You may sometimes hear that in the times of the Primitive Church there was a secret doctrine that was not available to all members. People who are fond of esotericism and occultism like to justify their interest in those practices by arguing that even the early Church kept a secret gnosis that was inaccessible to ordinary believers. What is the Christian understanding of disciplina arcani? Could there have been some secret doctrine in the early Church, and if so, what was its purpose?
Evidence in the New Testament
One of the main reasons for the appearance of the so called disciplina arcani is the phrase of Christ, Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you (Matthew 7:6). Everyone knows that the Lord taught people using parables and metaphors that were not always clear to uneducated commoners. When asked by the disciples, Christ once replied, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them (Mark 4:11-12). The disciples themselves did not always grasp the meaning of what Jesus had said, and then the Lord explained it to them in private. We may also find some traces of disciplina arcani in the words of the Apostle Paul when he writes to the Corinthians that, because of their weakness in faith, he had to talk to them as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ (1 Cor. 3:1). Instead of solid food, he fed their souls with milk (cf. 1 Cor. 3:2), apparently because they could not yet accommodate the more sublime teaching.
Evidence from the Holy Fathers and Church authors
It seems that the discipline of keeping some tenets of the faith in secret was maintained in one way or another since the Apostolic times, although due to the lack of information about that early period, we know little about it. Initially it was only Origen and Clement of Alexandria who spoke clearly about it, although Tertullian had previously mentioned that some aspects of Christian worship were kept secret from the Gentiles so as to avoid mockery and misunderstanding (De bapt. Ad uxor. 2. 5). St. Hippolytus of Rome notes at the end of his description of the Rite of Baptism that if anything requires explanation, let the bishop explain everything in private to those who are baptized (Ap. Trad. 23:14). Such saints as Basil the Great (“these things should not be told to the uninitiated”), Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom (“the initiated will understand what I mean”), Ambrose of Milano, Cyril of Jerusalem – all testify in one voice that there is knowledge and spiritual experience that is to be kept beyond the reach of the uninitiated, i.e. the unbaptized. So what does disciplina arcani mean for the ancient Church Fathers?
First of all, Christians, especially during the period of persecution of the 1st – 4th centuries, were careful not to reveal some details of their teaching and cult among the Gentiles and opponents of the Church so as not to provoke discontent, mockery, or even blasphemy. The exception to this rule is the Apology of St. Justin the Philosopher, who describes the faith of the Church and its divine service to the heathen emperor in sufficient detail. In public life, Christians preferred to testify to the mysteries of their faith in the language of symbols that were easily legible to believers but remained obscure to outsiders. A good example is the murals in catacombs, which used simple and universally comprehensible symbols and signs (an anchor, a rooster, a dove, and a fish) but only the Orthodox could see the Christian truths concealed in them.
Secondly, some nuances of the Christian worship, in particular, the way in which the main Sacraments of the Church – the Baptism and the Eucharist – are conducted and what they contain, as well as some subtleties of Christian doctrine, were communicated to the Christian only after a prolonged period of catechization, when, having been tested in faith, the catechumen proceeded to the very Sacrament of initiation into the Church. There is still a belief in the Church that unless the Holy Spirit enlightens the heart and mind of a man, some of the innermost truths of Christianity, such as the Trinity, death and resurrection with Christ in the baptismal font, and the eating of the Savior’s Body and Blood, will remain incomprehensible to him. Prior to baptism, those who planned to get baptized were taught to believe in the One God, learned the foundations of Christian morality, studied the Scripture, and learned to pray. Only after their Baptism did they go through not the public, but the mystagogical, i.e. secret training, whereby they were told about the essence of the Eucharistic teaching and how they were to participate in the Sacraments of the Church. It is noteworthy that in some Churches the Lord’s Prayer was considered a mystery and was taught and explained only on the eve of Baptism itself (Hom. xlii; cf. “Enchir.”, lxxi).
So, there indeed was disciplina arcani in the Church during the period of persecution, and it reached its heyday when crowds of former pagans flooded into churches after the declaration of Christianity as the only legitimate religion. When the Empire adopted Christianity, people began to be baptized as children, and the catechumenate disappeared, along with the discipline of secrecy. Nevertheless, the Orthodox Church still retains many traces of this practice, such as the iconostasis, which separates the altar from the nave, and the deacon’s exclamation Door, door, coupled with the request of the deacon for the catechumens to leave the church before the Liturgy of the Faithful. While there is no longer a lengthy period of catechization, it is advisable for godparents and adults who are to be baptized to have a few conversations with a priest before the Baptism. The main difference between the Orthodox and the Gnostic discipline of mystery is that Orthodoxy does not hide the Truth from people, but rather prepares them for receiving it with due consideration, because, as the Scripture says, there is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak (Ecclesiastes 3:7).