The Structure

and Worship

of the Early Church



By Clark Carlton




Introduction. Bishops and Presbyters. The New Israel. The Flesh of Our. Lord Jesus Christ.






The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the Blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the Body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread (1 Cor. 10:16-17).

The reason why different denominations, with very different forms of church government, can all claim to be based on the "New Testament model" is that the New Testament is not very specific about how the Church is to be organized or how services are to be conducted. It would be a grave mistake, however, to infer from this that the early Church had no definite structure or patterns of worship. The New Testament does not give a detailed plan of Church government, because the Church already existed when the books of the New Testament were written. As we pointed out above, the epistles were not written to be an "owner's manual."

Because of this, if we want to know more about the early Church, we must look beyond the pages of the Scriptures to the earliest documents of the post-apostolic Church. This is not to suggest that these other documents are more important-or even as important-as the Divine Scriptures; they certainly are not. Their importance lies in the fact that they tell us how the earliest Christians interpreted the Bible and applied those interpretations to their lives. In doing so, they answer many of the questions that modern Protestants have about Church life.

Earlier (in ch. 5) we examined how the description of Baptism in the Didache shed light on the biblical passages relating to the practice of Baptism. Let us now turn our attention to a more systematic study of life in the early Church, focusing in particular on Church government and worship.

In addition to the Didache, four other documents from the first two centuries help us understand how the early Church was organized and how She worshipped: I Clement, the Letters of St. Ignatios of Antioch, the Apologies of St. Justin the Philosopher, and Against Heresies by St. Irenaios of Lyons. To be sure, we have many other documents from the second century, but these contain the most specific information about Church life.

I Clement is a letter that was sent from the Church in Rome to the Church in Corinth around A.D. 95-96. Although St. Clement is not mentioned by name in the letter, early tradition is unanimous in assigning it to Clement. There is now no serious scholarly challenge to this attribution. St. Irenaios of Lyons, writing in the latter half of the second century, tells us that Clement was the third bishop of Rome and that he personally knew Ss. Peter and Paul. He has also been connected with the Clement mentioned in Phil. 4:3. This letter, therefore, stands as a bridge between the apostolic and post-apostolic ages. (For a general introduction and bibliography, see Quasten, pp. 42-53. Translations may be found in collections of the Apostolic Fathers. There is also a translation by J.A. Kleist, The Epistles of Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, Ancient Christian Writers, Vol. 1, NY: Newman Press, 1946. It is generally accepted that II Clement is an early sermon by someone other than St. Clement of Rome).

Around A.D. 107, St. Ignatios, the bishop of Antioch, was sent, under arrest, to Rome for execution. During his sojourn, he wrote letters to several Churches. Seven of those letters are extant. They provide an invaluable insight into Church life at the beginning of the second century. (Quasten, pp. 63-76).

The Apologies of St. Justin the Philosopher are somewhat unique in that they are addressed not to fellow Christians, but to the pagan emperor. Dating from the middle of the second century, their value for our purpose lies in the fact that Justin describes Church life to the emperor in order to dispel various myths that were circulating through the Roman world. I Clement and the Letters of Ignatios are similar to the epistles of the New Testament in that they are occasional letters. Justin, however, describes in some detail things that these letters only hint at. (Quasten, pp. 196-221).

One could say that St. Irenaios is the theologian par excellence of the second century. His Against Heresies is a gold mine of information. This work dates from the second half of the second century. Though he is known as the bishop of Lyons in Gaul (France), he was originally from Asia Minor and knew St. Polycarp of Smyrna, who was himself a disciple of St. John the Apostle. Thus, Irenaios was a spiritual grand-child of the Apostles. (Irenaios is also spelled Irenaeus. For background and bibliography see Quasten, pp. 287-313. We do not possess complete texts of Against Heresies. There is a translation in Vol. 1 of the Ante Nicene Fathers, pp. 315-578. For excerpts, see Bettenson, pp. 65-102.).

From these documents we learn that the Church of the first two centuries had a definite governing structure, consisting of four principle offices: the bishop, the presbyters, the deacons, and the laity. The Church worshipped according to a pattern based upon types set forth in the Old Testament. Furthermore, both Church government and worship were firmly rooted in the doctrine of the Incarnation; that is, in the belief that God had truly become man so that man might be able to truly share in the life of God.

