Book Review

"Worship and the Reality of God: An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence" by John Jefferson Davis

Jon D. Payne
John Jefferson Davis
Thursday, June 30th 2011
Jul/Aug 2011

In general, American evan- gelicals have lost a true sense of the holiness, transcendence, and majesty of God. This is due in large part to a philosophy of public worship that appears to be focused more upon the presence of felt needs than upon the presence of God’and his divinely appointed means of grace. In an effort to reach the unchurched, well-intentioned church leaders design worship services that are informal, loud, amusing, chatty, and culturally hip. But can this trendy style of worship possibly communicate the awesome and weighty reality of the nature and redemptive work of the Triune God? In other words, have recent trends in worship placed more emphasis upon the temporal realities of this "present evil age" than upon the eternal realities of God, redemption, and the glorious age to come? In his book, Worship and the Reality of God, John Jefferson Davis helpfully addresses these and other important questions in relation to the gathered worship of God's people.

In his opening chapter, Davis writes that in order to remedy the evangelical church's shallow view of worship’what he playfully calls "worshedutainment"’the church needs a "new ontological framework" (33). Davis explains that there are "three ontologies that are competing for shelf space in the Christian mind today." These are "scientific materialism (the ontology of modernity)…digital virtualism (the ontology of postmodernity)…and trinitarian supernaturalism (the ontology of eternity)" (21). The first, scientific materialism, "is the ontology of the atheistic and materialistic side of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment" (21). Concerning digital virtualism, Davis explains that a person wrapped up in modern technology may "go for days at a time not noticing the natural world, since both one's job and one's leisure-time entertainment revolve around the center of socially constructed images, services and experiences that are the basis of the digital and information age economies" (22). Like the framework of scientific materialism, digital virtualism "places the autonomous self at the center of its universe of meanings" (22). Davis shows how these two secular constructs of reality can potentially shape the way undiscerning Christians think’and worship.

Profoundly different from the first two ontologies, trinitarian supernaturalism "places the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, at the center of the universe as the ultimately and eternally real. The triune God is the central reality around which the secondary and tertiary realities of nature and virtual simulations revolve" (24). Looking through the lens of trinitarian supernaturalism, Christians will view God’ along with other presently unseen eternal realities (e.g., souls, salvation, angels, Satan, judgment, heaven, and hell)’to be of more ontological weight and consequence than the trappings of this passing age (2 Cor. 4:18; 1 Cor. 7:31). Recovering this distinctively Christian ontological framework will help to restore gravitas to Christian worship. Davis rightly states that "a renewal of worship will require a deeper theology of worship, which in turn rests on a better ontology of God, of the church, and of the self" (33).

Particularly helpful in chapter two is Davis's discussion of the "personal presence of God in the ecclesia, by virtue of his covenant promises, his Word, sacraments and Spirit," thus giving the church an "ontic weight" that is not found in mere "human organizations" (63). I would assume this includes parachurch organizations. This "ontically weighty ecclesiology" is undergirded by a "high Christology" (64). According to Davis, Christians should have a high view of the church and of her worship because Christ, the head of the church, is high and lifted up’seated at the right hand of God with all authority (Matt. 28:18). A certain gravitas, mysterium tremendum, and joyful reverence adorn Christian worship when we understand that Almighty God, through the mediation of his exalted Son and the power of the Holy Spirit, meets with his covenant people through the efficacious means of Word and Sacrament. Davis explains that God is present with his people in worship in an uncommon way’that is, different from how he is ontologically present at the kids' soccer game or at the office. Worship on the Lord's Day is, indeed, different from worship in all of life. God himself designed it to be so. Is this not the pattern we see in both the Old and the New Testaments (e.g., Exod. 19; Acts 2:42-43; 1 Cor. 1:18-31; 11:17-34)?

Worship, therefore, is meant to be no less than the salvific in-breaking of the greater eternal realities into our lesser temporal realities through the proclamation of the gospel. Sadly, it is the lesser temporal realities that have taken center stage (pun intended) in many of our congregations, leaving God's people in an ongoing state of self-absorption and spiritual adolescence. Davis comments:

It is essential, then, for the people of the ecclesia to have an ontology of the church "from above," constituted by an awareness and recognition of its theanthropic, trinitarian and pneumatic character, rather than an ontology of the church "from below," driven by functional, empirical and pragmatic categories, all of which are prone to be held captive by the impoverished doxological imagination of modernity and its consumerist and entertainment-driven concerns. (65)

In chapters three and four, Davis reflects upon the impoverished state of worship and liturgy in traditional as well as in contemporary camps. He assigns part of the blame to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century iconoclasm, stating that the Protestant Reformers and Puritans were, perhaps, overzealous in their logocentricity (59, 80, 91). Davis thinks the church needs to recover a kind of medieval "doxological imagination" that encourages the use of the "visual arts as an enhancement to [the] word-oriented traditions" (91, 59). Here he reveals his Episcopal stripes (113), differing with the Reformed understanding of both the Regulative Principle of Worship and the sufficiency of Scripture. In fact, after reading Davis's book, someone with Reformed convictions might wonder how a recovery of biblical worship is really possible if churches are free to worship in ways not prescribed in Scripture. Where are the lines to be drawn? Who determines what constitutes biblical worship? How can a normative principle of worship properly guard worship from the "imaginations and devices of men" (WCF 21.1)?

Most Reformed readers will disagree with Davis's anomalous views on theistic evolution (49-51, 65), noncessationist pneumatology (30-31, 179), and the liturgical use of symbols, images, and visual arts (59). Moreover, his lack of emphasis on the centrality and efficacy of exegetical, expository preaching will raise some eyebrows. Nevertheless, the book is teeming with brilliant and highly beneficial cultural, philosophical, and theological insights. It is truly a profitable, groundbreaking addition to the so-called worship wars debate, and thus should be read by all who long to see the recovery of God-centered worship.

Thursday, June 30th 2011

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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