There was a recent thread in a patristics group I contribute to on the topic of incense in the early church. As a topic it was never one I paid massive attention to but I found the ensuing discussion really fascinating. It’s not something done in my own tradition but I figured it might be interesting to some to run through passages in Scripture that are argued for it by those that do, reflect on these passages in light of the Church Fathers, and then finally texts from my own tradition.
Let my prayer be set before You as incense,
The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.Psalm 141:2
The typical use of incense in the Kingdom of Israel was in the context of the Temple sacrifices. Below are passages detailing how the Hebrew people used incense and its significance. These are passages I’ve seen particularly quoted by those advocating for the use of incense in Christian worship:
“You shall make an altar to burn incense on; you shall make it of acacia wood. A cubit shall be its length and a cubit its width—it shall be square—and two cubits shall be its height. Its horns shall be of one piece with it. And you shall overlay its top, its sides all around, and its horns with pure gold; and you shall make for it a molding of gold all around. Two gold rings you shall make for it, under the molding on both its sides. You shall place them on its two sides, and they will be holders for the poles with which to bear it. You shall make the poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. And you shall put it before the veil that is before the ark of the Testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the Testimony, where I will meet with you.
“Aaron shall burn on it sweet incense every morning; when he tends the lamps, he shall burn incense on it. And when Aaron lights the lamps at twilight, he shall burn incense on it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations. You shall not offer strange incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering; nor shall you pour a drink offering on it. And Aaron shall make atonement upon its horns once a year with the blood of the sin offering of atonement; once a year he shall make atonement upon it throughout your generations. It is most holy to the Lord.”Exodus 30:1-10
Then he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, with his hands full of sweet incense beaten fine, and bring it inside the veil. And he shall put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the Testimony, lest he die.Leviticus 16:12-13
This incense was a special kind, people who know their scripture know that two of Aaron’s own sons were struck down by God for offering the wrong kind (Leviticus 10:1-7). The purpose of the incense was, as the initially quoted Psalm suggests, a sign or symbol of holy prayer. The next two passages that tend to be used only confirm this:
For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down,
My name shall be great among the Gentiles;
In every place incense shall be offered to My name,
And a pure offering;
For My name shall be great among the nations,”
Says the Lord of hosts.Malachi 1:11
According to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense.Luke 1:9-11
The hour of incense was the hour of prayer for the Hebrew people. The Malachi verse is a big passage used by advocates as are mentions of incense in the book of Revelation:
Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.Revelation 5:8
Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and threw it to the earth. And there were noises, thunderings, lightnings, and an earthquake.Revelation 8:3-5
You can read one advocate of incense giving his reasons here but we shall see, for the Early Church Fathers, description does not necessarily entail prescription. I’ll now through them starting from the earliest I’ve seen.
Early Church Fathers on Incense
Epistle of Barnabas, 1st/2nd Century
Since, therefore, the days are evil, and Satan possesses the power of this world, we ought to give heed to ourselves, and diligently inquire into the ordinances of the Lord. Fear and patience, then, are helpers of our faith; and long-suffering and continence are things which fight on our side. While these remain pure in what respects the Lord, Wisdom, Understanding, Science, and Knowledge rejoice along with them. For He hath revealed to us by all the prophets that He needs neither sacrifices, nor burnt-offerings, nor oblations, saying thus, “What is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me, saith the Lord? I am full of burnt-offerings, and desire not the fat of lambs, and the blood of bulls and goats, not when ye come to appear before Me: for who hath required these things at your hands? Tread no more My courts, not though ye bring with you fine flour. Incense is a vain abomination unto Me, and your new moons and sabbaths I cannot endure.” He has therefore abolished these things, that the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is without the yoke of necessity, might have a human oblation. And again He says to them, “Did I command your fathers, when they went out from the land of Egypt, to offer unto Me burnt-offerings and sacrifices? But this rather I commanded them, Let no one of you cherish any evil in his heart against his neighbour, and love not an oath of falsehood.” We ought therefore, being possessed of understanding, to perceive the gracious intention of our Father; for He speaks to us, desirous that we, not going astray like them, should ask how we may approach Him. To us, then, He declares, “A sacrifice [pleasing] to God is a broken spirit; a smell of sweet savour to the Lord is a heart that glorifieth Him that made it.” We ought therefore, brethren, carefully to inquire concerning our salvation, lest the wicked one, having made his entrance by deceit, should hurl us forth from our [true] life.Epistle of Barnabas
The Epistle of Barnabas quotes Isaiah 1:11-15, and then Jeremiah 7:22, and Zechariah 8:17 stating ‘he has therefore abolished these things’ meaning the outward temple offerings he describes in favour of the inward ‘smell of sweet savour’ being a heart that glorifies Him that made it. A phrase which I can’t help but remind me of the Westminster catechism’s first question: What is the Chief Aim of Man? Answer: To Glorify God and Enjoy Him Forever.
Let us see what others have to say.
Justin Martyr, 2nd Century
What sober-minded man, then, will not acknowledge that we are not atheists, worshipping as we do the Maker of this universe, and declaring, as we have been taught, that He has no need of streams of blood and libations and incense; whom we praise to the utmost of our power by the exercise of prayer and thanksgiving for all things wherewith we are supplied, as we have been taught that the only honour that is worthy of Him is not to consume by fire what He has brought into being for our sustenance, but to use it for ourselves and those who need, and with gratitude to Him to offer thanks by invocations and hymns for our creation, and for all the means of health, and for the various qualities of the different kinds of things, and for the changes of the seasons; and to present before Him petitions for our existing again in incorruption through faith in Him.First Apology
Justin Martyr makes explicit what the Epistle of Barnabas suggests by drawing a clear distinction between incense and prayer, placing the former in the category of things dispensed with in favour of the latter. He talks of those things ‘consumed by fire’ which can be a reference to burnt offerings of fauna, flora, and incense itself instead seeing them to be used for our own self preservation. We who in turn offer thanks and praise to God for his works.
