Thursday, December 16, 2010

Introduction to the Apostolic Fathers (Part II)

Athanasius Initially the movement was considered Jewish but the Church rapidly became predominantly Gentile, though of course many Christian traditions have Jewish origins. The early Christians used the Greek translation of the Old Testament as their Sacred Scriptures. The early Christians pointed to the fulfillment of the Old Testament in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. To these Scriptures they gradually add the memoirs of the apostles, the Gospels, and the later writings of the New Testament. In antiquity some of the documents found in the Apostolic Fathers were considered to be part of Sacred Scripture by early church theologians and historians. The canon established by the Church at the time of Athanasius in AD 367, excluded these writings from full canonical status. The rejection of these documents as part of Sacred Scripture does not mean the documents were lacking in orthodoxy, but only in the judgment of the Church they are not inspired Scripture. At the time these documents were written the Church had no legal status in the Roman Empire and was subject to frequent persecutions. These persecutions lead to the martyrdom of some of the early Fathers.

The Apostles also established common patterns for worship and behavior in the churches they founded (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:17; 7:17; 11:16; 14:33). Most important among these beliefs and practices were the rites surrounding the celebration of the Eucharist. St. Paul notes; “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." (1 Corinthians 11:23-24). In saying that he “received” and “delivered” this tradition, the Apostle Paul is using the technical language of tradition. St. Paul does not give us the full Eucharistic prayers but recounts the essential story of the institution narrative. The Didache repeats some other early prayers from this Eucharistic tradition,

And concerning the Eucharist, hold Eucharist thus: First concerning the Cup, "We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the Holy Vine of David thy child, which, thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy child; to thee be glory for ever." And concerning the broken Bread: "We give thee thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child. To thee be glory for ever. (Didache 9)

It is likely that these prayers are modeled on the Jewish prayers of “sanctification” or (qiddush) that were given before a meal. Normally the form begins “Blessed are you, Lord our God.” The Greek equivalent of this blessing is “We give you thanks” (eucharistein). It is from this word that we get the name ‘Eucharist.’ Studying the early Fathers helps us to discern the lines of continuity and the organic development between the New Testament and the later Church.

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