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“Faithful Succession”: Protestant Responses to Apostolic Succession

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My last post looked at the model of leadership succession that held unquestioned sway in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches for nearly 1500 years. Then came the Reformation and the birth of Protestantism. Their champions re-examined many of the centuries-old traditions of the established Church and pressed for sweeping change in doctrine and practice.

What do Protestant theologians make of Apostolic Succession? There is no fixed consensus. Some conservative Anglicans believe that apostolic succession is important as a link to the first church. I once met a bishop of an independent Episcopal denomination in America who carried with him a ‘family tree’ showing his supposed succession going right back to St Peter.

Protestants who reject apostolic succession generally do so from three angles:

  1. It is a historical fallacy. Early church history is sketchy and records are incomplete. It is hard to justify a clear and undisputed timeline of leaders from the Apostles to the present day.
  2. It was political expediency, invented by corrupt leaders to establish power and control.
  3. It is irrelevant. It may have been useful in combating heresy in the first centuries, but it is not explicitly found in the Bible, so we are under no obligation to hold to it. Besides, they point out, the New Testament uses ‘bishop’, ‘presbyter’ and ‘priest’ as alternative names for the same office.

For a fuller exposition of these points and more, see this discussion and this article.

In general, Protestant denominations deny the need of maintaining episcopal continuity with the early Church, holding that the role of the apostles was to be a foundation and that a foundation is not constantly re-laid, but built upon (Eph.2:20). When the apostles died, runs the argument, they were replaced by their writings. To share with the apostles the same faith, to believe their word as found in the Scriptures, to receive the same Holy Spirit, is the only meaningful continuity.

William Booth, founding General of the Salvation Army, and his appointed successor, Bramwell Booth, c.1900

William Booth, founding General of the Salvation Army, and his appointed successor, Bramwell Booth, c.1900

There is, however, a Protestant belief in what we might call a “faithful succession” – a spiritual connection to the heart, vision and practice of the first Apostles, in four main areas:

  1. Perseverance in the apostles’ teaching

  2. Commitment to preaching and the proclamation of the gospel

  3. Right celebration of the sacraments, principally baptism and communion

  4. Commissioning others into key areas of service by prayer and the laying on of hands.

Today, Anglicans are passed over by traditional Roman Catholics as being outside the apostolic succession. Anglicans in turn question the validity of Methodist holy orders, because John Wesley stepped outside the apostolic succession to promote his movement. But whose apostolic succession are they meaning? They went out from us, but they were not of us (1 John 2:9) can be used by anyone as a convenient stick to beat others with!

Some Protestant churches, such as Anglicans / Episcopalians, Lutherans, Moravians and Methodists, maintain a version of Apostolic Succession, which they prefer to call “historic episcopate“. I hope to devote a post or two to some examples.

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‘Apostolic Succession’ in the Church – How Did it Develop and What Can it Teach Us?

An artist's impression of St Paul commissioning Timothy

An artist’s impression of St Paul commissioning Timothy

For 1500 years, until the 16th century Reformation, apostolic succession in varying degrees was the unquestioned norm for ecclesiastical hierarchy, both in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Protestants tend to throw it out as yet more papist baggage. So, what are the points at issue here? There seem to be three notional stages of development in the concept of Apostolic Succession.

Continuity of teaching.  The Church as a whole was the vessel into which God’s truth is poured, and bishops were seen as the conduit for this purpose. One bishop succeeding another in the same bishopric meant that there was continuity to this truth. This position was formulated in the early 2nd century as a response to Gnostic claims of having received secret teaching from Christ or the apostles. It emphasised the public manner in which the apostles had passed on authentic teaching to those whom they entrusted with the care of the churches they founded, and that these in turn had passed it on to their successors: What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2). Ignatius of Antioch, in his “Epistle to the Smyrnaeans” 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.

Continuity of function.  Bishops were also seen as successors to the apostles in that the functions they performed (preaching, governing and ordaining) were the same as the Apostles had performed. Tertullian, Irenaeus and others (late 2nd century) introduce explicitly the idea of the bishop’s succession in office as a guarantee of authenticity, since it could be traced back to the apostles. Irenaeus writes at length on this in his “Against Heretics”; for example: 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 [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times.

‘Let them produce the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that a bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men.’           Tertullian, ‘Prescription Against Heretics’, late 2nd century.