But the angels transgressed this appointment, and were captivated by love of women, and begat children who are those that are called demons; and besides, they afterwards subdued the human race to themselves, partly by magical writings, and partly by fears and the punishments they occasioned, and partly by teaching them to offer sacrifices, and incense, and libations, of which things they stood in need after they were enslaved by lustful passions; and among men they sowed murders, wars, adulteries, intemperate deeds, and all wickedness.Second Apology
In his Second Apology Justin Martyr lists sacrifices and incense amongst the order of things occasioned by demons who in turn cause ‘all wickedness’ amongst mankind. We see now that whenever the use of actual incense is mentioned by Justin Martyr it is in the negative. Yet we do have occasion for him to comment on one of the above quoted passages of scripture Malachi 1:11:
“And the offering of fine flour, sirs,” I said, “which was prescribed to be presented on behalf of those purified from leprosy, was a type of the bread of the Eucharist, the celebration of which our Lord Jesus Christ prescribed, in remembrance of the suffering which He endured on behalf of those who are purified in soul from all iniquity, in order that we may at the same time thank God for having created the world, with all things therein, for the sake of man, and for delivering us from the evil in which we were, and for utterly overthrowing principalities and powers by Him who suffered according to His will. Hence God speaks by the mouth of Malachi, one of the twelve as I said before, about the sacrifices at that time presented by you: I have no pleasure in you, saith the Lord; and I will not accept your sacrifices at your hands: for, from the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same, My name has been glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure offering: for My name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord: but ye profane it.’ [So] He then speaks of those Gentiles, namely us, who in every place offer sacrifices to Him, i.e., the bread of the Eucharist, and also the cup of the Eucharist, affirming both that we glorify His name, and that you profane [it].Dialogue with Trypho
Justin Martyr here conflates the Lords Supper with the incense, and pure offering, mentioned by Malachi. This draws an allusion to Hebrews 9:9-15 wherein the pure offering described by the prophet is a shadow of the work that is now undertaken by Christ:
It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience — concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation. But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?Hebrews 9:9-15
Hebrews 9 starts out by describing the previously quoted passage in Exodus 30 and the atonement of the nation made by the High Priest but points out that this is no longer the work of man but has been fulfilled by God in Christ. The pleasing sacrifice we offer, therefore, that Martyr mentions in the form of the eucharist, is that of thanksgiving – in the words of the Epistle of Barnabas echoing Psalm 51 “A sacrifice [pleasing] to God is a broken spirit; a smell of sweet savour to the Lord is a heart that glorifieth Him that made it.” Incense in Malachi therefore being an allusion to prayer of the faithful and thanksgiving for the work of Christ.
Irenaeus speaks similarly:
Irenaeus, 2nd Century
He adds, “For in these things I delight, says the Lord,” but not in sacrifices, nor in holocausts, nor in oblations. For the people did not receive these precepts as of primary importance (principaliter), but as secondary, and for the reason already alleged, as Isaiah again says: “Thou hast not [brought to] Me the sheep of thy holocaust, nor in thy sacrifices hast thou glorified Me: thou hast not served Me in sacrifices, nor in [the matter of] frankincense hast thou done anything laboriously; neither hast thou bought for Me incense with money, nor have I desired the fat of thy sacrifices; but thou hast stood before Me in thy sins and in thine iniquities.” He says, therefore, “Upon this man will I look, even upon him that is humble, and meek, and who trembles at My words.” “For the fat and the fat flesh shall not take away from thee thine unrighteousness.” “This is the fast which I have chosen, saith the Lord. Loose every band of wickedness, dissolve the connections of violent agreements, give rest to those that are shaken, and cancel every unjust document. Deal thy bread to the hungry willingly, and lead into thy house the roofless stranger. If thou hast seen the naked, cover him, and thou shalt not despise those of thine own flesh and blood…Against Heresies, Book 4: Chapter 17
Again, giving directions to His disciples to offer to God the first-fruits of His own, created things–not as if He stood in need of them, but that they might be themselves neither unfruitful nor ungrateful–He took that created thing, bread, and gave thanks, and said, “This is My body.” And the cup likewise, which is part of that creation to which we belong, He confessed to be His blood, and taught the new oblation of the new covenant; which the Church receiving from the apostles, offers to God throughout all the world, to Him who gives us as the means of subsistence the first-fruits of His own gifts in the New Testament, concerning which Malachi, among the twelve prophets, thus spoke beforehand: “I have no pleasure in you, saith the Lord Omnipotent, and I will not accept sacrifice at your hands. For from the rising of the sun, unto the going down [of the same], My name is glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure sacrifice; for great is My name among the Gentiles, saith the Lord Omnipotent;” –indicating in the plainest manner, by these words, that the former people [the Jews] shall indeed cease to make offerings to God, but that in every place sacrifice shall be offered to Him, and that a pure one; and His name is glorified among the Gentiles.
