Archive Authors Ecclesiastical Polity Reformed Irenicism Steven Wedgeworth

The Quest for Historic Liturgy: What Can We Really Find?

The following essay is a modified excerpt from my presentation at the Jackson, MS Regional Convivium Calvinisticum on February 21, 2014.

Many of our churches have become interested in liturgy, or a philosophy of corporate worship, over the last several years, and this interest has been, for the most part, very good. Moving from an unreflective and often idiosyncratic order of worship to a self-consciously theological and historical one cannot but produce better results. But there are important questions which still need to be answered, especially concerning some of our driving assumptions. The terms “liturgy” and “liturgical” are perhaps becoming somewhat commonplace, even among Evangelical churches, but many of us would probably agree that this is only a very recent phenomenon. They are still unusual terms to many among the laity. In fact, the terms are themselves transliterations from the Latin and the Greek, and this observation is itself worth noting, as a mere translation would give you the rather unimpressive “public service” or simply “worship.” Once put into plain English, there is nothing distinctive at all about having a liturgy. All churches have always had one. The function of the transliteration is to signify something more specific: an intentionally structured worship service with certain historic forms and theologically-inspired rites. This stipulated meaning is certainly what lies behind the modern “liturgical renewal” movement which influenced nearly all major branches and denominations of the Church in the 20th century, and this is the meaning that needs to be investigated a bit more critically.

The Liturgical Renewal Movement

While there are many varieties of liturgical traditions in the church, taking different forms among different parts of Christendom, each having much of value to offer, the modern liturgical dialogue cannot separate itself from what is called the liturgical renewal movement of the 20th century. Owing some important inspiration to turn of the century ideas and contributions, the major developments took place with the liturgical reforms of the 2nd Vatican council and then the various responses, imitations, and modifications of the ecumenical movement, namely the Common Lectionary and Revised Common Lectionary. Anglicans and Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and various Congregationalist churches held their own and joint liturgical conferences, those historically Reformed and Presbyterian churches have all had their various conferences and committees on worship as well.1 The Anglicans and Episcopalians published new versions of the Book of Common Prayer and the mainline Presbyterians put out their Book of Common Worship. Calvin College started its Calvin Institute of Christian Worship to influence the Dutch Reformed churches. And while not going so far as to have any “official” liturgical handbook, more conservative Reformed denominations like the PCA, OPC, URC, and even, yes, the CREC have seen a constant flow of literature defining, defending, and critiquing various perspectives of worship.2

The majority of the influence of this contemporary liturgical movement should be understood and explained practically. Pastors and other religious teachers speak at conferences, write popular articles and essays, and coordinate various liturgical reform efforts which then take root in church communities. But there is an historical and academic component to it as well, and this is very important. While claims to antiquity have always been an important part of theological and ecclesiastical apologetics, the past 300 hundred years have seen an important rise and concentration in historiography, including liturgical history. The results of this have been to give academics and lay-readers alike much greater access to church history and liturgical development, and a great deal of the inspiration behind the liturgical renewal movement was to discover the “early church” or “catholic” liturgy from which to unite churches and Christians today. Certain common ideas taken from this scholarship underlie much of the modern liturgical quests, both in its assumptions and expectations.3 

This observation is worth considering more carefully because it is to this liturgical renewal program that most evangelical and even Reformed churches turn when they begin more seriously studying liturgy. Not having a well-established liturgical tradition of their own, or at least not believing that they do, the default tendency is to look to what it is that those ‘liturgical” churches are doing, and this usually means to more or less follow the lead of Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches in varying degrees. The assumption is that between these groups, something like a classical or traditional liturgical consensus can be discovered and then applied within an Evangelical context.4

The Humble Judgment of Contemporary Scholarship

Now, if this were actually what one was doing when studying the contemporary liturgical scene, it would itself require a certain justification, whether it were a good or bad thing. But before coming to that question, it is important to emphasize that the liturgical renewal movement is not simply an archive of historical references but rather a distinctively modern interpretation and appropriation of a matrix of historical, theological, and aesthetic ideals. Paul F. Bradshaw has done the most important work in the area of early Christian liturgy, and he has quite pointedly and definitely critiqued the assumptions of 20th century liturgists. His book The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship is an invaluable resource in this regard, as he summarizes the collective scholarship of the past century and notes the common misconceptions which have been disproved and explains the very small number of definitive conclusions that have been reached. In the introduction to the 2nd edition, Dr. Bradshaw cautiously states that something very much like a scholarly consensus now exists regarding at least four points:

  1. That we know much, much less about the liturgical practices of the first three centuries than we once thought that we did…
  2. That what we do know about patterns of worship in that primitive period points towards considerable variety more often than towards rigid uniformity…
  3. That the ‘classical shape of Christian liturgy’ that we have so often described is to a very large degree the result of a deliberate assimilation of different Christian traditions to one another during the fourth century rather than the survival of the one pattern of Christian worship from the earliest apostolic times, perhaps even from Jesus himself.
  4. That what emerges in this post-Nicene era is frequently a liturgical compromise, a practice that includes a bit from here with a bit from there modified by a custom from somewhere else, rather than the triumph of one way of doing things over all the others, although this latter phenomenon is not unknown in some instances. This means that what then becomes the mainstream liturgical tradition of the Church in the East and West is often quite unlike what any single Christian group was doing prior to the fourth century. A real mutation had taken place at that time, and many primitive customs had either disappeared or had been greatly altered from their former appearance.5

Complementing that final observation is a similar one from Maxwell Johnson who writes:

[T]he early liturgical traditions we encounter in this period [The first three centuries] would ultimately contribute, especially during the great formative period of the fourth and fifth centuries, to the composition of the distinct liturgical ‘rites’ of East and West that still characterize Christianity today. But these distinct ‘rites,’ it should be noted, resulted not from what liturgical scholars used to describe as a process of ‘diversification of rites’ form an allegedly original or pristine apostolic unitive or ritual ‘core,’ but rather from a process of ‘unification of rites,’ and from what Jon Fenwick has called a process of liturgical ‘cross-fertilization,’ as the liturgical practices of local churches were brought into conformity with those of the great patriarchal sees and influential pilgrim centers, and as liturgical structures and practices that had developed in one church were borrowed and copied by others.6

We really have little knowledge of 1st century Jewish liturgies, perhaps none, and certainly nothing near a confident description of an ordinary Sabbath service in the synagogues. We have some information about temple worship, though its precise 1st century character is open to a great many questions. What we do know is that the temple services and the synagogue services were different in important ways. The temple was something quite distinct from what we think of as “going to church.” Its services were carried out every day, and they were largely based on the activities of the priests and the sacrifices, understood to have religious, political, and cosmic implications.7 The laity had some participatory role, though how much is unclear, but all temple service had to take place in the singular location of the Jerusalem temple.8 Synagogue worship, by contrast, was not understood to be a part of the sacrificial cultus, could take place anywhere there was a quorum, and was centered around the study of torah.9

In fact, our knowledge of 1st century worship in general, whether Jewish or Christian, is extremely limited, and most of the claims about it are, in fact, actually products of reading backwards into supposedly seminal sources various practices which developed much later. Dr. Bradshaw explains that these “are arrived at only by assuming that liturgical customs found in later centuries must have been in continuous existence from the first centuries.”10 Along these lines, there has, he writes, “been a tendency among some scholars to amalgamate the various scraps of information that do exist in order to form a single composite picture.”11 The problems with this approach are precisely in its assumption of a pristine singular and comprehensive liturgy, which is by in large falsified by the evidence we do have of the “pluriform nature of primitive Christianity.”12 Dr. Bradshaw summarizes three recurrent pitfalls in attempts to ground the Christian Eucharistic liturgy in the 1st century:

First, there has been a widespread belief that it is necessary to trace both the overall pattern of the [Eucharistic] rite and the prayer used in it back to a standard, fixed Jewish liturgy… A second major obstacle… has been the general desire… to situate all extant examples of later Christian rites and prayers within a single line of development… [and] The third obstacle… has been the unquestioned assumption that an early Christian community’s Eucharistic prayer, whether in written form or orally transmitted, would always have been a single, flowing, seamless whole.13

Each of these assumptions will, I think it is safe to say, sound very familiar to those of us who have been keeping up with recent liturgical literature, but they are all belied by the actual evidence which we now have. We simply have no reason to think that there even a single 1st-century Jewish liturgy and even less to think that we know what it was. Thus all attempts to connect early Christian liturgy to that supposed Jewish liturgy fail for lack of credible evidence. 