What is most important about this, however, is the way in which all of these elements of Church life were integrated with one another, forming a seamless whole. As we shall see below, episcopal government is tied directly to the nature of the Church as a Eucharistic community. At the same time, the Eucharist is the ultimate manifestation of the Church's belief that Her life is nothing less than life in Christ: He that eateth My Flesh, and drinketh My Blood, dwelleth in Me, and I in him (John 6:56).


Bishops and Presbyters

In the New Testament, the terms bishop and presbyter are used interchangeably. (Most English translations render presbyter as elder. The KJV and RSV usually render bishop as bishop, although the KJV does render it as overseer once (Acts 20:28). The NIV, however, renders it as overseer exclusively, thereby avoiding using a word that is objectionable to most Evangelicals).This is evident from the following passage from Titus:


For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders [lit. presbyters] in every city, as I had appointed thee: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not self-willed, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre (Titus 1:5-7).


We can quote many similar passages from the literature of the early Church where these terms are also used interchangeably:


Our Apostles also knew through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife over the title of bishop. For this reason, therefore, since they had perfect foreknowledge, they appointed the aforementioned persons and later made further provision that if they should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.... For it will be no trivial sin on our part if we depose from the bishop's office those who have in a blameless and holy manner offered the gifts. Happy the presbyters who have gone on their way before this, for they obtained a ripe and fruitful departure; since they need not fear that anyone should remove them from their appointed place. (I Clement 44. For St. Clement, the office of bishop derives from the Apostles. Elsewhere he writes, "The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ: Jesus the Christ was sent from God. Thus Christ is from God, the Apostles from Christ. In both cases, the process was orderly and derived from the will of God... They preached in country and town, and appointed their first-fruits, after testing them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who were going to believe. Thus, the concept of "Apostolic Succession," dates from the first century).


But when on our side we challenge them [that is, the Gnostics] by an appeal to that tradition which derives from the Apostles, and which is preserved in the churches by the successions of the presbyters, then they oppose tradition claiming to be wiser not only than the presbyters but even than the Apostles, and to have discovered the truth undefiled.... This tradition the church has from the Apostles, and this faith has been proclaimed to all men, and has come down to our own day through the successions of bishops (Against Heresies III:2:2; III:3:2).

There is one writer from the second century, however, who did not employ bishop and presbyter as interchangeable terms: St. Ignatios of Antioch. In his Letters, St. Ignatios makes it clear that in a given local Church, there is one bishop, a council of presbyters, and the deacons:


All of you follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and the presbytery as the Apostles; respect the deacons as the ordinance of God (Smyrnaeans 8).


It is commonly asserted by Protestant scholars that St. Ignatios' view of Church government was unusual in the early Church — even revolutionary. Indeed, the authenticity of the Ignatian Letters was hotly contested by many Protestants, based upon their a priori conviction that the episcopal form of Church government was impossible in the first decade of the second century. Today, however, there is little doubt among scholars as to the genuineness of the seven Letters in the current collection.

It cannot be denied that St. Ignatios' clearly defined use of bishop and presbyter is highly unusual for this point in Church history. Nor can it be denied that he places a much greater emphasis on the role of bishop than do the other authors we are considering. However, this does not mean that the actual Church structure he describes was unique to Antioch. On the contrary, an examination of the other documents under consideration will demonstrate that they evince a similar understanding of Church government. (The only exception to this is the Didache, which gives very little information about Church government. The Didache is concerned primarily with the authority of traveling apostles and teachers and takes an almost apologetic attitude toward local clergy. This is a point in favor of dating the Didache in the first century, perhaps as early as A.D. 70. It is highly unlikely that a second century document would give such emphasis to traveling teachers).

Although St. Clement uses bishop and presbyter interchangeably, there is considerable evidence that he has in mind the same kind of Church structure as described by St. Ignatios. This letter was occasioned by dissent within the Corinthian Church. In particular, there was a revolt against the current presbytery. In arguing that the Corinthians should submit to their appointed leaders, St. Clement speaks of the proper order in the Church in terms of the Old Testament ministers of the altar:


Since then these things are manifest to us, and we have looked into the depths of the divine knowledge, we ought to do in order all things which the Master commanded us to perform at appointed times. He commanded us to celebrate sacrifices and services, and that it should not be thoughtless or disorderly, but at fixed times and hours. He has himself fixed by His supreme will the places and persons whom He desires for these celebrations, in order that all things may be done piously according to His good pleasure, and be acceptable to His will.

