Wolterstorff on Proclamation and Worship

A friend at church recently passed along chapter twelve of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s “Until Justice and Peace Embrace.” It is entitled, “The Tragedy of Liturgy in Protestantism.” It had such a pleasant, Hartian ring to it I couldn’t resist. With plenty to otherwise unpack, I was particularly struck by the following:

“When one looks at the actions that constitute the liturgy of the church, one sees that they comprise two different directions, two different orientations. Some are actions directed toward us: God addresses us and we are the recipients. There are the actions of proclamation, central to which are of course the reading of the Scriptures and the preaching of the sermon. But there are also actions directed toward God: We address God and God is the recipient. These are the actions of worship in the true sense. The Christian liturgy is an interchange between actions of proclamation and the actions of worship.

“Even a brief glance at the history of the Christian liturgy makes clear how difficult it has been for the church to hold these two directions in balance. The Roman and Orthodox traditions have historically found it difficult to give due weight to the dimension of God’s addressing us in judgment and grace—in short, to proclamation. The Protestant tradition has historically found it difficult to give due weight to the dimension of our addressing God in love and devotion—in short, to worship. Of course no liturgy has ever been entirely one or the other. Yet liturgies do differ profoundly in their emphases; and the tragedy of liturgy in Protestantism—and particularly in the Reformed tradition—is that the worship dimension is suppressed, sometimes radically so. The liturgy is no longer ‘Eucharistic,’ and a fundamental dimension of the life of the church and of the existence of the Christian is thereby stunted.

“…What naturally results from the diminution of the worship dimension in liturgy is that incredible starkness so characteristic of much of Protestant liturgy and its setting. So little of the multifaceted richness of our humanity is here manifest! So many renunciations! Here words rule all. What also results from the suppression of the worship dimension of liturgy is seriousness, a sobriety, an absence of joy that is contrary to the spirit of the divine rest and the people’s liberation that we are intended to echo. When proclamation overwhelms worship in the liturgy, then I think we must expect joy to be diminished.”

Wolterstorff puts into words here an impression I have always had myself yet unable to articulate. I think he begins to help make the distinction between simple worship and simplistic worship.

Simplicity is surely something coveted in the Reformed tradition, and for good reason. But is simplicity really the same as simplistic, stripped down and bare? When did we get it into our collective, Protestant heads that liturgy had to make the choice between proclamation and worship, with the former winning out? How did we get to that place where we see the liturgy as subservient to proclamation, with all that precedes the sermon to be a rising action to it and all that follows a gentle denouement? Is the sermon really the climax?

It has been said in another place that a perspective more in keeping with confessional Protestantism is to see the “sermon as center and the sacrament as climax.” That may not follow conventional literary structure, but Protestantism has never seemed a very Modern phenomenon to me.

When I have visited Reformed or Presbyterian churches with what I consider exquisite Reformed liturgies that also include the regular means of grace called the Lord’s Table (Christ Reformed, Auburn Road Presbyterian, Redeemer Presbyterian), I have always found them to be at once simple and yet quite rich—not simplistic, stark or bleak. The Gospel seems both purely preached and administered. The liturgy in these places are intensely dialogical, the worshipers jealous to do the work of the service and not leaving any aspect of it to any cordoned off group or individual; its regard properly sober yet balanced with expectant hope and joy. They all seem to grasp what it means to balance proclamation and worship in Reformed liturgy. This seems over against so much of those who claim even the faintest ancestry to Reformed Protestantism which impress as bare-bones. It is the difference between three-to-five songs and a lecture and integral liturgy. The former is antiseptic, clinical and mechanical; the latter is organic, primal and seminal.

I am sure causes as to this relative inability to balance proclamation and worship are quite fraught, with the bamboozling of Revivalism serving no small role as culprit. But I have seen that it can be done in Reformed and Presbyterian circles, despite whatever lies in our history that militates against it. Not only should praise go to these churchly and properly confessional and Protestant expressions which prove that proclamation and worship can characterize in an age so dead set against it, but also should onus be felt by those too lazy or otherwise unmoved—and I daresay irresponsible—to recognize what duty therein lies for any bold enough to claim a confessional Protestantism.

