Book Review: Early Christian Worship by Oscar Cullmann

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Early Christian Worship by Oscar Cullmann is an examination of the practices of Christian worship as they relate to the writings of the Apostle John. Cullmann restricts his examination to the Johannine textsbut does make reference to the Pauline texts as he introduces the practice of early Christian worship. This examination is done systematically as and works through the entirety of Johns’ Gospel culminating with Jesus’ death, connecting the flowing of water and wine from Christ’s body to the two sacraments recognized by the Protestant Church today.  To drive his point home, Cullmann outlines in detail the resulting connection between “the individuality and purpose of the Gospel of John” and our knowledge of Christian worship.

This book is divided into two sections: characteristics that are basic to Christian worship and the Gospel of John’s influence on the practice of Christian worship. Subsections within the two parts of the book are present to guide the reader from point to point. 

The sub-section focused on the characteristics that are basic to Christian worship does an excellent job tying the litany and practices often used in congregations today to those of the ancient church. Cullmann takes to task the contemporary church’s lack of willingness to allow space for the Holy Spirit to work saying, “we must assert here and now that the services of worship in the Protestant Churches of our own era are very much poorer, not only in respect of the fro working of the Holy Spirit”. 

This critique is spot on as Protestant Churches today have well-established liturgies which guide the congregation through worship, ensuring that not only are all the requirements of worship checked off (gathering, proclamation and response, and the Great Thanksgiving) but also that these boxes are checked within the specifically allotted amount of time. Cullman underlines this further in section two where he observes that the “understanding of facts is first granted through the Holy Spirit.” One of the great sins of the Protestant Church today is the sterilization of worship by not permitting the Spirit the move through the gathered community.

Cullmann’s emphasis on the seeing required for believing, specifically when attributed to early Christians but also to Christians today, causes us to slide onto a slippery slope. For the disciples gathered after Christ’s death, seeing and touching the risen Christ might have been a necessity because of the trauma they had just experienced. Today though, in a Church where Cullmann admits that the Holy Spirit has been quieted, the requirement for seeing so that one can have faith is a requirement that maybe too hard for new disciples to experience. At no fault of their own, this requirement to true faith may impede new converts or those returning to the faith after straying. This is not to dispute that Christians today cannot see Christ or experience God face-to-face in a post-Christendom environment but instead is to acknowledge that when Cullmann wrote Early Christian Worship, the church in America was still enjoying the fruits of being a dominant influence on not only individual members of the community but the community as a whole.

Additionally, the miracles of Jesus cannot be replaced by the sacraments today. While Cullmann may conclude this to imply that the sacraments are a way for us to experience the miracles of Jesus within our communities, it is a disservice to the miracles Christ performed, recorded and unrecorded. The miracles of Christ separated him from the prophets of the time and gave a visible witness to His first century followers and skeptics. Today the sacraments serve as outward signs of the inward grace Christ offers to each of us without cost. There was not monetary cost for Jesus to perform a miracle but the one receiving the healing was forever changed. The same cannot be said of those who gather around the table or at the waters of baptism. There are those who simply go through the motions during these moments and during Jesus’ miracles he was not simply going through the motions. This is a distinction that should be made as the church today is ministering in a world that Cullmann could not have foreseen when writing this book.

By using the Gospel of John and documents and practices of the early church Cullmann is able to successfully connect both Johannine texts and the worship practices of the early church to the sacraments and to the practice of Christian worship today. Much can be gleaned by the church today from the practices of early church.