Church History: A Biblical View
Part II - The Ante-Nicene Age: Lesson No. 11 Changes in Doctrine
I . Introduction
Though the emphasis in recent lessons has been upon the departures of the post-apostolic church from New Testament teachings concerning the organization for the church, it should not be forgotten that other changes in doctrine and practice, though perhaps more subtly and slowly, were also being made. This could only be expected. When men refuse to acknowledge, and adhere to, the authoritative pattern of the New Testament in one particular there is no reason for them to do so in other matters. Apostasy cannot long be confined to one aspect of the church. It may be that changes in the organizational structure of the church had to occur first in order to provide an avenue for further apostasies. This is to say that the basis of authority had to be shifted from the New Testament and the bishops of local churches to sources such as tradition, monarchical bishops, the clergy, and synods, for the New Testament itself contained no justification for the coming apostasies. Thus, the initial organizational changes paved the way for changes in doctrine, worship, and other practices. In confirmation of this it may be observed that those sects which are most foreign to the New Testament in their practices have sources of authority and organizations just as foreign to the New Testament.
II. Changes in Worship
A. Days of worship. The day of the week on which saints gathered for worship in the apostolic age was the first day of the week, or Sunday (Acts 20:7; I Cor. 16:1,2; Rev. 1:10). This continued to be the case after the deaths of the apostles. Eventually, Wednesday and Friday were set aside as days of fasting. Easter season became the greatest event of the year, and was considered an especially appropriate time for baptisms.
B. Lord's Supper. The Lord's Supper (which became known as the Eucharist, from the Greek verb, "eucharisteo," meaning "to give thanks") was the main focal point of the service in the post-apostolic church. Probably due to the strong influence of heathen and Jewish practices, as well as those of the mystery religions, slow but fundamental changes
began to occur in Christians' minds toward the Lord's Supper . (1) Real presence of Christ., Christians began to take more and more literally Christ's words with respect to the bread and wine, "This is My body," and "This is My blood" (Matt. 26:26-29). It gave dramatic meaning to the Lord's Supper to believe that Christ was really present in the elements, though it would be many years later before this idea would reach full bloom and it be concluded how He was present. (2) Sacrament. This is defined by a Catholic source as "a sacred sign instituted by Christ to give grace" (Life in Christ, p.161). Thus, the idea began to arise that partaking of the Lord's Supper, per se, could confer special benefits, such as forgiveness of sins, upon the partakers. Consequently, the threat of exclusion from the Lord's Supper became a powerful weapon of manipulation in the hands of the clergy. (3) Sacrifice. Again, though it took many more years to become fully developed, the idea that the observance of the Lord's Supper was a renewal of the sacrifice of Christ began to gain popularity. This thinking made a great contribution to the prestige and power of the clergy. Something fraught with such awesome importance required the special handling of skilful hands and knowledgeable minds; that is, those of "priests."
C. Veneration of "saints." The term, "saint" means "holy one" one set apart to the service of God. In the New Testament all Christians were regarded as saints (I Cor. 1:2). However, the term eventually came to be used exclusively in reference to a few pious elite who had attained a special degree of holiness by virtue of their works. Early persecutions also produced a number of martyrs. Saints and martyrs at first were honored and commemorated, but they eventually began to be prayed to and venerated. Even their relics were highly prized. This was the roots of saint-worship.
III. Baptism and Forgiveness of Sins
A. Baptism. This early became a matter of diverse and heated controversies.
(1) Formula. Whether the names of all of the Trinity were to be pronounced at baptism (Matt. 28:19), or only that of Christ (Acts 2:38), was a matter of concern. Supposedly, it was the practice of the early post-apostolic churches to immerse the candidate once for each of the three members of the Trinity.
(2) Catechumens. This was one who was receiving instruction in the faith preparatory to his baptism. This practice of deferring baptism until the candidate was properly taught was thought to protect the church from unworthy members. The period of instruction might last two or three years.
(3) Subjects. There are no references to infant baptism until an obscure one by Ireneus about 185. However, infant baptism began to be increasingly popular because infants, as much as adults, were thought to be in need of the benefits conferred through baptism.
(4) Administrants. The mid-Third Century witnessed a heated controversy over validity of heretical baptism. Out of this controversy grew additional emphasis upon the qualifications of the ones administering baptism. Hence, it became a rite to be performed by the clergy with appropriate ritualism attending it. Nonmembers were excluded from baptisms.
(5) Method. Though immersion has always prevailed in the East, it began to give way to pouring (affusion) water over the head in the West. At first it was done only in those cases which supposedly necessitated it.
B. Forgiveness of sins. (1) Unforgivable sins. This was also a matter of long and general discussion. The number and kind of unforgivable sins kept fluctuating, but renunciation of faith was perhaps the most persistent one.
(2) Absolution. Persecutions produced many disavowals of faith which, in turn, raised the question of forgiveness for those who desired restoration. Though practices differed, the right to pronounce penance (involving "making amends") and absolution (forgiveness) was ultimately granted to the clergy - another step which vastly increased their power.
IV. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)
(1) Match the following.
____Saints A. One being instructed preparatory to baptism
____Absolution B. Making of amends for sin
____Penance C. "Holy ones"
____Catechumen D. Pouring
____Affusion E. Forgiveness of sin
(2) How did organizational changes prepare the way for doctrinal changes?
(3) The attitude toward the Lord's Supper, which became known as the ________ changed in what three ways?
(4) What were several controversies that arose over baptism?
(5) What were two or three changes which increased the power of the clergy?
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