An early representation of Apostles “holding” the Church

Continuity of grace.  Apostolic anointing and grace were held to be automatically transmitted from the Apostles by each generation of bishops through the laying on of hands. This was believed to guarantee the continuity and faithfulness of the Church. Thus, only bishops and priests ordained by bishops in the apostolic succession could validly celebrate the sacraments.

This late 4th century development suited a time when schisms (e.g. Arianism) troubled the Church, and where there were rival bishops – even rival Popes. The ‘true’ apostolic succession had to be protected. The idea comes from 2 Timothy 1:6, where the Apostle Paul laid his hands on Timothy, by which act a gift of God was planted in him. This is the most contentious aspect of apostolic succession, and there are serious problems with it. Passages like Acts 20:17 and Acts 20:28 show authority bestowed only over a local congregation – no apostolic authority is given over the church universal. And what are we to make of men who were apostolically commissioned but then backslid and deserted, like Demas? (2 Tim.4:10)

Even so, many a church today can produce impressive credentials, traced right back to the first Apostles, in support of their minister’s divine right to perform the sacraments (one example here). I conclude with a few of my  own thoughts and reflections on the subject.

Issues of succession logically come to the fore with the second generation and those following. The New Testament is the work of the first generation of Christians. They easily deferred to the Apostles appointed by Jesus Himself, or to others of trusted and proven calling, like Paul and those whom he appointed. Most scholars have no problem accepting that the Apostle Peter commissioned James, the Lord’s brother, to be in charge of the church at Jerusalem, while his own focus shifted to Rome, and John’s to Asia Minor. This was not without its tensions, however, even in the first generation: “I follow Paul”, “I follow Peter”, “I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:4).

But greater tensions were to come when Constantinople and Rome operated independently as the East and West of the Empire. Roman Catholic scholars tend to regard this as a lamentable departure from what Jesus intended. Another way to view it is as a logical and eminently practical extension, pointing towards geographically autonomous apostolic circuits with their own senior and junior apostles, appointing their own ministers.

A chart of the supposed apostolic succession of the bishops of Glastonbury, UK

While many Protestant scholars see succession as only in the ministry of the word, the principle of apostolic succession marries the word to the witness. It carries the extra stamp of anointed humanity in the person of a duly commissioned man. There are two extremes to avoid here, as later church history has shown: at one end the placing of God’s word on so high a pedestal that human vessels count for nothing, and at the other the “anointed vessel” whose life might not match the claim.

Historically, the crunch came when Gnosticism in its various forms championed a free and speculative interpretation of God’s word. For a time, referral to a recognised apostolic man was sufficient for “the sure word as taught” to be established (Titus 1:9), but with the passing years, this no longer sufficed. It became necessary to have fixed points for the testimony of truth, and these were found in the so-called apostolic sees, that is, in those places where the apostles had been active. The focus moved from the truly apostolic (anointed, commissioned men known to the churches and trusted by them) to places and systems. These became the schools of training. Local churches no longer had a relationship with a trusted apostle. The apostolic place now commissioned its senior bishops, increasingly with a trouble-shooting role.

The fact that, in Roman Catholic and Orthodox denominations, apostolic succession based on the supposed sanctity of particular places has continued to this day, has something to say to us. The church hasn’t died! This shows either a disturbing ignorance or an amazing trust on the part of rank-and-file church members, who are content to receive whoever is sent to them as being God’s choice for them, just because “that’s how it’s done”. And indeed, it works – at least for maintenance, if not for mission or movement.

Postscript

Responding to my first posting of this piece, Paul F Pavao (via Facebook) offered some further considerations, which I gratefully reproduce here.

‘Tertullian argued that the fact that all these separate churches have preserved the same truth is part of the power of the argument because “Error of doctrine in the churches must necessarily have produced various issues.” Prescription Against Heretics ch. 28

Today, the churches, even the Catholic and various Orthodox churches do have various issues. They have officially split over these issues. The Church of the East and the Coptic Church have been excommunicated since the fifth century. By Tertullian’s argument error has crept in.

So, when you say “this was believed to guarantee the continuity and faithfulness of the Church,” I agree that at the end of the second century, when Irenaeus and Tertullian wrote, and even into the late third century, apostolic succession had successfully guaranteed the faithfulness of the Church. Afterward, though …’

 

 

Succession and Commissioning to Leadership in the Early Church

Leadership succession has been a big issue in churches and ‘streams’ for some years now. The appointment of relative outsiders to be the new Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury show that the Roman Catholic and Anglican denominations are concerned to have the right person at the helm for a new generation of the Church. Both seem to be making good headway and generating respect.

