An Evangelical and Catholic Methodology
by Robert E. Webber
A Historical Approach To Liturgics and Worship
As one who does historical theology, I believe evangelicals who commit themselves to Scripture as the ultimate authority in faith and practice cannot afford to separate Scripture from the whole circle of theological concerns and the history of the church of which it is a part. The Bible does not stand alone. It is not a book of rational propositions which can be scientifically analyzed and systematized into a universally accepted textbook of theology. It is a dynamic book related to specific historic events, characterized by a central religious message, and, although divine in nature, the product of circumstances with a human side. Further, it belongs to the church as its unique possession and ought not to be interpreted today apart from the experience given to it in the history of the church's liturgy, creeds, confessions, interpretation, and the common faith of two thousand years of believers.
Thus the Scripture belongs to a community -- a community their education and preparation for ministry because worship is, a field of study in its own right. Indeed it is an interdisciplinary study demanding expertise in biblical, historical, and systematic theology as well as the arts, practical expertise, and personal spiritual formation. Thus worship, or more properly liturgics, must be regarded as one of the most vigorous and demanding of the seminary disciplines. It must be taken off the back burner and given its rightful place in the seminary curriculum.
But what is the methodology by which this renewal in worship can be accomplished? It is, I believe, threefold: we must simultaneously strip away our false conceptions, re-learn the meaning of worship, and apply the newly acquired principles of worship to our contemporary evangelical communities. In this paper, I intend to sketch out the context of this threefold method in a preliminary way.
- Back to Top -
Stripping Away False Conceptions of Worship
The method by which I propose stripping away false conceptions of worship in the evangelical community is through a historical examination of Protestant-evangelical worship from the Reformation to the present. My own study in this area yields two general theses. The first is that there is a radical difference between the worship of our sixteenth-century evangelical forefathers and contemporary evangelical practice. The second is that Protestant-evangelical worship has followed the curvature of culture rather than being faithful to the biblical, historical tradition of the church. A brief examination of these two theses is in order.
First, the gap between present evangelical worship and the practice of the Reformers can easily be seen through an examination of the Reformation liturgies. Pick up any of the liturgies such as Martin Luther's Fortnula Missae Of 1523, Martin Bucer's Strasbourg Rite Of 1539, John Calvin's Form of Church Prayers of 1542, or something as late as Richard Baxter's The Reformation of the Liturgy of 1661, and the difference can readily be seen. I find, for example, the five following characteristics in these liturgies: (1) an affinity with the liturgies of the ancient church; (2) an order that follows the pattern of revelation and Christian experience; (3) a significant emphasis on reading and hearing the Word of God; (4) a high degree of congregational involvement; and (5) a view of the Lord's Supper which affirms its mystery and value for spiritual formation.
By contrast my experience in many evangelical churches is as follows: (1) a radical departure not only from the liturgies of the ancient church but from those of the Reformation as well; (2) confusion about order; (3) minimal use of the Bible; (4) passive congregations; and (5) a low view of the Lord's Supper.
Historical research must ask: How did this change occur? What are the cultural, social, religious, and theological factors which contributed to these changes? How has the actual character of worship changed over the last several centuries? What do these changes mean for the corporate life of the church today?
It is not my intention to answer all these questions. Indeed, considerable historical work must be done in the evaluation of Protestant worship during 1600 - 1900 before a full and adequate answer is available. However, my preliminary work in this area leads me to assert the second thesis, namely, that evangelicals have followed the curvature of culture. A few illustrations will illuminate this point.
As the meaning of worship became lost among various groups of Protestant Christians, the shape of worship was accommodated to the overriding emphasis within culture. For example, the first significant shift occurred with the introduction of the print media through the Gutenberg press. Protestantism, which can be characterized as a movement of the word, led the way in the shift from symbolic communication of the medieval era to the verbal communication of the modern era. Because words were regarded as higher and more significant vehicles of truth than symbols, images, poetry, gesture, and the like, all forms of communication other than the verbal became suspect. Consequently, Protestant liturgies were not only word centered but attached great religious importance to the verbal content of worship.