So then those who offer their oblations at the appointed seasons are acceptable and blessed, for they follow the laws of the Master and do no sin. For to the high priest his proper ministrations are allotted, and to the priests the proper place has been appointed, and on the Levites their proper services have been imposed. The layman is bound by the ordinances for the laity.


Here, St. Clement is describing the proper order of the Church, but he does so using the imagery of the Old Testament. The high priest represents the bishop. (This terminology is still used in the Orthodox Church). The priests represent the presbytery, and the Levites represent the deacons. Notice also that St. Clement specifically mentions the role of the laity. Thus, for St. Clement, the Church has a four-fold structure: bishop, presbyters, deacons, and laity.

Notice also that St. Clement uses specifically cultic imagery. That is, the structure of the Church is presented within the framework of Israel as a worshipping community. In other words, the structure of the Church is directly related to the way She worships God. This point is of the utmost importance, and we shall return to it below.

In Against Heresies, St. Irenaios uses the succession of bishops in the various local Churches as an argument against the Gnostics' claims to have special knowledge handed down secretly from the Apostles. As we saw above, St. Irenaios speaks of the succession of both presbyters and bishops. However, when he gets around to actually listing the succession of bishops for a particular Church — he uses Rome as his example — he gives a single line of succession. That is, he describes one bishop succeeding another. There is no suggestion of multiple successions. Indeed, it is Irenaios who formally identifies St. Clement as the author of the letter from the Church of Rome to the Corinthians:


The blessed Apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the Apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed Apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the Apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone, for there were many still remaining who had received instructions form the Apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren in Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians . . . To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the Apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus, after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Sotor having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the Apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the Apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the Apostles until now, and handed down in truth (III.3.3).


From the foregoing it is evident that while the terminology regarding the offices of bishop and presbyter remained somewhat fluid in the first and second centuries, the offices themselves were not interchangeable. Ss. Clement and Irenaios, like St. Ignatios, know of only one bishop in a church at a time.

The key to understanding this is provided by St. Justin the Philosopher in his First Apology. In describing the Eucharistic celebration to the emperor he writes:


And on the day which is called the Sun's Day there is an assembly of all who live in the towns or country; and the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as much as time permits. When the reader has finished, the president gives a discourse, admonishing us and exhorting us to imitate these excellent examples. Then we all rise together and offer prayers; and, as I said above, on the conclusion of our prayer, bread is brought and wine and water; and the president similarly offers up prayers and thanksgivings [Lit. eucharists] to the best of his power, and the people assent with Amen.


Notice that he describes the leader of the Church's worship as the president. This is extremely important. Obviously an assembly can have only one president. Regardless of how many presbyters may have been present, only one of them could have presided. (It is possible, of course, that the office of president (ie. bishop) was not held permanently by any one presbyter, but rotated among them. However, there is not the slightest bit of evidence to support the idea that this is how the early Church was actually governed. On the contrary, all of the documents from this era, from St. Clement's equating the bishop with the OT high priest to St. Irenaios' list of episcopal successors, explicitly rule out this idea.).

Notice also that this passage deals specifically with the celebration of the Eucharist. Remember that St. Clement treated the topic of Church government within the framework of the Church's worship. The Church is first and foremost a worshipping community, gathered around the Table of Her Lord. Thus, it is precisely the Eucharistic nature of the Church that defines the structure of the Church's ministry. John Meyendorff writes:


It was in the eucharistic meal and through it that the Church was truly herself, the Church of God and it is, therefore, within the framework of the eucharistic assembly, gathered every week on the Lord's Day, that the internal structure of the Church had to take its shape. Indeed, if the Eucharist was a reenactment of the Last Supper, someone had to sit in the place of the Lord and pronounce the words He commanded His disciples to say. On the other hand, the Eucharist was also a participation in the forthcoming Messianic banquet of the Kingdom as it was seen by the author of Revelation: "a throne stood in heaven, with One seated on the throne . . . Round the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders [presbyteroi] . . . (4:2,4).


St. Ignatios also speaks of the place of the bishop in the Church in terms of the Eucharist:


Take great care to keep one Eucharist. For there is one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup to unite us by His Blood; one sanctuary, as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow-servants. Thus all your acts may be done accordingly to God's will (Philadelphians 4).


