One of Frame’s objections to “Escondido Theology” pertains to worship. Here are the bullet points from his book:
• It is wrong to try to make the gospel relevant to its hearers.
• Worship should be very traditional, without any influence of contemporary culture.
• The Sabbath pertains only to worship, not to daily work. So worship should occur on the Lord’s Day, but work need not cease.
• There is no immediate experience of God available to the believer.
• The only experience of God available to the believer is in public worship.
• Meetings of the church should be limited to the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments.
• In worship, we “receive” from God, but should not seek to “work” for God.
• We should take no interest in our inner feelings or subjective life.
• Preaching should narrate the history of redemption, but should never appeal to Bible characters as moral or spiritual examples.
• Preaching “how tos” and principles of practical living is man-centered.
• Those who try to show the application of Scripture to the daily problems of believers are headed toward a Christless Christianity.
I know Frame would likely object to what follows, but it is hard to read his books and other writings on worship, look at his objections to “conservatives” on worship, and not conclude that he is oriented — in his terms — to the horizontal rather than the vertical. How a Reformed theologian would gravitate toward the human aspects and relations of worship as opposed to the implications of worship for God is beyond me. In fact, the difference between a seeker-sensitive and a God-sensitve worship service was at the heart of the debate in which Frame and I engaged almost fifteen years ago.
What follows is a lengthy excerpt from my closing statement in that on-line debate:
I hope it is not a contested assertion to say that worship reflects theology. Our understanding of the God in whose presence we assemble will color what we do in that sacred assembly. Here I believe that Reformed worship best embodies the kind of encounter between God and man that we find at the end of the book of Job. In its stress upon divine sovereignty and man’s utter dependence upon God, the Reformed tradition has captured best what God says to Job, “who then is he that can stand before me? Who has given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine” (41:10-11) and in return Job’s proper response to this great and mighty sovereign, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:5-6). Reformed theology is premised upon this radical gulf between a holy and transcendent God and man who stands at the apex of God’s good creation.
When Reformed believers have worshiped, then, they have been guided historically by the relationship between God and man such as that expressed in this encounter between God and Job. There is an enormous gulf between God and his creatures, not simply because of sin, but because God is, in the language of the Shorter Catechism, a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. Man is not on equal footing with God. He comes before God as an inferior, wholly dependent, and utterly impotent. The fitting way to approach God is in humility and godly fear.
The RPW, as defined by the Westminster Divines, is a good and necessary consequence of the Reformed tradition’s understanding of God and man, not to mention a Reformed hermeneutic. Man cannot please God on his own. He must go to the Bible to see how God desires to be worshiped. And that this means is that there are certain elements that are regular parts of corporate worship and these elements must be conducted in a way that recognizes the gulf between God and man and what God has done to make it possible for man to enter God’s presence. The RPW and Reformed theology are like the proverbial hand and glove. If you give up one, you relinquish the other. A different understanding of divine-human relations yields a different understanding of worship, while a different conception of worship means adopting a different conception of the relationship between God and man.
I believe that true worship, that is, Presbyterian worship (sorry to sound sectarian), is under attack in conservative Presbyterian circles on two fronts. The first comes from church planting and home missions efforts that make worship serve as a form of outreach. Once worship becomes (even slightly) a means by which we self-consciously recruit new members our understanding has shifted dramatically from that of Job in chapter 42. This statement in no way denies that the preaching of the word becomes an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners. But all of the literature on contemporary worship that I keep tabs on emphasizes music, a casual atmosphere, and such other diversions as drama, dance and rave masses as means to attract the unchurched. The stress overwhelmingly is on intelligibility. But there may be a biblical form of intelligibility that is unpleasant to unbelievers, that makes them feel uncomfortable, such as Jesus’ interaction with his disciples in John 6. Our Lord in this passage was intelligible the disciples could understand his words, but the meaning and binding address of those words made them unacceptable.
The second form of attack comes from the common distinction in Presbyterian circles between form and content. We have been so good (relatively) at keeping our theology pure and our Bibles inerrant that we have forgotten about the practice of the faith, especially the one sacred practice that orders our week, namely, corporate worship. As I have tried to argue at several points in this debate, forms are not indifferent. For instance, we cannot package the dramatic encounter between God and Job in a sit-com. Nor can soft rock music appropriately carry the weight of the burning bush. As the writer to the Hebrews says, our God is still a consuming fire, even in the wake of Jesus’ better covenant. This means that our posture in worship should not be like Yule Brenner’s in The King and I, bare breasted, hands on hips, and feet apart in effect, saying “look at me.” Nor should it be the casual pose of sitting in the barcalounger with feet up and Styrofoam cup of coffee in hand in effect saying “dude!” Instead, our posture should be like that of the angels and elders in Revelation 7 who “fell on their faces before the throne of God” (v. 11). This doesn’t mean that we may not enter confidently into the holy of holies. Because of Christ we are able to go boldly where only Israel’s high priests went before. But when we get there, we must know that our response will be one of self-abasement. And again, I believe the RPW best preserves this reverential character of worship while also guarding and defending the proper elements of worship. In other words, it preserves (but does not guarantee) worship that is acceptable to God.
