return to religion-online

The Ecology of Faith by Joseph Sittler


Theological education was prominent among the many interests of Lutheran scholar and theologian Joseph Sittler, who died on December 28, 1988. Following are some of his more provocative reflections on that subject, excerpted from his recent book, Gravity and Grace (Augsburg Publishing House), copyright 1986; reprinted by permission. This book was published by Muhlenberg Press, Philadelphia, 1961. It was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Appendix: The Shape of the Church’s Response in Worship


The Problem:

A Description

Faith and Order created a Commission on Worship in acknowledgment of a fact. The fact is that the way Christian people worship is declarative of what they believe. This declaration may well be made in worship at a depth and with a fullness seldom attained in credal propositions.

Early in Faith and Order inquiries it became apparent that formal comparative examination of the confessional and other utterances of the churches was not adequate for a responsible understanding either of what these churches affirmed in common or asserted in difference. There is a worship of the one God by his one people; that is why a Commission on Worship is possible and necessary. And there is a wild and bewildering variety in ways of worship by this one people: that is why the work of this commission is difficult.

It is not necessary to go into great detail concerning the present constitution of the commission as reorganized following the second assembly of the World Council of Churches at Evanston. It is enough for our present purpose to remember that three commissions in widely separated and quite different areas were established: one in Europe, one in East Asia, one in North America. While some preliminary correspondence has been carried on with the European commission, and while all of us in the area-commission are aware of and grateful for the vigorous and productive work of the East Asian group -- this is a discussion of matters which have arisen in the two meetings which have been held under my chairmanship in North America.

One cannot get very far in constructive thought about a problem until the nature of the problem has been clearly exposed. Our work of exposure is by no means complete, but certain aspects are clear enough that I can point them out in the confidence that any concerned listener will recognize what I am talking about.

The term "worship" presents a problem. At the second meeting of our commission Professor Leonard Trinterud with characteristic bluntness and clarity excised this particular problem in these words: "Our English word ‘worship’ misstates the whole content and significance of that which in the New Testament is called ‘the service of God,’ i.e., leiturgia, latria, diakonia, and their respective related terms.

"In the New Testament these terms refer normatively to ‘serving God,’ ‘doing the will of God,’ in a great variety of ways most of which are without cultic significance or form, and which refer principally to that which is done for and among men -- not to something done to or for God in a sanctuary. The New Testament knows nothing of a leiturgia, latria, diakonia which is localized in an edifice, or to fixed times of occurrence. These terms refer to the whole round of the Christians’ ordinary life as people."

Professor Trinterud made his second point as follows: "Acts such as prayer, thanksgiving, breaking of bread, are regarded in the New Testament as but an aspect of the ‘service of God,’ and that not the controlling or central aspect. That which in the New Testament is central and controlling in the ‘service of God,’ is the presence of Christ, the Head of the church, in the Holy Spirit given to the church. The living Christ, thus present, directs, guides, builds up the church, and thus it ‘serves God.’ Our ideas of worship are too often rooted in the situation of the people of God before the Resurrection and Pentecost. There, indeed, priests, strictly so-called, performed cultic acts, in properly consecrated sanctuaries, acts addressed to God on behalf of the people. But the new aeon comes when the promise of God has been fulfilled, when the redeeming work of God has been done in Christ, and when the Holy Spirit has been given to all believers. God’s people are now related to him in a new and living way previously only promised. So, also, God is now present among his people, by the Holy Spirit, a manner of presence which previously was but a promise.

"We cannot discuss ‘worship’ as though we were still in the old aeon, on the other side of Pentecost and the Resurrection."

One can disagree with a great deal of what Professor Trinterud says, but such disagreement has little to do with the size or importance of the problem thus explicated. Our commission has been sufficiently impressed to agree upon the following:

a. A thoroughgoing biblical inquiry into the relation between the "service of God" and what we have come to call the "service of worship" by the congregation of believers assembled in a specific place has got to be undertaken. The enormous exegetical ferment which has been engendered by recent decades of brilliant and notion-cracking biblical studies makes it quite impossible to derive schematically neat ideas about worship from the New Testament community. Some old certainties have been made untenable, and a confusing and exciting richness of life has been exposed.

b. The interdependence of the work of the Commission on Worship and the Commission on Christ and the Church is transparently clear. Just as the doctrine of the church was at Lund shifted to a position under the doctrine of Christ, so also, we think, the inquiry into worship must be illuminated from the same center.

