Sunday, February 7, 2010

Justice and Worship: The Tragedy of Liturgy in Protestantism

"And now at last I come to 'the tradedy of the liturgy in Protestantism' of which the title of this chapter speaks. I submit that there is a tragedy of liturgy in Protestantism, especially, though by no means exclusively, within the Reformed/Presberterian tradition. The tragedy consists in there being so little within this tradition of the very thing that we have been discussing: worship. The tragedy consists in the fact that within this tradition there is a suppression of the central Christian actions of celebrating in memorial...

The Christian liturgy is an interchange between actions of proclamation and actions of worship...

The Roman and Orthodox traditions have historically found it difficult to give due weight to the dimmension of God addressing us in judgment and grace- in short, to proclamation. The Protestant tradition has historically found it difficult to give due weight to the dimension of us addressing God in love and devotion- in short, to worship...Yet liturgies do differ profoundly in their emphases, and the tragedy of the liturgy in Protestantism- and particularly in the Reformed tradition- is that the worship dimension is suppressed, sometimes radically so. The liturgy is no longer 'eucharistic,' and a fundamental dimension of the life of the church and of the existence of the Christian is thereby stunted."

--Until Justice and Peace Embrace: The Kuyper Lectures for 1981 delivered at The Free University of Amsterdam, Nicholas Wolterstorff, ch VII p157-158.



gallusrex said...

This extended quotation grossly neglects the fact that congregational singing (of the Psalms and, I'll allow, of quality hymns) IS us the church addressing God in love and devotion. Just how many Psalms/songs in a worship service qualify as sufficient, in Wolterstorff's mind?

I agree that we probably should be celebrating the Lord's Supper (Eucharist, whatever your favorite word is; they're all good) more often rather than less.

I wonder if he's ever participated in a Psalm singing worship service.

David N. said...

Maybe I just need more context, but I'm not really clear on what he's criticizing the Reformed tradition for doing (or rather NOT doing). I don't know what exactly he means by "us addressing God in love and devotion." But I agree with the previous commenter; how is the congregation singing Psalms especially, but also other songs, in response to God's Word to us (especially His proclamation of the Gospel) NOT a perfect example of addressing God in love and devotion? Indeed, the whole point of "dialogical" worship is that it is supposed to hold both sides that he mentions in harmony: God addressing His people in Law and Gospel, His people responding in repentance and gratitude.

If he's saying that the Reformed liturgy is too heavy on Law and repentance, I would argue that he's probably just generalizing a specific time and place, probably from his own experience, to cover the whole of the Reformed tradition. I for one can say that my own Reformed church puts plenty of emphasis on forgiveness and gratitude in our liturgy.

If he's simply saying that we need to celebrate the Eucharist every week, I would agree with him, although I don't think that this is an issue of great importance (as I have begun to encounter more and more within the Reformed tradition who actually have good, principled reasons for taking Communion less frequently). Also, if he's saying that we specifically don't take enough joy in the Eucharist itself, instead tending to make it a solemn and sad occasion like a funeral, then I would also agree (my history prof at WSC said the same thing).

I'm also curious what he thinks the Roman and Orthodox traditions do right, if anything. Is he saying that they get the responding in love and devotion part right, or that they get both parts wrong?

Catz206 said...


I was wondering the same thing. What would Wolterstorff think of a Psalm service? The whole Eucharist complaint goes back to Zwingli.


As for generalizing, yes he did do quite a bit of that.

He also seems to think the RC and EO do well with the worship aspect though I suspect he would have his criticisms.

Catz206 said...

Just wanted to get a discussion of some sort started. What do either of you think are some of the ways the EO or RC better expresses worship?

David N. said...

My experience is limited. I've only been to one Orthodox service and two Roman services (one of which was a wedding, and I was young so I barely remember it).

I hate to sound too critical, because there are actually a number of areas of agreement between the Orthodox and Reformed about worship, but I was thoroughly unimpressed with the Orthodox service. It actually suffered from all of the caricatures of Roman/Orthodox worship (namely, there was liturgy/singing in Greek, lots of repetitious actions, and a short, non-exegetical homily). There was also a particularly disturbing moment where the priest walked through the congregation reciting something (I don't remember if it was in English) and all the members of the congregation reached out and touched his robe (at which point I half expected him to turn around and ask "who touched me? I felt power leave me"). Even in the celebration of the Eucharist I saw nothing particularly envious (which is to say, nothing that I felt the average Reformed church lacked). They weren't even particularly more joyful or "celebratory" during any aspect of the service.

I dunno, as I continue to study church history I feel more and more that the Reformers really did have a good handle on the early, Patristic church, and that they already took the best of ancient worship and left behind all the unnecessary, unbiblical stuff. That's not to say that Reformed/Presbyterian churches always get it perfectly right every time, but I think when we stray it's better to go back to Scripture and the Fathers, rather than modern Rome or Orthodoxy, for guidance.

Lucian said...

The Liturgy contains, but isn't reduced to, Psalmody and Scripture-readings. It obviously contains the Eucharist as its purpose.

David N.,

I'm also very glad to see you find the Orthodox practices so un-bibical (was the "I felt a power issue forth from me" a passage of the Prophet from the Holy Qur'an, or of Lord Krishna from the Bhaggavad Gita?). -- I'm sure that the teachings of Calvin and the rest of your teachers could've greatly helped those deluded souls of Acts, who waited on the street-corners to be overshadowed by Paul and Peter, or who kept their hand-kerchiefs because they healed all kinds of diseases and infirmities.

Catz206 said...


I see your point and agree that as a Protestant I found several parts off...but I must say that I admire how the liturgy involes all of the senses. Still, there is something to be said about simplicity too.

David N. said...

Well, Sproul and other Reformed folk have been arguing for a while now that worship ought to involve all of the senses (you should read Sproul's little book "A Taste of Heaven").

Catz206 said...

That would be great if we could incorporate that!