Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Doctrine and Liturgy of the Early Church

Reading N°6 in the History of the Catholic Church

Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

We can distinguish with clearness and precision the three chief dogmas that emerged from the faith in the early period of the history of the Church: the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the Redemption.

3rd century depiction of Christ, Alpha and Omega
Catacomb of Commodilla
From the very first, the faithful believed firmly in the Incarnation of the Son of God. "The declarations of St. Paul and St. John [...] only expanded the common belief, which, though at that time still wanting in power of expression, was deep and unyielding. [...] The essence of this belief was in the souls of Christians from the first. [...] The early Christian books all take this fundamental belief for granted, as universally accepted and firmly rooted in tradition."[1]

Belief in the dogma of the Trinity is equally clear. "To admit that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are God, is to admit that they participate in the very essence of the One God, that they are, each of them, identical with Him, yet without being deprived of certain special characteristics. This is the Christian doctrine of the Trinity; not certainly, as it was formulated later, in opposition to transient heresies, but as it appealed to the general conscience of the early Christians, and claimed the homage of their faith. The generality of Christians in the first century, even in Apostolic days, stood here almost exactly at the same point as present-day Christians."[2] "But Jesus is not only the Messias and the Son of God, He is also the Savior. [...] He is their Redeemer, and it is by His death on the Cross that He has won His rights over them. We must not think that this conception, upon which St. Paul insists so often and so strongly, is merely the result of his own personal reflections. [...] St. Paul tells us[3] that, finding himself at Jerusalem after his first mission, he communicated to the leaders of the Church, to Peter, James, and John, as well as to the others, the gospel which he had taught the Gentiles, in order, he says, not to 'run in vain.' [...] As his statement was not disputed, we must conclude that the redeeming efficacy of the Lord's death was from that time acknowledged by the Apostles."[4]

It is, then, true to say that, although Christianity has its roots in the Jewish tradition, from the very first days it passes beyond that tradition and is distinguished from it, like a powerful shoot animated by a new sap. It keeps the sacred books of the Old Testament in order to clarify and supplement them in the light of a faith proper to itself. And this faith rests neither upon a collective mystical inspiration nor upon a purely internal illumination of each individual, but upon a solid teaching that constitutes the Apostles' message, which they communicate and impose with authority on every member of the Christian community. It is Tradition, the Paradosis or Teaching of the Apostles, the Didache tôn apostólôn.[5] This rule of faith is based, in the last analysis, on the divine authority of Jesus. He is the Christ; He is the Lord. As Christ, He is the realization of Israel's Messianic hope; as Lord, He is the Voice, the very Word of the heavenly Father, who declared Him to be such on the day of His first manifestation: "This is My beloved Son; hear Him."[6]

The autonomy of the Christian Church showed itself also in its ceremonies. "The Acts of the Apostles distinctly acquaints us with three of these rites: Baptism, imposition of hands, breaking of bread. Even if we suppose, as has been somewhat gratuitously asserted at times, that these three ceremonies were in use in Israel already before the time of Christ, they were practiced in the Christian community according to the very special manner taught by the Apostles and with a specifically Christian meaning. It was a Baptism 'in the name of the Lord Jesus'; it was an imposition of hands 'to confer the Holy Ghost'; it was the breaking of bread 'renewing the mystery of the Last Supper'."[7]

3rd century depiction of Baptism
Catacomb of Ss Marcellinus and Peter
In the first place, we see that no one can be admitted to the community without going through a ceremony of initiation; it is a liturgical ablution, the Baptism of water. Even if the candidate were already favored with a direct effusion of the Holy Ghost, he is not dispensed from the sacramental rite. After the example of the Divine Master, who willed to receive a similar initiation from the Precursor, the catechumen goes down into a stream of water, as did the eunuch of Queen Candace,[8] or the water is poured upon his head, as must have been the case when the Apostle St. Paul received Baptism at the hands of Ananias[9] and when St. Paul himself baptized his jailer in prison.[10] This rite signifies death to profane life and birth in a new life that will incorporate the candidate with Christ by making him a member of the Church. St. Paul speaks of the burial accomplished by baptism;[11] and tradition has always referred to the baptismal rite the words of Jesus to Nicodemus, when He spoke to him about the necessity of being born again. So the Church requires of the neophyte the fulfilment of two preliminary conditions: repentance and faith. On Pentecost, Peter said: "Do penance, and be baptized."[12] To the eunuch of Queen Candace, Philip the deacon said: "If thou believest with all thy heart, thou mayest" be baptized.[13] When all these conditions are fulfilled, the neophyte, putting off the old man, sees the new man born in him, with the inner grace and the indelible character of the Christian. Henceforth he belongs to a race of "saints";[14] he can say that he is of a "kingly priesthood,"[15] and even of "the offspring of God."[16]

Thus the Apostles sought to make the unique and transcendent character of Christian Baptism stand out. They contrasted it with the baptism of John and were wont to call it "the Baptism of Jesus."[17] So great was their insistence on this point that some writers have questioned whether the primitive formula of Baptism was not: "I baptize you in the name of Jesus."[18] This opinion must be rejected; the Apostles' insistence on the use of such expressions is sufficiently explained by their desire to indicate clearly the distinctive character of Christian Baptism.

