Barry Newman's Blog

November 21, 2012

The Sacraments (part XXIV)

Filed under: The Sacraments — barrynewman @ 9:23 pm

The Sacraments and History

There are a number of relatively early references to water baptism practices to be found in the writings of the Early Fathers and other Christian sources: Justin of Caesarea (middle 2nd century), The Didache (early 1st century to early 3rd century?), Irenaeus (late 2nd century), The Apostolic Tradition (early 3rd century ?) Tertullian of Rome (early 3rd century). Though it is difficult to say in every instance exactly what such a practice entailed, it is clear that, similar to what is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, new believers underwent a water ceremony meant to indicate a profound allegiance to Jesus.  However what was practised seems to have differed widely. Tertullian makes it clear that he believed that Jesus had made a reference to the necessity of a water ceremony being performed[1], although it was probably so believed from fairly early times.

One of the earliest references to something like a “Lord’s Supper” is made by Ignatius of Antioch[2], though generally it is in terms of what he calls “the eucharist”. He makes explicit reference to celebrating “one eucharist” because “one is the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one the cup of union through his blood and one the altar”[3].  Justin of Caesarea in a passage where he quotes Jesus saying “Do this in remembrance of me”[4] probably indicates that he believes this to be a commandment of his, obedience to which was being made evident in a perhaps weekly participation in a Eucharistic celebration. Most likely this understanding was held from earlier times. As mentioned above, the two Greek words often translated, “the Lord’s Supper” appear only once before the 4th century[5].

Given that there seems to be fairly early evidence that Christians believed that being baptised and participating in a celebration associated with the death of Jesus were mandatory, why would one doubt that such a perception was incorrect?  Surely, their understanding must be accepted as correct over and above any later but different understanding. Three matters which should be considered before adopting that position as a conclusion to the debate:  Firstly, it is clear that at the same time that the Early Fathers seem to indicate that they saw participation in these ceremonies as mandatory there were disagreements amongst themselves as to how baptisms should be conducted and there were statements about the nature of the bread and the wine in Eucharistic services that evangelicals at least would claim to be in error. The Early Fathers cannot have “gotten it all right”. Secondly it is also clear that even as early as the 50s and 60s Paul is struggling to combat various false teachings of such significant character as to warrant his giving extensive instructions in attempts to undermine them– witness his letter to the Galatians.  False views made their mark from the very early days.  Thirdly, that something was written as early as, 100  years, nay let’s be really generous, 10 years after the gospels in one form or another had been circulating is absolutely no guarantee that any understanding of gospel material in such a writing is correct.  For historical reasons, at least, the textual material of the New Testament is the bedrock for our understanding of the issues which concern us and it needs to be treated with respect and examined on the basis of its own merits.

If the early Christians did misunderstand what Jesus said, how would that have happened?  One can only guess.  But there are some plausible possibilities.  One is as follows: There seems to be a natural tendency in human beings, if they are conscientiously religious, to create regulations. If the regulations are followed it enables people to be satisfied that they have done what needs to be done, to feel assured that God or the gods, spirits or demons will be pleased or at least satisfied, and to be more confident that God or the gods, spirits or demons are more likely to make one’s life more bearable, even happier as a consequence.  If the regulations are not followed it can drive people to strive to do better in the future and it provides for them an understanding that why their life is not as good as it could be since they have failed God or the gods, spirits or demons.  Setting up mandatory regulations to be observed in early Christian communities would have been simply mirroring this tendency.

Another possible explanation, not to be divorced from the above, focuses on what one might consider a basic difference between a Greek way of relating to the gods and a Roman way of so relating.  The early Christians lived in a world dominated by Graeco-Roman culture.  The culture was infused with both recognisably Greek and Roman perspectives.  Speaking generally, when it came to the gods, it seems that the Greek way was not nearly as “rite” bound as the Roman way. It appears that one was at greater liberty to carry out one’s religious duties in one way or another, living as a Greek than if living as a Roman.  The word “rite” derives from the Latin word, “ritus”.  There does not appear to be a single word, carrying the concept, “rite” in the Greek language. This was drawn to my attention by E.A. Judge.  If Christianity was to go badly astray and the writings of Paul, let alone those of the Early Fathers, indicate that was not only likely but happened, then conceivably there were two tempting pathways.  It could go the Greek way or the Roman way. If it were to go the Greek way, from a human point of view, then the gospel would indeed be lost, Jesus would be viewed as just another deity among the myriads to be worshipped as you pleased.  If it were to go the Roman way, the gospel in main substance could be preserved – partly preserved by means of focussing on mandatory rites and partly preserved by setting up fairly rigid systems of governance.  If there is any substance to this theory, one might argue that it was necessary to have gone the Roman way in order to preserve the gospel.  However, Paul would have loudly proclaimed, “Not so!”  He had greater confidence in the gospel itself, provided believers adhered to it, and the God of the gospel, provided they abided in him.


[1] Tertullian, On the Soldier’s Crown, 3.3

[2] For example, Ignatius of Antioch, To the Smyrnaeans, 7.1 and 8. 1, 2 and To the Philadelphians 4.1

[3] Ignatius of Antioch, To the Romans 7.3

[4] Justin of Caesarea, Apology I, 66

[5] See Note 11

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