The Bible is a collection of writings by authors inspired by God over the course of many centuries. These writings are of different genres: historical books, books of poetry and prophecy, letters, etc. And the Bible is not arranged thematically like a textbook would be.
The work of a theologian is to draw, from the different parts of the Bible, its teachings on a particular theme, and then to organize and summarize them. A “theology” is a summary of the Bible’s teaching about a particular subject. And so we have:
a theology of scripture itself (also called bibliology)
a theology of the Holy Spirit (or pneumatology)
a theology of the person work of Christ (or Christology)
a theology of salvation (or soteriology)
Hence “a theology of worship” simply refers to drawing together, from the entirety of the Bible, what God shows us about worship. And so a “theology of worship” simply means a biblical understanding of worship.
The Importance of Theology for Worship
It is crucial to base our understanding of worship on the Bible for at least six reasons:
1. God’s Word tells us who God is.
God is the subject of our worship; the subject matter of worship. Worship is about Him. We must worship Him as He really is, and it is primarily from the Scriptures who God really is. We worship the God who has revealed Himself.
Now we must not worship without study, for ignorant worship is of limited value and can be very dangerous. We may develop “a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:2) and do great harm to ourselves and others.” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 362)
Theology (our belief about God) and doxology (our worship of God) should never be separated. On the one hand, there can be no doxology without theology. It is not possible to worship an unknown god. All true worship is a response to the self-revelation of God in Christ and Scripture, and arises from our reflection on who He is and what He has done. It was the tremendous truths of Romans 1–11 which provoked Paul’s outburst of praise in verses 33-36 of chapter 11. The worship of God is evoked, informed and inspired by the vision of God. Worship without theology is bound to degenerate into idolatry; hence, the indispensable place of Scripture in both public and private devotion. It is the Word of God which calls forth the worship of God. (John Stott, Romans: God’s Good News for the World, 311-12)
2. God’s Word tells us what God wants.
God is the object of our worship; worship is for Him, for His pleasure. We must worship Him as He wants to be worshiped. God has the absolute right to tell us how to worship Him, and we learn that from the Scriptures. We are not left to guess.
Worship is often defined quite broadly as our response to God. However, there is an important theological context to be considered when worship is considered in such terms. That is, we need to ask what role God plays in the engagement or relationship which is true and acceptable worship. At one level we must discover from His own self-revelation in Scripture what pleases Him. We cannot simply determine for ourselves what is honouring to Him. . . . The worship of the living and true God is essentially an engagement with Him on the terms that He proposes and in the way that He alone makes possible. (David Peterson, Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship, 19-20.
3. God’s Word is our guide in every area of life.
“Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105)
We draw instruction and guidance from the Scriptures for every aspect of our walk, and so certainly this will be true in this important area of worship.
Worship is the supreme and only indispensable activity of the Christian Church. It alone will endure, like the love for God which it expresses, into heaven, when all other activities of the Church will have passed away. It must therefore, even more strictly than any of the less essential doing of the church, come under the criticism and control of the revelation on which the Church is founded. An enquiry into the meaning, or essence, of worship will necessarily be a theological one. (William Nicholls, Jacob’s Ladder: The Meaning of Worship, 9)
4. God’s Word tells us that all of life is to be worship.
“. . . present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” (Romans 12:1)
“Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)
The truth of whole-life worship means that a biblical understanding of worship has implications for all of life, not just for our church services.
5. God’s Word is our only unchanging standard.
“Forever, O Lord, Your Word is settled in heaven.” (Psalm 119:89)
Times change, people change, tastes change; only God’s Word does not. Human opinion and culture can get in the way; the Bible leaves room for change and variety, but God’s revelation (not tradition, time-honored practices, or treasured habits) is supreme. We must always be evaluating and reforming our worship practices according to God’s unchanging standards, following transcultural and trans-historical biblical principles.
The form and expression of the liturgy itself, at any given time, must be subject to the criticism of theology. . . . The rites by which we celebrate the liturgy need constantly to be re-aligned to their purpose and end by the discipline of a theology grounded in revelation. . . . And since, in the most conservative of liturgical traditions, changes do in any case take place from time to time, it must be the task of theology to scrutinize the changes that are taking place in response to pastoral or evangelistic needs, to ensure that they do not drag away the liturgy from its anchoring in the one revelation. (William Nicholls, Jacob’s Ladder, 10)
Custom without truth is but old error. (Cyprian, ep. 74, 9)
6. Only God’s Word can give us a unified understanding of worship.
The church of Jesus Christ desperately needs a common, unifying biblical, theological understanding of worship. This is especially needed in light of the huge variety of worship practices across denominations, across the world and across the centuries, and because of the discussion, debates, and conflicts over worship styles and practices in our day (though unique to our age).
If ways of worship are theologically determined, and indeed ought to be so, then differences in worship are differences in faith, and unity of faith demands unity of worship, at least in what is of the essence of worship. . . . If our worship need not be uniform. . . it must be one in at least those matters which involve the essence of worship. (Nicholls, Jacob’s Ladder, pp. 11, 67)