Posted 11 June 2011 - 06:58 PM
As others have already hinted at, there is a profound degree of 'fiction' (if I may gratefully copy that usage from Fr Raphael) in the air as to just what early Christians did in their worship; and this was behind the whole 20th-century Protestant fascination with 're-creating the New Testament Church', which has largely died down but still exists in various forms today.
The 'testimony' most often given in support of a vision of some pristine, simple early form (later made complex, etc. - such constructions as we've read above) is often drawn from single statements in the New Testament, or from extracted notes by one or another Father (e.g. St Justin the Philosopher and Martyr, when speaking with Trypho on the significant characteristics of the Orthodox Eucharist). However, these regularly fail to take into account a few very important things: (1) that such comments are made to draw special attention to attributes that are unique to Christian worship, (i.e. things that wouldn't be seen elsewhere in the same way), but which assume the foundation of an ongoing life of the basic worship of God's people that had been ongoing for centuries (a fact explicitly noted in the Acts of the Holy Apostles); (2) that the testimony of all the earliest written records of specific liturgical rites and passages (which, like most Christian writings, come from the third century and onwards) is that the liturgical life and form being recorded there is one of unbroken continuity with all previous generations of Christians; and (3) that the promise of His direction and governance of the Church, made by Christ and which all the early Christians take as truth and fact, means that the lived expression of liturgical continuity in the Church is itself a divine revelation.
To take each of these in a little more detail:
(1) The assumed background of traditional mystical worship. The problem with taking people like St Justin, St Irenaeus, or other early witnesses, as offering definitive explanations of how early Christians worshipped, is that taking only their comments on the particular characteristics of Christian worship, divorces their testimony from the lived continuity that they and all Christians took from the revelation of heavenly worship God gave His people centuries and millennia earlier. The book of the Acts of the Apostles makes it explicit that the first Christians (after the Pentecost) gathered together for their particularly Christian celebrations (cf. e.g. Acts 2.42), but did this as an expansion of an ongoing life of Synagogue and Temple worship, in which they continued to participate (cf. e.g. Acts 2.46; 3.1).
The early Christians worshipped the worship God had revealed as far back as Moses: the mystical worship of liturgical offering and rite; but they did so in light of the fullness of that revelation, to which it had always pointed. Just as Christ did not destroy the Law but perfect and fulfil it, so the worship of the early Church did not do away with that God had shown before, but expose its fulness and perfection - that toward which it had been a preparation. The early Christians' worship was that of the Temple, but sacrifice was now understood fully as completed in Christ, and thus the Temple rite was fulfilled in the Eucharistic sacrifice and fellowship (which St Irenaeus, St Justin, draw attention to for that very reason); it was the worship of the Synagogue, but fulfilled in the true Word fully known in the Son. It was worship of mystical ritual, of ordered and prescribed service with dedicated ministers of distinct roles; it was richly iconographic; it was highly ritualised and included processions, movement, sacraments.
This is in stark contrast to the idea of the 'simple house Church' that is fictionalised out of an abstraction of comments from the continuous reality of Christian worship. There were, indeed, house Churches in ancient Christianity -- but what did these look like? The only one that remains to us is that at Dura Europos, dating from ca. AD 235. This house, used for Christian worship, had the whole concourse of its rooms dedicated to the liturgical progression of that worship: the iconography on the walls make clear that the faithful progressed in procession from themed rooms, one to the next, moving from instruction to baptism, to Eucharist, to fellowship (the basic 'key points' of this liturgical progression being, interestingly, precisely those emphasised by St Justin), all as part of a richly iconographic, liturgical, patterned form of worship that is in direct continuity with the ancient worship that has always been the foundation of Christian life.
(2) The expression of continuity in the early written liturgical rites. The above is reinforced by the fact that our earliest written records of specific liturgical 'rites' (i.e. the detailed texts containing prayers and rubrics/instructions on service) emphasise the continuity with the ancient and continuous tradition of worship, as do the Fathers who commentate upon them. While these texts are of course later (liturgical practice is always first and foremost received by experience and action, not text -- a fact that is just as true today as then, despite our ready availability of texts now), they all draw attention to the continuity with traditional and ancient form. The fact that the various rites are so similar further emphasises that this was a universal heritage.
(3) The promise of Christ to be the rule and head of His Church. The above two points are largely historical and practical -- dealing with how we can rightly read what is borne testimony to in Scriptural and patristic texts, what can be seen from archaeological evidence, textual history, etc. A far more important theological point, however, comes in the necessary requirement of voiding God's promise to be with His Church, if one wishes to envisage a 'pristine simplicity' apart from the ongoing experienced liturgical life of Christianity. Quite apart from the fact that there is no textual, archaeological or other evidence for the 'early simplicity' view, this view drives a strong wedge between God's establishment of His Church, and its continuing life. Man and 'his traditions' become things that 'get in the way' of a pristine authenticity, such that what God actually wants and desires His creatures' worship to be, is not what His creatures' worship is. This is, fundamentally, a denial of God's true headship of His Church, of the Church as His living Body, and of His power to overcome human sin. It is, as never ceases to amaze me, a doctrine that places the power of man's sin above the power of God to overcome it and direct His Church through it. It is a doctrine that finds its most concise form, perhaps, in Mormonism.
It is not Christianity!
INXC, Hieromonk Irenei