The Theology behind Early Christian Worship
A discussion of the relationship between worship and theology in the early church, and what this means for us today.
María Cornou: Welcome to our second day at 2021 Worship Symposium. On behalf of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, I’d like to extend you a warm welcome to every participant. We have people from many different countries, as you can see in the chat, and so welcome, everyone, to this session on the theology behind early Christian worship.
My name is María Eugenia Cornou. I’m associate director and program manager at the Worship Institute, and it is my privilege today to welcome my very special guests, Dr. Catherine Gunsalus González and Dr. Justo González. Catherine and Justo are renowned church historians, prolific writers, and right now they are working on a book on history of worship in the early church, which will be released first in Spanish and then in English. So stay tuned.
During the first part of our session, I will interview Catherine and Justo on our topic, and at the end of this session there will be some time for questions, so please feel free to use the comments—you can write your comments and your questions in the Q&A section. So, comments on the chat, questions on the Q&A section.
Catherine, Justo, I’d like to start this conversation asking about the theology of worship. We will talk about theology in worship, theology through worship, and theology of worship. So let’s start with theology of worship in the early church.
How was worship conceived in these first centuries of the Christian church?
Catherine González: I’m not sure that you could identify a theology of worship. You could say that there were several rituals that were absolutely essential to the life of the Christian. They were baptism and the Eucharist. And people obviously gathered for reading Scripture, for prayers. All of that was part of it, but I don’t know that there was a specific theology that said this is why we worship. This is what they did, and you can sort of extract the theology of what was happening there.
But it was very clear that it was the actual performance, the actual involvement in baptism and the Lord’s Supper and in the other gatherings. It was particularly gatherings—it was somehow that they had to be together. And this is what they did when they were together.
Justo González: Perhaps a way of looking at it would also be to talk about who we are. How will people say who we are? And I think that, in many ways, the early Christian church would say we are a people. We are a body. Those are the two main metaphors that you find everywhere. And what makes us a people and a body is our worship. So that worship was central, absolutely central, to Christian life. And communal worship as well as private devotions, so communal worship. And people did not go there simply because “I am going to worship God.”
They went there to be part of this body that has been created to worship, among other things.
María Cornou: We are exploring the first four centuries of history, which I suppose means evolution, changes. In relation to worship, which were the main changes or the main shifts you could notice?
Justo González: First of all, you have to realize the very early church were all Jews—or either what they called God fearers, who were Gentiles who believed the faith of Israel but were not Jews and did not become Jews; they were not converting to Judaism, but still they believed in the faith of Israel and practiced the morality that the law established.
And so for a while, in very early times, what you get is a combination of worship in the temple—I mean, in the book of Acts the Christians are still going to the temple—and at the same time getting together to break bread.
And I think one of the big changes comes around the year one hundred when Christians both leave and are kicked out of the synagogue. The differences had become sufficiently serious and tense and so on that the church becomes increasingly a Gentile institution. And that’s one of the big changes.
One of the elements in that change is that you have to do much more education, because the people who are coming are not people who had the Jewish background. So if in the first century you gather just to break bread, in the second century you have to gather also to hear the Word because that is not being done in the synagogue—I mean, they are no longer in the synagogue.
And so now they have to go and that’s the main change that takes place.
And then obviously the great big change that takes place comes in the fourth century, when Constantine and his successors begin supporting the church at various degrees and ways, and that obviously brings a huge change to the way worship is practiced and conceived, and the rituals and so on.
María Cornou: Certainly, and also the process of forming the canon and having the theology about the Scriptures. Fascinating process, fascinating changes that sometimes we are not so aware of when we think back in time.
You mentioned that worship was a communal practice, was the expression of the community, although it also happened in their own homes and at a personal level. Could you talk about the theology of the church and its implication for worship, or ecclesiology and worship?
Catherine González: I think the basic impulse of the early church was this astonishing fact of the resurrection, which they understood to be bringing in also a new age and therefore a new community. So that those who gathered felt that they were part of this new community that reflected the coming kingdom.
And they could only really do that when they were together, in many ways—partly because the character of the community when they were together was one that broke down the barriers that were there in the surrounding Roman society. So here you could have, even in a very small community, you could have someone who was a slave owner with a slave from another family. You could have men and women at the same table, and you could have the rich and the poor. You could have—barriers—you could have the Jew and the Gentile when you had that.
