Friday, February 24, 2012

Liturgy Review: The Early Church



Johnson, Lawrence J. Worship in the Early Church: An Anthology of Historical Sources (Volume 1: First through Third Centuries; Volume 2: Fourth Century; Volume 3: Fifth Century; Volume 4: Sixth Century). Collegeville: Pueblo/Liturgical Press, 2009. CD-ROM of pdf files. $189.95. (LHP)


Johnson, Lawrence J. Worship in the Early Church: An Anthology of Historical Sources (Volume 1: First through Third Centuries). Collegeville: Pueblo/Liturgical Press, 2009. 282 Pages. Cloth. $74.95. (LHP)


Bradshaw, Paul F. Early Christian Worship: A Basic Introduction to Ideas and Practice (Second Edition). Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2010. 104 Pages. Paper. $16.95. (LHP)

Bradshaw, Paul F. Reconstructing Early Christian Worship. Collegeville: Pueblo/Liturgical Press, 2010. 151 Pages. Paper. $19.95. (LHP)


Bradshaw, Paul F and Maxwell E. Johnson. The Origins of Feasts, Fasts and Seasons in Early Christianity. Collegeville: Pueblo/Liturgical Press, 2011. 222 Pages. Paper. $29.95. (LHP)

We don't know everything we would like to know about worship in the early Church, but we know a lot. Liturgical Press proves it.

These volumes are significant because they show Christians today why we worship the way we do. No, Lutheran worship is not merely German. It has a long history. If anything, it is very Jewish in structure. Take the Synagogue Liturgy + the Passover Liturgy as remodeled by Jesus + the once-for-all atoning sacrifice of Jesus replacing the temple, and Sunday morning's Divine Service, Gottesdienst, looks a lot like it.

First up, a monumental four-volume series.

Worship in the Early Church is a four-volume collection of excerpts from early Christian writings illustrating the Church's liturgical practice in both East and West, from its Jewish beginnings through the end of the sixth century. Source material includes doctrinal and historical treatises, scriptural commentaries, sermons, letters, synodal legislation, early church orders, monastic rules, baptismal and funeral epigrams. Each author or major selection is preceded by a short introduction containing such information as dates, country of origin, and various other background details. A bibliography of pertinent periodical and liturgical literature is given as well as a bibliography referencing standard encyclopedias of religion and manuals of patrology.

Lawrence J. Johnson is the former executive secretary of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions and the former editor/director of The Pastoral Press. He has written several books on the liturgy and its music, including The Mystery of Faith: A Study of the Structural Elements of the Order of the Mass.
(publisher's website)

The amount of material included in these volumes is simply stunning. Much is unavailable elsewhere. Add the convenience of a digital version, and you can study on the go with your laptop, tablet, or even Kindle. The CD-Rom is worth "the price of admission." A searchable pdf is an incredible research tool.

We were also blessed with the opportunity to get a hardcover version of Volume One. 

It features...

Jewish prayers from table and synagogue; Subapostolic Era: the Didache, Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Pastor Hermas; Second Century: Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Melito of Sardis; Third Century: Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage, Hippolytus of Rome, the Didascalia of the Apostles, Origen, the Apostolic Church Order; and others.
(publisher's website)

Johnson's masterwork features an unbelievable number of references, including citations of scholarly articles on each writing, multiple sources of the original text, extensive footnotes, and his own alternate translations.

Save up for the whole set in print, CD-Rom, or both. At the very least, spend the money to own Volume one.

I've read most of what Paul Bradshaw has in print over the last twelve years. Our next book is a revision of one published in 1996.


Early Christian Worship is a straightforward, readable introduction to worship in the first four centuries of the church's existence. How did early Christians see and understand their own worship? How did this interact with early Christian beliefs? The book has been brought up-to-date and revised, with some chapters rewritten and an updated bibliography.

Paul F. Bradshaw is professor of liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, and priest-vicar of Westminster Abbey and a member of the Church of England Liturgical Commission. He is the author or editor of several major books (The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship, Eucharistic Origins, Reconstructing Early Christian Worship, The Study of Liturgy, A Companion to Common Worship, volumes 1 and 2).
(publisher's website)

The author has revisited every chapter in the previous edition, incorporating the latest reliable scholarship and newly found ancient manuscripts.

We are again reminded by the (counter)example of Tertullian, that ancient does not always mean correct (19).

Chrystostom notes a [Divine?] passive form for the baptismal wording (29ff). 

Infants were baptized. From ancient times, someone from their family spoke for them, as was the case for those too ill to answer for themselves (34). 

The Sacrifice of the Mass, sadly, has ancient roots (68ff), as does transubstantiation (74). Still, the Word trumps tradition.

Monasticism fused the desert and cathedral prayer traditions (82).

"Eighth Day" theology predates the Christian Easter and has Jewish Psalm 90:4 origins (86).

I commend the author particularly for revising his assessment of what the ancient data says about December 25 (94). He at least presents two competing theories, rather than the one of the previous edition that made Christians the ones who co-opted a Roman holiday.

Affordable and informative, Early Christian Worship is essential reading. 

Our fourth resource is another by Bradshaw.


