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.


What Liberals Can Teach Us about the Liturgy — 10 Comments

  1. @Timothy #1
    It’s interesting that you would spot a grammatical error. It’s probably not surprising that a person on BJS who would read an essay on the liturgy would be a stickler for correct usage of our language.:)

    By the way Pastor Andersen, excellent work regarding the liturgy and how it is perceived today.

  2. Repeating the same old words week after week is considered the best way to ensure a dead, lifeless faith.

    I haven’t needed a hymnal for over 20 years, having pretty much memorized the services through repetition (why hymnal changes should be few and carefully considered). I just need the bulletin for the readings and the various stuff particular for the day. Yes my mind wanders occasionally – a problem given the modern ability to multitask your brain – but in the main, since I don’t need to read and follow along I can actually think about what I’m saying and singing. In his “Letters to Malcolm” C. S. Lewis talks about non-verbal prayer, knowing the liturgy comes close to that.

  3. @Paul of Alexandria #4
    Repeating the same old words week after week is considered the best way to ensure a dead, lifeless faith.

    Or perhaps it is the only way to insure that a faith will live through persecution. Witness USSR, which scorned Christianity/murdered Christians for 70 years, only to have it grow up again from roots long buried, when the pressure was off.

  4. @Paul of Alexandria #4
    Using fixed liturgy also allows my wife to participate, who has her hands full with three children in the pews. It also allows my children to participate (the oldest is just learning to read but already knows the liturgy). It also allows the elderly to continue to participate, even when their vision begins to fail them. I’ve also had the privilege of singing the liturgy with members on their deathbed. Drawing on that pattern of sound words learned and repeated over the course of a lifetime is comforting beyond words.

  5. “…it is striking that even the most liberal of scholars recognize the universal, timeless quality of liturgy.” When in the ELCA, I heard a lot about the Liturgy as “ritual”, ad nauseum, and that “rituals” are universal. In a conversation with Pr. Lou Smith of blessed memory, regarding the important liturgical scholar Gordon Lathrop, Lou commented:”Lathrop is more concerned about anthropology than theology regarding liturgy”. Or something to that effect. Liberal scholars recognize the universality and timelessness of liturgy according to sociology and not according the one, true God, the Holy Trinity in His Word and this is the way liberal scholars recognize liturgy. I think this is why so many liberal pastors eagerly embrace liturgy. I know I am overstating the case but maybe not that much. I went to a Native American pow-wow. It started with preliminary rite of cleansing the sacred circle with incense. So incense is a universal rite and so the Church uses it. If I taught this, I would receive appreciative nods; but we use it because it was used in the Temple and in the Book of Revelation. It is not used as cleansing but as worship, a symbol of prayer: Psalm 141: 2. I appreciate your effort to find a shard of true meaning in a liberal scholar and even more I appreciate another catechesis on the catechesis Liturgy gives along with true worship.

  6. @Pr. Mark Schroeder #7
    There is another issue with liberals liking the liturgy, and it also applies to liking work for human needs–the work of mercy. In both cases, these are things that can be focussed on, beautified, and clung to when there is not all that much substantial doctrine left, or when disagreements about doctrine are so stark that these practices are all that can be agreed on. Clearly that is no indictment of liturgy or mercy–far from it! But it does demonstate that the retention of the historic Christian liturgy or the feeding and clothing of those in need in and of themselves do not demonstrate unity of Faith.

  7. @Carol Broome #8 On that score, it became commonplace in the ELCA to define liturgy’s etymology as the “work of the people”, again the emphasis on us not the Lord and His work. I heard this from laity as well. It came as quite an eye-opener when I reread the Apology of the Augsburg Confession that the correct etymology of “liturgy”, Greek, leitourgia is provided by Melanchthon correctly as “public goods” “…thus the verb means to care for or to administer public goods” (Article XXIV, The Mass), that is the Lord’s public goods, not ours! It is not what we offer (“sacrifice”) but what He gives us.

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