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Worship is a hot topic, but the ways that Christians from different traditions view it vary greatly. What is worship? More important, what does it look like in action, both in our corporate gatherings ...
Worship is a hot topic, but the ways that Christians from different traditions view it vary greatly. What is worship? More important, what does it look like in action, both in our corporate gatherings and in our daily lives? These concerns---the blending of principle and practice---are what Worship by the Book addresses.
Cutting through cultural cliches, D. A. Carson, Mark Ashton, Kent Hughes, and Timothy Keller explore, respectively:
- Worship Under the Word
- Following in Cranmer's Footsteps
- Free Church Worship: The Challenge of Freedom
- Reformed Worship in the Global City
'This is not a comprehensive theology of worship,' writes Carson. 'Still less is it a sociological analysis of current trends or a minister's manual chockfull of 'how to' instructions.' Rather, this book offers pastors, other congregational leaders, and seminary students a thought-provoking biblical theology of worship, followed by a look at how three very different traditions of churchmanship might move from this theological base to a better understanding of corporate worship. Running the gamut from biblical theology to historical assessment all the way to sample service sheets, Worship by the Book shows how local churches in diverse traditions can foster corporate worship that is God-honoring, Word-revering, heartfelt, and historically and culturally informed.
To construct a theology of worship turns out to be a difficult task. In addition to the ordinary difficulties associated with constructing an informed, balanced, and reasonably comprehensive theology of almost any biblical theme, the preparation of a theology of worship offers special challenges.
1. At the empirical level, the sad fact of contemporary church life is that there are few subjects calculated to kindle more heated debate than the subject of worship. Some of these debates have less to do with an intelligible theology of worship than with mere preferences for certain styles of music (older hymns versus contemporary praise choruses) and kinds of instruments (organs and pianos versus guitars and drums). Other flash points concern the place of "special music" (the North American expression for performance music), congregational singing, liturgical responses, clapping, drama. All sides claim to be God-centered. The moderns think the traditionalists defend comfortable and rationalistic truths they no longer feel, while the stalwarts from the past fret that their younger contemporaries are so enamoured of hyped experience they care not a whit for truth, let alone beauty. Sometimes one senses that for many there are only two alternatives: dull (or should we say "stately"?) traditionalism, or faddish (or should we say "lively"?) contemporaneity. We are asked to choose between "as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever more shall be, world without end," and "old is cold, new is true." The one side thinks of worship as something we experience, often set over against the sermon (first we have worship, and then we have the sermon, as if the two are disjunctive categories); while the other side thinks of worship as ordered stateliness, often set over against all the rest of life.
In fact, the issues are more complicated than this simplistic polarization suggests. One must reckon with the propensity of not a few contemporary churches to reshape the corporate meetings of the church to make them more acceptable to every sociologically distinguishable cultural subgroup that comes along-boomers, busters, Gen Xers, white singles from Cleveland, or whatever. Although one wants to applaud the drive that is willing, for the sake of the gospel, to remove all offenses except the offense of the cross, sooner or later one is troubled by the sheer lack of stability, of a sense of heritage and substance passed on to another generation, of patterns of corporate worship shared with Christians who have gone before, or of any shared vision of what corporate worship should look like. This in turn generates a swarm of traditionalists who like things that are old regardless of whether or not they are well founded. They cringe at both inclusive litanies and guitars and start looking for an "alternative to alternative worship."
Moreover, to gain perspective on the possible options, one must reflect on some of the historical studies that examine the worship practices of some bygone era, sometimes explicitly with the intention of enabling contemporaries to recover their roots or rediscover past practices. Intriguingly, many of the new nontraditional services have already become, in some churches, entrenched traditions-and, on a historical scale, arguably inferior ones.
What cannot be contested is that the subject of worship is currently "hot." The widespread confusion is punctuated by strongly held and sometimes mutually exclusive theological stances that make attempts to construct a biblical theology of worship a pastorally sensitive enterprise.
