Apostolic Faith: Ancient Faith
Rev. David A. Fisher
to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God,
the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, - Hebrews 12:23
The faith of Christians is grounded in the “apostolic witness” that Jesus Christ is Risen! This apostolic faith, is the ancient faith of Holy Church, whose seeds were sown in the history, Scriptures, and faith of the ancient Israelites. The subject of this faith was born of The Virgin, Jesus the Christ, whose presence was heralded by The Forerunner, died on the Holy Cross for our sins, rose from the dead for our Salvation, and has opened for us the gates of the Kingdom, for our Divinization.
The elements of the apostolic faith reside in the reality and the event of the Church, to which is given the Sacred Scriptures, the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments), the Ecumenical Councils and Magisterium, the witness of the Martyrs, and the teachings of the Fathers of the Church.
"I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” - The Apocalypse of John (The Book of Revelation) 22:16.
II. The Event of the Church
Christianity is not another religion in the list of formal and informal human attempts to know, serve, and worship the Holy and Divine; that organizing of human effort which we call religion. Christianity is not religion, rather it is an event, the event of the Church.
The Greek word ekklesia was chosen to express not a new religion but a social event - a mode of relations of communion. …the word ekklesia was chosen so as to manifest the identity of the first Christian communities. Ecclesia continued to signify a collectivity of people who want to live together with the struggle to attain true existence, to make existence become true, as there common goal. By living together they want to realize that mode that knows no limitations of decay and death. - Christos Yannaras, Against Religion, The Alienation of the Ecclesial Event, pp. 21-22
The event of the Church is the actualization of communal faith grounded in Word and Sacrament. The first Christians realized that the Jewish Scriptures in its Law, Psalms, and Prophets were a proclamation of what the prophet Jeremiah called the New Covenant, which is Jesus Christ, and that he would always be known and present to his Church in the “Breaking of the Bread,” the Eucharist.
The event of the Church is the realization of “theosis” (becoming god-like) in the arena of human existence. The Church founded by the apostles of the Lord experienced that, “God is love” (1 John 4:8), meaning God realizes in his eternal nature the perfection of communion (love), for Jesus reveals the Trinitarian nature of God. God is love, God is freedom - not at the level of will as human beings experience it, but on the level of being. The Church Fathers (Gregory Nanzianzus, Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus) coined the term “Perichoresis” in Greek (literally meaning “rotation”) to describe the interpenetrating reality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - eternally constituting the being (love and freedom) of the One God. Theosis therefore is the coming to full-stature of what it means to be human, what it means to be a Christian. That by the death and resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the New Covenant in the blood of Christ, transforms us, breaks the bonds of death caused by sin, so that we can have life and life in its fullness; theosis (becoming god-like), “being” constituted by love and freedom.
III. The Church: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic
“This is the sole Church of Christ, which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic." These four characteristics, inseparably linked with each other, indicate essential features of the Church and her mission. The Church does not possess them of herself; it is Christ who, through the Holy Spirit, makes his Church one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, and it is he who calls her to realize each of these qualities. - Catechism of the Catholic Church, part 1, section 2, chapter 3, article 9, paragraph 3, number 811
The Church is the Holy Mystery (Sacrament) of Salvation, in which the “two hands of the Father” (from St. Irenaeus), the Son and the Holy Spirit continually form its essential nature of being One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. The being of the Church is constituted like the Lord Jesus himself as “love” and “freedom”. As Paul writes in Romans 16:16, “Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.” Early Christians realized that the community of the Church was their family, not based on blood relation, or tribal and ethnic ties, but in the liberating free faith in Christ, creating a bond of love in which all who embrace this faith become One in Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
The Oneness of the Church is the unity of its Head, Jesus Christ, with its Body, the People of God, the Holiness of the Church is that it is filled with the Holy Spirit, the Catholicity of the Church is its evangelical mission to proclaim the truth of Christ to all men and women, and the Apostolic nature of the Church is the fundamental witness of the apostles of Jesus, the Easter Proclamation - that he is Risen.
God, did not intend us to be burdened with care and troubled about many things...He meant us to be free from care and to have one work to perform, to sing as do the angels, without ceasing...the praises of the Creator, and to delight in contemplation of Him - St. John of Damascus
IV. The Eucharistic Mystery
In Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, there is found the oldest passage in the New Testament concerning the actual celebration of the Eucharist:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. - 1 Corinthians 11:23-27 New American Bible (Revised Edition/NABRE)
So often we tend to define the Church as an institution rather than as an event. By reflecting upon the nature of the Eucharistic celebration we rediscover that the Church is not just another human institution or even just another religion within the pantheon of world religions, rather it is the event in which God transforms men and women through the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving = Eucharist, by receiving together as brothers and sisters in the Lord, his Body and Blood.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us of the essential elements of the liturgy by which Our Lord promised he would be present to his Church:
1352 The anaphora: with the Eucharistic Prayer - the prayer of thanksgiving and consecration - we come to the heart and summit of the celebration …the Church gives thanks to the Father, through Christ, in the Holy Spirit, for all his works: creation, redemption, and sanctification.
