Book Review: Liturgical Theology (3/8)

Liturgical Theology by Simon Chan

Part One: Foundations – Chapter 2: the Worship of the Church


The ecclesiological crisis in modern evangelicalism is inextricably linked to the crisis of worship in modern evangelicalism.

  • Viewing the Church as a human gathering to carry out the mission of evangelism reduces worship to a mere tool to achieve that end.
  • This perspective has resulted in the late 20th century “worship wars” and the “seeker-sensitive” movement.

What is needed here is an actual theology of worship: how does worship relate to the identity of the Church?

  • The Church is God’s people chosen in Christ, actualized by a community called together by God’s Word.
  • Liturgy (literally, “the peoples’ work”) is the community’s common response to God’s Word.
  • In both Old and New Testaments, God’s people are forged by a covenant with a sacrificial offering.
  • “To be the church is to be the worshiping community making a normative response to the revelation of the triune God” (p42).

#1 – How Worship is related to the Church

Worship is what distinguishes the church as the church: it is separate from the world.

  • “Every time the Church assembles to celebrate the cult, to “proclaim the death of Christ”, it proclaims also the end of the world and the failure of the world.  It contradicts the world’s claim to provide men with a valid justification for their existence, it renounces the world: it affirms, since it is made up of the baptized, that it is only on the other side of death to this world that life can assume its meaning…  Christian worship is the strongest denial that can be hurled in the face of the world’s claim to provide men with an effective and sufficient justification for their life.  There is no more emphatic protest against the pride and the despair of the world than that implied in Church worship” (p42).
  • Worship proclaims the supremacy of Christ over the entire world and everyone in it.

Worship is what distinguishes the church as the church: it’s the Church’s defining characteristic.

  • Any organization can act as a community conscience, care for the poor, preserve traditional values – those don’t make the Church unique.
  • Worship can and should be all-pervading in Christian life, but also has distinct works (or liturgical acts) including preaching.
  • Thus even the evangelistic mission is rooted in worship, as it build up the Body, making the Church more the Church, hence the next point…

 #2 – How Worship constitutes a Normative Response

Worship makes (or realizes) the Church.

  • Worship forms us over time.
  • Liturgical worship recognizes this is a deeply spiritual process, not just a sociological phenomenon.
  • Thus, the Church is only properly formed as the Church if it practices what truly constitutes the church.  This typically boils down to Word & Sacrament (see chapter 3).

#3 – How Worship should be characterized

Worship is God’s action in the Church!

  • The Spirit of Christ within us responds to the revelation of Christ.
  • “In true worship there is an inherent fittingness of the response to the One who reveals himself as who he is, because it comes ultimately from the Spirit of God who indwells the body of Christ” (p47).
  • “The worship of the Church is, properly speaking, the action of the triune God in the Church.  But it is divine action joined with human action.…  This is why assembling together is so vital” (p48).
  • To call worship the “fitting response” to God’s revelation reveals another essential connection: between worship and theology.

Worship and Theology

“Primary Theology” is our participation in God, who is Truth.

  • This is not secondary reflection (scholarly theology), but “the faith” finding concrete expression in worship.
  • This means that the Church’s liturgy is the full and adequate expression of the faith of the Church – there’s an organic and essential interdependence between the two.
  • This is summed up by the concept lex credenda est lex orandi.
  • Lex orandi doesn’t refer to a specific “order of service,” but the deeper shape or structure of the liturgy which has taken various (but remarkably similar) forms through time.
  • Primary theology is like “tacit knowledge;” liturgy gives it words.
  • Secondary theology (scholarly reflection and study) provides more tools for primary theology to operate, but must never be done outside of the worshiping community!
    • Example: primary theology ponders the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, secondary theology seeks to make sense of it.  If a secondary theology (like transubstantiation) becomes dominant, the relationship of lex credendi lex orandi is strained, if not broken.

“Right belief and right practice can only come from right worship” (p52).

  • Evangelicalism is often tempted to reduce worship to an educational experience, trying to emphasize right belief.
  • Charismatic churches are often tempted to reduce worship to an atmosphere or experience, trying to emphasize right practice.
  • But the primary theology expressed in faulty worship will eventually undermine otherwise good doctrine and practices.

Worship and the Divine Glory

God’s glory, in the Bible, is associated with his self-revelation to mankind.  Worshiping God (or glorifying God), then, is our acknowledgement of who He is – it is purely our response.

