Note: This summer I have the privilege of conducting an independent study with Dr. Hughes Oliphant Old, professor of reformed liturgics at Erskine Theological Seminary as well as a visiting lecturer at Princeton Theological Seminary. As part of that study, I will be reading a number of books related to our studies of Christian worship. I will attempt to post my summaries of those books as I complete them. Here is the first which happens to be the only full length book by Old on the list.
Themes & Variations for a Christian Doxology by Hughes Oliphant Old
Themes & Variations is a collection of essays built on the thesis that “doxology” may serve as the best foundation for a theology of worship. Old constructs this theology of worship around the “themes and variations” of epicletic doxology, kerygmatic doxology, wisdom doxology, prophetic doxology, and covenantal doxology. As the title indicates, the intent is less to construct a systematic theology of worship than to explore and suggest a more holistic biblical theology or worship. From the outset, Old explains that while he is working within the Reformed tradition of worship, he does not follow some of the later, more rigid hermeneutical principles of some but rather prefers Oecolampadius’ approach which insists that worship should be “according to Scripture” but not limited to explicit commands. This approach is appreciative of the entire scope of Scripture and open to the broad swath of literary genres found there as well as a liturgical theology that can be developed from more typological readings of its entire corpus. Thus, Themes & Variations seeks to offer thoughts and observations following this thematic and typological exploration of Scripture while considering how the historic church — and particularly the Reformed church and her forebears — has understood these themes and sought to put these considerations into practice.
By epicletic doxology, Old means the basic function of worship as “calling upon God’s name.” As an embodiment of the first simple acclamation of the Lord’s Prayer, “hallowed be Thy name,” this basic affirmation is the positive result of heeding the first four commandments of the Decalogue but particularly the third commandment prohibiting the taking of the Lord’s name in vain. All sorts of epiclesis are found in Scripture and appropriate for God’s people to offer, prayers of praise and adoration as well as prayers for help and mercy. Old suggests that the Old Covenant tetragram of YHWH which was a revelation of God’s saving and delivering power and intent has been replaced in the New Covenant by ABBA, the name of God as Father, who is preeminently the Father of the Lord Jesus, but in Him the Father of all who call upon Him in faith. Old points out that many of the epicletic prayers and hymns of the Christian heritage are built upon strong typological correlations between events in redemptive history and the present circumstances of those in need (e.g. the negro spirituals’ use of Exodus imagery and themes).
Kerygmatic doxology is worship based upon proclamation. This proclamation is based upon the deeds and character of God. Old examines the prolific praise of God in the Psalter, particularly the acclamation of praise found in the “Hallelujahs.” This acclamation of praise to God as savior and king has obvious royal and political overtones, and this becomes explicit in the New Testament where Jesus is declared to be the Christ, the Messiah, who was to come to set all things right. All the psalmic acclamations of the Old Testament become centered in the coming of the Messiah and upon His rule as God’s only begotten Son, the great and final Solomon. The Christian canticles and hymns of the church from the earliest days clearly reflect this realization that the sovereign rule and reign of God has now been revealed in Jesus and therefore Christian worship has always had royal overtones and a sense of regal dignity. Preaching has always been considered to be part of this doxology as the preaching of the gospel has always been the proclamation of Jesus as the King who has brought salvation to the world.
Wisdom doxology seeks to understand worship as the outworking of the prominent themes of word, wisdom, and logos found woven through the story of Scripture. While this has been a rather neglected aspect of liturgical studies, Old suggests that the great resurgence in the study of wisdom theology presents a wealth of material for willing liturgists to begin to integrate into their “themes and variations.” Old points out that the Psalms do not shy away from wisdom themes and often consider the law of the Lord or the fear of the Lord, and the personification of Wisdom as a fine woman to be sought after (from Proverbs) found its way into at least a few allegorical interpretations of the Song of Solomon. All of this wisdom doxology culminates in its most explicit formulation in the prologue of John’s gospel where the logos/wisdom of God is identified with God and has become incarnate. This incarnate wisdom of God continues to work within the categories of marriage and love by immediately being presented as the bridegroom come to his bride in the miracle at Cana. It is the study of wisdom theology that connects this marriage and feast theme with the final consummation pictured in Revelation’s great wedding feast of the Lamb. Wisdom doxology affirms that the study of the Scriptures in faith is itself worship, and preaching, in this regard, has often particularly flowered as it studied the Scriptures for typological and allegorical revelations of the wisdom of God. While the reformers for the most part preferred a rather toned down or tamed version of Scriptural exegesis (i.e. redemptive-historical), the study, preaching, and even singing of Scripture itself has always been a turn to contemplating the word as the revelation of the Word. The Eucharist has also been seen as the revelation of the wisdom of God in so far as it is a foretaste of that wedding feast and the sacramental communication of the bread of life to God’s people.
