Church before the Bible
But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.
John 14:26 (KJV)
In AD 367 the African theologian St Athanasius of Alexandria first listed the 27 New Testament books, and in the 400’s St Jerome from modern Croatia organised the first Bible, the Latin Vulgate. Have you ever wondered about the early church’s scripture and worship before this?
The Bible wasn’t dictated by a single author. Large sections of the Bible are reactive, spontaneous, and candid (Job, Galatians). In the first two centuries, Jesus’ gospel, evangelism, and church planting thrived with no Bible, as we know it. Although early Christian writings were in circulation, for example the gospels and Paul’s letters, only the Old Testament was complete. Bishops, elders and deacons were ordained and congregations organised. The Holy Spirit, as Jesus amazingly prophesied (John 14:26), led the church. The Bible being assembled by The Holy Spirit avoided distortions of single authorship.
Swiss theologian Karl Barth’s Threefold Word brilliantly shows the Holy Spirit’s dynamic, multi-dimensional approach to God’s revelation to us:
1) The Word is Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, with a capital ‘W’.
2) The word of God is the preaching of the apostles, handed down (1 Thess 1:3-5), with a ‘w’.
3) The word is the writing of the apostles in which they proclaim about the Word.
So prior to a recognisable New Testament, early worship and church took shape around the apostles’ preaching (1 Thess 2:13).
With this established, let’s read the earliest description of worship (outside the New Testament). In his First Apology, Justin Martyr describes a Christian worship service in AD 150’s (via Philip Schaff’s The Apostolic Fathers, italics/bold are mine) in a house church setting and with celebratory communion:
…all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us… all who are in need…
It’s amazing to see how recognisable everything is through the ages – and we can recognise ourselves in those who went before us!
Heavenly Father, let us remember those who preceded us and helped us to know who, and Whose, we are. Amen.
Study by Andrew Montgomery
About the writer:
Andrew Montgomery is a Deacon in the Edinburgh congregation of Grace Communion International.
Gilmerton New Church
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