A second shift occurred as the result of the Enlightenment. The concern for rational, observable, and consistent truth, which grew out of the empirical method, gradually influenced worship. The essential feature of worship was the sermon. All else sank into relative unimportance. In Puritan circles sermons were sometimes three hours in length with a break in the middle. They were often exegetical and theological dissertations that would be considered beyond the grasp or care of the average lay person today.
Another shift in worship can be observed as a result of the rise of Revivalism. The field preaching of the evangelists gradually replaced the morning service, making Sunday morning a time for evangelism. Although preaching still played a central part, one focus shifted from information directed toward the intellect to an emotional appeal aimed at the will. The climactic point became the altar call to conversion, rededication, consecration to ministry, or work on the mission field.
Today another shift is taking place resulting from the current revolution in communications. The entertainment mentality which thinks in terms of performance, stages, and audiences has been making its appearance in local churches. Consequently, evangelical Christianity has produced its Christian media stars. Unfortunately many churches are following the trend by "juicing" the service with a lot of hype, skits, musical performances, and the like, which will attract the "big audience."
My concern is that this kind of evangelical worship represents not only a radical departure from historic Protestant worship but also an accommodation to the trends of secularization. Thus, worship, which stands at the very center of our Christian experience, having been secularized, is unable to feed, nourish, enhance, challenge, inspire, and shape the collective and individual life of our congregations in the way in which it should. Consequently the whole evangelical movement suffers.
How will change be brought about? While that is not an easy question to answer, it does seem that the second step toward worship renewal ought to be a concerted effort within our seminaries to recover the biblical-theological meaning of worship and to trace its historical development from Pentecost to the Reformation.
- Back to Top -
Restoring a Biblical-Theological and Historical Perspective of Worship
As evangelicals we must acknowledge that the true character of worship is not determined by people but by God. Much of contemporary evangelical worship is anthropocentric. The biblical-theological view of worship, however, is that worship is not primarily for people but for God. God created all things, and particularly the human person, for his glory. Thus, to worship God is a primary function of the church, the people who have been redeemed by God.
The meaning of the Greek word leiturgia is work or service. Worship is the work or service of the people directed toward God. That is, we do something for God in our worship of him. We bless God, hymn him, and offer him our praise and adoration. But worship is not without reason. We do this because God has done something for us. He has redeemed us, made us his people, and entered into a relationship with us.
Consequently the biblical rhythm of worship is on doing and responding. God does. We respond. What God does and is doing happened in history and is now told and acted out as though it were being done again. The unrepeatable event is being repeated, as it were. And we are present responding in faith through words, actions, and symbols of faith.
There are two parts to this biblical-theological view of worship that need to be examined. First, worship is grounded in God's action in Jesus Christ which, although it occurred in the distant past, is now recurring through the Holy Spirit in the present. The point is that worship is rooted in an event. The event character of worship is true in both the Old and the New Testament. In the Old Testament the event which gives shape and meaning to the people of God is the exodus event. It was in this historical moment that God chose to reveal himself as the redeemer, the one who brought the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob up out of their bondage to Pharaoh with a strong arm. They then became his people, the qahal, the community of people who worship him as Yahweh. Thus the Tabernacle and, later, the Temple, the feasts and festivals, the sacred year, the hymnic literature and psalms of thanksgiving revolve around the God who brought them up out of Egypt and made them his people.
The same is true in the New Testament. In the Christ event God is shown to be the loving and compassionate one who came to free humankind from the kingdom of evil. In the birth, life, death, and rising again of Christ Satan was vanquished. Christ was demonstrated as the Victor over sin, death, and the domain of hell. Consequently the worship of the primitive Christian community was a response to this event. Hymns, doxologies, benedictions, sermons, and symbols of bread and wine all flow from this event and return to it in the form of proclamation, reenactment, remembrance, thanksgiving, and prayer.
