04 March 2016

The God We Worship,
an exploration of
liturgical theology

The following book review is published in the current issue of ‘Search, A Church of Ireland Journal’ (Vol 39.1, Spring 2016), pp 68-69:

The God We Worship, an exploration of liturgical theology.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Cambridge, Eerdmans, 2015, pb, xi + 192 pp, ISBN: 978-0-8028-7249-4

The websites of many Episcopal churches in the US have a saying that goes along these lines: ‘In some denominations it seems as if the minister is the actor, the director is God, and the people are the audience. In the Episcopal Church, the people are the actors, the minister is the director and God is the audience.’

In the Anglican tradition, all ought to participate in the worship.

I was reading this book after Christmas during the weeks of Epiphany, and was struck by the way Nicholas Wolterstorff agrees with the Orthodox liturgist, Alexander Schmemann that in enacting the liturgy the Church actualises itself, and the claim by von Allmen ‘that its enactment of the liturgy is an epiphany of the Church.’

Wolterstorff is Noah Porter Professor Emeritus at Yale and a philosopher. In this book, he explores new terrain in liturgical theology, engaging not just liturgy itself but the conceptions of God implicit in liturgy. He takes a ground-up approach to liturgical theology, examining the oft-hidden implications of traditional elements of liturgy. Given that ‘no liturgy has ever been composed from scratch’, he argues that the assumptions we make in our liturgies provide the key to perceiving the real depths of our understanding of God in historical Christianity.

Wolterstorff sets out to inquire into the understanding of God implicit in Christian liturgy. Drawing on insights from the Orthodox, Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Reformed traditions, he talks about an implicit liturgical understanding of God as listener in the hope of reconciling differences between the God studied by theologians and the God worshiped by churchgoers on Sundays.

A great deal of what happens in Sunday liturgies involves the priest and congregation addressing God, which presupposes that God listens. But when Wolterstorff looks for discussions by theologians and philosophers of God as listener, he is surprised to find none. In writing The God We Worship, he found a basic challenge in having few if no discussion partners on the topic of God as listener and that liturgical theology seldom consists of making explicit the understanding of God implicit in liturgies.

He argues that approaching our understanding of God from the angle of liturgy is distinctly different from approaching that understanding from the angle of Scripture, the creeds, or the Reformation confessions, for example. Certain things are highlighted in the liturgical approach that receive little or no attention in other approaches, with the concept of God as listener the most striking example.

Wolterstorff insists that liturgy is, he insists the actualisation of the church, and it is the church, not the clergy, that enacts liturgy.

As the church enacts its liturgy it expresses a particular vision of God, a vision of God that is usually implicit. The book focuses primarily on liturgical actions such as preaching and the Eucharist and the order in which these actions are set out.

At the core of this discussion is the recognition that in the liturgy God is understood to both listen and speak.

God listens to our prayers and to our songs, but God also speaks through the reading of Scripture and preaching, greetings and benedictions. The assumption is that God is worthy of worship, that we have a duty to offer God thanksgiving, and that God expects our worship. But, he suggests, this expectation makes God vulnerable to us.

Love involves obligation to God, and when we do not fulfil this obligation God is wronged, and therefore injured. This vulnerability serves to remind us that worship is an expression of relationship with God. God is not impassive and immutable, unable to respond to our prayers. Therefore, we can assume that when we pray, God is listening and will respond favourably.

Wolterstorff reminds us that worship involves mutual address. We address God and God addresses us. While not every liturgical action is part of this mutual address, most are. God speaks and God listens. Worship involves God listening, but God most assuredly speaks to the worshiper.’He notes that w]hen we ask God to accept our prayers, we are asking God to accept our concrete longing for the coming of God’s kingdom’ (p. 123). Thus, in worship we are aligning ourselves with God’s vision of the kingdom.

When he comes to the Eucharist in Chapter 9, Wolterstorff sees the mutual address occurring not only in word but in action. Once again, we are asked to discern how our view of God is implicit in the liturgy, so that it can be made explicit. He explores the elements of the Eucharistic liturgy, including the act of remembrance (anamnesis) and the act of receiving the elements. These elements are given for you, which the worshipper is intended to partake of. The presider’s actions of offering bread and wine to the recipients signifies Christ’s offering them his body and blood, and their receiving and ingesting the bread and wine signifies their receiving and partaking of Christ’s body and blood.

Wolterstorff, who is a Reformed theologian in the Calvinist tradition, understands the Eucharist as the high point of the Liturgy, and the point at which we as worshipers receive Christ into ourselves [p. 152]. The Eucharist is that point where both speech and listening occur and where we begin to discover a new vision of theology.

If our worship is to reflect our vision of God, then our liturgies cannot be developed haphazardly, and the whole of the liturgy must be integrated and connected with how we understand God. We must remember that worship is not a religious concert, and that God is the audience.


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