In Search of a Baseline
In the next few weeks I’ll blog from time to time on the issue of how Christians worshiped in the years leading up to the “conversion” of emperor Constantine in the year 312 and the Council of Nicea in 325. This was a benchmark era of church history that marked the transition of Christianity from a persecuted religion to one first tolerated and ultimately endorsed by the greatest political power then in existence. My free-church heritage has taught me to be highly suspicious of the “Constantinianization” of the church and its repercussions up to the present day. Whether my heritage has overplayed the evidence for a widespread apostasy during the fourth century is beyond the scope of this study. In deference to free-church sensitivities on this matter, however, I have chosen to concentrate on the pre-Constantinian era.
I know of no other place where what is most surely known about how Christians worshiped in the 2nd-4th centuries is gathered in one place in (what I hope is) a user-friendly presentation. My goal is to describe this form of worship in such a way that even someone who has never experienced liturgical worship can at least imagine what it would have been like in these early communities.
At the same time, I would like to open up a discussion about the “baseline” from which we work on the renewal of worship in the 21st century. This series will by no means be a “how-to” manual for worship, as if we could bypass all of the history that takes us from 325 to the current day. I do hope to generate a deeper appreciation for the ancient forms that, hopefully, at least a few in the free-church tradition will be inspired to adapt to their own settings.
Free Churches, Catholic Worship
Do free churches have anything to learn from this kind of worship? Personally, I believe we should be able to run with it! First, ancient worship developed in an era of local church autonomy, where pastors (bishops) in collegial relationships with one another strove to uphold church unity not by force of hierarchical decrees but by a common commitment to the unity of the church. They thus developed ways to keep their worship sufficiently familiar across geographical lines while still honoring local customs, and occasionally agreeing to disagree about the particulars.
Second, ancient worship extends freedom to church leaders to compose their own prayers, either in the study or “on the spot.” The ancient tradition provides numerous texts and examples, but never does it impose one canonical form of prayer. For example, in the fourth century the church in Alexandria employed an early form of the Liturgy of Saint Mark, while their neighbors 100 miles away in Thmuis used the prayers contained in the Euchologion of their bishop, Sarapion. Both liturgies have certain general features that liturgiologists classify as “Egyptian,” but relatively few verbal similarities.
All of the early evidence is unanimous that worship leaders composed their own prayers. To be sure, they did this building upon the customs they learned from their predecessors, and the church in this era was generally averse to radical innovation in liturgical forms. Even so, a mere hundred miles away from one of the most prominent churches in the world, Thmuite Christians apparently felt complete freedom to worship according to their own local customs.
A third factor in favor of ancient worship is that it involves a minimum of ceremonial. This was an era before incense, icons, vestments, prayer books or processionals. In fact, most of the beliefs and practices that inspire the Free Church’s “Romophobia” developed after Constantine—and often the church in Rome was one of the last holdouts to embracing these traditions!
In all fairness, however, it must be noted that very early on there arose certain worship customs that are not directly attested in the New Testament and would probably seem foreign to the average free-church Christian. Tertullian mentioned some of these in On the Chaplet 3. He noted, for example, customs surrounding baptism:
To deal with this matter briefly, I shall begin with baptism. When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel. Then when we are taken up (as new-born children), we taste first of all a mixture of milk and honey, and from that day we refrain from the daily bath for a whole week.
Tertullian also described the customary time and manner of Eucharistic worship:
We take also, in congregations before daybreak, and from the hand of none but the presidents, the sacrament of the Eucharist, which the Lord both commanded to be eaten at meal-times, and enjoined to be taken by all alike.
He went on to discuss additional customs including the commemorations of martyrs, a rudimentary liturgical calendar, and making the sign of the cross:
As often as the anniversary comes round, we make offerings for the dead as birthday honors. We count fasting or kneeling in worship on the Lord’s day to be unlawful. We rejoice in the same privilege also from Easter to Pentecost. We feel pained should any wine or bread, even though our own, be cast upon the ground. At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign.
Similar examples may be found in the writings of Origen (Homily on Numbers 5:1) and Basil of Caesarea (On the Holy Spirit 27:66-67). But despite these customs, on the whole, pre-Constantinian Christians practiced their liturgy in an informal manner that may well have put a time-traveling Nazarene or Baptist at ease.
Fourth, we are dealing with a time before creeds were recited as a part of weekly worship. For fellowships that insist upon “no creed but the Bible,” this has to be a plus. Before Nicea, and indeed for 150 years afterward, the churches used their various creeds to instruct new converts before their baptism. They looked upon these various statements as accurate summaries of what Scripture taught and not as having authority apart from the Scripture to which they bore witness. Baptists in particular should have no problems with looking upon the ancient creeds in this light, as it is essentially what they have always said about their own doctrinal confessions. This understanding of the proper use of creedal statements is also not far from the teaching of Alexander Campbell and the early Restorationist movement.
Finally, pre-Constantinian worship gives us a basic structure and discipline to worship without stuffy formality or Spirit-quenching regimentation. The evidence leans toward a worship experience marked as much by warmth and informality as by ceremonial. The two were, in fact, balanced against each other as they still are in Jewish worship today. Ancient worship at its best was not a sterile “program” but something living and dynamic. It could be this way not in spite of its structure, but because of it.
Next: Keva and Kavvanah