Monday, March 22, 2004

Reflections on Conference 

Today I was in Manchester for a day of lectures on the subject of worship. The lecturers were T.A. Noble and I. Howard Marshall.
Howard Marshall's Talk
Howard Marshall spoke first on the subject The Church as the House of Learning and Prayer. Marshall began by arguing that the terms that we use to describe what happens when Christians meet together — ‘worship’ and ‘service’ — focus overmuch upon what we do. He went on the study the vocabulary of worship in the NT. He maintained that the vocabulary of worship was used only infrequently in the description of Christian meetings. Marshall concluded his initial word-study by concluding that, in the New Testament, Christian meetings are not particularly said to take place in order to ‘worship’ or ‘serve’ God. He argued for a movement away from the language of sacrifice in Christian worship (although he acknowledged that it was still present to some degree). The once-for-all sacrifice of Christ has taken place and now we need no longer sacrifice. Once the Christians realized that the true sacrifice had taken place, sacrificial worship’ fell away. The early Christian churches were patterned on the synagogue model, not on the temple model. Having expressed the negative part of his thesis, Marshall went on to make a case for the elements that should be present within Christian worship. He argued that in their meetings Christians addressed God in prayer, thanksgiving and praise. However, this must be seen as responsive to the more important thing: God’s addressing us in the word. Marshall drew attention to the clear parallel between the worship of the early Church in the respect and synagogue worship. In the Temple, the emphasis is upon what the people offer to God. In the synagogue, the emphasis is on what God says to the people. The principal thing that happens in meetings of the Church is God’s addressing of His people. The primary purpose of the meeting is that of teaching; the primary purpose of the congregation is that of listening. We serve God best by listening to Him. Marshall contended that early Christian ‘worship’ was evangelistic, acknowledging the existence of differing opinions on the issue. He alluded to 1 Corinthians 14:23-25 as an illustration. Using the categories of J.L. Austin, Marshall claimed that, the various acts of ‘worship’ being the illocution, the perlocution is twofold: the repenting of unbelievers and my worshipping. An evangelistic meeting need not preclude my worshipping. Marshall pressed the importance of fellowship and mutual edification in the Church. Just as the synagogue is in one sense also a house and, by extension, a household, so the meetings of the Church must be characterized by fellowship. In the early Church, meetings took on the character of family meetings, particularly as they took place in family homes. This aspect of the meetings of God’s people spells death for the ‘one man ministry’. Ministry is carried out by the whole congregation and not merely by the minister par excellence. There are three key movements in Christian meetings: God to man (the Word), man to God (prayer, praise, etc.), man to man (particularly in the Supper). Marshall seemed to favour a less structured liturgy. He didn’t seem to be too keen on the idea of prewritten responses. A greater degree of spontaneity is necessary. Our services should be more flexible and less structured. He claimed that a form of service that began with the preaching of the Word and then concluded with our worship and fellowship would be, in his understanding, far more ideal than most.
Some Reflections
I must confess to being quite disappointed with Marshall’s talk. Whilst he made some important points I felt that his thesis was quite unconvincing on a number of crucial points. I felt that his chosen methodology of word studies was unable to bear the weight of his conclusions. The Bible’s teaching on the worship of the Church does not always necessitate the use of particular words. I was particularly surprised that there was virtually no attention paid to the broader redemptive historical themes of Scripture. In my judgment, any approach to worship that does not take these into account is a hamstrung approach. This failure characterized many aspects of his talk. One was left with the feeling that forests were being missed for the trees. I could not agree with his thesis that the worship of the Church is modeled after the synagogue and not after the Temple. There are a number of problems with this position. Firstly it does not pay enough attention to the complex relationship between the synagogue and the Temple. Peter Leithart argues that the roots of synagogue worship were in the Temple. If Leithart is right the distinction between deriving our worship from the Temple and deriving our worship from the synagogue is not as straightforward as it might first appear. Secondly I am concerned that the focal point of Christian worship might be lost. Synagogues were never a replacement for Temple worship pre-AD70. They may have been patterned to some degree upon the model provided by Temple worship (there are differences on this of course), but the people’s worship was always orientated towards the Temple. New Testament worship is still orientated towards the sanctuary, but this sanctuary is no longer in Jerusalem, but is in heaven. In the corporate worship of God’s people we enter into the heavenly sanctuary itself. This aspect was left wholly unexplored by Marshall. It seemed as if he held that Temple worship was