Let no one do anything that pertains to the Church apart from the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is under the bishop or one whom he has delegated. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be; just as wherever Jesus Christ may be, there is the catholic Church (Smyrnaeans 8). (This is the first extant use of catholic as an adjective modifying the Church. Contrary to popular opinion, catholic does not primarily mean universal. Literally, it means according to the whole. Thus, to speak of the Church as being catholic means that the Church is whole, complete, lacking nothing.).


From the writings of the early Church Fathers such as St. Clement, St. Ignatios, St. Justin, and St. Irenaios, it is evident that the governing structure of the early Church was directly related to Her nature as a Eucharistic community. The Church is most truly Herself when She is gathered around the Table of Her Lord. It is in this most self-expressive of liturgical acts that the various ministries of the Church are delineated.


The New Israel

Christianity did not spring from a vacuum. Jesus Christ did not found a new religion. The first Christians were Jews, and from the very beginning, they viewed the Church as the New Israel. There is no question that Judaism is a liturgical religion. Most Protestants, however, fail to make this liturgical connection between the Old and New Israels.

Within the New Testament there is evidence that the Apostles continued to observe Jewish liturgical practices. Perhaps even more significant, however, is the fact that the literature we have been examining, written by Gentiles long after the Christians had been expelled from the synagogue, also testifies to the fact that Christian worship was based on Jewish patterns.

In the first century, Jews prayed at set times of the day and fasted on Mondays and Thursdays. The Didache enjoins Christians to fast and pray, but in a way that differentiates them from the Jews:


Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but do you fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. (To this day, the Orthodox Church observes Wednesdays and Fridays as fast days). And do not pray as the hypocrites, but as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, pray in this way, 'Our Father . . .' Pray thus three times a day.


The important thing to notice about this passage is that although the early Christians were eager to disassociate themselves from the Jews, they nevertheless saw their life and worship in terms of Jewish liturgical practice. Concerning the Eucharist we read:


On the Lord's Day of the Lord come together, break bread and hold Eucharist, after confessing your transgressions that your offering may be pure. But let no one who has a quarrel with his fellow man join in your meeting until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice not be defiled. For this is that which was spoken of by the Lord, In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice, for I am a great King, saith the Lord, and My name is wonderful among the heathen (Malachi 1:11).


Notice that the Eucharist is considered an "offering" and a "sacrifice." These non-Jewish Christians understood their worship as a direct fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Their interpretation is confirmed by the fact that, according to the Law of Moses, sacrifices were to be offered only in the tabernacle or in the temple in Jerusalem, and only by the Aaronic priesthood. Only in the Christian Church — the New Israel — is it possible to offer a pure sacrifice in every place.

St. Clement also speaks of Christian worship in terms of its Old Testament prototype. He warns the Corinthians that they must not revolt against their appointed leaders, for only those appointed by God are able to offer the sacrifice of the altar. There can be only one Church, and one offering:


Not in every place, my brethren, are the daily sacrifices offered or the free will offerings, or the sin offerings and trespass-offerings, but only in Jerusalem. There also the offering is not made in every place, but before the shrine, at the altar, and the offering is first inspected by the high priest and the ministers already mentioned. (At the time this was written, c. A.D. 96, the temple in Jerusalem had long since been destroyed by the Romans. It is obvious, therefore, that although St. Clement is speaking in terms of the OT cultus, he is talking about the Christian Church). Those therefore who do anything contrary to that which is agreeable to His will suffer the penalty of death. (In the OT, Korah and his followers offered incense to God, contradicting the directives that God had given to Moses. The ground opened up and swallowed some, while others were burned up by fire from heaven. Cf. Numbers 16). You see, brethren, that the more knowledge we have been entrusted with, the greater risk do we incur .