A corollary of these convictions has shaped our commission’s understanding of its task -- and it may be expressed here as a kind of an aside. If any of us came to this study as liturgiologists, or were under the impression that by becoming such we could best advance our work, we have long since laid such notions aside. There is a place and a useful function to be served by such inquiries, but none of us is disposed to interpret our directive in such terms. Descriptive and analytical inquiries into ways of worship must follow a clear understanding of the nature and scope and meaning of worship. If liturgical considerations precede such studies, the deeper question is either dismissed or too quickly set in doctrinaire terms.

c. Inquiry into the nature of Christian worship of God has, particularly in North America, got to operate in a sphere of discourse already occupied. The name of the occupant, in very many of our congregations, is the psychology of worship. This strange roomer got into and established himself in the living room of church practice in roughly the following way: that people do worship God is an observable fact; and every fact is permeable to psychological inquiry. Psychology does not operate from hand to mouth; it has either open or unavowed presuppositions about the structure and dynamics of the psyche. If, then, in worship people are in some way or other in search of a relationship to the Ineffable there must be ways which lubricate and ways which hinder this search. The human animal is influenced by setting, accompaniment, symbols, silence, the gravity of statement and response, the solidarity-producing impact of solemn music, etc.

So it has happened that experts in worship have arisen among us. All assume that the purpose of public worship is to create a mood; and he is the next admirable as the leader of worship who has mastered finesse in the mood-setting devices made available by the application of psychological categories. Thence has flowed that considerable and melancholy river of counsel whereby one may learn how to organize an assault upon the cognitive and critical faculties of the mind, how to anesthetize into easy seduction the nonverbalized but dependable anxieties that roam about in the solitary and collective unconscious, and how to conduct a brain-washing under the presumed banner of the Holy Ghost.

That this is what worship means in thousands of congregations is certainly true; it is equally true that the scriptures know nothing about such ideas. When we are enjoined to be still and know that God is God, the presupposition is not that stillness is good and speech is bad -- but rather that God is prior to man and all God-man relationships are out of joint if that is not acknowledged.

d. The third problem of which we have become acutely aware is a big and general problem; and I cannot advance toward a description of it until I shove out of the way an unhappy term which is well on the way to ecumenical canonization. It is a nontheological factor! Which is saying an unintelligible thing. For there are no nontheological factors in human existence. To suppose that there are is to misunderstand both the scope and intention of Christian theology and the actualities of human thought and feeling.

This tough third problem then can best be delineated by starting with a proposition: that language is the primary creation and carrier of culture, and it follows the career of man’s culture with absolute seriousness. Language, that is to say, in the structure, scope, and content of it, is an obedient transcript of what a people understands itself and its world to be like. When that world-understanding is mono-dimensional, language loses its opulence. When that world-meaning becomes a plane without extension or depth, language becomes designative and thin.

I cannot here investigate why language in our time has become flat, nonallusive, and impoverished, but simply to observe that it has and ask what this means for our churches as they seek to recover ways of worship which shall be more adequate to the object of worship, and more fully reflective of the long history of the people of God in their life of worship.

It is strange that this problem, so widely acknowledged and so profoundly disturbing outside the churches, has, so far as I know, not been systematically discussed among us. This is the more strange because the more deeply a concern is loaded with history, the past, things accomplished long ago, the more a church understands herself as a "pilgrim people of God" -- that is, called, continuous, on the way, starting with a constitutive deed and living out her life in a hope which is both a given and an awaited consummation -- the more clearly the church understands that, the more embarrassing her problem with a flat and impoverished language. Just as our Christology becomes richer, our ecclesiology more organic, our anthropology deeper -- our common language, the cultural instrument that must do the work of acknowledgment, praise, and interpretation, is shrinking in obedience to a diminished realm of meaning.

The gravity of rhythmic speech is the mark of a culture that carries its past livingly in its present experience. Rhythmic speech is the outward and visible sign of rootedness. Every society has had its rhetoric of remembrance. "Come now, let us bring our reasoning to a close, saith the Lord. . . . Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider. . . . I am the Lord thy God that brought thee out of that great and terrible wilderness. . . . I have called thee by thy name, thou art mine."

