Maxwell E. JOHNSON, Praying and Believing in Early Christianity: The Interplay Between Christian Worship and Doctrine. Collegeville:  Liturgical Press, 2013. pp. 148. $19.95 paper. ISBN 978-0-8146-8259-3. Reviewed by Wilburn T. STANCIL, Rockhurst University, Kansas City, MO 64110


Maxwell Johnson is professor of liturgy at the University of Notre Dame and the author of many books on the history of liturgy.  The volume under review explores the relationship of liturgy in early Christianity to the development of orthodox Christian belief in five specific areas: soteriology, Trinitarian theology, Christology, Mariology, and ethics. “How in each of these cases,” Johnson asks, “did worship assist in the shaping of what was believed, taught, and confessed” (xiv)?  Is the often cited phrase, “lex orandi, lex credendi,” typically translated as “the law of praying (is) the law of believing,” an accurate description of the way in which liturgy and theology interacted in the early centuries of Christianity? Does praying (liturgy, worship) really shape and form belief (doctrine), or is the relationship between the two more complex? 

Lex orandi, lex credendi is a “Latin tag in modern usage” (Geoffrey Wainwright) for a longer phrase first used by Prosper of Aquitaine in the 6th century, ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi.  The context for its original usage was the question of free will and grace that emerged out of the Pelagian and semi-Pelagian controversies. Johnson demonstrates that both Augustine and Prosper did use liturgical evidence to support their positions in the controversies, but the evidence they provided was “consistent with and illustrative of other sources, namely, Scripture and Tradition” (14). In other words, the liturgical evidence that each appealed to had already been shaped and formed by Scripture and Tradition.   Johnson concludes, therefore, that liturgy alone cannot be employed as if it were some sort of proof text.   Rather, what the church believes, teaches, and confesses also influences and shapes the way it prays (16).

In the same manner that he addresses the role of free will and grace in salvation, the remainder of the book illustrates the interrelationship between liturgy and doctrine in the development of beliefs about the Trinity, Christ, Mary, and ethical practices. Ultimately, Johnson affirms the usefulness of the lex orandi, lex credendi phrase, but at the same time demythologizes it. Liturgy is one important source among others, but was not appealed to in early Christianity, and should not be appealed to today, as an isolated norm or principle for the determination of doctrine. Johnson believes that “whatever may be concluded about the lex orandi shaping the lex credendi, the inverse is equally true even if the encounter with God in Word and Sacrament is for many, if not most, people the foundational and continuing locus for their faith and life” (128).

Praying and Believing in Early Christianity is an important contribution to the question of the formative role of liturgy in doctrinal development.  Johnson’s audience is “beginning students in liturgical studies at the master’s level” (xiv). He does assume some background in the theological controversies addressed by the first four ecumenical councils.  However, in most cases Johnson provides enough context so that the book can be read with insight by those who are not knowledgeable about these controversies. Therefore, I would recommend a wider readership than graduate students in theological studies.