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The Importance of Worship for Theology

Volume 11, No. 9 (September 2016)

Last month we looked at the importance of theology for worship (that is, a biblical understanding of worship). This month we want to look at it the other way around and consider the importance of worship for theology.

In any of our biblical study as believers, whether it be in Bible school, in seminary, in Sunday School, or in our own private study, it is crucial to maintain a worship perspective in all of our consideration of the Bible. It is all too easy (especially in Bible school or seminary—in fact, it’s an occupational hazard there) to get so consumed with learning biblical facts, grammar, dates, etc., that we forget to turn back and praise God for what we have learned in Scripture about God and His ways.

Theology Is a Means to an End

Simply put, we need to complete the cycle of Revelation and Response, The two belong together (see Worship Notes 1.5). Theology is a means to an end—and that end is the praise and worship of God.

 As J. I. Packer put it,

“The purpose of theology is doxology—we study in order to praise.”

And elsewhere:

“[We should] turn each truth that we learn about God into matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God.” (J. I. Packer, Knowing God, 23)

Others have spoken to the issue as well:

“Theology [is] a handmaid of worship, performing a service ancillary to a primary activity of the church.” (Geoffrey Wainwright, “The Praise of God in the Theological Reflection of the Church,” Interpretation 39 [1985], 35)

“But worship must be added to study to complete the renewal of our mind through a willing absorption in the radiant person who is worthy of all praise. Study without worship is also dangerous, and the people of Jesus constantly suffer from its effects, especially in academic settings. To handle the things of God without worship is always to falsify them.” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 362-63)

“On the other hand, there should be no theology without doxology. There is something fundamentally flawed about a purely academic interest in God. God is not an appropriate object for cool, critical, detached, scientific observation and evaluation. No, the true knowledge of God will always lead us to worship, as it did Paul. Our place is on our faces before him in adoration. . . . As I believe Bishop Handley Moule said at the end of the last century, we must ‘beware equally of an undevotional theology and of an untheological devotion.’” (John Stott, Romans: God’s Good News for the World, 311-12)

Theology without worship is a travesty. I was reminded of this in my first semester of seminary, as we assigned to read a big volume on Old Testament Introduction. It was a massive work of scholarship, incredibly erudite and thoroughly researched and annotated. But it was written by a liberal scholar who seemed to have no love for the God or the subjects of which He wrote. How tragic!

Similarly, during college I worked in the choral department of a large music store. The head of the department was a recognized authority on sacred choral music; but he was a profane and immoral man whose heart was apparently not at all touched by the subject matter of his expertise. How sad!

Reformational Overeaction

In the Reformation there was a strong, needed reaction to Medieval worship, where preaching virtually disappeared in favor of the Mass, which was conducted in a language (Latin) the people no longer understood. The resultant ascendancy of the Bible (in the vernacular), doctrine and preaching through the Reformation sometimes led, however, to a pendulum-swing that often downplayed the importance of worship in many Protestant traditions. That has thankfully been addressed and redressed in the past 50 years, since A. W. Tozer famously termed worship “the missing jewel in the evangelical church.” Geoffrey Wainwright wrote in 1984:

“The Protestant practice of doctrine needs to recover a more explicit doxological dimension.” (Geoffrey Wainwright, Doxology: the Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine and Life, 219)

Holistic Services

Preaching needs to be seen, not in juxtaposition to “worship” in the service, but rather indeed as part of worship, and with its goal as worship. (See John Piper, “Preaching as Worship: Meditations on Expository Exultation”)

In corporate worship we need to emphasize not the centrality of preaching, but the centrality of the Word in all of its expressions (preaching, reading, sung, prayed), and the people’s response to it in praise, confession, commitment, etc.

Jesus Himself has committed Himself to that holistic view of Christian worship, in that He has promised to be in the middle both of the proclamation and the praise portions of the gathering, as the fulfillment and channel of both the Revelation and the Response aspects:

“I will proclaim your Name to by brethren
And in the midst of the congregation I will sing Your praise.” (Hebrews 2:12; see Worship Notes 1:8)

Holistic Study

And in all of our study and theologizing, public and private, we need to take great care to “complete the cycle,” and to turn what we learn about God to the praise of God. As John Stott, put it: “No theology without doxology”!