A Brief History of Communion: Five Reformation Views

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

The Reformation Church

Martin Luther

With the outbreak of theological reforms in the 16th century came considerable revisions and specifications of the theologies and practices of Communion. Essentially, five major views solidified: Tridentine, Consubstantial, Reformed, Via Media, and Memorialist. Continue reading

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A Brief History of Communion: Medieval Christianity

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

The Medieval Church

During the medieval period, the Church began to use a common liturgy for Eucharistic celebration, with prescribed texts and traditions for services and practice. Some differences emerged between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity, differences which were formalized following the Great Schism of 1054 CE.1 In the Roman West, the liturgy increasingly occurred in Latin, even in non-Latin speaking areas which were evangelized. In the Byzantine East, Greek liturgies were the most common, although in many locations liturgy continued to be held in vernacular languages. Continue reading

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). Continue reading

A Brief History of Communion: Justin’s Apology

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

Justin’s Apology

Justin Martyr, writing around 150 CE in Rome, provides a unique perspective into the weekly practice of Communion among second century Christians. Toward the end of his First Apology he outlines the liturgy of the Roman Church: Scripture readings followed by a sermon, prayers of intercession and kiss of peace, a flexible Eucharistic prayer with congregational “Amen,” the distribution of the elements via deacons to those present and absent, and finally a collection for the poor.5 Particularly interesting is Justin’s description of Communion (the Eucharist) in some detail: Continue reading

A Brief History of Communion: Apostolic Fathers

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

The Apostolic Fathers

The earliest non-canonical references to Communion come in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, namely Ignatius of Antioch (c. 108 CE) and the Didache (c. 110 CE). Ignatius, much like Paul in 1 Corinthians, indicates that he is very concerned with proper Christian order at Communion, writing, “Give heed to keep one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup unto union with His blood. There is one altar, as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow servants; that whatsoever you do, you may do according unto God.”2 Continue reading

A Brief History of Communion: Origins

Christians of all sorts partake of some form of communion. Known by different names—the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, Holy Communion, Breaking of Bread, Mass—and taken at different frequencies—daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly—this practice involving bread and wine stands as a testament to both Christian unity as well as divisions. What do contemporary Christians believe about the Lord’s Supper? To begin answering this question, we must first look at the history of communion, beginning today with what the early Church said about the practice and meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Continue reading

On Baptism (Part II)

This post continues my reflections on baptism, focusing on the covenantal and sacramental aspects of Christian baptism.

Covenantal Theology

Those beginning an exploration of historic baptismal theology will almost immediately run into the concept of covenantal theology. As commonly defined, a covenant is a formal agreement made between God and humans, typically one that only God is capable of upholding in its entirety. Christians of various stripes will interpret covenants and their implications differently, but, generally speaking, if God makes a covenant with his people, there are expectations that this agreement will remain important and in effect for a significant length of time. While there are numerous covenants established in the Old Testament, central to the Christian proclamation from earliest times is that Jesus has both established a New Covenant and done something to the Old. Now, the early church did not always agree on precisely what Jesus did to the Old Covenants. Some (like Marcion) thought Jesus did away with the Old in its entirety, while others (like the Judaizers and Ebionites) seem to have thought that the Old remained wholly in place. Yet the Great Church (from Acts 15 until today) took a nuanced middle way, albeit one which has been harder to clearly define, with some even arguing that Christ functionally did away with some portions of the Old and retained others.

In my thinking, the best way to think about the relationship between the Old and New Covenants is that Christ and his covenant expanded portions of the Old Covenants to a new people group—the nations (Gentiles)—while maintaining the Old Covenants for the Jewish People of God. While this is not the place to offer a complete explanation of how the Old and New Covenants interact, this viewpoint means that what God says and does in the Old Testament remain important, particularly his continual emphasis on setting apart (making Holy) his people and their commitment to living out his character. Even if the specifics of the old covenants are no longer required for those following Jesus, belonging to the covenant (i.e., being a child of God) remains important. Accordingly, the Christian Church has emphasized the sacraments—the visible manifestations of God’s grace—as a means of participating in the covenantal family of God and growing in holiness. Two of the earliest and clearest expressions of this transition come in Galatians 3 and Hebrews 8, where Christ’s work is contrasted to that which came before and participation in the covenant of Christ furthers the effects of the Old.