The second biblical-theological part to Christian worship is the understanding that the church as the corporate body of Christ is the response to the Christ event, and thus the context in which the Christ event is continuously acted out. Thus the phenomenon of the Christ event does not stand alone. There is another event which happened simultaneously with it, an event which is intricately connected and inextricably interwoven with the Christ event. It is the church, the new people of God, that people through whom the Christ event continues to be present in and to the world. The church is the response to the Christ event. It is that people whose very essence cannot be described or apprehended apart from the Christ event. These are the people in whom Christ is being formed and without whom the fullness of Christ cannot be made complete. It is the ekklesia, the worshiping community.
Therefore, the two fundamental biblical-theological axioms of worship which are basic to worship renewal are rooted in the Christ event which the church, as the unique people of this event, is called to celebrate. These axioms are radically evangelical, yet I dare say they have been lost to our churches that have turned worship into a time for teaching, evangelizing, entertaining, or therapy. Methodologically worship renewal must begin with a fresh rediscovery of Christus Victor and of the church as the community in whom the Christ event is celebrated to the glory of God.
The second methodological concern has to do with the recovery of that rich treasury of resources handed down to us by the experience of the church. I find American evangelicalism to be secularized in its attitude toward history. There is a disdain for the past, a sense that anything from the past is worn-out, meaningless, and irrelevant. There seems to be little value ascribed to what the Holy Spirit has given the church in the past. It is all relegated to tradition and dismissed as form. At the same time, no critical examination is directed toward present distortions which have been elevated without thought to a sacred position. Evangelicals who want to restore true worship must therefore abandon their disdain of the historical and return to a critical examination of the worship of the church in every period of history.
It must be recognized that there is a normative content to worship that is found in the worship experience of the church everywhere, always, and by all. This is the content of word, table, prayer, and fellowship (see Acts 2:42). The public worship of the church cannot happen without these elements, and it is preferable that they all be present in public worship. Further, in the same way that the church has wrestled with its understanding of Christ and the Scripture through creeds, commentaries, systematic theologies, and the like, so also the church has developed ways to do its worship. These include structural forms, written prayers, hymns, rules for preaching, the church year, the lectionary, and numerous symbolic ceremonies. Interestingly, in the early church these resources were being developed at the same time that creedal statements were coming into being. Yet, we evangelicals who affirm the Nicene and Chalcedon creeds and boast that we remain faithful to their intent are profoundly neglectful of the liturgical forms and theological perception of worship shaped by some of the same Church Fathers.
Specifically we need to recognize that those who have gone before us, those who have wrestled the meaning and interpretation of the faith in creeds and liturgy, were women and men of faith. To accept the creeds, on the one hand, and reject the liturgies by inattention that often expresses itself in disdain, on the other, is contradictory and unwise. For orthodoxy was primarily given shape in the liturgy, and the creeds were originally part of the larger liturgical witness. We recognize that the early church was unusually gifted with the spiritual leadership of Justin, Irenaeus Tertullian Athanasius John Chrysostom, and Augustine. Yet we neglect to study the worship of the church which reflects their faithfulness to Christ and the orthodox tradition.
Nevertheless the Scripture is still the judge of all liturgies. To be sure, there are liturgies which fail to hand down the orthodox tradition. For example, liturgies which reflect an Arian Christology or those medieval liturgies which clearly reflect a sacrificial notion of the Eucharist must be judged by the orthodox tradition. But the task of critical evaluation of the older liturgies sharpens our ability to offer constructive and critical evaluation of contemporary worship. For, without a knowledge of the worship experience of the church throughout history, we are left without adequate tools for either critiquing contemporary worship or reconstructing a worship that is faithful to the Christian tradition.