Altered Forms and Lost Rites

And it isn’t that we simply lack evidence. In many cases we have contradictory evidence, with examples of early liturgical practices that are later done away with, dramatically transformed, and even reversed and contradicted. Maxwell Johnson provides a sketch of what he believes to be “the eucharistic liturgy in the second and third centuries,” and it comes across as rather minimalistic.14 Later he points out, “a common characteristic of all these early texts is the absence of several elements that would later become standard components of the Eucharistic praying in general: the ‘preface,’ the Sanctus from Isaiah 6, the ‘institution narrative’ from the New Testament Last Supper and/or Pauline accounts, explicit anamneses (memorial sections), and epicleses of the Holy Spirit.”15 Bryan Spinks has put forth an important work defending the legitimate development of the Sanctus, but he freely admits that it cannot be concretely located in Christian liturgies prior to the Fourth century16 and that is a development guided by human reflection upon biblical exegesis and theological concerns. Moving in to the Middle Ages, of course, we know definitely that the Eucharistic liturgy underwent consistent modification in the West starting in, at least, the eighth century.17 Common elements of what is today thought of as the Eucharistic liturgy have their roots in this development and are simply not present in the earliest accounts.

Additionally, we are faced with challenging evidence when it comes to music in the early church. John Arthur Smith has demonstrated that while “the characteristics of biblical instruments could be used allegorically and metaphorically in exegesis, homily and moral instructions,” Christians in the first few centuries did not actually play those instruments in worship. This was because of certain assumptions about the relationship between musical instruments and the Jewish sacrificial cult18 and “because in the contemporary world such instruments were associated with paganism, moral degeneration and war.”19 “For these reasons,” he concludes, “early Christian music was entirely vocal.”20 The content of this early music was mostly psalmody with some genuinely new Christian hymnody, but, again, we know very little about which psalms and hymns were actually in use in the liturgies of the first few centuries.21 We do know that musical style varied according to region22 and that the familiar “office” of prayer, from which nearly all later liturgical forms developed, was a creation of the fourth-century, deriving directly from the urban monastic office.23

There is also the question of what to make of the agape meal, commonly and freely recognized as being the primary religious meal-activity of the first two centuries. Writing at the turn of the 20th century, Walter Lowrie states, “There can be no doubt that in the earliest time the Eucharist was celebrated in conjunction with the agape in a private house where all the disciples were gathered about a common table.”24 He adds, “[We] must beware not to speak of the Eucharist as though it were a separable constituent readily distinguished from the agape. It is unhistorical to import this discrimination into the early age. The agape was the Eucharist.”25 Mr. Lowrie goes so far to even assert that “the whole service was conducted at the Lord’s table.”26 This boldness represents that sort of confidence of which Dr. Bradshaw is famously skeptical, and while he would not agree that we know nearly so much about the agape or how it related to ordinary worship services, still even he does not deny that the agape meal existed in the first few centuries. He merely suggests that “early Eucharistic meals may have varied not only in theological emphases between the different traditions but also in the very form of the meal itself.”27 Dr. Johnson perhaps gives us the best summary of the state of scholarly opinion regarding the eucharist and the agape:

Nevertheless, whatever conclusions may be drawn about eucharistic origins, our earliest documents (1 Cor. 11 and Didache 9 and 10) do confirm that the eucharist was initially a literal meal, held most likely in the evening within a domestic, “house church” setting, with the contents of the meal provided by members of the assembly. By the middle of the second century, the “meal” itself had in some places disappeared form the eucharist proper, with only the specific ritual sharing of bread and cup in the context of praise and thanksgiving, increasingly transferred to Sunday morning and remaining as the central focus of worship…28 

That this very significant transformation did occur, more or less universally across the Christian world, is not seriously questioned. What it means for liturgical development and continuity, however, is, by the same token, almost never seriously considered.


The point of this tour through liturgical historiography is to demonstrate that what many people typically mean when they speak of the liturgy of “the early church” is actually a historically-contingent sample from a span of about four or five hundred years, beginning with, rather than climaxing in, the fourth century. This sort of observation does not tell us whether a certain liturgical form is good or bad, nor even better or worse, but what it does do is place the entire discussion firmly in the realm of human law, tentative investigation, and, thus eventually, prudential application.

What this means for Protestants seeking to appropriate the findings of the liturgical renewal movement is that they must always receive such proposals in a somewhat critical manner. They can be appreciative of good order, appealing aesthetics, and even a sort of historical pedigree, but they can never confuse these things with divine right, nor even “the catholic tradition.” All “historic” liturgies should be brought into conversation with biblical and Reformational principles. Perhaps, most of all, we should keep in mind the great freedom we have in these manners. A certain amount of diversity is granted to us by the freedom of the gospel, and this diversity has been with the Christian church since the earliest days.