So that you could be part of a community that in itself—in its gathering, in its meal together—was really representing a new life in ways that the surrounding community never would understand, and in fact would find not only surprising but probably repugnant. So the communal character is essential. The sense that you are brothers and sisters in a way that you’re part of—this is your new family, and in many ways the ties in this new family are even stronger than the ties in the old family.
Which meant that you probably faced difficulties in the old life, but you were living in two different worlds. And when you were in worship you could fully experience the character of this new life.
Justo González: Even when you’re not worshiping together, there’s a communal dimension to it. The early Christians would not have said, “Well, set aside a time for prayer.” The early Christians would say, “These are the hours for prayer. At these times we all stop, wherever we are, to pray.” And obviously if we can do it overtly and so on, we do it. And if we are in the job, we still do it while we’re doing whatever we’re doing, but we are all together—while we are physically separate, we’re all together by our being united to the head of the church in prayer.
So that the sense of community was very strong, and it was not just the community when they gathered. It was also the community when it, in various ways and various times, were doing the same thing and they knew they were doing the same thing.
María Cornou: You mentioned this idea of family. Is there any other prominent image in the theology of the church, the self-understanding of the church, in this period of time?
Catherine González: The body of Christ, clearly. It is represented very early—by the very early second century we have writings that is clear that you have a bishop, who represents this unity of the church. So that there could be no baptisms, there could be no Communion service, without the bishop either authorizing or being the one who is there.
But that bishop is also your connection to other communities in other cities. And so it’s not just that we are this one little community of faith. It’s that somehow we are part of this empire-wide—this church, this body that we can say “church” and mean our little group of twenty, but we also say “church” and mean this one body that is increasingly around the world. So that sense that you are part of something both local and has to gather, but something that is much wider, and those ties bind even if we never meet each other.
Justo González: Another image that we usually don’t quite understand [inaudible] is this image of people, the people of God. And we can talk about that later, about what that meant and what they did, and so on. But being a people was not just being people who liked each other or people who agreed or something. It was being a new country, if you want to put it that way.
Catherine González: With a new culture.
Justo González: It was a new culture, but a new country. You should read in the New Testament they sought a better city, and “our citizenship is in heaven.” And here you have a person who has the most coveted citizenship in the world who still says, That’s not the important one; the important one is the citizenship I have with you … in heaven, being a citizen of this new kingdom. And I think that we very often miss that, because we don’t realize the sense of translation, if you want to put it that way—of moving from one place to another—that conversion meant in the early church.
María Cornou: Fascinating. Could you expand a little bit more on the role of the leaders of this community—you mentioned the role of the bishop—and the theology behind this institutionalization of the church?
Catherine González: The strong role of the bishop developed very early in the second century. And it was partly because you had so many communities springing up that called themselves Christian. They called themselves the church, but many had really weird ideas, that others said, “This is simply not the gospel that we have heard.” And it was the bishop who then could say, “I have been approved by bishops of other churches.”
Your little community—you had only one bishop in a city, so that you might have several little communities that are all connected with the bishop. But your bishop, even though you as a whole citywide community elected him, could not become a bishop until approved by bishops in other cities. And so he had to send a statement of “This is my faith.” And they said, “Aha, this looks orthodox.” Or, “No, if you take that person, they’re not going to be part of the church.”
It was a way of, first of all, trying to develop an orthodox theology, trying to develop a common theology. You had no New Testament, as such, at that point. You had writings, but they were not officially recognized quite yet. … You had the four gospels, you had Acts, you had the letters of Paul collected, you had other writings. But very soon in the second century, at least by mid-second century, you’re starting to have other gospels that have been written at that point, in the mid-second century, and are saying all sorts of things about: Jesus was never born, he suddenly appeared; he wasn’t really human, he just was a spirit who pretended to be human, or whatever.
And it is going to be increasingly the role of the bishop to say, “If that’s what you hold, you are not part of this group.” And so bishops were both the instrument of unity and the instrument of orthodoxy, increasingly.
Justo González: One interesting thing about this that is different from what we tend to think—today we think that the pastor is the chief executive of the church. You not only preach and teach, you also manage. The task of the bishop was not to manage. Very often we have cases where you know somebody else did it. And obviously, as time goes by, they become more and more the administrative head. But what made the bishop a bishop was not that they ran the show, whether they managed whatever they had to manage, but that this person was the head, the leader, in worship.
