The Lord’s Supper in the Early Church Part III: Views on the Lord’s Supper in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries -- By: George W. Dollar

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 117:468 (Oct 1960)
Article: The Lord’s Supper in the Early Church Part III: Views on the Lord’s Supper in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries
Author: George W. Dollar


The Lord’s Supper in the Early Church
Part III:
Views on the Lord’s Supper in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries

George W. Dollar

[Editor’s Note: This article is the third in a series on the general subject, “The Lord’s Supper in the Early Church.”]

In our previous discussions on beliefs on the Lord’s Supper prevalent in the early centuries, we saw how mystical expressions, ceremonial imagery, and liturgical language had clouded the true meaning of this Scriptural memorial of the Lord’s death. This drift continued and increased although there were a few fathers who tried to recapture the New Testament truth and practice concerning it. In this last article in this series, we desire to study briefly some teachings in the writings of the leaders in the last two centuries of the ancient church.

The first quarter of the fourth century saw the important debate over the issue of the relationship of the Son to the Father, climaxing in the historic Nicene Creed in 325. This was followed by debate and discussion of the two natures of Christ, culminating in the Chalcedonian formula in 451. It was in connection with this theological controversy that there emerged the idea of a “mystical connection between the body of Christ and the bread in the Supper and between His blood and the wine.”1 It ought to be kept in mind that by the fourth century there had been no serious attempt made to “delimit and define the relationship of the earthly bread and the heavenly flesh.”2 Rather had the church become cluttered up with liturgical formulas and mystical ceremonies. Writings available on the Supper are more of bombastic rhetoric than doctrinal studies. Imagery had been substituted for Biblical exegesis; objective realities and the purely subjective had become intertwined with meaningless vagaries; and the symbolic and the metabolic views of the Supper had become so mixed that several interpretations and implications are not only possible

but probable. Augustine was the first father who tried, but not too successfully, to strip church ceremonies of their superstitious trappings. In part he failed because he did not enunciate a well-ordered doctrine of the Supper; rather was he content to express “empirical reflections on ecclesiastical procedure and its defence.”3

Works of four fathers in the East, Gregory of Nyssa, the two Cyrils, and Chrysostom, as well as those of two in the West, Hilary and Ambrose, abound in that highly decorative language which defies clarity of understanding and meaning. Sometimes the...

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