The early church is getting a lot of press these days, and inquiring minds want to know what Christians really believed before the Council of Nicaea. Perhaps the best way of finding out is to read the testimonies of early Christians themselves.
In his First Apology (155 a.d.), the second-century Christian philosopher and apologist Justin Martyr wrote a fascinating account of Christian worship and beliefs. Originally addressed to the Roman emperor in defense of Christianity, Justin's description gives us a window into what early Christians actually did when they gathered together to baptize, celebrate the Lord's Supper, worship, and build community. Here is an excerpt from this classic book.
How we dedicated ourselves to God when we were made new through Christ I will explain, since it might seem to be unfair if I left this out from my exposition. Those who are persuaded and believe that the things we teach and say are true, and promise that they can live accordingly, are instructed to pray and beseech God with fasting for the remission of their past sins, while we pray and fast along with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are reborn by the same manner of rebirth by which we ourselves were reborn; for they are then washed in the water in the name of God the Father and Master of all, and of our Savoir Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. For Christ said, "Unless you are born again you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven."
Now it is clear to all that those who have once come into being cannot enter the wombs of those who bore them. But as I quoted before, it was said through the prophet Isaiah how those who have sinned and repent shall escape from their sins. He said this: "Wash yourselves, be clean, take away wickedness from your souls, learn to do good, give judgment for the orphan and defend the cause of the widow, and come and let us reason together, says the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them as white as wool, and though they be as crimson, I will make them as white as snow." . . .
After thus washing the one who has been convinced and signified his assent, [we] lead him to those who are called brethren, where they are assembled. They then earnestly offer common prayers for themselves and the one who has been illuminated and all others every where, that we may be made worthy, having learned the truth, to be found in deed good citizens and keepers of what is commanded, so that we may be saved with eternal salvation.
On finishing the prayers we greet each other with a kiss. Then bread and a cup of water and mixed wine are brought to the president of the brethren and he, taking them, sends up praise and glory to the Father of the universe through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and offers thanksgiving at some length that we have been deemed worthy to receive these things from him. When he has finished the prayers and the thanksgiving, the whole congregation present assents, saying, "Amen." "Amen" in the Hebrew language means, "So be it." When the president has given thanks and the whole congregation has assented, those whom we call deacons give to each of those present a portion of the consecrated bread and wine and water, and they take it to the absent.
This food we call Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true, and has received the washing for forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and who lives as Christ handed down to us. For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Savior being incarnate by God's word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus. For the apostles in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, thus handed down what was commanded them: that Jesus, taking bread and having given thanks, said, "Do this for my memorial, this is my body"; and likewise taking the cup and giving thanks he said, "This is my blood"; and gave it to them alone.
After these [services] we constantly remind each other of these things. Those who have more come to the aid of those who lack, and we are constantly together. Over all that we receive we bless the Maker of all things through his Son Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.
And on the day called Sunday there is a meeting in one place of those who live in cities or the country, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the president in a discourse urges and invites [us] to the imitation of these noble things. Then we all stand up together and offer prayers. And, as said before, when we have finished the prayer, bread is brought, and wine and water, and the president similarly sends up prayers and thanksgivings to the best of his ability, and the congregation assents, saying the Amen; the distribution, and reception of the consecrated [elements] by each one, takes place and they are sent to the absent by the deacons.
Those who prosper, and who so wish, contribute, each one as much as he chooses to. What is collected is deposited with the president, and he takes care of orphans and widows, and those who are in want on account of sickness or any other cause, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers who are sojourners among [us], and, briefly, he is the protector of all those in need.
We all hold this common gathering on Sunday, since it is the first day, on which God transforming darkness and matter made the universe, and Jesus Christ our Saviour rose from the dead on the same day. For they crucified him on the day before Saturday, and on the day after Saturday, he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught them these things which I have passed on to you also for your serious consideration.
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Read more ofThe First Apologyonline at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
One good collection including this and many other early Christian writings isEarly Christian Fathers, edited by Cyril C. Richardson.
More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine Christian History & Biography are also available.
Previous Christian History Corners include:
Sweet Charity | The Quakers behind Cadbury chocolate. (April 7, 2006)
How We All Think Like Augustine | Take a mind-blowing journey with the great philosopher-saint in this audio course from the Teaching Company. (March 31, 2006)
Martyrs to the Spear | Fifty years after five missionaries were murdered in Ecuador, their story still inspires (Mar. 10, 2006)
Physicians of the Soul | J. I. Packer discusses the English Puritans, their quest for holiness, and why they are still worth remembering. (Feb. 24, 2006)
Blessing the Church with its History | Douglas Sweeney argues for an evangelical movement that welcomes diversity and repents of its blind spots. (Feb. 10, 2006)
Erasmus's Revolutionary 'Study Bible' | The spiritual father of so many English Reformers died at the hands of the church he refused to leave. (Jan. 13, 2006)
Campus Ministry Cambridge Style | The roots of InterVarsity and other evangelical college clubs (Jan. 6, 2006)
Dorothy Sayers: "The Dogma Is the Drama" | An interview with Barbara Reynolds. (Dec. 16, 2005)
Sharing Stories from the Heart | The lessons of history are fair game for use today. (Dec. 9, 2005)