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[Common Places]: Reading Notes: Theology of Worship

Categories Common Places

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The Christian tradition has ever regarded worship worthy of theological reflection. Though the formal theological sub-discipline of “liturgical theology” did not emerge until the twentieth century, the Christian church has always exhibited an awareness of the significance of exercising theologia secunda—second order reflection—on theologia prima—first order encounter of the living God in worship. When the apostle Paul (1st c.) spoke sharply to folk in Corinth about their lack of Table manners, he was doing liturgical theology (1 Corinthians 10-11). When Basil the Great (4th c.) argued in On the Holy Spirit for the divinity of the Spirit based in part on Trinitarian liturgical tropes, he was doing liturgical theology. Example after example could be offered. Worship informs theology. Theology informs worship. As Prosper of Acquitane left it to us (in a treatise not on worship but against Pelagius): lex orandi lex credendi.

So what are a few “must reads” when it comes to the theology of worship? As in any field, so also in that of liturgical theology: many names and many more works could be brought forward. Here are a deliberately selected, diverse few:

1) Reading from the corpus of Alexander Schmemann is a given. Amid studies at the Orthodox Theological Institute of St. Sergius in Paris, Schmemann was ordained a Russian Orthodox priest in 1946. He relocated to the States in 1951, having accepted a position at St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary. Schmemann’s readership was, and remains, not only Orthodox, but Roman Catholic and Protestant as well. Among Protestants, Schmemann’s works have been and still are widely read, among so-called mainline and evangelical, low- and high-church folk alike. Schmemann’s initial book is Introduction to Liturgical Theology (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1966). In it Schmemann offers his estimation of the task of liturgical theology, namely, “the elucidation of [worship’s] theological meaning.”

Theology is above all explanation, “the search for words appropriate to the nature of God,” i.e. for a system of concepts corresponding as much as possible to the faith and experience of the Church. Therefore the task of liturgical theology consists in giving a theological basis to the explanation of worship and the whole liturgical tradition of the Church. … If liturgical theology stems from an understanding of worship as the public act of the Church, then its final goal will be to clarify and explain the connection between this act and the Church, i.e. to explain how the Church expresses and fulfils herself in this act. (p. 14)

Schmemann’s aim was to collapse the void that had long separated liturgy and theology, theology and liturgy. He sought such collapse for the sake of the Church literally for the life of the world, which is the title of another of his seminal works, For the Life of the World (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973). In this work, Schmemann pointedly articulates the ancient conception of leitourgia and then applies it to the Church:

[Leitourgia] meant an action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals—a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It means also a function of “ministry” of a man or of a group on behalf of and in the interest of the whole community. … Thus the Church itself is a leitourgia, a ministry, a calling to act in this world after the fashion of Christ, to bear testimony to Him and His kingdom. (p. 36)

Surely Schmemann is offering here a response to a lamentation (or is it an indictment?) he penned the previous decade, namely, that “the experience of worship has long ago ceased to be that of a corporate liturgical act. It is an aggregation of individuals coming to church, attending worship in order to satisfy individually their individual religious needs, not in order to constitute and to fulfill the Church” (“Theology and Eucharist,” St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly 5:4 [196]), 11).

2) In 1994, the Reformed pastor-theologian James B. Torrance delivered the Didsbury Lectures at Nazarene Theological College, Manchester. His topic? Theology of worship. These three lectures—slightly expanded and with an introduction—are published under the title Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996). After declaring that “True theology is done in the presence of God in the midst of the worshiping community” (p. 10), Torrance recurrently declares that Christian worship is “the gift of our participation through the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father.” Torrance is adamant: this is a communal gift and a communal participation, which transpires by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit in and through the very person of Christ. Thus Torrance declares, “More important than our experience of Christ is the Christ of our experience” (p. 34), the Christ whom we—corporately, as one body, the body of Christ—experience in both Word and sacrament, Baptism and Lord’s Supper.

3) Such encounter transpires as an eschatological reality, beyond the bounds of time and space, even as it transpires here and now, that is, in relation to the cultural particularities of this time and space. For seven years, the Lutheran World Federation engaged searching questions about the relation between Christian worship and culture. The outcome of that interdisciplinary study was “The Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture” (LWF 1996). Ecumenically developed, this statement is surely even more broadly ecumenically received. The text of the Nairobi Statement—which theologically elucidates Christian worship as simultaneously Transcultural, Contextual, Countercultural, and Cross-Cultural—is now best encountered in the documentary context brilliantly given it in Gláucia Vasconcelos Wilkey, ed., Worship and Culture: Foreign Country or Homeland? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).

4) A final global, ecumenical “must read” is Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (BEM). For fifty years, theologians representing the world’s major church traditions—including Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Methodist, United, Disciples, Baptist, Adventist, and Pentecostal—summoned the Spirit on their ecumenical pilgrimage. The pilgrimage ended in Lima, Peru, in 1982, where more than a hundred representative theologians ratified the three-fold monograph, mutually agreeing to convey it to the churches. The “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” bears scars of violent self-inflicted wounds: Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry is a summons that as “Church,” we are to be (to paraphrase Schmemann) more than an aggregation of denominations, attending worship, each on our own oblivious terms, in order to satisfy each our own denominationally sanctioned religious needs. No, we worship as one—one in Christ, in whom God constitutes us as God’s own to participate in the communion and the mission of Christ Jesus, the Son.

Come, Lord Jesus!
Let it be!


Dr. Sue Rozeboom (PhD, University of Notre Dame) is Assistant Professor of Liturgical Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. She is the co-author, with Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., of Discerning the Spirits: A Guide to Thinking about Christian Worship Today (Eerdmans, 2003) and an essay on John Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper in Calvin’s Theology and Its Reception edited by J. Todd Billings and I. John Hesselink (Westminster John Knox Press, 2012).


Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.

One feature that will appear regularly this year will be a monthly series titled Reading Notes. In these posts, editors and contributors will lead readers to significant literature related thematically to our other ongoing series. This month Sue Rozeboom commends her must-read selections on the theology of worship alongside our ongoing engagement of James K. A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors

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