But what other name is there which is glorified among the Gentiles than that of our Lord, by whom the Father is glorified, and man also? And because it is [the name] of His own Son, who was made man by Him, He calls it His own. Just as a king, if he himself paints a likeness of his son, is right in calling this likeness his own, for both these reasons, because it is [the likeness] of his son, and because it is his own production; so also does the Father confess the name of Jesus Christ, which is throughout all the world glorified in the Church, to be His own, both because it is that of His Son, and because He who thus describes it gave Him for the salvation of men. Since, therefore, the name of the Son belongs to the Father, and since in the omnipotent God the Church makes offerings through Jesus Christ, He says well on both these grounds, “And in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure sacrifice.” Now John, in the Apocalypse, declares that the “incense” is “the prayers of the saints.”Ibid
Irenaeus here makes the connection between incense being the prayers of the saints. That we in Christ partake of him in thanksgiving for his work. That he takes who “upon him that is humble, and meek, and who trembles at My words.” and that this isn’t signified by the literal offering of incense but by acting to “loose every band of wickedness”. Irenaeus makes this point clearer is a fragment of his writings elsewhere:
Those who have become acquainted with the secondary (i.e., under Christ) constitutions of the apostles, are aware that the Lord instituted a new oblation in the new covenant, according to [the declaration of] Malachi the prophet. For, “from the rising of the sun even to the setting my name has been glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure sacrifice;” as John also declares in the Apocalypse: “The incense is the prayers of the saints.” Then again, Paul exhorts us “to present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” And again, “Let us offer the sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of the lips.” Now those oblations are not according to the law, the handwriting of which the Lord took away from the midst by cancelling it; but they are according to the Spirit, for we must worship God “in spirit and in truth.” And therefore the oblation of the Eucharist is not a carnal one, but a spiritual; and in this respect it is pure. For we make an oblation to God of the bread and the cup of blessing, giving Him thanks in that He has commanded the earth to bring forth these fruits for our nourishment. And then, when we have perfected the oblation, we invoke the Holy Spirit, that He may exhibit this sacrifice, both the bread the body of Christ, and the cup the blood of Christ, in order that the receivers of these antitypes may obtain remission of sins and life eternal. Those persons, then, who perform these oblations in remembrance of the Lord, do not fall in with Jewish views, but, performing the service after a spiritual manner, they shall be called sons of wisdom.Fragments of Ireaneus XXXVII
Irenaeus here ties Malachi 11:1 to Revelation 5:8 and then adds Romans 12:1 and Hebrews 13:15 saying to really underscore his point that the Eucharist, as our prayers, is not a carnal sacrifice but a spiritual one in Christ and therefore pure. This affirms the departure from Jewish rites in Christian worship which are fundamentally spiritual and distinct to their Old Testament shadows.
Athenagoras of Athens, 2nd Century
And first, as to our not sacrificing: the Framer and Father of this universe does not need blood, nor the odour of burnt-offerings, nor the fragrance of flowers and incense, forasmuch as He is Himself perfect fragrance, needing nothing either within or without; but the noblest sacrifice to Him is for us to know who stretched out and vaulted the heavens, and fixed the earth in its place like a centre, who gathered the water into seas and divided the light from the darkness, who adorned the sky with stars and made the earth to bring forth seed of every kind, who made animals and fashioned man. When, holding God to be this Framer of all things, who preserves them in being and superintends them all by knowledge and administrative skill, we “lift up holy hands” to Him, what need has He further of a hecatomb?A Plea For The Christians
Athenagoras makes a similar point to Justin and Irenaeus, that our Father does not need carnal sacrifice nor carnal incense but rather spiritual. His inference to Paul’s admonition to Timothy (1 Timothy 2:8) regarding ‘holy hands’ likewise echoes the prophet Malachi’s linking of hands and sacrifice (Malachi 1:10-11) and the nature of spiritual and sacrificial worship and prayer (Psalm 141:2).
Later commentators only become more explicit in the distinction between carnal and spiritual offerings.
Clement of Alexandria, 2nd/3rd Century
Ointment being smooth oil, do you not think that it is calculated to render noble manners effeminate? Certainly. And as we have abandoned luxury in taste, so certainly do we renounce voluptuousness in sights and odours; lest through the senses, as through unwatched doors, we unconsciously give access into the soul to that excess which we have driven away. If, then, we say that the Lord the great High Priest offers to God the incense of sweet fragrance, let us not imagine that this is a sacrifice and sweet fragrance of incense; but let us understand it to mean, that the Lord lays the acceptable offering of love, the spiritual fragrance, on the altar.The Paedogus, Book Two
Here we say laid bare the distinction between the carnal, which is a shadow and rejected, and the spiritual, which is its fulfilment in Christ. As with Clements writings elsewhere he is keen for us not to confuse representation with reality so that we might guard against the excesses that we are predisposed to.
How, then, shall I sacrifice to the Lord? “The sacrifice of the Lord is,” He says, “a broken heart.” How, then, shall I crown myself, or anoint with ointment, or offer incense to the Lord? “An odour of a sweet fragrance,” it is said, “is the heart that glorifies Him who made it.” These are the crowns and sacrifices, aromatic odours, and flowers of God.The Paedogus, Book Three
Clement in writing this is making explicit and shedding further light on the words of the Apostle Paul, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus. He then goes further by comparing the act of our breathing as to incense, as this is something that procedes from us outwards and is rendered holy to God by our righteous souls. Our breath, our life, and with it our speech, can then be compared to the fruit of the holy spirit at work in us.