In the scriptures each moment is heavy with all past moments, for the God of the moment is the creator of the continuity. The old prayers of the church understood this so well and felt it so deeply that every one of them jumps into the moments’ petitions after a running start in the eventful history of the people of God. "O God, who didst teach the hearts of Thy faithful people by sending to them the light of Thy Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in His holy comfort. . . ." This is great rhetoric because it roots the life of the moment in the grace of the past; it evokes a response in depth because it is not only a report, but a reverberation. It is an expectant episode in a people’s life because it is a note in ancient and continuing music. It is as big as the heart because it is as old as the people of God.

How many times, in reading the liturgy for the Holy Communion, I have felt both exultation and despair at the moment of the Sanctus: "Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify Thy glorious Name; evermore praising Thee, and saying: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Saboath . . ." Exalted because, in this language, this place and time and company of momentary lives are interpreted and blessed within the scope of an eternal action of God, released from the tyranny of death and what Dylan Thomas has so movingly alluded to when he laments that

. . . time in all its tuneless turning allows
So few, and such morning songs. . .

But also in despair for to the flattened speech of our time angels and archangels are rather ridiculous symbols -- material, so to speak, nonfissionable by contemporary definition of fact.

Strange things nevertheless are happening in the present practice of language. Just when one is sodden with despair over the possibility of making alive the massive biblical symbol of fire, for instance --

Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire

And lighten with celestial fire;

just then man does such things with language as to reinvest this symbol with meanings and dreamed of meanings of terrible force. The immediate referent of fire in 1957 is not the celestial fire of God’s descending and recreating ardor -- but a monstrous shape like a death-dealing mushroom. And out of this unimaginable hell a man envisions again an unbelievable grace, and writes in language which wildly fuses destroying atom bombs and the descending Holy Ghost:

The dove descending breaks the air
"With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
T. S. Eliot

Such speech judges one’s tepid unbelief in the power of the Holy Spirit of God, reminds us that the aggressive and ingenious love that can make the stones cry out can penetrate positivistic language too, and betimes torment its flatness into a kind of "negative" praise.

It is therefore proper to our study of worship to inquire what this revolution in language means for the public worship in our churches; to ask whether perhaps it is not a task of contemporary obedience and praise to find fresh forms of statement whereby intelligibly to set forth ancient facts and encounters. It may well be that we are entering upon a period in the church’s life wherein men’s minds must be shocked open to entertain the suspicion that there are realms of meaning, promise, and judgment which ensconce God’s incarnate action for their vague disquietudes.

The Problem:

Constructive Analysis

There has never been a church which has not declared its faith and order to be continuous with the apostolic tradition. Some churches have affirmed this explicitly in their confessions or other basic writings; others have unfolded their life, eschewing confessional statements, but claiming to celebrate this tradition in teaching, order, and piety.

This fact opens up a double way to make an entrance into the constructive part of our task. One way is to mobilize all resources for an ever-fresh encounter with the actual content of the apostolic tradition and judge the public worship in our churches according to their congruity with its announcement, promise, and demand. This does not of course assume that there are, in the apostolic tradition, clear and commanding directives concerning the form and content of public worship; it affirms, rather, that ways of worship which ignore or distort the liberating message of God’s Christly action must be corrected from that central action.

The other way is to examine the phenomena of public worship as carried on by the various churches; peer behind the accents and selections which have actually modified all of them; get beyond the cultural deposits in the form of language, music, gesture, etc., which cling to all of them; and ask if there is morphology of the response of the people of God.

The hope is that there may emerge among us, as we inquire into these matters, a way of thinking about worship which will liberate us from our placid captivity within our separate traditions. We are asking if there is a unity in the entire worshipping career of the responding faithful people of God, whence this unity comes, and what is its essential content.

The earliest Christian communities to whose life we have literary access apparently believed there was such a unity. This consensus concerning the apostolic tradition is the more remarkable in view of the broad and detailed New Testament studies which have elaborated the rich and sometimes confusing variety out of which the voice of this consensus speaks. Before the Gospels, in the form we now know them, existed, the church was giving voice to the general shape and content of what it believed God had accomplished in Christ -- which action called it into being, sustained and enabled its life, and furnished it with both task and power. God, it was affirmed, had engaged himself in a personal, incarnate action with man’s estranged and captive predicament, had recapitulated in Jesus Christ the entire life of Adam (his created but now estranged human family) , had involved himself with every tragedy, limitation, desolation, and even the death of man.

