John Henry Newman is not among my favourite authors. I read his Apologia many years ago when I was an Anglican priest, and contrived not to be too shaken by it (mostly by closing the book and not thinking about it too much). As an Orthodox I now find it both a bit dated and a bit parochial: dated because the Roman Catholic Church he knew has morphed so dramatically that he would scarcely recognize it (what would Cardinal Newman think of clown Masses and pro-gay parishes?), and parochial because as an eighteenth century Anglican cleric the Orthodox Church scarcely registered on his emotional thermostat, the Church of England being too preoccupied with its ecclesiastical mudwrestling with the Church of Rome to give the East much real thought. But I do like one of his statements which has apparently become popular recently. It is this: “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant (from his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine).
Reformed people like Dr. Kenneth Stewart do not like the quote as much as I do. In his book In Search of Ancient Roots Dr. Stewart responded by talking about “two Newmans” and pointing out that the historical John Henry was much concerned with his public profile, had always been a kind of closet-Catholic, and that his doctrine of development was not enthusiastically endorsed by the Catholic Church of his time—all of which is true, but utterly irrelevant to Newman’s point, especially when read in context. Here I would like to flesh out that point.
It is true that Protestantism, both Magisterial and Evangelical, retains much from the Church of the early centuries. For example, it retains the early Church’s canon of Scripture (mostly), its kerygma that Jesus is the divine Lord and that salvation consists of serving Him as His disciple, its Trinitarian theology (if you ignore the Filioque), and its practice of baptizing and of celebrating some form of “the Lord’s Supper” with bread and wine. That is not nothing, and is sufficient for them to be considered “separated brethren” by Catholics and Orthodox (though exactly how separated and how close a kinship will not be debated here). In other words, Protestants are Christians.
But the things which characterize Orthodoxy and Catholicism and which are hotly resisted by Protestantism can be found deep in the Church’s history in the early centuries too—things which if incorporated into a Protestant church will cause problems with the Protestant credentials of the person trying to incorporate them. In this blog piece and the next, I mention five them.
First of all is the notion that the Lord’s Supper is a sacrifice in which the historical sacrifice of Christ on the cross on Golgotha is sacramentally present on our altars. Even Protestants like Martin Luther who accepted that the Body and Blood of Christ were supernaturally present in the Eucharist rejected this—and in the case of Luther himself, with his (customary) verbal violence.
The reasons for this rejection are too complex to be addressed here, but the fact of their rejection of it is indisputable. The case of the Tractarians of Oxford (who accepted a sacrificial component to the Eucharist) is the exception that proves the rule—as Newman would be the first one to point out.
The sacrificial nature of the Eucharist of the early Church can hardly be in doubt. St. Paul compared the Eucharist both to the sacrifices offered by Israel and by the pagans, using the sacrificial term “table” (Greek τράπεζα/ trapeza) to describe both those sacrifices and the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 10:18-21). The sacrificial nature of the Eucharist is why the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews wrote, “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent [i.e. non-Christian Jews] have no right to eat” (Hebrews 13:10). The altar was the heavenly one which Christ served; it was accessed here on earth by the Christians through the Eucharist.
In the Didache (ca. 100 A.D.) we find the Eucharist described as “your sacrifice” (Greek θυσία/ thusia), and compared to the pure sacrifice predicted in Malachi 1:11. About the same time, Clement in his letter to the Corinthians spoke of the church leaders who at the Eucharist blamelessly “offered the gifts” (44:4)—i.e. offered the sacrificial gifts in the Eucharist.
St. Irenaeus in about 180 also spoke of Malachi’s prophecy of a pure sacrifice being fulfilled through the Eucharist, saying that at the Last Supper Christ instituted “the new sacrifice of the new covenant”. He explicitly says that “the class of sacrifices in general has not been set aside, for there were both sacrifices there [i.e. among the Jews] and there are sacrifices here [i.e. among the Christians]. (Against Heresies, 4.17.5, 4:18.2).
St. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) in his book On the Lapsed spoke of his offering the Eucharist as “offering the sacrifice”. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386) in his fifth Mystagogic Lecture, spoke of the Eucharist as “the spiritual sacrifice”, the “bloodless service upon that sacrifice of propitiation” through which the Church supplicates God’s rescue for all who stand in need of it.
More citations could easily be multiplied, but these should suffice to prove that the early Church viewed the Eucharist as sacrificial—i.e. as an anamnesis, a memorial through which the Sacrifice of the Cross was present and effectively offered by the Church.
Secondly, we find in the early Church the universal conviction that along with the bread and wine of the Eucharist the faithful receive the true Body and Blood of Christ. Once again, citations could be multiplied. We cite just a few.
St. Paul must come first in any florilegium of citations. In 1 Corinthians 10:16 he asked rhetorically, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation [thus RSV; Greek κοινωνία/ koinonia] in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” Because it was such a participation and sharing of Christ’s Blood and Body, those who consumed them unworthily would be “guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord”, and in fact some of those who had done so had become sick and some had even died (1 Corinthians 11:27-30).
St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. ca. 107) spoke of the Eucharistic bread as “the medicine of immortality, the antidote against death, enabling us to live forever in Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 20:2). It was only the heretics who did “not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father by His goodness raised up” (Smyrneans 6.2).
