What Is “Biblical” Worship?

The purpose of this website is primarily for myself. It is an outlet where I can translate the thoughts and ideas in my head to writing. This will be achieved in several ways: writing my own original articles, writing book reviews (coming soon), and writing article reviews. I read published academic material so the articles will frequently appear from peer-reviewed journals. It is important to interact with other authors of the same academic field so that is what I intend to do here today.

Crop_Book_of_Isaiah_2006-06-06Michael A. Farley is an adjunct professor of theological studies at St. Louis University. His article “What Is Biblical Worship? Biblical Hermeneutics and Evangelical Theologies of Worship” appeared in the September 2008 issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. This article brings up an important topic that evangelical worship leaders must study and be able to articulate their own theology and philosophy. How do we discern what is biblical worship and therefore our theology of worship?

Worship Theology Grounded in Scripture

Farley begins by stating, “Evangelical worship must be biblical worship.” A key emphasis of Christian Evangelicalism is that the Evangelical Church is biblically grounded and our worship must be no different. He notes, “Many disputes about worship practices occur in part because there is no shared hermeneutical and theological framework for developing a biblical theology of worship.” Farley suggests that the first step towards advancing evangelical discussion on biblical worship is a greater hermeneutical self-consciousness. His primary goal in this paper “is to clarify some of the hermeneutical confusion by making evangelicals more aware of several distinct approaches to a biblical theology of worship that currently exist in the evangelical world.” Farley will go on to present three distinct hermeneutics he has

I would like to pause my survey of Farley’s work to make a couple of personal remarks. First, I was greatly disturbed by Farley’s choice of topic because it revealed a flaw in my worship leading. I take great joy in orchestrating worship liturgies, but am unable to articulate my own biblical hermeneutic for worship. I have studied and wrote a lengthy paper on a biblical theology of worship but without a foreknowledge of how to determine a hermeneutic. My theology of worship has been largely been laid down my Robert E. Webber, Simon Chan, and Allen P. Ross, all three of whom Farley mentions in his article. Farley challenges us to think even more critically about how we are arriving at our theologies of worship.

Secondly, I possess much appreciation for Farley’s attempt at creating unity and a platform for healthy discussion to take place concerning evangelical worship. It is a fool’s conversation to talk when the real issue is unable to be targeted. This article has shed light on numerous conversations I have had with others concerning a theology and philosophy of worship.

Farley presents the following three hermeneutics in the following order: the praxis-oriented regulative principle, and the theologically oriented regulative principle; which is ordered into two parts, the patristic-ecumenical model, and the biblical-typological model. I will recap Farley’s comments on each model and then offer my own reflections.

Praxis-Oriented Worship

The first hermeneutic that is presented is what Farley calls the praxis-oriented regulative principle. It is a “hermeneutical approach to a biblical theology of worship that defines the norm for Christian worship as the apostolic practice of corporate worship in the first-century church…liturgical practices are biblical only if there are explicit NT commands or normative examples of those particular practices.” He cites the 1644 Westminster Directory for Public Worship as an example of this model.

This model is the most simple. If the liturgical practice is not found in the New Testament, then it is not biblical for the Church to practice. Farley notes that the English Puritans were the ones developed and applied this principle with the greatest rigor. It is largely an attempt to return to the “old” way of doing church; the way the apostolic church did church. This eliminates such practices as the confession of the Nicene Creed and the signing of the cross on baptizands in the rite of baptism. The reasoning is simple: there is no biblical exhortation to practice these rituals. Farley suggests that “the same general mode of argumentation occurs in the evangelical tradition more broadly, even among those who are not as strict as some Puritans in their application of the principle.”

John Piper and D.A. Carson are used as examples of evangelicals who appear to support a praxis-oriented regulation on biblical worship. Piper attempts to distinguish between Old Testament worship and New Testament worship in that OT worship is concerned with ritual and form, while NT worship is concerned with the inward condition of a person. D.A. Carson emphasizes the point that “a number of ancient Christian liturgical practices (e.g. candles, use of incense, responsorial dialogue, chanting) have “no particular warrant in the New Testament,” even though he does not outright condemn them.

This worship hermeneutic model quickly falls through. There are no reflections on the worship space, a liturgy, or the relationship between church leadership and the faithful (congregation). It also eliminates most of Christian worship throughout Christian history. This is a serious problem if we believe that the same Christ who is Lord over our past saints is the same Lord of us today and the same Spirit who guided our past saints is the same Spirit who guides us today. The Spirit could reveal to them the truth that is uncovered in the council of Nicaea and Chalcedon but not as it pertains to worship? While the early church surely had her problems (read Paul’s letters), surely theology does not “evolve” and their experiences were just as valid as ours.

