Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Where Did We Ever Get the Notion that the "Elements" of the Lord's Supper Constitute a "Supper"? (Part 3)

If you missed them, the first two installments in this series may be accessed below:

Part 1

Part 2

The Testimony of Early Church History
By the middle of the second century the Eucharist and the accompanying meal stand as separate ceremonies, presumably to keep the Eucharist from becoming profaned by the participation of unbelievers. While some scholars think that the origin of this separation can be traced back to the so-called “Pauline Precedent” in 1 Corinthians 11, Townsend is no doubt correct in ascribing this separation to the post-apostolic period. As Townsend notes:

At the earliest stage of the tradition however, there is no evidence that such a procedure [of separating the Eucharist from the Agape] was envisaged. We must be extremely careful not to read back into the NT from the undoubted practice of the second and subsequent Christian centuries. (“Exit the Agape?,” ExpT 90 (1978-79) 359-60.
This separation, then, most likely occurred during the second century; yet throughout the NT period and even beyond “Christians met together to hold common meals that were more than a token reception of bread and wine” (Marshall, Last Supper and Lord’s Supper, 111). Marshall is no doubt right in his belief that whatever may have been the relationship between the Eucharist and the common meal in later times, “they belonged together in New Testament times” (ibid., 145). Although we cannot know with certainty the exact date at which this separation occurred, we can nevertheless adduce the general period by examining some of the writings of the second century.

Although Tertullian does not make the express connection between the Eucharist and the Agape, we know with certainty that the Agape was still in practice during his time. In Apology 39.16, Tertullian describes for us a meeting of the early church during an Agape. His thrust is clearly to defend the Christian feast against false accusations of extravagance. Tertullian insists that at this feast Christians eat and drink as “temperate people,” eating only as much as satisfies hunger and drinking only as much as needed to quench thirst. Through it all, Tertullian gives no indication that there would be cessation of partaking of this meal. On the contrary, he insists that it involves nothing that can be considered illegal and characterizes the feast as a “rule of life” for Christians. Moreover, it seems likely that Tertullian views the Agape as the Lord’s Supper itself since he contrasts its practice with the meals held by the pagans in honor of Hercules and Serapis. It would be strange if the parallel he makes does not correspond to the Lord’s Supper.

Clement of Alexandria
In his The Instructor, Clement of Alexandria writes extensively about the Agape. As with Tertullian above, we cannot know with certainty whether the bread and wine are to be included in Clement’s Agape. However, there are indications that Clement sees the Agape and the bread and wine as integral parts of the same practice. When contrasting the Christian Agape with the feasts practiced by non-Christians he writes: “But we who seek the heavenly bread must rule the belly” (Book 2, 1.1). This can only be an allusion to John 6. Clement’s language sometimes suggests that he is against the idea of a Christian feast altogether; yet it is clear that Clement is interested only in the separation of extravagance from the meal, not in abandoning the meal itself (v. 15) He believes the Agape should be a means of showing love to the poor, and is meant to provide sustenance, not pleasure (vv. 7, 11). Far from abandoning the Agape, Clement desires only to correct potential abuses of it.

The Letter of Pliny
One of the earliest pieces of evidence that we have for the post-apostolic practice of the early church is that found in a letter of Pliny to the Emperor Trajan dated about a.d. 111-112. In this letter Pliny relates the testimony of former Christians who have defected and renounced Christ. The portion of the letter that alludes to the Agape is one that is often cited in quips and quotes in some of the more popular manuals of church history:

They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before sunrise and reciting an antiphonal hymn to Christ as God, and binding themselves with an oath—not to commit any crime, but to abstain from all acts of theft, robbery and adultery, from breaches of faith, from denying a trust when called upon to honor it. After this, they went on, it was their custom to separate, and then to meet again to partake of food, but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. And even this, they said, they had given up doing since the publication of my edict in which, according to your instructions, I had placed a ban on private associations. (Pliny to the Emperor Trajan 96).
The last two sentences are of particular interest to those attempting to pinpoint the exact date of the cessation of the Agape. Clearly Pliny may be describing nothing other than the Christian feast, and for this reason many scholars have seen in this edict the end of the Agape as practiced in the first century. The widely held view is that the phrase, “even this they had given up doing since my edict,” refers to the church at large abandoning the common meal. But just how this letter supports the separation of the bread and wine from the Agape is not readily apparent. The cessationist view merely assumes that “they” refers to the entire church. It is more likely, in light of the fact that Pliny’s knowledge is taken from former Christians—who in turn were making statements in denial of the charge that they were continuing in their associations with other Christians—that “they” refers here not to the church, but to these former Christians only. In other words, the former Christians had given up meeting with the church since the publication of the edict. These may have been nominal Christians who had joined the ranks of the church perhaps for social reasons and left for purposes of expediency; namely, the threat of execution! (“So far this has been my procedure when people were charged before me with being Christians. . . . I ordered them to be led off to execution”).

Moreover, it is doubtful that the phrase, “and even this, they said, they had given up doing since the publication of my edict,” refers to the Agape specifically, but more likely refers to the act of meeting together with the church, which the former Christians had ceased to do. Indeed, the ban was placed upon “private associations,” not on cultic meals. Hence, the phrase refers to the apostate Christians giving up meeting with the church, not to the church giving up holding an Agape.

The Didache
One other significant writing of the early second century that deserves mention in regard to the Agape is the Didache. In Did. 14 there are instructions on gathering together, one reason of which is to break bread. Did. 9-10, however, gives more explicit details about the early second-century procedure for the Lord’s Supper celebration. In Did. 10, immediately after the instructions about the sayings over the bread and cup, the writer says: “And after you are satisfied, thus give thanks,” and then proceeds to give instructions about prayer after the meal. The writer implies an actual meal here, for who could become “satisfied” by feasting on a token meal? He makes the same allusion to a meal in the prayer said after the meal: “You, Almighty Master, created all things for your name’s sake, and gave food and drink to men for enjoyment.” The food for which the writer gives thanks is for “enjoyment,” not for representation. The allusion to a meal in connection with the Lord’s Supper is revealing, for it indicates that the Agape was still very much a part of the bread and wine in the early second century.

Consequently, it cannot be until later that the Agape faded from the scene. This in turn implies that there was no apostolic intent of the Agape ever ceasing. On the contrary, from Paul to Jude to the second-century church we have a consistent witness of a universal practice of the Agape without the slightest hint that it should not be practiced.