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Arcani Disciplina

ARCANI DISCIPLINA (“Instruction in the [Sacred] Secret,” i.e., initiation into the mystery): A term first applied by Dallæus and G. T. Meier to the practise of maintaining a studied reticence (fides silentii) concerning the form and character of introduction into the Church, as if this were 258 something analogous to initiation into the mysteries of the heathen world. The practise is especially observed in the fourth and fifth centuries. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, with the baptismal formula and the Lord’s Prayer, in so far as these had an essential part in the introduction, were made the center of the supposed mysteries. In accordance with this idea, after the sermon, to which all could listen, at the beginning of the so called missa fidelium, the deacon warned all uninitiated away from divine service with the words: “Let no one of the catechumens, let no one of the hearers, let no one of the unbelievers, let no one of the heterodox, be present” (Apostolic Constitutions, viii. 12).

Various Theories.

The arcani disciplina became a subject of confessional polemics through the attempt of the Jesuit Emanuel von Schelstrate to prove that it was instituted by Jesus and followed by the apostles; and that for this reason the Roman doctrine of the sacraments (especially transubstantiation), the veneration of images and saints, and other teachings of the Roman Catholic Church do not appear in the early Church. In reply Tentzel proved conclusively that until toward the year 200 the Church knew of no mysteries to be kept secret. Nevertheless, Roman Catholic scholars with few exceptions (e.g., Batiffol) have endeavored to defend Schelstrate’s position. Justin’s detailed exposition of the act of baptism and the celebration of the eucharist, however (Apol., i. 61, 66, 67), is decisive. The exclusion of the unbaptized was an inner necessity (cf. Didache, ix. 5) and does not imply a mysterious character of the cult; the secrecy also concerned not the dogma directly, but the symbols and performance.

Thus far Protestants are agreed, but not concerning the nature and origin of the disciplina. Casaubon assigned its beginnings to the influence of the heathen mysteries and a borrowing of their forms for purposes of instruction, and scholars immediately following him accepted his views. Frommann sought the root in an imitation of the Jewish practise with regard to proselytes. Rothe called attention to a connection with the catechumenate of the early Church, and Credner to a relation with the twofold division of the cult resulting from the dogmatic-mystic conception of the Lord’s Supper. T. Harnack recognized in the discipline a systematic transformation of the divine service into a form of mystery,―a phenomenon which has a parallel in the fact that the Roman Catholic Church today finds the secret of its power in the mystic-theurgic act of its priests (cf. Bonwetsch). Zezschwitz maintained, more in accord with the views of Rothe that the cult acquired an exclusive character and the fides silentii arose in the Church from prudential motives because of persecution; when persecution ceased, the sermon sufficed for the needs of the catechumens (audientes) and full knowledge of the higher Christian secrets, as well as participation in the vital part of the service, was reserved for a final grade of maturity (attained only by the competentes); references to these matters naturally ceased. It may confidently be asserted, however, that the arcani disciplina was not founded in the external condition of the Church or in pedagogic considerations, but was a real, though unconscious, assimilation to the ruling ideas of the mysteries. The notion that communion with God was possible only by assimilation to God in a future state of incorruption through the medium of sacred acts, led as naturally to the formation of a hierarchy, differing from the laity and bringing divine essence into it by sacred acts, as to a transformation of the divine service into a celebration of mysteries which were supposed to include the divine in symbols and symbolic acts. Anrich is correct, therefore, in designating the disciplina as an analogy within the Church of the system of efficacious initiations among the Gnöstics and the natural outcome of the theology of a Clement and an Origen, influenced by the Greek mysteries (against this view, however, cf. Batiffol).

Not Earlier than the Third Century.

Zahn (p. 326) has demonstrated that the beginnings of the arcani disciplina can not be traced earlier than the third century. When Irenæus (Hær., III. iv. 1-2) demands that the baptismal confession be transmitted orally it is only to the end that, being written in the memory, it may become an inner possession. Tertullian (Apol., vii.; Ad nat., i. 7) speaks of a fides silentii with reference to the Christian mysteries, but from the standpoint of an opponent. Hippolytus (Ad Dan., i. 16, 18) speaks of baptism without pointing out the duty of silence. Phrases like “the initiated know” in Origen do not establish the existence of the disciplina, since it can not be proven that Origen represented general usage. In Contra Celsum, iii. 59-61, he has no cultic acts in view; when he remarks (Levit. hom., 9, 10; ix. 364, ed. Lommatsch), “He who is imbued with the mysteries knows the flesh and the blood of the Word of God,” he is thinking of the mysteries of the gnosis (Anrich, 129, n. 2). His reference to the anxiety lest some of the consecrated bread should be dropped (Exod. hom., xiii. 3; ix. 156) is a warning against the inattentive hearing of the Word; and his reference (Lev. hom., xiii. 3; ix. 403) to ecclesiastica mysteria proves nothing. Methodius does not apply Matt. vii. 6 to sacred acts (Photius, Bibl., cod. 235), nor are such acts” the orgies of our mysteries, the mystic rites of those who are initiated” (Sympos., vi. 6).