The imposition of hands perfects the special quality of the Christian by conferring upon him the Holy Ghost. In Samaria, Peter and John met some of the inhabitants who had been converted and baptized by Philip the deacon, and imposed hands on them to confer the Holy Ghost.[19] St. Paul, when he found some disciples of John the Baptist, first baptized them, and then imposed hands on them.[20] Theologians consider this ceremony to be the Sacrament of Confirmation. In the Apostolic age, marvelous signs, often called charismata, accompanied the outpouring of the Holy Ghost.

The Spirit speaks by the mouth of the newly confirmed; the Spirit prophesies the future; the Spirit gives them commands, raises their arms, enlightens their view; the Spirit manifests Himself in visions, ecstasies, prayers, and devout hymns. The Spirit pours Himself out in strange and at times inexplicable gifts, like the gift of tongues.[21] The Epistle to the Hebrews appeals to God's testimony to His Church "by  signs and wonders and divers miracles, and distributions of the Holy Ghost, according to His own will."[22] We are here in the presence of those mystical gifts which, by their essential quality, are above all the endeavors and efforts of man[23] and depend solely upon God's good pleasure. We know that the rule to be followed by those whom God favors with such states is to subordinate all these extraordinary ways to the authority of the Church.[24] We might also remark that the gifts bestowed by the Holy Ghost upon the early Christians do not differ essentially from those which God later gave to His great mystics, such as Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, and Teresa of Jesus, and that the Church since then has never met with such frequent and extraordinary graces. Those mystical gifts lasted but a short time in the Apostolic age and were subordinated to two principles: the faith authentically received, and common edification.[25] St. Paul writes: "Though an angel from heaven preach a gospel to you besides that which we preached to you, let him be anathema. [...] If any seem to be a prophet or spiritual, let him know the things that I write to you, that they are the commandments of the Lord."[26] So far as we are able to conjecture, the sole purpose of God in lavishing such abundant and striking gifts upon His Church was to signify plainly that a new society had come into being, marked with the seal of truth and manifestly aided by the Divine Spirit.

3rd century depiction of the Eucharist
Catacomb of San Callisto
But we have not yet penetrated into the most sacred sanctuary of the infant Church. When towards evening groups of disciples were "breaking bread from house to house," and "persevering in prayer,"[27] they knew they were performing the most solemn and touching ceremony of their religion. When celebrating the Last Supper with His disciples, Jesus had commanded them to renew the memory of it. They were faithful to this command. Their rite had nothing in common with those fraternal agapes in use among the members of the various societies and corporations in the Greco-Roman world. The meals of charity, or Christian agapes, were not introduced into the Church until later on. The religious meal of which we are here speaking was simply the commemoration of the one which the Savior took with His disciples the day before His death. The change made by Jesus in the celebration of the Jewish Pasch divided it into two distinct parts, the first being merely a preparation for the second. From that first part, the disciples of Christ kept, not the symbolic food courses, which they replaced by others, but only the prayer formulas. It was concerning this first common meal, to which each one brought his share, that St. Paul refers when he directs that the rich wait for the arrival of the poor, so that there may not be the scandal of some eating abundantly and others have nothing to eat.[28]

At the close of this meal the celebration of the Eucharist, properly so called, began.[29] By Baptism, the Christian felt that he was incorporated in the mystical person of Christ surviving in the Church; by Confirmation, his soul was penetrated by the action of the Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier. In the Eucharist, it is Jesus Himself, present under the species of bread and wine, who is united with the Christian in the closest manner. The new convert felt himself, in a way, the equal of the disciple who rested on the breast of the beloved Savior. Unspeakable mystery! It appeared so great, it so reached the inmost fibers of the heart, that it was not spoken of in the presence of the profane. Instinctively, by a common accord, the early Christians observed this law of the "secret," which safeguarded their worship from sacrilegious profanations and indiscreet curiosity.[30] Further, "in this mystery, the Church would find an indelible line of demarcation, separating her from Mosaism. Whether or not the disciples felt this from the very first, the Cross arose more and more inexorably between them and the Jews, casting the latter behind and ordering the Christians to advance. Jesus' death was the crime of the Jews and the salvation of the Christians. [...] It was the Cross that destroyed the Synagogue and built up the Church, and its living and efficacious memorial is nothing other than the Eucharist."[31]

