Chapter OneFORMAL-LITURGICAL WORSHIP
Paul F. M. Zahl
It was during Dr. Bedell's ministry and well into the
1860s that the Church of the Ascension was called the
"Low Church Cathedral," because, while its pulpit
stood for a broad evangelical Christianity, it was marked
by unusual fondness for good music and for a dignified
-James W. Kennedy, The Unknown Worshipper
I believe in Bible-based verticality, which is another way of
saying formal-liturgical worship. There is nothing like it for taking
you outside your problems and also bringing you back to
them a renewed person, better able to cope and to endure. Bible-based
verticality is a glorious thing. This chapter seeks to offer
its principles, its roots, and its virtues. It also seeks to parry some
familiar objections to it.
Formal worship means dignified service that is not governed
by the spontaneity of the moment or the spontaneity of
the officiant. It means service in a form, within a mold. It is not
off the cuff or as mood would govern. Rather, it accepts the constraint
of a consistent and predictable pattern.
Liturgical worship means prescribed worship, service that
is required for a given occasion. So if it is Sunday, you have a
required act of worship for that day. If a baptism is to take place
or the sacrament of Holy Communion is to be celebrated, you
conduct the service according to a previously set format. You do
not make it up as you go along.
Thus, for example, Episcopal ministers and most Lutheran
pastors approach Sunday without giving particular thought to
the shape of the service itself. It is formal (i.e., in the form given
in a prayer book) and it is liturgical (i.e., set, depending on
whether the service is to be one of the two sacraments or
whether it is to be Morning Prayer, a service purely of the
Word). There is freedom in worship within a form, just as J. S.
Bach worked within specific musical forms like the cantata and
the Mass, just as Shakespeare worked within the sonnet and
Giovanni Bellini within the sacra conversazione and the triptych.
Form is able, somewhat counterintuitively, to stimulate fineness
and quality, even innovation and renewal, in the context of traditional
At the same time, formal-liturgical worship rules out the
approach that makes it up as you go along. It is true to say that
a high percentage of nonliturgical, nonformal churches ad-lib
from Sunday to Sunday. You are not able to know from week
to week whether it is going to be a mother-daughter service, a
stewardship service, an evangelistic guest service, a youth Sunday,
or a Scouting Sunday. F. Scott Fitzgerald was not the first
American novelist to write about Americans reinventing themselves.
But thousands of churches reinvent the service, or
appear to, every Sunday. That, at least, is one burden this
writer, as a minister of a liturgical denomination, does not
We are concerned here with formal and liturgical worship.
We are thereby also concerned with vertical worship. Vertical
worship looks up first, before it looks out. It is transcendent
before it is horizontal. It is faced north before it looks around.
This means that it is not pastor- or preacher-centered. It is, or
ought to be, Word-centered. It is not "man/woman"-centered,
nor is it concerned, in the initial situation, with community. It
does, almost always, engender family feeling. The worship of
which I speak is, to use the expressive German, senkrecht nach
oben: straight up and down, looking right up.
The first principles, then, of formal-liturgical worship are
its setness, its givenness, and its direction. It is not informal, it
is not nonliturgical, and it is not horizontal. Nor, however, is it
cold. Nor is it confining. Nor is it excluding, or non-user-friendly.
How can this be?
LEX CREDENDI LEX ORANDI
Formal-liturgical worship must be based on the truth if it
is to endure. In fact, if it is not based on the truth, it will finally
fall down in pieces on the ground. If vertical worship is not
rooted and grounded in truth, specifically Bible truth, then it
should not stand. It should "morph" into casual and horizontal
worship. The reason why many evangelical and/or Protestant
Christians have rejected liturgical worship over the centuries is
that they have associated dignity and formality with unbiblical
Roman Catholicism or Anglican Catholicism or just high
churchianity that seemed to exist at the expense of Christianity.
The Latin phrase that covers the philosophy of worship I
am presenting here is this: lex credendi lex orandi. That means:
What we believe determines how we pray. Quite a few liturgical
scholars and theologians today want to reverse the order and
write: lex orandi lex credendi, or how we pray (i.e., worship) determines
what we believe. There are even some writers who claim
that our belief systems come after and follow from our language
of praise, whatever that is. This is an entirely opportunistic view
of worship, which subordinates truth to practice. Lex orandi lex
credendi must be completely rejected.
For Anglicans-yet it is important for all Christians who
value forms of worship-the lex orandi lex credendi falsehood goes
back to a "power play" in the 1970s by which the Reformation
anthropology and Reformation Christology of the old sixteenth-century
Anglican prayer book were muted drastically in favor of
a more contemporary picture of the Christian faith and the
human condition. Anew and very different prayer book was the
result for American Episcopalians. As soon as this prayer book
was passed by the Episcopal Church's General Convention
(1979), everyone could announce with authority that the prayer
book teaches thus and so. But which prayer book? By whose
authority? The new one, just achieved? Or the old one, so convincingly
and pastorally tested from the 1540s up until the 1970s?
And yes, it has come true in experience that twenty-five years of
praying the Christian faith in new words and new forms has created
a very different church. Those liturgical politicians who
piloted the fundamental changes in the 1970s could now observe
by the 1990s, with some sad justice: lex orandi lex credendi. It was
a self-fulfilling prophecy. Church people who now prayed Sunday
after Sunday without the old confessions and penitential
prayers became, well, a lot less penitential.
