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“When Satan was cast out of Heaven, he fell into the choir loft.”
This oft-repeated piece of apocryphal angelology is used to bemoan the devastating effect of the “worship wars” on American churches. And while a certain Pastoral Theology professor contended that the Evil One and his minions alighted instead in the sound booth, the net result is the same—God’s people embroiled in conflict over how best to worship Him.
John Jefferson Davis, professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has made a substantial effort to cut through the noise and touch the heart of the worship issue in his book Worship and the Reality of God, an Evangelical Theology of Real Presence (231 pages, IVP Academic). In the opinion of this reviewer, he has done an outstanding job of pinpointing the problem. His solutions, however, while well thought-out and passionately delivered, seem to fall short of the mark.
Pinpointing the problem
In the lengthy introduction (actually the first chapter), Davis relates his visits to churches of varying worship traditions. While styles differ, he identifies a common problem with all of them: the lack of awareness of the very real presence of God. He then goes into a discussion of the three “competing ontologies” he sees in today’s culture: scientific materialism, digital virtualism, and trinitarian supernaturalism. This leads to a discussion of contemporary Evangelicalism and where it is headed. Here he solidly identifies himself as “evangelical” in the Ockenga/Graham tradition, and gives a brief overview of what he considers to be the six major groupings of contemporary Protestantism. These groupings are “the evangelical left, charismatics and Pentecostals, popular apocalypticism, Willow Creekers, emergents and Reformed orthodoxy.” Dispensational fundamentalists are placed—not surprisingly—squarely in the “popular apocalypticism” camp.
While the obvious issues with this breakdown must be discussed (and will be, momentarily), it is important not to miss the meat of Davis’ arguments regarding worship, which begin in the second chapter entitled “God, the Church and the Self.” Perhaps the crux of the matter can be summarized with this quote, from page 39:
Clarity of understanding and a focused intentionality are essential for a deep and richly satisfying experience, whether the activity in question is having a serious conversation with a friend, making love to one’s spouse or seeking the presence of God on Sunday morning.
The remainder of the book is dedicated to providing the “clarity of understanding” and describing the “focused intentionality” necessary for the corporate worship.
The purpose of the third chapter, which bears the title “Reality in Worship,” is a “…reflection on the larger issue of the real presence of God as the central reality in Christian worship.” (emphasis in original) After analyzing some of the historical trends that have contributed to what he calls “a thinning and flattening of the Protestant evangelical doxological imagination” and “the impoverishment of the theology and practice of worship,” Davis devotes some time to the “ontology of worship and its context. This is followed by a discussion of a “fourfold pattern of biblical worship”. The four elements he brings from “the first fifteen hundred years of the history of the church” are as follows: gathering, ministry of the Word, ministry of the table, dismissal. He sees this as a continuation of the pattern of worship found in Exodus 19 through 24.
The chapter ends with an interesting, if somewhat contrived, comparison of the worship experience to the online gaming phenomenon World of Warcraft.
As can be guessed from the four elements listed above, Davis is a passionate proponent of the frequent celebration of the Lord’s Table (which he commonly refers to as “the Eucharist” and a “sacrament” throughout his book). Chapter 4 is dedicated to this subject. His argument is that Protestantism, in rejecting the false doctrine of transubstantiation, has gone swung completely to the other side and removed all meaning from the Table other than that of a “symbol”. In the first part of the chapter he traces the history of church doctrine and practice with regard to the celebration of communion. This section is very interesting, and heavily footnoted. Not surprisingly, Davis lays a good amount of the blame for today’s casual attitude towards the Lord’s Table at the feet of Charles Finney and the “frontier revivals” (p. 134).
Reading and reviewing Worship and Reality of God has been a frustrating experience. So many times the author accurately evaluates the deficiencies of modern worship and begins to present biblical solutions, only to go off on curious, irrelevant tangents that detract from his overall point—or even contradict his main message. A couple cases in point:
In the very beginning of the work he demonstrates a curious antipathy toward believers of a fundamentalist, and specifically a cessationist, persuasion. A quote from page 42, where he is attempting to answer the question “what God are we talking about?”:
Is it the cessationist God of some conservative Protestant groups who is holy and righteous, but somewhat distant from the world, who ceased performing miracles with the passing of the apostolic age?
It is hard to imagine a more blatant misrepresentation of the cessationist position. It is worth noting that, in context, cessationists are presented as the opposite extreme to liberals concerned only with social justice. If Davis was looking to contrast extremes, he could have gone a lot further to the right than cessationists.
Another quote, along the same lines, is even more perplexing. In the last chapter, “From Ontology to Doxology,” he attempts to present practical solutions to the worship problem. There are many good points that are worth taking to heart. Then he once again delves into the question of gifts:
There are a number of reasons why a rediscovery of this dimension of New Testament ecclesiology and pneumatology seems timely, not the least of which is the dramatic growth of the Pentecostal movement in the churches of the Global South, which has now become the demographic center of the world Christian movement. (p. 194)
As a missionary the Global South, in a country where the Pentecostal movement has a death grip (and that term is used purposefully) on Protestantism in general, this reviewer finds it astonishing that Davis could recommend this as something desirable for the rest of the world to emulate. The theological shallowness and ecclesiastic abuses that have accompanied the Pentecostal explosion in Latin America have had a devastating effect on the church and on society as a whole. If Davis could objectively observe the current condition of Latin American protestantism, he might be more reluctant to suggest it as a model for the rest of us.
Another aspect of this book with which Fundamentalists are likely to take issue (and this reviewer is no exception) is Davis’ insistence on re-instating the ritual of eucharist as part of the weekly liturgy. Of course there is no biblical injunction against this, but Davis comes quite close to associating the elements with the actual presence of Christ. Whatever the solutions may be to the “worship wars”, it is hard to see how a return to Catholic ritualism will be of any help.
There are many good reasons to read Worship and the Reality of God. Davis has an accurate grasp on many of the issues, and many of the creative solutions he proposes have merit. Nor is this work mere generational reactionism. Conservatives, for example, will doubtless appreciate his eloquent defense of the use of hymns in worship.
Yet the aforementioned issues will prevent thinking fundamentalists from making Worship and the Reality of God a manual for worship reform in their respective churches.