"Worship by the Book" edited by D.A. Carson

Gillis Harp
Wednesday, May 30th 2007
Jul/Aug 2003

Amid the growing number of popular works on worship (many of uneven quality), New Testament scholar D. A. Carson has edited a volume that is both theological and practical. The book contains engaging essays on worship from representatives of three distinct Protestant traditions (Anglican, Free Church, and Presbyterian/Reformed) prefaced by a theological introduction that examines the Bible's treatment of worship.

Carson begins by noting the unfortunate polarization that has emerged in the "worship wars" affecting many Protestant congregations in recent years. "The widespread confusion is punctuated," Carson observes, "by strongly held and sometimes mutually exclusive theological stances that make attempts to construct a biblical theology of worship a pastorally sensitive enterprise…. 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" (13-14). A good starting point is to settle on a clear definition of worship, working from the distinctive perspectives afforded by both systematic theology and biblical theology. After reviewing some of the more recent literature on worship, Carson offers a detailed definition that includes the following: "Worship is the proper response of all moral, sentient beings to God, ascribing all honor and worth to their Creator-God….Such worship therefore manifests itself both in adoration and in action, both in the individual believer and in corporate worship, which is worship offered up in the context of the body of believers …"(26 emphasis in the original). Much of the rest of Carson's introduction is an exposition of the different points raised in his comprehensive definition. While he agrees that the New Testament radically expands the meaning of worship to embrace all of life lived coram Deo, Carson stresses that corporate praise and adoration should not be discarded by Christians (as some have recently argued). "What remains constant," across the testaments he explains, "is the sheer God-centeredness of it all" (41). Although one can garner a list of essential elements of corporate worship from the New Testament (which would include the reading of Scripture, prayer, praise, etc.), there is no prescribed order for or arrangement of these elements.

The first of the three practical essays that follow Carson's introduction is by an English Anglican rector, Mark Ashton. He examines Cranmer's liturgical work highlighting three underlying principles that distinguished it, namely, its biblical thrust, its accessibility, and its balance. The author notes how Anglican liturgical revision in the twentieth century has not always adhered to Cranmer's approach. His suggestions for ordering Sunday worship stress the importance of edifying believers and evangelizing visiting nonbelievers. The second essay by Congregationalist R. Kent Hughes surveys how the Puritan critique of the Book of Common Prayer initially shaped Free Church approaches to worship and also how the last two centuries have witnessed what Hughes aptly terms a "free-fall to pragmatism" (147). By focusing on evangelism alone, the Sunday service in many Free Church congregations became simply an evangelistic lecture and many evangelicals accordingly became disconnected from centuries of Christian practice. The last essay, by Presbyterian pastor Tim Keller, addresses the unique problems of worship in a multicultural urban setting. Keller argues that Calvin's understanding of corporate worship can be very helpful in addressing our current confusion. Calvin's approach evinces three "salient traits": simplicity, transcendence, and a distinctive order that reflects a kind of "Gospel reenactment" (208, 214). All three essays conclude with outlines of actual services designed to reflect the formative principles they discuss.

Although Worship by the Book has much to recommend it (Carson's thorough and balanced introduction is particularly good), some of the arguments advanced in the three essays are unpersuasive. At least two of the three essayists argue that one of the most important functions of Sunday corporate worship is evangelism. Ashton declares that "the twin New Testament aims for the Christian meeting" are "edification and evangelism" (85). The biblical warrant for this assertion appears to be 1 Corinthians 14:23-25 and Acts 2:5-12. Keller, for example, contends that "these two case studies show that nonbelievers are expected in gathered worship, that nonbelievers should find the worship comprehensible … and that nonbelievers may be convicted and converted through corporate worship" (218). Yet these two brief passages represent an inadequate basis for general arguments about gathered worship. Neither case is presented in the New Testament as a prescriptive example. The passage in Acts relates the extraordinary events of Pentecost; in the other, the Apostle Paul is concerned about Christians in their assemblies doing things that are intelligible to the occasional "outsider" who may drop by. Yet, as F. W. Grosheide notes in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Paul is simply dealing here "with hypothetical cases in his concern to show the greater worth of prophecy [i.e., reading Scripture and preaching in today's context]" (333). Corporate worship on the first day of the week in Scripture is primarily a gathering of the saints. Obviously one should take care to make the service accessible to visitors (and this has not always been done) but orienting much of Sunday worship around the needs of nonbelievers lacks biblical justification. (Ironically, Ashton actually invokes this evangelistic concern to argue against the biblical pattern of weekly communion. Since communion isn't for non-Christians then the Sacrament should not be administered frequently. Others might suggest that such a situation called instead for stricter communion discipline.)

Another more general problem with the essays is their lack of grounding in their ecclesiastical or confessional traditions (this is particularly the case with Ashton's contribution). It is lamentable that the Book of Common Prayer has become for many little more than a liturgical "resource" to be dismantled by well-meaning worship committees. The author admires Cranmer's robust biblical critique of medieval Catholic teaching (as does this reviewer) but he apparently feels Cranmer didn't go nearly far enough. In his eagerness to expunge anything even remotely suggestive of Roman Catholic teaching, Ashton advocates lay presidency at the Lord's Supper and criticizes congregations that regard "the administration [of the sacrament] . . . as a particularly holy or edifying moment in the service" (104). Such an oppositional approach can produce unscriptural results, as when Ashton has his entire congregation recite together the dominical words of institution ("This is my body, etc.") in one of his model communion services in order "to avoid suggesting that the leader is a 'priest' who turns the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ by his words" (117). Despite their vehement rejection of transubstantiation and sacerdotalism of any kind, neither Calvin nor Cranmer found it necessary to discard what Jesus modeled in the Last Supper.

The three essays evidence an individualistic ecclesiology where every man is his own liturgist and confessional standards are worn rather lightly (reminiscent of Judg. 21:25). Keller does identify the way forward correctly: "I believe the solution to the problem of the 'worship wars' is neither to reject nor enshrine historic tradition but to forge new forms of corporate worship that take seriously both our histories and contemporary realities, all within a framework of biblical theology" (198). "Enshrining" the past (be it the Reformation past or that of the early church) is obviously not the solution but greater respect for and respectful engagement with confessional traditions and with the historical witness of the church catholic is sorely needed. Such an approach need not degenerate into mere traditionalism or antiquarianism. Parts of these essays contain sound and helpful counsel in designing corporate worship that reflects biblical principles but the design-your-own approach they assume has surely not served confessional Protestantism well in the past two hundred years.

Wednesday, May 30th 2007

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

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