Prophetic doxology is the insistence on the holiness of God and therefore the requirement for His worshippers themselves to be holy. The prophetic literature is replete with condemnations of hypocritical worship, rites and rituals that are empty because the lives of the people carrying them out do not coincide with what the words and actions proclaim. This does not imply that worshippers must themselves be sinless, but it requires that sinners approach God in need of forgiveness (witness Isaiah). Old makes the simple and yet profound point that righteousness has to do with right relationships. To be righteous or just is to act lawfully toward all of those in one’s life. Fidelity to a spouse, care and discipline of a child, submission to authority, and care for the poor would all fall into this understanding of righteousness. Of course a right relationship toward God is preeminent and must be diffused throughout all of the others. And thus a prophetic doxology insists that the morality proclaimed by word and action in worship must inform and be implemented throughout the worshipper’s life. Old argues that this is what is meant by “spiritual” worship. It is not an opposition of material to immaterial, as though “spiritual” was merely non-physical, rather what is meant by “spiritual worship” is a fundamental ethical quality in one’s service to God. It is an honest seeking of right relationships (i.e. righteousness/holiness) because of God’s holiness and for His glory. Here, Old examines Christian art in this prophetic context, distinguishing between the iconography of the medieval and “high church” traditions and the protestant religious and illustrative art. Given the second commandment, this contrast represents a prophetic element of protestant worship in so far as it seeks the ethical purity of worship. He closes by pointing out how fitting the “giving of alms” is in Christian worship. It is a tangible declaration of this righteous aim: it responds to the holiness of God rightly and makes provision for the maintenance of the Church and the care of the poor.
Finally, Old examines worship as a covenantal doxology. The Scriptures clearly present the relationship between God and humanity in covenantal terms and even more so, this is done in the context of worship. The covenant was always affirmed and renewed when God’s word was read or declared, and it was often sealed with sacrifices and a meal. The praise of God’s people is also highly covenantal as it recites the faithfulness of God to His promises. Declarations of faith, oaths, vows, and prayers all serve as the human side of the covenant renewal as well (see his discussion of the use of the word sacramentum). As God is declared to have been faithful to His people, His people in turn declare their willingness and intention to be faithful to Him. At the center of this covenantal doxology is the Eucharist of course. Fulfilling the sacrificial and festal realities of the Old Covenant, and given the promises of God that included a salvific destiny for the whole world, a covenantal doxology is necessarily an evangelistic doxology. A renewal of the covenant is a renewal of the Christian Church’s missional identity and calling. This is simply because the love of God always spills out into love of neighbor. Old closes this final exploration with consideration of some of the more recent architectural trends in the Christian Church. Recognizing that worship space is itself a kind of liturgical theology, Old celebrates some of the modern attempts in church architecture which recognize the centrality of the word and sacraments but also the centrality of the covenantal people of God who gather together before their covenantal head. It is simply a fact that the acoustics, layout, and arrangement of people, furniture, and other accoutrements display a covenant theology of worship (or betray a sorry ignorance of the same).
This brief treatise is an excellent introduction to an understanding of historic Reformed worship. While Old does not go into many details (e.g. concerning the precise wording of prayers, the order of the liturgy, etc.), what has been presented is a suggested beginning and methodology to constructing a biblically Reformed theology of worship. More important even than answering all of the sorts of modern questions we may have about worship, Old has illustrated a method of inquiry into the biblical text (and historic practice) and examined five themes which wind together to form a center from which one may continue to study and explore how the people of God ought to offer their doxology.