The many “new churches” that sprang up in the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 70s are having to face the issues too. Their leaders are now in their seventies at least. Having turned away from traditional ordination, what models are there for succession? Does any one seem more fruitful than others? When should a senior pastor initiate the process?

I was asked by my own church to research succession and the process of transition in churches in history.  Over the next posts I’ll look at some of the issues, with examples that I found helpful. Logic suggests we start at the beginning, with succession in the Early Church.

The earliest church communities had been founded by itinerant apostles and their teams. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that, when a need arose, suitably qualified men would be considered before God by the governing corpus of apostles, with prayer and fasting [Acts 13:1-3]. On one occasion we find the drawing of lots [Acts 1:21-26. The apostle’s (or apostles’) selection was ratified by the assembly of the local church, leading to commissioning. There is, however, little practical documentation of how prospective successors and key leaders were trained.

Traditional ordination to the priesthood

Anglican ordination to the priesthood

With time, the cultural contexts in which those churches were planted produced a variety of patterns for local leadership, some informed by Jewish models, others by Greco-Roman society. By the end of the 1st century, the pattern that emerged was a threefold, “cascade” structure:

(1) A single pastor-bishop, elected by each community and commissioned by a senior apostolic bishop. He presided over all aspects of the congregation’s life and worship. According to Hippolytus’s ‘Apostolic Traditions’, an episkopos, or senior bishop, should be at least 50 years of age. He was empowered to commission and ordain the second tier, namely:

(2) A shared ministry of leaders known as presbyters / priests / elders, elected by the local church-community, who oversaw the life of the church-community under the leadership of the bishop. These were empowered to commission and ordain the third tier, namely:

(3) Service-oriented ministers, called deacons, who assisted the bishop and the presbyter-elders in both ministry and worship [Acts 6:1-7].

In the first generations of the church, each man in tier 1 was expected to find, train and commission men into tier 2. In time, however, training became more a matter of schools; candidates were sent away from churches to be trained as leaders, rather than being trained within them.

Men in tier 2 were expected to find, train and commission both men and women to serve as deacons.

It is sometimes argued that the Didache (or ‘Teaching of the Twelve Apostles’), dated by most scholars to the late 1st century, disproves such a ‘cascade’. Chapter 15 contains the words: Therefore appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are humble and not avaricious and true and approved, for they too carry out for you the ministry of the prophets and teachers. Some observers see in the words “for yourselves” a more democratic, grass-roots process than a monarchical one. However, the Didache may simply be describing the process we find in Acts 6, where the Jerusalem congregation was told to put forward suitable and respected candidates, whom the apostles then commissioned by the laying on of hands. For further discussion of the Didache on leadership, follow this link.

Sources:

The Ordained Ministry in the Lutheran and the Roman Catholic Church, chapter ‘Ministry in the Second Christian Century, 90 – 210 AD’, which includes a detailed look at Hippolytus’s Didascalia (‘Apostolic Traditions’).

Thomas M. Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries.

Since posting this, I have received some helpful insights and comments from David Valentine, via the ‘Patristics for Protestants’ Facebook page. He has kindly given his permission to reproduce them here.

On the tier 1 bishops, for example, the evidence for such mono-episcopacy is far thinner than this article would suggest. As the big promoter of this model, Ignatius of Antioch appears to be the exception rather than the norm – and even he is not inside the first century, as the article implies. The evidence of Clement of Rome, Hermas, Justin and every Roman source (before we even reach non literary evidence such as archaeology) is of a more collegiate, team-based leadership, at least in the imperial capital, until near the end of the second century, when Irenaeus starts providing bishop lists that lack any corroborating evidence in the surviving literature before his time. He may be publishing something accurate, but we lack the evidence to check this and everything else says no, at least for Rome. In Alexandria, working back from Origen’s time (only decades after Irenaeus, and less after Hippolytus) the same pattern seems to be repeated as with Rome: teams of presbyters working together, with a fairly sudden appearance of mono-episcopacy in the first half of the third century, even later than Rome. Smaller cities may have had single leaders earlier, but in the case of Antioch alone (a big city) we have this strong tier 1 model.

