Have you ever wondered how Christian liturgy developed from the simple meetings we see in the book of Acts to the smells and bells of Roman Catholicism? Here’s a brief snapshot of what happened:
Stage 1: Word + Table
Most scholars would agree that the earliest church services began as a natural extension of Jewish Synagogue practice with some Christian elements added. Since the earliest Christians were Jews, this would have been only natural.
Synagogue services consisted of three primary elements:
Reading the Scriptures
Instruction from the Scriptures
You’ll recall this basic structure from Luke 4 where Jesus read Isaiah in the Synagogue, closed the scroll, and declared that the prophesy was being fulfilled in him. The elements of this meeting would have fit well with the needs of the early Christian assemblies. In fact, we discover at least two of them in one of the earliest descriptions of Christians meeting in Acts 2:42. We find there that these early Christians devoted themselves to “the apostles’ doctrine” and “the prayers,” along with “the fellowship” and “the breaking of bread.” The apostles’ doctrine would correspond loosely to the reading and preaching of Scripture in Synagogue practice, and “the prayers” likely referred to specific prayers taken directly from the Synagogue.
The the earliest church meetings consisted of simple instruction from the Scriptures and prayer, just like the Synagogue, but as Acts 2:42 describes, they added another significant component, “the breaking of bread.”
Indeed, the Lord himself had commanded them to observe the breaking of bread “in remembrance (anamnēsis) of him.” And so, along with the service of the Word borrowed from Synagogue practice, early Christians added a service of the Table in which they commemorated Christ’s death on their behalf.
We know from the New Testament that Christians “broke bread” together in this way, and we even have a description of what they did in 1 Corinthians 11. Paul commands churches to (1) take bread, (2) give thanks (eucharisteō), (3) break it, and (4) consume it, repeating the same steps for the cup (replacing breaking with pouring).
These four steps came to characterize the service of the Table. One of the earliest extra-biblical sources we have describing this service is a church order called the Didache, or, “Teaching of the Twelve.” Whether or not it was actually an order composed by the Twelve is unlikely (it dates from around 100 AD), but it nevertheless gives a helpful description of what the service of the Table looked like in the early 2nd century, and it was nothing more than presenting the bread and cup, giving thanks over them, and partaking of them.
Add the Synagogue service to the Table service, and you have the basic order of early Christian worship:
Service of the Word
Reading of the Scriptures
Service of the Table
Presentation of the Elements
Prayer of Thanks
Partaking of Communion
In another early source, the Apology of Justin Martyr (160 AD), we find this basic service order presented in its fullness:
- Memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read
- The president in a discourse urges and invites us to the imitation of these things
- We all stand up together and offer prayers
- Bread is brought, and wine and water
- The president sends up prayers and thanksgivings
- The distribution and reception of the consecrated elements takes place
One other quick item to note here. Both the Didache and Justin’s Apology make clear that no unbeliever may partake of the Lord’s Table since it is a commemoration of Christ’s death by Christians. In fact, Justin and later church orders note that unbelievers, and even new converts who were not yet baptized, were dismissed prior to the service of the Table, otherwise known as the “Service of the Faithful.”
This “Dismissal” is where the common term “Mass” comes from.
Stage 2: Expansion of the Prayer of Thanks
As noted above, the prayer of thanks associated with the Table comes directly from the words of institution found in 1 Corinthians 11. The Greek word for “thanks” there is eucharisteō, and so this prayer came to be called the Eucharist Prayer.
Very early on in the development of Christian dogma, participation in the Lord’s Table became significant. It is easy to understand why, since this was what made Christians unique from Jews worshiping in the Synagogue. For example, Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of John the Apostle, called the Table the “medicine of immortality.”
It was understandable that they placed such an emphasis on the Table, but they also struggled with a particular statement Christ made during his words of institution. Jesus had said, “This bread is my body” and “This cup is my blood.” What exactly did he mean by is? Of course, the Reformers would debate this later, but early on, most Christian leaders took the statement very literally.
Ignatius claimed that the Eucharist “is the flesh of our Savior” (To the Smyrnaens). Irenaeus, a pastor in the late second century said, “The bread, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist consisting of two realities, the earthly and the heavenly” (Adversus Haereses) Likewise, Origin, a third century pastor, claimed “So that by prayer they became a certain holy body which sanctifies those who partake of it with a pure intention” (Contra Celsum).
There are a couple things to note from these statements. First, note that it is in the Eucharistic Prayer that these early theologians believed a transformation was taking place wherein the earthly elements became heavenly. Second, note that Origin claimed that this transformation, therefore, enabled the elements to “sanctify” those who took them.
This lead to significant further developments in the Prayer of Thanks itself during the service of the Table. What had originally been a simple prayer of thanks for Christ’s sacrifice now became a more elaborate ceremony during which transformation of the bread and cup took place.