The fact is, theology has to precede the act of worship. You
pray what you believe, not vice versa. It is an axiom here-it has
to be an axiom in this consideration of formal-liturgical worship-that
truth grounds prayer, not the other way around.
Right thinking about God, Christ, and the condition of the
human race is essential in forming and creating worship. "The
hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship
the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to
worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must
worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:23-24).
What is right thinking about worship? For an evangelical
Christian, there can be only one answer. It is Bible-truthful worship.Sola scriptura is the objective measuring stick for the propriety
of all prayer, be it adoration, thanksgiving, confession, or
repentance. If adjectives used to describe God are not in the Bible
or they are inconsistent with Bible attitudes, then they are out.
If Jesus Christ is described or portrayed as a woman-although
he was tender and solicitous and generative of all good-then
those terms are out. Services of blessing for same-sex unions are
out. Blessings of the animals, which are still the rage in some
mainline circles, are out unless they are shorn of ideas that put
animal life on terms of equivalent status with human life.
Right (Bible) thoughts of God, right (Bible) thoughts of
Christ, right (Bible) thoughts of the human being-these must
confirm the value of all formal liturgy. Where liturgies cannot
pass Bible scrutiny, they are worthless and worse than useless.
Here it could be objected that Bible truth is a Noah's Ark
concept, which itself covers a multitude of potentially conflicting
possibilities. How can one know what Bible truth is when
there is evidently more than one "canon within the canon,"
when it is possible, for example, in the New Testament to find
evidence of catholic ideas of ministry right next to charismatic
views right next to paedobaptist views right next to free-church
views and so forth?
Objectors who say this usually have their own agenda and
are pumping for a special view that is found in one or two specific
phrases or verses. We ought to subscribe to Luther's maxim
on the understandability (what he called the "perspicuity") of
the Bible: If you come upon a verse in Scripture that is inconsistent
with others on the same subject, always interpret the exceptional
verse in light of the more common ones. In other words,
always interpret a hard verse in light of easier ones.
When you take Luther's commonsense rule of interpretation,
you almost always find that the Bible as a whole is univocal
on the big issues: God, Christ, and sin. God is unapproachable
and perfect, Christ is his unique Word to us, and human nature is
irreducibly flawed, double minded, and deceived about itself.
On those three core truths hangs everything else. Thus formal-liturgical
worship depends on its fidelity to the Bible understanding
of God, Christ, and us. No evangelical Christian can be
comfortable with set worship that exists in forms unless those
forms are true in principle to the Book.
THE HOLY COMMUNION AS APPLE OF DISCORD
A further, very important element in the Bible-truth foundation
for Christian worship concerns the Lord's Supper or Holy
Communion, sometimes called the Eucharist. When a worshiping
community holds unbiblical ideas of the Holy Communion,
which is regarded by almost all Christian traditions as the most
solemn act of worship, attempts to represent formal-liturgical
worship lead to shipwreck.
To be specific, if the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper
are considered to represent God's presence objectively, or tangibly
and corporeally, then worship is due them. With that understanding,
the ministers of the celebration are charged with a
specialness over and above their status as Christian people, a
specialness that they would otherwise share in principle with all
whom they serve or with all who are present during their act of
worship. The pendant to this high or catholic view of the Holy
Communion is a high and catholic view of the priesthood.
Conversely, when the Sacrament is viewed as a sign or symbol
of that which it represents, then the minister of the altar
becomes a presiding elder or "president" (per Church of England
parlance). The doctrine of the Body and Blood is the star, the
ascent or descent of which determines the status of the ordained
ministry. The higher the status of the elements, the higher the status
of the clergy. Theater and theatricality follow. It is exactly such
theater, or the presentation of surface for its own sake, that Bible
Is it possible in anything like a few sentences to settle the
question of what constitutes the Bible truth of the Holy Communion?
No. It was the apple of discord during the Protestant Reformation,
and since then there has never been consensus among
Christians concerning the theology of the Holy Communion.
What I believe we can say is this: Jesus instituted a commemorative
meal, which was to become proclamatory in the
now and not a dramatic reenactment of a past crisis. St. Paul
affirmed that the enacted meal would always "proclaim the
Lord's death until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26). At the same
time, John 6 interprets the presence of Christ through the bread
and wine in graphic and nonmetaphysical terms. Biblical realism
requires that we take the Lord's words seriously: "This is
my body"-both the verb and its present tense. And yet we are
also warned stringently in Scripture against taking the symbol
for what it represents (Acts 7:48) and thus laying hold of God
and capturing him. God will not be had or held.
All this means that we steer, in matters of the Sacrament,
between the Scylla of pure memorialism and the Charybdis of
transubstantiation. All the Protestant churches of the Reformation
retained formal-liturgical worship, officially at least, and all
the Reformation churches without exception rejected transubstantiation.
What is required is unconditional reverence for that
which the Supper represents and for that which it continues to
proclaim. Yet the sign is not the thing signified. The thing signified
is spiritual, invisible, and intangible, even elusive. It cannot
be pinned down. If it is to be objectified in any form of any kind,
it can be discovered in the preaching of the one thing, the recreating
forgiveness of sins through the God-man Christ Jesus.
That Word gives life to the Sacrament. Without the Word of the
Gospel, the Sacrament is sterile and entirely empty.