A More Profound Alleluia: Theology and Worship in Harmony

(Paperback - Dec 2004)
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Two questions lie at the heart of this rich, suggestive book: What are the theological implications of worship? and What are the liturgical implications of theology? Convinced that worship and theology are integrally related, the authors of A More Profound Alleluia show in practical terms how liturgy and doctrine fruitfully illuminate each other. Each chapter pairs an element of the worship service with related Christian teachings, clearly demonstrating how the great doctrines of the faith find their natural expression in the drama of worship and how the liturgy in turn finds its corollary in doctrine. The interrelation of theology and worship is illustrated with anecdotes from congregational life, resources drawn from church history, and themes from novels and films. Each chapter also includes two hymn texts that exemplify orthodox doctrine communicated through song. A More Profound Alleluia will be a valuable text for courses in theology or worship, will help worship leaders to plan services with greater theological depth, and will enhance worship for Christian believers generally. Contributors: "Ronald P. ByarsWilliam A. DyrnessMartha L. Moore-KeishDavid L. StubbsLeanne Van DykJohn D. Witvliet"


  • SKU: 9780802828545
  • SKU10: 080282854X
  • Title: A More Profound Alleluia: Theology and Worship in Harmony
  • Series: Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies
  • Publisher: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
  • Date Published: Dec 2004
  • Pages: 153
  • Weight lbs: 0.55
  • Dimensions: 8.96" L x 6.08" W x 0.53" H
  • Features: Table of Contents, Bibliography
  • Themes: Theometrics | Academic;
  • Category: SPIRITUALITY
  • Subject: Christian Rituals & Practice - General

Chapter Excerpt

Chapter One

The Opening of Worship


John D. Witvliet

When I was a little boy, I naively thought that God lived behind - or at least beyond - the stained-glass window at the front of my church. This was a beautiful, neo-Gothic church, with lovely stained-glass windows, including a round one located up front near the ceiling. I thought that God lived there because that's where our attention was implicitly directed. We sang our hymns of praise and thanks while facing the front of church, to God "on high." Our offerings were carried forward. Everything we did implicitly reinforced the notion that as we worshiped, God was "before us" or "above us."

I know that the experience of some of my students is quite different. Their journal entries suggest that they tend to imagine that in worship God dwells "in their hearts." In worship, they expectantly wait for a warm emotional experience that confirms it. They know, of course, that God is not contained inside them. Still, they implicitly sense that God is present most fully in worship as the One who lives within them.

C. S. Lewis addressed this question of how Christians conceive of God in a brief commentary on the doctrine of the Trinity. Eager to explain how Trinitarian theology is not merely abstract or mathematical but can be experiential, Lewis wrote,

You may ask, "If we cannot imagine a three-personal Being, what is the good of talking about Him?" Well, there isn't any good talking about Him. The thing that matters is being actually drawn into that three-personal life, and that may begin any time - tonight, if you like. What I mean is this. An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if a Christian, he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God - that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying - the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on - the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. So that the whole threefold life of the three-personal being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary Christian is saying his prayers.

This is a different and altogether remarkable way of imagining God. In this way of thinking, God is not only the One before us, "up there" to receive our praise. God is also "alongside us" in the person of Jesus, perfecting our otherwise imperfect songs and prayers. God is also at work "within us," prodding us, prompting us, encouraging us, and even - when we are unable to pray-praying through us (Rom. 8:26). "It is one experience of God," as Sarah Coakley describes it, "but God as simultaneously (i) doing the praying in me, (ii) receiving that prayer, and (iii) in that exchange, consented to in me, inviting me into the Christic life of redeemed sonship."

This is a vision of God that is, we might say, geographically complex. God inhabits three places in our imagination at the same time (which is, of course, harder for us to imagine than for God to accomplish!). Though it would be wrongly self-centered to say that we are at "the center" of this activity, it may be helpful to picture ourselves right there "in the middle" of it. Or to ponder Robert Jenson's evocative image: "The particular God of Scripture does not just stand over against us; he envelops us." In this vision, we still pray and sing "to" each divine person "Holy, holy, holy . blessed Trinity!", but we are also aware that we pray and sing "through Christ," "in the power of the Spirit."

This is also a remarkably active vision of God. The picture here is not of God as a passive being up in heaven, waiting for us to sing a little louder and pray a little harder before conferring a blessing. That description better fits Baal! (1 Kings 18). No, God is active in prompting our worship, in receiving it, and in perfecting it.