Now breathing together (sumpnoia) is properly said of the Church. For the sacrifice of the Church is the word breathing as incense from holy souls, the sacrifice and the whole mind being at the same time unveiled to God. Now the very ancient altar in Delos they celebrated as holy; which alone, being undefiled by slaughter and death, they say Pythagoras approached. And will they not believe us when we say that the righteous soul is the truly sacred altar, and that incense arising from it is holy prayer? But I believe sacrifices were invented by men to be a pretext for eating flesh. But without such idolatry he who wished might have partaken of flesh. For the sacrifices of the Law express figuratively the piety which we practice, as the turtle-dove and the pigeon offered for sins point out that the cleansing of the irrational part of the soul is acceptable to God.The Stromata, Book Seven: Chapter Six
Elsewhere we see he becomes plainer in his articulation that incense is to be understood by Christians not as costly sacrifices, because incense itself was expensive, but that which he loves and is born in our souls being drawn together from the ends of the earth in glorification of him.
Wherefore we ought to offer to God sacrifices not costly, but such as He loves. And that compounded incense which is mentioned in the Law, is that which consists of many tongues and voices in prayer, or rather of different nations and natures, prepared by the gift vouchsafed in the dispensation for “the unity of the faith,” and brought together in praises, with a pure mind, and just and right conduct, from holy works and righteous prayer.Ibid
The final quote below underscores Clements distinction between the carnal and the spiritual. Associating incense with the theater and its titillation and overwhelming of the senses and reason. That the Christian should not confuse or flatten the distinctions between representation and reality, the carnal and the spiritual.
He, therefore, never surrenders himself to the rabble that rules supreme over the theatres, and gives no admittance even in a dream to the things which are spoken, done, and seen for the sake of alluring pleasures; neither, therefore, to the pleasures of sight, nor the various pleasures which are found in other enjoyments, as costly incense and odours, which bewitch the nostrils, or preparations of meats, and indulgences in different wines, which ensnare the palate, or fragrant bouquets of many flowers, which through the senses effeminate the soul. But always tracing up to God the grave enjoyment of all things, he offers the first-fruits of food, and drink, and unguents to the Giver of all, acknowledging his thanks in the gift and in the use of them by the Word given to him.The Stromata, Book Seven: Chapter Seven
We will now see that the use of incense was also amongst the list of practices early Christians condemned in their critics.
Tertullian, 2nd/3rd Century
But if I add–it is what all know and will admit as readily to be the fact–that in the temples adulteries are arranged, that at the altars pimping is practised, that often in the houses of the temple-keepers and priests, under the sacrificial fillets, and the sacred hats, and the purple robes, amid the fumes of incense, deeds of licentiousness are done, I am not sure but your gods have more reason to complain of you than of Christians.Apology
Tertullian describes the pagan worship of his day as being composed of, amongst other things: sacrificial fillets, sacred hats, purple robes, and fumes of incense. These things all, Tertullian writes, are rejected by Christians. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s famous line from his novel Brideshead Revisited “Beware the Anglo-Catholics. They’re all sodomites with unpleasant accents”. He adds, of Christians:
It is implied, as the corollary from their rejection of the lie, that they render homage to the truth; nor continue longer in an error which they have given up in the very fact of recognizing it to be an error. Take this in first of all, and when we have offered a preliminary refutation of some false opinions, go on to derive from it our entire religious system.Ibid
Which if nothing else implies that Christian worship at the time was composed, at least in part, by the absence of these things Tertullian objected to, fumes of incense included. He goes on to make this explicit later on:
These things I cannot ask from any but the God from whom I know I shall obtain them, both because He alone bestows them and because I have claims upon Him for their gift, as being a servant of His, rendering homage to Him alone, persecuted for His doctrine, offering to Him, at His own requirement, that costly and noble sacrifice of prayer despatched from the chaste body, an unstained soul, a sanctified spirit, not the few grains of incense a farthing buys –tears of an Arabian tree,–not a few drops of wine,–not the blood of some worthless ox to which death is a relief, and, in addition to other offensive things, a polluted conscience, so that one wonders, when your victims are examined by these vile priests, why the examination is not rather of the sacrificers than the sacrifices.Ibid
Tertullian here echoes Clement talk of incense as breath when he talks of the “noble sacrifice of prayer despatched from the chaste body” in contradistinction to the ‘few grains of incense’ employed by pagans. Like Clement he elsewhere places its use in the realm of the carnal, represented by the theatre:
Let us pass on now to theatrical exhibitions, which we have already shown have a common origin with the circus, and bear like idolatrous designations–even as from the first they have borne the name of “Ludi,” and equally minister to idols. They resemble each other also in their pomp, having the same procession to the scene of their display from temples and altars, and that mournful profusion of incense and blood, with music of pipes and trumpets, all under the direction of the soothsayer and the undertaker, those two foul masters of funeral rites and sacrifices.On The Shows
Tertullian, like Clement, also compares the use of incense as exchanging the gift of creation for the giver. To exchange reality for representation. This seems in direct opposition to contemporary arguments made, often along platonic lines, that incense can constitute a form of prayer. Instead, Tertullian presages Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park warning people that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should:
Yet a Christian ought not to attach himself to the frenzies of the racecourse, or the atrocities of the arena, or the turpitudes of the stage, simply because God has given to man the horse, and the panther, and the power of speech: just as a Christian cannot commit idolatry with impunity either, because the incense, and the wine, and the fire which feeds (thereon), and the animals which are made the victims, are God’s workmanship; since even the material thing which is adored is God’s (creature). Thus then, too, with regard to their active use, does the origin of the material substances, which descends from God, excuse (that use) as foreign to God, as guilty forsooth of worldly glory!On The Apparel of Women
The final quote we have from Tertullian on incense is in a letter to his wife. In which he describes the Christian woman as someone who lives amidst a fallen world, a world whose practices mean she will be accosted by the smell of incense from non-Christian ‘labours’:
The handmaid of God dwells amid alien labours; and among these (labours), on all the memorial days of demons, at all solemnities of kings, at the beginning of the year, at the beginning of the month, she will be agitated by the odour of incense.To His Wife
As we go on we will see remarkable consistency from the Fathers on this topic.
