Anabaptist apologist David W. Bercot makes the claim. I make the refutation.
At the 40:33 mark in his lecture entitled What the Early Christians Believed About Images and Prayers to Saints, Protestant writer/speaker David W. Bercot , who specializes in the early Christian writings, made a remarkable yet preposterous claim: the early Christians didn't use incense in their worship.
I will address the full lecture in following articles, as I feel called to refute Bercot's sophisticated sophistry, but for now I will start out with the weakest point in Bercot’s self-proclaimed “irrefutable” argument. It is easily disproven. Because he was so sure about this point, and it is no doubt wrong, as you will see, one must consider his other points with caution.
Bercot wouldn’t be able to find a single verse in the Bible that says Christians can’t pray before icons, use incense, or pray to saints. That is because there isn’t a single verse explicitly mentioning prohibitions of those things. So his entire argument stands on the early Christian writers. Fair enough.
At the 46:54 mark in Bercot’s lecture, he says, “The unanimous testimony of the pre-Nicene Christians is that they did not use incense. There is not even one exception on that.” In A.D. 311's The Proof of the Gospel, the Christian historian Eusebius, who Bercot ironically mentions extensively in his book Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up (nearly devoting an entire chapter to him), wrote that Christians use incense during the Mass:
So, then, we sacrifice and offer incense: On the one hand when we celebrate the Memorial of His great Sacrifice according to the Mysteries He delivered to us, and bring to God the Eucharist for our salvation with holy hymns and prayers…
That is only one exception among others. “Not even one exception.”?
Here is another quick proof that the Pre-Nicene Christians used incense in their worship, from the earliest liturgy that survives till today, the Liturgy of James from around the year 300 AD or earlier:
“We render thanks to You, the Saviour and God of all, for all the good things You have given us, and for the participation of Your holy and pure mysteries, and we offer to You this incense”
Perhaps Bercot wasn’t being intentionally dishonest when he said that there is “not even one exception”, but he sounded pretty sure about that, and if he sounded so sure about that and was wrong, one must then pay attention to the rest of his sources.
So I researched his sources…This article by a neutral Christian website, composed of Evangelicals, Orthodox, and Calvinists, was what I found when I looked for the full quotes that Bercot was using to claim that incense shouldn’t be allowed in a church. I realized that he was not only being dishonest by excluding contradicting evidence, as shown above, but also that his very evidence given seems to be deprived intentionally of its context and used to try to prove something outside of that context.
I will show you one example. Bercot uses an Athenegoras quote to try to prove the early Christians were against incense at the 43-minute mark in his lecture. Firstly, one must know that this writing from Athenagoras, A Plea For the Christians, was written to the pagan emperor Marcus Aurelius (fun fact: the one in the movie Gladiator). He doesn’t mention this. You’ll see why in a second.
He starts the following quote at: “the Framer and Father of this universe”. This was dishonest to do so.
The website linked above tells why: “Athenagoras’ opening remark for Chapter 13 makes clear the context of writing to the pagan audience [not to a Christian audience] who accused the Christians of atheism:
“But, as most of those who charge us with atheism (…)
“Then he [Athenagoras] explains why Christians abstain from offering up animal sacrifices and incense with the pagans [the pagans used to try to force Christians to worship their gods by forcing the Christians to burn incense before their idols].
“And first, as to our not sacrificing [this phrase is also an excluded part which indicates that the following words after are only referring to sacrificing, or burning incense, to the pagan gods]: 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….”
The quote read only from “The Framer and Father” is an entirely different quote, one deprived of its context and true meaning.
I encourage you to find the rest of the quotes Bercot uses, some of which are in the article linked above, if the two examples of dishonesty I have provided are not enough.
Bercot’s claim that incense was a pagan practice, and is supposedly proved by out-of-context early Christian quotes (all of which are notably written against pagans using incense to worship their false gods and not against Christians using incense to worship God) is definitively disproved by logic when one realizes that God commanded the Jews to use incense in their worship of Him. God can’t command one to do evil, as that would make him the author of evil, or an evil God, which He can’t be.
Exodus 30:1-2: “Make an altar of acacia wood for burning incense.” He [the Jewish priest Aaron] must burn incense again when he lights the lamps at twilight so incense will burn regularly before the Lord for the generations to come.
Exodus 40:26-27: “Moses placed the gold altar in the tent of meeting in front of the curtain and burned fragrant incense on it, as the Lord commanded him.”
Malachi 1:1: ‘ “My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the Lord Almighty.’
Jesus Himself worshipped the Father in Jewish temples while incense was burning. The practice of the early Christians using incense in worship, as Eusebius records, was no doubt a practice brought into the Christian religion from its Jewish roots, and not from Paganism.