Patristic-Ecumenical Worship

The second regulative principle that Michael Farley introduces and reflects on is the first of two theologically oriented regulative principles, the patristic-ecumenical model. This model derives its theology by relying upon NT texts to discern biblical truth that can be attested to in worship, thereby not limiting the practices to those strictly recorded in the NT. They also draw on liturgies from the patristic or apostolic era, that is when the church was undivided, to discern what worship ought to look like.

Farley explores two examples of this model. The first is that of Simon Chan in his book Liturgical Theology (which I have read and been greatly influenced by). Chan begins by noting the pattern of Word and Table from Scripture then delving into patristic liturgies. His liturgical framework stems from this bi-fold pattern but is extended primarily from these early liturgies. Trinitarian and Christocentric theological content are also of upmost importance to Chan.

Chan does not forsake Scripture in his work. He points us towards these early liturgies because they embrace biblical theologies such as Trinitarianism and Christocentrism. He writes about the church as a worshiping community, the mission of the church, and the pattern of Word and Table and demonstrates to us how the patristic liturgies encompass these foundational theological themes.

Farley also notes Robert Webber as another example of a patristic-ecumenical model of worship hermeneutics. Webber appeals to the Scriptures for a biblical foundation of worship theology then moves onto early liturgies (especially the first six centuries) to support these theologies. He also “notes the irony that evangelicals who are keen to maintain and defend the early church’s consensus about biblical doctrine usually ignore or reject the early church’s consensus about the liturgical forms that communicate and preserve that doctrine in the life and worship of the church.”

Not neglecting the Old Testament, however, Webber suggests that worship builds on both the OT and the NT:

Principles of worship may be drawn from both the Old and the New Testament. . . . In the Old Testament, God gives His people specific directions regarding the how, when, and wherefore of meeting Him in worship. These directions contain principles that were not abrogated for the Christian Church.

Nonetheless, Webber does not discuss OT worship often and when he does it usually supports his findings in the NT.

Between Webber and Chan I have been greatly influenced by this model. I have been quick to embrace a more patristic-ecumenical approach to worship and found it to be very fruitful. However, it has not satisfied my theological pursuit of worship. I will spend more time reflecting on this model after introducing us to Farley’s last model.

Biblical-Typological Worship

The last model Farley presents is what he calls the biblical-typological model. Like the patristic-ecumenical model, this model seeks the biblical truth in the NT practices, not just the worship practices noted in the NT, as well as embracing the patristic liturgies. The biblical-typological model takes it a step further, however, by viewing the OT worship with a typological lens. “By reading the OT with a typological lens, they seek to derive normative principles and patterns of practice from the OT that can shape Christian liturgy when suitably translated into forms appropriate for the new covenant community.”

Allen P. Ross’s comprehensive work Recalling the Hope of Glory is Farley’s first example of a work that falls under this model. Beginning with the Garden and working his way to the Lamb’s Supper, Ross surveys the development of Christian worship, which means over half of his book is about OT worship. Ross draws connections between OT and NT worship.

For example, Ross concludes that the beauty and complex theological symbolism in the structures of the Tabernacle and Temple not only prefigure Jesus but also teach lessons about the value of aesthetics and visual art and symbol in places of Christian worship.

Farley is not truly satisfied with the Ross’s exegesis and application, and therefore points us to Hughes Oliphant Old, Michael Horton, and John Witvliet. All of these theologians “devote attention to the major national events of covenant ratification in the history of Israel as a paradigm for Christian liturgy…They all agree that the central acts of covenant renewal are the proclamation of God’s word, the response of God’s people in new commitment (as embodied, for example, in vows or oaths), and a communion meal.”

Jeffrey Meyers and Peter Leithart take it a step further beyond just covenant renewal and apply it to the regular sacrificial worship of the Tabernacle and Temple. Meyers and Leithart’s analysis of Tabernacle and Temple worship offers this sequence:

  • Sin/Purification offering
  • Burnt/Ascension offering
  • Tribute/Dedication offering
  • Peace offering

While recognizing that God initiates the worship and sends the people out with his blessing, Meyers and Leithart have constructed “the full liturgical sequence of covenant renewal in the sacrificial system [following] this order of theological movements”:

  • Call to worship: God summons his people to corporate worship.
  • Purification: God cleanses his people and forgives their sins.
  • Consecration/Ascension: God enables his people to “ascend” into his special presence to participate in the worship of heaven. God consecrates the worshipers, setting them apart to a renewed commitment to him and the mission of his kingdom.
  • Offering: Worshipers respond with renewed love and loyalty to God and his kingdom with material gifts and prayer.
  • Communion: God serves the worshipers a sacred meal at this table and eats with them to celebrate peace and friendship with them.
  • Blessing: God sends his people out to serve him with his blessing.