merely abrogated with regard to the worship of the Christian Church, rather than fulfilled within it. Thirdly I felt that his description of worship in the Temple was quite skewed. His assertion that the Temple emphasizes what man offers to God rather than what God offers to man is quite questionable. God is present in the Temple in a very special way in the middle of His people and to worship in the Temple is to have access to His presence. God giving man His presence is central to what the Temple is. A number of the statements that Marshall made seemed to flow from a very narrow works/grace dichotomy. His desire to maintain the priority of God’s grace is laudable. However, His definition of God’s grace was too narrow in my opinion. I felt that much of what Marshall said tended to evacuate the response of the Church of its Christological content. When we offer ourselves to God we offer ourselves in Christ. Marshall seemed to downplay the gracious nature of our response. When we respond to the grace of God we have been given to participate in the eternal Son’s communion with the Father. A clear assertion of this was lacking on Marshall’s part. Our worship is gracious because God is at work in our worship. Our worship is itself a gift of grace. The Lord's ServiceOne example of this was Marshall’s complaint about the practice of the offertory — offering the bread and the wine alongside the collection. I would strongly advocate such a practice as a clear expression of the nature of God’s grace. God is pleased to set apart our works as material for his kingdom. When God brings us into His kingdom He does not only regard us as righteous persons; He also regards our works as righteous, as Calvin observed (Institutes III.xvii.5). If we recognize this point we will be more than ready to rejoice in the biblical truth that the offertory teaches us. As Jeffrey Meyers observes, the Supper is not about ‘initial justification’ but is a foreshadowing of ‘future justification’, a justification in which works are taken into account. God has worked in and through us and will graciously crown that work. Our world is not something unclean to be held outside of the Church meeting. By God’s grace creation can become sacramental again as it is offered up to Him in the bread and the wine. Of course, this can only take place because of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice. A further problem with Marshall’s approach was the fact that the need for confession was not even mentioned. Apparently we can come straight into God’s presence and have Him speak to us without Him first giving us cleansing and forgiveness. Whilst I’m sure that Marshall does not hold this, his failure to mention the place of forgiveness and confession in the liturgy is no small oversight. In general Marshall was very loose on liturgical issues. He was not overly concerned where the Supper, Word or worship fitted within the service so long as the priority of the Word — which Marshall particularly identified as God’s service to us — was maintained. Once again, this was quite disappointing. I believe that the Bible ordains a particular type of ordo for our worship. I would generally go to places like Leviticus to establish this, but the principles expressed in that book are clearly present elsewhere in Scripture. The relationship borne by the various elements of worship to each other was not sufficiently stressed. The organic wholeness of the covenant renewal service was absent from Marshall’s presentation. In fact the theme of ‘covenant’ and its ‘renewal’ were absent also. I disagree with Marshall’s belief that normal Christian meetings are to be evangelistic in some sense in the Church. I am convinced that the purpose of worship is quite different. The covenant renewal model merely serves to solidify this conviction in my mind.
T.A. Noble’s Talk
I enjoyed T.A. Noble’s talk (Worship in Spirit and in Truth) immensely. Within it he gave a taxonomy of worship styles, presented their history and studied their strengths and weaknesses. He had numerous insightful comments. I particularly appreciated some of his observations on the role of music in modern worship. He claimed that music in many charismatic churches takes the place that the sacrament has in liturgical services and preaching has in Reformed churches. The worship-leader can become the charismatic counterpart of the priest in more liturgical traditions and the preacher in the Reformed tradition. He also observed that revivalist worship represents a movement away from a focus on Christ’s sacrifice to a focus on the sacrifice of the believer. In the revival meeting there is an ‘altar call’, but it is the worshipper that is offered and not Christ. These are just a couple of examples of some of the helpful insights he gave. I was impressed with Noble’s evenhanded treatment of the different worship traditions. He gave few hints of his ecclesiastical background. Often we can be very parochial in our treatments of such subjects, but his talk did not fall prey to this error. The second part of his talk was a treatment of the Trinitarian nature of worship. Noble has read books like James Torrance’s Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace and it really showed. He emphasized the gracious nature of our response to God in Christ and the fact that we have been given to participate in His worship of the Father as the eternal Son. This part of his talk provided the perfect antidote to many of the problems in Marshall’s talk.

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