The Worship Crisis

A Comparison Review of Proposals by Robert Webber and Robert Dickie

ancient_future.jpgWebber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative. Grand Rapids, MI: 2008. Softcover. 192 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8010-6624-5. $14.99.
worship_cvr.jpgDickie, Robert. What the Bible Teaches About Worship. Durham, UK: 2007. Soft cover. 155 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8523-4659-4. $13.99.

This comparison review of two recent books on worship may surprise some readers. At first glance, Ancient-Future Worship by Robert Webber and What the Bible Teaches About Worship by Robert Dickie represent radically different traditions. Robert Webber hails from an intentionally eclectic tradition that can be described as liturgical and very ecumenical. Robert Dickie represents a low-church and very conservative Baptist tradition. Robert Dickie is a conservative evangelical while Robert Webber occupies a much wider tent. One would not assume that these two books have much in common—and that assumption is largely correct. The surprise kicks in when one realizes that both books spend a great deal of energy interacting with the relationship of Scripture and tradition.

A Persistent Problem

Dickie engages church tradition primarily in the form of critique but also in his solutions. He critiques contemporary traditions that he finds plagued with superficiality and silly innovations. It is these innovations in worship that are substituted for “throne-room” worship of God. These innovations range from the emergent church to watered down theology to statements that indicate he is referring to rowdy rock-and-roll worship bands. Specific examples of “shocking innovations” include use of karate teams, preaching from the roof of the church, using prizes to draw visitors, and riding motorcycles in the middle of the service. Dickie’s book is an attempt to deal with how church tradition across much of evangelicalism (in the U.S. and in the UK) has become accustomed to such innovations.

Church tradition also presents a problem for Webber. Interestingly Webber uses the same language that Dickie does: he is concerned that worship has become “a program, a show, and entertainment” (p. 25). The back cover describes the contemporary worship scene as being in nothing less than a “crisis.” Moreover, the crisis is not simply about style. Webber describes the problem on the back cover as one of “content and of form.” The united witness of Webber and Dickie to the problem of entertainment in current worship traditions should be enough to make anyone pause. Between the two, there is very little room for dismissing the problem.

Solutions: Continuity and Discontinuity

Dickie’s proposed solution to these problems is to re-direct worship to “throne-room” worship of God, based on Revelation 4-5. What makes this proposal intriguing is that Webber also wants to draw from Revelation because it was the “worship book of the ancient church” (p. 103). In Revelation 4-5, Dickie finds a normative scene of heavenly worship for the church to imitate. He states, “If we want our worship on earth to be blessed and to be biblical, we must make sure that it reflects the worship of the throne-room in heaven” (p. 20). This proposal is exciting and presents a solidly biblical response to the problems in contemporary worship. But one also wonders how his own church tradition is impacting his exposition. For example, he notes that biblical worship (throne-room worship) is “liturgical.” He interprets liturgical to simply mean that worship must be ordered. The careful reader will note that Revelation 4-5 includes golden bowls full of incense. But Dickie doesn’t find the use of incense to be normative for today. Ultimately it isn’t clear which elements he views as normative for throne-room worship and which he does not. However, this lack of clarity doesn’t mean one should treat his approach dismissively. In the end it was hard to avoid reading Dickie’s proposal in light of his low-church ecclesiastical tradition.

Webber’s solution is similar to Dickie’s but wider in scope. Both want to exposit Scripture, but Webber’s approach is narratological whereas Dickie’s is eschatological. Webber’s biblical narrative is oriented along four pictures: God and the Garden of Eden, God and the desert, God and the Garden of Gethsemane and God and the eternal garden. This approach in itself challenges others that see “garden” to “city” trajectory in Scripture. The narrative approach is most welcome and may even be complimented by Dickie’s eschatological focus on the throne room of Revelation 4-5.

