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.
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
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:
- That we know much, much less about the liturgical practices of the first three centuries than we once thought that we did…
- That what we do know about patterns of worship in that primitive period points towards considerable variety more often than towards rigid uniformity…
- 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.
- 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.
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 century 16 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 cult 18 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 region 22 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.
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: http://pbsc.iainnorman.com/online-library-articles/73-research-into-historical-questions/192-the-origins-of-modern-anglican-liturgies-by-roger-beckwith-warden-of-latimer-house-oxford; “The End of the Liturgical Movement and the Recovery of Biblical Worship: An Anglican Perspective” by Bishop Anthony Burton, available online here: http://pbsc.iainnorman.com/online-library-articles/73-research-into-historical-questions/193-the-end-of-the-liturgical-movement-and-the-recovery-of-biblical-worship-an-anglican-perspective-by-the-rt-revd-anthony-burton-bishop-of-saskatchewan; and “The Liturgical Theology of Father A. Schmemann” by Michael Pomazansky, available online here: http://orthodoxinfo.com/phronema/pom_lit.aspx ↩