In terms of tradition we must be able to distinguish different levels and, thus, to attach a corresponding scale of values to them. If we think in terms of a series of concentric circles, the apostolic traditions must be central. The apostolic tradition in the word, table, prayers, hymns, benedictions, doxologies, and the like, as that content which proclaims both the Christ event and the relationship which the church sustains to God. A second concentric circle includes those traditions which are universally accepted and practiced by Christians. Such things as creeds, confession, the kiss of peace, the Lord's prayer, the gloria in excelsis Deo and the church year belong here. In a third concentric circle we may place those traditions which are peculiar to a particular grouping of people such as the Orthodox Church in the East, the Catholic Church in the West or one of the many Protestant denominations. Matters such as vestments (or no vestments), bells, architectural style, inclusion of the little entrance or the great entrance, musical tones, and issues regarding kneeling, standing, or raising hands during prayer are all matters of cultural and stylistic preferences. And, finally, in a fourth circle one may place those specific customs that are peculiar to a local congregation. Certainly, when we recognize the original impulses from which these ceremonies derive, we may see them for the most part as expressions of faith, witnesses to the importance attached to Christ and his redeeming work. Our task is not to be judgmental in a manner of spiritual superiority but to dig beneath the traditions to recover the spirit that originally animated them, so that we too may share in the original dynamic that enlivened the telling and acting out of the Christ event in another time and another place or among other Christians who expressed their response to the Christ event in a way foreign to our experience.
In sum, the methodological approach to worship renewal needs to be rooted in a thoroughgoing biblical-theological and historical understanding of Christ and the church. Now the question is: What kinds of changes may occur in evangelical worship as a result of this methodological approach?
- Back to Top -
Applying the Biblical-Theological and Historical Methodology
Changes do not come easily in any aspect of the church. Worship is no exception. Nevertheless I foresee the methodology which I have proposed challenging evangelical worship in at least six areas. First, it will challenge the understanding of worship. I find that evangelicals frequently exchange true worship for the sub mentioned in the first section. Those evangelicals who are thinking about worship tend to think almost exclusively in terms of worship as expressing God's worth. While it is essential to recover worship as directed toward God, it is equally important to rediscover the content of that worship. That content may be summarized this way: In worship we tell and act out the Christ event. In this action God is doing the speaking and acting. Consequently we respond to God and to each other together with the whole creation to offer praise and glory to him. (This is a basic definition of worship which needs to be unpacked for a full appreciation of its content.)
Second, evangelicals will be challenged in the area of structure. Evangelical services lack a coherent movement. There seems to be little, if any, interior rhythm. Historical worship, on the other hand, is characterized by a theological and psychological integrity. Theologically, worship is structured around God's revelation in word and incarnation. This accounts for the basic structure of word and table. Psychologically, the structure of worship brings the worshiper through the experience of his or her relationship with God. It follows the pattern of coming before God in awe and reverence, confessing our sins, hearing and responding to the Word, receiving Christ in bread and wine, and being sent forth into the world.
Third, evangelicals will be challenged in the matter of participation. I find evangelical worship to be passive and uninvolving. The worshiper sits, listens, and absorbs. But seldom does the worshiper respond. As in the medieval period, worship has been taken away from the people. It must be returned. Participation will be recovered as the dramatic sense of worship is restored. Further, the participation of the people can be enhanced through the use of lay readers and preachers, congregational prayer responses, Scripture responses, antiphonal readings, affirmations of faith, acclamations, the kiss of peace, and increased sensitivity to gestures and movement.
Fourth, a study of the past will sensitize evangelicals to the need to restore the arts. One of the great problems within the evangelical culture is a repudiation of the arts in general-more specifically, the failure to employ the arts in worship. This disdain toward the arts is deeply rooted in a view that consigns material things to the devil. The pietistic and fundamentalistic backgrounds to modem evangelicalism are addicted to the erroneous view-dualism-that sets the material against the spiritual. Consequently, art, literature, music, and the like, are frequently seen as the vehicles of evil, as means through which people are lured away from spiritual realities to mundane physical attachments.
