Worship in the Presence of God. Edited by Frank J. Smith and David C. Lachman. Greenville, SC: Greenville Seminary Press, 1992. 411 pp. $27.95. Reviewed by TE Anthony P. Dallison, Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Jacksonville, FL
As a student under Dr. J.I. Packer in England many years ago, this reviewer recalls Dr. Packer's occasional "asides" during his lectures, when he would strongly recommend a particular theological book by saying "Sell your shirt to buy this book!" Such a book is this fine collection of essays on the nature, elements and historic views and practice of worship, a symposium written by sixteen Reformed teaching and ruling elders who share the common conviction that worship is the highest activity that man can render to God and that all worship should be God-centered.
Today, therapeutic techniques, marketing strategies and the beat of the entertainment world often have far more to say about how the Church worships, how it functions and what it offers than does the Word of God. There has been a widespread introduction of dance, drama, mime and rock music into the worship of even "Reformed" churches to an alarming degree. In some churches it is now quite common to find "sketches" slotted into worship services, while in other churches stages are being erected alongside pulpits as the gospel is being increasingly mixed with entertainment. All of these disturbing factors make this timely book even more timely and a sine qua non for all who in any degree acknowledge not only the importance of worship but that worship takes place, as the title reminds us, "in the presence of God".
We can never overlook the centrality of worship and its overwhelming importance in the life of the Christian and in the corporate life of the Church. It is the purpose of man's very existence, that he might glorify God by worshipping and serving His Creator. The entire creation was called into existence with the sole purpose of magnifying and glorifying its Creator, and God made man as the apex of creation, in His own image, to head up creation's worship of its Creator. Moreover, worship will be redeemed mankind's highest activity in heaven as well. That is surely the justification for the substantial and carefully reasoned volume we are reviewing, which deals with so many of the vital aspects of truly biblical worship that constitute an essential characteristic of the Church (WCF XXV,3ˇ5).
The volume is divided into three sections: The Nature of Worship, The Elements of Worship and Historic Views and Practice of Worship. The two Appendices give brief biographical information on the contributors and the Majority Report of The Committee on Song in the Public Worship of God" presented to the 14th General Assembly (1947) of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Helpful topical and scriptural indices conclude the four hundred page volume.
The first section on The Nature of Worship is built around the argument that the Church is not at liberty to determine apart from Scripture what constitutes the proper worship of God. Although the regulative principle (viz., "with regard to worship, whatever is commanded in Scripture is required and whatever is not commanded is forbidden") may seem to restrict our freedom in Christ, this is really not at all the case. Indeed, to go beyond the requirements of Scripture in the matter of worship is really to bind men and their consciences with human traditions, rules and regulations. In this sense, historic Reformed worship, with its strict adherence to the regulative principle, is the most universal worship (in the sense of its being multi-cultural and cross-cultural) because of its adherence to only those elements found in Scripture.
There is an excellent chapter on the fear of God as an essential characteristic of the Church's worship, along with a timely warning that "in some instances today, worship has become so informal that one would think we are at an informal social gathering in which people chat about the everyday affairs of life" (p.26). Furthermore, a thorough and helpful examination of the worship of God in the Old Testament from man's creation through to the Davidic Covenant, reveals that the worship of God was defined and set out in minute detail with nothing left to man's devising. Similarly, Sherman Isbell's chapter on New Testament worship presents a convincing case that in passing from Old Testament to New Testament, God has not surrendered His exclusive prerogative" (p.63). He demonstrates that with the coming of Christ as the great High Priest of His people, the "picture show" of Old Testament worship forms is abolished, so that the glory of our worship now is much less visible to the outward eye, nevertheless the power of the Spirit in the Church and the freedom of access to the Presence within the veil far surpasses in glory anything known in the Old Testament worship forms. Why, it should be asked, has the modern Church opted for worship practices not authorized in Scripture, when such glory attaches to the New Testament worship ordinances of prayer, preaching, congregational singing of Psalms and the ministration of the sacraments? The answer is surely correct: "Because men fear that the few and simple practices prescribed in Scripture will be insufficient to build the church" (P.63). We are reminded that our Christian liberty is given to us in order that we may worship, not as we please, but as He pleases, and that the nonˇScriptural forms of worship so evident in many churches today are rooted in 19th Century revivalism in which "worship" became oriented towards the worshipper ("seekerˇsensitive" worship) rather than towards the One worshipped.