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6 Responses to Wolterstorff on Proclamation and Worship

  1. Zrim says:

    A follow up: I just learned that the woman who passed along this piece to me has recently returned to Calvin College to teach a class in philosophy after seven years.

    Yeow, Anne, given everything else you seem to do so successfully, to say that I am impressed would be an understatement!

    (Next time Ellie has you for Worship Center I will tell her to ask a question about Wolterstorff’s use of Orthodoxy’s notion that “creation is a sacrament” in this same chapter and what a two-kigdomite like her father might have to say about that. Something tells me she’ll roll her eyes. I’ll just tell her to say, “If everything is sacred, then nothing is; the sacred/secular antithesis and cult/culture distinction is absolutely vital to any discussion on liturgy and how believers relate to the wider world, including arguments for the regular use of the means of grace.” Eh, maybe just the first sentence will suffice with her for now. Nine going on eighteen is nothing if not demanding of brevity and levity on a father’s part.)

  2. adam says:

    Steve, I think the vast majority of Reformed Protestants have advocated a simple worship because we confess that Christ coming really matters. The attempt to structure our N.T. worship along the lines of the O.T. temple type and forms is in essence a denial of the finished work of Christ (no matter how much it appeal it has on a kulturesnob basis). What I find curious about the latest trend in my circles toward “high” church worship is that is appears to me have little to nothing to do with an actual recovery of Presbyterian confessional worship. We’re simply falling off the horse in the other direction so now it’s good bye to Bill Hybells, hello Bishop Laud.

  3. Zrim says:


    Yes, I agree. I think you are getting to that classic contemporary set of categories called “contemporary” and “traditional,” both of which totally by-pass “historical” and what I am getting at here.

    In my town, we have a CRC whose pastor openly advocates using the Willow Creek model in order to attract the upper-crust the way Hybels seeks his demographic. This is how they, evidently, justify all the “high church” trappings, etc. I guess those with raised pinkies and cultural pedigrees like processionals, vestments, candles, lots of wood and stained glass. I recall visiting years ago in hopes of finding “actual recovery of Presbyterian confessional worship.” The sense of being patronized was overwhelming. It’s just more seeker-oriented methodology to meet the felt needs of another to overcome the same.

    I should post the Banner piece in which Stan Mast wrote his defense of “traditional” worship as justified by the Willow Creek model and my letter to the editor…

  4. Echo_ohcE says:

    To be sure, some churches err in one way or another.

    Most Evangelical churches unduly favor our worship, our addressing God, so much so that in Pentecostal churches, our speaking to God and God speaking to us is not distinguished at all. The real “meat” of Pentecostal services is the endless singing of choruses and the tide of emotion that results.

    But Rome is actually no different, because with their Eucharist being the center, they have also focused on our speaking to God. For them, the Eucharist isn’t God speaking to us, but us speaking to God. It is “our sacrifice”.

    So I don’t know what Wolterstorff is talking about when he talks about Presbyterians over-emphasizing God speaking to us, to the detriment of our speaking to God. It seems to me that the only way to do this would be to do away with singing and confession and prayer altogether. If you have these things, you fulfill the requirement of worship. God speaking to us is what it’s all about. This too is worship, for we worship him by listening to him, being “silent before the Lord”.

    It seems to me that the error to be concerned about is over-emphasizing our speaking to God. Avoiding that is the most crucial thing.

    By way of analogy, the thing to be concerned about is legalism, not so much antinomianism. Antinomianism is to be sure a bad thing, but legalism is the more natural error, the far bigger danger. Antinomianism is really not a problem, thanks to the law being written on our hearts. Everyone knows that obedience is somehow required. People may claim to be antinomians, but I think if they really believe the gospel, they can’t hold this consistently.

    And yet, somehow, the church, particularly the American church, has historically been VERY concerned about antinomian hypocrisy, and not so much about legalism.

    Is there such a thing as over-emphasizing the sermon? Maybe, but I doubt there are any real examples of this. Far more important is to make sure the sermon is the most important thing taking place in worship. That is the far more prevalent error, the far more natural error, just like legalism.


  5. Pingback: Speaking the Language « The Confessional Outhouse

  6. Pingback: More On Liturgy « The Confessional Outhouse

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