The Liturgical Significance of Justin Martyr’s Apology

Martin M. Davis

[Mr Davis is an Anglican and and this paper of his is a good summary of Justin Martyr and early Orthodox Christianity  – RAS]

justinmartyrJustin Martyr wrote his famous Apology from Rome circa 150 A.D. He wrote to defend the Christian faith against attackers who claimed that Christians practiced cannibalism (they ate flesh and drank blood) as well as incest (brothers and sisters kissed one another and went home together, presumably to engage in illicit sex). Justin wrote his Apology to Emperor Antoninus Pius, not only to defend the faith against such outrageous allegations, but to explain to the emperor the practices of the early Church. Justin’s Apology is important to the study of liturgics because it provides an early witness to the form and, to a limited extent, content of early Christian worship.

Justin’s Apology describes the Eucharist in the context of both Christian initiation (baptism) and a regular Sunday gathering. Apparently, the practices described were well-established at the time Justin wrote; hence, it is reasonable to assume that these practices had been in existence for some time, perhaps as early as 100 A. D. (or earlier).

According to Justin (ch. 65),

After we have thus cleansed the person who believes and has joined our ranks, we lead him or her in to where those we call brothers are assembled.

It is the person who has been “initiated” by baptism that is brought into the fellowship of “brothers” wherein the Eucharist is celebrated. The Eucharist is not a gathering open to the “general public”; only the initiated–that is, baptized believers–are invited to participate in the Eucharistic assembly.

Justin continues his Apology by noting that prayers are offered

in common for ourselves, for the one who has just been enlightened (i.e., baptized), and for all human beings everywhere.

Here we see an early tradition of community or “common” prayer wherein intercessory prayers are offered for those in attendance, the newly baptized, and for “human beings everywhere.” At the end of common prayer, the participants greet one another with a “holy kiss.”

Next,

bread and a cup of water and mixed wine are brought to him who presides over the brethren. He takes them and offers prayers glorifying the Father of the universe through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and he utters a lengthy eucharist because the Father has judged us worthy of these gifts.

Not only does Justin provide an early Trinitarian statement; he also provides an extra-biblical witness to the centrality of bread and wine in early Christian worship. Moreover, he shows that there is already a pattern of “stereotyped” movements on the part of the celebrant; that is, he “who presides over the brethren “takes,” “offers,” and “utters” according to what appears to be a clearly established routine or pattern. Additionally, we see that the Church has already developed a “lengthy” eucharistic prayer even at this early date. Nevertheless, the specific text of that prayer is not known. While there were, doubtless, many local variations in the prayer, it is likely to have followed the general format of Christ’s words at the Last Supper. When the common prayers and eucharist are ended, the participants voice their assent with an “amen.”

Finally, according to Justin, the deacons

distribute the ‘eucharistified’ bread and the wine and water over which the eucharist has been spoken, to each of those present; they also carry them to those who are absent.” The elements are no longer ordinary bread and wine; rather they have been “eucharistified

that is, they have been consecrated or set apart for sacred use. The consecrated elements are then carried to those brethren who are absent from the assembly.

Later in his Apology (ch. 66), Justin describes the food (consecrated elements) as “eucharist.” Hence, the technical meaning of the term, eucharist, is extended not only to the eucharistic prayer but also to the elements themselves. Justin tells us that

no one may share it [the eucharist] unless he believes that our teaching is true, and has been cleansed in the bath of forgiveness for sin and of rebirth, and lives as Christ taught.

Thus, there are three conditions for participation in the eucharist:

1) participants must believe the teaching (condition of belief),

2) they must have been cleansed in the bath of forgiveness (condition of baptism), and

3) they must live as Christ taught (condition of self-examination).

Justin continues:

For we do not receive these things [bread and wine] as if they were ordinary food and drink.

In other words, this is no common or ordinary food that is being consumed by the early Christians at the Eucharist! Obviously, the agape or “love feast” has long since been separated from the bread and wine as part of the Christian eucharistic liturgy at the time of Justin’s writing to the emperor. Justin explains why the elements are not considered ordinary food and drink:

But, just as Jesus Christ our Savior was made flesh through the word of God and took on flesh and blood for our salvation, so too (we have been taught) through the word of prayer that comes from him, the food over which the eucharist has been spoken becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus, in order to nourish and transform our flesh and blood.

