Wednesday, November 01, 2006
Liturgy: Law or Gospel?
It occurs to me that among those who love the Lutheran liturgy and customs of the Church retained through the Christian era, there seems to be, at times, a fundamental difference. While all of us would balk at the move toward contemporary worship styles by some of our brethren, the criticisms seem to come from different perspectives. And it seems that those perspectives fall within the classic Lutheran categories of law and gospel.
We know that the Roman, Greek, and Reformed churches all begin their theology of worship in the law. Admittedly, that law has different sources. The Romans and Greeks believe their customs are handed down through tradition and that those traditions are law. Their presupposition is, "this is the way it is to be done because this is what we have received." The Reformed, on the other hand, begin in law with the regulative principle. That is, nothing is to be included in worship unless it is commanded by Scripture. While there is something commendable in wanting to remain faithful to God's instructions, it remains misguided and a horrible confusion of law and gospel.
We might even say that contemporary churches begin their theology of worship in the law, that is, love of neighbor. They want to do what will not offend their neighbor and what will make them more amenable to hearing our message. They want to influence them and give them a reason to choose fellowship with their group. This, too, is a confusion of law and gospel in that it springs from Arminian notions about human freewill.
Most distressing, though, are those Lutheran who love the liturgy and customs and rites of the ancient church and should know the difference between law and gospel, but don't seem to approach the subject of worship in that way. You're out there and you know who you are.
The liturgy is gospel. It is a gift. It is God's Word, and because it is God's Word it is a vehicle for the Holy Spirit. The liturgy has sustained the faith of Christians througout the Christian era, because in the liturgy God's people hear the gospel.
I remember attending an ELCA church that, while the pastors denied the innerrancy of SCripture and couldn't preach the gospel if there life depended on it, tenaciously held to the liturgy. When the people weren't getting the gospel anywhere else, they at least got it in the liturgy.
That is the great contribution of the classic liturgies of the Church. Although they vary somewhat in form from church to church and from time to time, the Kyrie, Gloria in Exelcis, Creed, Sanctus, Words of Institution, and Agnus Dei are remarkably consistent and feed the people of God with the Words of the gospel, even when their pastors don't. That is why we don't toss the liturgy out. We retain because it is simply the best means of communicating the gospel. The Christian Church knows this from centuries of experience.
So the perspective from which we approach the liturgy reveals whether we are making a proper distinction between law and gospel. We keep the liturgy not because this is the way it's always been done and it has to be done precisely this way. We keep the liturgy not because this is what Scripture commands. We keep it because experience shows it is the best vehicle for the gospel.
Once we have established that, there are many other things that commend the liturgy to the Church; its beauty, it practicality, and the fact that it connects saints in the present with all who have gone before and, hopefully, those who come after.