At a recent meeting Wheaton’s Professor Robert E. Webber challenged us to rediscover and reemphasize worship, rooting it in the ancient liturgical wisdom of the Church. His presentation prompted me to re-read Webber’s Worship Is a Verb (Waco: Word Books, c. 1985), a book designed “primarily as a study guide and tool for the implementation of worship renewal” (p. 8).
As the title suggests, Webber wants Christians to become participants in, not observers of, worship services. Too much of our public worship, he thinks, focuses on the pastor and his sermon. When pastors do everything–making announcements, reading Scripture, praying the pastoral prayer, preaching the sermon–the people become spectators. (Or, worse yet: fans!)
One of my students, who plans to enter the ministry, recently wrote a thoughtful essay, reflecting on his position paper on ministerial ethics. He asked how pastors avoid becoming “idols” in the minds of their people. (For many of us, I responded, there’s no problem: we fail so regularly in the pulpit that no one’s tempted to idolize us!) Yet, as I thought about it, there is a certain irony to the Protestant pulpit: having banished the crucifix and images from church, we often seek to install a “star” behind the pulpit! Everything in the Sunday services, as well as the weekly business routines of the institution, must focus on and revolve around the “senior pastor.”
So I think Webber’s rightfully concerned. To really worship God in His holiness, entering into the mystery of His presence, involves us in the “liturgy” (i.e. the “work”) of confession, prayer, praise, communion. And above all it celebrates Jesus Christ.
Given the principle that “worship celebrates Christ,” Webber sets forth “this rule of thumb for worship: Worship tells and acts out the Christ-event. In this sense, the order of worship comes from above, not below.” Worship should reflect the God who has spoken and incarnated himself. “Therefore, the twofold focus of worship is the Word (the Bible as the symbol of God speaking) and the Table (bread and wine as the symbol of God acting to save us)” (p. 49).
This pattern, amply documented, comes from the earliest practices of the Christian Church. As ancient believers assembled together, they first prepared themselves for worship through hymns, invocations, confessions. Then they listened to the Word of God as biblical passages were read and expounded. (Webber rebukes evangelicals for reading so little Scripture and preaching so topically! Such allows too many pastors to regularly ride favorite hobby-horses to death!)
After the Word came the Table. Wherever believers worshipped they came to the Table and consumed its bread and wine. Webber has “found the Table, like the Word, to be a satisfying means of nourishment and spiritual growth. Far from becoming routine, it has become like an intimate relationship. For me, Communion is a personal experience of Jesus Christ” (58).
Beyond building a case for more liturgical-style worship, Webber gives suggestions as to how it can be implemented in evangelical congregations. The basic worship pattern allows for contemporary creative variations, including more extensive use of the arts. Ways to elicit responses from the people–amens, alleluias, etc.–may be pre-programmed but effective in encouraging everyone to participate in the service.
He also encourages churches to seriously consider the traditional liturgical year’s calendar of celebrations and scheduled readings. Rather than celebrate “secular” events, such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and the Fourth of July, Webber calls us to recover the authentically Christian calendar, with its focus on Advent, Easter, and Pentecost.
Webber’s personal journey from Fundamentalism (including a stint at Bob Jones University) to Anglicanism explains some of his enthusiasm for liturgy and worship. Yet anyone familiar with Church history knows he makes a bona fide point: to sustain the faith, on both a personal and corporate level, demands a style of worship which endures beyond those passing enthusiasms or powerful preachers which may momentarily energize a congregation. There’s wisdom to traditional ways, to tested and proven Body-life principles. So too there’s wisdom to be gleaned from the pages of this book.
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The sacraments, Rob Staples argues, in Outward Sign and Inward Grace (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, c. 1991), need to be re-emphasized in Wesleyan/holiness churches today. Revivalistic Americans have tended to stress sermons and evangelistic appeals rather than sacraments and shepherding. Such churches, including Staples’ own Church of the Nazarene, inevitably struggle to integrate “heartfelt” personal experience with oft-distrusted “formal” churchly liturgies. We need, Staples says, to restore the healthy balance found in John Wesley himself: a “High Churchman” with a “warmed heart” (p. 24).
Following St Augustine, who defined sacraments as “visible words,” Staples insists that “‘Incarnation’ is the strongest argument for ‘sacrament.’ Jesus Christ is the supreme ‘Visible Word'” (53). Inasmuch as we are thoroughly physical creatures, insofar as we think imaginatively as well as logically, because there is mystery as well as clarity to Reality, we need a thoroughly sacramental dimension to our theology. “Underlying all sacramental theology is the fundamental insight that God may accomplish spiritual ends through material means” (62). Thus the sacraments, by keeping us in touch with created things, have been considered “means of grace” by most orthodox Christian theologians.
After a brief glance at Roman Catholicism’s seven sacraments, Staples joins classical Protestants in specifying two–Baptism and Eucharist–as clearly biblical.
