A summary of Theodor Klauser: A Short History of the Western Liturgy [1965]

Ch 1: The Early Liturgy (to 570)

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Pages for Klauser:    Intro |  Ch 1 |  Ch 2 |  Ch 3 |  Ch 4

Sections:    Overview |  The Church Order of Hippolytus |  The transition from Greek to Latin |  The liturgy as mystery? |  Christ in liturgical prayer |  Secular influences on liturgy |  The character of the Roman liturgy |  Notes


The primitive church owed its liturgical practice to three sources, the teaching and example of Jesus, the practices of Judaism and those of the Hellenistic world. From Jesus, who derived them from contemporary Judaism, came the Eucharist, the sacraments, communal prayer and the liturgical sermon.

Among the Jewish elements listed by Klauser are various parts of the mass traceable to the synagogue Sabbath service and family meal rituals, the seven-day week with its Sabbath (soon moved to Sunday, the day of the Resurrection), Easter and Pentecost, the cult of martyrs, paradigmatic prayer (beseeching God for help by pointing to prior examples of his mercy) and the laying on of hands.

Details originating in the Hellenistic world, probably in its mystery religions, include the use of anointings and exorcisms in baptism, secrecy regarding the central sacred formulae, the use of rhetoric in prayer and much liturgical terminology.

The early liturgy probably developed as follows. Initially there were two forms of divine Service, on the one hand the service of the word, with readings, sermon and prayers, and on the other hand the liturgical meal, that is, the Eucharist incorporated in a meal. The former took place on a Saturday, later a Sunday, morning, and the latter on a Friday, later perhaps a Saturday, evening.

No doubt for practical reasons, the Eucharist soon became detached from the liturgical meal. From the start of the second century, the Eucharist migrated to the Sunday services. During the 4th century, the meal, called the agape, disappeared altogether.

At first, the bishop, the leader of the congregation, improvised liturgical prayers following traditional models. Indeed, the talent for doing this was to part of the charisma early Christians looked for in their leaders. But the demand for prayer leaders soon outstripped the supply of charismatic individuals; prayers began to be prepared in advance and then set prayers came into use.

At first, Aramaic was the language of the liturgy, but this was quickly replaced by Greek. When Greek went out of current use in Rome generally in the third century, it disappeared from the liturgy, with Latin taking its place.

The liturgical calendar of the Church developed gradually over the first 600 years. Easter, Pentecost and Sundays were in place almost from the outset. Feasts for martyrs began at the end of the second century. Christmas came in the 4th century.

The Church Order of Hippolytus

The earliest substantial documentary evidence for the liturgy in Rome is the Church Order of Hippolytus, dating from about AD 220. This book comes from the period when bishops lacking charisma were coming to rely on set formulations, when local custom was been replaced by widespread uniformity. It has instructions regarding a wide range of liturgical ceremonies.

Thus, we find that much of the ritual of baptism as we know it was already in place. Lacking then was baptism in the name of the Trinity, which did not come in till the Middle Ages. Baptism took place while the candidate was professing his faith by answering three questions, a usage corresponding to that way contracts were made under Roman law. Infant baptism was not unusual by the time of Hippolytus, with a family member answering the questions on behalf of a baby.

According to Hippolytus, the Eucharist has three parts:

  1. the faithful present their offerings, from which the deacons take bread and wine and give them to the Bishop
  2. the bishop utters the solemn eucharistic prayer over the bread and wine
  3. the consecrated bread and wine are given to the faithful.

We may suppose that these three actions were performed in a fairly informal manner.

The basic elements of the Canon of today's Roman mass are present in the eucharistic prayer of Hippolytus, the translated text of which Klauser provides, apart from the Sanctus, Mementos of living and dead and commemorations of the Saints.

At this point, Klauser inserts a reflection to the effect that such insights into the history of the liturgy enrich our own participation in the liturgy by giving us a sense of community with the earliest Christians.

The Transition from Greek to Latin

At the time of Hippolytus, Greek was spoken by a significant proportion of the population for Rome. The majority of the inhabitants of the city originated from the Middle East and the upper classes valued a Greek education. So it is not surprising that Greek was the language of the liturgy in Rome.

But 200 years later, the liturgical language seems to have been Latin. It looks as though Greek lingered longest in the Roman Canon. The transition involved reformulating the text of the eucharistic prayer according to the spirit of the Latin language, while retaining its ‘traditional stream of thought’ [p 20].