This God-initiated, ingressive penetration of human life is the substance of those records which are the Four Gospels. Each, to be sure, has its own character; each has sources unknown to or unused by the others; and each is shaped in accent and use of materials by circumstances known to us to some degree.

But the morphology of the action of God in Christ is alike in all. Its shape is an inverted parabola. The starting point is the appearance of One who asserted that he came to announce and inaugurate the kingly rule of God in such a way as to actualize the hopes of the people of God, make effective the liberating promise and power of God, establish men -- by his life and teaching and deeds -- in a new relationship to God and to one another.

This lived-out action had a shape which was that of a descending curve which went down, into, through, and under every broken God-relationship, and was apparently destroyed at the nadir of its career on Good Friday.

The Gospels, however, are resurrection documents. They declare that God, who is alive, is not stopped in his purpose by the assault of death, but rather carried his action through. His Word, Jesus Christ, is victorious over death, lives, reigns, is the second Adam, the Head of a new body -- the church. The old creed of the church follows episodically the precise pattern of the parabola of the grace of God -- born, suffered, died, arose, ascended, reigns with the Father.

This declaration is the core of the apostolic tradition. We confront it repeatedly in the Acts of the Apostles and in that body of correspondence available to us in the letters of Paul. Especially clarifying and impressive is the way Paul, caught in a polemical situation, again and again appeals to this tradition. In such situations the apostle reaches, as it were, back of himself and back of his hearers, gets hold of the given core of what commands him and them,- and strides into the point at issue as from a secure beachhead. That these moments occur in the course of the rough and tumble of his pastoral career and not, as a rule, as calculated links in a chain of argument makes them the more startling. Paul did not, apparently, so schematize his words to the Philippians as to lead up to the great words in chapter 2, verses 5-11. He is simply appealing to this community -- which was in a fix -- to be "like-minded" in the "fellowship of the Spirit."

This fellowship involves a "lowliness of mind." And whence is that? Where shall one behold it, whence receive it? Led on then by the questions his own counsel has generated the apostle cannot stop short of sinking the present life of the Philippian community in the entire deed of God in Jesus Christ. So, almost accidentally, does the all-shaping apostolic core reveal its massive shape behind an occasional pastoral message. This passage is not Christology in order to Christology; it is Christology in order to ethics. And the more persuasive for that reason.

In the letter to the Romans Paul is called upon to confront a flippant and almost blasphemous non sequitur -- a situation not unknown to any preacher or teacher today. If grace abounds more abundantly where sin abounds in force, then one is in the amazing situation of eating and having his cake at the same time! Against such total incomprehension of his message Paul wheels up the heavy artillery of the apostolic tradition.

The shape of the deed of God, he declares, engenders a total human life in organic congruity with itself; and to be a Christian is to have one’s life in its shape determined by the shape of what God has done. Therefore, says Paul, what happened to Christ is the God-given, redemptive pattern of our lives. "Know ye not that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life."

As then, the morphology of grace in the life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ imparts to and creates in the believer its own shape -- so worship is the name proper to the celebration of this new being in Christ by his body, the church. Such a celebration has a scope broad enough to include all the New Testament means by leitorgia, latria, diakonia (the service of God) , and has enough specific concreteness to be verbalized in the liturgical life of the church where it is assembled in public worship. Any definition of worship less rich than this comes under the judgment of such an admonition as Paul’s in the twelfth chapter of Romans. "I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship."

As then we perceive the bare elements of the apostolic message, and observe how this shape, re-enacted within the behavior by the power of the Holy Spirit, constituted Christian life in the fellowship of the community, do we not also, perhaps, find a pattern for Christian worship? Is there not here a given substance and morphology of response which presses upon all of us, calls all of us to attend, acknowledge, and celebrate? If that is so, then we are given a starting place where, from within our various churches, we ask after what is constitutive of and proper to the content of truly catholic worship.

Every tradition in Christian worship acknowledges that it does indeed stand under this given substance of the gospel. This is overtly so among the churches which cherish liturgical patterns centuries old; it is covertly so among churches whose public worship is improvised, ad hoc, and so free as to make the term "tradition" strange. The directive of the churches represented in Faith and Order -- that a study of worship be pursued over a number of years -- indicates a recognition that there is a giveness to Christian worship, and that the common degradation of worship into gimmicks for religious mood-engendering is a kind of impoverishment, a failure, a positive disobedience hiding behind the face of individualism, spontaneity, freedom.

