If you love me, you will obey what I command.
—John 14:15, NIV (Jesus speaking)
Before we attempt to understand the sacramental thinking of the ancient church, we need to understand something of the ancient church’s worldview, and how it differed from the worldview of the Roman public.
In the time and place where the church emerged, pagan intellectuals believed that there were two separate and distinct realities, the spiritual and the physical. The idea is rooted in Plato, but at the time that the Church began, it had not only pervaded secular thinking, it was also fully developed in a religious movement called Gnosticism, which went so far as to teach that physical reality was created by an evil junior god as a prank! To the pagan intellectual, physical reality was lower and less desirable than spiritual reality. Consequently for pagan intellectuals, the goal of life was to free oneself from physical reality and to become entirely spiritual. In this system of thought, death releases the human spirit from its prison of flesh so that if it is properly prepared, it can inhabit the spiritual realm as a pure spirit being. If it is not properly prepared, then it cannot free itself from the material world and remains in misery.
Because they believed in this dualism of the spiritual and the physical, pagan intellectuals used religion to appease the appropriate gods to obtain favors in this life, and they used philosophy to equip the soul with the moral and ethical wherewithal to enter into the spiritual realm upon death. Many pagan intellectuals were intrigued by the fact that Judaism and the ancient church asserted that there was a connection between religion and ethics. It was for them a novel idea.
The dualism of the spiritual and the physical led to two schools of thought about ethics among pagans: one was ascetic and the other was libertine. The ascetic school of thought taught that it was necessary to begin the separation of the soul from the body by subjugating the body to denial, while the libertine school of thought reasoned that since the soul is going to slough off the body at death anyway, it’s okay to indulge its appetites. So Gnosticism paradoxically led both to extreme asceticism and to extreme licentiousness. In the New Testament, we find Paul wrestling with the influences of this sort of extremist ethical thinking. In places where he seems to be licentious, he is writing to Christians who were drawn to extreme asceticism, and in places where he seems to be ascetic, he is writing to Christians who were drawn to extreme licentiousness.
Many of these concepts have reappeared in our day as New-Age thought or movies or television shows about ghosts who need to resolve earthly issues so they can be released to a purely spiritual state of being. Some modern Christians are influenced by it, even believing that it is a Christian teaching that we become disembodied spirits at death and remain that way permanently.
The Christian Worldview in Christian Doctrines
There are four doctrines that set Christianity apart from this ancient belief system:
Ancient intellectuals believed that physical reality is a fluke, a mistake, or a prank by a lesser deity, and that human spirits are trapped in their bodies.
The historic Church taught that there is only one God, who created physical reality, and because God is good, physical reality is fundamentally good. Human beings are the caretakers of physical reality, not its captives. The body is not a predicament in which the spirit finds itself; rather the body and the spirit are components of the whole person.
Ancient intellectuals believed that spiritual things cannot even come in contact with material things. It was easy for them to embrace the deity of Jesus Christ, but they had a hard time grasping the concept that God could live in a material form. (Today, the reverse is true. People have an easy time accepting the humanity of Jesus Christ, but it is hard for them to accept that He is God.) This led to two misconceptions that are historically called heresies. The first is the theory that Jesus was something like a psychic who channeled a spiritual being called ‘Christ,’ and the second is the theory that Jesus only appeared to be physically present but was not.
The historic Church taught that since God is good and created physical reality, which is also good, it is possible for God to inhabit physical reality in human form, which He did in Jesus Christ. Jesus is fully human and fully divine. This is why the ancient creeds stress that Jesus was born, that he suffered under Pontius Pilate (that is, He lived in a specific historic context within physical reality), that He suffered, that He truly died, that He physically rose from the grave, and that when He ascended into heaven, He took His resurrection body with Him. These assertions directly confront the ancient pagan idea that divine reality and physical reality are separate.
Everyone observes that physical reality is not perfect, and of course neither are we. Our bodies don’t last very long; eventually we age and die. Ancient intellectuals believed that physical reality was a trap that we could escape at death by becoming pure spiritual beings.
The historic Church taught that God is in the process of perfecting (or redeeming) physical reality, and that redeeming the human race is the most important part of that process. The purpose of the incarnation is not just to redeem humans, in both body and soul, but the entire physical world.
Since ancient intellectuals thought physical reality was deficient or evil, they envisioned a disembodied afterlife.
Since the Church taught that physical reality is good and that God is redeeming it, the church must also believe that our bodies participate in our redemption. To the church, the body is not something we discard; it is an essential part of our identity. Therefore, when the universe is redeemed, we will be resurrected as spiritual beings in physical bodies, and we will live in the a redeemed physical reality. Our resurrection bodies will have some kind of continuity with our present bodies. Ancient Christian apologists spent a lot of time defending this teaching, which their pagan contemporaries ridiculed as nonsensical.
The Christian Worldview in Christian Sacraments
The ancient church believed that physical and spiritual reality are united, not separate. Therefore, for the ancient church, a physical act and a spiritual act are one and the same. Since it is easier to fake your beliefs than your behavior, your behavior is the indicator of your true beliefs:
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
—Matthew 7:15-20, NIV
Jesus introduced a technical term for a person who professes to have a belief system that is not reflected in their behavior: it is hypocrite.
Paul also teaches that saving faith changes our behavior:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
—Ephesians 2:8-10, NIV
There is a link between one’s true beliefs and one’s conduct. We can tell if a person is telling the truth about their beliefs by observing their behavior, according to John:
This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.
—1 John 3:10, NIV
If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.
—1 John 4:20-21, NIV
To the ancient church, then, the rites and ceremonies of the church were simply the physical manifestations of spiritual reality. Baptism is the physical manifestation of conversion and the Eucharist is the physical manifestation of our membership in the church, the mystical Body of Christ. Suppose you asked the apostles, “Can I turn down the opportunity to be baptized and still be a Christian?” or “Can I decide never to attend church and still be a Christian?” The apostles would answer no to both questions, because if you were truly a Christian, you would eagerly seek baptism and the fellowship of other Christians in worship. Unless these things are physically impossible or unavailable for some reason other than your free choice, you cannot have faith without bearing the fruit of faith.
The fundamental principle behind the sacraments is that spiritual and physical reality are a unity. Physical acts are spiritual acts, and spiritual acts are physical acts.
What is a Sacrament?
How Many Sacraments Are There?
What about baptism “in Jesus’ Name”?