In about 150 St. Justin Martyr explained in his defense to the pagans that the Eucharist “is flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh” (Apologia ch. 66). A little later Irenaeus said the same: “the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly” (Against Heresies, 4.18.5). Tertullian (d. ca. 220) witnessed to the same universally held Christian conviction when he wrote, “The flesh [i.e. the human body] is the hinge of salvation. The flesh is washed [i.e. in baptism] so that the soul may be made clean. The flesh feeds on the Body and Blood of Christ so that the soul too may fatten on God” (On the Resurrection of the Dead, 8.2).
St. Ephraim the Syrian (d. 373) in one of his homilies, said, “Our Lord Jesus took in His hand what in the beginning was only bread, and He blessed it and signed it and made it holy in the name of the Father and of the Holy Spirit. He called the bread His living Body and Himself filled it with Himself and the Spirit. And extending His hand, He gave them the bread which His right hand had made holy: ‘Take, all of you, eat of this, which My word has made holy. Do not now regard as bread that which I have given you, but take, eat this bread, for what I have called My Body, that it is indeed’” (Homily 4.4).
From the preceding citations it is clear that the early Church believed the Eucharist to be sacrificial and the true Body and Blood of Christ, received for our salvation—doctrines deep in the Church’s history--doctrines that the Protestantism of the Reformation and contemporary Evangelicalism roundly reject.
We look next at baptism in the early Church. Given the abundance and clarity of teaching on baptism in the New Testament, we must begin there.
In the New Testament it is clear that baptism is the means whereby one becomes a disciple of Christ and is born again and receives the remission of sins. The Lord Himself said that one must be born by water and the Spirit to enter the Kingdom (John 3:5). Ananias, in calling the convert Saul/ Paul to faith, asked, “Why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on His Name” (Acts 22:16). Paul afterward referred to baptism as “the washing of rebirth” (Titus 3:5), pairing the washing with sanctification and justification (1 Corinthians 6:11), and saying that the Christians were “cleansed by the washing of water with the Word” (Ephesians 5:26).
Peter taught the same thing: when asked on the day of Pentecost how one could be saved, he replied, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). He would later write, “Baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). The teaching could not be clearer: hearing the Word of the Gospel with faith leads one to confessing Him in the waters of baptism, and it is this washing which sanctifies, justifies, forgives, cleanses, and regenerates.
We find this teaching also in the early Fathers. In the second century Letter of Barnabas, we find this description of baptism: “while we descend into the water laden with sins and dirt, we rise up bearing fruit in our heart, and with fear and hope in Jesus in our spirits” (Barnabas 11.11). That is, baptism changes us, ridding us of our sins.
St. Justin Martyr, in his Apologia defending the Christian faith, wrote of baptism in chapter 61. He described how one became a Christian: “I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and entreat God with fasting for the remission of their sins that are past. Then they are brought by us where there is water and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For in the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit they then receive the washing of water. For Christ also said, ‘Except you be born again, you shall not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.’”
Theophilus of Antioch, a somewhat younger contemporary of Justin, wrote a similar defense of the faith. Commenting on the creation stories of Genesis, he also refers to baptism in the following way: “The things proceeding from the waters [on the fifth day of creation in Genesis 1:20f] were blessed by God that this also might be a sign of men’s being destined to receive repentance and the remission of sins through the water and washing of regeneration—as many as come to the truth and are born again, and receive blessing from God” (To Autolycus 2.16).
Using the creation stories as allegories (or “signs”) Theophilus finds the creation of fishes in the waters a foreshadowing of the new creation of life in the waters of baptism. This effects the remission and sins and the bestowal of regeneration—as Justin said before him.
The connection of Christians with fishes found in Theophilus is not as fanciful and far-fetched as it might first seem. Tertullian uses the image as well—perhaps helped by the acronym ίχθύς/ ichthys, the Greek word for “fish”, the letters of which spell out in Greek “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour”. Tertullian wrote an entire treatise on baptism, describing Christians as “little fishes, born in water after the example of our ίχθύς Jesus Christ”.
He began his treatise by saying, “Happy is our sacrament of water, in that by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free into eternal life!” He went on to describe baptism, commenting on the great things effected by such small acts: “A man is dipped in water and amid the utterance of some few words, is sprinkled and then rises again” with the “consequent attainment of eternity”. He asks rhetorically, “Is it not wonderful that death should be washed away by bathing?”
From these few citations, it is clear that the early Church continued in the apostles’ doctrine, offering baptism to new converts as the means of their forgiveness and new birth. This is problematic and is hotly denied by many Evangelicals.
This means that those delving deeply into history and examining the thought of the early Church on things as basic and fundamental as the Eucharist and baptism (i.e. how to live as Christians and how to become a Christian) have a choice: either be a Protestant or cast one’s lot with the early Church. Limping between two opinions (to quote the prophet Elijah) is not an option.
Next: Deep in History – 2: Mary and the Martyrs
Note: My new book on Evangelicalism and Orthodoxy entitled Living Faith is available now from Ancient Press at: https://store.ancientfaith.com/living-faith-an-orthodox-christian-conversation-with-evangelicals/