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10 January 2007
  Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries

Originally posted at Necessary Roughness. Please leave any comments there.

I don’t remember who exactly in the #tabletalk IRC chat room directed me to this book in answer to my question, “What was meant by ‘the communion of saints’ in the Apostles’ Creed?” I thank them nonetheless.

Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries, originally written in German by Werner Elert and translated into English by N. E. Nagel, is a fascinating book detailing early church practice, the schisms that occurred and why, and even a couple of attempts at unification.

Elert answers the question by going first to the Creed in the original Greek and then to the Latin that has been used in church liturgy. He argues that the Greek follows more closely with a “communion of holy things” rather than a communion of people. The phrase simply means Holy Communion. The Latin language did not denote as specifically as the Greek the difference between people and objects, so holy people, or “saints” as we know it, worked its way into the Creed.

Throughout the book the author emphasizes that the coming together of people does not constitute the Sacrament of Holy Communion. People of different beliefs have been brought together and even forced to take communion together by emperors in an effort to show church unity where there was none. Elert tells the reader, “The fellowship-nature of the Sacrament is in this that Christ incorporates into Himself those who partake of it.” The words of Christ in the creation of the Lord’s Supper “are without analogy and are therefore not to be explained by means of other examples.”

The reader is led from the true doctrine of the earliest believers into increasing degrees of human defenses and human error. The episcopate, the canon of the New Testament, and the Rule of Faith which manifested itself in the confession of creed and doctrine, defended the Gospel early on. The episcopate and the Rule of Faith were expanded and given more power, eventually causing more schisms. Penitential periods for gross sin started out as a time for re-instruction but turned into punishments and penances. Civil government got involved and began to enforce unity through coercion rather than discussion.

A background in Greek and Latin is helpful but not necessary to understanding this book. It is a fast and easy read, a credit to both Elert and his translator. I came away with this with an adjustment in my thinking about church discipline: ideally, refusal of the Lord’s Supper and excommunication are not new punishments but outward indications of the split one has already done himself from what is taught in the Bible. The first half of this book would be of wonderful use in a Bible study, and the rest is simply good history.

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