According to Justin, the elements are not to be received as if they were merely ordinary food and drink; rather, the elements become

the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus.

At a minimum, there is high eucharistic theology in Justin’s description of the elements as the Body and Blood of the incarnate Jesus. Certainly, Justin regards the eucharist as more than an anemic memorial to an event that occurred more than a century before. He asserts that the consecrated elements become the Body and Blood of Christ. On the other hand, there is no need to posit in Justin an early doctrine of transubstantiation. To do so would be anachronistic, since that doctrine was not officially adopted by the medieval Roman church until 1216 A. D., at the Council of Lateran. To paraphrase Anglican Bishop E. H. Browne, whereas Justin says that “we do not receive these things as if they were ordinary food and drink,” he evidently believes them to be yet bread and wine. Otherwise, he would have left out the word “ordinary” and said that they were no longer regarded as bread and wine at all. Moreover, to claim, as does the Romanist church, that the elements become the Body and Blood of Christ while merely retaining the appearance of bread and wine is a “sacramental form of the heresy of docetism.” Justin is not teaching that the bread and wine cease to be bread and wine and actually become body and blood. Rather, he is attempting to explain to a pagan emperor that Christians are not cannibals! He says that just as Jesus Christ took on flesh (incarnation by addition), so, too, the bread and wine “take on” the Body and Blood of Christ. Because the bread and wine have been consecrated, they become in efficacy (not literally) that which they represent. According to Daniel Dunlap, one could almost call this a “hypostatic union” between Christ and the elements (so long as the analogy is not pushed too far, since there is no “personhood” in bread and wine). Nevertheless, the Person of Christ is received in the bread and wine (“This is my body, this is my blood.”). All Christ’s promised blessings are imparted to us through the bread and wine. Therefore, we may conclude that Justin holds a high eucharistic theology that falls neither to the extremes of memorialism nor transubstantiation and reflects what would later come to be called “the real (i.e., spiritual) presence” of Christ in the Eucharist.

[NOTE by RAS. In Orthodoxy we consider the Eucharist one of the Holy a “Mystery” and do not try to explain it. We do not hold to the doctrine of transubstantiation. During the Liturgy, however, before partaking we proclaim “I Believe also that this is truly Thine own most pure Body, and that this is truly Thine own precious Blood”]

Finally, in his Apology (ch. 67), Justin writes:

On the day named after the sun, all who live in city or countryside assemble in the same place.” Here is an early, extra-biblical reference to the early Christian practice of gathering for worship on Sunday. As stated earlier, since Justin is writing around 150 A.D., one may conclude that the practice of assembly on “the day named after the sun”

(Sunday) had been established sometime well before the mid-2nd Century.

Once assembled, according to Justin, the

memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read for as long as time allows.

Clearly, the early church practiced what would later be known as the “liturgy of the word.” Both old and new testament writings were read. The practice of reading sacred scripture at the holy assembly appears to derive directly from synagogue worship, wherein scripture reading was an important part of the Jewish liturgy.

After the readings, the “president” (i.e., the one who presides over the service) addresses the congregation and exhorts them “to imitate the splendid things” that have been taught from scripture. Already, we may note in early Christian worship the now-familiar practice of scripture reading followed by a homily (sermon) expounding what has been read. The “liturgy of the word” ends with intercessory prayer wherein those assembled stand together in common prayer.

After the liturgy of the word, bread, wine, and water are brought forward. These gifts are provided by the congregation. Each person brings a little bread and wine for his own use and, perhaps, for that of others. The president of the assembly then gives thanks for the gifts (bread, wine, and water) that have been offered “according to his ability.” Since there were no prayer books or missals at this time, the celebrant prayed according to the general outline that he had received from the apostle’s teaching and the plain words of scripture as revealed especially in the Gospels and in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Thus, while Justin provides no specific text of a eucharistic prayer of the early church, we note that the “prayer of thanksgiving” is already a well-established part of the liturgy. After the people voice their assent to the eucharistic prayer with an “amen,” the “eucharistified” gifts are distributed to the congregation, with the deacons performing the additionally function of carrying them to those absent.

