Category Archives: worship

The Lord is Still Great

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of my book, Great is the Lord: Theology for the Praise of God (Eerdmans). I am pleased and humbled that after 10 years the book is being used in seminaries and colleges more now than ever before—much more. Though modest by some measures the book sold 512 copies in the last 6 months. I assume that most of those were used in seminary classes. I still feel and believe what I wrote 10 years ago in the Preface to that book. Below is a slightly edited version of that Preface:

“From the ocean side slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains on the campus of Pepperdine University I look over the moonlit bay to the giant city of Los Angeles and feel a stab of pain. The word “God” in some language finds a place in the vocabulary of every resident of that city of nations. But do they know what it really means?  I fear that many do not. For, if they did, every street corner would echo with thanksgiving and every courtyard ring with praise. I feel that same stab, if to a lesser extent, when I enter my general studies classes the first day of the semester. I see beautiful, intelligent, and privileged young people and I love them. In that poignant moment I feel the weight of my responsibility: how can I help them see why their joy must come from loving God above all things….

“The great Franciscan theologian Bonaventure (1217-1274) warned that the deadliest enemies of theology are the pride and curiosity of theologians. The purpose of theology, he urged, is to “become virtuous and attain salvation.” Theologians, he cautioned, should not fool themselves into thinking that “reading is sufficient without unction, speculation without devotion, investigation without wonder, observation without rejoicing, work without piety, knowledge without love, understanding without humility or endeavor without divine grace” (Itinerarium mentis in Deum). The academic style dominant today leaves little room for a Bonaventure-style theology. And it is not easy to swim against this current…Nonetheless, I believe writing a theology that praises God is worth the risk….

 

The Argument

 

“I shall defend a traditional doctrine of God. I argue not only that the traditional doctrine is not guilty of making God uncaring, aloof, and threatening to human freedom—as some critics claim—but that it actually preserves our confidence in God’s love, intimate presence, and liberating action better than its opponents do. Far from effacing our humanity, the traditional doctrine grounds our dignity and freedom in the center of reality, the Trinitarian life of God. Here is the heart and soul and passion and pain of my book. Whether in praise or blame, make your judgment here.

 

The “Traditional” Doctrine of God

 

“I have already indicated that I shall defend the “traditional” doctrine of God. Perhaps then I should explain briefly what I mean by this term. I mean the teaching about God that was held by almost the whole church from the second to the twentieth century and is still held by most believers: God is Triune, loving, merciful, gracious, patient, wise, one, simple, omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, omnipresent, immutable, impassible, and glorious. The church understood these characteristics as Scriptural teachings, not as philosophical theories. They were explained and defended by such fourth-century theologian-bishops as Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus.

 

“They were enshrined in ecumenical creeds and denominational confessions of faith. This doctrine was explained and defended by Augustine of Hippo, who became the theologian to the Western world. It was summarized by the Eastern theologian John of Damascus (c. 675- c.749) in his Orthodox Faith. In the middle ages such theologians as Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and Bonaventura wrote treatises expounding and defending the traditional divine attributes. It was held by the Protestant Reformers and their descendants in almost all Protestant churches. And it was cherished by Alexander Campbell, leading light in my own tradition, the Stone-Campbell Movement.

 

“This doctrine of God went almost unchallenged within church until the eighteenth century and then it was challenged only by a few on the periphery. Only in the twentieth century did it come under wide-spread criticism. Today, even among many evangelical and otherwise conservative writers, rehearsing the shortcomings of the “traditional” or “classical” teaching has become a standard way to introduce one’s own (presumably better) doctrine of God. Unfortunately, many of these writers evidence little real knowledge of the traditional doctrine and offer such a caricature of that teaching that the reader has to wonder how the church’s most saintly and brilliant teachers could have been so deceived for so long.

 

“I wrote this book to correct this caricature and show why the traditional doctrine of God dominated the church’s thinking for so long. My answer is intimated in the title of this book: Great is the Lord: Theology for the Praise of God. I believe the traditional doctrine of God focuses our attention on the unsurpassable greatness of God and urges us praise him according to his infinite worth. I am overjoyed to add my little “Amen” to that great chorus of angels, psalmists, apostles, saints, martyrs, doctors, and teachers, who have said to us through the ages: “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise!”

 

Note: You can read the full Preface and look through the Table of Contents on Amazon.com:

 

https://www.amazon.com/Great-Lord-Theology-Praise-God/dp/0802833004/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1534961022&sr=8-4&keywords=ron+highfield

Has Your Church Forgotten Something?

