Chapter OneWorship under
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
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
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
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 wordgrace, 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
Toward a Definition
Before pressing on to a definition, it may be worth taking two preliminary