later) a reminder that Christ's resurrection has secured the resurrection of believers. This promise leads in turn to a final exhortation: "As disciples . . . of Christ, therefore, let us believe that we shall receive from Him all the good things which He has promised us in the life everlasting; and so let us imitate all His teaching and His patience." 46

(London: Cambridge University Press, 1967). In response to Martin, see Larry W. Hurtado, "Jesus as Lordly Example in Phil 2:5-11," in From Jesus to Paul: Studies in Honor of Francis Wright Beare, ed. Peter Richardson and John C. Hurd (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1984), 113-26. 44 Others include desire to avoid forfeiting one's inheritance (5.4), to provide a good example for other believers (5.6), and, most seriously, to avoid being denied by Christ and thus condemned to eternal punishment (5.5,5.6). 45 5.6; Connolly, 166-67. 46 5.7; Connolly, 176.



Here again we see a close connection between obeying Jesus' teaching and following his example, a connection given dominical authority through the citation of Luke 6:40. In its Lukan context, this verse serves as a warning against following blind guides and hypocrites (see vv. 39, 41-49). Thus the Didascalia is making explicit what is implicit in Lukenamely, that Jesus is the only truly trustworthy teacher, likeness to whom will lead to blessing rather than disaster. To be sure, the path to blessing leads through suffering and death, which the disciple of Jesus must be ready to imitate. But rather than undermining its uniqueness, the disciple's imitation honors the death of Christ: the martyr's death is like that of the "Lord and Saviour" in that it involves willing endurance of suffering, but there is no hint that it will save others. Finally, we may note that though several details of Christ's crucifixion are cited, the believer's resemblance to him is to be found in patient endurance. Thus the concept of imitation at work here involves not mechanical or superficial reproduction of specifics from Jesus' life, but likeness to its overall crucifixion-resurrection patternin Pauline terms, becoming "like him in his death" that we may become like him in his resurrection (Phil. 3:10,21). CATEGORY 6: CHRIST'S EXAMPLE AS PRECEDENT Whereas the texts examined above have focused on the analogy between the ministry of Christ and that of church leaders (whether bishops or deacons), on believers' duty to conform their character and conduct to some pattern observed in his life, or more particularly on enduring suffering as Christ did, our final category includes four texts in which some feature of Jesus' life is cited as a precedent. In two cases, the precedent is employed to justify an aspect of church polity. Thus the Didascalia grounds (albeit through logic that is not entirely clear) its assertion that women should not perform baptisms as follows: "For if it were lawful to be baptized by a woman, our Lord and Teacher Himself would have been baptized by Mary His mother, whereas He was baptized by John." 47 The church's appointment of deaconesses is defended in a similar way: "the ministry of a woman deacon is especially needful and important. For our Lord and Saviour also was ministered unto by women ministers." Two observations are in order. First, in using Jesus' life as a precedent the Didascalia has moved far afield from the intent of Jesus (did he seek baptism from John in order to settle arguments about who should administer baptism?) and the Gospel 3.9; Connolly, 142 (note that the translation of Stewart-Sykes, "For if it were lawful for a woman to be baptized . . ."[189, emphasis added] seems to be in error). Does the Didascalia assume that if it were lawful for women to perform baptisms, then mothers would baptize their children?



writers (did Matthew describe the women who accompanied Jesus in order to answer questions about the propriety of appointing deaconesses?). Second, whereas someone who had never thought of serving others might be moved to do so by reading of Jesus' example in John 13 or Philippians 2, only those already committed to the notion that women should not perform baptisms are likely to see any link between this issue and Jesus' baptism. That is, while earlier categories have employed Jesus' example inductively, the texts cited here do so deductively. These observations apply to a third text as well, in which we read that Christian observance of the six-day Paschal fast ought to begin when Jewish Christians ("your brethren who are of the People" 48 ) begin Passover observance. The reason? "For when our Lord and Teacher ate the Passover with us, He was betrayed by Judas after that hour." 49 Those already wondering when to begin the Paschal feast might find an answer to their question in this detail from Jesus' life, but the Gospel narrative itself could hardly generate that question. That early Christians should derive certain precedents in matters of liturgy or polity from Jesus' life is to be expected, but this appears to be a distinct category from the church's appeal to Jesus' moral conduct as a paradigm for his followers, or to the pattern of his ministry as a paradigm for that of Christian leaders. Perhaps the Didascalia's spectrum of imitation may now be summarized under four headings: moral similarity, ministerial analogy, procedural precedent, and simple correspondence. In a final text, Jesus' life itself becomes a hermeneutical precedent, a practical means of distinguishing those features of the Old Testament Law that are applicable to Christians from those that are not. According to the Didascalia, the Law of God is distinct from the "Second Legislation," which was given by God as a burden to punish Israel for worshiping the golden calf. Thus, to follow the "Second Legislation" is to place oneself under a curse. By contrast, "if thou follow Christ, thou shalt inherit the blessings. For 'there is no disciple better than his master': but when thou conformest to Him, through the Gospel thou conformest to the Law, and thou wilt entirely avoid the Second Legislation." 50 Here the thought seems to be that a disciple can properly observe God's Law by being like (implicit in the partial citation of Luke 6:40) Jesus, whose conduct conformed to the Law, though not to "Second Legislation." At this point, the categories of imitation and precedent seem to overlap: on the one hand, Jesus is a paradigm of obedience to God's commandments, one whose conduct sets the pattern for his followers; on the other, his life becomes the practical answer to the question, "Which laws are God's
48 49