The repudiation of the material is in direct contradiction to the incarnation and to the stand taken by the church against Gnosticism. Consequently, the visible arts as well as theatre, the dance, color, and tangible symbols have historically had a functional role in worship. Space, as in church architecture, is the servant of the message. The design and placement of the furniture of worship, such as the pulpit, table, and font, bespeak redemptive mystery. The use of color, stained-glass windows, icons, frescos, carvings, and the like, is a means by which the truths we gather around in worship are symbolically communicated. Worship not only contains elements of drama but also is a drama in its own right. It has a script, lead players, and secondary roles played by the congregation. (Neglect of these matters within our evangelical seminaries and churches have weakened worship and the message it conveys. Consequently a program of liturgics must take these matters into consideration.)
Fifth, evangelicals will be challenged to reconsider their view of time. We practice a secular rather than a sacred view of time. The restoration of the church year and preaching from the lectionary are vital to worship renewal. The church year provides an opportunity for the whole congregation to make the life of Christ a lived experience. It is not merely an external covering of time, but the very meaning of time itself During the church year we enter fully into the anticipation of Advent, the joy of Christmas, the witnessing motif of Epiphany, preparation for death in Lent, participation in both the resurrection joy of Easter and the reception of Pentecost power. Surely it is an evangelical principle to live out the life of Christ. Practicing the church year takes it out of the abstract and puts it into our day-to-day life in the world.
Sixth, a recovery of true worship will restore the relationship between worship and justice. Worship affects our lives in the world. It is not something divorced from the concerns of the world. Because Christ's work has to do with the whole of life, so also worship which celebrates that life, death, and resurrection relates directly to hunger, poverty, discrimination, human suffering, and the like.
- Back to Top -
Since my approach to worship betrays a dependence on early church tradition, it is incumbent upon me to defend my use of tradition in relationship to the Scripture. Do I set tradition above Scripture or even alongside of Scripture? Can I use tradition and still claim to be evangelical? Why is the tradition of the early church any better than any other tradition? In order to answer these questions I will formulate and answer three questions in particular: (1) How can I call myself an evangelical when tradition plays an important part in my theological method? (2) Does my method elevate tradition over Scripture? (3) Why choose the tradition of the early church over that of another era?
- Back to Top -
How Can I Call Myself Evangelical when Tradition Plays an Important Part in My Theological Method?
In the first place, it is necessary to define the word "evangelical." The word is used in four ways: (i) linguistic; (2) historical; (3) theological; and (4) sociological. Linguistically the word evangelical is rooted in the Greek word evangelion and refers to those who preach and practice the good news; historically the word refers to those renewing groups in the church which from time to time have called the church back to the evangel; theologically it refers to a commitment to classical theology as expressed in the Apostles' Creed; and sociologically the word is used of various contemporary groupings of culturally conditioned evangelicals (i.e., fundamentalist evangelicals, Reformed evangelicals, Anabaptist evangelicals, conservative evangelicals). Each group has its own ethos, its own "popes" and authoritative methods of interpretations. The question really is: how can I as a member of the Wheaton community and conservative evangelicalism make a break with the fathers of neoevangelicalism (i.e., Carl F. H. Henry) and advocate a method contrary to the authority they exercise over the evangelical subculture of which I am a part?
My answer to this question is somewhat complicated. Let me attempt to make it clear. It arises out of my method of doing theology, which consists of the following fourfold criterion of judgment:
- Is it rooted in the Scripture?
- Does it enjoy historical verification?
- Is it theologically consistent with orthodoxy?
- Does it have contemporary relevance?
In my opinion the conscious or, in some cases, the unconscious method of most evangelicals follows the same fourfold criterion as I have set forth above. The difference between us is located particularly in questions two and three. While my point of reference historically and theologically is the early church, most evangelicals make their historical and theological criterion in a much later time, say with the Reformation, with seventeenth-century orthodoxy, with Wesley, or with nineteenth-century Princetonian theology.