Webber’s Weaknesses

There is definitely some benefit to be found in looking at both Dickie’s and Webber’s proposals alongside each other. But to posit a large amount of similarity between their solutions would be misleading. This is because Webber’s proposal rests upon the paradigm of ancient-future worship. The paradigm of ancient-future worship sets Dickie and Webber apart from one another for two reasons. First, ancient-future worship holds to a cloudy position on the authority of Scripture. The ancient church from which Webber draws many of his ideas dates to about AD 600. But no clear and distinct doctrine of sola Scriptura drives Webber’s desire for reformation. For example, he states, “We call for the Church’s reflection to remain anchored in the Scriptures in continuity with the theological interpretation learned from the early fathers. Thus, we call Evangelicals to turn away from methods that separate theological reflection from the common traditions of the church” (p. 181). It could be argued that he is only talking about theological conversation rather than foundations for reformation. Yet the question remains: is unity and reformation to take place on the basis of Scripture alone or on the basis of Scripture plus ancient tradition? To create a role for tradition in the hermeneutical spiral is one thing, but it is another to posit that ancient tradition is part of the foundation for responding to the worship crisis. Webber does articulate a position that reflects sola Scriptura, but it isn’t clear how this works in practice. It certainly isn’t clear why some church traditions are worthy of being “anchors” while others are not.

Another area that lacks clarity in Webber’s book is the role of sola fide. Appropriation of the ancient worship traditions hailing from Eastern Orthodox is very important to Webber’s proposals. He argues that the solution to the worship problems of the western church can be found in the ancient eastern church and its emphasis on the narrative of creation, incarnation, and re-creation (p. 76). However, in his zeal to develop a narratological approach Webber becomes almost cavalier about the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

At this point it may be helpful to introduce the 1998 task force report titled “Eastern Orthodox Teachings in Comparison with The Doctrinal Position of Biola University” by Robert Saucy, John Coe and Alan Gomes (http://faculty.biola.edu/alang/EO/Summary.pdf). This report finds that the concept of justification in orthodox theology is not sola fide (by faith alone). This concern isn’t even mentioned by Webber. In fact, Webber’s recounting of the history of the Reformation doesn’t even mention justification by faith alone (p. 77). Webber doesn’t reject justification by faith alone outright. The problem is that his zeal is not gospel oriented, and this book may lead some readers who are unaware of Eastern Orthodox theology down a dangerous path without warning. What Webber wants the church to do is to “restore the emphasis on Christus Victor” based on the “ancient framework of Scripture” (p. 171). One wonders how worship can truly be reformed if it lacks a foundation in the righteousness of God that comes to a person by being united to Christ through faith alone.

Dickie’s Weaknesses

The foremost fault with Dickie’s book is much less serious than Webber’s. Dickie’s Achilles heel is the naiveté with which he sets for his own proposal. While trying to address the faults of contemporary church tradition, he falls, sometimes obviously, into traps set by his own tradition. For example, his own tradition leads him to certain conclusions regarding the relationship between “blessings” and worship. On the one hand he denies that worship is “coming to God so that he can bless us” (p. 34). Yet toward the end of the book he urges that correct worship bids one to “Come expecting a blessing” (p. 143). The critical issue of blessing is not addressed either biblically or theologically. Another important example is his rejection that worship is about having our “felt needs” met (p. 36). Yet the feeling of joy is said to be essential to worship and part-and-parcel to the pursuit of God (p. 34). Is joy not something that is “felt”? Do hearts naturally have a desire for “joy” that needs to be met in God? Again, the relationship between emotions and worship isn’t addressed biblically or theologically. Doubtless the answer to these questions requires fine distinctions—but that is precisely what is lacking. Dickie’s own traditions regarding blessings and joy dominate. Ultimately, Dickie’s book is to a small degree undermined by church tradition all the while seeking to preserve the church from the follies of tradition.

A Familiar Fault

Both books offer many thoughts worth to chewing on. However, one can also see a common fault running through both: Dickie and Webber give too much weight to church tradition. Dickie does this unintentionally by making snappish statements and presenting biblical exposition that is less than thorough. Webber treats church tradition more intentionally, but mutes the doctrine of justification by faith alone. We all have “traditions” that inform and shape us. But when critiquing the church and seeking to reform and shape worship, we must be diligent to consider these and submit them to the authority of Scripture (sola Scriptura) and proclaim that salvation is by faith alone (sola fide).

David WenkelDavid H. Wenkel graduated from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School with an MA in Christian Thought: Systematic Theology (2004) and from Bob Jones University with an MA in Bible (2006). He returned to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (2008) to do a ThM with a focus in New Testament.
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