Augustine on Christian Worship

In Book 10 of City of God, Augustine explains what Christianity teaches concerning God that separates it from the more monotheistic Greek philosophies. It serves furthermore as a summary of his theology of worship.

To Him we owe the service which is called in Greek λατρεία, whether we render it outwardly or inwardly; for we are all His temple, each of us severally and all of us together, because He condescends to inhabit each individually and the whole harmonious body, being no greater in all than in each, since He is neither expanded nor divided.  Our heart when it rises to Him is His altar; the priest who intercedes for us is His Only-begotten; we sacrifice to Him bleeding victims when we contend for His truth even unto blood; to Him we offer the sweetest incense when we come before Him burning with holy and pious love; to Him we devote and surrender ourselves and His gifts in us; to Him, by solemn feasts and on appointed days, we consecrate the memory of His benefits, lest through the lapse of time ungrateful oblivion should steal upon us; to Him we offer on the altar of our heart the sacrifice of humility and praise, kindled by the fire of burning love.  It is that we may see Him, so far as He can be seen; it is that we may cleave to Him, that we are cleansed from all stain of sins and evil passions, and are consecrated in His name.  For He is the fountain of our happiness, He the end of all our desires.  Being attached to Him, or rather let me say, re-attached,—for we had detached ourselves and lost hold of Him,—being, I say, re-attached[1] to Him, we tend towards Him by love, that we may rest in Him, and find our blessedness by attaining that end. For our good, about which philosophers have so keenly contended, is nothing else than to be united to God.  It is, if I may say so, by spiritually embracing Him that the intellectual soul is filled and impregnated with true virtues.  We are enjoined to love this good with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength.  To this good we ought to be led by those who love us, and to lead those we love.  Thus are fulfilled those two commandments on which hang all the law and the prophets:  “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy mind, and with all thy soul;” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

[1] Augustine here remarks, in a clause that cannot be given in English, that the word religio is derived from religere, literally “to bind back.”

Published in: on July 14, 2011 at 10:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review – War Against the Idols by Carlos Eire

Carlos Eire’s War Against the Idols is a study of iconoclasm during the Reformation. Its thesis is that the Reformation introduced a new theology of worship and idolatry that led to major sociological shifts. Iconoclasm is the key indicator of the presence of this theology. Thus, much of the Reformation, particularly the Reformed side, can be studied by the spread of iconoclasm, which constitutes a pattern in reforming activity.

Beginning with Erasmus, proceeding through Karlstadt and the Swiss Reformers, and culminating in John Calvin, a theology of worship arose that stressed the necessity for worshiping the spiritual God “in spirit” rather than through material props. Whereas most medieval theologians had considered icons and relics to be physical helps in worship, leading people from the earthly to the heavenly, these reformers argued the opposite. Material things, particularly those not commanded in Scripture, merely distracted the soul and weighed it down. The later critics insisted that any veneration or reverence offered to them is idolatrous. Pure worship must be strictly according to the rule of Scripture and without mediators, save Christ.

Iconoclasm was the primary identifying mark of the Reformed side of the Reformation, distinguishing them from the Lutherans. Eire penetrates through Luther’s rhetoric to identify the theological differences between Luther and Karlstadt, differences that separated Luther from most of the other Reformers. In the Swiss Reformation, cities moving toward Protestantism evidenced similar patterns of reformation, centering on iconoclastic acts. Iconoclasm demonstrated popular support for the Reformation and forced city authorities to consider Protestant claims.

Iconoclasm had far-reaching political consequences. It raised the question of righteous popular rebellion. Eire’s narrative illuminates the central role of the common folk  in pressuring city governments to embrace Protestantism. Snippets of popular pamphlets and records of lay sermons witness the diffusion of Reformed theological principles through farmers and tradesmen. Eventually, the Reformed tradition would engender theories of right resistance, and most of those theories would validate themselves by appealing to God’s authority as overruling earthly powers. All of Eire’s sociological and cultural data is eye-opening, offering a complementary perspective to reformation histories that concentrate on the works of a few theologians.

