What’s The Big Deal About The Liturgy? Part 3: The Syntax of Worship

Syntax |sin·taks|: The arrangement of words or phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language.

We are continuing to develop a theology of worship by looking at the liturgy through the lens of language. Like any language, the liturgy has syntax—a structure that provides order and intelligibly communicates meaning through all that is said. In 1 Corinthians 11–14, the Apostle Paul provides direction and correction on the nature of worship. In this post, we’ll consider three points when it comes to the syntax of weekly worship:

  1. Tradition – Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you (1 Cor 11:2).
  2. Comprehensibility – There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me (1 Cor 14:10–11).
  3. OrderBut all things should be done decently and in order (1 Cor 14:40).

The Living Faith of the Dead = Tradition

While it is possible to turn any liturgy into traditionalism (dead faith of the living), what I am advocating in the use of a historic liturgy is what Jaroslav Pelikan calls “the living faith of the dead” (Vindication of Tradition, 65). Tradition in this sense has the capacity to develop while still maintaining its identity and continuity. The tradition serves as a means of relating to the present through contact with both the practices of the past and our collective hope for the future. In other words, it places us into the story of God’s redemptive community and stirs in us a sense of belonging to a fellowship that spans time and space (with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven…).

One benefit of being rooted in the past is that our worship transcends any one culture or specific generation, fostering unity around Christ and His saving Word. For example, my church’s current hymnal features hymns and spiritual songs from the fourth century up to the present. In fact, Christ the Word of God Incarnate, was written by one of my graduate professors not long ago (LSB, 540). Norman Nagel calls this a “living heritage.”

We are heirs of an astonishingly rich tradition. Each generation receives from those who went before and, in making that tradition of the Divine Service its own, adds what best may serve in its own day—the living heritage and something new. (Lutheran Worship, 7)

Both of my daughters have grown up praying, singing, and hearing the proclamation of the Law and Gospel alongside men and women that were at times 80+ years their senior. This could happen because the liturgy provided a syntax that promotes order, meaning, and unity. There is no need to segregate a congregation based on age demographics; it only serves to divide the family (and our culture does this well enough on its own). As a pastor, there is very little that eclipses the joy of seeing young and old of every ethnicity embrace one another in the peace of Christ before kneeling together around the table to receive the body and blood of Christ during the Lord’s Supper.

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The Language of the Living = Comprehensibility

In 1 Corinthians 14:24–25, Paul addresses the misuse of tongues. Whatever your opinion on this troublesome topic, Paul is clear that speaking in tongues will cause unbelievers to say that they are out of their minds (v. 23). He insists that their gathering be intelligible to the uninitiated. By being edified by the truth they could be convicted of sin, resulting in conversion: “so falling on his face, he will worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you’” (v. 25).

One of the great achievements of the Reformation was getting the Scriptures, hymns, and liturgy translated into the common vernacular, so that all could understand everything spoken. Language is always developing and morphing over time, thus the Church must constantly update and adapt to such changes as we translate the Bible into modern idiom (in English moving from the KJV to the present ESV). Likewise, good preachers will often take time in the sermon to explain biblical terminology or practices that are foreign to our time and place.

The Living God of the Liturgy = Order

Since God is a not a god of confusion, the Divine Service is one that is carefully structured to reflect His Word and character, which is holy. Because the liturgy is saturated in God’s holy Word, there is an objective dependability that protects the Church from the intoxicating whims of a rapidly changing culture. C.S. Lewis once noted the benefits of a having a repeatable and familiar liturgy:

Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And [believers] don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best—when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshiping. (Letters to Malcolm, 4)

Some may feel Lewis is trying to stifle creativity in worship, but I believe he makes a valid point. Liturgy should not be placed in the same category as entertainment or technology, which requires constant innovation and upgrade to the next “big thing.” Rather, it is a life imparting Word from an ever-present Lord to justified sinners. That Word is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8), which means it comes to us in its final version, which cannot be bettered. “The watchwords of worship,” according to Art Just, “should always be reverence, not relevance, fidelity, not innovation.” (Heaven on Earth, 28)

Next month, we will consider the “accent” of the liturgy (the particular emphasis of our worship).

Find all the parts to this series on Brian’s page

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