When it comes to thinking sacramentally, from the beginning baptism has held an important place in Christian practice. One need look no further than Jesus’ Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20) to see that baptism plays a defining role in what it means to be a follower of Jesus. No doubt building upon Jesus’ command to baptize, in Romans 6:1-14 Paul argues that baptism into Christ equals baptism into the new covenant of life. Furthermore, 1 Peter 3:18-22 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-5 connect old to new, suggesting that Christian baptism into Christ was prefigured in the acts and covenants of old. As explained by the early Church, the most visible sign of belonging to Yahweh under the Old Covenant was circumcision, something that happened to Jewish males at eight days of age. According to the New Testament, the most visible sign of belonging to Yahweh under the New Covenant is now baptism.

Sacramental Anthropology

So how does baptism work? Only through the grace of Christ (Rom. 3:22, 6:3-11; Eph. 2:8). Fundamentally, we confess with Saint Ambrose that baptism is a mystery rooted in the work of Christ: “See where you are baptized, see where Baptism comes from, if not from the cross of Christ, from his death. There is the whole mystery: he died for you. In him you are redeemed, in him you are saved.”1 If baptism is founded in the work of Christ, the ancient principle of ex opera operato serves as an important qualification about how we explain how baptism works. If baptism is a working apart from the worker, the act of baptism does not depend on the one performing the baptism nor does it depend on the person receiving baptism. That is, the effects of baptism depend not on the pastor or priest performing the ceremony, those in attendance, or even the one being baptized, but rather the one who has commanded and enacts the effects of baptism: God Himself. Gregory of Nazianzus summarizes this thinking well, writing:

“Baptism is God’s most beautiful and magnificent gift…. We call it gift, grace, anointing, enlightenment, garment of immortality, bath of rebirth, seal, and most precious gift. It is called gift because it is conferred on those who bring nothing of their own; grace since it is given even to the guilty; Baptism because sin is buried in the water; anointing for it is priestly and royal as are those who are anointed; enlightenment because it radiates light; clothing since it veils our shame; bath because it washes; and seal as it is our guard and the sign of God’s Lordship.”2

As a gift of grace, the effects of baptism rely not on our work or obedience, but on God’s benevolence. As Gregory says, we “bring nothing of our own.” Thus, a full understanding of baptism is not necessary for baptism to forgive sins, seal Christians, or mark us as members of God’s family. I have a friend who was baptized as a believer one year and then felt the need to be re-baptized the following year because they had a better understanding of their faith. This way of thinking overemphasizes our role in baptism at the expense of recognizing Christ’s work in our lives through baptism (and other forms of grace). Baptism transforms human beings because of the grace of God, not because of the purity of the one baptizing or the understanding of the one being baptized. From this theological vantage, we can straightforwardly see baptism as a mysterious grace which can rightly be bestowed on those who might not fully understand its meaning, be they children or disabled adults.3

Of course, baptism is not some magical event that makes people sinless or removes the need for daily repentance. However, baptism does serve as a means by which our sins are forgiven and formally signifies our place in the Gathering of the People of God. This is true for both infant baptism and believer’s baptism, as both may rightly be understood as the process through which we covenant with God in Christ. Baptism marks us as members of God’s family, a belonging that ultimately depends on God’s gift of grace, bestowed on us through the power of the Holy Spirit and the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Can we reject our baptisms? Certainly, in much the same way that we may accept or reject every instance of God’s grace. The first movement of all faith belongs to God (both in terms of the grace to make decisions as well as the grace of baptism); it is only subsequent to his gifting that we may respond. But we are asked to respond. Whatever our stage in life, we are called to accept and inhabit the grace offered us by God, whether that entails lifestyle change, identity formation, or both. Baptism presumes life in a community, along with its attendant accountability, maturation, and Christian service. This is true of believer’s baptism as well as infant baptism: no baptized person may live on their own or cease to confess the truth of Christ’s coming into the world as their savior. For those baptized before their teen/young adult years, this means going through a process of confirmation (the affirmation and acceptance of responsibility for their faith), manifesting the baptism of the Spirit. Baptized one-year olds, ten-year olds, and forty-year olds alike should view baptism as the beginning of the process of life in Christ, not its completion, and continue learning to love God and love people accordingly.

