By Joseph Lear

Review: Melanie C. Ross, Evangelical Versus Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy (Eerdmans, 2014). 

In Evangelical Versus Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy, Melanie C. Ross commends evangelical Christians to liturgical ones. Evangelicals are not careful to preserve the ecumenical ordo established at least since the second century, which would seem to bar the possibility of a conversation. In lieu of the ecumenical ordo, evangelicals have created an ordo of pragmatism: do what works to convert souls.

Ross points out that an ordo is still an ordo, however, which opens the door for conversation. If a conversation can start, then Ross suggests that it might be grounds for claiming that the unity of the Church is not strictly liturgical, but also pneumatological. The same Spirit inhabits evangelical and liturgical Christians alike, and this, Ross says, is what evangelicals want their liturgical sisters and brothers to know.

Ross gives a charitable account of evangelicalism, and finds the best in this amorphous American tradition. She not only finds reasons for liturgical Christians to begin conversing with evangelicals, but also models how the conversation ought to happen. Charity is the spirit of ecumenism.

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Ross begins her defense of evangelicalism with a historical argument. Charles Finney has come to be known as the ultimate pragmatist. He did what worked to convert people to Christianity. Ross suggests that while liturgical Christians may validly critique Finney and his evangelical progeny, Finney is not the only face of the movement. George Whitefield, the figure of the first Great Awakening and Finney’s predecessor, saw people of genuine faith in every tradition. Evangelical origins are not therefore strictly about trading ecclesiology for the conversion of the individual.

Ross’s second chapter shows how Whitfield’s ecumenical legacy lives on today in significant sectors of evangelicalism. As evidence, she presents Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, which “defies the dichotomy of pragmatism and ecumenism” (p. 44). She describes the church’s ethics as a direct outflow of its worship. Eastbrook is home to justice programs of every sort: members feed the hungry, host English as a Second Language classes for immigrants, and offer a free clinic in an underprivileged neighborhood of the city. Moreover, Eastbrook’s belief that God created all people to worship him is modeled in the fact that a third of the congregation comprises 70 different ethnic groups.

The theological hurdles between liturgical and evangelical Christians will not be overcome by case studies, however, so Ross turns in the next two chapters to two theological concerns. First, Ross addresses the concern that evangelicalism represents a fundamentalist orientation to scriptural interpretation. Aidan Kavanagh, for example, has suggested that fundamentalism results from removing Scripture from its liturgical context.

Evangelical scholar John Webster, however, suggests that the problem of fundamentalism arose because Scripture has been removed from its trinitarian context. As Spirit, God is the one who “reveals the perfection of his self-revelation by making it real and effective” (p. 63). Ross points out that Webster and Kavanagh agree on much, and their solutions may not be mutually exclusive. Moreover, an ecumenical ordo may not suffice to combat fundamentalist approaches to Scripture. Liberal liturgical Christians are no less fundamentalist in their interpretation of Scripture; a proposed progressive set of doctrinal shibboleths provide a would-be canon within a canon.

Ross addresses the objective and subjective issues at stake in the constitution of the Church. Liturgical Christians look to the objectivity of the Eucharist and other sacraments. Evangelicals wish to ask, Is the Spirit present? Is he obeyed? Evangelicals worry that liturgical Christians lack authenticity; liturgical Christians worry that evangelicals are gnostics.

Again, on behalf of evangelicals, Ross appeals to Miroslav Volf’s claim that while the Church may not exist without the sacraments, there are also no sacraments without the Church (p. 89). Ross points out that Volf’s position is remarkably similar to that of the liturgical scholars of Vatican II. In sum, evangelicals do not deny the importance of the Lord’s Supper and other sacramental actions. The emphasis merely falls on the importance of an individual’s faith for making those actions sacramental.

Here Ross turns to a second case study of West Shore Evangelical Free Church in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. West Shore blurs the lines between liturgical and evangelical and demonstrates that evangelicals cannot (at least as a whole) be accused of the theological missteps of the previous two chapters. Evangelical versus liturgical is a false dichotomy.

If Ross has not yet convinced her readers that liturgical Christians should hear what evangelicals have to say, she presents a final argument. Etymologically, the terms liturgical and evangelical can be defined so widely, that it is possible to overcome the perceived dichotomy simply by following basic definitions. If liturgy broadly defined is any ceremonial style of worship, then all Christian worship is liturgical. Similarly, evangelicalism broadly defined is merely the belief that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ constitute good news that must be shared with others. This reframes the issue as a question of how one is liturgical and evangelical.

Ross’s work should be extended both to the black church in America and to African Christianity. Ross’s fellow Yale scholar Lamin Sanneh points out (in Whose Religion Is Christianity?) that the proliferation of non-denominational churches in Africa has afforded the Church a new and unprecedented opportunity for ecumenical work. The lines of division are not hard, but soft, which makes them so much easier to blur. Let us not overcome the perceived dichotomy between evangelical and liturgical only to ignore racial and global dichotomies and divisions.

The Rev. Dr. Joseph Lear recently finished his PhD in New Testament at the University of Aberdeen. He is lead pastor of First Assembly of God in Iowa City, and the Assemblies of God chaplain at the University of Iowa.

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