Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshipping Community
reviewed by L. P. Fairfield
“I would like to suggest that what evangelicals need is an adequate ecclesiology.” John Henry Newman writing in 1836? No, Chinese Pentecostal Simon Chan writing in 2006 , addressing the scandal of Western Evangelical capitulation to consumerist narcissism, with a particular view to the global undertow of this American McFaith. He points to a robust doctrine and practice of the Church as the way forward.
Chan, Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological College in Singapore, accurately characterizes Evangelicalism’s anthropocentric ecclesiology. Ever since the prototypical Salem church covenant in early seventeenth-century Massachusetts, Evangelical congregations have understood themselves as aggregates of converted believers who voluntarily agree “in the presence of God to walk together in all his ways.”
In eighteenth and early nineteenth-century America, this “walking together” came to mean supporting revivalism and participating in voluntary societies for mission and for social reform. Evangelical churches have been functional and utilitarian. They are what they do.
Unfortunately, this pragmatism kept them from resisting a fascination with technique, or from eschewing the lure of “health and wealth” theologies. In late-capitalist and therapeutic postmodern America, the churches’ self-presentation has shifted from “We are good for society” to “We are good for you.”
Market-driven churches inevitably worship the market. But “Whatever works . . .” doesn’t work theologically. Chan applauds the critique of American Evangelicals like Mark Noll and David Wells, but argues that Evangelicals need to move beyond self-criticism to a solution.
Chan is a Chinese Pentecostal writing in Singapore, but there is nothing exclusively Asian about his response to Evangelicalism’s problems, which is solidly biblical and draws on the riches of the Western theological tradition, in particular the Fathers, the Reformers, and the Roman and Protestant giants of twentieth-century Trinitarian theology, as well as high-church Anabaptists like Stanley Hauerwas.
The Eternal Church
Chan proposes that we must view the Church not merely functionally but ontologically, that is, not primarily as sociological and humanitarian but as theological and biblical—and liturgical. Its chief end is not to improve society, but to worship God.
The Church is not simply the agent of God’s kingdom on earth, to rectify the effects of the Fall. Nor is it a human voluntary society, temporarily charged with God’s work between Pentecost and the Parousia.
Rather, the Church exists eternally in the perichoretic life of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and has existed since before creation in God’s intention to call a people into the divine life of the Trinity. Its existence eternally precedes the individuals who subsequently compose it.
Out of the life of the Trinity grows the function of the Church, which is to worship. Grounded in the divine perichoresis, the Church on earth does what it has done and will do for all eternity, giving glory to God through the Son in the power of the Spirit. In history, the Church does what it is, not contrariwise. Ontology precedes sociology.
There is, Chan argues, a divine ordo, a God-given shape to this worship, which is Eucharistic. Divine worship is not an exercise in expressive human creativity, let alone a calculated “Let Us Entertain You” campaign to fill the pews, the parking lots, and the offering plates.
“When modern evangelical-charismatic churches arbitrarily construct their worship to cater to human needs and whims,” he writes, they offer “a false theology, because it distorts our vision of the divine glory.” Word and Sacrament graciously reveal that glory, as they heal the eyes of our hearts.
Those two elements are not optional resources that we may include or omit ad lib. Word and Sacrament are essential mysteries that we approach by God’s grace in fear and wonder.
Through this fear and wonder, God builds us into community. Although the purpose of worship is always to give glory to God, nevertheless, by Word and Sacrament, God shapes and reforms us as well. Chan reaffirms the Tractarian insistence that conversion requires a lifetime of worship in community, not simply a walk down the sawdust trail.
He commends the so-called new ecclesiology for its emphasis on what Christians actually do, not merely on what they think they’re doing, or what they ideally should be doing. But he reiterates that true church practices are grounded in Word and Sacrament, whose validity depends on something more reliable than our competence in performing them, namely, on God’s promise and his Spirit.
But the quality of our response is important, for the sake of our growth toward the wonder of the divine Life. Here, I found Chan’s chapter on the catechumenate particularly helpful, given the parallels between pre-Christian and post-Christian societies. Whether or not Western culture ever supported the gospel and the practice of the Christian virtues, today that culture is actively hostile. Like the third-century Christian movement, the Church today must re-form its members intensively.
The Church’s laborious catechetical task of forming resident aliens for the Civitas Dei must always be directly linked to the liturgy, with the Decalogue, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer treated not as isolated propositional forms to be memorized by individuals, but as intrinsic elements of the Church’s corporate, bounden duty and service. The catechumen’s full participation in the divine mysteries is the goal of the process, not his enlistment in some humanitarian crusade, let alone his achievement of emotional harmony.
This is a book for Catholics as well as Protestants. Its modest title doesn’t do justice to its fundamental critique of Evangelical Christianity in the West, or its wisdom in pointing toward those churches’ true identity.
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“Church Eternal” first appeared in the September 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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