Christian baptism, he says “always carries the meaning of initiation into Christian faith and life” (122). When the rite is grasped, in all its fullness, as “bearing the mark of Christ,” “dying the death of Christ,” “living the life of Christ,” and “receiving the Spirit of Christ,” baptism should be treasured as the definitive act whereby one becomes a Christian.
Addressing the issue of infant baptism, Staples joins Wesley and argues against those take the Anabaptist position and restrict baptism to adults. While not suggesting a theory of baptismal regeneration, he still holds that infant baptism redemptively incorporates the child into the Body of Christ. Though the alternative of “infant dedication” is widely preferred in Wesleyan/holiness churches, Staples pleads for a return to Wesley’s insistence on the sacrament of infant baptism.
Whereas baptism is the “sacrament of initiation,” the Eucharist is the “sacrament of sanctification.” John Wesley said “The Lord’s Supper was ordained by God to be a means of conveying to men either preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace, according to their several necessities.” As part of the salvation process, whereby men and women become Christ-like, the Eucharist provides needed sustenance. Staples discusses various views of the sacrament, giving the reader a valuable perspective as to how various theologians have interpreted it. He then seeks to support Wesley’s notion of the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. Thus, just as the Word is weekly preached, the Lord’s Supper should be regularly (if not weekly) celebrated.
Outward Sign and Inward Grace is a thorough study, brimming with insights derived from Staples’ lifetime of studying and teaching historical theology. He builds a strong case for rightly relying on the Sacraments, making it clear how Wesleyan is approach. The book reads well and makes sense.
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Those interested in the roots of the Wesleyan way will profit from perusing Donald A.D. Thorsen’s The Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience as a Model of Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, c. 1990). Thomsen teaches as Azusa Pacific University, and this treatise reflects his thoroughly academic concerns–extensive footnotes, at times technical theological discussions, extensive quotations. Yet the use of the “Quadrilateral” enables Thorsen to bring coherence and system to Wesley’s thought, and I find the book quite worthwhile.
In Thorsen’s opinion, “Perhaps Wesley’s most enduring contribution to theological method stems from his concern for catholicity in including experience along with Scripture, tradition, and reason as genuine sources of religious authority” (p. 125). Now Wesley himself never proposed any tidy, teacher-friendly “quadrilateral” as a paradigm for Wesleyanism. Albert Outler, in the 1960’s, first proposed the notion, so it is “a modern attempt to summarize the fourfold set of guidelines Wesley used in reflecting on theology” (p.21).
As Thorsen insists, so long as it is understood as a helpful “heuristic tool,” not a rigid corral within which to contain wily mustangs, the quadrilateral enables Wesleyans to better conceptualize their theology. If one wanted a more accurate “geometric figure as a paradigm for Wesley,” Thorsen says, “a tetrahedron–a tetrahedral pyramid–would be more appropriate” (p.71). But please, Dr. Thomsen, the “quadrilateral” is awkward enough! So lets have no talk about tetrahedrons!
As a practitioner of the Anglican via media, tacking gracefully between the winds of Protestantism and the currents of Roman Catholicism, Wesley naturally sought to study and utilize, to recognize and reconcile, diverse truth-tests. He probably followed his father’s advice, published as Advice to a Young Clergyman, and studied “logic, history, law, pharmacy, natural and experimental philosophy, chronology, geography, the mathematics, even poetry, music or any other parts of learning” (p.50). Thus he favorably cited, in various contexts, the worth of Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience.
Of the four, of course, Wesley primarily relied upon Scripture. In a letter written early in his ministry, Wesley said: “I allow no other rule, whether of faith or practice, than the Holy Scriptures” (p.127). He often claimed to be a “man of one book” and affirmed the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura. Yet he took solus to mean “primarily” rather than “exclusively.” Other sources of truth, so long as they complement and stay subordinated to Scripture, add to man’s grasp of God’s Truth.
Tradition, especially that of “Christian antiquity,” formed Wesley’s second source of authority. The Fathers of the Church, the Ecumenical Creeds, the Anglican Books of Homilies, all enabled one to more wisely interpret God’s written Word. Though innovative in many ways, Wesley had a deeply conservative streak and largely shared Vincent of Lerins’ notion that which “is truly and in the strictest sense ‘Catholic,'” is that “which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all” (p.158).
Living in the “Age of Reason,” Wesley shared much of his era’s high regard for the logical workings of the mind. Although called an “enthusiast” by some of his critics, he staunchly rejected the label. “It is a fundamental principle with us,” he said concerning the Methodists, “that to renounce reason is to renounce religion, that religion and reason go hand in hand, and that all irrational religion is false religion” (p.169).