The Trinitarian Grammar or Logic of Worship

The doctrine of the Trinity serves as a "grammar" to organize how we describe both divine life and the relationship with God we are privileged to share. This "Trinitarian grammar" draws together and depends on several scriptural themes.

First, there are the biblical texts that explain the theological dynamics of our speech to God - that is, all of our prayers, praise, and thanksgiving. God is the One who receives our worship, as Jesus' familiar words in John 4:24 simply assume: "Those who worship the Father . worship in spirit and in truth." Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, is the One who perfects our worship. Just as Hebrew priests represented the people of Israel before God, so Jesus represents us before God "because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood.

Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them" (Heb. 7:23-25). The Holy Spirit is the One who prompts our prayer in the first place: "[by him] we cry 'Abba, Father'"; and when we are too weak to pray, "the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express" (Rom. 8:15, 26).

These themes come together in the straightforward Pauline assertion that "through Christ we both [Jew and Gentile] have access to the Father by one Spirit" (Eph. 2:18). We might call this pattern the Trinitarian grammar or logic of our address to God, the "human-Godward" aspect of worship.

Second, there are the biblical texts that reveal the theological dynamics of God's speech to us. A Trinitarian pattern can be perceived here as well. God is the One who sends the Spirit to prompt us. "God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'" (Gal. 4:6). Jesus Christ is the "content" of God's speaking to us. He is the "Word" who comes to us "full of grace and truth" (John 1:1, 14), "the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being" (Heb. 1:3). God the Holy Spirit is the One who prompts us to hear God speaking to us. "We have received . the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us" (1 Cor. 2:12). Thus, the "God-humanward" speech also has a Trinitarian shape.

So both human-divine and divine-human communication work out of Trinitarian logic. No wonder so many Christian theologians have developed tight, symmetrical Trinitarian definitions of worship. Thomas F. Torrance, for example, describes worship this way: "In our worship the Holy Spirit comes forth from God, uniting us to the response and obedience and faith and prayer of Jesus, and returns to God, raising us up in Jesus to participate in the worship of heaven and in the eternal communion of the Holy Trinity."

The Doctrine of the Trinity as Fundamental and Distinctive

This Trinitarian way of thinking has very deep roots in the Christian tradition. For many Christians who stand in the long tradition of classical or orthodox Christianity, the doctrine of the Trinity is a fundamental way of thinking about God. It is at once one of the most complex, luminous, and perhaps misunderstood of all Christian doctrines. Yet Trinity doctrine is based on scriptural assertions about divine identity that ground the kind of Trinitarian grammar already described:

1. The Bible teaches that there is One God, the God of Abraham and Sarah and their offspring, the One who created the world and redeemed the people of Israel: "The Lord our God is one" (Deut. 6:4). This means that we don't have to worry that there are divided loyalties or competing interests in divine life.

2. The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is a divine person, the One who was with God in the beginning, and, in fact, was God (John 1:1). This Jesus Christ is the "exact representation of God's being" (Heb. 1:1), and the perfect image or "icon" of God (Col. 1:15).

3. The Bible strongly suggests, and traditional Christian theology insists, that the Holy Spirit is also a divine person (Acts 5:3-4; 2 Cor. 13:14).7

When the early church put these biblical assertions together, the result was the doctrine of the Trinity, a doctrine that slowly emerged through centuries of theological reflection, often colored by competing philosophical and political interests. Key steps in this reflection were the church councils that produced carefully formulated creedal summaries of the Christian faith, including the Nicene Creed in A.D. 381, and the Athanasian Creed, which developed in the Latin West after the time of Augustine. The theme that echoes through these documents, and early theologians like Athanasius and Augustine, can be summed up in this concise way: "The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God; yet, there are not three gods, but one God."

Interestingly, conversations about worship and prayer were among the most important parts of these early church discussions of the Trinity. One of the pastoral questions that prompted the church's reflection on the identity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit was directly related to prayer and worship. Was it legitimate to worship Christ as fully divine - and to pray to Christ? If so, then what about the Holy Spirit? The early church answered "yes" to both questions. As a result, many liturgical prayers and hymns addressed Christ and the Holy Spirit directly, such as "Maranatha" ("Come, Lord Jesus") and "Veni Creator Spiritus" ("Come, Creator Spirit"). Even today, most hymns about the Holy Spirit are prayers to the Spirit (check the Pentecost section of nearly any Christian hymnal or songbook).