Nevertheless, there are two serious flaws in Eire’s interpretation. The first is his contention that reformation-era Catholicism was a religion of immanence, whereas the Reformed religion was one of transcendence. Eire uses these terms imprecisely, making them roughly equivalent to “material” and “spiritual.” Yet, this distorts their meaning. As Eire’s own evidence shows, the assumption that God’s power was present in relics and through sacraments did not necessarily furnish Catholics with a feeling of God’s nearness and intimacy. Many laypeople were afraid to take communion, and the mediation of saints could easily make God seem even further away, at the end of a long line of middle men.

Furthermore, the Reformers intended not to make God more distant, but closer. It’s true that they emphasized his spirituality, his radical “otherness” that makes all physical representations inappropriate. Yet, by shifting the channel of grace away from sacramental items and into the worshiper’s own soul, through faith granted directly by the Spirit, they related God to man in the most intimate manner possible. Mediators eliminated, the believer is free to approach God himself. Thus, Eire has at points overestimated the gap between Lutheran and Reformed piety. Both issue from the doctrine of justification, a doctrine of God’s personal favor toward the individual.

Eire’s second flaw is his lopsided portrayal of John Calvin. Now, in general, Eire’s analysis of Calvin’s theology is penetrating. On several issues, he is quite nuanced and sensitive. However, possibly in order to conform Calvin to the ill-conceived immanence/transcendence scheme, he reads Calvin’s theology as if Calvin is arguing for a distant, mysterious, “other” God. This is entirely incorrect. Calvin’s stress on God’s hidden essence is part of his polemic against speculative reason trumping scriptural revelation. Calvin’s God is as imminent as he is transcendent. Providence is his particular care for each individual creation. The pagan might regard God not merely as mighty Lord, but the regenerate believer recognizes him as loving Father also. The believer’s union with Christ by the bond of the Spirit is the most immanent relationship imaginable between God and man. The labels of transcendence and immanent caricature both the Catholic and Reformed positions, and particularly distort Calvin’s theology.

Still, War Against the Idols is a worthwhile and interesting read. Eire’s more narrow analysis is quite judicious, and his assembled facts, sources, and explanations are invaluable. I found the ideological ties between certain reform-minded Catholics and the Reformers particularly enlightening. I highly recommend this book for any interested person who has at least an elementary understanding of the Reformation and its major figures.

To Reading and Reviews

Published in: on February 8, 2011 at 1:29 pm  Comments (9)  
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Review – Covenantal Worship by R. J. Gore

Covenantal Worship: Reconsidering the Puritan Regulative Principle is a historical, biblical, and practical critique of the regulative principle of worship (RPW). Covenantal Worship is a revision of Gore’s doctoral dissertation, adjusted heavily toward a popular audience. Its purpose is to suggest a modified principle for worship that Gore believes is more biblically defensible and practically implementable. He describes his way as a via media between the Puritan way, which almost eliminates adiaphora, and the Anglican way, which gives too much freedom to the Church to prescribe liturgy without reference to Scripture.

The first chapter laments the fragmented nature of current Presbyterian worship and surveys contemporary developments in worship theory. The second chapter provides an uncontroversial definition of the RPW based on an examination of the WCF. After this, the book starts to get interesting. Gore argues that the Directory for Public Worship, a document produced by the Westminster Assembly but lacking binding authority over most Presbyterians, is a compromise document between the Scottish Presybterians, English Puritans and Independents. Thus, Gore concludes that the RPW was ambiguous at its outset, since the Directory treated as circumstances what many Assembly divines considered elements (47). Having asserted some ambiguity in the Westminster documents themselves, Gore turns to Calvin to establish that although Calvin held many theological convictions in common with the Puritans, his own theology of worship recognized much more adiaphora, particularly in which ceremonies and forms may be permissible.

