What Liberals Can Teach Us about the Liturgy

CYR_HOW_TO_DISSECT_100For the conservative scholar, modern Biblical studies have been something of a disappointment.  Much of 20th century biblical scholarship was more concerned with what a text didn’t say (how it came into being, which texts were authentic vs. later additions, etc.) than what it did say.  Instead of accepting the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and moving on, every student of Biblical studies since the time of Wellhausen has been burdened with the task of learning about the alleged “sources” behind each portion of the Pentateuch (J, E, D, or P).  Obsessed with dissecting biblical texts, modern biblical scholarship has by in large neglected the meaning and relevance of Scripture for the Church today.

One book that has frustrated efforts to “get behind” the text is the book of Joel.  Joel’s lack of historical particulars make it difficult for scholars to determine the prophet’s historical situation.  But, as Hummel says, “Where facts are lacking, theories and presuppositions rush in to fill the gap.”[1]  One such theory is that Joel was a cultic prophet who was heavily influenced by Canaanite religion, whose theology displays elements of syncretism between Baalism and Yahwism.[2]

While such an interpretation would undermine the very message of Joel itself, many scholars acknowledge that Joel may have been composed for liturgical use.  It is thought that Joel is so impersonal, so non-specific to any one time or place, that his book must be liturgical (the same is often said of the Psalms).  Hummel observes that Joel’s lack of historical particulars makes him “more readily accessible in Word and Sacrament to later generations than many other pericopes where the historical “accidents” initially get in the way and often obscure the eternal message for hasty readers.”[3]  John Barton writes, “liturgical texts are essentially impersonal, stylized, multi-purpose texts, reusable on many similar or even regularly recurring occasions.”[4]

While there isn’t much that is useful for preaching and teaching to be found in modern biblical scholarship, it is striking that even the most liberal of scholars recognize the universal, timeless quality of liturgy.  The more specific and relevant a liturgy is to one place and time, the less so it will be in another.  Since Christian worship is a communal activity (Acts 20:28; 1 Corinthians 11:20, 33; Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 4—5), liturgical continuity is certainly desirable, even if the particulars may vary from place to place.

The church’s historic liturgy, following this biblical precedent, has typically expressed a preference for the general over the specific so as to be relevant for the Church in all times and places.  The over-emphasis on culturally-relevant expressions of faith (often seen in modern liturgies) runs directly contrary to this, which perpetuates an individualistic, disposable attitude toward worship.  What worked last week or last month is seen as obsolete.  Creativity and novelty, which are necessary for achieving the next spiritual high, are seen as essential for true spirituality.  Repeating the same old words week after week is considered the best way to ensure a dead, lifeless faith.  But following the example of Scripture, a truly missional approach to worship does not lust for cultural novelties, but instead sets before us the timeless pattern of sound words (2 Timothy 1:13).

UntitledThe Kyrie (“Lord, have mercy”), for example, is general enough to be adapted to a variety of circumstances.  Despite the unique needs of every generation, the Church has found it useful to pray this same biblical prayer throughout the ages.  As a prayer for peace (peace being the fruit of mercy), individual Christians even within a single congregation can pray the Kyrie with a variety of needs in mind.  The Kyrie’s utility can be seen within Scripture itself: parents of demon possessed children and blind men alike (Matthew 15:22, 17:15, 20:30—31) all appealed to Jesus with the same cry, despite their unique needs: “Lord, have mercy!”

Like the Word of God, Christian liturgy has a timeless quality.  Nations rise and fall, trends come and go, but the Word of God endures forever.  A fixed liturgy serves as a type of anchor for our faith from generation to generation as we weather the storms of life.  While it is not possible (or even desirable) to rid the liturgy of every cultural distinctive (e.g., language, tonality), Christian liturgy will always invite a common participation between heaven and earth in the Church’s eternal Te Deum.


[1] Hummel, The Word Becoming Flesh, 299.

[2] Kapelrud & Ahlström are representative of this approach; see Hummel, The Word Becoming Flesh (302), and Garrett’s comments on the cultic interpretation of Joel in The New American Commentary: Hosea, Joel (297).

[3] Hummel, 303.

[4] Barton, Reading the Old Testament, 39.

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