Viewing this theological sequence with a Christ-fulfilled typological lens, Meyers and Leithart have discerned this appropriated liturgical and theological sequence for the Church:

  • Call to Worship: God summons us to the assembly to worship.
  • Purification: We confess our sins, and God cleanses us in Christ by forgiving our sins on the basis of Jesus’ death as our substitute.
  • Consecration/Ascension: God enables us to “ascend” to heaven through the Spirit and having a special audience with the ascended Lord Jesus where we lift up our hearts with joyful praise to join the worship of heaven around his heavenly throne (Eph. 2:6, Col 3:1-3; Heb 12:18-24; Revelation 1:4-5). In that context, God speaks to us in the reading and preaching of his word in Scripture, which transforms us and re-consecrates our lives by calling us afresh to embrace our new life and identity in Christ and to live in a way that is consistent with that identity (Heb 4:12).
  • Offering: We respond to the ministry of the word of God by offering ourselves to God in prayer; by confessing our renewed faith, love, and loyalty to God; and by giving material gifts of money and goods to serve the mission of Jesus’ kingdom.
  • Communion: We eat at God’s table where God celebrates peace and friendship with us by serving us nothing less than his own life in the person of Jesus Christ. In this sacred meal, Jesus is both the host who presides and the food which we receive through bread and wine.
  • Blessing: God sends us out into the world to serve him with his blessing.

In his book Introduction to Liturgical Theology, Alexander Schmemann notes that “The modern Christian accepts the Old Testament because he believes in the New. But [the early Christians] believed in the New because they had seen, experienced, and perceived the fulfillment of the Old.” This “reversed” thinking comes into play when considering the biblical-typological hermeneutic of worship. We must understand what it means that Christ has fulfilled the Law as it pertains to worship.

For the early Christians, the newness of Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) “could not be felt and experienced in any other way than in relation to the old, to that which it was fulfilling and consummating, to that which it was renewing.” Even today we must ask “what has Christ fulfilled?” and “what does this mean for our worship?”

I think it is also worth noting that the liturgical and theological sequence as Meyers and Leithart point out not that we re-enter the sacrificial system, but that we adapt the interaction, or dialogue, with God. With the premise that God has always wanted His creation to be back in communion with Him such as in the Garden, what implications does the prescribed worship have on our worship today? This may be one of the strongest questions Meyers and Leithart bring out with their work.

Also, it seems to me that the patristic-ecumenical model points towards the biblical-typological model. Certainly Farley notices the similarities as he has them both marked as theological regulative principles, and this may be because of my own experience, but I wonder if taken to its further conclusion, the patristic-ecumenical model does not arrive at the biblical-typological model.

Farley goes on to explain Meyers and Leithart’s work more exhaustively, foreshadowing his position in the following conclusion:

“a praxis-oriented regulative principle is inadequate…no NT book was written to be a complete manual on liturgics…a patristic-ecumenical model…is superior to the first because it does not restrict the development of Christian liturgy by forcing it into an unnecessarily narrow and impractical straitjacket…however, the biblical hermeneutics of the patristic-ecumenical model could potentially become too open ended…The third model, a biblical-typological approach, has the greatest merit and potential for developing an evangelical biblical theology of worship. This approach is the broadest of the three models because it derives a theology of worship from the whole Bible…At the same time, it is more restrained than the patristic-ecumenical model because it moves from the specific set of God-given practices in the OT to those of New rather than merely correlating liturgical practices with very general theological themes or ideas.”

I would encourage the reader to visit the article and read Farley’s work in its fullness. You can find the article here. Have you been introduced to worship hermeneutics before? If not, what are your thoughts on each of these models? Farley has given us insight into this discussion with his doctoral work and I am very grateful for his work. As a worship leader, this is a topic we must all work through and come out on the other side with a worship hermeneutical framework.

While I cannot say that I have made a clear decision which model I use for my framework (I desire to pursue this topic more with the readings Farley quotes in his work), I challenge all worship leaders to arrive at a conclusion as Farley has done.

May the Spirit guide our minds, thoughts, and tongues. Peace be with you all!

JP#4Jason Palmer is the Editor of TalkingWorship.com. Jason has a Bachelor of Science in Ministry with a Worship Arts Major and Music Minor. He has lead worship for evangelical churches for 7 years and desires to see worship leaders become confident in their calling.

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