My contention is that theological thinking about apostolic uninterpreted truth is filtered through a system of thought (Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Scottish Realism, existentialism, Whiteheadian physics, etc.) and that the system of thought itself is gradually treated as authoritative. Thus, the difference between theologians is not always over truth but is often over the system that delivers the truth.
I do not believe theology is an exact science. It is neither an inductive nor a deductive science, as some may argue. Rather, theological thinking is a discipline which involves concept formation and the development of a conceptual scheme. Theology makes use of conceptual models which may be drawn from extra-biblical sources.
Theology may therefore be defined as human thinking about truth. Truth is Jesus Christ specifically and the Bible more generally. People, synods, councils, and the like, who reflect on Christ and the truth, give us theology. Consequently theologians such as Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, and Barth give us systematic thinking about truth which we call theology.
If this is true, it follows that the most conservative method of doing theology is to go back into history to a time when the tradition of faith carries the least amount of cultural baggage. Further, it means that all systems and persons who seek to be faithful to the original deposit are evangelical in the linguistic and theological sense. Consequently, I can affirm the evangelical nature of any one of the many different sociological groupings of twentieth-century evangelicals, the evangelical nature of the Reformers, and the evangelical basis of Catholic or Orthodox theology. The only groups within Christian history that are not evangelical at bottom are those who deny apostolic Christianity or those who so thoroughly reinterpret it through their conceptual grid (i.e., Gnostics, anti-supernatural liberals) that it ceases to retain integrity with apostolic intent.
In worship this means that any Christian group that uses the Word, prayer and the table at least has the basic elements of worship. However, when these elements of worship are filtered through contemporary cultural grids, such as educational, evangelistic, entertainment, or psychological purposes, the apostolic intent of worship may become lost. Consequently, the historical point of return to uncover apostolic intent is most likely not Wesley, Calvin, or Aquinas. Rather, it is best to get as close to the original source and intent as possible, namely, the Church
Fathers who sought faithfully to deliver the apostolic order, intent, and meaning of worship. Thus a return to the tradition of the early church cuts through later accretions and developments, exposing the ways in which they have departed from apostolic intent while at the same time reviving the current practice of worship through the rediscovery of the apostolic intent preserved by the Fathers. I believe this method is truly evangelical, in the best sense of the word. I advocate this method, not over minute issues of interpretation, but with regard to the big questions-theological matters such as the canon, major doctrinal issues, ethics, and liturgy.
- Back to Top -
Does My Method Elevate Tradition over Scripture?
The original meaning of the word tradition is a key to understanding the relationship between Scripture and tradition. The Greek word paradosis is used throughout the New Testament to mean "hand over" (see for example Mark I:I4; Eph. 4:19; 5:2; Acts 15:26, 40; i6:4; Matt. 25:14; Luke 4:6; i Cor. 15:24). In terms of Christian belief it is used by Paul when he directed the Thessalonians to retain hold of the "traditions" which he had taught them by word or pen (2 Thess. 2: 15); it refers to the faith content of his preaching in Corinth as evidenced in his comments in I Cor. 11:2, 23; 15:3. He had "handed over" to the Corinthians various "traditions" which had been entrusted to him by others. Further, according to Luke original eyewitnesses had "handed over" information to him (Luke 1:2), and according to Jude the faith could be described as that which had been "handed over" to the saints. Finally, the notion of "handing over" the faith through the centuries was expressed by Paul when he admonished Timothy to "hand over" the tradition of faith which he had received from Paul's teaching (i Tim. 2:2). This sense of "handing over" the truth which had been passed down from the Apostles became prominent in the second century battle with the Gnostics. It accounts for the development of the earliest form of apostolic traditions and apostolic succession among the early Church Fathers, particularly in Irenaeus' Against Heresies.
