In these next two installments in the present examination of the nascent Church I am going to look at two related topics: apostolic succession and the liturgy of the early Christians, a liturgy that focused on the celebration of the Eucharist. In this first post I will look at apostolic succession and how it relates to the doctrine of the Eucharist. In the next post I will present some insight into the liturgical practice of the early Church. Along with Scripture, the texts that I will be referencing especially are the Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch, the First Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, The Apostolic Tradition by Hippolytus of Rome. Each of these were introduced in the initial post of this series. In addition to these, in my next post examining the early Christian liturgy I will also reference The Didache, a first century pedagogical work containing the teaching of the Apostles, a work that was considered by many Church Fathers to be part of the New Testament, and while it was ultimately rejected as canonical it is nonetheless an invaluable patristic document. I will also reference an excellent book written by en erudite patristic scholar, Mike Aquinila, The Mass of the Early Christians, a book I strongly recommend to anyone interested in the subject.
In the previous post in this series we examined the issue of authority and apostolic teaching, and the necessity of teaching sound doctrine. We saw in the writings of St. Paul the exhortation to maintain sound doctrine and that in order to ensure orthodoxy bishops, presbyters and deacons were appointed. We also saw that the Christians of the first century were exhorted to submit to their bishops and presbyters, and that the Christian faithful owed obedience to the presbyters and bishops, and the connection was made from presbyter to bishop, bishop to apostles, apostles to Christ, and Christ to God. Regarding apostolic succession let us first look at an excerpt from the 44th Chapter of Clement of Rome's Epistle to the Corinthians (emphasis mine):
Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect foreknowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry.
We see in the Acts of the Apostles the beginning of the practice of apostolic succession, when Matthias was chosen to succeed Judas. As the apostles and other disciples are gathered in Jerusalem, Peter stands up and first refers to the Old Testament prophecy that Judas must be succeeded by another in his office of Apostle, and then Peter proclaims: "So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us -- one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection" (Acts 1:21-22). This practice of appointing successors in the offices that would come to be known as bishop, presbyter and deacon is found once again in St. Paul, when he tells Titus to appoint presbyters and bishops to ensure sound doctrine. Just as Titus was commissioned directly by Paul, now Titus is commissioning his own successors. And so we see above in Clement's Epistle that the succession from the apostles was indeed a charge handed down directly by them.
Clement again stresses to the Corinthians that as Christians they are to submit themselves to the authority of the presbyter. In Chapter 47 he writes regarding the disobedience to the presbyters that resulted from false accusations made against them:
It is disgraceful, beloved, yea, highly disgraceful, and unworthy of your Christian profession, that such a thing should be heard of as that the most steadfast and ancient church of the Corinthians should, on account of one or two persons, engage in sedition against its presbyters.
And again in Chapter 57:
You therefore, who laid the foundation of this sedition, submit yourselves to the presbyters, and receive correction so as to repent, bending the knees of your hearts. Learn to be subject, laying aside the proud and arrogant self-confidence of your tongue.
As has been shown, the primary purpose of obedience to the bishops and presbyters was for the purpose of ensuring fidelity to sound doctrine, a task that throughout Scripture, from Christ to the Apostles, is set forth as of prime importance. We see in the nascent Church that one of the most important doctrines that was challenged in a way that led to one of the first two or three Christian heresies regards the Eucharist, particularly the reality that Christ's Body and Blood are truly present in the Eucharist, when that Eucharist is presided over by a successor of the Apostles.
The first insight into the early celebration of the Eucharist is given to us by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians. Beginning in Chapter 10 Paul refers to the bread and the cup as being participations in the sacrifice of the Cross:
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread (1 Cor 10:16-17).
He then says that what he received from the Lord (whether through the apostles who were present or directly from Christ in some other fashion) he passes on to the Church at Corinth, indicating that this celebration of the Eucharist is to be carried out in like manner. Paul writes:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes (1 Cor 11:23-26).
Here Paul connects the Eucharist directly to the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, as he did in the previous chapter. It is because of the fact that the Eucharist is eternally connected to the Cross that the celebration of the Eucharist is rightly called a sacrifice, and thus is presented at an altar.
In Ignatius of Antioch we see again the importance of apostolic succession with regards the celebration of the Eucharist, and that it is only validly celebrated by one with such a succession. In chapter 8 of his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans he writes:
See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate an agape (the Eucharistic meal); but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.
As I said, one of the primary reasons for subordination to the bishop and presbyter was to ensure orthodox doctrine concerning the Eucharist. It is important to note that Ignatius was a disciple of John the Apostle, and it was John who included the famous bread of life discourse in his Gospel. Let's look first at John, and then at how his disciple Ignatius interprets the Eucharist. From John:
Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.
"I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh." The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" So Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever" (John 6:51-58).
It is true that some dispute whether this passage refers to the Eucharist itself, but several factors are worth considering. One, unlike the synoptic Gospels, John does not include an account of the Last Supper aside from the washing of the feet. At the time of the writing of John's Gospel, as we will see presently from John's disciple Ignatius, we saw the first denial that the Eucharist was the true Body and Blood of Christ, and so it is likely that instead of recording an accounting of the Last Supper as the synoptics did, John chose to focus on the doctrinal aspect, and thus included the bread of life discourse with its explicit reference to the necessity of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ. The epistles from Ignatius were more or less contemporaneous to the writing of John's Gospel, perhaps a decade, at most two, later. And in his epistle to the Smyrnaeans he writes:
But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God. They have no regard for love; no care for the widow, or the orphan, or the oppressed; of the bond, or of the free; of the hungry, or of the thirsty. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again.
Here Ignatius makes it abundantly clear that the flesh of Christ referred to in John's Gospel is truly present in the Eucharist, and he denounces those who deny this essential doctrine. Like John, Ignatius teaches that the eating of the flesh of Christ, and this achieved in the Eucharist, is essential to eternal life.
This brings us to one final point to examine regarding an orthodox understanding of the Eucharist. The Eucharist contains within it a profoundly eschatological character. The Eucharist is the force in the world drawing all of creation towards its final redemption, towards resurrection. This is so because the Body of Christ present in the Eucharist is not the mortal flesh assumed by Christ in the incarnation, but rather it is the resurrected Body of Christ that we receive in the Eucharist. It is specifically because of its resurrected nature that it is even possible for Christ to be truly present in every single host and every cup of wine that is transformed into the true Body and Blood of Christ. It is because of the resurrected nature of Christ that this transformation of bread and wine into Body and Blood is possible, and why the consumption of the Body and Blood of Christ is not a form of cannibalism, a charge that was commonly made against the Christians in the early Church. In the Eucharist, yes we participate in the sacrifice of the Cross and are conformed unto Christ crucified, but in the Eucharist we also participate in the resurrection of Christ, and indeed are drawn towards our own resurrection, as well.
This will conclude an examination of the doctrinal components of the Eucharist as explicated through the writings of the nascent Church. In the next installment I will examine in some detail the liturgical form of the Mass of the early Christians.