Part of our mandate at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, and in this series of books, is to make the connections between worship and the various facets of Christian thought and life explicit and instructive in ways that promote deeper and more vital worship practices. This particular volume highlights arguable the most important connections that need to be made for worship to be well grounded—namely, the connections between our liturgical actions and our understanding of the God we worship. After all, as D.A. Carson has observed, “worship” is a transitive verb. What is important is not that we worship, but rather that we worship God. (p. Ix)
Immediately we are told that traditional patterns of hymnody offer a rich resource for both worship and theology. What might be surprising is that many hymns in this pattern have also been written in recent history. Each chapter of the book contains one or more hymn texts also for this reason: “Indeed, hymn poems are a wonderful resource for devotional use by individual use by individuals, families, groups, and congregations. Worship leaders should consider recommending one hymn text per week for private or group reflection and then singing the hymn in worship as a simple way of connecting private and corporate worship."
This is an amazingly simple idea, yet, excellent in my mind. If we could agree on certain texts for devotions and memorizing and worked on this together, we could accumulate quite a treasure for our families and congregations. Various other benefits of understanding hymns well are highlighted here in the preface.
The introduction stresses that worship is a Christian activity of the highest importance, as in it we are fed by the good food of word and sacrament. “Worship is for Christians both ‘primary school’ and ‘graduate school’—a place where we are always learning the basics of how to be in true relationship to God and yet also reaching for the advanced skills we need for obedient and faithful Christian lives.” A Lutheran might put this sentence a little differently, but the idea of “primary school” and “graduate school” at the same time really hits home to me. What we sing and what we teach our smallest children should nourish us all our lives through, in the deep joys and sorrows of life, even death. As Luther said about the catechism for example, even the most experienced professional theologian needs to ground himself in the basics every day. And those are the greatest who can know and teach the catechism well. Our basic teachings, prayers and songs, are the school of learning how to live and how to die—a very profound Alleluia, indeed, so help us God.
One of the contributors, Don Saliers, specializes in the theology of Karl Barth. He notes that “the dependence of theology on worship runs so deep in the theology of Karl Barth that ‘critical theological thinking is secondary and therefore derivative of the first-order theology shown in praying to God.’ The image of first-order theology as prayer captures the mutual relationships explored in this book. It is the conviction of the authors that the theological implications of worship and the worship implications of theology are worthy of careful reflection. “
I, myself, have never heard of “first-order theology”, nor prayer belonging to this category. The reason for this might be because I am not a student of Karl Barth, but rely on Luther most of the time. But this statement makes some sense to me in my own way of thinking. While “critical theological thinking” might be something like a systematic theology, prayers might be something more like the Psalter, the original prayer book, which consists of so much poetry and sighing of the heart to God both in praise and deep need. The feelings and thoughts of the psalms are accessible to all of us who pray. Thus we are joined in a common humanity and as a congregation in our orientation toward God in our daily experiences.
This makes me think of something else: on the internet I often have conversations with people who are lapsed from the faith or even have become ardent atheists or anti-theists. Some meditate in the way of different Buddhist schools, etc. Even here we have a connection with prayer. At times, when I speak with them, I come to the point of prayer and say something to the effect of: I cannot imagine life without prayer, without thanksgiving, without making intercession, without asking for forgiveness, without asking for help and guidance. The non-Christian then usually says that they can’t imagine it either, only they feel they don’t actually need anyone to pray to. This is obviously where we part ways. Whom we pray to is exactly what matters. Whom we worship is of the essence if he is the living God who has revealed himself, who has loved us and redeemed us and made the way open for prayer in the first place. But still the fact that we have the need for prayers of the same kind, is something primal and basic to human beings. In any case, I am guessing that something like this is implied in “first–order theology”.
Submitted by Brigitte Mueller, Bruderheim AB