It should be stressed at this point that these Christians were not practicing Jewish rituals. Indeed, St. Ignatios goes so far as to say, "It is monstrous to speak of Jesus Christ and to practice Judaism" (Magnesians 10:3). They were practicing Christian worship, but their worship patterns were based on Jewish patterns. (It has become popular in some circles for Evangelicals to celebrate the Jewish Passover seder. This would have been seen by the early Church as an act of apostasy. Christ, and Christ alone, is the Passover). St. Irenaios of Lyons makes this perfectly clear. He too interprets Malachi 1:10-11 as a prophecy of Christian worship:


And He also counseled His Disciples to offer to God the firstfruits of His creatures, not because He needed these gifts, but so that they should not be unfruitful nor unthankful. This He did, when He took bread, of the natural creation, and gave thanks, and said, This is My Body. Likewise the cup of wine belonging to the creation of which we are part, He declared to be His Blood, and explained as the new oblation of the New Testament. This oblation the Church receives from the Apostles and throughout the whole world She offers it to God, Who supplies as our nourishment the firstfruits of His gifts in the New Testament. Concerning this, Malachi thus prophesied: I will not receive sacrifice at your hands. . . . In every place incense is offered in My name, and a pure sacrifice; for My name is great among the gentiles. . . . By this he quite clearly means that the former people will cease to offer to God, but in every place a sacrifice will be offered, and that a pure sacrifice while His name is glorified among the gentiles (IV:17:4).


Speaking specifically about the difference between Christian and Jewish worship, St. Irenaios states:


There are oblations there and oblations here; sacrifices among the chosen People, sacrifices in the Church. Only the kind of sacrifice is changed, for now sacrifice is offered not by servants but by sons. There is one and the same Lord; but there is a character appropriate to servile oblation, and a character appropriate to the oblation of sons, so that even by means of the oblations a token of liberty is displayed (IV:18:2).


A college New Testament professor of mine once outlined the order of service for a Jewish synagogue of the first century for our class. He then drew direct comparisons between the synagogue service and a typical Baptist service. We were all rather impressed by the fact that our worship practices had their roots in Jewish worship.

Far more important, however, than what we learned in class that day was what we did not learn. Our professor neglected to inform us that this basic pattern is that of the liturgy of the Word, which is common to most Christian traditions. In his Apology, St. Justin describes the Sunday service in the second century as having two basic parts. In the first part the Scriptures are read and explained in the sermon, and in the second part the Eucharist is offered.

The liturgy of the Word, not unlike the typical Baptist service, is indeed patterned after synagogue services. However, the Sunday service in St. Justin's day — and today in the Orthodox Church — did not end with the liturgy of the Word. We must remember that, strictly speaking, the worship of Israel did not take place in the synagogues. The synagogue derives from the period of exile in Babylon. There is no provision for the synagogue in the Law of Moses. (The purpose of the synagogue is primarily educational. Likewise, the purpose of the liturgy of the Word is to instruct Christians and catechumens in the faith, so that they might be prepared to participate in the Eucharist). Indeed, as we saw above, the only place where Israel was authorized to offer sacrifice was in the temple in Jerusalem.

The documents we are considering testify to the fact that the early Christians saw their worship precisely in terms of sacrifice. As an Evangelical, however, I was taught that the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross put an end to all sacrifice. How, then, do we reconcile the undeniable practice of the early Church with the uniqueness and finality of Christ's work?


The Flesh of Our

Lord Jesus Christ

When St. John the Baptist first encountered Christ, he exclaimed, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world (John 1:29). This theme is echoed in the Book of Revelation. John beholds a Lamb upon the throne as the angels and elders sing, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing (Rev. 5:12).

St. Paul writes that Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us (1 Cor. 5:7). In Hebrews we read:


And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: But this Man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down on the right hand of God From henceforth expecting till His enemies be made His footstool (10:11-13).


Jesus Christ is, therefore, our Passover Lamb, slain for the salvation of the world. (According to St. John¹s chronology, Saturday was the Passover. The Passover seder would have been on Friday night. This means that Christ died as the Passover lamb was being sacrificed). Moreover, His Sacrifice is perfect and can never be repeated. There can be no doubt that the Crucifixion of Christ is the apex of all human history.

There is a tendency in Protestantism, however, to limit the Cross of Christ to a point in history. That the Sacrifice of Christ cannot be repeated is taken to mean that it can only be remembered as a past event. Thus, the Lord's Supper is a "memorial" — an act of psychological remembrance.