Conclusion

By the power of the Holy Spirit and grace of God, baptism marks Christians as members of the Triune God’s covenant family, affects the forgiveness of sins in our lives, and serves as a sign and seal of our salvation (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 2:38-9; 1 Peter 3:18-21). Baptism should be extended to and recognized by all who belong to the family of God, whether by conversion or familial life, not just those with whom we stand in theological concord. For all followers of Christ, as Saint Irenaeus remarked, “Baptism is indeed the seal of eternal life.”4

O God, great Father, Lord and King!
Our children unto Thee we bring;
And strong in faith, and hope, and love,
We dare Thy steadfast Word to prove.

Thy covenant kindness did of old
Our fathers and their seed enfold;
That ancient promise standeth sure,
And shall while heaven and earth endure.

Look down upon us while we pray,
And visit us in grace today;
These little ones in mercy take
And make them Thine for Jesus’ sake.

While they the outward sign receive,
Wilt Thou Thy Holy Spirit give,
And keep and help them by Thy power
In every hard and trying hour.

Guide Thou their feet in holy ways:
Shine on them through the darkest days;
Uphold them till their life be past,
And bring them all to heaven at last.

~E. Embree Hoss

Many thanks to Joseph Prahlow, Samuel Prahlow, Benjamin Winter, and Nicholai Stuckwisch for their conversations and feedback with this article.


(1) Ambrose, De sacr. 2.2.6.
(2) Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 40.3-4.
(3) Here an objection based in history might be offered: should we baptize “pagans” against their wills? It seems here that a distinction should be drawn between baptizing those who are not (yet) capable of independent reflection and willing and those who are capable but remain resistant. Without delving too deeply into the longstanding debates over the human capacity to make choices pertaining to salvation (i.e., the predestination-freewill debate), there is an important functional difference between passive acceptance and active rejection.
(4) Irenaeus, Dem ap. 3:62.32.

Spectrums of Scripture: Bibliography

This post is the final in our series formulating a methodology for tracking and understanding the variety of ways in which early Christians received and utilized Scripture.

Primary Sources

Athanasius of Alexandria. Letter to Marcellinus. Edited and translated by Robert C. Gregg. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus. Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1980.

Aristotle. Art of Rhetoric. Translated by J. H. Freese. Loeb Classical Library 193. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926.

Clement of Rome. 1 Clement. Edited and translated by Bart D. Ehrman. The Apostolic Fathers: I Clement, II Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Didache. Loeb Classical Library 24. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003. Continue reading

Spectrums of Scripture: Graphing Addenda

This post is part of an ongoing series formulating a methodology for tracking and understanding the variety of ways in which early Christians received and utilized Scripture.

Graphing Addenda

  • Color: Text (i.e., blue for 1 Clement, red for Ignatius, green for Hermas)
  • Size: Length (i.e., bigger the dot/sphere, the longer the passage)
  • Brightness/Translucence: Clarity (i.e., the brighter/more solid a point, the more certain its use; analogy of quantum location for specific locations on spectrum)

Continue reading

Spectrums of Scripture: Conclusions

This post is part of an ongoing series formulating a methodology for tracking and understanding the variety of ways in which early Christians received and utilized Scripture.

Open BibleThis series has sought to begin developing a common methodological language for discussing ancient textual borrowing. Building from blocks of common concerns within the subfields of the study of late antiquity, I have outlined a methodological framework for approaching ancient literary citations and for offering arguments about what these uses indicate. My central contention has held that a composite methodology for understanding uses of one ancient source in another requires considerations of the verbal, thematic, and authoritative schemata through which ancient authors viewed and redeployed the sources available to them. In constructing the method, I have employed a “three dimension Cartesian coordinate system.” In this system the verbal correspondence axis has outlined a range from quotation to echo. The thematic correspondence axis considered thematic uses from explication to echo. And the third axis examined authoritative correspondences from formal quotations to unknown uses. Continue reading