2. The sheer diversity of the current options not only contributes to the sense of unrest and divisiveness in many local churches but leads to confident assertions that all the biblical evidence supports those views and those alone. Contemporary attempts at constructing a theology of worship are naturally enmeshed in what "worship" means to us, in our vocabularies and in the vocabularies of the Christian communities to which we belong. Ideally, of course, our ideas about worship should be corrected by Scripture, and doubtless that occurs among many individuals with time. But the opposite easily happens as well: we unwittingly read our ideas and experiences of worship back into Scripture, so that we end up "finding" there what, with exquisite confidence, we know jolly well ought to be there. This is especially easy to do when, as we shall see, the semantic range of our word worship, in any contemporary theory of worship, does not entirely match up with any one word or group of words in the Bible. What it means to be corrected by Scripture in this case is inevitably rather complex.
The result is quite predictable. A person who loves liturgical forms of corporate worship often begins with Old Testament choirs and antiphonal psalms, moves on to liturgical patterns in the ancient synagogue, and extols the theological maturity of the liturgy in question. A charismatic typically starts with 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. A New Testament scholar may begin with the ostensible "hymns" of the New Testament and then examine the brief texts that actually describe some element of worship, such as the Lord's Supper. And so it goes. It is not easy to find an agreed-upon method or common approach to discovering precisely how the Bible should re-form our views on worship.
That brings us to some of the slightly more technical challenges.
3. Unlike Trinity, the word worship is found in our English Bibles. So one might have thought that the construction of a doctrine of worship is easier than the construction of a doctrine of the Trinity. In the case of the Trinity, however, at least we agree on, more or less, what we are talking about. Inevitably, anything to do with our blessed triune God involves some hidden things that belong only to God himself (cf. Deut 29:29); nevertheless, in terms of the sphere of discussion, when we talk about the doctrine of the Trinity we have some idea to what we are referring, and we know the kinds of biblical and historical data that must feed into the discussion. By contrast, a cursory scan of the literature on worship soon discloses that people mean very different things when they talk about worship. To construct a theology of worship when there is little agreement on what worship is or refers to is rather daunting. The task cries out for some agreed-upon definitions.
But although the word worship occurs in our English Bibles, one cannot thereby get at the theme of worship as easily as one can get at, say, the theology of grace by studying all the occurrences of the word grace, or get at the theology of calling by examining all the passages that use the word call. Of course, even in these cases much more is involved than mere word study. One wants to examine the context of every passage with grace in it, become familiar with the synonyms, probe the concepts and people to which grace is tied (e.g., faith, the Lord Jesus, peace, and so forth). We rapidly recognize that different biblical authors may use words in slightly different ways. As is well known, call in Paul's writings is effective: those who are "called" are truly saved. By contrast, in the Synoptic Gospels the "call" of God means something like "invitation": many are called but few are chosen. Still, it is possible to provide a more or less comprehensive summary of the various things the Bible means by call simply by looking at all the examples and analyzing and cataloguing them. But the same thing cannot be done with worship, not least because for almost any definition of worship there are many passages that have a bearing on this subject that do not use the Hebrew or Greek word that could be rendered by the word worship itself. Moreover, the Hebrew and Greek words that are sometimes rendered by the English word worship sometimes mean something rather different from what we mean by worship. So we cannot get at this subject by simplistic word studies. We shall need to arrive at definitions that we can agree upon.
4. Constructing a theology of worship is challenging because of the different kinds of answers that are provided, in this case, by biblical theology and systematic theology. This observation is so important and lies so much at the heart of this chapter that a fuller explanation is warranted.
I begin with two definitions. For our purposes, systematic theology is theological synthesis organized along topical and atemporal lines. For example, if we were trying to construct a systematic theology of God, we would ask what the Bible as a whole says about God: What is he like? What are his attributes? What does he do? The answers to these and many similar questions would be forged out of the entirety of what the Bible says in interaction with what Christians in other generations have understood. We would not primarily be asking narrower questions, such as: What does the book of Isaiah say about God? How is God progressively revealed across the sweep of redemptive history? What distinctive contributions to the doctrine of God are made by the different genres found in the Bible (e.g., apocalyptic literature, parables, poetry, and so forth)?
