At the Origins of Christian Worship
A review of Larry Hurtado's, "At the Origins of Christian Worship: The Context and Character of Earliest Christian Devotion," by Dr. Craig Blomberg.
Hurtado, Larry W. At the Origins of Christian Worship: The Context and Character of Earliest Christian Devotion. Carlisle: Paternoster, 1999; Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2000. xi + 138 pp. Pap. ISBN 0-8028-4749-8.
In 1988, Larry Hurtado, currently professor of New Testament in the University of Edinburgh, published a highly celebrated volume on One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Philadelphia: Fortress). In the ensuing years, he has pursued this theme in numerous articles, but this is his first new book-length treatment related to the topic. Growing out of the 1999 Didsbury lectures at the British Isles Nazarene College in Manchester, the book is also succinct, straightforward in style and practically relevant.
Chapter one provides a helpful overview of the larger religious environment of early Christian worship. Focusing particularly on the Roman world, Hurtado discusses the ubiquity of religion in its many forms, each with very public expression, whether in its statues, temples or other architecture, or in the quasi-religious nature of most public gatherings and societies, or in the numerous seasonal festivals and their public rituals, including animal sacrifices and sacred meals, that regularly dotted the landscape. Syncretism and polytheism made it very standard to add gods to one’s pantheon, but Christianity’s exclusivist claims, like those of the Judaism that birthed it, would have been perceived as unusual, unpatriotic, and a stumbling-block for many.
For “pagans” to convert to Christianity thus required not merely changes in theological belief but in religious behavior and ritual. Christianity’s worship in comparison to its Greco-Roman “competition” was very “low-tech.” What then brought the fulfillment that sustained those who abandoned the very rich array of experiences of their previous religion? Chapter two addresses this question, highlighting the motifs of intimacy, especially in the “love feast” and “holy kiss,” equal participation in worship despite one’s social class or status in the larger world, a sense of participating in heavenly worship along with the angels as a foretaste of the life to come, and the experiencing of real, spiritual power with the exercise of the various spiritual gifts, and particularly with the so-called supernatural charismata.
In chapter three, Hurtado pursues the theme of his earlier work, pointing to a distinctively “binitarian” character to early Christian worship. That is to say, worshipping Jesus as a god (to borrow Pliny’s famous expression from the early second century) occurred from the very beginning of the Christian movement, even though Jesus was never equated with the Father as if there were not two separate persons and even though Jewish monotheism continued to be maintained staunchly! Hurtado abundantly illustrates these developments in the areas of prayer, invocation and confession, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, hymns and prophecy, regularly noting the lack of any adequate Jewish or Greco-Roman parallels to account for the specific forms of worship in each instance. At the same time, pre-70 Judaism was broad enough in its concept of monotheism to leave room for highly exalted angels, patriarchs and other religious leaders, which provided at least some conceptual precedent for the uniquely Christian developments.
Chapter four rounds out the volume with insightful applications for the worshiping Christian community today. More important than the debates over forms of worship and styles of music that seem to distract us from more central theological issues are questions about whether our singing and praying is really Trinitarian in preserving both the biblical distinctions among the persons of the Godhead and the overlapping nature of their roles. We speak with the New Testament church of praying in Jesus’ name and worshiping the Father through the Son but seem unappreciative of the meaning and significance of these affirmations. Centrally, this language “means that we enter into Jesus’ status in God’s favour, and invoke Jesus’ standing with God and the efficacy of his redeeming work (over against our own sinful deficits) to be given access to God. In this light, Christians do not properly approach God as an expression of some ill-founded sentimentality about God’s ‘daddy-hood'” (pp. 107-8). Both with and against dimensions of contemporary feminism, we invoke God as Father not because God has gender or is somehow uniquely masculine (a view that in fact is heretical) but because we thus “enter into Jesus’ own filial relationship to God” (p. 110). Like the early church we also have to recover the transcendent dimension of Christian worship that creates in worshipers experiences that truly do foreshadow heavenly bliss, and to preserve the exclusivism of claiming allegiance to Jesus as Lord against all (particularly political) rivals.
A remarkably full bibliography for a book this brief closes the volume and gives complete documentation for sources in the footnotes that are otherwise provided only in short form. I recommend this book highly, especially for those unaware of the vast literature of the last decade and a bit on the topic, as an outstanding introductory overview and persuasive in its claims.
Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary, Denver, CO