Justin concludes this portion of his Apology by explaining to the emperor why Christians assemble on Sunday:

We gather on the day of the sun because it is the first day, when God transformed darkness and matter and made the world; on this same day Jesus Christ, our Savior, rose from the dead.

Justin asserts that Jesus was crucified

on the eve of the day of Saturn, and on the morrow of that day, that is, the day of the Sun, he appeared to his apostles . . .

Thus, for Justin, Sunday represents both the first day of the “creative” week in which light was created, as well as the memorial of the Lord’s resurrection.

From the material provided above, the reader may confidently arrive at certain general conclusions regarding the lasting liturgical significance of Justin’s Apology:

• The early Church gathered for sacred assembly on Sunday.

• The early church practiced, at least in primitive form, both a liturgy of the word and a liturgy of the sacraments.

• The liturgy of the word included reading from both the old and new testaments.

• The president of the assembly offered a homily based on the scriptures that had been read.

• The liturgy of the word concluded with common, intercessory prayer for those present as well as for people everywhere.

• There were specific requirements for participation in the liturgy of the sacraments (i.e., communion at the Lord’s Table was not “open to the public”; it was a private gathering for baptized believers).

• The sacred use of the ordinary elements of bread, wine, and water were central components of early Christian worship.

• A primitive “offertory” or preparation of elements marks the beginning of the Eucharist Proper.

• A lengthy eucharistic prayer was a central component of early Christian worship.

• The bread and wine were “eucharisitified” (consecrated) and distributed to the faithful as well as to those absent.

• Once “eucharistified,” the bread and wine were no longer considered ordinary food and drink, but rather the Body and Blood of Christ.

Based upon the above-conclusions and the material from which they are drawn, the traditional Anglican may be encouraged and comforted by the knowledge that the service of Holy Communion, performed in accordance with the Book of Common Prayer, is an ancient practice, thoroughly rooted in the historic practice of the early church.

APPENDIX

The following are the quotations from Justin’s Apology on which this paper is based:

65. After we have thus cleansed the person who believes and has joined our ranks, we lead him or her in to where those we call “brothers” are assembled. We offer prayers in common for ourselves, for the one who has just been enlightened [ie., baptized], and for all human beings everywhere. It is our desire, now that we have come to know the truth, to be found worthy of doing good deeds and obeying the commandments, and thus to obtain eternal salvation. When we finish praying, we greet one another with a kiss. Then bread and a cup of water and mixed wine are brought to him who presides over the brethren. He takes them and offers prayers glorifying the Father of the universe through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit [an early Trinitarian statement], and he utters a lengthy eucharist because the Father has judged us worthy of these gifts. When the prayers and eucharist are finished, all the people present give their assent with an “Amen!” “Amen” in Hebrew means “So be it!” When the president has finished his eucharist and the people have all signified their assent, those whom we call “deacons” distribute the “eucharistified” bread and the wine and water over which the eucharist has been spoken, to each of those present; they also carry them to those who are absent.

66, 1-2. This food we call “eucharist,” and no one may share it unless he believes that our teaching is true and has been cleansed in the bath of forgiveness for sin and of rebirth, and lives as Christ taught. For we do not receive these things as if they were ordinary food and drink. But, just as Jesus Christ our Savior was made flesh through the word of God and took on flesh and blood for our salvation, so too (we have been taught) through the word of prayer that comes from him, the food over which the eucharist has been spoken becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus, in order to nourish and transform our flesh and blood.

67, 3-5,7. On the day named after the sun, all who live in city or countryside assemble in the same place. The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read for as long as time allows. When the lector has finished, the president addresses us and exhorts us to imitate the splendid things we have heard. Then we all stand and pray. As we said earlier, when we have finished praying, bread, wine, and water are brought up. The president then prays and gives thanks according to his ability. And the people give their assent with an “Amen!” Next, the gifts, which have been “eucharistified” are distributed, and everyone share in them, while they are also sent via the deacons to the absent brethren . . . We gather on the day of the sun because it is the first day, when God transformed darkness and matter and made the world; on this same day Jesus Christ, our Savior, rose from the dead. For he was crucified on the eve of the day of Saturn, and on the morrow of that day, that is, the day of the Sun, he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught them the things which we have submitted for your examination.

 

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