5.17; Connolly, 187. Ibid. 50 6.19; Connolly, 240.



Laws and must be kept, and which ones are 'Second Legislation,' and must be avoided?"a question which one must bring to the Gospel texts, and which would not arise from any straightforward reading of the texts themselves. This final instance demonstrates the complexity of the imitation motif as employed in the Didascalia. Not only must we carefully observe how appeal to Jesus' example is employed (imitation versus precedent; deduction versus induction), but we may also find that helpful biblical themes (being like Jesus entails keeping God's Law; being like Jesus as a disciple's goal, Luke 6:40) are bound up with thoughts that are foreign to Scripture (the God's Law versus "Second Legislation" dichotomy).

In light of the preceding overview, we may now formulate four theses regarding a hermeneutic of imitation. These theses draw on the positive lessons learned from the Didascalia, while also heeding the warnings provided by its less legitimate uses of the imitation motif. Thesis 1 A hermeneutic of imitation should emphasize concerns that emerge from biblical texts themselves, especially texts that explicitly call for imitation

of Christ.
The Didascalia models this well by focusing on five aspects of Jesus' example, each of which is prominent in the New Testament: mercy to, restoration of, and intercession for sinners; loving, sacrificial service to others, especially those in need; patient, willing endurance of suffering and persecution; self-denial and voluntary renunciation of privileges; and the overall life-pattern of death (endurance) and resurrection (hope). Typically the document links the call to imitate Christ to specific Biblical texts, which we may divide into three classes: 1) New Testament texts that explicitly call for imitation: Matthew 20:24-28; Luke 6:40; 23:34; John 13:1-17; Philippians 2:5-11; and 2 Corinthians 8:9. 2) New Testament texts that relate key themes of Jesus' ministry, but do not explicitly call for imitation: John 8:1-11 (illustrating Jesus' mercy to sinners); and Luke 19:1-10 (illustrating Jesus' fellowship with sinners). 3) Old Testament texts that are understood in connection with Christ's messianic/priestly office: Isaiah 53:1-12 is specifically mentioned, but a more general reference to "David and . . . all the prophets" is also made.



The second and third classes alert us to the need for two corollaries: Corollary 1.1: Care must be taken when dealing with texts that do not explicitly call for imitation. In such cases, it is safest to interpret the "less clear" (texts that do not explicitly call for imitation; themes that are less prominent in Jesus' life and ministry) in light of the "more clear" (texts that explicitly call for imitation; themes that are more prominent in Jesus' life and ministry). Corollary 1.2: Old Testament texts must be handled faithfully, neither excluded a priori from discussions of the imitation of Christ, nor included in such discussions without proper warrant. One such warrant employed in the Didascalia is a link to a "Messianic" pattern of ministry: where the Old Testament speaks of such a pattern, we may use it to summarize relevant aspects of Jesus' ministry. Again, it will be safest to include Old Testament texts that are explicitly linked to Jesus, his ministry, or his example in the New Testament. Thesis 2 A hermeneutic of imitation should proceed inductively rather than deductively, and should focus on organic likeness rather than superficial similarity. The five aspects of Jesus' example identified above emerge from the New Testament texts themselves and are major concerns of Jesus, the Evangelists, and the authors of the Epistles. Yet the Didascalia also appeals to Jesus' example in order to establish a number of precedents, bringing to various biblical texts questions and concerns that are unrelated to the purposes of the texts themselves. This serves to warn us against potential abuses of a "deductive" approach in which we arrive at conclusions and then employ Jesus' example as supporting evidence. It is perhaps impossible to prevent Christians, corporately or individually, from looking to Jesus' example for such support; but it is well worth remembering that the New Testament itself focuses on broader moral and spiritual issues when calling for the imitation of Christ. 51 The Didascalia better reflects the approach of the New Testament when it applies principles from Jesus' life to circumstances that differ significantly from his own (e.g., prayer for offenders), thus reminding us that imitation, as biblically conceived, is not concerned with mere external or superficial similarity. Taken together, these positive and The only specific action of Jesus that the NT calls the church to repeat is the observance, mutatis mutandis, of the Lord's Supper. (Some Christian denominations would add foot washing as well.)



negative facets of the Didascalia pose a challenge that we may summarize with two corollaries: Corollary 2.1: Allowance must be made for applying principles learned from Jesus' example to situations that do not precisely parallel the circumstances of his life. Corollary 2.2: Care must be taken to avoid appealing to Jesus' example to address concerns that are foreign to the purposes of Jesus and the biblical authors.