This is manifestly not how the early Church saw things. To begin with, the Greek word for remembrance — This do in remembrance of Me (1 Cor. 11:24) — has an active connotation. It involves more than the mere psychological act of remembering. It implies the representation of the event remembered:


When the Church is conceived to be the Temple of God and its members living stones and a holy priesthood, then the eucharist becomes a sacrificial meal — sacrificial in the sense that it is the means of entering into and sharing Christ's sacrifice. This is implicit in the words 'Do this in remembrance of me,' although the translation 'remembrance' does less than justice to the underlying idea. 'Remembrance' implies the mental recollection of what is absent, but in the biblical perspective the word has rather the sense of re-calling, of making what is past present again so that it becomes operative by its effects here and now. The offering of the eucharist in the Church, therefore, is identified with the offering of Christ, not in the sense that his sacrifice is repeated, but that the eucharistic offering is the re-calling or re-presentation of his perfect oblation so that the sacrifice is present and operative by its effects. (J.G. Davies, The Early Christian Church: A History of Its First Five Centurie, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980, p.62).

Thus, the Eucharist is an active participation, here and now, in the unique and unrepeatable Sacrifice offered by Christ on Golgotha. It is not merely an act of reminiscence, but an act of genuine Communion with Christ:


The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the Blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the Body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread (1 Cor. 10:16-17).


In his Letters, St. Ignatios takes great pains to counter the claims of the Docetists, who maintained that the Word of God had taken flesh in appearance only, not in reality. These people, seeing themselves as more spiritual than the rest of the Church, absented themselves from the worship of the Church. What is most interesting, however is the reason why they did not participate in the Eucharist:


They abstain from Eucharist and prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, Who suffered for our sins, Whom the Father raised up by His goodness (Smyrnaeans 7).

In the early Church, the only people who denied that the Eucharist was truly the Body and Blood of Christ were those who also denied that the Word had truly become man. There is, in the eyes of the Fathers of the early Church, a direct and unbreakable correlation between the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Real Presence of Christ in Eucharist. To deny one is to deny the other.

Writing to the emperor of Rome, St. Justin also makes an explicit connection between the Eucharist and the Incarnation. Just as the Word of God became man in the Incarnation, even so the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist:


And this food is called among us Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the one who believes that the things that we preach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins and unto regeneration, (that is, Baptism) and who is living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these, but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, and took flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food over which thanksgiving has been offered by the prayer of His Word, and from which our blood and flesh are nourished through its transformation, is the Flesh and Blood of that Jesus Who was made flesh.


St. Irenaios is even more specific about the relationship of the Eucharist to the Incarnation. His primary target in Against Heresies is Gnosticism. Among other things, the Gnostics taught that the God of the Old Testament and the God of Christ were two different Gods. Furthermore, they explicitly disdained creation, asserting that matter is not capable of being a true vehicle for the spirit. Irenaios, therefore, goes to great pains to affirm both the inherent goodness of God's creation and the reality of the Incarnation:


We are His members, and are nourished by means of His creation, and He Himself provides His creation for us, making the sun to rise and sending rain as He wills (Mat. 5:45). Therefore, the drink, which is part of His creation, He declared to be His own Blood; and by this He enriches our blood. And the bread, which comes from His creation, He affirmed to be His own Body; and by this He nourishes our bodies. Whenever, then, the cup that man mixes and the bread that man makes receive the Word of God, the Eucharist becomes the Body of Christ and by these elements the substance of our flesh receives nourishment and sustenance. How, then, can they allege that flesh is incapable of the gift of God, which is eternal life, seeing that the flesh is fed on the Flesh and Blood of the Lord and is a member of Him (V:2:3)?


We saw that earlier in the second century the Docetists whom St. Ignatios opposed absented themselves from the Eucharist because they did not believe it to be the Body and Blood of Christ. They may have been heretics, but at least they were consistent. According to Irenaios, the Gnostics were not consistent. They called creation evil and denied that Christ had truly suffered and died, yet apparently they continued to participate in the Church's worship. Irenaios was quick to point out the discrepancy between their theology and their practice:


Again, how can they say that flesh passes to corruption and does not share in life, seeing that flesh is nourished by the Body and Blood of the Lord? Let them either change their opinion, or refrain from making those oblations of which we have been speaking. But our opinion is in conformity with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist confirms our opinion. We offer to Him what is His own, suitably proclaiming the communion and unity of flesh and spirit. For as the bread, which comes from the earth, receives the invocation of God, and then it is no longer common bread but Eucharist, consists of two things, an earthly and a heavenly; so our bodies, after partaking of the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the eternal resurrection (IV:18:5).


