Unity in the Ante-Nicene Church

Jan 19th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

With a title like this, the reader might initially expect a long list of patristic quotes, but I’ll take a different route. In fact, I intend to write this without quoting the fathers even once. Let’s see if I can withstand the temptation.

The ante-Nicene Church was, from a political perspective, an illegal network that broke away from the tolerated Jewish religion. This underground status made Christian unity a true challenge. After the Edict of Milan in 313 AD when Christianity became legal, great strides were made towards liturgical and episcopal unity, but that unity developed and flourished from a foundation of unity which extends all the way back to the Jerusalem Church of Acts. I would like to examine three principles of unity in the early centuries of Christianity: government, liturgy, and doctrine.

The Church, as the Scriptures explained, is a Body and therefore her unity is hierarchical. This episcopal unity is expressed most clearly in the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch and in St. Cyprian of Carthage, particularly in his treatise De Unitate. But this unity isn’t mere pragmatism; it is intrinsically related to the apostolic mission. Jesus commanded the apostles to “Do this in memory of Me” and also to “make disciples of all nations,” and in carrying out this mission, they appointed elders and overseers in the churches they planted. The early fathers then rightly saw the episcopal office as a key principle of sacramental unity. To be outside of the rightful bishop was to be outside of the altar of Christ. The mission of the Church was to offer the sacrifice of Eucharistia, and this was impossible outside of the rightful leaders who had been entrusted with the episcopacy.

Although Charlemagne made great strides towards this end, it wasn’t until the Council of Trent that liturgical uniformity dominated the face of the Western Church. One can only imagine what type of liturgical variance you would find in the ante-Nicene Church as you visited communities in different areas. As far as liturgical texts go, we have next to nothing from this period outside of Hippolytus so we are left to piece the early liturgy together as an archeologist constructs a dinosaur from incomplete fossils. This reconstruction is largely based on 4th century texts, and by the time these descriptive texts surface, several strands of liturgical tradition are in place. But we know that they all developed from a single liturgical tradition.

The existence of these differences does not indicate a lack of true liturgical unity. In fact, when St. Polycarp visited Rome, despite their lack of agreement, Pope Anicetus conceded the administration of the Eucharist to the Eastern bishop. This moving account is a powerful testimony of the liturgical unity even between East and West in the mid second century. St. Polycarp’s disciple, St. Irenaeus, is another liturgical bridge from East to West; moving from Asia Minor to Gaul where he was eventually installed as the bishop of Lyons.

The liturgy was normative for the Church in both action and belief. Lex orandi lex credendi; the prayer of the early Church informed her faith and vice versa. This faith of the Church, which logically precedes the faith of the individual who is united to it,1 is built on the apostolic foundation. Thus, when the Christological controversies appeared, the Church looked, in part, to the unified source of her liturgical life. As scholars such as Pelikan have observed, she responded, “We’ve been worshiping Jesus this whole time, He must be God!”

It is clear that this liturgical unity resulted from an original unified source. It was not a “lowest common denominator” unity, nor was it an average of the different strands of tradition. This unity was not an alliance of churchmen; that is to say, most importantly, it was not manufactured by men.

The importance of doctrinal unity must not be overlooked. Again, we obviously begin with a wholly unified source (the apostolic teaching), but as generations passed, could the Church be self confident that she had retained it without error or corruption? St. Hegesippus believed so in the second century. En route to Rome, he made inquiries of many bishops and found them to be united in doctrine all over the Christian world. Tertullian, in his days as a Catholic, finds that only churches which were apostolic had the right to interpret the Scriptures, but younger churches, who were not founded by an apostle, were also called apostolic in virtue of their submission in unity to that same apostolic deposit.

The regula fidei, that which had been believed ‘everywhere and always,’ was a powerful unifying force in the early Church. Of course, this deposit must be understood in its correct context, i.e. informed by the divine liturgical life of the Church and in submission to the rightful leaders. Doctrine was a unifying force, but alone it could not suffice for the sacramental unity we see in the early Church.

We have seen that in spite of her challenges as an illegal institution, the ante-Nicene Church was strongly united for several important reasons. Even the sporadic persecution of the ante-Nicene Church was in some ways a catalyst to unity. In the dispute with Paul of Samosata, secular legislation began to play a significant role in Church uniformity, and this would be increasingly true at Nicaea and thereafter. But the ante-Nicene Church was sacramentally united before these developments solidified her ecclesiology. The Holy Spirit used all of these things to preserve the unity of the Church.

If we are to revive that sacramental unity enjoyed by our forefathers, it will only be through the vehicle for unity which Christ established. We will not study our way into unity, nor will we arrange our liturgies until they are similar enough. We cannot ignore enough doctrinal differences until we feel united, and we cannot draw up an arbitrary list of ‘essentials for salvation’ and pretend that this will suffice. This is all to say that if we are to be united once again, as the ante-Nicene Church was, it shall be achieved through the Church and not the university. Reunification will not be achieved by textual criticism or by commentary and far less by sentimentalism. It will be achieved by Christians on their knees before Christ’s altar.

  1. CCC 1124 – http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p2s1c1a2.htm []
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