On Liturgical Gnats and Theological Camels

William B. Evans

I probably should begin this post by establishing my "traditional worship" bona fides.   My tastes in worship are decidedly traditional--my wife and I attend a church with a pipe organ where the organ is used . . . every Sunday . . . and a classic Presbyterian order of worship is followed, complete with the reading of the Law, corporate confession of sin and assurance of pardon, a confession of faith, the singing of the Gloria Patri, and 40-minute sermon.   Moreover, the congregation is growing steadily and there are scads of young people about, so "traditional" clearly does not equal "stodgy" in this case.  Nevertheless, there is nary a guitar, drum kit, or electronic keyboard to be found, let alone exercises in liturgical drama and dance, and that's fine with me.

Of course, those who know me well might wish to remind me of an earlier day when, yea and verily, I played guitar in a "praise band" in a CRC mission church.  True enough, but I have put the guitar away, at least for purposes of corporate worship.  Now I will cheerfully admit to pulling out a Fender Esquire and a tweed Deluxe on occasion for the odd Led Zeppelin or ZZ Top cover tune, but my days of playing "praise and worship" music are long gone.

All that being said, I have had a nagging question in the back of my mind for some time now, and that question is this: Does at least some of the current interest in "traditional worship" have more to do with the postmodern turn to the aesthetic than with a principled concern for truth?  I recently observed to a theologically astute friend (and one with a long history in Reformed worship discussions) that I have been struck by the fact that some conservative Reformed proponents of traditional worship would seemingly rather hang out with PCUSA Barthians who practice traditional worship than with other Evangelicals who share their view of Scripture but whose worship sensibility is more contemporary.  His response was, "It's a fascinating question, isn't it?"  Fascinating indeed!

I began pondering this issue after listening to a stimulating paper by D. G. Hart presented at the 2000 meeting of the Calvin Colloquium at Columbia Theological Seminary (an expanded version of the paper was later published as chapter 13 of Hart's Recovering Mother Kirk: The Case for Liturgy in the Reformed Tradition [Baker, 2003]).  In it Hart in essence asked the question of why some Reformed theological "conservatives" can be so "liberal" on worship while those further to the left theologically are often so "conservative" on matters liturgical.  His test case is a comparison of PCA teaching elder John Frame's Worship in Spirit and Truth (P&R, 1996) and PCUSA worship scholar Hughes Oliphant Old's Worship That Is Reformed according to Scripture (John Knox, 1984).  As Hart puts it, "In the 'liberal' PCUSA, if Old's book is any indication, the traditional elements and rites of historic Reformed liturgy are firmly in place.  But in the 'conservative' PCA, using Frame as a guide, the conventional pieces of Reformed worship are in flux" (p. 183).  A bit later, Hart contends, "If sideline Presbyterian denominations such as the PCA and the OPC were as conservative about the Reformed tradition as they regard themselves, then we would expect Old's book to have come from a PCA or an OPC minister and to have been published by a conservative Presbyterian press.  Moreover, if the mainline Presbyterian denomination was as liberal as its conservative detractors insist, then it would make more sense for Frame's book to have come from a PCUSA officer and publishing house.  Yet the opposite is the case.  The conservatives have turned modernist, if by modernism we mean the self-conscious adaptation of the faith to modern times.  Just as unlikely, the modernists have become the chief defenders of the historic Reformed faith, at least in its liturgical aspects, against efforts to preserve the kernel while refashioning a modern husk" (pp. 187-188).

Hart goes on to suggest two reasons for this "ironic reversal"--evangelism and biblicism. First, conservative Reformed Christians, he says, are concerned about evangelism and, by extension, about making worship accessible (p. 195).  Conversely, having perhaps lost sight of the particularity of the gospel and the imperative of gospel proclamation, "mainline Presbyterians have been freer to hold on to a liturgical tradition that never made worship into the handmaid for evangelism" (p. 196).  Second, conservative Presbyterians are biblicists; they hold to the inerrancy of Scripture and are suspicious of ecclesial traditions that cannot be justified by appeal to the biblical text.  Conversely, mainline Presbyterians are more open to the role of tradition in worship.  Here, interestingly, Hart also asserts that "conservatives no doubt caricature mainline Presbyterians when they argue that liberals do not believe the Bible is infallible and authoritative" (p. 196).  As one with deep family roots in the PCUSA who is reasonably aware of that church's current condition, I find this statement astonishing.  Is Hart saying that J. Gresham Machen was wrong after all?  Fascinating indeed!  

While there is doubtless some substance to Hart's arguments, there are things that give me pause.  For example, while his analysis may stick with regard to some sectors of the PCA, how is it that Hart implicates his own denomination (the OPC) in this alleged "liturgical modernism"?  The Orthodox Presbyterians that I know are serious about Reformed worship and the means of grace. Some of them may not be particularly elegant about it, but they are distinctively Reformed in their approach to worship.  In addition, I suspect that the PCUSA preference for traditional worship has less to do with theology and more to do with social location--in this case, the upper-middle-class preference for formalism in worship and distaste for pietistic enthusiasm.  In light of this, I can't help but wonder whether there are cultural and aesthetic factors at work in this conservative Reformed embrace of the liturgically conservative/theologically liberal Protestant mainline.  It seems that, for some, a concern for evangelism and biblical authority are not such good things when they result in worship that is less than tasteful.  In short, is the real problem for some conservative Reformed champions of "traditional worship" that a lot of evangelical worship is, by upper-middle-class standards, a bit tacky? 

Given an unhappy choice between holding on to the gospel and the authority of Scripture on the one hand and aesthetically pleasing traditional Reformed worship on the other, the issue for me is clear.  Why strain a liturgical gnat and swallow a theological camel?  Fortunately, that is a false dichotomy, a choice that need not be made.