There are two aspects of this passage that are of crucial importance for our study. First of all, St. Irenaios states, "But our opinion is in conformity with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist confirms our opinion." In other words, his theology is in accord with the worship and life of the Church, and the worship and life of the Church confirm the truthfulness of His theology. (What would happen if we pressed modern Evangelicals to demonstrate the continuity between their professed theology and the way they worship? If in the early Church belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist implied the doctrine of the Incarnation; that is, that in Christ God had truly become man, then what would be the logical implication of the Zwinglian view that the Eucharist is not truly the Body and Blood of Christ?).

This is another example of how the Fathers of the early Church appealed to the life of the Church-tradition-in order to settle theological disputes. Earlier in Against Heresies, Irenaios actually talks about the relationship between Scripture and tradition. He says that when the Gnostics are refuted from the Scriptures, they claim that there is something wrong with the Scriptures. They then rely on their own tradition, which, they claim, has been handed down secretly (III:2:1).

To this secret tradition, St. Irenaios opposes the tradition handed down by the Apostles and maintained publicly by the bishops in the Church. (By publicly I mean the tradition that was open and available to all the baptized members of the Church. This tradition, however, would not have been made available to those outside the Church. See the discussion of St. Basil's understanding of tradition in Ch. 7. The Gnostics claimed to have a tradition that was not public knowledge within the Church, but was accessible only to a small spiritual elite). For Irenaios, Apostolic Succession is not merely a means of insuring valid Church government, it is also a public guarantee of the authenticity of the Church's teaching:


It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the Apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the Apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and the succession of these men down to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these heretics rave about. For if the Apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting privately and secretly to the 'perfect,' they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were entrusting the care of the Church (III:3:1).


It is, no doubt, difficult for Evangelicals to understand why the Fathers of the Early Church would place so much emphasis upon tradition, particularly upon worship. We are used to thinking that we do x because we believe y. It can be somewhat disconcerting, therefore, to hear someone assert the inverse as well: we believe y because we do x. Yet, this is precisely what St. Irenaios is saying.

This brings us to the second notable aspect of St. Irenaios' argument: "…so our bodies, after partaking of the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the eternal resurrection." For Irenaios, as for the other Fathers of the second century, as for Orthodox Christians today, the Eucharist is genuine Communion with Christ. It is our participation in His divine humanity.

The reason that St. Irenaios is able to interpret the Scriptures based on the way He worships in the second century is because that which is described in the Bible is experienced first-hand in the life of the Church. The Scriptures testify to Christ; the Church is life in Christ.

St. Ignatios writes to the Church in Philadelphia:


I hear certain persons saying, 'Unless I find it in the archives I will not believe it in the Gospel.' And when I replied, 'It is in the Scriptures,' they answered, 'That remains to be proved.' But as for me, Jesus Christ is the archives, the inviolable archives are His Cross, Death, and Resurrection, and faith through Him (Philadelphians 8).


Ss. Ignatios and Irenaios understood that there is little point in arguing about Scriptural interpretation. They are able to interpret the Scriptures correctly not because they are smarter than others, but because in the Church they have true union with Christ. The Church is not a voluntary assembly of individuals who happen to have common beliefs about God, She is the mystical Body of Christ, His continuing presence in the world. ("Ignatius is no decetist [sic]. Christ came in flesh and we are to 'flee to the gospel as the flesh of Jesus Christ.' But that historical coming in the flesh is really and timelessly present in the church now' so that to 'flee to the presbytery' is to flee to the apostles. The ekklisia or eucharistic assembly represents a reality which entered time and history and is significant just because it is such. Union with the bishop in union with the diaconate and presbyterate establishes contact therefore with an historically grounded reality. Christ is incarnate in the flesh and as such there will be represented in the church which is the extension of the incarnation the dual character of flesh and Spirit of him who is both 'Son of David' and 'Son of God."' A. Brent, "Pseudonymity and Charisma," Augustinianum 27, 1987, p. 351).


This article is an excerpted from Clark Carlton's book, The Way: What Every Protestant Should Know About the Orthodox Church, Regina Orthodox Press, P.O.Box 5288, Salisbury, MA 01952, Tel. (800) 636-2470.



Missionary Leaflet # E43d

Copyright © 2001 Holy Trinity Orthodox Mission

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Editor: Bishop Alexander (Mileant)



(worship_early_church_ext.doc, 12-04-2001).

Edited by Donald Shufran