It was the role of worship that made the bishop a bishop, and the main task of the bishop was to worship, was to lead in worship. So that, eventually, obviously, the offerings are going to be also administered by people that bishop names, and so on. But that’s not the origin of it.
Actually, in the early church, very often you find the bishop called as “he who presides in the Eucharist.” The president. Repeatedly it says the elements are brought to the president. And that doesn’t mean that the president presides over everything. This person presides over the Eucharist, and also obviously over baptism and so on.
María Cornou: Talking about baptism: Baptism has been the main initiation right in Christianity. How did the early church articulate the theology of baptism?
Catherine González: Baptism was your entrance into the community of faith. You could not be part of the community—you could be one who was being taught by the community, you could be one who was interested in the community. But for the Eucharist, you could not be present if you were not baptized. You were not part of the body. Baptism was a one-time ingrafting into the body.
And a graft, I think, is one of the best imageries because a graft—I’m not thinking so much of a graft in a body, but a graft in a tree. You graft a branch on a tree, you don’t take it out all the time to see how it’s doing and put it back in. A graft is a one-time thing. You graft something and then if it works, you have life circulating in that graft, so it becomes part of the tree.
And Communion is going to be seen as much more that sap that somehow connects the grafts and keeps them circulating, keeps them live, keeps them part of that body and connected to each other. So Communion is repeated, but the graft, the one-time graft, is baptism.
Justo González: And when you’re talking about baptism, one interesting thing is, today many people say baptism is a witness that you give. In most churches in the early church, baptism was not done in the presence of the congregation—among other things, because people were naked. So they had a different place, and then after they were baptized, they joined the congregation.
The congregation had been going before, but to go for the Eucharist, they come after their baptism, and this takes place, generally, almost in private. Not in private in the sense that I’m alone, but in the sense that it’s just bishop and myself and whatever. And that’s something that is very different to our circumstance. The other thing is interesting is since the very beginning of my work in church, people always ask me, “Why was Jesus baptized? He was no sin.” And what the early church said—the early documents that we have that deal with why he was baptized say Jesus was baptized so that with his presence he will purify the waters of baptism.
So in other words, water has power to baptize because Jesus empowered it to baptize. So they had a very clear sense that, actually, something does happen in baptism. It’s not just a symbol. It is not just a witness. It is that something happens, you are baptized in the same water in which Jesus was baptized, and now you’re part of his body.
María Cornou: I know you have written about Augustine, and something that always has caught my attention is the fact that he was called into ministry without being baptized. So he has to be baptized in order to—
Catherine González: No, that’s Ambrose.
María Cornou: Sorry. Yeah, Ambrose.
Catherine González: Ambrose came from Christian family. But he was—I think he was dedicated as a catechumen when he was an infant, which was a strange practice. This is fourth century, so it’s after Constantine. But he was being raised to have the same sort of occupation as his father, which was as a political leader. And as such, he might have to do things that the Christians would not approve of, such as giving a death penalty.
He was the governor of the area around Milan when he was elected bishop. He was not baptized at that point. I mean, he was locked in the church and within a week he was baptized and ordained, and finally elected bishop. But he had been raised in a Christian family.
But it was that his vocational goals did not agree with what the church said at the time. I mean, at the time, it would be very difficult to be a soldier and be a Christian. So that whole fourth century is where you’re trying to sort out, how do you have a state church and all of these earlier understandings that you could not do these various things.
So he was he was recognized as being a leader. And it was the moment that he was elected, he then called his brother, who was really a very devout Christian—called his brother to come and live with him and teach him theology.
Justo González: I think there’s also a change that begins in the second century—begins getting this view that you might have some glimpses in New Testament, but becomes very clear, especially in Western theology in the second century—that what baptism does is it washes away your sin. And that has been the dominant view of theology in the Western church ever since.
Well, by the fourth century, it’s already quite common. And people think that if you’re going to be baptized in order to wash away your sins, you better make sure you have committed all your sins before you’re baptized.
Catherine González: Deathbed is the best time.
Justo González: So you postpone baptism as much as possible, and the real power of Constantine himself was baptized on his deathbed. And if you’re going to be a civil servant like Ambrose, you want to reserve sort of this blank check of forgiveness until you have done whatever you’re going to do. Until you can really hold yourself to the Christian life as you should. And obviously that has all kinds of terrible consequences because that’s the beginning of the whole system, the whole penitential system and eventually the self-indulgences. And all that has to do with this notion that what happens in baptism is that sin is washed away.
