the Early Church over That of Another Era?
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
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 Buber'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
(s) 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 (s) a low view of the
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
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.
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.
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
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 Chris and the orthodox tradition.
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 m 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?
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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: (i) 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?
How Can I Call Myself
Evangelical when Tradition Plays an Important Part in My Theological
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
- Does it enjoy historical
- Is it theologically
consistent with orthodoxy?
- Does it have contemporary
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
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.
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
- 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
- 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.
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
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
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