Encased wooden altar used by Pope St. Peter at Rome
St. John Lateran Basilica


[1] Duchesne, Early History of the Christian Church, I, p. 31.
[2] Ibidem, p. 32.
[3] Gal. 2:1 f.
[4] Duchesne, op. cit., p. 32.
[5] Acts 2:42.
[6] Matt. 3:17, Luke 9:35. On Tradition as the rule of faith in the early Church, see Batiffol, Primitive Catholicism.
[7] Yves de la Brière, art. "Eglise" in the Dict. apol. de la foi catholique, I, 1252.
[8] Acts 8:26-38; 10:44-48; 11:15-17- It would seem that, at the beginning, Baptism was habitually administered by immersion, only occasionally by pouring. (Cf. Vacant's Dict. de théol., II, 171.)
[9] Acts 9:18.
[10] Acts 16:33.
[11] Rom. 6:4.
[12] Acts 2:38.
[13] Acts 8:37.
[14] Rom. 15:26.
[15] Cf. 1 Pet. 2:9.
[16] Acts 17:28.
[17] Acts 2:38; 8:12; 10:48; 19:5.
[18] V.g. Peter Lombard and Cajetan. St. Thomas (Summa theol., III, q. 66, art. 6, ad I) restricts the validity of this formula to the first century, and thinks that the Apostles made use of a special dispensation in substituting it for the ordinary formula.
[19] Acts 8:12-18.
[20] Acts 19:1-6.
[21] For the theologians' explanations and those of the Rationalists, see Prat, La Théologie de saint Paul, I, 175-184; Lesêtre, art. "Langues" in the Dict. de la Bible, IV, 74-81.
[22] Heb. 2:3 f.
[23] St. Teresa, Way of Perfection, ch. 32.
[24] St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Carmel, bk. 2, ch. 30.
[25] Batiffol, Primitive Catholicism, pp. 28 f.
[26] Gal. 1:8; 1 Cor. 14:37.
[27] Acts 2:42-46. Cf. 1 Cor. 10:16-21; 11:23 ff.
[28] On the Eucharist and the agape among the early Christians, see Batiffol, Études d'histoire et de théologie positive, 1st ser., pp. 283-325; Funk, "Agape" in the Revue d'hist. ecclés., 1903; Leclercq, art. "Agape" in the Dict. de théol.
[29] We may see in our present beginning of the Mass the continuation of this portion of the primitive rite.
[30] The disciplina arcani was not a legislative measure of ecclesiastical authority, as was long supposed, but a simple custom. There was no hesitation in departing from it whenever there seemed to be a good reason for so doing. See Batiffol, Études d'histoire et de théologie positive, 1st ser., pp. 1-41.
[31] Le Camus, L'Œuvre des apôtres, I, 44.


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  1. After reading this, how can anyone argue with the fact that the teaching of the Church, the DOGMA of the faith, was, from the beginning, that baptism with water was essential for salvation. And I am witness to the fact that all faithful Catholics believed in this dogma until Vatican II. What was debated by philosophers and taught in the seminaries is another matter.I will not enter into another discussion abou the matter.

  2. JMR said...
    After reading this, how can anyone argue with the fact that the teaching of the Church, the DOGMA of the faith, was, from the beginning, that baptism with water was essential for salvation. And I am witness to the fact that all faithful Catholics believed in this dogma until Vatican II.

    First, I think the Church still insists as dogma that baptism with water is essential for salvation. The Catechism says so.

    Second, I think the Church has always taught that water baptism is essential for those who are not in a state of invincible ignorance, and for those who are not martyred while they are catechumens.

    The Council of Trent is explicit that the desire for baptism suffices in some cases: "since the promulgation of the Gospel, [salvation] cannot be effected, without the laver of regeneration, or the desire thereof." (Council of Trent Session 6 Chapter 3)

    Also: "If any one saith...that, without [the Sacraments], or without the desire thereof, men obtain of God, through faith alone, the grace of justification; though all [the Sacraments] are not indeed necessary for every individual; let him be anathema." (Council of Trent Session 7 Chapter 4)

    That is the true dogma of the Church, and it is reflected in the Church Fathers and popes and scholastic theologians throughout the ages. A sample is contained here:

    Scripture, Church Fathers, and Medieval Doctors on the Possibility of Salvation for Non-Catholics


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