Klauser reflects that for most of the fourth-century there must have been a discrepancy between the Latin language of the faithful and the Greek of liturgy. This parallels today's situation, (i.e. when the book was written), something bemoaned by some but seen by others as adding a greater sense of mystery to liturgy.

For his part, our author finds it significant for contemporary discussion of the use of the vernacular that the Church soon abandoned the Greek of the eras of the apostles and of the martyrs once Latin had become the vernacular of the faithful. He points out that the Church authorities believed that they were acting in accordance with the teaching of St Paul, who had ruled that liturgical prayer should be understandable to the congregation.

Klauser also points out that the eucharistic liturgy has become obscured by later accretions. However, just as the Roman Church took a century to move from a Greek to a Latin Canon, contemporary reform of the Canon may require a hundred years if congregations are to be carried along.

The Liturgy as Mystery?

Liturgical Greek and Latin includes expressions also found in the pagan mystery religions. But was the Church using them in the same way? For example, had the word mysterium come to mean secret or was it being used in the classical way, to mean sacred, consecratory action[p 25]?

According to Dom Odo Casel (1886-1948), such expressions were being used in the classical way by the Roman liturgists. Thus, the Eucharist and the sacraments were understood as sacred rites in which Salvation was renewed mystically yet really behind symbolic appearances. Such had been the belief of the whole Church from the age of St Paul to scholasticism.

According to this view, the liturgy makes present not only the person of Jesus Christ but also his work for our salvation. Thus in the Eucharist, Christ is present in his crucifixion primarily, also in his other works for our salvation. Similarly, in baptism, he is present primarily in his death so that the person being baptised may die and be reborn, but he is also present in his other salvificatory acts.

Klauser rejects this view, suggesting:

we are here dealing not so much with a philologist or top-ranking historian who is defending a technical discovery which is of merely relative significance, but rather with a prophet who is proclaiming a hidden knowledge which has been granted to him by the special grace of heaven and which it is his solemn duty to pass on. [p 27]

In his voluminous writings Casel failed to demonstrate that his mystery theology was the universal teaching of the Church from the outset. Consequently, we cannot recognise it:

as a basic element which together with Holy Scripture is the source and standard of our faith. [p 28]

However, at certain periods over the centuries, the Church has been too much influenced by particular trends, with the result that there has been too much emphasis on the validity and objective efficacity [p 29] of that Eucharist and the sacraments and too little emphasis on the way the liturgy constitutes the encounter between humanity and Christ, opening us to His work for our salvation. Casel helped to restore the balance. What is more, he stirred up Catholic theology in a way which was beneficial. [1]

Christ in Liturgical Prayer

Early Christian liturgical prayer was addressed primarily to God the Father, with Christ involved as mediator. But since the Middle Ages it has been Christ who has been addressed primarily. The change began during the 4th century conflict with the Arian heresy: as a challenge to the Arian rejection of the doctrine that the Father and the Son are equal in essence. By the 10th century, Christ was being addressed primarily in some of the Roman liturgical prayers. This was one of the factors leading to Christ centred piety.

Klauser suggests that some return to prayer to God the Father through Christ as Mediator would restore values that have been lost sight of.

Secular Influences on Liturgy

Research into Roman imperial court ceremonial reveals inescapable parallels in Church liturgy. It is clear that, starting in the reign of Constantine in the early part of the 4th century, bishops and other clerics began to enjoy the privileges and ceremonies of the imperial court and of high ranking officials. For once the Church had joined in partnership with the state, it was necessary to integrate the bishops etc into the Imperial status system. [2]

Thus, the Pope was accorded some of the ceremonial privileges of the Emperor himself, such as having people kissing his foot. The bishops became entitled to wear the dress and insignia of the highest ranking Romans, such as the pallium and probably the gold ring. Only a notable few bishops apparently found that these new developments problematic: Hilary of Poitiers (c300 – 367), Martin of Tours (c316 – 397), Augustine (354 – 430), for example.

However, since the fall of the Roman Empire such privileges and insignia have lost their secular symbolism. Nowadays, the bishop's throne, his pallium, mitre, staff, ring, shoes do not denote the secular power of a particular individual but rather the spiritual importance of his office.

Klauser comments that our awareness of the secular origin of liturgical pomp should prevent us from affording it too much significance. Again, it may be a distraction for the congregation.

