- Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective by Andrew B. McGowan
Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014
xiv + 298 pages. Paperback. $29.99.
To the uninitiated, the scholarly field of ancient Christian worship is daunting if not impenetrable: where even to begin? So Andrew McGowan deserves all the plaudits he has received for composing a veritable rite of initiation to his field in all its sub-disciplines. Ancient Christian Worship begins with a helpful reflection on meanings of “worship” both ancient and modern (ch. 1). Next come chapters on the two main liturgical gatherings in antiquity—what would develop into the Mass (ch. 2) and the Divine Office (ch. 6)—and between them, chapters on three clusters of ancient liturgical activity: preaching the word (ch. 3), singing praises (ch. 4), and initiating neophytes (ch. 5). The work concludes with a chapter on feasts and fasts (ch. 7) and a brief epilogue.
As a handbook, Ancient Christian Worship excels: each chapter ably presents the scholarly state of the question on its subject matter, with footnotes highlighting the most authoritative studies. McGowan also manages to cover all the relevant ancient evidence without allowing his prose to devolve into a catalogue of primary sources. The book is well furnished with indices and sports a first-rate bibliography. And it is a credit to the editorial staff at Baker that I noticed only one typographical error in my reading – “Poulding” for “Boulding” (108 n. 86; 263).
Unfortunately, Ancient Christian Worship suffers from some issues of method. In previous publications, McGowan has criticized the scholarly consensus that the first generation of Christians established a liturgy to express and enact their theology. He finds fault with the view’s implicit teleology, in one place even characterizing it as the “intelligent design” theory of liturgical origins. In McGowan’s view, the earliest Christians were not so intentional: they simply adopted customs from the surrounding culture, only later investing those customs with theological significance. For some customs, McGowan’s paradigm is a good fit for the evidence, as in the case of newly baptized Christians following the ancient practice of putting on clean clothes after bathing – a custom thankfully still observed today. By the time Paul wrote his epistles, these new clothes had already come to [End Page 177] be viewed as symbols of new life in Christ (172–174). But issues arise when McGowan holds so tightly to his paradigm that it begins to prejudice his construal of the evidence.
This prejudice is reflected in the very structure of McGowan’s investigation. He begins most chapters by sifting through Greco-Roman culture (for McGowan, this includes Jewish culture) for parallels to Christian liturgical conduct. What parallels he finds are put forward as the archetypes from which the Christian practices were derived. To share a few examples from ch. 2, we learn that Christians “were not unique or peculiar in the ancient world in having common meals as a central event” (20), that “A meal of bread and wine was unremarkable; no particular historical origins or associations are required to explain the use of these staples by early Christian communities” (41), that “evidence for Greco-Roman (including Jewish) meal practice suggests that order and leadership of some kind would have been expected at banquets” (40), and that “insistence on initiation before joining the community and sharing its food reflected the rules and expectations of ancient dining societies and was not a Christian oddity” (44). This smacks of the “parallelomania” famously decried by Samuel Sandmel. It is also a classic case of confirmation bias: seeking out evidence that confirms the researcher’s hypothesis and downplaying evidence that contradicts it.
An example of this latter pitfall is McGowan’s handling of the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist. He is adamant that the earliest Eucharistic meals bore no explicit connection to Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary. There was an implicit connection, but this was an import from Greco-Roman culture, in which meal and sacrifice were inseparably intertwined. So, for example, in his analysis of 1 Cor...