A Brief History of Communion: 2nd to 5th Centuries

This post is part of an ongoing series on the history of communion.

Second to Fifth Centuries

After Justin, we see a proliferation of Christian writers, many of whom speak about Communion, some with great regularity. These Christians come from all corners of the Roman Empire and beyond: Gaul (Irenaeus), Egypt (Clement of Alexandria and Origen), Carthage (Tertullian and Cyprian), Rome (Hippolytus), Jerusalem (Cyril), Syria (Aphraahat and Ephrem), Italy (Ambrose), North Africa (Augustine), and Asia Minor (Theodore and the Cappadocians).

In terms of the development of eucharistic doctrine, several things are worth noting. First, there is a universal affirmation of a real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements among orthodox Christians. On this, Irenaeus of Lyons writes, “If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood?”7 No matter your perspective on what Communion is, it is not possible to escape the language of the realness of “body and blood” in the early Church. In part, this reflects ancient understandings of reality, namely, that a symbol always participates in the reality it reflects. This understanding of the cosmos and Communion were part and parcel of the Christological claims and debates of the early Church, where the practice of Communion served as a regular reminder of the incarnation of the Son of God.

Second, restrictions upon who could receive Communion changed in two important ways: concerning confirmation and confession. While it does not seem that “non-Christians” were ever invited to partake of the sacred meal, by the third and fourth centuries one had to undergo a fairly rigorous process of confirmation into the faith in order to become a fully-communing member of the Church. A good example of this comes from Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures, which outline various preparations for Baptism, Communion, and doctrine. Additionally, once you became a member of the Church, you had to remain in good standing in order to continually participate in the Lord’s Supper. The biggest concern here involved those who had “lapsed” or denied the faith during times of persecution. Cyprian of Carthage’s On the Lapsed outlines some of the measures that those who had denied Christ would need to undergo in order to be brought back into communion.

A third development stems from persecution, that is, the doctrine of ex opere operato, which means roughly, “from the work worked.” This doctrine indicates that the sacraments were efficacious in themselves, not because of the worthiness of the one giving the sacraments. This issue arose primarily in North Africa, where a number of bishops and presbyters had “lapsed” and then returned to the Church and administered communion. The Church (through several local councils, in both Africa and Europe) affirmed that the faithful who had received communion from these (formerly) lapsed clergy had in fact received the Eucharist, because it is the Eucharist itself that bestows God’s gifts and not the one administering it.

Fourth, statements about communion began to find their way into the canons (official statements) of synods and councils, including the first ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 CE. Statements regarding the proper administration of the Eucharist eventually became quite common, leading to the solidification of how communion was to be administered and understood. For example, Canon 18 of Nicaea reads: “It has come to the knowledge of the holy and great synod that, in some districts and cities, the deacons administer the Eucharist to the presbyters [i.e., priests], whereas neither canon nor custom permits that they who have no right to offer [the Eucharistic sacrifice] should give the Body of Christ to them that do offer [it].” Here we see some of the practical matters at the heart of early Christian thinking about communion.

Finally, with the toleration and (eventually) official status granted to Christianity post-Constantine, daily and weekly services were held in churches and cathedrals created specifically as sacred spaces for Christian worship. Worship was increasingly undertaken in formal spaces and no longer in the homes and public meeting places where it had been previously. This furthered the formalization of communion practice and understanding. For it is one thing to share a meal in someone’s home under the threat of persecution and quite another to participate in the pageantry of a sacred ceremony being held in a magnificent church.

7 Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 4.32-3.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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