Review of An Outline of Christian Worship

2012/05/15

An Outline Of Christian Worship Its Development And FormsAn Outline Of Christian Worship Its Development And Forms by William D. Maxwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Maxwell’s An Outline of Christian Worship is one of those reading pleasures. Not so much in itself, but in the fact that a good friend stirred my interest in it. I felt drawn to reading it because of what he said about his experience with the book. Of all the books I’ve read, those recommended to me by friends, particularly the ones physically placed in my hands for perusal, have been some of the most meaningful. I wouldn’t say this was a great book but it certainly has been something that helped me grow in my understanding of Christian worship.

William Maxwell takes his reader on a journey through almost 2000 years of Christian worship. Early in the book he alerts us to what was for me a striking thesis. Maxwell contends that the Lord’s Supper grew out of a Jewish tradition called Kiddush and not the Passover. Maxwell describes this tradition as “a simple repast shared weekly by small groups of male Jews, very often by a rabbi and his disciples.” He goes on to say that “Its purpose was to prepare for the Sabbath or a festival, and it was religious in character.” I leave it to the reader to explore the evidence presented for this thesis but I found it plausible.

Moving on to the early church, Maxwell sets himself to point out a developing pattern of Christian worship centered around the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. He discusses the earliest evidence of Christian liturgies, with separate chapters on the liturgies in the East and the West. As a sample, take this engaging fact from the Middle Ages: the distinction of the Gallican and Roman rites in the West. There is much detail about these two liturgical traditions, including the eventual ascendancy of the Roman over the Gallican and how the Gallican still influenced the Roman.

After surveying the early church and the Medieval period, Maxwell embarks on the largest part of his survey, the liturgies of the Reformation churches. He gives outlines of the liturgies of Luther and Zwingli and discusses them but seems decidedly dismissive of their value. In fact, Maxwell disappoints in mentioning the creativity of Lutheran liturgies outside of Germany while neglecting to outline or discuss them.

Once Maxwell arrives at the Reformed liturgies of Strasbourg and Geneva, we can tell by the level of detail that he believes these rites are of special importance. The section on the Reformation liturgies continues with Reformed rites in England and Scotland as well as the story of the Book of Common Prayer in both lands. I was fascinated by Maxwell’s proposal for outlining the service suggested by the Westminster Directory of Public Worship. I take away from it that while the Westminster Directory was, in part, a reaction to the set forms of the Book of Common Prayer, it was not a rejection of the historic genius of Christian worship to follow a certain logic. Rather the Westminster Directory gives us a service that rightly encourages a Biblical breadth and freedom as far as what is said during worship. Maxwell is not as positive about Westminster as about other liturgies but that points up how he provides enough material for his readers to constructively argue with him. Maxwell rounds out his book with discussions of some modern liturgies, the daily offices, the Christian Year, and forms of prayer. The latter section includes a helpful, though technical discussion of those pithy written prayers known as “collects.”

Overall, this book is a good introduction to its subject but may be too technical at points for complete comprehensibility by a beginner. The difficulties include a fair amount of Latin quotations and terminology. Maxwell also fails to succinctly define some of the key terms used throughout. Bard Thompson’s Liturgies of the Western Church may be more approachable, though it is a longer book. Once a reader has a little background, Maxwell can be read with profit. I am so glad that my friend told me about this book because I was reminded of some material that I previously studied and was also challenged to continue to pursue this important topic.

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One Response to “Review of An Outline of Christian Worship”

  1. Tim Prussic Says:

    Good review, Brandon. I thought it would have been helpful is Maxwell provided a glossary, as so many of the terms were new to me.


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