Catherine González: But that is not the early church’s major understanding, which is much more the ingrafting into the body.
María Cornou: Fascinating. And also the practice of baptism had other rituals that are not so common today.
Catherine González: Especially the naked baptism. And let’s say that the way that was done was in groups—that you had all the men and then all the women and then all the children. This is the second century, we know that.
So that the whole question of infant baptism, we know was practiced in the second century. The first century is anybody’s guess, in the sense that you can read the documents one way or the other. Nothing is all that clear.
But the second century, you had it in groups. And you did have women, particularly the widows—the order of the widows—that then help in the baptism of women. And eventually these become the deaconesses, where you did have very much involved in the baptism of women. Not actually doing the baptism, but very often you had a curtain so that you had the deaconess guiding the hand of the officiant, who’s going to pour water over the head of the woman. So that you begin to develop just a very different way of doing baptism than we think of today.
The understanding was very much that this is a new birth, and so you come to your new birth the same way you did your first one, which is naked. With nothing foreign, nothing other than what you are.
Justo González: If you had any jewelry, you had to take it off.
Catherine González: I suppose now it would have to be false teeth and whatever else. It’s very much that sense.
You did have some groups that did not separate the men and women, and said that in baptism we are like Adam and Eve before the fall—we are naked and unashamed. We have some writings that what you have is bishops saying, “That is not true. That is not who we are. Do not do this.” So we know that it was done because we have these writings that say, “Don’t do it.”
María Cornou: And there were also in preparation, some rights of exorcism or renunciation to Satan, and then the anointing.
Catherine González: The renunciations, I think, are very interesting. Some churches, well, the Catholic church in the West—and I’m just speaking of the West now—the Catholic church and the Anglican church, the Episcopal church coming out of it, never lost the renunciations.
The renunciations are done immediately before baptism and it is—what they did at the time was to face the west, which is where the sun goes down and therefore the area of darkness, and say, “Satan, I renounce you and all of your pomp and the glory of the world,” or whatever. But it was, “Satan, I renounce you.” And then turn to the east and now accept Christ, who is the morning sun, the sun where the light comes from, the Light of the world. So it was that kind of understanding.
My own church, the Presbyterian, and I think the Methodist as well, which is Justo’s, in all of the liturgical renewal, beginning in the fifties and sixties and seventies, have put the renunciations back in just before baptism. So at the at the font either the parents or the person being baptized is asked, “Do you renounce—” and it very often will be worded “Do you renounce the power of evil in the world and its various manifestations?” … It’s not just adding Christ to what you already believe. It is renouncing some of the things that may have had power in your life and now turning to Christ to be the one Lord of your life.
Justo González: I think the context has something to do with that change. You know, it’s what happened—the reason why the renunciations were sort of obscured was because the contrast between general culture and Christianity was obscured. And if you were baptized, it was a normal thing. Everybody got baptized, it was part of the normal process of life.
What happens, obviously, in the twentieth century is that you have a clear sense of the contrast…
Catherine González: It’s post-Constantinian.
Justo González: Being in a secular society, a society where not everybody’s going to be baptized, where you’re different from the rest. And to show the difference, then you have to have a word, where you say, we know that all that stuff is a loss. And then you turn off and say this is what we are.
Now the other thing that you mentioned is the anointment. I don’t know if you want to move into that?
María Cornou: Sure.
Justo González: Anointing was performed in the Old Testament, obviously mostly for kings and priests. And it is interesting—people usually don’t realize how often in the New Testament, the affirmation is made that we are kings or royalty and a priesthood. And obviously it’s not just in Peter—“you are a royal priesthood”—but also even in the book of Revelation—"He has made us kings and priests,” and that connection.
And I think part of … what was happening is people were being baptized and then anointed. Because as the people of God, now they’re part of a priestly people, a people one of whose main missions is to pray for others, not just for themselves. Not just for others in the church. To pray for the world and even for the emperors, no matter if the emperor was persecuting and no matter how bad the emperor was. You pray for the emperor because that’s your task. Your task is to be a priesthood. And that’s one of the main things a priest does—brings the people before God, and that’s what the church does.
