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Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Debate: Early Church Insights

Earlier this week, I began a discussion concerning the primacy of certain practices in Christian worship services (which can be read here). Specifically, this debate is over the importance of the Word vs. the Table in Christian worship. In attempt to hold the two in a reciprocal relationship, there are some thoughts I would like to share based on biblical, historical, and theological research. Today we begin our historical approach, looking at the early church. (Old Testament insights can be read here, while New Testament insights can be read here.)
Spirituality in the early Christian centuries was profoundly pervaded by Eucharistic sensibilities and biblical illumination. Worship was the place for Christians to encounter the scriptures, especially since many could not read and almost no one owned or could afford books. Congregations absorbed the words of scripture proclaimed in various ways through worship. More than just the sermons, prayers often recounted scriptural truths and recalled the mighty acts of God. Yet, at the same time, the early Christian mindset was that the Word was also experienced through the Table. The real presence of Christ was found at the Lord’s Supper.
As the structure of the Lord’s Supper developed, eventually it was no longer celebrated as a shared meal. Gradually the “breaking of the bread,” along with the reading of Scripture, the saying of prayers, and the singing of thanksgiving songs, became established into a more elaborate Christian service. These elements were arranged in a well-defined order, setting in place a more standardized service of Word and Table.
Justin Martyr, in his Apologies (written around 150 A.D.), gives a detailed account of the ceremony, placing emphasis on both the practice of Word and Table:

On Sunday we have a common assembly of all our members, whether they live in the city or the outlying districts. The recollections of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as there is time. When the reader has finished, the president of the assembly speaks to us; he urges everyone to imitate the examples of virtue we have heard in the readings. Then we all stand up together and pray. On the conclusion of our prayer, bread and wine and water are brought forward. The president offers prayers and gives thanks to the best of his ability, and the people give assent by saying, “Amen”. The eucharist is distributed, everyone present communicates, and the deacons take it to those who are absent.[1]

The Didache, one of the earliest Christian documents, alludes to the practice of the Lord’s Supper. Similar to Paul’s writings in I Corinthians, section 14 of the Didache notes: “And on the Lord’s day, gather together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your sins so that your sacrifice might be pure.”[2]
Writings abound in these early centuries as the church Fathers spoke to the importance of the Table. Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch are two of the earliest church leaders we see addressing the issue. Table celebration is the beating heart of the teaching of Ignatius, seeing it as the true unifying factor of Christianity. He went so far as to say that denial of the Table in worship is the very mark of heresy.[3]
These early Fathers of the church often approached the entirety of scripture – both Old and New Testaments – through the lens of Christological interpretation (meaning they read/interpreted all things through an understanding of Christ). In this manner, Table celebration began to appear all over the Bible. Mike Aquilina writes of this:

The narrative of the Last Supper often appears in this context, as do Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse and the eleventh chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. But these “literal” references, while foundational, were only the beginning… Thus, while [Origen] believed that Jesus’ multiplication of loves was a true and miraculous event, he also believed [Jesus] performed it as a sign prefiguring the Eucharist.[4]

            The early Christians used this same method of interpretation for the wedding feast in Cana, where Jesus turns the water into wine. Fathers such as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Cyril understood the “daily bread” mentioned in the Lord’s Prayer to refer to the Table celebration. This also extended to the Old Testament, as certain events or characters were seen as a foreshadowing of Christ and the Table. For instance, the Table in Psalm 23 was understood by Cyril of Jerusalem as a foreshadowing of the Lord’s Table in the New Testament, in the continuing church, and ultimately in the heavenly banquet. In this manner, Word and Table were inseparable not only in worship but also in the basic theology of Christianity.
It should be noted that during these first centuries, Christianity was a persecuted underground movement. The legalization of Christianity in 313 A.D. under the Roman Emperor Constantine led to significant changes for the church. Constantine supported and encouraged Christianity, so there was a significant increase in the number of believers. Latin became the standard language of the liturgy, as it was the common language of the Roman world. Secrecy and security were no longer issues for Christian worship. Furthermore, the church was now able to own property. Christians no longer met in homes, but instead built structures for themselves or met in basilicas given to them by the Empire. Christian worship became public. This will be important as we move into the Middle Ages.
Mindful of these significant changes in the church, Laurence Stookey writes: “Even as assumptions about the nature of the church and Christianity’s role in society were altered, the service of scripture with sermon and prayer culminating in the Eucharist was a weekly corporate experience...”[5]

[1] Henry Bettenson, ed., The Early Christian Fathers: A Selection of the writings of the Fathers from St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), 62.
[2] Ibid, 52.
[3] Mike Aquilina, The Mass of the Early Christians (Huntington: Our Friendly Visitor Publishing Division, 2001), 75.
[4] Ibid, 41.
[5] Laurence Hull Stookey, Eucharist: Christ’s Feast With the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 70.

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