The imperial influence affected not only the liturgy but also religious art. Christ came to be depicted as the Emperor Of Creation: seated on a throne, wearing a regal halo, surrounded by courtiers etc. Mary was represented as mother and Empress, the apostles as senators, the angels as the imperial household, the Saints as supplicants bearing gifts.

Indeed, there arose a world-view in which heaven was the perfect imperial court and the theocracies of the Byzantine Empire and the medieval Holy Roman Empire were imitations of that.

The Character of the Roman Liturgy

Research has made it possible for us to differentiate between those features of the Roman liturgy which originated in Rome and those which came from elsewhere. Between the 4th and 6th centuries, the bishops of Rome, most notably Leo the Great (Pope 440 – 461) and Gelasius (Pope 492 – 496), created a treasure house of liturgical prayer.

Liturgical prayer is for the use of the community in its worship, not for the expression of the piety of particular individuals. The Roman bishops proved themselves gloriously sleeve adept in the composing prayers which articulate fundamental religious truths and aspirations. Klauser now analyses an Easter collect to illustrate his point: we shall skip this.

There are of course weaknesses in these prayers. They do not appeal to the imagination of the faithful or put their feelings into words; their language is not that of everyday speech but of traditional Roman rhetoric and religion. What is more, whereas the writings of the Latin Church Fathers such as Ambrose (c337 – 397) and Augustine are strongly marked by the influence of the Bible, these Roman prayers are not:

fundamentally, the Roman liturgy is far removed from the Bible. [p 42]

Given that the Roman faithful of late antiquity must have had difficulties in understanding the papal prayers, it is to be expected that we should have problems with them today. Efforts at translating them into the vernacular reveal ambiguities of meaning in numbers of key words.

Roman bishops revising the earlier liturgy towards the year AD 600 were looking at a version of the Canon similar to that of today. They cannot have been aware of how far accretions had moved it from the eucharistic prayer of the time of Hippolytus. We should no longer delay in getting rid of these and later medieval distortions.


1 Casel

For a present-day Catholic view of Casel, see http://www.canonlaw.info/liturgysacraments_casel.htm.

You have to wonder what makes Klauser so sure that he is on the right track and not himself pursuing one of the particular trends he sees others following. Indeed, can there ever be anything other than particular trends?     [Back to the main text]

2 The Ritual Function of Bishops

According to Claudia Rapp: Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity (2005), pp 236-237, Klauser, in a subsequently published 1949 lecture, was principally responsible for the idea that the bishops were ennobled by Constantine. She explains that Klauser's arguments were not found convincing.

Rapp relegates to a footnote of fewer than 50 words the matter of the bishop's throne and ceremonial dress. She points out that H U Instinsky: Bischofsstuhl und Kaisersthron (1955) had proposed A critical and more sophisticated view [p 237 n7], but obviously did not think it important enough to indicate what that view was.

In a book on the bishops of the period 300 - 600, Rapp's lack of interest in these matters is, I find, a fatal omission. At some point, the bishops got thrones and gold rings and whatnot, plus the bowing and scraping that went with them. This development was of the greatest possible importance for the history of Christianity: I'd like to know the why, when and how of it.

In fact, Rapp manages to get through her 300 pages on, as her subtitle has it, The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition, without ever discussing the ritual, ceremonial and performance functions of the bishops of her period and what those functions might have meant: socially, politically, religiously, whatever. Had she considered these matters, she would doubtless have found her period to have been one of transformation rather than of mere transition.

But I am not surprised at Rapp's silence on the ritual function of bishops. As far as I have explored, other contemporary scholars writing overviews, whether about the period in general or about its Christianity in particular, are no more interested than she is in ritual, ceremony and performance. Thus, Martin D Stringer: A Sociological History of Christian Worship (2005) has the trendy jargon, discourse, hegemony, hegemonic discourses even; his chapter on this period turns out to be about Worship and the Christianisation of public space, 300-600: no doubt inspired by something in Foucault out of Gramsci, the stuff about prisons, perhaps.

Other authorities offer nice cutaway plans of the churches built in the period, but no significant discussion of what went on in them: of the role of churches as the theatres in which the bishops performed.

You have to smile. While archaeologists of the pre-historic, the British ones at any rate, interpret their finds on the principle of when in doubt, it's got to be ritual, their historian colleagues write as if there was no such thing.     [Back to the main text]

(c) John C Durham, 2007

Pages for Klauser:    Intro |  Ch 1 |  Ch 2 |  Ch 3 |  Ch 4