  1. See Alan D. Falconer, “Word, Sacrament and Communion: New Emphases in Reformed Worship in the Twentieth Century” in Christian Worship in Reformed Churches Past and Present. ed. Lukas Vischer. (Eerdmans, 2003) 142-158; also see To Glorify God: Essays on Modern Reformed Liturgy. ed. Bryan D. Spinks and Iain Torrance. (T&T Clark, 1999).
  2. For example: Robert G. Rayburn, O Come, Let Us Worship: Corporate Worship in the Evangelical Church. (Wipf & Stock, 2010); John M. Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth. (P&R Publishing, 1996); D.G. Hart and John R. Muether, With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship (P&R Publishing, 2002); Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship: Reformed According to the Scripture (Westminster John Knox Press, 2002); Bryan Chappell, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice (Baker Academic, 2009); Jeffrey J. Meyers, The Lord’s Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship (Canon Press, 2003); Douglas Wilson, A Primer on Worship and Reformation: Recovering the High Church Puritan (Canon Press, 2008). These are merely those books which have been influential among our small circles. Were we to broaden the ecclesiastical context, the list of books on worship would take up many pages.
  3. Even non-specialists will recognize certain scholarly names and stipulated terminology. For instance, Dom Gregory Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy (published in 1945), Louis Bouyer’s Eucharistie (published in 1966), and Alexander Schmemann’s Introduction to Liturgical Theology (published in 1961) have all influenced the ecclesiastical world in important and enduring ways.
  4. Of course, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Episcopalians can and should be included in the broader “Protestant” and “Evangelical” context, but within liturgical studies and conversations, the unfortunate tendency is to distinguish between “liturgical” and “non-liturgical” churches, with most of the “Evangelical” world being identified as the latter and thus all “liturgical” churches, no matter their specific theological pedigree, being classified together. This is a highly unfortunate means of classification, and confused on many levels, but it is, I think safe to say, the most common practical approach. The high irony, of course, is that there are traditionalists in each of these so-called “liturgical” Christian traditions who view the modern liturgical renewal projects and confused and comprising movements away from their respective traditions. For example see, “The Origins of Modern Anglican Liturgies” by Roger Beckwith, available online here:; “The End of the Liturgical Movement and the Recovery of Biblical Worship: An Anglican Perspective” by Bishop Anthony Burton, available online here:; and “The Liturgical Theology of Father A. Schmemann” by Michael Pomazansky, available online here:

  5. Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy. (Oxford, 2002) x
  6. Johnson, “The Apostolic Tradition” in The Oxford History of Christian Worship. ed. Geoffrey Wainwright and Karen Be Westerfield Tucker. (Oxford, 2006) 35
  7. See N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Fortress Press, 1992) 224-226 for one recent explanation.
  8. See Richard Bauckham, The Jewish World Around the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2008) 236-243; and Oskar Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple (IVP Academic, 2002) 87-102, 125-126
  9. Sarksaune 126, and Bradshaw 36-38; see also John Arthur Smith, Music in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity (Ashgate, 2011) 42-60, 116
  10. Bradshaw 51
  11. Ibid 52
  12. 53
  13. 139-141
  14. Johnson 51
  15. Ibid 56
  16. Spinks, The Sanctus in the Eucharistic Prayer (Cambridge, 1991). See especially pgs. 1-2 for his framing of the historical dilemma.
  17. See for instance, Richard F. Buxton, Eucharist and Institution Narrative (Alcuin Club Collections, 1976)
  18. Smith 59, 116
  19. Ibid 174
  20. Ibid
  21. Bradshaw 38-39, 57-59
  22. Smith 210-211, 235
  23. Bradshaw, 171-178
  24. Lowrie, The Church and Its Organization in Primitive and Catholic Times: An Interpretation of Rudolph Sohm’s Kirchenrecht (Longmans, Green, and Co., 1904) 268
  25. Ibid 281
  26. 283
  27. Bradshaw 70
  28. Johnson 50

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.

14 replies on “The Quest for Historic Liturgy: What Can We Really Find?”

So what you’re saying, Steven, is that if we go back to the fourth century (the same century as the composition of the Nicene Creed) we can find a pretty uniform standard Eucharistic liturgy?


Thanks, Steven! Reminds me of Text Critical discussions. So, do we trust our fourth century forebearers as good liturgists and text critics and theologians, or do we put ourselves in the position of their equals?
My studies of music yeilded some similar conclusions. I’ll have to post it over on my little blog of old papers!


Yes, but there is resounding evidence that the 4th century unity was manufactured and does not match any particular Christian group was doing prior to that point. Also, there is a certain diversification that happens in later medieval history, and so the 4th century unity is more a feature of Byzantine unification than anything else. The question is whether we need to prioritize those 4th century characteristics over other legitimate concerns.


