The following is not something I wrote. It was written by Fr. Michael Pahls, a clergyman in Arkansas who has spent a great deal more time studying and thinking about this sort of thing than I. What follows are some basic thoughts on handling the question of where the liturgy (worship practices) and discipline (Holy Orders & other practices) of the Church comes from. Eventually I intend to focus in on parts of this and comment on it myself, but for now I just want to share it with my readers, as well as save it in a more findable location than Facebook so I can reference it again easily.
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Of the numerous conversations afoot on the normative value of the Bible and/or patristic sources for contemporary liturgical or sacramental practice, very little consideration has been given to historical-theological methodology. That’s to be expected, of course. Most of us were formed in seminary or church environs where research was driven by governing stories of continuity or discontinuity. Thus, we are either “undiluted successors of the Apostles/Fathers” or heroic “restorers of the Apostolic/Patristic inheritance” after the apostasy of the Medieval Church. These mythologies of succession and supercession are, of course, belied by the recognition that “Apostolic,” “Patristic,” and “Medieval” are all terribly complicated realities that overlook the complications of century-wide time spans and an incredibly wide geographical base. This problem is only deepened by past and present accessibility of source material. So that so influential a work as Dom Gregory Dix’s 1945 *Shape of the Liturgy* or Edward Yarnold’s 1972 *Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation*are of very little value for an adequate understanding of early Christian liturgical/sacramental practice.
Current research on these matters really with Paul Bradshaw’s 1992 *Search for the Origins of Christian Worship* (though it was in many ways preceded by Georg Kretchmar’s 1963 article, “Beiträge zur Geschichte der Liturgie, inbesondere der Taufliturgie, in Ägypten”) and turns on four operative presuppositions: 1) We know far less about the first three centuries of Christian liturgical practice than has been previously thought. 2) What we do know points to considerable diversity rather than a previously assumed uniformity. 3) The “classical shape of the liturgy ” is more the result of the fourth century assimilation of different traditions than the perseverance of an original apostolic pattern. 4) The post-Nicene era reflects frequent liturgical compromise and mutation rather than the triumph of one way of doing things.
Now, this way of viewing things suggests several important features for any credible liturgical/sacramental/theological/canonical claims in the present day:
- We must be very humble when making any claims about “catholic” or “normative” practices in the apostolic and/or subapostolic period. Establishing a practice in AD 67 Ephesus or AD 200 Carthage does not warrant the universalization of said practice either geographically or temporally. Many times we can’t even establish whether a proposed practice represents an actual practice or simply an author’s fervent wish.
- Description never counts as prescription in the ante-Nicene church. Because the irreducible and empirically demonstrable diversity of pre-fourth century Christianity touched all areas of ecclesial life—Holy Orders, Biblical Canonicity, Creedal Theology, and Liturgy—we can no more commend a single normative practice than we can commend the Gospel of Judas as canonical or modalism as a normative dogma.
- The place to look for “Apostolic Christianity” isn’t, as we might guess, somewhere prior to 300. Rather, the assimilation taking place generally in the 4th century suggests that the church was finally able to consult with itself after Constantine and the attendant cessation of local and imperial persecutions. Therefore, we should read the Bible and the early fathers according to the light provided by this Nicene/Post-Nicene consensus. A universal three-fold holy orders, an authoritative canon of Scripture, a coherent creedal theology, and a normative liturgy all appear in the fourth century and were specifically commended by the church as a stable Catholic and Apostolic inheritance. This conciliar possibility, to my mind, is the most convincing argument for episcopacy and apostolic succession as of the plene esse of the Church.
- Attempts, both “liberal” and “conservative”, to get behind this Nicene consensus to some purer Christianity are, almost always, driven by mythologies of succession and/or supercession and they almost always court schism and/or heresy.