Some excellent Anglican studies have suggested that the role of ‘bishop’ was simply that of the relatively rich householders who hosted meetings. It was only good manners that the hosts should preside, unless an apostle or prophet (according to Didache) was present; but this was not simply intended to perpetuate the existing social structure within the Church for all time.

I agree with your observation that the apostles tended to let local churches sort themselves out and be as autonomous as possible, with exceptions as the apostles discerned the need for more direction. Clement of Rome does point to an ongoing respect for the appointments of the apostles, but he can be placed as early as AD 68 – contemporary with the last canonical literature – rather than the ’90’s.

Having waded and brooded for some years on these things, I remain sceptical about what happened after the apostles. We just don’t know if there was a scheme of succession and how it worked. Paul’s own trajectory could even have set a precedent for charismatic leadership appointed in each generation by God. If the Lord could simply leapfrog the Twelve and start a new stream with a fresh appointment, then Paul’s model of seeking ‘the right hand of fellowship’ to ensure continuity while starting a whole new apostolic stream, could have been perpetuated after him, as it has throughout church history. Wesley, for example, sidestepped Anglican tradition and initiated his own ‘apostolic stream’ by ordaining ministers, and this fresh stream has continued through Methodism and Pentecostalism. Perhaps Paul is the real precedent here.

Self-Denial “to the Max”? The Extreme Holiness of 5th Century Mystic, Simeon Stylites

An early sandstone relief of Simeon being brought food

An early sandstone relief of Simeon being brought food

If you think about it, being “extreme” is a very fluid concept, having a lot to do with local, cultural and temporal factors. As someone has said: “A fanatic is someone who loves Jesus more than you do.” So, for 21st century Western minds, the idea of hair shirts, heavy penances and dangerous levels of self-denial seems weird and wholly unnecessary. Yet in a more Eastern context, and in the 5th century, such ‘extreme holiness’ was not only accepted, but praised.

One who took it to new heights (literally, see below) was Simeon Stylites (sty-ly-tees). Born c. 388 in what is now Kozan, Turkey, he showed great hunger for God as a child, and at 16 entered a monastery. However, his superiors found his asceticism so intense and exaggerated that they asked him to leave. So Simeon found a hut and lived there as a hermit, fasting for weeks at a time. Then he moved to a rocky outcrop on a mountain. Local people, seeing him as a holy man, brought him food. As his fame spread, people came from further afield seeking counsel and prayer.

This led Simeon to the decision for which he is remembered today (and for which he qualifies as one of God’s oddballs). In order to get away from distraction and celebrity, he found a pillar in an old ruin, about 9 feet (3m) high and constructed a platform on top of it. This became his home, but also a powerful visual symbol: unable to be separate from the world horizontally, he was doing so vertically!

The base of Simeon's pillar at Qal'a Sim'an, now with a boulder on it

The base of Simeon’s pillar at Qal’a Sim’an, now with a boulder on it

As crowds and sightseers increased, Simeon simply found a higher pillar, his final dwelling being one  c. 50 feet (16m) high at Afrin, 60 miles from Aleppo in Syria. His living-platform had a baluster around it and Simeon wore a chain, partly for self-abnegation, partly for health and safety! Wellwishers used a ladder to bring him food and milk. Some climbed up for a word of wisdom or prophecy from the holy man. The bishop of Antioch came and celebrated Communion with Simeon on the platform. Theodosius II, emperor of Byzantium, came to consult with Simeon. And certain clerics, jealous of his fame, challenged him to come down from his pillar as proof of his humility. As he began to climb down, they relented and let him stay.

Simeon’s platform being only 3 feet (1m) or so in diameter, he developed an unusual way of praying. He bowed until his head almost touched his knees, then straightened again. One onlooker records counting Simeon doing this 1,244 times in one session, at which point the counter gave up, exhausted. And when Simeon died, in September 459, after 37 years on his pillar, his body was found bent double in this posture of prayer. Simeon was buried at Antioch with great ceremony, while back in the wilderness, his disciples continued pillar-dwelling for another generation. In time, a great cathedral was built around the pillar itself, the ruins of which can be seen today.

Antony of Egypt: the Desert as a Statement

Image: artmajeur.com

Image: artmajeur.com

Antony of Egypt was a true pioneer, whose influence is still felt today. What makes him so remarkable is that he did what he did long before it made sense to do such things, but by doing it he blazed a trail for posterity.