Remembering then the apostolic tradition, and having in mind the huge spectrum of forms of public worship within the churches -- from nonliturgical churches on one side to Eastern Orthodoxy on the other -- there is none that does not acknowledge in public worship the following five elements: recollection, thanksgiving, participation, proclamation, expectation.

Recollection. A congregation of believers assembled for the public worship of God knows that it did not come into existence at that moment, knows that it is not alone, knows that what is happening is happening because something has happened from God’s side. What is announced is continuous with what has been announced since the Resurrection.

And therefore all sequences of public worship include, whether in formal liturgical or informal ways, powerful elements of recollection. Mighty deeds have been done, a huge liberation has taken place, an event called Jesus Christ was, is, and is here -- and everything that takes place presupposes that. "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. . . In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a love. . . . In all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. . ."

Celebration begins with recollection.

Recollection engenders thanksgiving. The content of what is recalled in worship is not a cluster of episodes spiritually elevated above, but essentially continuous with, the structures of human history. These remembered deeds of creation, care, deliverance, and renewal are rather the recital of faith in which is perceived within the structure of history the ultimate redemption of man. Exodus is an occurrence, and a power-bearing symbol; Incarnation is an occurrence, and the radical mercy of God whereby he did and does what needs doing in the sin and death determined house of man’s existence. As then ". . . although they know God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him"; nevertheless, ". . . when the time had fully come God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons."

Therefore, "Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift." "And all the angels stood ‘round the throne, .. . and they fell on their faces and worshipped God, saying, Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen."

The church’s thankful recollection of God’s deed of redemption is at the same time a participation. Hearing, repentance, acceptance of mercy, forgiveness of sins -- these are all the work of God whereby man receives no less than a "new-being in Christ." Rich and various are the New Testament images in which this new-being is promised and, given in faith, celebrated. Men are before Christ, who beholds them; under Christ, who judges them; for or against Christ, who addresses them. But the thrust and destiny of this holy encounter is that they may be in Christ! The language of participation dominates the New Testament speech about the fullness of the Christ relationship. "I am the vine; you are the branches." "If any man be in Christ he is a new creation, old things have passed away." "I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me . . . the life which I now live I live by this Son of God who loved me. . ." "For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God."

Christian worship is proclamation. The substance of what is proclaimed is the same as what is recollected, the same as is now acknowledged by the congregation in thanksgiving as God’s salvatory and present power, the same as is offered and received in participation of the members in the Head of the church. Worship not only includes proclamation of the gospel of salvation, it is proclamation.

Every service of public worship is a banner of life flying among the banners of mortality. Every assembly of believers in the name of Christ is a proclamation of the Regnum Dei by subjects and sons who have been liberated and now live in the Regnum Christi. The celebration of the Supper of the Lord is indeed recollection, Eucharist, the seal of forgiveness of sins, and the gift and nurturing of life in the Lord of the feast. But it is something more: something immediate and poignant in the embattled "little flocks" of the first century, known again in our day by millions in shattered and cut-off lives in cells, rubble, behind wire, and behind curtains.

It is the proclamation of engrafted membership in a kingdom not born of history, and therefore not at the mercy of history’s demonic tyrannies. The somber chalice has in our day again become a defiant sign uplifted, the believer’s "toast of terrible joy." "As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes."

But all of this recollection, thanksgiving, participation, and proclamation is the worship, or true service of God, in the body within the theater of this world; a response and a song of praise by the pilgrim people of God. And for that reason Christian worship is always expectation. This expectation is not an element in a richer context, it is rather the pervading mood of the whole of Christian worship. If I had not been given an immeasurable gift I could not expect at all; if this gift were consummated within the conditions of human existence I could not expect, either.

The last word of the New Testament is a dramatic condensation of this "not yet -- yet even now." The Apocalypse of St. John concludes, "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!" The Amen leans backward toward the mighty salvatory deeds of God, affirms that the church, the Body of Christ, is held in God’s hand against the powers of hell. The "Come, Lord Jesus" leans forward toward the consummation of "the fullness of him who fills all in all."

The Christian life is a life drawn taut between the Amen and the Come. This tautness has its suffering, its waiting, and its peculiar service to the world. And inasmuch as Christian worship has been the strange music of these taut and joyous lives in history, a deep study of worship points a steady finger to the nature of the unity we seek.

Viewed 54719 times.