By contrast, biblical theology is theological synthesis organized according to biblical book and corpus and along the line of the history of redemption. This means that biblical theology does not ask, in the first instance, what the Bible as a whole says about, say, God. Rather, it asks what the Synoptic Gospels say about God, or what the gospel of Mark or the book of Genesis says. It asks what new things are said about God as we progress through time. Biblical theology is certainly interested in knowing how the biblical texts have been understood across the history of the church, but above all it is interested in inductive study of the texts themselves (including such matters as their literary genre: for instance, it does not fall into the mistake of treating proverbs as if they were case law in some insensitive, proof-texting approach), as those texts are serially placed against the backdrop of the Bible's developing plotline.
How, then, do these considerations bear on how we go about constructing a theology of worship? If we ask what worship is, intending our question to be answered out of the matrix of systematic theology, then we are looking for "whole Bible" answers-that is, what the Bible says as a whole. That will have one or more effects. On the positive side, we will be trying to listen to the whole Bible and not to one favorite passage on the subject-say, 1 Corinthians 14. At its best, such attentiveness fosters more comprehensive answers and fewer idiosyncratic answers. On the other hand, if we try to read the whole Bible without reflecting on the distinctions the Bible itself introduces regarding worship, we may end up looking for the lowest common denominators. In other words, we may look for things to do with worship that are true in every phase of redemptive history and thus lose the distinctive features. For example, we might say that worship is bound up with confessing the sheer centrality and worthiness of God. That is wonderfully true, yet it says nothing about the place of the sacrificial systems in Old Testament worship or the role of the choirs David founded, and so forth.
Alternatively, if we use the whole Bible indiscriminately to construct our theology of worship, we may use it idiosyncratically. For instance, we note that the temple service developed choirs, so we conclude that our corporate worship must have choirs. Perhaps it should-but somewhere along the line we have not integrated into our reflection how the Bible fits together. We do not have a "temple" in the Old Testament sense. On what grounds do we transfer Old Testament choirs to the New Testament and not an Old Testament temple or priests? Of course, some of the church fathers during the early centuries did begin to think of ministers of the gospel as equivalent to Old Testament priests. The New Testament writers prefer to think of Jesus as the sole high priest (see Hebrews) or, alternatively, of all Christians as priests (e.g., 1 Pet 2:5; Rev 1:6). But even if we continue to think of contemporary clergy as priests, sooner or later we will have to ask similar questions about many other elements of Old Testament worship that were bound up with the temple-for example, the sacrifices of the Day of Atonement and of Passover. All Christians understand these sacrifices to be transmuted under the new covenant, such that they are now fulfilled in the sacrifice of Christ.
But the point is simply that the "pick-and-choose" method of constructing a theology of worship from the whole Bible lacks methodological rigor and therefore stability. Thus, constructing a theology of worship out of the matrix of systematic theology may actually define what we mean by "worship." The methods and approaches characteristic of the discipline (more precisely, they are characteristic of the discipline of the kind of systematic theology that is insufficiently informed by biblical theology) will to some extent determine the outcome.
If we ask what worship is, intending our question to be answered out of the matrix of biblical theology, then we are looking for what distinct books and sections of the Bible say on this subject and how they relate to one another. Inevitably we will be a little more alert to the differences; in particular, we will be forced to reflect at length on the differences one finds when one moves from the Mosaic covenant to the new covenant (on which more below). The dangers here are almost the inverse of the dangers of a systematic approach. Now we may so focus in a merely descriptive way on this or that corpus that we fail to construct an adequate theology of worship. For a theology of worship erected out of the matrix of biblical theology must still be a "whole Bible" theology in the sense that the diverse pieces must fit together. Loss of nerve at this point will produce description with antiquarian interest but no normative power.
To summarize: The construction of a responsible theology of worship is made difficult by strongly held and divergent views on the subject, by a variety of linguistic pressures, and by the sharp tendencies to produce quite different works, depending in part on whether the theologian is working out of the matrix of systematic theology or of biblical theology.
Toward a Definition
Before pressing on to a definition, it may be worth taking two preliminary steps.
Excerpted from Worship by the Book by Mark Ashton R. Kent Hughes Timothy J. Keller Copyright © 2002 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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