The second section on The Elements of Worship, comprising eight chapters, finds its basis in the common conviction that only the specifically authorized biblical elements of worship are to be included in the worship of God (WCF XXI: 3ˇ5). There is a fine treatment of the importance of the public reading of Scripture, highlighting a muchˇneglected truth in the modern Church, which seems to prefer "snippets" of Scripture rather than the reading of lengthier sections: "It will have an effect on each soul that hears it, each time it is heard. Such is the power of the Word of God. It should be publicly read with the recognition that it has such power" (p. 155). Again, how many of us today really connect preaching with worship? Yet, through Godˇcentered preaching, a fullˇorbed worship comes to fruition, as such preaching opens up vistas of the true 'worth' of the triune God, inviting worship in the deepest way (p. 157). The chapters on the place of prayer, the sacraments and 'occasional elements' (oaths, vows, solemn fasting & thanksgiving) are also stimulating and instructive.
The treatment of Song of Public Worship (and the accompanying chapter "The Singing of Praise") advocate the practice of exclusive psalmody in the worship of God. The first is Prof. John Murray's Minority Report of the "The Committee on Song in the Public Worship of God" in connection with the 14th General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and it is surely the most succinct, if not the very best, sort statement of the case for exclusive psalmody and it deserves to be widely read. The second chapter by Frank Smith advances the case for psalmˇsinging by many telling points and by answering many of the common objections to singing the Psalms in worship.
The third section on Historical Views And Practice of Worship comprises two chapters, dealing first with the Reformed Creeds and Confessions and then with John Knox's special contributions towards the recovery of biblical worship in Scotland. Gregg Singer effectively shows how all the Reformed churches at the Reformation "swept the house clean" of the Romanist accretions in worship and how the pure worship of God is reflected in their creeds and confessions, with the Westminster Standards being preeminent in the thoroughness with which they make the true worship of God a characteristic of the biblical Church. Dr. Singer also reminds us that in Calvin's commentaries and Institutes "we find the most biblical treatment of the role of worship in the life of mankind and those principles which must govern the worship of the church" (p.278). Kevin Reed's treatment of John Knox's work in Scotland reveals an often overˇlooked truth, that the reformation of the church's worship took top priority in his labors as a Reformer. So thorough was his work that he left no room for man-made innovations and intrusions in the Reformed worship or the Church of Scotland, as witnessed by his typically blunt (but true!) statement: "Man may neither make nor devise a religion that is acceptable to God" (p.296). He believed that it is not simply a Reformed doctrinal statement which identifies a Church as Reformed, but whether these Reformed principles are being consistently applied to achieve biblical purity in worship. In reading these things, one wonders with what unbelief and dismay these early Protestants would regard much of what passes as "worship" today--especially in churches that call themselves "Reformed"!
The concluding bibliography on Recent Writings On Worship is very comprehensive, interspersed occasionally with scintillating comments and punctuated with memorable one-sentence rejoinders to 'offending" books and articles. And you can add a new word to your theological vocabulary, "pot-rocking" (looking under every pot and rock of Scripture to find what you have predetermined should be there). Yes, some books of worship have indeed been written based upon that unfortunate principle!
Worship in the Presence of God deserves the widest circulation. It courageously exposes and condemns the welter of human additions and accretions that have steadily crept into the pure worship of God in this age. It reveals the astonishing depreciation of true biblical worship today, where the simple God-ordained means of prayer, preaching the Word, biblical praise have been judged inadequate and insufficient by themselves to build the Church. It points to the glory of New Testament worship and calls for its restoration again, in the conviction that if the Reformed Faith is most strict and narrow, it is also the broadest and most universal, because of its unwillingness to countenance or impose on people anything unless it is biblical. This book humbles the reader. But it also lifts him up with the glorious vision of what the Church once was, and so what it can be by God's grace again. It is a true antidote for the confusing and compromising times in which we live. Yes, "sell your shirt" to buy it!