Early Christian Worship: A Basic Introduction to Ideas and Practice | Paul F. Bradshaw


Bradshaw, Paul F. Early Christian Worship: A Basic Introduction to Ideas and Practice: Second Edition. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010. 112 pp. $19.95.

Clearly and briefly articulating the complexity of issues surrounding the study of Early Christian Worship (ECW) is a daunting task. The scant and fragmented nature of early Christian worship sources, when carelessly handled, can produce a myriad of problematic notions when aiming to grasp the topic. In Early Christian Worship: A Basic Introduction to Ideas and Practice, Paul Bradshaw offers a concise and reliable summary of the development of ECW in the first few centuries. Bradshaw is an important scholar in the area of ECW and an abundant contributor of material in this realm of study. He was a long-time professor of liturgical studies at the University of Notre Dame and has several books and multiple articles credited to his name.

Bradshaw articulates his central thesis in the brief prologue to the work. He states that the intent of the book is not so much to present an account of what the early Christians practiced in their worship, but rather to recount why and how they arrived at the practices they did and the manner in which they performed them. Bradshaw offers for speculation why the early Christians chose their particular forms and practices and not others. He also encourages the reader to consider how certain practices provoked development of theology, as well as the reverse of considering how theology influenced practice (vii). Bradshaw develops his argument by way of exposition and analysis of the major rites of ECW explaining their origin and development. The work is not a chronological history that progresses sequentially through time. Instead, he takes what he considers the three central concerns for understanding ECW, that being Christian initiation, Eucharist, and liturgical time, and develops each topic systematically.

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The first section focuses on Christian initiation from its New Testament origins until the fourth century, building the discussion by evaluating differences based on location (Syria, Jerusalem) and through explanation of primary documents and figures. In particular, he describes various aspects and images incorporated into the rite such as the preparation (18), the renunciation (18–19), and the triple immersion (20). Bradshaw illustrates how by the fourth century the common baptismal process became a synthesis of traditions borrowed from the previous centuries. The primary difference in the post-Constantine era is that whereas in an earlier era baptism was seen as a completion of the conversion process, by the fourth century one would undergo baptism with hopes of bringing about their conversion (23).

The second section addresses the complex topic of the Eucharist and guides the reader through the pre-Christian Jewish origins towards an early-medieval understanding of the Table where the Eucharist evolved into a work of the clergy and not of the people. Bradshaw demonstrates how the theology of the Eucharist gradually became more robust: beginning by developing a strong focus on anamnesis and epiclesis (49), towards early traces of viewing the Eucharistic elements as the literal incarnate Christ (56), and leading to the concept that the Eucharist is a memorial sacrifice of Christ (67). Each of these theological developments and their liturgical counterpoint seem to emerge in tandem with one another. The final section explains the overarching context and ordering of liturgical time. Bradshaw offers an understanding for the sanctification of time through incorporation of daily prayer, the origins of Sunday worship, the primary liturgical seasons and gradual formation of saint commemoration days. In doing so Bradshaw shows how the eventual crystallization of set days, patterns, and seasons grew out of doxological convictions, eschatological anticipation, and theological developments.

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The strength of this work is in its comprehensive yet succinct manner of presenting the information, arguments, and theories surrounding the central issues of ECW. Bradshaw exercises self-awareness of the details he is omitting on the topics at hand. One may perceive the brevity as a weakness, but Bradshaw makes this limitation known early in the work. Moreover, the appealing quality of this book is how it is contrasted with Bradshaw’s other work. Bradshaw is a profound contributor, but for the lay reader much of his writing goes into such detail with incredible adherence to proper methodology that it can verge on being cumbersome to read. This work, on the other hand, stays on the surface but is substantiated with a strong cognizance of the complexities of the details while applying the sound methodology for which Bradshaw is known. Lastly, his chosen manner for structuring the work, developing topics rather than presenting a sequence of events, helps the reader recognize the relevance for today’s church regarding initiation, Eucharist, and liturgical time.

In sum, Early Christian Worship serves as an exceptionally beneficial exposition and introduction to understanding the primary issues of early Christian worship that brings forth a vivid and clear historical account of worship in the first few centuries. For those who want to proceed in their study, Bradshaw provides several helpful sources. And for those who have no further interest in early Christian worship, they will still have received an informative and edifying resource.


Braden J. McKinley