A review of Nicholas Wolterstorff, The God We Worship (Eerdmans, 2015)

In The God We Worship, Nicholas Wolterstorff attempts to develop a theology of the liturgy based on what is implicit in its overall shape as employed by the Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and “high church” Protestants — Lutheran, Anglican/Episcopal, and some Reformed. The contents of this brief book were originally presented at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, as part of the 2013 Kantzer Lectures in Revealed Theology. (Videos of the lectures and those of previous years are available on the website of the Carl F.H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding.)

Wolterstorff has wide-ranging interests in philosophy, theology, and aesthetics. His most popular book is a series of meditations he wrote after the accidental death of his young adult son. In The God We Worship the mature professor takes up the question of liturgical theology. He places himself in the wider conversation of liturgical theology, citing especially the influential Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann as well as Jean-Jacques von Allmen, the most significant liturgical theologian from the Reformed tradition in the past century.

For the main thrust of his book, Wolterstorff claims to take his cue from Schmemann. Liturgy and liturgical actions are a kind of code, he says. The work of liturgical theology is to “decode” the liturgy, to make explicit what is implicit in the liturgy. At the end of the book, however, Wolterstorff concedes that his work and that of Schmemann differ significantly.

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Wolterstorff sees theology derived from the liturgy as parallel to biblical theology and confessional theology. In each case there are base texts or sources for assembling the theology: Bible, Creeds and confessional documents, and liturgy and liturgical actions. Sometimes these parallel theologies will be in conflict, and that requires further work, but it does not obviate the need for each of these disciplines to proceed independently of one another. In other words, theology made explicit from what is implicit in the liturgy may or may not be in contradiction with received doctrine derived from biblical or confessional theology. If it is in contradiction, then either the liturgy or biblical and confessional doctrine may need to be modified.

Wolterstorff does not attempt to analyze particular liturgical texts or sequences of actions in the liturgy, but he does repeatedly cite the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. What Wolterstorff sees as implicit in all or nearly all Christian liturgies can be distilled into three principal observations: First, by offering our prayers and praises and intercessions in the liturgy for ourselves, the Church, and the world, there is an implicit assertion that God can hear and respond favorably to our prayers. Second, because so much liturgy is about listening — to the sermon, the reading of Scripture, or the recollection of God’s saving acts in Christ in the Eucharist — liturgy also implies that God is one who speaks through Scripture, preaching, and sacrament. Lastly, because we owe to God our worship and in the liturgy own before him our sins and faults, the liturgy implies that God has made himself “vulnerable to being hurt.”

Such implications are, Wolterstorff concedes, potentially in conflict with traditional theism. For example, his analysis would suggest that prayer and adoration is offered to change God’s mind rather than to change the worshipers and engage them in the human telos of glorifying God. Unquestionably God does speak in the liturgy, but is this word really any new or different from the eternal Word made flesh? For Wolterstorff, confession implies that God can be hurt by man, but traditional theism would say that because God is perfect in himself he is immune to being harmed and so confession is a gift and grace for broken humanity, not a remedy for a wounded God.

Wolterstorff points out that many theologians would at this point resort to what he calls a “Maimonides-style analysis” of the liturgy. Maimonides, arguably the most important Jewish theologian and philosopher, argued in his Guide for the Perplexed that those portions of the Scripture that contain anthropomorphic imagery for God should be understood as figurative or symbolic. God does not have wings or feathers (Psalms 90:4), but rather, these have to be understood as images of his loving-care and providence for his people. Maimonides was able to reconcile the teachings of traditional theism — eternity, impassibility, immutability, and simplicity of the divine nature — with the Bible, and many Christian theologians before and after him adopted a similar approach.

After considering a Maimonides-style analysis of the implications he has gleaned from the liturgy, Wolterstorff rejects this approach because it only offers two ways of understanding theological propositions: strictly literal or figurative. Wolterstorff offers a novel, third approach he calls analogical extension.

Now suppose that I assertively utter … referring to my dog, “He knows his master.” Suppose further that, when pressed on the matter, I admit that since we know nothing about the interior life of dogs, or whether they even have an interior life, I don’t know whether they even have an interior life, I don’t know whether it’s literally true of my dog that he knows his master, or whether what’s literally true of him is, rather, that he does something a good deal like that. So what I am doing, when I predicate the terms “knows” of my dog, is saying that he literally either knows or does something a good deal like that (p. 92).

In the same way, when we say things like God hears our prayers and can hear them favorably, we mean either that this is literally the case or something very much like this is true. Wolterstorff, as a result, does not feel bound by the tenets of traditional theism in developing his liturgical theology, and says explicitly that the doctrine of the divine simplicity “should be discarded” (p. 104).

I found this book to be stimulating in some of its analysis, and Wolterstorff’s far-ranging acumen is evident in these lectures. Nevertheless, I found myself rarely able to agree with his conclusions. The Episcopal Church has not often been heralded as a confessional church, but it is difficult to discard traditional theism as Wolterstorff does in his exploration of liturgical theology: Traditional theism undergirds most historical theology and the vast majority of ecclesial bodies, and even offers a realm of common ground with orthodox Judaism and Islam. In addition, I also question whether Wolterstorff’s perception of what is implicit in the liturgy is only applicable to Christian liturgy. Could those implications be deduced from the worship of Shiva, Diana, or the Great Spirit?

About The Author

I am priest-in-charge of Trinity Episcopal Church in Red Bank, a parish in the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey. Born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I was nurtured spiritually at St. John’s Cathedral and St. Mark’s on-the-Mesa.

I am passionately committed to traditional Anglican worship and liturgy, with a particular respect for the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the ways in which this tradition expresses our Catholic and Reformed heritage. I also believe in the power of primary texts to inspire and grip the imagination, in a way that secondary texts rarely can. My own studies are organized around this principle, as is my teaching at Trinity Church.

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