Book Review: Worship Seeking Understanding, by John D. Witvliet
John D. Witvliet introduces his collection of essays on worship by arguing that “Periods of significant liturgical change – and ours is certainly that – call those of us in leadership positions to reflect carefully on our place in history and culture. We desperately need new ways to frame and understand out persistent little worship wars” (15). Witvliet intends for his work to span the “bridge between theory and practice (15).” His works assembled here generally fall to the left of authors like D. A. Carson and J. Ligon Duncan because of his focus on the existential experience of corporate worship, yet this work contains a number of valuable, biblical insights on music and prayer that would challenge the modern leader in his thinking on these elements.
Witvliet’s study on worship is divided into five disciplines: biblical, theological, historical, musical, and pastoral. Biblically, Witvliet inspects the former prophets and the psalms to understand worship better. Witvliet argues that the worship in the books of the former prophets functions as a measuring stick of their faithfulness, it renews their covenants with God, and retraces God’s mighty acts. By inspecting the psalms, Witvliet encourages contemporary leaders to use more lamentation in services, as is found in the psalms, and argues that prayers should be a highlight of the corporate worship time.
Under the heading of theological studies, Witvliet first expounds the description of the Lord’s Supper as a God-initiated, covenant-renewal celebration. He follows this with an investigation into the tension and cooperation between proper corporate worship and cultural context. Witvliet follows this theological section with an interesting flash through the history of corporate worship after the reformation. He begins by describing Calvin’s understanding of proper worship, including Calvin’s lists of sins often committed in corporate worship, and he notes the limited use of human pragmatism acceptable to God in public worship. He also describes Calvin’s belief that baptism should be a lifetime marker of the reconciliation that God made with the believer through Christ, as well as a reminder to the church of their conversion, for their edification. The two succeeding chapters follow the interesting historical transformation of reformed worship services in America, which became more popular and revivalist in nature from the time of frontier expansion and continuing to the contemporary worship service.
From history Witvliet moves to worship, where he begins with a very interesting investigation into the nature and use of the Psalter in Calvin’s Geneva. Following this is a somewhat disturbing treatment of musical worship as “soul food” for the congregation. Witvliet makes the whole chapter an extended metaphor drawing rather baseless conclusions about musical worship from such creativity. He follows this chapter with a solid critique of the current scene in American worship services stressing the value of teaching through the use of music, while considering the potential compromises that some churches make in their use of contemporary music.
Witvliet finishes by addressing some pastoral concerns, quickly offering his wisdom on a number of issues: making good choices amidst the fast-paced evolution of contemporary worship, making good choices in worship leading, cooperate worship for Easter, and finally worship that keeps the end of life in view.
There is not a clear flow of argument through all of these works, but it is a diversified study of how worship should be conducted, and how we might accept and critique differing parts of the modern worship movement.
First, the title to this book is slightly misleading. Witvliet chose a creative name for his book over what would have revealed the most about the true nature of the book. The problem is that while he clearly recognizes that “worship” entails all of the Christian’s life rather than just the Sunday service, his book only considers the practice of corporate worship. Thus a more fitting title might be “Corporate Worship Seeking Understanding” because there is no investigation into personal or “total life” worship in this volume.
Witvliet avoids a number of the contemporary pitfalls of modern worship thought. First, he recognizes that worship is much more than just “the music” and thus highly values the use of corporate, psalm-based prayers in worship services. Witvliet also recognizes that the origin of worship is God, not man’s effort or creativity. Witvliet reminds the reader: “For Calvin the worship of the church is a matter of divine activity rather than human creativity” (145). He continues, “God the Father is the agent, giver, initiator. God the Son is the mediator, particularly in the office of priest. God the Spirit is prompter, enabler, and effector” (146). Such God-centered worship is refreshing during this age of catering towards man’s desires. He later describes the Catholic-like view of contemporary music where “Music functions to mediate a sense of God’s presence” (255). Witvliet critiques this understanding by affirming that it is God who initiates worship of Himself, and our job is to respond accordingly: “God’s presence is to be received as a gift. It cannot be engineered or produced” (241). While he properly recognizes the beginning of worship, Witvliet also properly recognizes the end of worship: “The point of worship is God” (239). This emphasis on making God the beginning and end of our worship is delightfully biblical and valuable to leaders today.