A word also needs to be said about joy. Prof. Frame emphasizes it, and I stress reverence, as if the two are mutually exclusive. But I would argue that Prof. Frame’s emphasis is one-sided, and that even though he talks about reverence he hasn’t explained how the “rejoice” texts of the Bible he cites square with all of those biblical texts, like Psalm 2:11 that say we should rejoice with trembling. In other words, there are reverent ways to express joy. But by making joy and reverence two different things we might be tempted to think that the elders who fall face down before God in glory are unhappy, that is, not rejoicing. I would argue instead that those elders are joyful and part of the way they are expressing their joy is through their utter self-abasement. So saying that we need to rejoice in worship doesn’t solve the matter of what form our joy takes.
Prof. Frame is by no means guilty of all the excesses that goes under the name, “contemporary worship.” But his books do open the door, in my opinion. As he explains in the introduction to WST, he writes for those Presbyterians who worship with guilty consciences, who recognize that they are not worshiping as the Puritans worshiped but who still adhere to Puritan theology. I don’t know how this separation is possible. I have tried to argue that it is theologically, intellectually and historically impossible. By saying that dance, drama and humor MAY be used in worship, Frame technically violates the heart of the RPW. Either the Bible commands a specific element or practice, or it doesn’t. According to the RPW, if it doesn’t we may not do it. But aside from this technical reading of the RPW’s intent, even worse is the idea that I find implicit in Frame’s books, namely, that God will accept most of what we do as long as we are doing it with the right motives. To me this nurtures the idea that God is not zealous for his worship and that we may be more casual in our observance. God’s jealousy for his worship, I believe, is what the RPW protected so well.
In other words, I believe Frame wants it both ways. He wants to worship like a charismatic . . . but wants the blessing of being a good Presbyterian. Would he allow the same inconsistency in apologetics? If R.C. Sproul practiced evidential apologetics but claimed to be a presuppositionalist would Frame let that claim go? Yet, this analogy reveals a dynamic that has been lurking around our debate about worship. On the one hand, it suggests that there is a wrong (of false, as I learned it at WTS) way of doing apologetics, one that conflicts with our theology, with our confession of God’s sovereignty and human depravity. On the other hand, the parallel I am making with apologetics also teaches that forms matter. What Sproul is doing is apologetics; he is defending the faith. But he is using the wrong form of argument, according to presuppositionalism, one that contradicts his Reformed profession. This analogy, applied to worship, means that there can be false worship even when done by people with good theology. It also suggests that if there are Reformed forms for apologetics (i.e. presuppositionalism) why not Reformed forms for worship? In the same way that we need to recognize that what Sproul is doing is a form of Christian apologetics, we also need to recognize that the Roman Catholic mass, the charismatic P&W service and Reformed liturgy are all forms of Christian worship. They all use the same elements (i.e. the word, sacraments, prayer, and song). But just because
someone uses a Christian form of worship doesn’t mean it is true worship, anymore than someone who uses a Christian form of apologetics (one practiced by Christians throughout the ages) is necessarily using the true argument.
But why, someone might ask, is historic Reformed worship so difficult and so unappealing? If one is starting a church plant Reformed liturgy as practiced by Calvin and the Puritans is hardly something to bring in the crowds. At the same time, believers who know little of Reformed theology may find little in Reformed worship that is immediately edifying. Here we might want to learn a few things from the social and cultural critics. Rather than regarding contemporary worship music (CWM) or the movements that produced them as the work of the Holy Spirit, that is, as revivals as Frame does (WST, 115ff; CWM 5ff) we might plausibly interpret them as the work of the spirit of the age. The English sociologist, David Martin, argues in a book on contemporary Pentecostalism (TONGUES OF FIRE) that Wesleyan Arminianism has defined the cultural ethos of the United States since 1800. One way of seeing this is to observe how Americans insist on “sincerity and openness rather than on form and privacy.” For this reason, he says that the “whole American style was, and is, Methodist’ in its emphases, whereas in England the culturally prestigious style remained Anglican.” Of course, Martin is only a sociologist, not an inspired author of Holy Writ. But if he is right might not our expectations be for forms of worship that stress sincerity and openness to be more appealing to all Americans (Reformed or not) rather than the formal and reverent kind of Calvin’s Geneva? In other words, David Wells, whom Frame too quickly dismisses, may be right to argue that contemporary evangelicalism reveals much more about modernity than it does about biblical religion. Charismatic worship may be more appealing because it fits the cultural ethos more than because it demonstrates the power of the Holy Spirit. Which is why the work of historians, sociologists and cultural critics, the folks whom Wells reads and cites, is so valuable for the church in her work of testing the spirits. Which is also why Frame’s defense of biblicism can produce a lack of discernment both about the culture and about how it shapes religious expression. (Another argument on behalf of the impossibility of separating form and content, by the way.)
. . . Prof. Frame and the “audience” may think I have been judgmental. I would only say in response that judgment is integral to the existence of moral communities. Moral communities, like churches or theological traditions always have to decide what is and what is not acceptable. To neglect this task is to give up the possibility of saying defining anything. Our Lord warned that we should not judge lest we be judged. But I don’t think I am guilty of judging in this sense. I want to be judged by the same standards by which I am judging Prof. Frame, that is, on the basis of a theological tradition that has stood the test of time and, more importantly, that has better than any other Christian tradition given all glory and honor to God. I do so not simply because I want to be right, but also so that this generation and generations to come can say, as Dr. Machen did, “isn’t the Reformed Faith grand!” . . .