Origen, 2nd/3rd Century
He does not perceive that we regard the spirit of every good man as an altar from which arises an incense which is truly and spiritually sweet-smelling, namely, the prayers ascending from a pure conscience. Therefore it is said by John in the Revelation, “The odours are the prayers of saints;” and by the Psalmist, “Let my prayer come up before Thee as incense.”Against Celsus, Book 8: Chapter 17
Origen compares the ‘good man’ as an altar and following Irenaeus in linking this the incense offered upon it as his prayers. This is in response to Celsus, Origens opponent, claiming that Christians shrink from “raising altars, statues, and temples.” Because Christians see themselves as a secret or forbidden society. Origen by contrast states that this isn’t the case but rather that the man himself is the temple and altar upon which the sacrifices made to God are made. To Origen, to place an external altar, to erect statues and temples is to fundamentally misunderstand Christian worship. Origen makes this clearer in succeeding chapters:
For as if in some cities a dispute should arise as to which had the finest temples, those who thought their own were the best would do their utmost to show the excellence of their own temples and the inferiority of the others,–in like manner, when they reproach us for not deeming it necessary to worship the Divine Being by raising lifeless temples, we set before them our temples, and show to such at least as are not blind and senseless, like their senseless gods, that there is no comparison between our statues and the statues of the heathen, nor between our altars, with what we may call the incense ascending from them, and the heathen altars, with the fat and blood of the victims; nor, finally, between the temples of senseless gods, admired by senseless men, who have no divine faculty for perceiving God, and the temples, statues, and altars which are worthy of God. It is not therefore true that we object to building altars, statues, and temples, because we have agreed to make this the badge of a secret and forbidden society; but we do so, because we have learnt from Jesus Christ the true way of serving God, and we shrink from whatever, under a pretence of piety, leads to utter impiety those who abandon the way marked out for us by Jesus Christ.Against Celsus, Book 8: Chapter 20
Origen describes the use of temples, statues, and altars as a pretence that gives licence to impiety. In this way he echoes Clement’s warning against the excesses of temple worship stating that Christians have ‘learnt from Jesus Christ the true way of serving God’. Origen, goes on to show that he upholds the carnal and spiritual distinctions of his predecessors as a way of placing his trust ultimately not in human works but in his trust in God:
If there is, then, such a dangerous tendency in this direction, as even the enemy of the truth of God confesses, how much better is it to avoid all danger of giving ourselves too much up to the power of such demons, and of becoming turned aside from higher things, and suffering them to pass into oblivion through an excessive attention to the body; by entrusting ourselves to the Supreme God through Jesus Christ, who has given us such instruction, and asking of Him all help, and the guardianship of holy and good angels, to defend us from the earth-spirits intent on lust, and blood, and sacrificial odours, and strange sounds, and other sensual things!Against Celsus, Book 8: Chapter 60
Origen actually asks God and his angels to defend us all from ‘sacrificial odours’ and the sensuality of man made religion. In this he places himself well in continuity with prior fathers. Yet we have other people available who make this distinction between carnal and spiritual religion:
Arnobius, 3rd/4th Century
For it is not he who is anxiously thinking of religious rites, and slays spotless victims, who gives piles of incense to be burned with fire, not he must be thought to worship the deities, or alone discharge the duties of religion. True worship is in the heart, and a belief worthy of the gods; nor does it at all avail to bring blood and gore, if you believe about them things which are not only far remote from and unlike their nature, but even to some extent stain and disgrace both their dignity and virtue.Against The Heathen, Book 4: Chapter 30
Arnobius here outlines ‘true worship’ as something done via the heart and this is in distinction to, among other things, those who ‘give piles of incense to be burned with fire’. As we shall see, because of this, Christians were frequently charged with being impious people:
For you are here in the habit of fastening upon us a very serious charge of impiety because we do not rear temples for the ceremonies of worship, do not set up statues and images of any god, do not build altars, do not offer the blood of creatures slain in sacrifices, incense, nor sacrificial meal, and finally, do not bring wine flowing in libations from sacred bowls; which, indeed, we neglect to build and do.Against The Heathen, Book 6: Chapter 1
Here he makes clear the Christians dispense with the trappings of all other known religions that surround him. The use of incense is included in this. Arnobius even goes further by claiming that the use of incense itself was an innovation amongst pagans:
Neither in the heroic ages, as it is believed and declared, was it known what incense was, as is proved by the ancient writers, in whose books is found no mention of it; nor was Etruria, the parent and mother of superstition, acquainted with its fame and renown, as the rites of the chapels prove; nor was it used by anyone in offering sacrifice during the four hundred years in which Alba flourished; nor did even Romulus or Numa, who was skilful in devising new ceremonies, know either of its existence or growth, as the sacred grits show with which it was customary that the usual sacrifices should be performed. Whence, therefore, did its use begin to be adopted? Or what desire of novelty assailed the old and ancient custom, so that that which was not needed for so many ages took the first place in the ceremonies? For if without incense the performance of a religious service is imperfect, and if a quantity of it is necessary to make the celestials gentle and propitious to men, the ancients fell into sin, nay rather, their whole life was full of guilt, for they carelessly neglected to offer that which was most fitted to give pleasure to the gods. But if in ancient times neither men nor gods sought for this incense, it is proved that today also that is offered uselessly and in vain which antiquity did not believe necessary, but modern times desired without any reason.Against The Heathen, Book 7: Chapter 26
