This is the second half of my review of Hurtado’s book. Click here for part one.

In chapter three, Hurtado argues that early Christian worship exhibited a major innovation that distinguished it from other forms of pagan religious practice, and particularly the monotheistic faith as understood by most ancient Jewish sects: namely, the expansion of the theological understanding of monotheism to allow for the exclusive worship of both God the Father and Jesus of Nazareth in a distinctly “binitarian” tradition. This chapter is the crux of the author’s examination of ancient Christianity. Hurtado defends this premise by illustrating the various cognates of the term “worship” among the literature of the LXX and New Testament, and by pointing out that the same terms used for the worship of God are also used in early Christian literature to indicate the worship of Christ. By observing the language of Paul and other early Christian writers, Hurtado says that a portrait of ancient Christian devotion begins to emerge in which we see a shift or “mutation” of traditional monotheistic belief that carved out sacred space for the exaltation of Jesus in nearly every element of worship—in prayer, hymns, the common meal (Lord’s Supper), and even the baptismal initiation rite. Hurtado lays out his nuanced case articulately and very carefully, systematically addressing the concerns those critical of his previous works on the subject, offering a perspective of the role of Jesus among the earliest Christians that stands distinct from charges leveled of di-theism or the demigod hero worship of the pagan religious landscape, a perspective that seeks to reconcile the exclusive worship of one god with the exaltation of one Lord.

Hurtado rounds out his assessment of ancient Christian worship by suggesting in chapter four how the practices of the early Church might inform Christian worshipers today. Of particular concern here is how Jesus is treated in churches today with regard to historical monotheism. Rather than worshiping only Christ or worshiping Christ and God separately, Hurtado sees the need to reaffirm the historical recognition of Christ as a divine means to God. That is, when we worship, we worship in and through Christ as a divine mediator. This is no simple belief to express! Ancient Christians went to great lengths to articulate their commitment to monotheism while affirming the divine sonship of Christ, and Hurtado says contemporary Christians should not take this for granted.

By the end of the book, Hurtado firmly asserts that Christian worshipers today must “see that our practical worship as well as our profession is genuinely trinitarian” (p. 106). However, up to this point the author has given very little attention to trinitarian Christianity—perhaps he views it as a later theological addition that falls outside the scope of the present book? If this is true, one would think that the author might at least address some of the triadic formulae that hint of a budding trinitarianism among Paul’s letters (see, for instance, 1 Cor. 12:4–6; Gal. 4:4–6, etc.).  In any case, the issue of the emergence of trinitarianism receives only a passing footnote on p. 64. Any adequate study of ancient Christianity must come to terms with the eventual inclusion of worship of the Spirit alongside the worship of God and Christ. If a binitarian monotheistic worship was considered strange in the first century, how much more so a monotheistic faith with three recipients of adoration must have been!

Additionally, I find it odd that Hurtado apparently confuses the fifth-century Trisagion doxology more prominent among eastern churches (“O holy God, O holy mighty One, O holy immortal One, have mercy on us”), with the much earlier first-century Tersanctus doxology (“Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Hosts, all creation is full of thy glory”)[1] based upon Isaiah 6:3 (p.113). The two doxologies are quite similar, but most certainly not the same.

Finally, a critical problem that should have been addressed in the book is that Hurtado treats the earliest Christians as somewhat monolithic in their theology and worship practices. While recognizing here and there that the book is an attempt at gaining a visible portrait of early Christian worship by means of the “constellation” of the ancient literature, Hurtado fails to expressly recognize that “ancient Christianity” was just as diverse as the pagan religions he outlines in chapter one. By attempting to put a finger on the pulse of any single early Christian tradition, he is thereby ignoring other possible “Christianities,” including the later Gnostic belief that the god of Jesus and the New Testament was in reality an altogether separate deity from the malicious trickster god of the Old Testament—an inconvenient fact that challenges Hurtado’s assumption of the early Church’s enthusiastic and unswerving commitment to monotheism. What norms existed among the earliest Christians that regulated such things like orthodoxy before the advent of propagandized theological narratives presented by later Christian thinkers like Irenaus and Tertullian, and perhaps more importantly, who set those norms? Was early Christian thought democratic in its development of a unified orthodoxy? I do not think ancient Christianity can be presented so cleanly as Hurtado suggests. My hunch is that the author sets the diversity of early Christianities aside in order to clearly connect modern Pauline Christianity with its ancestral genesis in apostolic tradition.

These minor objections, however, are the exception to what is otherwise an engaging, concise, and sympathetic overview of Christian worship in the first century. Hurtado’s book is well articulated but would also be approachable by someone who has little or no prior experience of early Church history. To that end, At the Origins of Christian Worship would serve equally well as a textbook in the seminary classroom or as fodder for Sunday school class discussion, offering a clarity of thought that is desirable of any historical study, especially one involving an ancient religion still practiced—albeit in modified form—today.


[1] See Paul M. Bassett’s clear distinction between the two in “Doxology,” Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, 2nd ed. (New York: Garland Publishing, 1997), 349.

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