Wolterstorff on The Tragedy of Liturgy in Protestantism


Chapter twelve of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s “Until Justice and Peace Embrace” is entitled, “The Tragedy of Liturgy in Protestantism.”  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 virtually negligible 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 instead of the center (with sacrament as climax)? How did we become so…low?

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, 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 is 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. Some have called it 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 a burden should 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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3 Responses to Wolterstorff on The Tragedy of Liturgy in Protestantism

  1. RubeRad says:

    When did Wolterstorff write this? It doesn’t seem to me to describe Reformed Liturgy. What I see happening is a “revival” of the concept of Reformed Liturgy — a rediscovery of the rich balance present in the historic forms of Reformed Liturgy. Before the revival, what seemed to be around was the evangelical notion of “we don’t have a liturgy”, and that non-liturgy overemphasized worship music (I reject the notion that listening to a sermon is not worship), whereas the Reformed didn’t self-consciously think of themselves as liturgical, and because they had lost their historical focus, they grew to overemphasize word.

  2. Zrim says:


    He wrote it in 1981.

    I think that what you are describing as “revival” is what many of us ex-evangelicals have experienced coming into Reformed traditions. But I think you’re more or less saying what he is: something less than liturgical has made in-roads into the Reformed liturgical tradition and made it less than what it’s supposed to be. It has taken the necessary priority of proclamation and turned it into an over-emphasized centrality.

    I don’t think he’s saying that “listening to a sermon isn’t worship.” Rather, the in-roads have made it acceptable idea that any aspect of public worship can be extracted from its churchly housing and deemed worship (this probably helps explain how we get revivalist-performers like Whitefield). Of course, the privatization of religion plays a role here as well.

  3. RubeRad says:

    I think there’s more to it than my own story. I know that in my own church we are becoming more self-consciously liturgical. And why else would Clark need to write a book like RRC? Actually, I guess the answer to that question is not so much that they are too much like their “proclamation-only” stereotype, but that they have succumbed to the evangelical stereotype.

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