Arnobius’s argument here, whilst directed at non-Christians, I think could equally apply to those brothers and sisters who now adorn their churches with it. I can’t help but be reminded of Luther’s retort to Anabaptists that if infant baptism isn’t valid then no Christian had been baptised in near a millenia. If the earliest centuries of the Church did not require incense, had their worship been lesser than those that adopted it? Arnobius’s student Lactantius makes similar comments:
Lactantius, 3rd/4th Century
There are two things which ought to be offered, the gift and the sacrifice; the gift as a perpetual offering, the sacrifice for a time. But with those who by no means understand the nature of the Divine Being, a gift is anything which is wrought of gold or silver; likewise anything which is woven of purple and silk: a sacrifice is a victim, and as many things as are burnt upon the altar. But God does not make use either of the one or the other, because He is free from corruption, and that is altogether corruptible. Therefore, in each case, that which is incorporeal must be offered to God, for He accepts this. His offering is innocency of soul; His sacrifice praise and a hymn. For if God is not seen, He ought therefore to be worshipped with things which are not seen.Divine Institutes, Book 6: Chapter 25
Lactantius, the tutor of Constantine the Great, further makes the case that our offering to God is ‘incorporeal’ being a man’s innocence, praise, and singing. That those who think it constitutes offerings upon the altar don’t understand Christian worship. He continues:
The worship of God consists of one thing, not to be wicked. Also in that perfect discourse, when he heard Asclepius inquiring from his son whether it pleased him that incense and other odours for divine sacrifice were offered to his father, exclaimed: “Speak words of good omen, O Asclepius. For it is the greatest impiety to entertain any such thought concerning that being of pre-eminent goodness. For these things, and things resembling these, are not adapted to Him. For He is full of all things, as many as exist, and He has need of nothing at all. But let us give Him thanks, and adore Him. For His sacrifice consists only of blessing.” And he spoke rightly.Ibid
Lactantius here reminds me of Athenagoras in his objections to offering corporeal and corruptible things to our God who needs nothing. Sacrifice worthy of God is that of ‘blessing’ and the ceasing of ‘wickedness’.
Whilst Christians did begin to use incense this doesn’t seem to occur until relatively late. One source stating:
There is no clear evidence of its Christian use [of incense] until about the year 500. Censers may at first have been fixed, with the introduction of portable censers originating later. The incensing of the altar, church, and congregation, is first recorded in the 9th century.Rev. Nicon D. Patrinacos. “Incense (Greek: θυμίαμα).” In: A Dictionary of Greek Orthodoxy – Λεξικον Ελληνικης Ορθοδοξιας. Light & Life Publishing, Minnesota, 1984. p. 205.
Which begs the question what changed? Without going into too much depth I think the philosophical foundations of many Christians changed, these changes gave license to things previously condemned such as image and relic worship, things I’ve previously covered. Yet what caused this change in the philosophical outlook of Christians? Well I think enfranchisement had a big part in it. In the words of one commentator:
Alongside the new relationship with the state, new patterns and habits of worship developed, which it is possible to sum up simply by saying that in this period Christianity became a religion. The Middle Eastern world in which Jesus and his first followers lived had a clear and distinct concept of “religion”: the temple cults in which ritual specialists, the priests, represented the people and sought divine favour through sacrifice. In its origin Christianity was a radical revivalist cult that rejected most of these things. By the end of the fourth century they were back again: holy buildings, priestly rituals, the language of sacrifice and mystery. A priest of Baal or of Isis or of Yahweh would certainly have recognized what kind of thing the Christianity of the late fourth century was. It was as part of this immense transformation that the cult of the saints came into new prominence and assumed new forms.Robert Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation
Like any sudden revolution it assumed many of the patterns and policies of the old regime. The role of neo-Platonism in this shoring this change up is hard to understate. Its influence in later writers like Basil the Great, and Pseudo-Dionysius is noticeable and very different in tone to the above quoted Fathers. Yet rather than cover that I would like to indulge and reflect on the position of my own tradition. That of the Church of England in regard to this, as my first exposure to incense outside of Hindu Temples was in a Anglo-Catholic Church I was once invited to visit. Whilst I don’t really consider Anglo-Catholicism Anglican in any meaningful sense, they do, so let us see what our sources say:
Anglican Divines and Literature
Book of Homilies
Let vs honour and worship for Religions sake none but him, and him let vs worship and honour as he will himselfe, and hath declared by his worde, that hee will bee honoured and worshipped, not in, nor by Images or idoles, which he hath most straightly forbidden, neither in kneeling, lighting of candels, burning of incense, offering vp of gifts vnto Images and Idoles, to beleeue that wee shall please him, for all these bee abomination before GOD: but let vs honour and worshippe GOD in spirit and trueth, fearing and louing him aboue all things, trusting in him onely, calling vpon him, and praying to him onely, praising and lauding of him onely, and all other in him, and for him. For such worshippers doeth our heauenly Father loue, who is a most pure Spirit, and therefore will bee worshipped in spirit and trueth (John 4.24).Book 2. Homily 2: Against the peril of Idolatry
Excusing the dated language I am surprised by how consonant this seems with the above quoted fathers. The Book of Homilies are a series of sermons that are meant to lend greater depth and context to the 39 Articles which form the backbone of belief for Anglicans. Whilst I chafe with some aspects of them I find nothing to disagree with here. Incense here is listed as one of the practices considered an ‘abomination’.