Evangelical Protestant historians explain the migration to the desert by thousands of monks, nuns and hermits as a reaction against the political “Christendom” created by Constantine I and his successors in the 4th century. Yet Antony had already made his statement a generation earlier, at a time when the Early Church was still supposed to be in its bloom.

Born in Egypt about AD 251, his parents died when he was young, leaving him a small fortune. One day he heard a Christian quote Jesus’ words: If you would be perfect, go sell all you have, give to the poor, and come follow Me (Matthew 19:21). They cut him like a knife. He sold his estate and became the disciple of a godly priest.

Yet his heart grew restless. He didn’t belong to the world he saw around him. He felt a strong pull to the desert beyond the Nile. Here hot and cold, flood and drought engaged men in a daily, physical battle for life itself. To Antony, this mirrored the human soul in its battle between flesh and spirit, love for God and love of self. Here too was a pioneering adventure, where only the real would make it.

So Antony went to live alone in the desert. Friends sent food every few days; all else depended on his survival skills. His experiences were later dictated to a follower – and what reading they make! He fought boredom and guilt, sexual temptations and hunger for possessions. He gives graphic accounts of battles with demons, but also of sweet times of communion with Jesus. He also learned the importance of manual work for focusing the mind; he wove reed baskets and sold them in town.

Remains of monastic settlements

His reputation spread and men came to the desert to be near him. Reluctantly, in AD 305, he left his solitude and spent six years drawing these disciples into a community of hermits. In time, some 5,000 were under his authority. They lived alone or in pairs in the week, then came together on Sundays for worship, fellowship and mutual support. He taught them the foundational principles that he had based his own life on: love, patience, celibacy, gentleness and humility. Hate all peace that comes from the flesh, he taught. Gain your brother, and you have gained God. Offend your brother, and you sin against Christ.

Antony was well aware of the prophetic power of his act of renunciation of ‘normality’. A time is coming when men will go mad, he is recorded as saying, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, “You are mad, you are not like us.”

A monastery built in the vicinity of Antony’s original community still exists and is a popular tourist destination. But Antony himself found celebrity unpalatable and withdrew deeper into the desert, where he lived to be over 100. He appeared only twice: to strengthen persecuted brethren in Alexandria, and to counter a dangerous heresy. His burial place was kept secret, since he feared men’s idolatry. Today, Antony is acknowledged as the founding ‘Desert Father’ (though Paul of Thebes was the first hermit); the man who broke the mould and let passion for Jesus create a new, living ‘wineskin’ (Matthew 9:17) for the Holy Spirit’s life.

Peter and the Sorcerer – a 4th Century Christian Novel?

At the west door of Peterborough Cathedral, in England, the visitor is greeted by this graphic medieval pillar base. It depicts St Peter conquering the magician, Simon Magus, who had offered Peter money if he would empower him to transmit the Holy Spirit like the apostle did (Acts 8:9-24). From here we get the sin of “simony” (the buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges). The strategic placement of such a sculpture at Peterborough was a statement: as you enter these holy precincts, abandon all thought of selfish human gain.

But why is Simon represented in the sculpture as being cast head first into hell? This does not come from the New Testament account but from the pages of an Early Church work that I am inclined to call “the first Christian novel”.

A definition of a novel today is “a fictional prose narrative of considerable length, typically having a plot that is unfolded by the actions, speech, and thoughts of the characters” (Free Dictionary). It may be entirely fictitious or based on a true story. That being so, a question arises: could there be a novel from Early Church times? It sounds fanciful, but there is indeed a curious 4th century Christian text that ticks most of these boxes – at least in a rudimentary form.

Centuries ago, scholars gave it the off-putting name Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions. Today, we might call it Peter and the Sorcerer: the Showdown, and people might read it. Because that’s what it is. It takes the characters of Simon Magus, the sorceror in Acts 8:9-24, and the Apostle Peter, and constructs an imaginary disputation between them over several days. That much is standard Early Church fare.

There is another story line, though: how Peter’s disciple Clement is reunited with his scattered family. On the shores of the island of Aradus, Peter encounters a beggar woman, who has lost the use of her hands. After evading his questions at first, a recognition (hence the title) takes place: the woman is Clement’s long-lost mother. They are reunited and Peter heals her of her ailment. The party travels to Laodicea, where two men with new names (given by the church) turn out to be Clement’s brothers, whom he supposed to be dead.