I have been deeply involved in the life of church since I was a child. The church taught me about Jesus and formed me as a Christian and as a person. I love her and I can’t imagine my life without her. Early in my life I felt a call to serve in the ministry or, as I would have articulated then, “to become a preacher.” And after some hesitancy in my teen years I decided to take that step. I studied Bible and theology in college and graduate school, receiving my Master of Theology degree. I spent approximately ten years in campus ministry, youth ministry and preaching ministry. After receiving my Ph.D. in religious studies I began teaching at the university level. That was nearly 28 years ago. For much of that time I served as an elder in a local church. Last summer, after 22 years as an elder, I ended my career in this role. I informed my beloved congregation that I could no longer do what contemporary elders are required to do and make the decisions they must make. For the first time in a long time I am a regular church member.

I want to share with you today a perspective that has gradually been crystalizing in my mind over many years. I have come to believe that many of the challenges that consume the energy of contemporary churches arise because they have redefined the nature and work of the church to include many things almost wholly unrelated to the essence and original purpose of the church. The New Testament church was a family, but we’ve transformed it into a bureaucracy. The early church’s ministers were traveling missionaries or respected local leaders, but we’ve turned them into religious experts and middle class professionals. The first churches met in homes around a table, but we met in a hall in facing a theater stage.

Think of how much energy and money churches spend and how many legal and political entanglements they bring on themselves by involving themselves in following unnecessary things: owning and managing property, hiring and managing professional clergy and staff, acquiring and servicing nonprofit tax status, organizing and funding worship bands, singers and worship ministers, and buying, maintaining and operating expensive sound and video systems. And consider how many unnecessary and inefficient programs must be staffed with overworked volunteers and paid staff. Think of how much envy, resentment and showiness having a stage with spotlights and microphones as the focal point of the service evokes.

Ask yourself why people attend church and on what basis do they choose a church. Do they attend church to be reminded of who they are in Christ, to participate in the Lord’s Supper with their brothers and sisters in Christ, to hear the Scriptures read, to encourage and be encouraged to live lives worthy of the gospel? These are the essential and original reasons. Or, do people attend a church event because of the music, the speaker or the wide array of services provided for children, teens, singles and other affinity groups?

I am not a reformer. I am not an iconoclast. I simply want to spend my energy on things that really matter.  And I wish that more churches would do the same.

A Truce in the Worship Wars?

Worship has become a controversial subject lately. Come to think of it, I suppose it has always been contentious. Is worship for us or for God? Should it be quiet and serious or loud and celebratory? Does worship address the mind or the heart? Before expressing an opinion on these questions, it might be wise to think as deeply as possible about the nature of worship.

Surely every Christian would agree that the object of worship is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We don’t worship ourselves or other gods or money or other people. We worship God. No one will object if we distinguish between worship and the teaching/learning process. And though loving God and loving your neighbor cannot be separated, we need to distinguish between worship as a religious act and moral acts such as feeding the hungry and visiting the sick. And I think everyone would agree that worship is an act, not simply a belief or a feeling. Worship, then, is an act directed to God. What kind of act?

As an act directed toward God, worship needs to do something appropriate, something that truly corresponds to God. Since our most fundamental duty to God is to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, it stands to reason that worship must be an enactment of that duty. It is an act of love toward God. But it is an odd sort of act. An act of love toward a human being would supply some good thing to that human being that enhances their life. Since God does not lack anything, acts of worship cannot supply God’s needs or add to his knowledge, or make him feel more worthy. Worship doesn’t build temples, heal anyone, or accomplish anything in the world. Indeed from a worldly perspective, worship seems like a waste of time, energy, and resources. What appropriate act do we perform when we worship?

Worship is a symbolic act, and its symbolic nature gives to those who do not understand it the impression of waste and meaninglessness.  A symbol points beyond itself to something in the real world. It must resemble the thing it symbolizes in some way. Otherwise the symbol would be ineffective in directing our attention to the real thing. A symbolic act points beyond itself to a real act. It compresses, summarizes, and perhaps, dramatizes the real act so that its essential nature can be grasped in a flash of insight. In Christian worship, the body becomes a symbol. We bow down, kneel, eat and drink, raise our hands, and close the eyes; we light candles, sit quietly, or express words of admiration, faith, gratitude, and longing in prose, poetry, and song.  What, then, is the real act that the act of worship symbolizes?