I don’t know that we have to decide upon superiors or equals, but I think it is safe to say that we know more today than we did in the past. There are also reasons to not adopt everything from the 4th century. After all, we feel no need to submit to Nicae’s prohibition against kneeling on Sundays.

My point is that we have the freedom to make these decisions according to our own biblically-informed principles, and so we have no need to resort to “great tradition” claims. We do not have reason to think that we even could make those claims if we wanted to.

Well, I’m not a Byzantine only, nor a Textus Receptus man. However, I respect the efforts of the Byzantines to give a uniformity to the church both in doctrine (Nicea, etc) and even polity. I have not read the book you’re citing, so I don’t know the flavor. I’m very open to revisionism in historical studies (including both Rodney Stark and Peter Leithart on Constantine, for exampe…)as long as the sources support it. However, I don’t cotton to the kind of stance taken by the radical eclectics like Bart D. Erhman (see his essays in a book which I found worthwhile in general, reference below). The sceptical stance is useful, but not a happy place to live. I don’t get that from what you’ve cited from the review / talk you gave. I like the idea of primitive diversity, if that works out with a proper Biblicism. But, I don’t think a know nothingism is where this all leads. But, What do I know? 🙂


Steven, was this 4th-century liturgical unity (such as it was) limited to the borders of the Roman Empire? Or was there a liturgical consolidation throughout the Christian world that affected, e.g., the Churches of Mesopotamia and Armenia too? Or do we just not know?

Steven, this is a pretty good primer for someone starting to look into historical liturgics. Paul Bradshaw is invaluable, always, and has contributed quite a bit to my delight in what I find to be a diversity of “rites” even within the CREC. I think the main point is that there is no dogmatic grounds for saying that (apart from general flow and guideline), there is a way that something MUST be done in the liturgy.

At the same time I think that later consensus must hold some sort of weight with us in how we arrange the Lord’s Service, and as always, it should be with deliberate and well considered care that we should break with any particular tradition. One such case would be the recent practice of some churches (my own included) of placing the Sursum Corda and Sanctus after corporate confession of sin and absolution near the beginning of the liturgy rather than at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer.


Good questions. I don’t really know the full answer, though there are some interesting sources.

Here is the Armenian liturgy, or the Badark: Notice how the page says there five different texts in Armenia at the end of the 4th cent.

Here is the Nestorian liturgy which was used in Asia:

Of course, the big outlier is the “Jewish” Christian liturgy of the Levant and Southern Arabian peninsula.

It is interesting but liturgical diversity is seen in Byzantine traditions much longer than in Rome. Meyendorff believes that liturgical diversity persisted until the 15th century (Byzantine Theology, p. 116). In addition, he believes that liturgical centralization in Byzantine tradition happened not because of centralization of liturgy or its enforcement from top to bottom but because other smaller Byzantine churches adopted practices of of Constantinople. It would be similar like today – Presbyterians in the South would adopt Tim Keller’s liturgical model. 🙂 In summary, I do agree with Steven – liturgical diversity is present from the beginning in the church, continued for fifteen centuries and is clearly seen now. We don’t really need to find a unified liturgy for all churches in all times, however, corporate gathering, proclamation of the Word, agape (with the Supper), prayer must be stressed on Lord’s Day.

Well, now, there is diversity and then there is diversity. From the fourth century at least there was a uniform structure to the liturgy: the same elements and order were used everywhere, but there was diversity in the prayers that surrounded those elements of worship. In the west, there was diversity, for example, in the prayers and words that were said around the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. But the order of offering, preface, sanctus, Lord’s Prayer, words of institution, communion – that order was the same everywhere.

I agree with Bradshaw’s scholarship, but he is talking about diversity in the words that were spoken and the ordering of the second order of prayers (Te igitur, Hanc igitur, Quam oblationem, etc) of the Roman Canon, and not of the super structure of how the service was done from the very earliest times.


Bradshaw makes it very clear that he means that there was no single basic structure in the liturgy from the very earliest times, only increasing but still haphazard convergence of usages. He dates the pattern you say “was the same everywhere” from the fourth century, which is roughly as far in time from the Apostolic age as the 1960s was from the founding of Jamestown.

The liturgy of Addai and Mari doesn’t have “words of institution”, and there is no reason to think that this is a deviation from some universal pattern present “from the very earliest times”. There is reason to think it is a survival from an early time of much greater and sometimes wild variety.


Steven, what does this mean for the basic practice of most churches (a time for songs, a time for the preaching of the word, a time for prayer) werethese basic structures in place? On preaching specifically, was it more monologue as we enjoy today, or was it dialog, or an interactive monologue?

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