So, as you are grafted, as Catherine was saying, into the body, you’re being joined to a priestly body and therefore you’re also anointed, because through that grafting you have now become a priest. And not just a priest, you’re part of a priesthood. And that’s crucial to understand the task of the church, what they’re supposed to be doing.
And again, what happens in the fourth century—it’s interesting, those changes—is that the monastic community begins growing and then you get sort of separation of labor. So it is the monastics, monks and nuns, who pray for the rest of the world and spend all of their time praying and the rest of the people that spend all their time working, among other things, to keep the monastics.
So it’s sort of an interesting division that what it does is it robs the laity of the sense that they’re part of a priestly people.
Now obviously, that also has something to do with worship and what happens next in worship. I don’t know if you want to talk about that, Catherine—what happens after these people are anointed and join the church.
Catherine González: To me, one of the most fascinating things is that once they were baptized and they were brought into the Communion service that was going on—and remember, this is normally done at Easter. So this is the Easter Eve service, and the congregation is gathered. And once all the people who are baptized are all ready and they’re now dressed in white robes, or something of the sort, then they enter into the congregation and this is now Easter.
And the very first thing that happens is they now have what is called the prayer of the people, the prayers of people. It is prayers of intercession. These newly baptized people have been part of a congregation that hears—they hear Scripture read, they hear a sermon, they hear prayers—but they are prayers of thanksgiving, prayers of confession, things of this sort.
But now there are prayers of intercession, and it is the priestly character of this people that now they can pray for the world. They can pray that the crops will grow, they can pray that the rains will come, or that the rains will stop.
They can pray for the emperor, they can pray that the disease will stop. This is the task of the people of God. And they do this before Communion. And then after that, after they do the prayers, then they have the kiss of peace and then they have the Communion service.
But these newly baptized have never been part of this prayer before. And they also have not been told what is going to happen once they are baptized and go into the service. This is all new. They have never been told—they don’t even know what’s going to happen in baptism until they go through it. And then they’re told later.
Justo González: I think this points to one of the most important questions between early worship and the way most of us understand worship. Most of us think that worship only means something if we understand it. And therefore it’s mostly words. And that’s one of the reasons why we have so much difficulty with bilingual, trilingual services—because it’s the words, what they mean.
In the early church, the words were important, yes, but also the actions. And sometimes actions that people went through without even knowing what they meant. And then meaning was given to them, which is what Catherine was talking about.
And I have seen examples of that in churches in other countries quite often—where you see people doing things without saying what they mean. But things are very, very meaningful to that community.
María Cornou: Fascinating. And all this ritualization of their beliefs. Talking about these actions, what would you say was the prominent image or theological understanding of the Eucharist, or the Communion or Lord’s Table or Lord’s Supper? You have different names with different implications also.
Catherine González: It was the risen Christ at his table, serving his people. And in a sense, making the connection between the head of the church and the body. So it was strongly—it stressed the resurrection. And it’s not till you get to the Middle Ages that you begin to have, really, what amounts to a Good Friday service on Sunday, so that the stress is on the cross.
The stress is on the cross, without much mention of the resurrection. And it’s a very different thing, and even the Reformation doesn’t really make great changes in that. It’s not really until the liturgical renewal of the twentieth century that you really begin to get back to that early theology. And it’s partly because of all the manuscripts that are discovered about the early church.
María Cornou: You mentioned the anointing and how this is connected to the theological developments in terms of the theology of the Holy Spirit and the trinitarian perspective.
Catherine González: In a sense, the Holy Spirit is what makes everything work. It’s what ties everything together. It’s what lets the water really baptize. It’s what lets the bread and wine really feed and really nourish. It’s what lets the prayers really be heard. It’s what makes everything work.
And I think one of the clearest examples is the way the early church and the Eastern church—the Western church dropped it for centuries; it’s been reclaimed. It’s when you go through the Communion ritual: You have in the prayer, in the prayer of consecration—and the directions in some of the early literature is “the bishop will pray as he is able,” you make up the prayer as you wish.
But this is the format: You address the prayer to God the Father. You talk about creation. You talk about the call of the prophets. You call then about the work of the Father in sending the Son. You talk about the work of Jesus and establishing Communion. You talk about the cross and the resurrection, but you talk about the Lord’s Supper being established by Jesus.
But then the last thing you say is calling on the Holy Spirit to somehow let this bread and this wine become for us the body and blood of Christ. It is not transubstantiation. It’s just saying let the Holy Spirit make these things work so that they are now the nourishment of the body of Christ.