Mediaeval depiction of a debate between theologians

Mediaeval depiction of a disputation between theologians

To this day, scholarly opinion is divided on the Recognitions, but some things are clear. It was penned in Syria around AD 350 and reworks some other known material called the Clementine Homilies, removing bits that had been condemned as heretical. It was written in Greek but we have it only in the Latin translation by Rufinus. However, there is ample evidence that it draws on much earlier material, in all likelihood from the early Jewish Christian camp. Some experts link it to the group known as Ebionites.

You can read the full text of the Recognitions via this link. Don’t expect a gripping read, though: much of the material is theological and the translation is into very stilted English.

 

Worship and Musical Instruments in the Church: the First Millennium

Eusebius was a 4th century bishop of Caesarea who wrote a history of early Christianity based on a number of sources, some of which no longer exist. He quotes Philo, a 1st century Jewish historian, who made mention of Christian all-night vigils and the hymns which they recite and how, while one man sings in regular rhythm, the others listen and join in the refrain.

The phrase “hymns which they recite” is particularly interesting. The pagan official Pliny (see my last post) uses the same Latin phrase, carmen dicere. Does this suggest that hymns were spoken rather than sung? Philo suggests that singing happened but still uses “recite”. Historian Ralph Martin has studied this phrase in a number of historical contexts and you can find his article here.

We could usefully bring in Augustine of Hippo here, who in the 4th century described church singing in Alexandria as more like speaking than singing. Augustine himself, incidentally, was in favour of liberated praise and wrote some beautiful lines in praise of dancing (though with no mention of instruments).

 

Ancient Greek worship of Bacchus with tambourines Image: artship.org

Ancient Greek worship of Bacchus with tambourines    Image: artship.org

Perhaps there was a specific reason for the general mistrust of musical accompaniment. In those days, pipe, harp and drum were intimately linked to the pagan cults, e.g. of Pan, with their sensuous worship and often shameless revelries. Christians, mindful of the apostolic direction that everything should be done decently and in order [1 Corinthians 14:40], avoided musical instruments. Jerome, also 4th century, wrote that a Christian maiden ought not even to know what a flute is, or what it is used for.

Liturgy (an order of service with fixed elements) came in early to Christian worship. There is possible evidence of a ‘Jerusalem’ liturgy, instituted by the Apostle James, and an ‘Alexandrian’ liturgy attributed by some to Paul’s fellow-labourer John Mark. Singing was a key element, but in the stylised manner of Jewish psalmody and response singing. As John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople, put it: David formerly sang in psalms, and we also sing today with him. He had a lyre with lifeless strings; the Church has a lyre with living strings. Our tongues are the strings of the lyre, with a different tone, certainly, but with a more seemly piety.

f5112-b-bruggs-d7-99r-kyriepaschale

One of the reasons why music did not take a central place in early Christian worship is that the central element of their meetings was the sharing of the bread and wine, the Communion or Eucharist, whether in the context of a church service or in the agapë, the ‘love meal’ in homes. Ignatius, who was made bishop of Antioch in AD 67, when a number of the Apostles were still alive and active, describes the Christian church as “a Eucharistic community” which realised its true nature when it celebrated Communion.

In turn, this emphasis might be due to the belief among first generation Christians that the sharing of the bread and wine was to be done “until Jesus returns”, which they believed would be soon, perhaps in their own lifetime. When this did not materialise, a Christian liturgy for worship began to develop, described for us by early apologists like Justin Martyr and Hippolytus. It involved greeting, reading from scripture, responsive (antiphonal) singing, baptisms, a sermon, prayers, the offertory, the communion and a blessing. Here is an extract from Justin, c. AD 150:

‘On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.’

The first hymn with actual musical notation which we possess, the “Oxyrhynchus hymn“, is from the 3rd century. At the same point, the Apostolic Tradition, attributed to the theologian Hippolytus, shows that the singing of psalms with Alleluia as the refrain was a feature of early Christian agape feasts.

Image: disciplemagazine.com

Image: disciplemagazine.com

It wasn’t until around 375 that antiphonal singing of psalms became popular in the Christian East; in 386, Ambrose of Milan introduced this practice to the West. Around 410, Augustine of Hippo described the responsive singing of a psalm at Mass. Sources are few and inconclusive regarding how Christian chant / song developed, but we do know that by 678, Western (Roman) chant was being taught at York. Distinctive regional traditions of Western plainsong (or plain chant) arose during this period, notably in the British Isles (Celtic chant), Spain (Mozarabic), Gaul (Gallican), and Italy (Old Roman and Ambrosian). It used a musical stave of four lines, not the five used today.