Certainly, the images of the saints are not idols, but you make them idols by worshipping them and offering incense to them, as was done of old to the brazen serpent and is being done by you every day.Responsio ad Bellarminum
Bishop Andrews was a 17th century Divine (influential theologians) in the Anglican church who is associated with the high church tradition. Elsewhere he talks about the association of incense to idolatry and elsewhere rebukes the Roman Catholic church for its use of ‘frankincense offerings’:
Their priests to have shaven crowns, to be unmarried, to have frankincense offerings, fasts and feasts, to have candles in them, and to carry them up and down, in every respect is heathenish; and Chemnitius in particular proveth this by variety of authors. The placing of lights in churches at some time is not altogether an heathenish ceremony, although it appears by Seneca the Gentiles had it ; but their burning of tapers in their churches at noonday is altogether a pagan custom, as Rhenanus well observes in his comment upon Tertullian.Discourse of Ceremonies, Part III
Jeremy Taylor was another 17th century Anglican divine who mentioned incense. In a letter to a convert to Rome he writes:
You are gone to a Church … that seals up the fountain of God’s Word, and gives you drink by drops out of such cisterns as they first make, and then stain, and then reach out. It is now become part of your religion to be ignorant, to walk in blindness, to believe the man that hears your confessions, to hear none but him, not to hear God speaking but by him, and so you are liable to be abused by him, as he please, without remedy. You are taught to worship saints and angels with a worship at least dangerous and in some things proper to God; for your Church worships the Virgin Mary with burning incense and candles to her, and you give her presents, which by the consent of all nations used to be considered a worship peculiar to God; and it is the same thing which was condemned for heresy in the Collyridians, who offered a cake to the Virgin Mary. A candle and a cake make no difference in the worship.Letter to a Gentlewoman seduced to the Church of Rome
Here he compares the offering of incense to the heresy of the Collyridians, an Arabian sect who worshipped the virgin Mary, and likewise rejects the often claimed distinction between latria and dulia that John of Damascus famously introduced to defend image worship in doing so.
Ritualism in the Church of England
Whilst this seems fairly straightforward things changed quite dramatically in the 19th century. Clergy started to do many of things condemned in the Book of Homilies in the name of the Tractarian movement, even being willing to go to prison. This came about from a real and concerted effort to change the doctrinal assumptions within Anglicanism. As Edward Pusey, a notable tractarian wrote:
In proportion as the doctrines of the real presence and eucharistic sacrifice have found their way into the faith of congregations, so have ceremonial observances increased … It is not for a chasuble or a cope, lighted tapers or the smoke of incense, the mitre or the pastoral staff, that we are contending; but, as all those who think deeply on either side of the question know full well, for the doctrines which lie hidden under them. No one of the commonest capacity would either undergo the trouble or encounter the expense which is unavoidably connected with the proper observance of religious ceremonies, if it were only for the external show which was to be gained in them.”E B Pusey, cited in Law Reports, Admirality and Ecclesiastical, 1869-72 Vol III P 170.
The use of incense in the Church of England is better understood as a by-product of more fundamental shifts in doctrine at the expense of the confessions and historic position of the Church. Changes as such that the Church of Ireland had to pass explicit legislation against it as these practices grew:
40. Use of incense forbidden
No incense or any substitution therefore or imitation thereof shall at any time be used in any church or chapel or other place in which the public services of the Church are celebrated.The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and other Rites and ceremonies of the Church According to the Use of the Church of Ireland, etc., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1926) 355.
Yet I think people are beginning to realise the revisionist reading of history attached to these man made forms and doctrines for what they are. That Newman, and those like him, ‘whether he intended to or not, he taught us to lie’. That the precedent of the early church, and indeed the historic Protestant and Anglican church was to eschew these things. Now with our convictions rendered obscure and non-binding many Anglicans are now increasingly defined by these external ritualised forms:
The use of incense, elaborate vestments, candles, minutely worked out ceremonial, and other appurtenances of the ritualism that the Ritualists introduced into the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the nineteenth century, as well as a fixed liturgy, make Anglicans and Episcopalians particularly susceptible to formalism. Bishop J. C. Ryle and the evangelicals repeatedly sought to point this susceptibility to the attention of the English Church in the nineteenth century. What God, however, desires from us are not the strict observance of forms but the worship of the heart, which expresses itself not only in praise and thanksgiving but also in godly living and good deeds. It is worship that springs from our restored relationship with God, as well as our gratitude for the grace God has shown us. We were created to worship God and to glorify him. Having been reconciled to God, it is only natural for us to want to do that for which we were created—to worship God and glorify him “not only with our lips, but in our lives”.
In attempting to make the liturgy simpler, more understandable, and more biblical and therefore more edifying, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer stripped away things like the use of incense in the sixteenth century. In doing so, he also made the worship of the English Church less susceptible to formalism. While he did not completely inoculate the Church against formalism, he took great strides in the right direction.Robin G. Jordan, The Use of Incense in Anglican Worship: Another View, Anglicans Ablaze, Accessed 21st August 2019
Many claim they do not make offerings to God in their use of incense yet these debates so often devolve into shadowboxing given respective individuals will use different philosophical frameworks to approach the question in its first instance. Talking past each other becomes inevitable. Yet I think most people will see that incense, despite attestations, is seen as an ex opere operato offering by many to God, in the words of one Eastern Orthodox liturgy a celebrant will pray:
“We offer to Thee, Christ our God, this incense as a spiritual fragrance; receive it, we pray, to Thy heavenly altar and send down to us, in return, the grace of Thy Holy Spirit.”Rev. Nicon D. Patrinacos. “Incense (Greek: θυμίαμα).” In: A Dictionary of Greek Orthodoxy – Λεξικον Ελληνικης Ορθοδοξιας. Light & Life Publishing, Minnesota, 1984. p. 205
Which seems fundamentally at odds with both scripture and its exposition in the earliest centuries of the Church. If you are interested in learning more about the changes to the philosophical foundations of the Church over the centuries I write more about it here in my series on Images and my other on Relics and Martyrdom in the Church.
