Book Summary: At the Origins of Christian Worship

Author: Dr. Larry Hurtado is Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology; Director of the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins; and Head of the School of Divinity at The University of Edinburgh.

Overview: This book (a printed version of Hurtado’s 1999 Didsbury Lectures) investigates the worship activities of the earliest Christians in comparison with their Roman and Jewish contemporaries.

Summary: Dr. Hurtado’s thesis follows the books structure admirably well.

  • Chapter One investigates “The Religious Environment” of the ancient world.  Hurtado draws our attention to the ubiquity, the salience (that is, visibility), and the diversity of ancient worship.  People used sacred places, images, rituals, and meals to express religious affiliations.  Hurtado elaborates on some particular aspects of Jewish worship at the turn of the millennium.   He concludes this chapter by noting that in many ways, Christian worship practices reflected their pagan neighbors, while in other ways it quite distinguishable.  Secondly, Hurtado notes that the spread of Christianity cannot be entirely explained by a dissatisfaction with current religious forms.
  • Having provided us with this context, Hurtado uses Chapter Two to draw our attention to general features of early Christian worship. Here, the resounding note finds Christian worship unimpressive when compared to the thrilling cultus of pagan worship.
  • Chapter Three, then, logically progresses to a discussion of how the person of Christ came to be worshiped by monotheistic believers.  Hurtado labels the early Christian viewpoint as “binitarian,” meaning that early Christians worshiped both God and Christ without compromising their monotheistic mindset.
  • The book takes an interesting turn in Chapter Four, as Hurtado applies lessons from the previous chapters to a discussion of current worship practice. He points believers to the riches of the Nicene Creed, reminding them to pray “to God and in the name of or through Jesus” (104, emphasis original).  He warns against an informality in approaching the Father.  Hurtado then discusses masculine pronouns and titles for God, warning us against “the patriarchy that Christians inherited from their various cultures and that has been so uncritically appropriated and validated in Christian practice” (112).  He then admonishes believers to recognize their gathering involves heavenly realities replete with angelic participation as well as “anticipation . . . of the final triumph of God and God’s purposes in Christ” (115). Politically, Christians prayed FOR their earthly rulers, not TO them.
  • Rarely does a 138-page book provide a helpful 19-page bibliography, but this one does.

The book is available at AMAZON and CBD.  See Dr. Craig Blomberg’s review in the Denver Seminary Journal for a more thorough treatment and evaluation.

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