In doing theology, it is important to develop a phenomenological description of the way in which a Christian truth or practice may have developed in the primitive Christian community and on into the second century and beyond. Part of the theological task is to reconstruct this development in search of the apostolic faith and practice which was "handed over" to the next generation. In broad strokes the unfolding of the tradition may be outlined as follows:
- The tradition of the Christian faith is Jesus Christ who was born, lived, died, and was resurrected.
- Oral and written accounts about Jesus Christ began to appear immediately. Some were true; others were false.
- The church, which is Christ's body, was given the responsibility of handing Jesus Christ over from generation to generation.
- The Apostles, as authoritative leaders in the church, were faced with the immediate responsibility of interpreting Christ and handing him down accurately.
- The context in which this interpretation was initially forged out was mainly in the worship of the church. The primitive Christian hymns, creeds, doxologies, benedictions, catechetical literature, and apostolic interpretations belonged to the liturgy of the church. Thus, worship was the context in which Christ became a lived experience and a confessional reality.
- The Scriptures, which came later, were the written product of this process. They contain the authoritative accounts of Christ together with the apostolic interpretation of Christ. Thus, Scripture is tradition; that is, it hands over Jesus Christ.
- The development of theology in the early church is intricately related to the development of Scripture as the church's authority. For, fundamental Christian thought (as articulated in the ecumenical creeds) and foundational Christian practice (such as worship and ethics) are more detailed reflections of apostolic teaching and practice. Early Church Fathers were not creating something new. Rather, they were extracting and expanding apostolic teaching. In the fourth century Athanasius sums up this process in these words: "The actual original tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic church, which the Lord conferred, the apostles proclaimed, and the Fathers guarded" (Ad Seraph. I.28).
In brief, the process above applies to worship in the following manner. The Holy Spirit gifted the Apostles with an understanding of Christ. This understanding was proclaimed and acted out in worship. The material of worship, such as hymns, creeds, benedictions, baptism, Lord's Supper, and catechetical material, became part of the Scripture. The order and practices of worship, which are somewhat hidden within the Scripture, are more clearly elucidated in the writings of the Fathers. Thus, insights into worship provided by the Didache, Justin, Tertulhan, Hippolytus, and others are rooted in apostolic authority. Consequently the major outline and understanding of worship developed by the Fathers constitute an authoritative guide for worship renewal today.
What may be observed here is a process of authority related to tradition. It is the apostolic witness that is authoritative. The Bible is authoritative because it preserves and hands down this witness. The description of worship by the early Church Fathers is authoritative insofar as it remains faithful to the apostolic authority preserved in the Scripture. Thus, the Scripture is the judge of early Christian thought and practice as well. The task of the liturgist who must be conversant with both biblical and patristic sources is to discern where, when, and how early Christian worship expands scriptural teaching and thus becomes normative. The liturgist must also be able to discern where, when, and how worship practices become extra-biblical and, thus, relegated either to the realm of adiophora or erroneous practice.
In conclusion, the importance of early Christian worship for worship renewal today is in direct relationship to the degree in which the early church remained faithful to the apostolic tradition preserved in Scripture. If we assume that critical reconstruction of ancient worship demonstrates its form and content to be faithful to the apostolic practice in the main, ancient worship becomes an authoritative guide for worship renewal today. In this way the New Testament concept of tradition as that which is "handed over" is maintained and preserved.
- Back to Top -
Why the Early Church over That of Another Era?
It must be stated that the Fathers of the early church era were just as subject to its cultural milieu and conceptual systems as we today are subject to ours. The theology of the early church was forged out in the context of the mystery religions, polytheism, Gnosticism, cults such as Manichaeism, and the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, Stoicism and neo-Platonism. To assume that the early Fathers were immune from these influences or that traces of this cultural milieu are not to be found in the writings of the Church Fathers would be naive indeed.
