The liturgical renewals that occurred in several Christian traditions in the early twentieth century led to the flowering of research into the history of the liturgy, and The Eucharistic Liturgies: Their Evolution and Interpretation is an exemplary inheritor of this past of scholarly rejuvenation. As such, Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell E. Johnson together present something of an academic handbook to early Christian liturgies and their historical development from the earliest Christians into the present age. The work is at once a close reading of well-known and lesser-known liturgical texts, a sourcebook of important theories and eras, and an introduction to common scholarly concerns in the area of liturgical studies. “This book,” the authors write in their introduction, “…is intended to be, primarily a book of liturgical information; it is descriptive and not prescriptive” (xiv, italics original). In many ways, the objective of the project and the sheer volume of information renders the book into more of an encyclopedia, a collection of ideas, rather than a sustained argument over the nature of liturgical or historical development. Yet the work is also an interpretation, and admits itself to be so, exhibiting an awareness of the judgments both authors make as they attempt to assemble the texts and theories of a complex nexus of Christian traditions.
Eucharistic Liturgies ranges chronologically from liturgical origins (1-24) to the various Christian liturgies of the modern era (232-293). Special attention is given to the fourth and fifth centuries, which receive two chapters worth of detailed textual quotation, analysis, and speculation (61-136) in order to stress the importance of these developments, which by and large shape both Western and Eastern liturgies into forms we would recognize today. Any reader will leave the book more sensitive to the long and varying history of Christian liturgies. The work also offers readers an appreciation of the constant developments and revisions of these liturgies, and of how research into these rites and practices has transformed the liturgies of the present age. It is also an easy way to read many different and ancient liturgies all in one place.
The authors perform admirably when expressing the difficulties and opacities involved in discovering the nature of early Christian liturgical practices, as extant texts are rare and speculation involves distorting presuppositions. They are at their best once they move into historical ages with more historical data, and show themselves to be not simply aware of all the major sources available to scholarship but also able to navigate the bewildering volume of sources with proficiency and clarity. Bradshaw and Johnson give some sense of the development in scholarly opinion while they describe historical developments, though they do not offer an exhaustive review of the history of liturgical scholarship and by no means intend to do so. They are at their most thorough in the sheer presentation of texts, many of which are placed one after the other in a sort of catena aurea of liturgical resources, with charts to help readers grasp developments, possible later accretions, comparisons, and reconstructions. The quantity of information is often overwhelming, and the authors sometimes do not explain liturgical phraseologies that may not be familiar to a non-specialist audience. Aware of problems such as this, as well as aware of the book’s potential use in university liturgical studies or seminary classrooms, Bradshaw and Johnson have included summaries of information at the end of each chapter. Here readers will find short, full-sentence reviews of the themes and interpretations the authors have sought to describe in the preceding chapter. Most of the following chapters also repeat major subjects from the chapter just before them in introductory paragraphs, ensuring that readers have a sense of historical narrative in an intricate field.
Eucharistic Liturgies illustrates well how Christian liturgies developed not only from common practices, but also out of an increasing theological awareness that was shaped by and shaped rites. Bradshaw and Johnson take time in every chapter to allude to theological developments of the eras in question, such as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, as well as to discuss the emerging theologies of the Eucharist associated with each liturgy. The relation of theology and liturgy is never seamless, and indeed liturgical variety is accompanied by theological variety. The authors helpfully indicate common developments in each, and how each relates to the other. The work is more interested in the changes in liturgical rites than it is in theology as such. Thus the focus in its recounting of the developments in the interpretation of Eucharistic liturgies, and of Eucharistic presence, remains on the practical application of theology in each rite rather than, say, extended theological speculation over the meaning of figura or sacramentum. This is not to say that the authors ignore these important theological concerns; it is only to say that their reflections remain abbreviated, and their interests ordered more around liturgical texts than theological commentaries. This appears in part to be an effort to avoid the encroachment of long-standing denominational debates over the nature of the Eucharist into the realm of historical inquiry, and their disinterest here is helpful, though it may vex a reader expecting more theological interpretation from the work.
Bradshaw and Johnson have not constructed a pure textbook. Their intent seems to allow for more flexibility of use, as it could serve as a resource to both liturgical scholars and students new to the field. With respect to either use, the work could be improved by a bibliography of major sources, both historical and scholarly. This is not to denigrate the work of either author, both of whom do scholarship and immense service by arranging, presenting, and assisting in the interpretation of the developments of Christian liturgies over time. Eucharistic Liturgies is an invaluable sourcebook for liturgical studies, and is fully able to serve as a standard text in the field.