And it’s that sense that got lost in the West until, again, the liturgical renewal.
Justo González: Actually one of the differences is in the West what was important was the words of institution, said by a priest. The Hoc est corpus meum. This is my body. That was [inaudible] the body of Christ.
In other traditions, what’s important is a prayer to the Spirit. Make this for us. So it is not changing or “I am changing these things” or “because I say the words of Jesus, now it becomes”—it is more, we are asking the Spirit to make these things be something for us.
María Cornou: I have more questions, but I there are many interesting questions our participants are posting, so I will start moving back and forth between my questions and their questions. I don’t think we will have time to address all of all of their questions, but we will try as much as we could.
So there is a question about Sabbath. When and how did Sabbath rest practices transfer from Saturday to Sunday? Was it a direct transfer of Sabbath practices or gradual and adaptive?
Justo González: It was very gradual. It’s a long story. Let me see how short I can make it. But obviously, the early Christians were all Jews who had found a way to practice Sabbath. And what they apparently did—you know the day ends not at midnight, but at sunset. So, on the day of the week that today we call Saturday—which means the day of Saturn, but they didn’t call it that, they called it the Sabbath, the seventh day—they rested. They practiced Sabbath. The sun sets and now Christians immediately—because now, as you said, the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection. And then these Christians go and break bread and worship together.
In the second century, the Christians have broken with the synagogue. There are increasing numbers of Gentiles in the synagogue—in the church, and decreasing numbers of Jews. Over the generations, the Jews have found ways of practicing Sabbath. A Gentile slave cannot very well tell his master, “Hey, I’m not going to work today because it’s the Sabbath.”
So what happens is the church very soon makes Sabbath-keeping optional. The only thing that they are against is requiring it. We have lots of documents in the second century that say, If you wish to practice Sabbath, that’s great. If you can, that’s very good, but don’t demand that everybody else does it.
Catherine González: That would still mean the day before—
Justo González: Yes, it’s still the day before Sunday, the day before the first day of the week. What happens as that group, the Gentiles, grow is that it’s very difficult for a Gentile slave or worker, or whatever, on the seventh day of the week to say, “Okay, I’m quitting now because now it’s Sabbath”—or on the seventh day of the week begins to say, “I’m quitting.” They can no longer meet that easily on the evening of the seventh day, which is—the morning for them is the beginning of the first day.
So what happens is that they start meeting after midnight. Because in the Roman Empire, in Roman culture, the general culture around them, as in our culture, the day changes at midnight, whereas in Jewish culture it changes at sunset. And so they are still—they are now meeting on the same night but the next morning, really—before dawn on the next morning. Still the same—the first day. Still you can keep Sabbath if you can, if you wish, but it’s not obligatory.
In comes Constantine. Constantine has very often been blamed for having established Sunday. That’s not true. Although we know from the early church that they always gather on the first day of the week to break bread—we have lots of references to that. What happened … is that Constantine declared the first day of the week, which is called the day of the sun—that’s why it’s still in English called Sunday—declares that to be a holiday, a day of rest to serve the gods.
His own tradition in his family was the worship of the sun. And he takes a Sunday. And so that day becomes the day when Christians meet. No talk about Sabbath now, but now you begin a whole process of laws to make it possible for people to attend church. And eventually you begin getting laws of what can be done and what can’t be done, and then you begin talking about the first day of the week as the Sabbath. Which obviously works only in some languages and not in others, because in most European languages that are either derived from Latin or Greek, the day of the seventh day of the week is still Sabbath.
In English, you have an easy time because you call them Saturday and Sunday, and they have nothing to do with Sabbath. And so you can shift around. In Spanish you can’t. And that is because what happened was that much later—after a long process—the rest laws of the Sabbath were now transferred to Sunday. And you begin getting people talking about keeping Sabbath, and that means Sunday, which to early Christians would have made no sense.
María Cornou: Justo, Catherine, we have several questions trying to imagine the response of the early church to a pandemic like we are experiencing now. Participants are interested in your perception of this virtual experience of Communion, of the Lord’s Supper.