  1. Worship can never be something we do for God.
    1. Human attempts to initiate worship results in distorting God’s glory.
    2. Worship beings begins with the truth that everything we are and have is a gift.
    3. By contrast, in many churches today, “Worship itself has become the means by which one hopes to induce God to act on our behalf.  It is not uncommon nowadays to hear ‘worship leaders’ telling the congregation that praise will bring down the glory of God…” (p53).
    4. Worship is never meant to serve any other purpose except the glory of God.
      1. “We live in a pragmatic world in which every meaningful activity has to have some useful purpose.  But the very nature of worship lies in its ‘aimlessness’” (p53-4).
      2. Playing games has no practical purpose, but it’s still a meaningful activity – same with worship.
      3. “We think that the church exists for the sake of the world, but that is not true.  The world, indeed the universe, exists for the church….  The world exists as the arena in which the gospel of Jesus Christ… can be proclaimed” (p55).
      4. Worship, however, does have a practical byproduct: spiritual formation!  We don’t worship God in order to become better people, but true worship does have that intrinsic effect.
      5. Again, same with playing games – the point isn’t to socialize us, but it has that effect.
      6. In worship we encounter God.  “It is then that we are most truly ourselves, because we no longer need to present a ‘nice front.’  Most of the time in the ‘real world’ we are less true to ourselves.  At our workplace we need to appear nice and friendly when serving customers.  Bosses have to appear caring toward their staff.  It is in the ‘real world’ that we are compelled to play the game of ‘let’s pretend,’ whereas before God, from whom ‘nothing in all creation is hidden’ and in whose sight ‘everything is uncovered and laid bare,’ there is no need to pretend.  We are truly liberated to be the persons we are meant to be.  In the spirit of openness before God, we can truly open to one another and, hopefully, carry that true self back into our workaday world” (p56).
      7. Worship is response to God’s total character.
        1. God’s self-revelation is both attractive (fascinans) and fearful (tremendum) – He’s both loving and holy, kind and severe.  This paradox must be reflected in our worship.                                               i.      Half of Psalm 95 is a reassuring invitation, the other half is a warning against apostasy.
          ii.      The Eucharistic announcement “the gifts of God for the people of God” is both an invitation and a warning.
        2. The theology of the liturgy is essentially the theology of “the Trinity in the life of the Church.”
          i.      Liturgical worship is a participation in the work of God.
          ii.      This results in sacraments (means of grace) because sharing in the divine life is the process of salvation itself!
        3. The descent, incarnation, and ascension of the Son is matched in the Church.
          i.      The prayer of the Church is essentially a returning of love by the power of the Holy Spirit.
          ii.      The prayer of the Church answers and actualizes Jesus’ high priestly intercession in heaven.
          iii.      The prayer of the Church (as a divine-humanity or a theanthropic reality) is a synergy, helping create the New Creation.
        4. “If our worship does not reveal God in his holiness and love, transcendence and immanence, as fascinans et tremendum… then it has fallen short of the glory of God” (p61).
          i.      “When modern churches arbitrarily construct their worship to cater to human needs and whims, they are doing primary theology.  But it is a false theology, because it distorts our vision of the divine glory (p61).
          ii.      It is not sufficient to define worship theologically, if real change is going to happen, that theology needs a concrete expression: liturgy!

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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3 Responses to Book Review: Liturgical Theology (3/8)

  1. Stephen says:

    A couple of semi-critical questions:
    1. What would it mean for scholarly theology to be done “outside of the worshiping community?” I only ask because I hear this claim a lot, but I can’t figure out exactly what it means. Presumably, most theologians and Christians would agree that theology should be done by people who believe in Christ and are part of the body of Christ (though a few theologians disagree, but that’s a small minority). So what is the further condition that has to be satisfied? Must theology always be part of a sermon? Or must everyone in a particular church agree with it? Or should it be written inside a church building? I can’t help but to feel that this claim might be rooted in some sort of assertion of brute power on the part of church authorities, but I’m not sure that it is. (If you think that Simon Chan would be the one who should answer this lengthy question, that’s fine too.)
    2. Why is a doctrine of transubstantiation in particular a bad thing here? From what I can tell, people who believe it are only trying to better explain and encourage right worship, not to undermine worship.

    • One of my professors once said “if you can’t take a particular doctrine to the Eucharist, what does it matter?” Also somewhat vague, but I think it’s along similar lines to Chan’s idea. I’ll try to uncover Chan’s explanation a bit better… “To speak of worship as a fitting response implies that in the very act of worship we are participating in the God who is truth. Liturgiologists call this participation ‘primary theology.'” Then he quotes Schmemann, where liturgical theology “is the elucidation of the meaning of worship” – so I think he’s trying to distinguish between an expressed theology (first) and a reasoned theology (second).
      The concern against which Chan is warning is “a theology that abstracts from and generalizes about the liturgy based upon some supposedly ‘neutral’ criteria.” I think that means that he wants the dialectic of lex credendi lex orandi to be preserved as the norm, rather than just an incidental feature of theology.

      As for the transubstantiation thing, there are other moments in the book when he seems to use the term to refer to the doctrine of the Real Presence, so I’d be a little cautious about what he’s trying to say here. What he does argue is consistent, though: “The focus is on the ‘data of the faith,’ on doctrines per se, rather than ‘the total living experience of the Church.’ The result is a divorce between worship and theology, leaving both impoverished.” Again, I think he’s coming back down to enforcing lex credendi lex orandi.

      I agree with you, though, I don’t think having a doctrine or theory about the means of the Real Presence or any other spiritual phenomenon in or out of worship is necessarily a bad thing. We just have a tendency to get our priorities scrambled from time to time. Case in point, I think, would be the Roman Catholic holiday Corpus Christi celebrating the ascendency of the doctrine of transubstantiation, rather than the ‘primary theology’ of the Real Presence.

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Liturgical Theology – The Saint Aelfric Customary

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