THE GOD WE WORSHIP: An Exploration of Liturgical Theology (Kantzer Lectures in Revealed Theology). By Nicholas Wolterstorff. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015. Xi + 180 pages.
Theology asks the question: Who is God? Liturgical theology asks the question who is the God confessed and celebrated in the liturgy? That is, how did the creators of the liturgy understand God as they laid out that liturgy? Yale philosophical theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff has written an important book that seeks to make explicit what is implicit in the liturgy. Liturgical theology is different from other forms of theology in that it focuses its attention on lived experience of worship. It is a corporate theology that influences communities of faith as they seek to live out the Christian life. This is a form of what Wolterstorff calls “church-reflexive” theology. It overlaps other forms of theology, but it is undertaken for very different reasons, reasons that are important to the life of the church.
As a pastor I am charged with helping create and lead worship. My current tradition is part of the free church movement. We have Reformed roots, but we don’t have prescribed liturgies. That makes doing liturgical theology somewhat difficult. That may explain why the author focuses his attention on Anglican and Orthodox liturgies, along with more formal Reformed liturgies. In trying to define liturgy, Wolterstorff writes that “Christian worship is liturgical when it is—to repeat—the scripted performance of acts of worship” (p. 8). Liturgy is, he insists the actualization of the church, and it is the church who enact liturgy (not clergy). As the church enacts its liturgy it expresses a particular of God, a vision of God that is usually implicit. The author wants to make that theology explicit. Wolterstorff’s project exists on four levels. First it examines the view of God that is “implicit in the liturgy as a whole.” Second, it looks at the understanding of God that is “implicit in the various types of liturgical acts.” Thus it starts with the big picture and then moves deeper into the details. From the general description he moves to the view of God “implicit in particular liturgical actions” such as praise of God, blessing of God, intercession, and more. Finally, he wants us to understand how God is understood in terms of the “sequence of liturgical actions.” The book focuses primarily on the final two levels—liturgical actions such as preaching and the Eucharist—and the order in which these actions are set out.
At the core of this discussion is the recognition that in the liturgy God is understood to both listen and speak. God listens to our prayers and to our songs, but God also speaks through the reading of Scripture and preaching, greetings and benedictions. These conversations are engaged with under the assumption that God is worthy of worship and expects our worship. He goes as far as to suggest that this expectation makes God vulnerable to us. Liturgy and worship help orient us toward God. It invites us to specifically face God and speak to God as well as listen to God. Worship involves adoration and praise. We have a duty, Wolterstorff declares to offer God thanksgiving. Consider the command of Jesus to love God with our entire being. Love involves obligation to God. And when we do not fulfill this obligation God is wronged, and therefore injured. This vulnerability is important because it serves to remind us that worship is an expression of relationship with God. God is not impassive and immutable, unable to respond to our prayers. Therefore we can assume that when we pray, God is listening and will respond favorably.
In looking at liturgical theology and the vision of God expressed in worship, Wolterstorff is keen on reminding us that worship involves mutual address. We addresses God and God addresses us. While not every liturgical action is part of this mutual address, most are. God speaks and listens. In fact, Wolterstorff is extremely interested in the premise that God listens and that God will respond favorably to our address. With that in mind he also notes that the liturgy isn’t a tool by which we can manipulate God. God is free to respond as God desires (or not respond). The reason why God might not respond is not that the liturgy is deficient, but that the behavior of the worshipers outside of worship is deviant. Central to God’s desire to hear from us is the content of our prayers, and Wolterstorff writes that “all our petitions should be understood as having, as their overarching context, our prayer for the coming of God’s kingdom.” Going deeper, he notes that when we ask God to accept our prayers, we are asking God to accept our concrete longing for the coming of God’s kingdom” (p. 123). Thus, in worship we are aligning ourselves with God’s vision of the kingdom.
At the same time, God is understood to speak to us in worship—most especially in the reading of scripture, in the prophetic proclamation of the word preached, and finally in such moments that he terms clerical when a greeting is offered, along with absolution (response to confession), and the blessing. Worship involves God listening, but God most assuredly speaks to the worshiper. Reading of Scripture is one of those ways, but so is preaching. Wolterstorff reminds us of John Calvin’s affirmation that the preacher is God’s deputy, offering a word for God. He also notes that Karl Barth was not quite as sure that the sermon delivered the Word of God as Calvin, suggesting that the Word is Christ and it is as witness that Scripture and sermon address Christ. Asking whether Calvin or Barth is correct, he leans in Calvin’s direction, but finds Barth’s warnings important and embraces a point that Barth himself makes, that God always has something specific to say to us.
This leads us to the Eucharist, where he sees the mutual address occurring not only in word but in action. Once again we are asked to discern how our view of God is implicit in the liturgy, so that it can be made explicit. He explores the elements of the Eucharistic liturgy, including the act of remembrance (anamnesis) and the act of receiving/ the elements. These elements are given for you, which the worshiper is intended to partake of. He writes:
The presider’s actions of offering bread and wine to the recipients signifies (represents) Christ’s offering them his body and blood, and their receiving and ingesting the bread and wine signifies (represents their receiving and partaking of Christ’s body and blood. (p. 150).
As Wolterstorff understands the Eucharist, it is the point at which the worshiper receives Christ into one’s self.
Central to this work of liturgical theology that Wolterstorff undertakes is the assumption that the liturgy is an intentional place where mutual address occurs between God and God’s people. He chose to focus on more formal liturgies, including those from the Episcopal, Reformed, and Orthodox traditions because they are relatively standardized (as opposed to the free church forms of my own tradition). His goal is to make the vision of God that is implicit in the liturgy explicit. He suggests that this is akin to what Alexander Schmemann calls decoding the theological code embedded in the liturgy. By looking at the way God is envisioned, especially the assumption present in the liturgy that God is both speaking (through scripture, preaching, etc.) and listening (prayers and hymns) -- with the Eucharist being that point where both speech and listening occur -- we begin to discover a new vision of theology. What is interesting here is to that while Wolterstorff is a Reformed philosophical theologian with an affinity for Calvin, is that he recognizes that the idea of immutability of God is seriously challenged by the theology present in the liturgy. The God revealed in the liturgy is responsive and even vulnerable. Liturgical theology is therefore an expression of what he calls church-reflexive theology. The liturgy may reveal something about God we might not have been aware of as we read Scripture and do constructive theology.
While this can be a rather dense book at times (Wolterstorff is after all a philosopher), as I moved toward the end I began to see how things fit together and why this book can have a profound effect on our conversations about worship in the 21st century. Perhaps I am drawn to it because I tend toward a more high church view of liturgy and worship, even as I serve in a free church/low church denomination. I believe that our worship should be theologically informed and that it should reflect our vision of God. Therefore, our liturgies can’t be developed haphazardly, but that the whole of the liturgy should be integrated and connected with how we understand God. In other words, worship isn’t a religious concert. So, if you're interested in discerning the theology present implicitly in the liturgy so that you can tease the explicit theology, then I think you will find this book to be extremely helpful and worth reading closely.