We can safely say that by this stage, sung worship was an established part of Christian services, albeit without instruments. For the arrival of the earliest church organs we must wait until the mid-11th century.

 

 

 

Roman Governor Pliny the Younger on Early Christian Hymn Singing

The Roman official Pliny the Younger held office as governor of the province of Pontus and Bithynia in Asia Minor for a period of fifteen months or so in AD 111-112. During that time he corresponded with the emperor Trajan about how to enforce legislation against the Christians. He relates information about Christian practices which he had received from certain Christian renegades.

They were in the habit of meeting before dawn on a stated day and singing alternately a hymn to Christ as to a god, and that they bound themselves by an oath…that they would abstain from theft and robbery and adultery, that they would not break their word, and that they would not withhold a deposit when reclaimed. This done, it was their practice, so they said, to separate, and then to meet together again for a meal, which however was of the ordinary kind and quite harmless.

The reference to “singing hymns to Christ” shows that the Christians were singing more than texts from the Psalms. And we have examples. A gospel fragment of uncertain date, known as the Strasbourg Coptic Papyrus 1900, contains this:

Through whom will the last enemy be destroyed?
Through Christ. Amen.
Through whom is the sting of death destroyed?
Through the Only Begotten. Amen.
To whom belongs the rulership?
It belongs to the Son. Amen.
Through whom has everything come into being?
Through the Firstborn. Amen.

Here is the ‘statement and response’ singing familiar from Jewish worship using the Psalms, but now with overtly Christian text.

A Jewish cantor, the model for response singing

A Jewish cantor, the model for response singing

Biblical scholars generally agree that certain passages of the New Testament are likely renditions of early Christian hymns. They cite various textual criteria, for example that the passage exhibits rhythmical patterns and careful structure, contains vocabulary different from the surrounding context, and to some extent interrupts the context. It is common to refer to these passages as Canticles.

The classic examples have all passed into church liturgy: the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55), the “Benedictus” (Luke 1:68-75) and the “Nunc Dimittis” (Luke 2:29-32). But there are others, such as Ephesians 5:14, which some hold to have been a credal statement for baptism, and 1 Timothy 3:16:

He was manifest in flesh,
justified in spirit,
visible to angels,
preached among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up into glory.

Poetic refrains and doxologies are another feature inherited by Christian hymnody from Jewish liturgical singing:

For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever (Rom. 11:36),
Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end (Eph. 3:21),
Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever (1 Tim. 1:17).

For further examples, see Ruth Ellis Messenger’s Christian Hymns of the First Three Centuries (available courtesy of Project Gutenberg).

 

 

Early Christian Hymn Singing – the Jewish Roots

The 1st century traveller and writer, Philo, describes the singing of the Therapeutae, a contemplative sect of the Jewish diaspora based around Alexandria.

“They rise up together and … form themselves into two choirs, one of men and one of women, the leader chosen from each being the most honoured and most musical among them. They sing hymns to God composed of many measures and set to many melodies, sometimes chanting together, sometimes antiphonally.”

Jewish liturgical singing took two forms: antiphonal and responsorial. The first is what Philo is describing: the division of singers into two groups in such a way that they are separated from each other; for example, to the right and left sides of the central aisle in the building. They then sing alternate parts, one side starting, the other responding.

This has continued in Christian worship ever since, not so much in congregational worship, but rather by the choir. Many a well-loved anthem has the two parts marked decani and cantores, indicating that, in the past, a group of church deacons would have sung one part, and a group of chosen cantors (singers) the other.

Responsorial singing is similar, involving the priest or a perhaps a solo cantor singing an opening line and the congregation in unison singing the reply. Anyone who has been to a traditional sung service, for example in the Anglican church, will be familiar with this.

Priest: O Lord, open thou our lips.
Answer: And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.
Priest: O God, make speed to save us.
Answer: O Lord, make haste to help us.
Priest: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
Answer: As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

The choir at York Minster, UK, with decani on the left and cantores on the right

A choir at York Minster, UK, with decani on the left and cantores on the right

The Old Testament book of Psalms really came into its own here, as not only did it allow the congregation to take God’s word directly on its lips, but also the very verse form made for successful breaking down into statement and response (as in the above example). Even where it didn’t, a congregational reply of “Alleluia” or “We bless Thy name, O Lord” did just as well. Tertullian, at the end of the 2nd century, refers to response singing of psalms in the church at Rome.

