Book Review: Praying and Believing in Early Christianity: The Interplay between Christian Worship and Doctrine by Maxwell E. Johnson

PRAYING AND BELIEVING IN EARLY CHRISTIANITY: THE INTERPLAY BETWEEN CHRISTIAN WORSHIP AND DOCTRINE. By Maxwell E. Johnson. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2013. Pp. xvii + 148. $19.95 (paper).

Classically the field of Liturgical Studies is divided into three subsets: history, theology, and praxis. This work is unique among historians of liturgy because it explicitly connects all three, and it does so in a concise and accessible way. Two strands run throughout Johnson’s work. In the first, J. tackles the relationship between liturgy and four crucial doctrinal areas: 1) soteriology, 2) Trinitarian theology, 3) Christology and Mariology, and 4) ethics. On a second and deeper level, J. challenges the field’s conventional understanding of the relationship between lex orandi and lex credendi (the “law of praying” and “the law of believing” respectively), which often gives lex orandi pride of place. Significantly, in his chapter on ethics and morality, J. calls for greater attention to be paid to lex agendi (roughly, the law of behavior or ethical living). J.’s work advances the conversation of these topics in exciting directions.

J.’s intent in this work is not to resolve the contemporary debate in liturgical theology as framed by Michael Aune in his two-part article in Worship entitled “Liturgy and Theology: Rethinking the Relationship.” In this article, Aune outlines the two methodological approaches to liturgical theology, while also calling for liturgical theology to be grounded in a more historical and systematic-theological method. The first approach, according to Aune, begins with ecclesiology, the liturgical assembly and the experience or action of the worshiping community – an “ecclesiocentric” approach. The second with what God does in the liturgy, or his self-communication – a “Theocentric” approach. In his book On Liturgical Theology, Aidan Kavanagh, a representative of the first school of thought, famously argued that liturgy is “theologia prima” and that all doctrine is second order reflection. In stepping back from this discussion J., however, models his own work on that of Geoffrey Wainwright, who saw a mutual influence between lex orandi and lex credendi. In order to do this, J. engages in a careful examination of the early liturgical sources themselves to explore how the relationship between worship and doctrine has been made manifest historically.

J. first introduces his discussion on lex orandi and lex credendi in relation to soteriology. He begins by showing that the principle that lex orandi establishes lex credendi, first explicitly articulated by Prosper of Aquitaine, was one of several arguments Prosper used to support his doctrinal position against semi-Pelagianism. In a succinct and convincing way, J. challenges those who would interpret this phrase to give liturgy inordinate doctrinal authority. Moreover, J.’s argument that lex orandi and lex credendi influence one another leads him to a more balanced and nuanced position which allows for liturgical prayer to maintain a privileged place as one influence among many on the development of Christian doctrine.

In his chapter on “Doxology and Trinity,” J. demonstrates how lex orandi and lex credendi interacted in the liturgical and doctrinal expression of developing Trinitarian thought in the early Church. Turning to the work of Larry Hurtado, J. shows that behind the New Testament lay communities with a liturgical life. Furthermore, the liturgical life of these communities impacted the construction of the New Testament itself. J. then moves beyond the New Testament and into early Eucharistic prayers. In regard to Eucharistic praying, J. discusses the current state of historical scholarship concerning the Spirit epiclesis and, alternatively, the active role of the Logos in effecting consecration typified in the Logos-epiclesis of Sarapion of Thmuis.

Then, looking at Baptism and Doxology in light of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, J. notes that during the debates on the divinity of the Holy Spirit, no one appeals to a postbaptismal anointing, or a baptismal or Eucharistic Spirit epiclesis. This, J. argues, is because lex orandi was being shaped by lex credendi. J. then discusses the origins of the uncoordinated forms (to, through, in) and coordinated forms (to, with, with; to, to, to) of the doxology, the latter of which becomes more established in response to Arian attempts to see “through” and “in” as subordinating the Son and Holy Spirit. J. reminds us to situate our understanding of early Christian worship and doctrine in what could arguably be thought of as a shift from Binitarian to Trinitarian understandings around the time of the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople. He argues that it was once again lex orandi and lex credendi in dialogue which helped bring about this shift. With the coordinated form of the doxology becoming more common, J. notes the declining focus on Christ as High Priest in his humanity. It is here amid the increasing focus on Christ’s divinity that he situates his next chapter on Christ and Mary.

J. demonstrates that the title Theotokos for Mary fundamentally addresses Christological concerns. Furthermore, he shows the rapid spread of Marian devotion across ecclesial lines in the early Church. In looking at Christology in and of itself, J. notes the difficulty in establishing liturgical influence on the development of the Chalcedonian decree on Christ’s two natures. Despite this difficulty, it is clear that liturgy bore the weight of the controversy. J. acknowledges that it is difficult to show liturgy’s role in shaping the development of doctrine at the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, while at the same time asserting that it must have had some role. Additionally, J. considers whether it is possible that Mary as Theotokos, or orthodox Mariology, is able to keep Christ as God-Man together. In other words, Mariology could be a necessary remedy for the overly divine Christology of the liturgy which the coordinated form of the doxology makes apparent with its lack of focus on the humanity of Christ as High Priest.

In his fourth chapter “Worship and Praxis,” J. addresses lex agendi. He discusses the moral and ethical implications of meal fellowship in the New Testament, and thus the origins of the Eucharist. Throughout this section, J. notes the deep connection between liturgy and ethics. Both are in service to God. This leads J. to mention briefly the development of Eucharistic sacrifice from prayer and praise to Christ’s own once-and-for-all sacrifice on the cross narrated in the words of institution and embodied in the bread and cup. J. ends by stating the need for ritual practice to relate to ethical living.

In concluding his work, J. affirms that lex orandi and lex credendi mutually inform one another. Word and Sacrament influence doctrine, and doctrine influences liturgy. Liturgy has indisputably been a locus of theological and doctrinal development, articulation, and support. J.’s book is a wonderful introduction to any graduate liturgy class and a springboard for further studies on the intersection of liturgy with soteriology, Trinitarian theology, Christology and Mariology, and ethics. His work is a testament to the growing integration of history, theology, and praxis in the field of Liturgical Studies. As such, this work is as valuable to new and intrepid liturgical studies students as it is to seasoned scholars in the field.

Nathan P. Chase is a M.A. Liturgical Studies and M.A. Systematics student at Saint John’s University School of Theology·Seminary, Collegeville, MN.


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