In the fourth and fifth centuries the arcani disciplina was in its bloom; the frequent occurrence in the sermon of “the initiated know,” “the initiated,” is characteristic, and the transference of the phraseology of the mysteries into the Church is evident. “To initiate” (Gk. myeisthai) and “to instruct” (katēcheisthai) become interchangeable terms. Baptism is called “the seal of the mystic perfection” and “a mystic purification (katharmos) and lustration (katharsion)"; the Lord’s Supper is “the mystery"; its elements are “symbols.” “To be initiated” (mystagōgeisthai) signifies to be competent to partake of the sacraments, and to betray the mysteries is expressed by the corresponding exorcheisthai.

The Immediate Object of the Disciplina.

It is characteristic of the disciplina that the immediate object of the mystery was not the dogma 259 and sacramental gift, but the elements and the ritual performance. In Theodoret’s dialogue Inconfusus (iv. 125, ed. Schultze), the orthodox shrinks from openly naming bread and cup lest “some one uninitiated be present,” and vaguely calls the body and blood of the Lord a gift. The desire was, of course, to withhold even from the eyes of the initiated the act and the “mystic symbols"; hence the exclusion of the unbaptized from the missa fidelium and the watch at the door by the ostiaries. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were the real object of the disciplina. To keep people in actual ignorance was, of course, impossible, but the silence observed produced the impression of a mystery. The Lord’s Prayer at the Supper held the same position as the confession in baptism; the character of secret objects was given to both (cf. Sozomen, Hist. eccl., i. 20; Ambrose, De Cain et Abel, I. ix. 37). The opposite to the confession of the neophyte was the renunciation, which was also kept secret. Everything which preceded and followed baptism necessarily partook of the secrecy. The eucharist as the climax of the whole mystagogy is the mystery par excellence. Dogmas were mysteries (Basil, De spir. sanc., xxvii. 66) only in so far as the Church generally claimed to possess wonderful mysteries, especially the dogma of the Trinity on account of its relation to the baptismal symbol; but no secrecy of the dogma was intended. With the disappearance of the catechumenate the arcani disciplina ceased, although in the Greek liturgy the formula for dismissing the catechumens remained; but the cult of the Greek Church now actually assumed the character of a mystico-allegorical drama, a mystery of the heathen kind, though of a higher type.

N. Bonwetsch.

Bibliography: I. Casaubon, De rebus sacris et ecclesiasticis, Geneva, 1854; G. T. Meier, De recondita veteris ecclesiæ theologia, Helmstedt, 1670; E. von Schelstrate, Antiquitas illustrata circa concilia generalia et provincialia and Commentatio de s. Antiocheno concilio, Antwerp, 1678, 1681; W. E. Tentzel, Exercitationes selectæ, ii., Leipsic, 1692, contains Tentzel’s Dissertatio de disciplina arcani, 1683; Schelstrate’s Dissertatio apologetica de disciplina arcani contra disputationem E. Tentzelii, 1685; and Tentzel’e reply, Animadversiones; G. C. L. T. Frommann, De disciplina arcani, Jena, 1833; R. Rothe, De disciplinæ arcani origine, Heidelberg, 1841; K. A. Credner, in the Jenaer allgemeine Litteraturzeitung, 653 sqq., 1844; T. Harnack, Der christliche Gemeindegottesdienst im apostolischen und altkatholischen Zeitalter, pp. 1-66, Erlangen, 1854; G. von Zezschwitz, System der Katechetik, i. 154-209, Leipsic, 1863; N. Bonwetsch, Wesen, Entstehung, und Fortgang der Arkan-disciplin, in ZHT, xliii. (1873) 203-299; T. Zahn, Glaubensregel und Taufbekenntnis in der alten Kirche, in ZKW, i. (1880) 315 sqq.; E. Bratke, Die Stellung des Clemens Alexandrinus zum antiken Mysterienwesen, in TSK, lx. (1887) 647-708; E. Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church, chap. x., London, 1890; H. Holtzmann, Die Katechese der alten Kirche, in Theologische Abhandlungen Weizsäcker gewidmet, pp. 66-76, Freiburg, 1892; G. Anrich, Das antike Mysterienwesen in seinem Einfluss auf das Christentum, Göttingen, 1894; G. Wobbermin, Religionsgeschichtliche Studien zur Frage der Beeinflussung des Urchristentums durch das antike Mysterienwesen, Berlin, 1896; P. Batiffol, Études d’histoire et de théologie positive, Paris, 1902; H. Gravel, Die Arkandisciplin, part i., Münster, 1902.

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