One thing that surprises me with early Christian worship is that singing praises does not appear in the list of things the first believers devoted themselves to in Acts 2:42, namely the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread, fellowship, and prayers. The First Apology of Justin Martyr, dated c.155, describes a Christian worship service. The emphasis is on ritual (baptism / ablution and Holy Communion), not singing.

This all seems oddly at variance with the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to address one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord [Ephesians 5:19]. A very musical response indeed! The context is primarily the believer’s personal devotional life. But not exclusively: “addressing one another” can only mean a context of corporate worship.

We know that Jesus and the Twelve, before they went out to the Mount of Olives, sang a hymn [Mark 14:26]. But what, and how? Many Biblical scholars believe it would have been one of the so-called Hallel series in the Book of Psalms, consisting of Psalms 113 – 118. It was common practice among the Jews to chant these holy songs at the Passover table. Did they sing it responsively, their ‘Rabbi’ leading and the disciples responding? We shall never know for sure.

Why Sing Hymns? Insights From Some Early Church Fathers

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A subject that fascinates me is Christian hymns. In many Western churches today they have largely been supplanted by choruses. Yet there has been a price to pay.

In the introduction to his Exposition of the Psalms of David, the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote this about hymn singing: A hymn is the praise of God with song; a song is the exultation of the mind dwelling on eternal things, bursting forth in the voice.

It would seem that, for the first Christian centuries, believers sang their hymns without stopping to analyse the process. One of the first who did was John Chrysostom (347-407). In his ‘Exposition on Psalm 41’, he points out that music is an integral part of the human condition: To such an extent, indeed, is our nature delighted by chants and songs that even infants at the breast, if they be weeping or afflicted, are by reason of it lulled to sleep.

Mixing this innate sense of music with the power of words is, Chrysostom continues, a powerful vehicle, affecting the intellect and spiritual standing of the singer.

When God saw that the majority of men were slothful and that they approached spiritual reading with reluctance and submitted to the effort involved without pleasure – wishing to make the task more agreeable and to relieve the sense of laboriousness – He mixed melody with prophecy, so that, enticed by the rhythm and melody, all might raise sacred hymns to Him with great eagerness. For nothing so arouses the soul, gives it wings, sets it free from earth, releases it from the prison of the body, teaches it to love wisdom, and to condemn all the things of this life, as concordant melody and sacred song composed in rhythm.

In words very relevant to today’s i-pod culture, Chrysostom warns that there are bad words and bad music too, and these can similarly affect the human soul. “Those things that are lascivious and vicious in all songs settle in parts of the mind, making it softer and weaker.” That is why, he maintains, the devil is keen to fill the mind with dirty things through music.

From the spiritual hymns, however, proceeds much of value, much utility and sanctity, for the words purify the mind and the Holy Spirit descends swiftly upon the mind of the singer. For those who sing with understanding invoke the grace of the Spirit.

 

d490b-notescolor1Another early Church father who understood the ‘why’ of hymn-singing was Basil of Caesarea (†379). In his Discourse on Psalm 1, he writes:

The Spirit mixed sweetness of melody with doctrine so that inadvertently we would absorb the benefit of the words through gentleness and ease of hearing. O the wise invention of the teacher who contrives that in our singing we learn what is profitable, and that thereby doctrine is somehow more deeply impressed upon our souls.

The first Christians understood the need to confess spiritual truth aloud: not just to ‘believe in your heart’, but also to ‘confess with your lips’ [Romans 10:9]. Or in Basil’s words, to impress doctrine more deeply on their souls. For this they had a clear and obvious model: the Jews. At first, Christianity was a Jewish sect. The early Christians continued to worship at the Temple and to attend synagogues. It was therefore inevitable that Jewish methods of performing music were incorporated into Christian worship.

In particular, the church continued to use the book of Psalms. Basil again:

Now the prophets teach certain things, the historians and the Law teach other, and Proverbs provides still a different sort of advice, but the Book of Psalms encompasses the benefit of them all. It foretells what is to come and memorialises history; it legislates for life, gives advice on practical matters, and serves in general as a repository of good teachings.

In other words, if it is important to confess God’s truth aloud, then how better than to sing scripture. Not only is there no risk of emotionalism or error, but also the addition of music aids the memorising of the words.

To be continued…

 

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