Addendum: Article 29 and Isaiah 1:11-15
With the talk of sacrifice in regard to incense I can’t help but be reminded of Article 29 of the 39 Articles, which reads:
XXIX. Of the Wicked, which eat not the Body of Christ in the use of the Lord’s Supper.
The Wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ; yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing.
When initially writing this piece I thought of this in regard to when the Epistle of Barnabas, and other early authors quote Isaiah 1:11-15 about God refusing to accept the sacrifice of the unrighteous. That even the prayers of the unrighteous are insufferable to God (Proverbs 28:9). So in Anglican and Reformed theology of the Lord’s Supper there seems, potentially, a link between it and this image of our prayers as incense. In our reception of the elements there is a prayer that rises to God and a grace which descends to us lifting us into the heavenly realms to partake of Christ. This I think is reflected in Justin Martyr’s invoking of the prophet Malachi in his Dialogue with Trypho when he says:
‘I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord; and I will not accept your sacrifices at your hands: for, from the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same, My name has been glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure offering: for My name is great among the Gentiles, says the Lord: but you profane it.’ Malachi 1:10-12 He then speaks of those Gentiles, namely us, who in every place offer sacrifices to Him, i.e., the bread of the Eucharist, and also the cup of the Eucharist…Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 41. The oblation of fine flour was a figure of the Eucharist
The sacrifice is prayer, faith, and ceasing from wickedness joined to the receiving of the bread and wine. Rightly done this is the aroma that pleases God. Writing on the Lords Supper the Anglican Divine John Jewel wrote:
The body then which we eat is in heaven : above all Angels, and Archangels, and powers, and principalities. Our meat is in heaven on high, and we are here below on the earth. How may it be, that we may reach it, or taste, or eat it? Here let us imagine, that there are two men in every man, and that every man is flesh and spirit, body and soul. This man thus doubled, must be furnished with double senses : bodily to serve the body, and spiritual to serve the soul. He must have eyes of the body, and eyes of the soul : ears of the body, and ears of the soul. Spiritual senses are quick, sharp, and lively. They pierce any thing, be it never so thick : they reach any thing, be it never so far off. Christ saith of Abraham, “Abraham rejoiced to see my day : he saw it, and was glad.” He saw it, not with his bodily eyes, but with the inner eyes of the soul.
When we speak of the mystery of Christ, and of eating his body, we must shut up and abandon all our bodily senses. And, as we cannot say that we see him with our bodily eyes, or hear him with our bodily ears, or touch him with bodily feeling : so likewise can we not, and therefore may we not say, we taste him, or eat him with our bodily mouth. In this work we must open all the inner and spiritual senses of our soul : so shall we not only see his body, but hear him, and feel him, and taste him, and eat him. This is the mouth, and the feeling of faith. By the hand of faith we reach unto him, and by the mouth of faith we receive his body.A Treatise Of The Sacraments Gathered Out Of Certain Sermons
That last sentence I think really captures the idea of a simultaneous rising on our part and a condescension on God towards us. The use of the term hand, is similar in usage to that when Athenagoras employs it. The rising or reaching hand being a sign of sacrifice and prayer.
I feel like this is a passage that would make Fathers like Irenaeus and Clement nod in approval. Incense in a church is indicative of a belief that we might force our prayers upon God irrespective of where we stand before him. That we become righteous or pray by doing the right rite. It is indicative of a belief that we may somehow save ourselves in our own efforts rather than trusting in Christ as per Hebrews 8. To imitate that last paragraph of Bishop John Jewel therefore may we not say, we pray to him, with material incense. In this work we must open all the inner and spiritual senses of our soul .
I’m no theologian, I am probably missing something, but in writing this I couldn’t help but consider this.
One thought on “Opposition to Incense in the Early Church Fathers and Anglicanism”
What frustrates me most about most high liturgist people (Roman, Orthodox, Anglican, etc.) who live in the West is their radical reformulation of liturgy. The traditional answer was simply these things must be done and were simply the reality, what the Apostles handed down. Well, now that scholars increasingly find this position indefensible, they opt for sly approaches. One is to target aesthetics in semi-functionalist language: we need liturgies to shape us, opening our hearts to beauty, etc. Another is to basically engage in some kind of neoplatonic theurgy or something, believing certain actions can create portals into reality. The latter part may be a mistaken, but still legitimate, way to understand a “sacrament” (taking the emphasis away from God’s making things to be as such), but it’s now coupled with an awareness that the Apostles didn’t do these things.
All in all, none of these people are quite being honest with their own heritage and tradition. Perhaps Newman didn’t just teach Anglo-Catholics to lie, but all Roman Catholics (and, by extension, western influenced Orthodox) who now can re-read their entire tradition through an evolutionary lens. So incense was not what it was believed to be (actually God-honoring and required to be pious), but because it has some aesthetic value, or is typologically instructive, or there’s something mystical about incense being burned inscribed in the elemental cosmic principles of the world.
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