Results tagged “fanaticism” from Reformation21 Blog

Concessions and contentions

I may have fallen victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is, "Never get involved in a land war in Asia," but only slightly less well known is this: "Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!" Then further down the pecking order comes this one: "Never quote Owen in response to Trueman if you do not want a trampling."

Ah, well, if I may quote the great doctor (Trueman, of course), "Fools rush in where monkeys fear to tread." At least taking aim at everyone includes me - thank you, Carl, for making me a part of this . . .

I must admit I come to this with my admiration for Carl marred somewhat by the unsettling notion of a Pentecostal phase. It is like being told that, prior to discovering Led Zeppelin, he flirted with Showaddywaddy or had a brief Diana Ross period. Nevertheless, I care for him enough not to allow his life to become too boring, and so I offer the following concessions and contentions.


Naturally, one reads Owen in his own context, and the issue of state imposition of a specific liturgical form is part of that. To simply lift a statement and drop it on someone else without nuance would be unhelpful, and I did not intend to do that. I am glad that Carl has given me an occasion to clarify the issue.

I am not dismissing all "formal liturgy" as necessarily ritualistic and formalistic (although the fact that the words formal and formalistic have the merest smidgin of something in common should suggest a potential connection to our minds).

I am not in the least seeking to dismiss the Reformers as s/Spiritually insubstantial men. However, surely we must apply the same criteria as to Owen and others, that they too were (as we are) of their time, subject to certain influences, thinking in certain categories, reacting against certain issues.

I accept that formalism and fanaticism are not mutually exclusive categories. I think - and this is part of the point, as I shall suggest below - that this may be a horseshoe spectrum (similar to the political example in which both fascism and communism are both actually manifestations of totalitarianism). A person could be fanatically formal or formally fanatical.

I am not dismissing the value of worship informed by the best that the past has to offer. I believe that to divorce ourselves from the past is as much a folly as our enslavement to it - I do not accuse Carl of either the former or the latter, although I imagine that as a church historian he is probably particularly concerned about the historical myopia characteristic of too much of the modern church.


The fact that Owen is deriving his principle out of and applying his principle into a specific set of historical circumstances does not render that basic principle necessarily flawed or its present application necessarily inappropriate. Even if we do not see the arrival of liturgy in Colorado Springs as "necessarily representing some kind of formalist dust inevitably filling a vacuum left by the departure of megachurch evangelicalism," I think it is legitimate to ask whether or not it may possibly be typical or representative of the kind of shifts that take place under such circumstances.

Here we might return to the idea of the horseshoe spectrum and the underlying point that I wish to make. Owen - in various places, and not just when addressing liturgy specifically - is concerned that where Christ is not worshipped in spirit and truth then that absence (and all that is lost with it) will be supplied, at least in wish, by recourse to the senses and appetites of men. In that sense, both formalism and fanaticism, properly understood, pander to carnality, and there is enough of it remaining in every saint for us to be constantly on guard against either.

The original article by Gene Veith suggested that the congregation in question was trying to "find its place in historic Christianity" by "bringing in liturgy, every-Sunday communion, the church year, and pastoral care. Its new statement of faith is the Nicene Creed." The parent article in Christianity Today puts some flesh on those bones. However, there's not much doubt that those elements that Veith identified are not inherently united. For example, the church year and pastoral care are no more necessarily bound together than they are necessarily separated. That said, there are elements of the package described that do tend and have often historically tended toward formality, even where they do not impose it.

My concern is that, moving further away from the specifics of this example (and making no accusations), it would not be at all surprising to find that a church that had discovered the emptiness of megachurch evangelicalism and charismatic excesses might very well, rather than turn to the fullness of Christ, simply find a different emptiness that at least had the virtue of novelty without actually solving the problem. So, yes, it may not be inevitable to see a formalist procession sweeping into the vacuum left by fanatical activity, but it is not altogether unlikely.

In this regard, might it not be time to drop this 'everyone has a liturgy' weapon, especially when employed as a catch-all dismission of any dissenting opinion with regard to worship? It has become de rigeur, especially among some Presbyterians, to employ this as a screen not so much to prevent any charges of formalism as to give a blanket defence of their own modes of worship. I recognise that there is a set of definitions of liturgy. Taking a simple line, we acknowledge that almost every church has a liturgy in the limited sense that almost every church conducts its public worship in accordance with a prescribed form (from the highest of Roman or Anglican or Orthodox worship to the broadest of megachurch evangelicalism, as the fairly well-known "Contemporvant" video makes clear).

In responding to Carl, I am not crassly suggesting that the alternative to all this proto-Catholicism is the four hymn sandwich. So, for example, the church I serve has a fairly well established format which allows for a number of variations but follows the same basic outline. It involves reading and singing psalms each Lord's day, morning and evening, as well as portions from the Old and New Testaments, together with a sermon, other hymns, and praying (always extempore, though we do address particular topics). We celebrate the Lord's supper as part of our worship on a regular basis. I hope it is clear that I have no appetite for chaotic, irreverent, man-centred worship-as-performance. At the same time, I steer clear of the deliberately dramatic and theatrical, the scripted, the heavily symbolic (except where biblically mandated), the overtly clerical. In that sense, I do not think that many people would wander into one of our services of worship and immediately suggest that we have a very 'liturgical' approach to things in the popular sense of the word.

I think that Carl and I would both contend that - taking the basic definition of liturgy, and echoing Carl's language - we desire and promote an intelligent pattern of worship that is theologically informed, which we and the churches we serve acknowledge and upon which they reflect, something that is grounded in the Word of God. Doubtless, in pursuing this, we come to the matter burdened by our own experiences and informed by our own convictions, and needing to take account of our own errors and imbalances.

I have not visited the church which Carl serves, so I don't know about their forms of worship, and I will not presume that they have a high and ornate liturgy any more than Carl will (I hope) be presuming that the church where I worship enjoys a four hymn sandwich (for the record, we usually sing three times in each worship service, at least once a psalm). But I am concerned that there are two extremes to avoid, and I see some of my Presbyterian and Baptist brethren reacting to and over-reacting against one or the other extreme. Given the general tendency in much broader evangelicalism toward fanaticism, I am concerned that those who wish to establish or even boast of their Reformed credentials do not swing to the other end of the spectrum, and find themselves in a very different environment, but really not that far away from the errors that they sought to avoid. I am prone to the same reactions and over-reactions, and so I wrestle with the same issues.

I do not deride or ignore the light of the centuries in which men have been living as new covenant believers. I live in it and I love it. But it is not the language of radicalism or shallowness - a sort of aggressive solo Scriptura or Scriptura nuda notion - to say that I pursue the simplicity and sublimity of scriptural worship. I desire something that does not pander overmuch to the senses if the Spirit is not enlivening us, either by way of forms and rituals or excesses and abandonment. I would rather that it all fell to the ground than that we went away imagining that we had worshipped when there had been nothing of any spiritual substance in our exercises, but we had managed to cover it over with something merely carnal, whether of imposed form or seeming freedom. I do not believe that such a desire is mysticism, Welsh or otherwise.

"Formalism is a matter of the heart, not of the written page," writes Carl. That is true, but an over-reliance on forms provides a particular opportunity for formalism just as the abandonment of order opens a door for fanaticism. At the same time, we must all be careful not to portray this simplistically as a fight between incipient radicalism and incipient ritualism. I think that Owen's principle holds good. The discussion for Reformed believers, with our different expectations and traditions, is how to walk the fine line without falling into the pit on the one side or the swamp on the other.