Book: Engaging With God: A Biblical Theology of Worship

David Peterson. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992. 317 pp., $20.00.

The Reformed tradition has always maintained that its worship is regulated sola scriptura, by Scripture alone. Worship is thus never understood to be an act of creative self-expression, but rather an act of obedience to God. We worship God not in ways we dream up, but. in ways that God teaches us in the Word.

Given this starting point, it is embarrassing to realize how little energy we Reformed Christians have expended in learning what the Bible has to say about worship. Worship committees rarely discuss it. Pastors-m-training rarely are asked to study it. Theologians have generally ignored it.

The delightful exception to this pattern is the work of Australian biblical scholar David Peterson, whose Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship is nothing less than a watershed work for Reformed thinking about worship. Peterson grapples with both the specific biblical passages that relate to worship and large-scale biblical themes that shape the context of our worship. The result is a well-balanced theology of worship that negotiates between the tired categories of formalism and informalism, and between worship that ignores human needs and preferences and worship that enshrines them.

To understand this work, readers will need to know what is meant by biblical theology. Although all evangelical theology is biblical in a broad sense, a special branch of theology called biblical theology seeks to do its work with special attention to individual books of the Bible, examined in terms of their historical setting and literary type. Careful attention is given to the original Hebrew and Greek texts. Rigorous studies are made of individual words that pertain to a given theme—words like the Hebrew and Greek words for liturgy, worship, and sendee in this case. Readers who hold Peterson's book in one hand will need to hold the Bible in the other in order to track down his copious biblical references.

This book, then, is essentially a guided tour of scriptural writings that contribute to our understanding of worship. It begins with a chapter on worship in the Old Testament and continues with chapters on worship in the gospels, in the Acts of the apostles, and in Paul's epistles. Special attention is rightly reserved for important passages in Hebrews and Revelation, where worship is the central topic. The book concludes with an epilogue that imagines what a worship service based on these scriptural insights might look like.

The structure of this survey is helpful in itself, directing the reader's attention to key biblical passages on worship. Throughout the survey Peterson develops a definition of worship as "an engagement with God on the terms that he proposes and in the way that he alone makes possible." In no way is this worship restricted to Sunday morning; rather, it is a life-orientation. Corporate worship is then one, albeit very important, aspect of a total life-response to God, a theme that sounds with deeply Reformed resonances.

One of Peterson's valuable contributions is in giving the reader a distinctly biblical vocabulary for discussing worship. For example, Peterson observes that the biblical concept of worship is far richer than the notion of worthship (the antecedent to the English word worship). Both the English word for worship and our worship practices are too narrowly conceived, Peterson argues.

Another theme Peterson advances is the radical discontinuity between worship in the Old and New Testaments. We intuitively understand that our worship is different than the Old Testament worship of tabernacle and temple. Peterson explains why and how, describing how Jesus' work fulfills and redirects the worship of God's people. This will be especially helpful in sorting out recent discussions that have promoted the use of Old Testament patterns for shaping contemporary worship.

But the largest contribution of this work may be in resuscitating what the Reformers meant when they said that worship should be regulated by the Scriptures. They did not intend for litur-gists to find prooftexts for every act of worship, as if the Bible were a liturgical handbook or textbook. Rather, they meant that worship should be, in the words of one Reformer, "in accordance with Scripture," that is, based on scriptural principles, or-—better—based on a life lived within a scriptural worldview Peterson defines the dimensions of such a worldview and describes the function of worship within it.

Petersons book need not be the last word on the subject. It is comprehensive, but by no means exhaustive. It includes very little on the theology of worship implied in the Psalms. Further work is also needed on relating a biblical theology of the Lord's Supper and baptism to this theology of worship. But this book should be a high priority for many audiences, including biblical theologians.

The most important audience, however, may well be those charged with the weekly task of planning worship, including pastors, church musicians, artists, liturgists, and worship committee members. No, this book is not a how-to book. In it, worship planners will not find creative suggestions for next Sundays service. Rather they will find their own imaginations stretched, their faith nourished, and their thinking molded in a pattern of deeply biblical thinking about what it means to worship God.

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 33 © September 1994, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.