Put otherwise, a hermeneutic of imitation must address the challenge of any hermeneuticnamely, discerning how to connect an ancient text to new times, places, and circumstances, yet without stretching the elasticity of the text's authority beyond the breaking point. Thesis 3 A hermeneutic of imitation must give careful attention to the relationships among Christ, Christian leaders, and Christians in general. One assumption characteristic of the Didascalia, and of the New Testament as well, is that Christian leaders should serve as examples to believers under their care, with Christ serving as the paradigm for all. Yet the Didascalia also assumes that church officers have a special duty to model their ministries after that of Christ: all Christians are to demonstrate compassion to sinners, but the bishop must express this in a more public and formal way; all Christians are to serve others in love, but deacons are the living embodiment of the ideal. Thus a balance must be maintained. On the one hand, the call to imitation must not focus so narrowly on church leaders that broader application to the church is minimized. For instance, Luke 22:24-27 must not be applied to deacons (in light of the "servant" imagery) or to pastors (because the words were originally addressed to the apostles) in a way that obscures broader application of Jesus' exhortations. On the other, Christian leaders should sense a special obligation to model Christ-like character and conduct. When Peter calls slaves to patiently endure unjust suffering as Christ did (1 Peter 2:18-23), church leaders must not exempt themselves simply because they are not explicitly mentioned. Thus, while it may be helpful to follow the Didascalia's lead by distinguishing the more general concept of "moral similarity" from the more specific "ministerial analogy," the two ought always to inform one another. Thomas Stegman's recent study of 2 Corinthians provides a fruitful paradigm in this regard, as he proposes a constant interplay of six themes in the epistle: a) Christ crucified in weakness, raised in power; b) Paul's apostolic ministry as an embodiment of this Christ-paradigm; c)



the Christian life as Paul defines it for the Corinthians; and the corresponding triad of a') "another Jesus;" b') false apostles who embody a success- or strength-paradigm; and c') the Christian life as envisioned by those false leaders. 52 Stegman's contention, confirmed by careful reading of the text, is that when Paul speaks of one of these six themes, the other five are implied. Attention to the interplay of Christ, leadership, and the Christian life may thus have much to teach us about how to hear the call to imitation in texts where it is not explicit. Thesis 4 A hermeneutic of imitation should be applied in light of a full range of biblical truth about Christology and soteriology such that neither the person and work of Christ nor the hortatory force of his example is undermined. Prevalent in the Didascalia are reminders that the Christ whose example is to be imitated is also God, Lord, king, and savior. Yet the document seems to evince no fear that calling Christians to Christ-likeness will undermine the uniqueness of his saving work. In this regard, it echoes the New Testament, which often moves seamlessly between Christ's saving work and his example (e.g., Mark 10:45; John 13:1-7; 2 Cor. 8:9; 1 John 3:16). A helpful means of maintaining the proper relationship between these emphases is the "greater-to-lesser" logic often employed in the Didascalia: Christ is the God-man and Messiah whose work on our behalf accomplishes infinitely more than the believer's imitation of him ever will. Also present in the Didascalia, but less developed, are the ideas that gratitude for salvation motivates imitation and that the strength to imitate Christ must be supplied by him. These four theses, with their corollaries, by no means constitute a fully-developed, biblically-grounded guide to properly discerning the hortatory force of Christ's example in the Scriptures. Rather, they are intended to serve as starting points, a foundation on which to build further insights. Likewise, the Didascalia is not the final word on the imitation of Christ and related hermeneutical principles. Yet it provides a useful window onto two key realities: first, no age of the church fails to look to the life of Christ for moral examples, ministry paradigms, or even procedural precedents; second, until the day that "every one shall be perfected as his master," the church's practice of reading Scripture for these purposes will be a mixture of wisdom and folly. As simple as they may seem, if the theses outlined here move the church toward a wiser hermeneutic of imitation, they will have served their purpose.

Thomas Stegman, The Character of Jesus: The Linchpin to Paul's Argument in 2 Corinthians (Rome: Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2005).


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