Catherine González: The early church did face pandemics. We know that. But they also had no understanding of how it’s transmitted, so they still met. I think virtual church has been—it’s been interesting, for me, to see how I react. Because at the beginning, we were having virtual Communion on the first Sunday of the month. And I thought, I can’t do virtual Communion; there’s just something wrong about virtual Communion. I could do the wine, but I couldn’t do the bread, which also is interesting, because to me, the bread is part of the one loaf and I—somehow that just didn’t work.
And we were talking with the pastor, and we thought maybe we could have one loaf consecrated and then everybody take pieces somehow, but that isn’t a very good idea either. And I think I have come after the length of time where the desire for Communion outruns your theological understanding of how it ought to be. We now have virtual Communion, and we know when it’s going to happen, and we all have our bread and cup of whatever and we have Communion together.
And I think it’s partly because we have had so many Zoom worship services together. We have one—our little church, we have noon prayers five days a week. It’s a very small group of maybe ten, twelve, fifteen every noon, and there’s so much discussion beforehand and afterwards that you feel like a community. We know people more now because of those meetings than we did when we met face to face. And I think that increases the sense that we really are a community and we can do this.
Justo González: Going back to the early church, there were several pandemics, as Catherine talked (about). There was a big one in the third century that began in different places but exploded in North Africa, especially at first in western North Africa and eventually also around Egypt. And some people say that a third of the population died. And the pagans accused Christians of being guilty of the pandemic because they had abandoned the old gods. And the gods that had made them fruitful and big and so on were now punishing them, punishing the whole society. And there were writings against that interpretation.
I’m thinking about Cyprian, who was the bishop of Carthage in North Africa, and he did write about it. But I think more important than his writings was what he did and what they did. He said, we’re all part of the same family. We all live in the same household. We should not expect to be excluded because we are Christians. What we have to do is to join those who are suffering and help them in their suffering.
And it was Christians who went out and buried the dead that were abandoned. It was the Christians accompanying everybody. And what made the greatest impact was not the arguments that they showed, the theology and everything. No, it was actually the practice of being with people who are suffering and helping them and being able to suffer with them.
So it’s not so much what you say or what you think, it’s what you do.
María Cornou: There is another interesting question here about if there is early evidence of singing at baptism ceremonies and/or Eucharist worship.
Catherine González: I don’t think you’d expect singing at the baptismal services, because again, they were not with the congregation. You were taking a group—again, depends how large the group is, but you might have a group of men come in to be baptized, and then the group of women, and then the group of children. But it was not a congregation that was stable enough right there in the same room to do that. There is clear evidence of singing at Eucharistic services—well, at least at the services where you have the reading of Scripture and preaching, but probably also at the Eucharistic services.
It’s very clear at what they call the agape meals, which is another interesting part, where people would sing, or someone might stand up and sing a song that they had just written that was a song of praise. But they were expected to bring whatever musical gifts they had that would be part of the work. We know there was chanting, we know that the services probably included simple responses to parts of the Psalms, in many ways that we’re doing now, with a cantor and then a response that the congregation knows.
You don’t have hymnbooks, you didn’t have a high degree of literacy, so that you would have to do it in ways of that sort.
Justo González: We have no idea what the music sounded like. Although somebody has found—in Alexandria in Egypt, they have found a piece of parchment … that has about one line and that’s all that we know that can be read, but that’s just one little piece. Now there are many hymns that we have—the words, but not the music.
María Cornou: The first centuries, we know, were times of many controversies about Christology, about who Jesus was. What were the main images, the main theological
teachings on the person of Jesus Christ in worship in these first centuries?
Justo González: I think that it’s almost the other way around. It’s worship that creates the theology. It is not that theologians, said, “Hey, this is the way we ought to worship.”
Catherine González: It’s not didactic worship.
Justo González: It’s not, “This is the doctrine; let’s see how we express this in worship.” It is that the church had been worshiping Jesus from the very beginning. And when somebody says, “Hey, Jesus is not God,” then the church says, “Yes.” And then they reinforce what they have been doing.
And the same thing happens with the Spirit. Somebody comes and says, “No, the Spirit is not divine,” and the church says, “Yes, we have been worshiping him all along.” So it’s the other way around.
I think these writings that we have from the early church are not so much guidance for how worship should take place as they are expressions of what’s happening in worship.
Catherine González: The trinitarian structure, like the baptismal creeds, like the Apostles’ Creed, the trinitarian structure of the prayer of great thanksgiving for the Eucharist, which was clearly, from very early, trinitarian—the baptismal formula that is very early, that is trinitarian. You have the use of all of that, and then you start having arguments about what is the Trinity when you try to fit it into platonic theology—I mean, platonic philosophy.