Witvliet’s work also has a Gospel focus. It is not as blatant and apparent as it could be, but possibly he expects the audience to be a gospel-educated population. He rightly recognizes that the point of communion and baptism are to remember the fulfilled promises of God and to see the gospel displayed visually for the congregation. What is left wanting here is the encouragement to go on and live a holy life of joy and love towards others, which is the point of the gospel, while on earth (Eph 2:10). This discussion leads directly into the deficiencies of Witvliet’s work.
The basic problem with Witvliet’s volume is the exaltation of personal experience and some vague sense of existential engagement with God that drives much of his encouragement and admonition, and is in some ways in disagreement with some of his previous statements about the initiation of worship by God. “In so doing, consider the goal of such preaching not to solve the problem of evil, but rather to lead the worshipers more deeply into these biblical prayers” (47). These ideas of a deep connection with God in corporate worship, and encouragements to foster an environment where the entire range of appropriate human emotions are expressed to God thus supercedes any ideas of a moral responsibility to God outside the time of the service. Corporate worship should seek to teach and remind the attendees about God, and thus move them to encourage one another to love and good deeds. Witvliet is careful enough to not advocate a simple goal of emotional expression, yet he never stresses a goal of corporate worship being to lead worshipers to live a more holy, God-dependent life. Furthermore, while recognizing the potentially powerful teaching opportunities that worship music has, he never once makes it clear that the sermon is a unique act of worship and is the stated means by which God most often changes the hearts of His people. His arguments for more theologically sound music should be received, but still subordinated to the need for biblical teaching.
BAPTISM & REVIVALISM
Witvliet writes a very interesting treatment of Calvin’s view of baptism in which he shows that Calvin understood baptism to be a lifelong testimony to the baptized that he has been reconciled to God, and the revivalism that grew among American churches during the expansion of the frontier, and which continues today.
Witvliet says, “Baptized Christians must look back with confidence at God’s decisive work for them in Christ but must also sense how that work continues throughout the Christian life” (153). Again he says, “Baptism provides an anchor for Christian piety by serving as a constant source of assurance for the wounded conscience of the believer” (157). Such statements about the purpose and value of baptism would lead directly into a baptistic understanding. Furthermore, this understanding also encourages only the baptism of older believers, ones that the church was ready to make a confident assertion as to the work of God in their life. While Witvliet does recognize that baptism is a testimony to the whole church, reminding them of the saving work of Christ, Witvliet still does not make a connection that such a remembrance should lead the worshippers to holy living in light of their salvation.
In his very interesting chapters on the historical spread of frontier revivalism, Witvliet recounts the evolution of certain practices that are now quite common. Simply put, the modern practice of using the church’s worship service primarily as an evangelistic outreach began during the rise of Arminianism and other anthropocentric theologies. He explains that it is during this time the efforts to create a revival by the works of man began. Such a philosophy of congregational worship is still seen today with the retention of invitations and the constant catering toward the preferences of the unbeliever. The tracing of this historical trend sheds new light on the unbiblical origins of such practices today.
Finally, while I would affirm an importance of the engagement of the congregation’s affections towards God in corporate worship, I would want to prioritize the importance of edification with an eye for obedience, all as done most clearly by the preaching and teaching of the Word. It is good and valuable to understand singing and praying times as teaching moments as well, but the primary meat of education should happen during the sermon. By only quietly and rarely mentioning his value for the preaching of the Word of God as the authority for the congregation, Witvliet paves the way for a subsequent generation to not even recognize this vital truth. While offering a collection of good insights for reformed church leaders, his approach to corporate worship leaves the door open for a still further deterioration of contemporary worship toward a more emotion and experience based worship service for leaders who are not solid on their fundamental understanding of God-centered, biblical, corporate worship.
If you find a good deal on this book and don’t mind drudging through the technical, academic language, feel free to pick it up and read the more interesting and valuable chapters on the history of worship during Calvin’s age and the evolution of revivalism through the early American years. The reader can pick and choose chapters they find interesting without reading the entire book because it is a collection of academic papers, each of which stands on its own.