Worship is a symbolic expression of love for God. And an act of love must give something to the one it loves. As I said above, however, God does not need anything we can give. But God deserves everything we can give. Worship symbolizes our appropriate response to what God is and what God has done for us. And what is that appropriate response? It is to accept without reservation God’s love for us and to offer our entire being to God to use according to his perfect will. More than that, the real act symbolized by worship is our actual living in this way. And I believe this is what Paul is saying in Romans 12:1-2:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Perhaps it’s time for a truce in the worship wars. We might discover that the dichotomies mentioned in the first paragraph above do not really express mutually exclusive things. Worship should be directed to God, but we are the ones who need it. God is so rich in his attributes that it is appropriate on occasion to be quiet and serious in his presence and on others loud and celebratory. God is both Truth and Beauty, so worship should address both mind and heart. Whether worship is tilted toward the head or the heart, whether it is quiet or noisy, we should not mistake the symbol for the reality. The true test of worship is the quality of life it provokes us to live.

A Message For Religious Drop Outs

Many people view religion as a distraction from real life. Religious acts are useless and religious institutions are a waste of human resources. Increasingly, younger people are dropping out of church attendance and adopting a private spirituality or becoming completely secular. What can we say to this movement? What is the meaning of Christian religious practice?

First, we need to observe that the idea that religion is useless and a distraction from real life presupposes a view of the divine and divine’s relationship to human beings that supports this view of religion. In ancient religion the gods demanded sacrifice and honor from human beings. They rewarded their favorites and punished offenders. Given this belief system, religious acts and institutions could hardly be called useless and distracting from real life! Modern religious drop outs of post-Christian, post-denominational culture no longer believe in God at all or no longer believe God desires the attention of human beings or some similar thought. In any case, they cannot see a rationale for traditional, Christian religious practice.

In the previous post, I defined religion as “human action and affection directed primarily toward God.” We examined the Christian understanding of basic human affection toward God, that is, love for God. When we come to see in the self-giving of Jesus Christ how much God loves us, we cannot help but love God in return. And when we see that God is the best, most beautiful, and truest reality, we cannot help but desire to be with God and enjoy him. As we can clearly see, loving the God revealed in Jesus Christ makes perfect sense. But what about religious acts: baptism, listening to the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, and praise? What about meeting together to perform these acts? What makes these things meaningful and useful?

Christianity rejects the ancient pagan view of religion. Christian religious acts are not designed to meet God’s needs. The Old Testament prophets and Paul in Acts 17 make that clear. They are not designed earn God’s favor or ward off his wrath. What then is their purpose?

The meaning of any action is revealed in its relationship to the goal to which it is directed. Acts become meaningless when we cannot see the goal at which they aim. Everyone understands that the more important the goal, the more valuable the means that helps us achieve that goal. Christian religious acts are the means by which we can achieve the goals of the Christian faith. What are those goals and how do Christian religious acts help us attain them?

As we noted in the previous essay, Christian religious acts must express our love for God or they are worthless (1 Corinthians 12:1-3). They do nothing to achieve the goal of the Christian way. In loving God, we admire his beautiful, loving character revealed in the self-giving of Jesus and we desire to participate in his goodness, beauty, and truth. In general, we want to be like what we admire and to enjoy what we desire. In loving God, our affections are directed toward becoming like him and participating in his eternal life, in its goodness, beauty, and truth. Jesus Christ reveals the true character of God and the true goal of human life; and Christian religious acts make sense only as means to this goal.

In one-time act of baptism, we imitate physically the self-giving of Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection and publicly declare our intention to imitate and become like Jesus, whom we love. In our repeated act of sharing in the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded of Jesus’ self-giving and we reaffirm our baptismal intention to be assimilated to Jesus’ sacrifice and his life.  In listening to the Scriptures, we open ourselves to God’s word of grace, guidance, and judgment for the purpose of becoming like him.

When we praise God, we express our admiration for God’s character and our desire to enjoy his perfection. In praising God, we keep before our minds and hearts the truth that God himself is the goal of all human action. To possess and be possessed by God is the greatest of all goods. In the practice of communal and private prayer, we keep our minds focused on the reality of God’s presence and the truth of his grace.

And in meeting together to perform these acts we give and receive the strength, love, friendship, help,  and kindness that the Spirit of God gives to each and all. The meeting itself is a means by which we are helped on our way toward the goal of becoming like God and enjoying him now and forever.

If the goal of human life to have as much pleasure, to gather as much wealth, to achieve as much professional success, or to garner as much fame as possible within this life, religious acts make no sense at all. They are useless and the institutions that support them are a waste of human resources. But if the goal of human life is to become like God in character and to enjoy his goodness, beauty, and truth forever, Christian religious acts are the most meaningful things we can do.