And that’s when you really get all the debates. The church has not really dealt philosophically with this, but it understands what it is doing. And yet I think when you move it out of a Jewish-Christian structure into a Roman world that is basically Neoplatonic and you try to—What does this mean?—you’re going to have serious problems. And that’s what the church has to deal with.
María Cornou: One participant says diversity of the early community reflects very much what we see in church today. Would you like to comment if that is a good thing or a bad thing?
Catherine González: What diversity? I’m not sure what diversity, because some of our congregations are not very diverse. But some are and increasingly are.
Justo González: I don’t know exactly what the question means, but in connection with that, I think that if we understand worship as the worship of the body, the whole body, then we should be able to deal much better with the so-called worship wars. Because what’s important about worship is not what it says to me. It’s not important even what I say in it. It’s what it says to us. And that means that if something has been sung that I don’t like but it means something to my sister here, then I have to be part of that with her, and vice versa.
I think it would be easier to have more diversity if we had a deeper sense of the communal nature of worship, rather than the private nature of worship.
And the same thing goes with languages. People can say things without speaking that mean a whole lot. We were in a mass in Nicaragua years ago. And the priest walked in, in just a regular shirt. He went up to the altar, he picked up the stole, he kissed it, he prayed, he put it on, and then he said Mass. He finished, he took it off, he kissed it and put it back, and he went and mingled with people. And to some of the people who did not understand one word of Spanish, that said more than anything else that happened in that mass. Because it said something about the nature of how he understood priesthood, how he understood the relation to the community, and so on.
So I think that the gestures that can bring us together even though we do not all understand everything the same way, are very valuable.
María Cornou: One of the interesting lessons from the early church, as you have mentioned earlier—we rely a lot on words and these other gestures and actions can also preach and convey meaning in a different way, beyond the words.
We have a lot of questions about baptism, so probably in the future we will have to do a session only about baptism. One of the questions says, “I wasn’t aware that children were baptized in the second century. Did they undergo the catechumen process? What writings and documents speak of this?”
Catherine González: The Rite of Politis is one of the major ones, which is written really around 210 or 215 but reflects the worship of the church in the second century in Rome. And it says for the baptismal service—it gives the Easter Eve service, and it has the baptismal service, and it says, First the men, then the women, and then the children. And if the children are too young to answer the questions, a parent shall answer them for them. The only children who are baptized were children growing up in Christian families. So, it assumes that the catechetical work is being done by the family as the child grows.
So it’s a different—well, it’s very much, I think, the understanding in many of our churches. Although how valid it is, I—you sometimes wonder how much teaching actually gets done. But it was very clear in the second century. There are instances. We also know because Tertullian who was writing in North Africa in the late second century, says, “We must not use the passage of ‘Let the little children come unto me’ as a text for showing that children should be baptized.” Baptism forgives sins and why waste the one baptism you have on an infant when you know they’re going to be a teenager or whatever. So he is all for waiting until as close to death as possible before you’re baptized.
But we know from his writing that, that people were baptizing infants. Now, it doesn’t mean it’s happening all over, everywhere. But it does mean it is happening quite frequently.
Justo González: Part of the understanding has to go to the imagery that we mentioned earlier about citizenship. When an adult couple that have little children live in this country and become naturalized citizens, their children immediately, automatically become also citizens, even though they have no idea what’s going on. And any child they have thereafter is a citizen. So that if baptism is claiming a new citizenship, then those who depend on you are also citizens with you.
Catherine González: I think it’s when baptism—and this is particularly true in parts of the Reformation—when baptism is seen to be the witness of my faith, then obviously you have to be an adult to have faith you can witness to. Or at least somewhere near an adult to have a faith you can witness to. And it’s at that point that the issue of the age becomes a very different one than it was early.
María Cornou: This is a fascinating conversation. We can continue for much more time, but this is the time when our session has come to an end. I really want to thank you again for joining us, for all the wisdom and all the themes that now we will continue reflecting and investigating, probably—researching. And I want also to thank every participant in different parts of the U.S., in different parts of the world. Thank you for joining us and may our Lord bless everyone and your communities and your families.
Justo González: Thank you for having us. Sorry we couldn’t deal with all the questions, but that’s always the case.
María Cornou: Thank you.