Worship in Redemptive History

The ‘wars’ that have raged around ‘worship’ are anything but new. Even though they may only been expressed explicitly in these terms in the recent history of the church, they are as old as the church. Indeed they are as old as our race itself. The very moment the serpent questioned the principle God gave in the garden to regulate how he should be honoured, the conflict had begun.

The battle raged throughout the history of Israel with the forms and manner of worship, so carefully spelled out by God through Moses, being repeatedly abandoned or distorted. Even in the New Testament, when God had revealed the full glory of what worship entails through his Son, the apostles had to spend a great deal of time calling the church back to the kind of worship that is pleasing and acceptable in God’s sight.

So too in Church history: word-shaped and word-directed worship that seeks to exalt God ‘in spirit and in truth’ (Jn 4.24) has too often been corrupted by the desires of worshippers taking precedence over the revealed desire of the One who seeks our praise.

An often forgotten fact about the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century is that is was not primarily about a right understanding of salvation; but, rather, the right understanding of worship. In his tract, The Necessity of Reforming the Church, John Calvin states the two main reasons that lay behind the Reformation. The first was ‘a knowledge of the mode in which God is truly worshipped’ and the second, ‘…of the source from which salvation is to be obtained’. Although the Reformers did indeed see the vital need to bring the church back to a biblical understanding of the latter, this was ultimately in order to restore the church to biblically ordered worship.

There are many facets to these battles waged around the chief end for our existence – that we might ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever’ – but one in particular stands out. It is the notion that the essence of worship was radically altered in the transition between the Old and New Covenant epochs.

This claim arises not merely from the obvious shift from the elaborate anticipatory forms and rules for worship in Israel to their simpler and less visually orientated successors in the church, but from something deeper. It is the claim that ‘worship’ in the New Testament is primarily about ‘ministry’ or ‘mutual edification’ and not the act of adoration in which the church engages as the high point of the week on the Lord’s Day. Indeed, according to some conservative scholars, it has very little to do with ‘public worship’ in any formal sense.

I. Howard Marshall promoted this view and David Peterson developed it more fully in his chapter, ‘Worship in the New Testament’ in D.A. Carson’s book, Worship: Adoration and Action (Baker Book House) and further again in his own work entitled, Engaging with God (IVP; Apollos). It has gained widespread acceptance in many churches, radically altering the contours and content of what happens when God’s people gather to ‘worship’.

Much of their argument revolves around the language of ‘worship’ used in the New Testament and how it relates to the types of public gathering in which this language is used. They understand this to relate to Christians honouring God through ‘service’ to one another in the church rather than doing so through ‘acts of worship’ in any formal sense towards God alone.

So, for example, the classic text in Acts, which speaks of those who had recently brought to faith on the Day of Pentecost devoting themselves to ‘the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers’ (Ac 2.42), is understood primarily on the horizontal plane. It is the members of the church ministering to one another under apostolic instruction for discipleship and witness to the wider world.

Several things need to be noted by way of response and challenge to this view, albeit briefly and in summary form.

The first is the failure of Peterson and those who espouse his view of worship to recognise not only the progress of redemptive history and revelation, but also its organic unity. As with others who argue for a radical disconnect between the Old and New epochs of God’s covenant dealings with his people, if the organic element is overlooked, then something substantive is lost.

The second question, given Peterson’s acknowledgement of worship’s being not only expressed through Godward living, but also in some expression of formal praise, is which of these constitutes the highest expression of praise. From the glimpses of worship in heaven throughout Scripture – for example the vision of God’s glory in the Temple (Isa 6.1-4) and worship in heaven itself (Rev 4.1-11; 5.11-14; 7.9-12; 19.1-10) – we see that the formal act of worship is the highest expression of praise.

Thirdly, Peterson fails to recognise the weight given to the formal expressions of worship found in the New Testament. This comes out notably in Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians in relation to public worship.  He states explicitly that an unbeliever who is present when God’s people meet for worship will ‘fall down and worship God’ (1Co 4.25) in response to his sense of God’s presence on the occasion.

Although it is undoubtedly true that God is glorified through his people ministering to one another when they gather, if the worship of God on earth is meant to mirror that of heaven, then there has to be an occasion for all eyes – both individually and corporately – to be directed towards God. The high point of worship is when God’s people give him their undivided attention and devotion.

The most telling thing of all with regard to Peterson’s theology of worship is that it appears to ignore almost 2,000 years of church history (not to mention its roots in Old Covenant Judaism). David’s words surely capture what this looks like when he declares, ‘and in [God’s] temple, all cry, “Glory!”’ (Ps 29.9). Or, as the late Eugene Peterson once said, ‘The four most important words a Christian can hear in any given week are, “Let us worship God!”’

Mark Johnston