Review of Ancient Christian Worship
Note: This review was published in the Spring 2015 edition of the Criswell Theological Review.
Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective. By Andrew B. McGowan. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014. 298pp., hardcover, $34.99.
Ancient Christian Worship is the most recent work from patristics scholar Andrew McGowan. Presently dean and president of Berkeley Divinity School (Yale) and professor of Anglican Studies at Yale Divinity School, McGowan’s other major work includes Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian Meals and he is also the author of a number of scholarly articles on early Christianity. A general introduction to the major worship practices and values of early Christians to ca. 400, McGowan’s book generally resembles Christopher Hall’s Worshipping with the Church Fathers (2010) and Paul Bradshaw’s Early Christian Worship (1998) and The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship (2002).
In a brief introductory chapter on the origins of Christian worship, the author emphasizes that “ancient talk of ‘worship’ was about the whole of service or devotion” (p. 5) as opposed to styles of worship. That said, the book is concerned with describing worship practices and behaviors in the first five centuries drawing from Jewish and New Testament background evidence as well as early Christian worship manuals (i.e., Didache, Apostolic Tradition, Didascalia Apostolorum) and the writings of church fathers.
The remaining six chapters (followed by a brief epilogue) deal with worship practices in their broadest categories. In chapter 2, the longest and most robust chapter that builds on the author’s previous scholarship, McGowan presents early Christian meals; the early church’s habit of gathering for table fellowship, which shaped worship gatherings toward the more institutional development of the Eucharist. Chapter 3 takes up the ministry of the Word in church life. This chapter is not really about hermeneutics and preaching methods; rather, it presents the place of the Scripture in worship and also how early Christians read or, better yet, heard the Word. Perhaps a surprise to modern readers, McGowan’s discussion of music (and dance) in chapter 4 was brief (the book’s shortest chapter) and shows that singing was not the central focus to early Christian gatherings. That said, chanting Scripture and the development of hymns are helpfully presented. In chapter 5, the author deals with how early Christians became part of the church, particularly through baptism and catechesis. In chapter 6, the focus is prayer and includes the attitudes, physical postures and times for prayer. Finally, in chapter 7, McGowan discusses specific times for worship including Sundays, fast days, and feasts and seasons on the developing church calendar such as Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter.
This is an excellent book—a masterful survey that drills deeply into the primary sources of the early church on these elements of worship but presents them in an accessible manner for the student with little background on the early church. As a faithful description of early Christian worship practices, lesser-known practices such as dancing, foot washing, and fasting are presented; while the practice of singing (often synonymous with worship for modern Christians) was situated appropriately within the broader picture of worship. As the sub-title indicates, the author does a good job of showing how worship practices developed within the fabric of the material culture of the early Christian world. This is especially true in the chapter on meals in which eating and banqueting are discussed in the broader ancient world and how meals happened during the ministry of Jesus. McGowan makes the strong argument that meals were probably the most important reason that early Christians met and it was the chief catalyst for what became worship gatherings. Again, it is key to grasp that the Eucharist developed out of an actual meal.
It was difficult to find weaknesses in this book but I will briefly mention one. In McGowan’s brief discussion of prayer and monasticism among the Cappadocians, he described their way of life as “a transformed community life and normal setting, where family and other ties remained but were renewed” (p. 208). While it is true that Basil was raised in an ascetic family and his sister Macrina greatly influenced his coenobitic (communal) monastic vision, Basil’s ascetic writings (Morals, Longer/Shorter Rules) are not limited to familial monasticism and he clearly lived in a community with other single and celibate monks.
In summary, though scholars will find little new in McGowan’s book, teachers of church history now have a great, well researched, accessible resource to help their students discover the early church at worship.
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