When is Christian Conversion Genuine? Two Patristic Perspectives

Harri Huovinen

In the individualistic climate of contemporary Finland, being questioned about one’s innermost convictions has, until recently, been rather rare. The diversification of religious identity landscapes in Western societies, especially the inclusion of asylum seekers in churches, has sparked discussions around the authenticity of Christian conversion. As a result, immigration service officers now attempt to assess whether individuals have undergone genuine conversion, categorizing them as “real” Christians.

Scholars in the fields of theology and religious studies have extensively documented this phenomenon. While many studies understandably focus on the subjective experiences of converts, the theological content and significance of church membership have often been insufficiently addressed. In the history of Christianity, the examination of conversion has predominantly taken the opposite approach, emphasizing its theological essence. To offer a glimpse into this matter, let us briefly examine two interrelated perspectives gleaned from the patristic sources of late antiquity.

Perspective 1: Conversion as a Sacramental and Ecclesiological Process

As Christianity was granted a new, state-approved status in the fourth century, ecclesiastical authors gained more liberty to focus on describing the process of conversion. I recently examined some of these descriptions in Images of Divine Participation: A Reappraisal of Fourth Century Views on Church Membership (2022). This book focused on the nature and significance of church membership in the works of three homilists and leaders of prominent dioceses of the mid-to-late fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315–387), Basil of Caesarea (330–379), and John Chrysostom (c. 347–407).

In my study, I argued that the metaphorical depictions of the church employed by these three authors represent two distinct approaches to the nature of and entry into church membership. On the one hand, the authors often emphasized a dichotomous approach to membership. Following the traditional notion of the “outside” of the church and its logical counterpart the “inside,” the dichotomous approach made a clear distinction between non-membership and the corresponding extra-communal individualism and full participation in the life of the divine–human community of the church. As far as initiation into church membership was concerned, this approach tended to focus on the punctual, baptismal crossing of the border between the ecclesial “outside” and “inside.”

On the other hand, some of the authors’ ecclesial metaphors—such as the familial and martial imageries employed by Cyril and Chrysostom—also revealed a progressive approach to church membership. According to this model, the process of Christian initiation was regarded as an effective means of spiritually transforming the participants, and of mediating a genuine ecclesiological identity to them. Through the process of initiation, therefore, baptismal candidates were progressively brought into an ever-deepening union with the church, even before their ultimate baptismal incorporation into its membership. During this process, their ecclesiological status was not subject to a strict definition in terms of the two clear-cut categories of the “outside” and “inside” of the church. Furthermore, in the Cyrilline account, the deepening union with the church corresponded with a lessening emphasis on individuality, whereas Chrysostom’s catechetical rhetoric revealed a vision of an initial, pre-baptismal membership of the church, which then evolved into the post-baptismal fullness of individual capacity as Christians.

All in all, in their discussions on Christian conversion, the patristic authors underscored the sacramental nature and theological significance of ecclesiastical initiation. They perceived the initiation process as the very means through which church membership was conferred upon baptismal candidates. Crucially, they equated this membership with Christian identity itself, positing that life as a Christian was inconceivable outside of church membership. In other words, individuals were deemed full members of the church and authentic Christian believers by virtue of their reception of ecclesiastical instruction and participation in the initiatory rites of exorcism, baptism, and chrismation.

Perspective 2: The Significance of a Correct Disposition

Despite the emphasis on the efficacy of initiatory rites, the fourth-century catechists sought to ensure that their baptismal candidates would embrace a genuine Christian disposition. Indeed, the homilists were fully aware that not all attendees approached catechetical lectures with purely pious intentions. For instance, Cyril of Jerusalem acknowledged that some may have entered with courtship in mind or for some “evil purposes.” Nevertheless, he welcomed such individuals, believing in the transformative power of the Lord to “catch” and quicken them.

Simultaneously, the catechists stressed that persistent ignorance would hinder the receipt of spiritual benefits from Christian initiation. Cyril asserted that while baptismal water would receive everyone, the Spirit would not accept the unrepentant. To guide his hearers, he repeatedly urged repentance before participating in ecclesial mysteries while at the same time encouraging trust in the divine grace offered therein. Cyril also noted that he would observe the earnestness and reverence of his hearers during the initiatory process. Ultimately, the candidates were required to publicly confess their faith at baptism.

Remarkably, the catechists never mentioned one-to-one interrogations to assess the inner disposition of their hearers. Instead, the pre-baptismal phase involved questioning Christian sponsors about the integrity of their lifestyle. Chrysostom even advised his neophytes post-baptism to exercise caution in articulating intricate details of the newly adopted faith, apparently reserving such discussions for more seasoned believers.

The Contemporary Relevance of Patristic Views on Conversion?

Obviously, one might question the relevance of late ancient views in contemporary discussions on Christian conversion. However, given that early Christian sources have shaped European discourse on church membership for over a millennium, it is reasonable to expect a reconsideration of this material to establish a credible knowledge base for expanding and defining our current understanding of authentic conversion.

In practical terms, the ecclesiological perspectives of mid-to-late fourth-century Christian authors could serve as a timely corrective to our modern, rather Schleiermacherian, inclination to associate true religiosity primarily with the inward emotions and dispositions of the individual. Rather than fixating on internal processes, the patristic authors regarded Christian conversion as a sacramental and ecclesiological process, whereby individual candidates were incorporated into participation with the Divine. While the catechists repeatedly encouraged repentance, they were remarkably unconcerned with assessing the credibility of their hearers’ conversion based on the supposed genuineness of their religious feelings. Instead, their interrogations focused on the publicly observable adherence to the ethical standards of the church.

For the present, the question persists as to whether these historical insights will shape practical approaches to the contemporary evaluation, or lack thereof, of Christian conversions. At any rate, the academic community should continue to provide officials with necessary material to inform and guide their valuable work.

Dr Harri Huovinen

is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Eastern Finland School of Theology. His work, funded by the Finnish Cultural Foundation, focuses on late fourth-century patristic views on ecclesiology in general and church membership in particular. Huovinen also publishes articles on several other related topics such as catechetical rhetoric, scriptural reception, ecclesiastical hierarchy, and late ancient notions of history.

Suggested Reading

Huovinen, Harri (2022). Images of Divine Participation: A Reappraisal of Fourth Century Views on Church Membership. Diss. Studia Patristica Fennica 18. Helsinki: Suomen patristinen seura ry/Societas Patristica Fennica.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich (1799). Über die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verächtern. Berlin.

Silvola, Ilona (2021). Millainen uskontokäsitys ohjaa Migrin uskonnollisen kääntymyksen uskottavuusarviointia? Liikkeessä yli rajojen. liikkeessaylirajojen.fi/.