A truly liberating view of worship

Friday, May 13, 2005

A recent visit to Edinburgh has offered opportunities to meet members of the remarkable Torrance family and has resulted in much rethinking. I was given a book called A Passion for Christ (Edinburgh: Handsel Press, 1999) which commemorates and celebrates the six extraordinary children of Chinese missionaries, all born in China, all of whom (three sons and three daughters) committed themselves body and soul to Christian ministry. The three sons (Tom, James, David) are all world-renowned theologians and churchmen, and this small paperback volume offers a representative selection of some of their work. Among their children, Iain is now President of Princeton Theological Seminary (USA) and Alan is Professor of Systematic Theology in the University of St. Andrews (Scotland). The three Torrance brothers have loomed so large over the Church of Scotland (and, indeed, the universal Church) for fifty years that they have inevitably been the subject of criticism. Personalities so large make large targets, and the evangelical faith that they have defended so imaginatively and yet so determinedly is not in fashion in these “tolerant” times. Speaking for myself, however, I find the example of such a God-intoxicated family to be most inspiring, and their theological writings to be deeply enriching.

I will be posting further ruminations about the Torrances, but at the moment I am particularly attracted to the thought of James B. Torrance, the second of the three brothers, whose writings about worship are attracting interest in this new generation. I was first introduced to James Torrance by a member of GenY, who gave me a copy, now treasured, of Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (IVP).

Below the line there is a selection from James B. Torrance that I found in A Passion for Christ. This is an exact quote from Torrance’s words:

As I see it, there are broadly two different views of worship in the Church today.

The first view, probably the commonest and most widespread, is that worship is something which we do—mainly in church on Sunday. We go to church, we sing our psalms to God, we intercede for Northern Ireland or the Middle East, we listen to the sermon (too often simply an exhortation), we offer our money, time and talents to God. No doubt we need God’s grace to help us do it; we do it because Jesus taught us to do it and left us an example to show us how to do it. But worship is what WE do.

…This view of worship is in practice unitarian. It has no doctrine of [Christ] the Mediator…It is human-centered, with no proper doctrine of the Holy Spirit. It is basically non-sacramental. It engenders weariness. We sit in the pew watching the minister “doing his/her thing,” exhorting us to “do our thing,” until we go home thinking we have done our duty for another week. This kind of “do it yourself with the help of the minister” worship is what our forebears would have called “legal” worship and not “evangelical” worship. It is what the ancient Church would have called “Arian” or “Pelagian” and not truly catholic.

The second view of worship is rather the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father—of participating, in union with Christ, in what he has done for us once and for all in his life and death on the Cross and in what he is continuing to do for us in the presence of the father ate in his mission to the world. The bread which we break, is it not our sharing in the Body of Christ ? The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not our sharing in the Blood of Christ?…Our intercession for Northern Ireland and the Middle East, are they not our participation in Christ’s intercession for Northern Ireland and the Middle East? Our mission to the world and to the needs of humanity, are they not the gift of participating in Christ’s mission to the world and his ministry to human need? Is this not the meaning of life in the Spirit?

The second view is trinitarian and incarnational. It takes seriously New Testament teaching about…the Church as the Body of Christ. It is fundamentally “sacramental,” but in a way which enshrines the gospel of grace, that God in the gift of Christ and the gift of the Spirit, gives what he demands—the worship of our hearts and lives. This is the heart of our theology of the eucharist…this second view is both catholic and evangelical…if the first way can engender weariness, the second way is unifying in that it recognizes that there is only one way to come to the Father, namely through Christ in the communion of the Spirit, in the communion of saints, whatever outward form our worship may take. If the first way can engender weariness, this second way—the way of grace—releases joy and ecstasy, for with inward peace we are lifted up out of ourselves by the Spirit into a world of praise and adoration and communion in Christ.

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