Worship as the Beginning and Ending of Theology Jonathan Watson

January 23, 2017

Last week I had the privilege of introducing a (mostly) new crop of students to the study of Systematic Theology. A simple definition of Systematic Theology is as follows: “Systematic theology is any study that answers the question, ‘What does the whole Bible teach us today?’ about any given topic.”[1] Topics covered over two semesters of study (Systematic Theology 1 & 2) include the doctrines of Revelation and Scripture, God, Man, Sin, the person and work of Christ, Salvation, the Holy Spirit and Christian Life, the Church, and Last Things.

Early in our meetings each semester I like to ask my students “What does theology have to do with worship?” One of the most insightful and eloquent answers to this question I’ve found is given by Kevin J. Vanhoozer in his book The Drama of Doctrine. Here, he describes what he calls “a mutually edifying relationship between worship and theology.” He writes,

“Worship is ritualized theology; theology is reflective worship.  The quality of our worship is therefore an index of the quality of our theology (and vice versa). . . . Dogmatics both begins in and leads to doxology.”[2]

There’s a lot packed into these few sentences, so a little unpacking is in order.

Ritualized Theology

First, Vanhoozer states, “Worship is ritualized theology.” Have you ever considered that everything about your church service is in one way or another a manifestation of theology? For example, this past week your church likely met on a Sunday because it is the first day of the week, the day upon which Jesus rose from the dead (i.e., “the Lord’s Day”; Rev 1:10; cf. Matt 28:1). The pattern of meeting on the first day of the week for worship and the breaking of bread is evident within the NT (Acts 20:7). This pattern represents a shift from the creation ordinance of the seventh day being the day of rest and worship. In other words, theology has shifted the calendar of your worship.

Similarly, where is the pulpit situated in your meeting house (or “sanctuary”?)? Is it in the center or on the side? Whereas Roman Catholics and other sacramental traditions (i.e., traditions that believe that the sacraments, especially baptism and the Lord’s Supper, convey grace) put their pulpits on the side to give prominence to the Mass/Eucharist, non-sacramental traditions tend to put their pulpit in the center. In the latter case, the conviction is that proclamation of the Scriptures should be central to the church’s life. The method and order of any number of other elements of corportate worship (e.g., offering collection, lighting, seating, singing, etc.) and private worship (e.g., method of Bible reading, prayer, etc.) are in effect the “ritualized” product of theological convictions.

Reflective Worship

Second, Vanhoozer states, “theology is reflective worship.” When Jesus teaches on the Greatest Commandment, he summarizes it as follows, “He said to him, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind’” (Matt 22:37 HCSB; emphasis added). If we are to love God, we must do so with all our faculties including our minds. Thus, one form of loving God and worshipping God is studying about him. Such study involves reflecting upon God as He has revealed Himself in His Word, the Bible.

A Measure of Quality

Third, Vanhoozer states, “The quality of our worship is therefore an index of the quality of our theology (and vice versa).” In this usage, index means “an indicator, sign, or measure of something.” On the one hand, we do well to ask, “What is the indicator or measure of ‘good worship’?” We all have opinions about what method or style of worship best resonates with our hearts and minds. However, it is important to note that whatever our measure or standard of “good worship” is, it should include theology. If our worship makes us “feel good” but our minds are not being engaged with truth in the process, we should question the health of our worship. Jesus tells the woman at the well that with His coming “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23 HCSB). Truth is, therefore, a central feature of worship.

On the other hand, we need to ask the question, “What is the indicator or quality of ‘good theology’?” Vanhoozer calls us to recognize that “good theology” should be leading us to worship God more faithfully and fervently. Having surveyed the rich tapestry of God’s salvation in the first eleven chapters of Romans, the Apostle Paul exclaims,

“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments and untraceable His ways! . . . For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen” (Rom 11:33, 36 HCSB).

He continues by calling his readers to worship God too:

“Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1 HCSB).

The “therefore” points us back to all that has already been said. In short, the rich theology of those first eleven chapters is the foundation of the call to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” which is “your spiritual worship.”

As Wayne Grudem describes, “True theology is ‘teaching which accords with godliness’ (1 Tim 6:3), and theology when studied rightly will lead to growth in our Christian lives, and to worship.”[3] Indeed, how can one rightly consider the good and great God of the universe (Exod 34:6-7; Deut 32:39), behold His love incarnate in the gift of His Son (John 1:14; 3:16), and know His love shed abroad in our hearts by His Spirit (Rom 5:5) and not worship Him? Vanhoozer is right. Poor worship is an indicator of poor theology.

Worship as the Starting Point and Goal of Theology

Finally, Vanhoozer writes, “Dogmatics both begins in and leads to doxology.” Here, “dogmatics” is an alliterative synonym for “theology” and the word “doxology” means worship. Thus, he has eloquently summarized the idea that worship is both the starting point and goal of theology. One must not embark on a theological journey without the aim of reaching a deeper knowledge of God that he or she might worship Him more faithfully and fervently.

Conclusion

With the disciplined study of theology comes the temptation to treat as common what must not be treated as common, namely God’s special revelation of Himself in Holy Scripture. Seeing this lurking danger, some may avoid the theological task altogether, thinking, “If I don’t study, then I won’t be tempted in this way.” Of course, this is simply running into the arms of a sister temptation: the temptation to intellectual apathy. This alternative approach fails to fulfill the Great Commandment and its call to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

I am grateful for the cogent and eloquent reminder offered by Vanhoozer. Worship should be our starting point and goal in all that we do (1 Cor 10:31) . . . including theology. In one sense, then, worship is the beginning and ending of theology. May the Lord grant us His grace to pursue knowledge of Him for His glory, and may that pursuit both begin in and lead to worship.

NOTES

[1]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994, 2000), 21. Church history, philosophical matters, as well as contemporary issues are all considerations of the task of Systematic Theology too. Grudem’s definition, however, focuses attention on the matter of central importance, namely, what does the whole counsel of God in Holy Scripture have to say about the various subjects considered.

[2]Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 410.

[3]Grudem, 17; emphasis added.

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