An early second century church order called the Apostolic Tradition reveals this development. Notice how similar this service order is to what we saw with Justin Martyr and the Didache, except for in the expansion of the Eucharistic Prayer itself:
- Intercessory Prayer
- Presentation of Elements
- Eucharistic Prayer
- Sursum Corda
- “We render thanks…”
The Prayer is now more than a simple expression of thanks. It now includes a Preface (Salutation and Sursum Corda) where the pastor greets the congregation and admonishes them to life their hearts to the Lord, the expression of thanks itself, a prayer of “anamnesis” (Greek for “remembrance,” taken from Jesus’ words), a prayer of oblation (offering) of the elements to the Lord, a prayer of “epiclesis” (Greek for “invocation”) asking the Holy Spirit to come and bless the elements, and a trinitarian doxology.
Because of the significance of these Eucharistic Prayers, all of this became very formalized and prescribed later on. In fact, the prayers following the Preface became known as the “Canon,” or “rule.” The words spoken in the Canon were some of those most rejected by the Reformers in the sixteenth century.
However, note that none of these elements in themselves were unbiblical or antibiblical. In fact, they are from Scripture itself. The problem was that the underlying theology of the Eucharist as sacrifice and of the actual transformation of the elements into the body and blood of Christ informed what was spoken during these prayers.
Stage 3: Adding the Chants
Up to this point you may have noticed a glaring omission from these service orders: singing! This does not mean that the people didn’t sing. On the contrary, an early letter by a Roman governor named Pliny describes the fact that early Christians “sang hymns in honor of Christ as if to a god,” and Tertullian, a late second-century African pastor attests to this. We have scraps of hymns from Ignatius, Clement of Rome, and others, and many of the prescribed prayers in the Didache and other church orders of this period have hymn-like qualities.
Yet that final observation explains why singing was not listed as a separate element: the very reading of Scripture and prayer would have been chanted during this period. Early Christians did not necessarily see singing as a separate element of worship unto itself, but rather considered it a way to recite Scripture and offer prayers.
Nevertheless, by the fourth century we do find explicit references to psalms and hymns being sung throughout the service, such that a late fourth-century document called the Apostolic Constitutions describes the singing of Psalms in response to the reading of Scripture.
One of the explanations for this later addition of explicit singing may be the fact that since Christianity was declared legal in 313, Christian no longer had to worship in secret.
In any case, as early as 422, Pope Celestine I declared that all 150 Psalms be sung by everyone during worship, and thus Psalm chants were added in specific places in the service.
In particular, they were added either as responses to the reading of Scripture (this music came to be called Graduals) or during portions in the service where there would be a lot of moving but no words, such as the entrance of the priests (this was called the Introit), the presentation of the bread and cup (called the Offertory), the blessing of the elements (after the Preface in which the pastor refers to joining the angels in worship, and the people respond by singing “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty”), and the distribution of the elements (during which the words “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” were commonly sung).
Also, documents as early as the Didache admonished worshipers to be sure to confess their sins to the Lord before partaking of the Lord’s Table, something Paul commands in 1 Corinthians 11 as well. Although this was not listed in early church orders as an explicit element, this time of confession (“Lord have mercy”) and assurance of pardon through Christ (“Glory to God!”) was added to the service of the word in later church orders.
All of this developed so that by at least 700, all of the major elements of a Christian worship service were in place. The earliest official church order of the church, Ordo romanus I details the service as follows. Times of singing are marked with an *.
- *Introit (“Glory be to the Father”)
- *Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy”)
- *Gloria in excelsis Deo
- Reading from an Epistle
- *Gradual (a Psalm in response to the reading)
- Reading from a Gospel
- Sermon (usually from the Gospel Reading)
- *Offertory (Presentation of the Elements)
- Eucharistic Prayer
- Preface (Salutation and Sursum Corda)
- *Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty”)
- Canon (including anamnesis, oblation, and epiclesis)
- Prayer (“Our Father who is in heaven…”)
- *Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God…” during Distribution)
Stage 4: I Believe
One more element to complete the picture. During the Council of Nicaea in 325, church leaders debated with heretics concerning the deity and humanity of Christ, the personhood of the Holy Spirit, and the virgin birth, among other matters. One of the outcomes of the council was the composition of a creed that summarized their conclusions. This creed was added as a regular part of a worship service in the eleventh century, becoming another significant musical event following (or, unfortunately, sometimes replacing) the sermon.
There you have it. From the first through the twelve centuries we see a graduate development and (in some cases) complication of the simple two-fold pattern observed in the New Testament and other early extra-biblical sources.
A few conclusions to close this out:
- All of the elements of late medieval worship themselves are founded in Scripture.
- The particular words spoken in the elements, however, gradually express doctrine that runs contrary to Scripture (especially with regard to the Lord’s Table). This may be a topic for another time!
- The added pomp and circumstance resulted from a complex combination of innocent practical necessity, errant theology, and secular manipulation. Again, another topic for another time perhaps!
- In my opinion, all that we need to worship the Lord can be seen in that first order of service described by Justin Martyr in 140: Read the Word, Preach the Word, Pray, and remember the Lord’s death until he comes.