Gore then moves from historical to biblical examination. He examines the hermeneutics of the Puritans on the RPW, concluding that they are rationalistic (privileging the intellectual in worship) and atomistic (individual texts are over-exegeted through “necessary consequence”) in their handling of the text. He alleges as well that they rely too heavily on logic and not enough on redemptive-historical considerations. Indeed, John Owen’s prohibition against the Lord’s Prayer is an example of the Puritans’ disparaging attitude toward previous economies of faith. Gore takes a simple line of argumentation against the RPW: Jesus did not worship according to the RPW. According to Gore, Jesus’ participation in synagogue worship (not explicitly instituted) and voluntary Jewish feasts (not the Mosaic ones) proves the validity of the church instituting practices of worship that are consistent with their covenantal experience yet not commanded either explicitly or implicitly.  The strained efforts of the Puritans to prove these elements were directly divinely instituted only shows the weakness of the system.

Gore at this point begins to construct his alternative principle.  He picks up the NT emphasis on life as worship, noting that life in general is not regulated by such strict principles as the RPW. If Sunday worship is simply an amplification of life worship, we should expect the same principles to govern them both. The power of this argument has lead some proponents of the RPW, such as Michael Bushell, to deny the continuity. Gore also appeals to the contours of the OT law: as the casuistic law of the OT provided guidelines but did not cover every possibility, so the NT provides space for the living application of wisdom rather than the mechanical application of rules.

Gore draws on Cornelius Van Til to establish a four covenantal principles that regulate worship: “(1) vicegerency, (2) self-realization, (3) individualization, and (4) analogical action” (121). Gore’s exposition of these principles concludes, “Worship was never intended to consist in simple conformity to a comprehensive set of guidelines. Even in the Mosaic economy, filled with ceremonial and typical elements, basic to true worship was the exercise of dominion as faithful obedient creatures. Now, in the cultural diversity of the New Testament church, the occasion for exercising such stewardship has vastly increased” (124). Gore exegetes Acts 16:1-3, Acts 21:15-26, Romans 14, and 1 Corinthians 8 to prove that there is in the NT ample room for adiaphora. The Formula of Concord, Belgic Confession, Scots Confession, Second Helvetic Confession and Thirty-Nine Articles echo these sentiments.

Gore then synthesizes his “covenantal principle of worship.” Covenantal worship includes all that is explicitly or implicitly commanded in Scripture, but it also may include that which is warranted by Scripture, a broader category including much adiaphora. Worship is to be simple, orderly, free, God-glorifying, edifying, catholic, culturally-sensitive, balanced and Christ-centered.

I found Covenantal Worship to be both a provocative and enjoyable read. It is also a good example of how a confessional Presbyterian should interact critically with his own tradition. Both Gore’s critiques of the RPW and his suggestions for modification come from within the broader Reformed tradition. His purpose is one with which all confessional Presbyterians can agree, more biblical worship in our current context. On the biblical side, he makes some strong arguments not easily refuted (as he has shown) by proponents of the RPW. His own principle, although somewhat (purposefully) vague, does provide regulation and direct attention to the covenant life of the church.

Given his purpose and presumed target audience, I found several aspects of the book surprising. First, it is both short (about 160 body pages in a smallish paperback) and popular. I suspect that most people who would care enough to pick up a book on this topic are rather well-versed in the topic already. Such a treatment may seem superficial to them. His section on Puritan exegesis may backfire. Most of the proponents of the RPW view the Puritans as pretty much the best theologians who ever lived; they are not likely to take kindly to his remarks. That section was rife with generalization and sparsely exampled. Either providing much more thorough documentation or muting his claims would have been a better route. Finally, his use of Calvin is somewhat suspect. Most of the disagreements he included do not involve elements but forms. The Puritan argument against kneeling, for example, was not that kneeling was not an element, but that kneeling to take the Supper was a form of the element that communicated a message incongruous with a proper ecclesiology. So at least some of the appeal to Calvin loses its force.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book. It is relevant to my context and provoked thought on a number of levels. I would not recommend it as a must-read, but I would include it in a list of materials for someone thinking through the RPW.

Published in: on April 19, 2010 at 10:20 am  Comments (1)  
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