1353 In the epiclesis, the Church asks the Father to send his Holy Spirit on the bread and wine, so that by his power they may become the body and blood of Jesus Christ and so that those who take part in the Eucharist may be one body and one spirit.
In the institution narrative, the power of the words and the action of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit, make sacramentally present under the species of bread and wine Christ's body and blood, his sacrifice offered on the cross once for all.
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church
The firm belief that Christ is present in the bread and wine offered by Holy Church to the Holy Trinity, to be transformed into the Body and Blood of its Savior, is held as an article of faith by all the Ancient Churches (Roman Catholic, Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Ancient Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian Orthodox).
In the disciples encounter with the Risen Lord on the road to Emmaus in Luke’s Gospel, there is given to the Church the Apostolic Witness that Christ is really present in Word (Sacred Scripture) and Eucharistic Mystery (Bread and Wine):
And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” - Luke 24:30-32 (NABRE)
In the Catholic Church the reawakening of liturgical theology that began in the nineteenth century, and has continued forward in dialogue with the Orthodox Churches, has led to the rediscovery that the Eucharist makes the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ in the world because its Eucharistic Lord and Savior, is present in the Holy Mysteries given to the faithful.
V. The Patristic Heritage
The Ancient Faith is given first expression after the Apostles themselves by the Fathers of the Church. Indeed, these theologians were not men and women of the ivory tower or academic institution, rather they were monks, nuns, hermits, bishops, outstanding in their ability to communicate their experience of God in prayer, fasting, self-denial, and pastoral ministry. Before the 4th century and Constantine’s legalization and promotion of the Church, many of the Patristic thinkers were martyrs and confessors (scourged) for the Christian faith.
The Fathers of the Church represent the expression of many languages and cultures as the Christian faith began to spread beyond the Holy Land and Mediterranean world. Armenia becomes the first kingdom to adopt Christianity as its official religion in 301 AD, followed by Aksum (ancient Ethiopia), and eventually the “Ecumenical Empire,” that being the Roman Empire itself. The Fathers of the Church spoke, thought, and wrote in Greek, Syriac, Latin, Coptic, et al.
In the Christian West the thought of Saint Augustine of Hippo Regius (modern day Tunisia) will come to dominate in an almost exclusive manner. Not only in the Patristic Era but into Medieval Scholasticism and the Protestant Reformation (Martin Luther was an Augustinian Friar), Augustinian thought will be foundational to Latin theological thought, even for Saint Thomas Aquinas (for example The Just War Theory of Saint Thomas, which he developed from the writings of Saint Augustine).
In the Christian East however, there is found a plethora of Patristic thinkers, problems, controversies, and responses to the greatest questions of the First Christian Millennium. Here we find Aphrahat, Ephrem the Syrian, Isaac of Nineveh, Jacob of Sarug and others, writing in Syriac, often in poetic form, employing Sacred Scriptures in forming their beautiful canvas of biblical typology. We discover the Apostolic Fathers (those who knew the disciples of the Apostles) like Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus who travels from Palestine to the persecuted Christians in Lyon; they are the first to have, be able to reflect upon, and pray with a body of writings that will become the New Testament. Among the Greek writers there are the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nanzianzus known as “The Theologian”), Arius the Arch-heretic, and his counter Athanasius of Alexandria the defender of Nicene orthodoxy (The Nicene Creed), to name just a few.
It is in the Patristic era that the great Ecumenical Councils define the central Christian dogmas concerning the Holy Trinity and the nature of Christ. It also the milieu in which the unbroken Church suffers its first schisms; the Nestorian Schism after the Council of Ephesus, the Chalcedonian Schism after the Council of Chalcedon, creating a separated Christianity that has lasted until today (of course with further divisions in 1054 AD with the Great Schism of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, et al.)
With the Fathers of the Church we see the expansion of what we call today enculturation, whose origins we see in the missionary journeys of Saint Paul and his preaching to the Gentile world. Yet, above all the Wisdom of Fathers is not one of intellectual reasoning but first and foremost the constant deepening of faith through prayer.
"Examine the actions of each day, advance in virtue, that you may become a companion of the angels." - St. Basil the Great