Building on the approach set out in his Search for the Origins of Christian Worship, Paul Bradshaw attempts to drill down at several key points beneath the surface impression of early Christian worship that has been accepted in most studies of the primary sources. His aim is to see whether a somewhat different picture emerges when one examines the material with altered presuppositions and a questioning attitude.

Thus, each chapter in Reconstructing Early Christian Worship begins from the conventional depiction of its topic. The author then subjects the sources to an assessment from the perspective of the methodology set out in his earlier work, which then leads to new conclusions. Important aspects of the Eucharist, baptism, and daily prayer are each explored in turn and new understandings of those rites opened up. The resulting change in perception not only affects how we reconstruct our vision of the past but also how we use the past as precedent for worship practice today. Each chapter ends with a comment on the possible modern application of these new discoveries.

Paul F. Bradshaw is professor of liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, and priest-vicar of Westminster Abbey and a member of the Church of England Liturgical Commission. He is the author or editor of several major books (The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship, Eucharistic Origins, Reconstructing Early Christian Worship, The Study of Liturgy, A Companion to Common Worship, volumes 1 and 2).
(publisher's website)

I appreciate much about Bradshaw's scholarship and readable writing, but I have doubts about his orthodoxy based on the questions he raises. They sound like doubts rather than faith. "Did Jesus Institute the Eucharist at the Last Supper?" was a bit much to take (Chapter 1), but it prepared me for when he later questioned whether Paul was the one who associated the two events (19). 

This volume has an appalling amount of historical criticism. I had my fill of that in studying the 1970's history of The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod! 

Why will I still recommend this volume to you? Bradshaw has great sources. You can read them for yourself and make your own better conclusions. Besides, his paperback studies of early Christian worship theology and practice are very affordable. I trust my Lutheran readers to be discerning, appropriately skeptical, willing to double-check sources, and properly define their terms.

In our final book of this review, Bradshaw teams up with Maxwell E. Johnson.


The liturgical year is a relatively modern invention. The term itself only came into use in the late sixteenth century. In antiquity, Christians did not view the various festivals and fasts that they experienced as a unified whole. Instead, the different seasons formed a number of completely unrelated cycles and tended to overlap and conflict with one another. In early Christianity, the fundamental cycle was that of the seven-day week. Taken over from Judaism by the first Christians, this was centered on Sunday rather than the sabbath. As the early Church established its identity, the days of the week set aside for fasting came to be different from those customary among the Jews. There also existed an annual cycle related to Easter.

Drawing upon the latest research, the authors track the development of the Church's feasts, fasts, and seasons, including the sabbath and Sunday, Holy Week and Easter, Christmas and Epiphany, and the feasts of the Virgin Mary, the martyrs, and other saints.

Paul F. Bradshaw is professor of liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, USA, an honorary canon of the Diocese of Northern Indiana, and a priest-vicar of Westminster Abbey. He has written or edited more than twenty books on the subject of Christian worship, together with over ninety essays or articles in periodicals. A former president of both the North American Academy of Liturgy and the international Societas Liturgica, he was also editor-in-chief of the journal Studia Liturgica from 1987 to 2005.

Maxwell E. Johnson is professor of liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, USA, and a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. His numerous publications are on the origins and development of early Christian liturgy as well as on current ecumenical theological questions, especially among Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans. He is the author and/or editor of over fifteen books and seventy essays and articles in books and journals. He is also a member of the North American Academy of Liturgy, Societas Liturgica, and the Society of Oriental Liturgy.

(publisher's website)

Bradshaw's co-author is an ELCA Lutheran. The two make a good pair as they strengthen one another. There is appropriate skepticism of Roman evidence of Baptism at Easter (83). Discussion of the history of Christian celebrations on January 6 and December 25 are expanded (146ff). The authors give extensive new data on the development of Saints' Days (e.g., 190, 191).

This volume is an improvement and a successor to a similar volume by Thomas Talley. It succeeds in presenting the extensive and often contradictory data and practice of ancient Christian communities throughout the Mediterranean and beyond in a systematic and readable way. 

Bradshaw and Johnson will provide a layman with a readable introduction to the earliest celebrations of Christianity. Pastors will have ample ammunition for extended historical discussions of Christian feasts for Bible Study and pulpit.

The modern Church has largely lost a sense of history, and that means a loss of identity. The Roman revisions to the English Mass have been somewhat controversial. The controversy was unnecessary, for the Roman Church has had a long view of history. The pastoral provisions that led to an Anglican Ordinariate are a long-term process of bringing the heirs of the Church of England to Rome. I expect similar offers to other Christian traditions as Rome's ecumenical plan unfolds over the decades and centuries. The English Mass after Vatican II was just a rough draft, what Lutherans have called "hymnal supplements" or experimental liturgies. The long view of the Church at worship takes forty years to come up with the best translation of the traditional texts. Lutherans and other Americans (like the Evangelicals) can learn at least that from the Bishop of Rome and those loyal to him. The "Top 40" approach to church music will never work in the long term.

Thanks, Liturgical Press!

The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, a member of the Board of Directors of The Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.

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