Thursday, July 20, 2006

The offense of love: some thoughts on language used in worship

When the PCUSA General Assembly received with amendments the report "The Trinity: God's Love Overflowing" some people got worked up over some of the suggestions for language that could be used to express in worship the Church's understanding of the Trinity,

One of the silliest misreadings of the report is that it somehow gives congregations permission to experiment in worship. False. I've commented earlier on the fact that our church's constitution already gives local churches the responsibility to use language in worship that is as broad and inclusive as the Biblical witness and our traditions. The exploration of Scripture and its related experimentation with language in worship has been going on at least for decades. The Trinity report that was received gives some warnings about the consequences of some of the formulas that have been in use, and identifies many of the currently identified possibilities.

Some of the possibilities listed in the report can be made to look silly when separated from their context and the Scriptural basis for using them. Some critics took offense at the suggestion of "Lover, Beloved, and Love" as a liturgical formula that could be used to describe the Triune God. Apparently they were unaware that Augustine had suggested the same explanation of the Trinity.

Mike Geis offered his critique that this formula was "surprising since 'lover' has a very clear primary reference to someone engaged in illicit sex." If it is the case that illicit sex is the primary focus of the term "lover" then that is a sad commentary on the culture in which the PCUSA is functioning. There is the risk that our language will be misunderstood, but there is also the possibility that we might be able to help the culture understand that love and love imagery for God are good things.

I wonder if the critics of the report would have wanted to have John Donne's poetry burned for including such verses as:
BATTER my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee,'and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to'another due,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely'I love you,'and would be loved faine,
But am betroth'd unto your enemie:
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee. [online here]
And if that poetry is not scandalous enough, should the worshipers at Central Presbyterian Church blush with embarrassment when they sing, "Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly?" Get Fox "News" on the phone right away! Heavens, we're using a culturally dirty word to talk about Jesus, and even mentioning a bosom in the same breath!

As far as I am concerned, that hymn worked in the 18th century, and still works today as a valid, Biblically informed, expression of the relationship between the believer and Christ as experienced by the people who sing it. It is appropriate to address God in our worship as "Lover".

All that being said, there remains a problem with using the "Lover, Beloved, Love" triad as an description of the Trinity. Even in Augustine's explanation, the First and Second persons of the Trinity gave and received love, and thus were each mutually both "Lover" and "Beloved". Neither of the first two terms of that triad can refer exclusively to one person of the Trinity.

The problem is similar to the report's caution about the "Creater, Redeemer, Sanctifier" triad. The report points out that each of the persons of the Trinity are involved in creation, redemption, and sanctification.

All analogies break down eventually, but in the meantime I believe Christians do well to continue to allow the full message of Scripture to inform our worship. If we will let the culture intimidate us from celebrating the love of God in public worship, then where will we allow ourselves to do so?

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3 comments:

Stushie said...

Hebrews 6:12 We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.

Lazy lifestyles have led to a fickle theology being promoted by Presbyterians. Because we have become so enamored with the world and seduced by its culture, we don’t want to stand up for what’s right or stand out in a crowd. We want peace through appeasement and acceptance through ambivalence. We want to be adored by society and adorned with its baubles. We seek to be trendy and cool, instead of being troubled and concerned. We want to find an acceptable place in the public market, instead of preaching prophetically in the marketplace. In other words, we want people to love us, instead of loving God.

Faith requires a lot of hard work and perseverance. It’s not something we can take for granted or choose to pick up only when we need it. Faith is about patiently sticking to God’s plan, instead of expecting Him to adhere to ours. It’s about stating what’s wrong with the world and telling the truth, even though it may cost us dearly in terms of popularity, relevance, and acceptance. We may succumb to evil from time to time, and fail to live 100% Christian lives, but the object of faith is to keep on trying, to keep focused on our Savior, to keep telling His message and presenting His ministry.

Other people may be sincere about where we are headed as Presbyterians, by their pandering to the culture and ditching our beliefs. Being sincere does not mean that they are right. People, presbyteries and Presbyterians can be sincerely wrong. It’s up to us to truly discover what God is doing in the world, instead of what we believe He should be doing. And if that means we ardently continue to call the Triune God, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, instead of the concocted, convenient, and cultured phrase of “Mother, Child, and Womb”, then so be it.

It’s only through faith and patience that we will inherit what has been promised, and not through fickle theology and politically correct contrivances.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, it was You who personally taught us to call God “Father.” It was You who gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit. If You had meant anything else, You would have told us, but You specifically gave us these Names. Keep us faithful and patient, focused and perseverant in these troubling times that try our souls and test our faith. In Your Sacred Name, we pray. Amen.

Rob said...

Excellent post! I especially get a kick out of Augustine being the one who suggested the one formula.

I posted a link to your post on my blog.

Stewart said...

Stushie, thanks for your response. I don't buy into your judgment that the suggestions in the Trinity report are "concocted, convenient, and cultured."

If it is at all concocted, it is because worship leaders have been experimenting with poetically combining into triads a number of images that are scripturally based separately.

It is hardly convenient to take a stand for the fullness of the Biblical message when opinion-propogating organizations such as Fox will simply put their own unpopular spin on what you say.

In the time since the General Assembly, I have been observing my own use of Trinitarian formulae, and I will probably die using the traditional "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" at least 98% of the time. It is the closest set of analogies to what I experience and preach.

But I also think Scripture says more and it is worthwhile to keep searching the scriptures for the language and imagery that help someone else get past whatever hurdles stand in the way of their own leap of faith.