The Doctrine of the Trinity as Pastorally Significant

The early church debates were much more complex than this brief treatment can suggest. They featured intricate arguments regarding what precisely was "three" about God (what is a divine person?), what precisely was "one" about God (what is the divine essence?), and what this meant for how the nature and identity of Jesus should be understood. Those discussions about the internal coherence of the doctrine continue to this day. But sometimes those discussions, important as they are, miss the vital pastoral implications of the doctrine and the significant ways that Trinity doctrine can ground and nurture the practice of worship.

A memorable sentence in Anne Lamott's memoir Traveling Mercies invites us to probe those pastoral dimensions. She says, "I had never stopped believing in God . [but] mine was a patchwork God, sewn together from bits of rag and ribbon, Eastern and Western, pagan and Hebrew, everything but the kitchen sink and Jesus." All of us live with a "patchwork God," with our own limited understanding of God's being. Ours might be sewn together from children's Bible-story books or from old epic movies, from favorite hymns or Christmas cards, from Gallup polls or political debates. The inevitable result is some confusion about how to worship. Is our worship an act of obeisance, of currying divine favor, of nurturing warm sentimentality, or of expressing prophetic zeal? Should our worship arise out of gratitude and wonder, or out of guilt, fear, or shame?

In the context of these competing impulses, the doctrine of the Trinity is a clarifying, reassuring, and imagination-expanding resource. Consider three crucial pastoral corollaries.

First, the doctrine of the Trinity means that God is not different from what we see in Jesus. In Deist or Unitarian theology, Jesus Christ, while still viewed as a key teacher, a good person, and a remarkable prophet, is not viewed on a par with God. In contrast, the doctrine of the Trinity maintains the scandalous claim that Jesus Christ is perfectly divine. As such, Jesus is a faithful witness, a transparent window into divine life. "If you want to know who God is," says theologian William Placher, "attend to these stories about Jesus Christ," for Jesus is the "best clue to who God is." On this view, we need not fear that God is other than what we see in Christ. As Daniel Migliore concludes, "Classical Trinitarian doctrine . wants to say that there is no sinister or even demonic side of God altogether different from what we know in the story of Jesus who befriended the poor and forgave sinners. God is self-expanding, other-affirming, community-building love."

Second, a Trinitarian doctrine of God sturdily reinforces our understanding of God's lavish grace or unmerited favor toward us. The New Testament teaches that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are agents of divine redemption. Their work accomplishes salvation for us and for the whole cosmos. They are the savior and advocate on whom we rely. From a Deist or Unitarian view, the exemplary human Jesus shows us the way but ultimately leaves us with a lot of work to do to save ourselves and the world around us. But from a Trinitarian view, in which Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are seen as not less than God, their actions can be trusted to be fully effective. The triune God not only models salvation but accomplishes it. This frees us to live in grateful obedience, free from the worry that somehow we need to add more to the work accomplished by Christ and the Spirit.

Third, the doctrine of the Trinity offers us the magnificent, counter-cultural claim that divine life consists most fundamentally in interpersonal communion. This One God in three Persons exists in relation to and for the other. At the heart of the universe is not the "will to power" (Nietzsche) but rather "Being-in-Communion" (Zizioulas). In contrast to a Deist or Unitarian theology that tends to view divine life as one of pristine isolation, Trinitarian theology stresses that God's life is one of abundant communion, a kind of fellowship (or koinonia) that overflows to include us.

In sum, God is reliably known in Christ. Grace is sufficient. Communion abounds at the heart of the universe. These claims are so lovely, so musical, and so luminous that not even a lifetime of theological reflection can begin to exhaust them. No wonder Jonathan Edwards simply concluded, "God has appeared glorious to me on account of the Trinity."

Making the Trinitarian Shape of Christian Worship Clear

Yet, this music often falls on deaf ears. Often the doctrine of the Trinity is dismissed as either obtuse or irrelevant. It is viewed as a mathematical puzzle to be solved rather than a pastoral resource for clearing our clouded imaginations. Millions of Christians, even those otherwise committed to orthodox, classical Christian teaching, have never been invited into the riches of Trinitarian worship, Trinitarian thinking, and Trinitarian living.



Also in "Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies" Series

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Gather Into One: Praying and Singing Globally [Paperback] (Jan 2003) $27.72

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