However, I would join those who argue that the ancient church, being in such close historical, geographical, linguistic, and conceptual proximity to the New Testament era and to its parent religion, Judaism, is characterized by a sustained attempt to remain faithful to the apostolic tradition. Consider, for example, the following six ways in which this may be demonstrated.
First, the early church was responsible for summarizing the general doctrines of the faith in creedal form such as the rule of faith, the later Old Roman Symbol, and finally the Apostles' Creed. To this day the whole church frequently confesses its faith in God within the liturgy by reciting the Apostles' Creed.
Second, we recognize the early church's part in the development of a canon. This was a process occurring after the apostolic age and one which took several centuries. Yet, in more than fifteen hundred years since the affirmation of this canon it has not been repudiated even though it has been the subject of controversy and continual scrutiny.
Third, the early church's ecumenical creeds have given definition to a trinitarian concept of God (Nicene Creed) and to an affirmation of the human and divine natures in the person of Christ (Chalcedon Creed). While these creeds are written in the Greek language and use Hellenistic concepts, they preserve and even expound on the biblical kernel of truth they seek to explain. In spite of our contemporary questions they remain models of theological thought and methodological inquiry.
Fourth, the ancient church has provided foundational thought on ecclesiology, ministry, and sacraments. While less binding on the thinking of all Christians than are the Nicene and Chalcedon creeds, this thought has nevertheless become foundational for all future thinking on these subjects.
Fifth, the ethical approach of the first three centuries to war, abortion, infanticide, marriage, and numerous other subjects and its thinking about the church's relationship to society in general and to the state in particular have shown how penetrating early Christian thought is in the social, political, economic, and psychological areas of human existence.
Finally, during the same era, the church was wrestling with its worship. The form of worship, together with the approach to baptism, eucharistic prayers, sacred year, architecture, the lectionary, and ceremony, was being developed at the same time as were the creeds, canon, and ethics.
My argument is that the early church has defined the theological issues and set out the limits of orthodoxy. Anyone who defends the canon, subscribes to the Apostles' Creed, advocates the Trinity, or adheres to the full humanity and divinity of Jesus is already more than a New Testament Christian by virtue of having passed over into the fuller definition given to orthodoxy by the ancient church. Orthodoxy is a tradition developed by the early church that stands in apostolic continuity. Nevertheless, as an extension of the biblical principles, these areas of theological thought as defined and expanded by the early Church Fathers represent a movement beyond that conceived by the New Testament church. Further, the work of the Fathers represents foundational Christian thought which has been the subject of interpretation, reinterpretation, and debate throughout the history of the Christian church. Thus the importance of the Fathers and ancient Christian thought is difficult to question. I agree with Paul Tillich who once said that no one should dare to wrestle with modern Christian thought until after having mastered classical Christian thought.
Finally, let it be stated that the value of early Christian thought finds expression in contemporary renewal, especially in the areas of liturgy and the rites of initiation (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist). The cutting edge of contemporary thought in these areas is historical thinking. The architects of Vatican II went back to the early church to discover its heart. We would do well today to do the same. This period represents the common roots of all Christians. Thus, to give more weight to this period of theological thought is to be orthodox, evangelical, and ecumenical.
About the Author: Robert E. Webber is the William R. and Geraldyne B. Myers Chair of Ministry at Northern Baptist Seminary. Prior to his current appointment Dr. Webber was professor of theology at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, and was chairman of the Chicago Call which met in I977. A layman in the Episcopal Church, he received his Th. D. from Concordia Theological Seminary. Among his published works are: Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail (1985); Worship Is a Verb (1985); Secular Humanism: Threat and Challenge (Zondervan 1982); Worship Old and New (Zondervan 1982); The Moral Majority: Right or Wrong? ( Crossway 1981); The Secular Saint (Zondervan 1979); and Common Roots (Zondervan 1978). This article was excerpted from Chapter 8 in The Use of the Bible in Theology: Evangelical Options, Robert K. Johnston (ed.), (John Knox 1985).
- Back to Top -