He valued Aristotle’s logic. He told his preachers that, as Thorsen says, “knowledge of logic is second in importance only to knowledge of Scripture” (p.196). He praised John Locke’s empirical epistemology and developed what George Cell has called a “transcendental empiricism,” arguing that we have “spiritual senses,” just as we have physical senses; by rightly using them we can make sense of our existence.
The fourth side of the quadrilateral, experience, may have been Wesley’s most distinctive contribution to Christian theology. He always sought to place it in its proper place, subordinate to other sources of authority, but he listened carefully to personal testimonies and sought to understand thereby God’s ways with man. “Perceiving–literally feeling–God’s presence is a powerful epistemological guarantee for the truth of Christian belief” (209). Yet personal experience is particularly personal, so its data, its life-changing power, cannot be generalized as a pattern for all mankind. As Wesley said, there is “irreconcilable variability in the operations of the Holy Spirit on the souls of men” (p.218). Experiential confirmation of the Gospel’s truth indicates the faithfulness of God to the believer. But one must never confuse the experiential consequence with the true cause, which is the living Christ of the Gospel.
Having explained the Wesleyan way–the Quadrilateral– Thorsen suggests it provides a healthy common ground for today’s Evangelicals. Its openness, its ecumenical leanings, its tradition of freedom, could afford Evangelicals from various backgrounds some shared perspectives and ways to think together more constructively.
Thorsen’s notes and bibliography indicate thorough research and provide considerable amplification on the text. It’s the kind of treatise which pastors as well as professors, thoughtful laymen as well as college students, should read in order to get a balanced understanding of “Wesleyan” theology.
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In 1987, concluding a search which lasted more than a decade, some 2000 “evangelicals” joined Eastern Orthodoxy. Most of their leaders, ordained as deacons and priests, had earlier worked for Campus Crusade for Christ. Their journey forms the plot for Peter E. Gillquist’s Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Publishers, 1989).
In part one, Gillquist tells of the journey “from Arrowhead Springs to Antioch.” In the 1960’s, zealous young evangelicals charged like assault troops, determined to win America’s colleges campuses. They worked hard, relished the challenge, and elicited many “decisions for Christ.” However, to their dismay, “Most of the decisions for Christ honestly did not stick.”
Admitting what they were doing was not working, some of them began searching for something deeper, something more permanent. More than a parachurch, they sensed the need for a church. So, in 1968, a number of them left Campus Crusade and began what they later would call “The Phantom Search for the Perfect Church” (21). Some of them established “house churches,” and in time a loose coalition of “churches” were knit together on the basis of their leaders’ personal ties.
Then the leaders began to meet and study and discuss what they should do with their fledgling movement. They seriously studied not only the Bible: they scoured Church history. And they found, to their surprise, that the Early Church was rigorously Christocentric in its doctrine and thoroughly liturgical in its practice. Reading such sources as St Clement of Rome, St Ignatius of Antioch, St Justin Martyr and Hippolytus, they discovered how concerned ancient believers were with who Christ was rather than what He did for us. They also found a worship pattern and a sacramental emphasis quite foreign to most of them.
In 1975, they formed the “New Covenant Apostolic Order,” which in 1979 became the Evangelical Orthodox Church. They had concluded that for its first 1000 years the Church had maintained a doctrinal unity. “The whole Church confessed one creed, the same in every place, and had weathered many attacks. The government of the Church was recognizably one everywhere. And this one Church was Orthodox” (p.51).
Amazingly, of those who through study reached this conclusion, “none of us had ever to our knowledge been inside an Orthodox Church. Most of us did not know it existed. For that reason, I am chagrined to report that we decided to start it over again!” (p.58). So for a decade they studied and discussed and slowly discovered the ancient/enduring world of Eastern Orthodoxy.
What they discovered was a deeply traditional, liturgical Church, committed to the apostolic succession of (male) clergy, rightly revering Mary as Christ’s mother (Theotokos), using the sign of the cross, etc.–they found a Church which satisfied the one-time Campus Crusaders as the true Church of Jesus Christ.
Concluding that Orthodoxy is the way, they next sought to affiliate with one of the existing Orthodox communions. This proved somewhat difficult to do! But in time the Americans were received into the Antiochian Orthodox Church.
Reading this book illustrates the limits of parachurch organizations like Campus Crusade. They have value–but they’re limited and ultimately inadequate because they’re not a church. Folks need Church! So this book reveals the hunger for Church! That Gillquist and his associates found Church in historic Orthodoxy shows, along with the other books reviewed in this issue, the need some thoughtful Americans have for ancient symbols, historic roots, efficacious sacraments, participatory liturgies.
Parachurch efforts often dissipate within a few years–or a few decades at best. Enthusiastic sectarian movements, and the denominations they spawn, usually begin to wither within three or four generations, for enthusiasm wanes with inter-generational transmission. So again and again we find, in Church history, people rediscovering the value of permanent things, common concrete things like rituals and liturgical years and prescribed celebrations.