Worship as Salvation History

Revisiting Jean-Jacques von Allmen’s Liturgical Wisdom for Today’s Church

This post is part one of a three-part article “Three Theological Themes for Worship,” a condensation of a presentation given at the 2018 Symposium on Worship. This series explores Jean-Jacques von Allmen’s most generative insights and considers how they might shape the worship we prepare and lead today.

Worship as Salvation History

One of the central claims of theologian, pastor, and writer Jean-Jacques von Allmen’s liturgical ecclesiology is this: worship is the recapitulation of the history of salvation. That is to say, the church’s acts of worship sum up and confirm God’s dealings with humanity throughout time—from the moment of creation through the final consummation of all things. Those dealings focus in particular on one unique historical fulcrum: the incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, worship is concerned about a cosmic temporal past, present, and future—as these are distilled and focused in Christ.

“Liturgy connects the Church with the history of salvation…it unites the Church of all places and times around the permanently decisive magnalia Dei.” — Preaching & Congregation, 36

Let’s look at one of the ways von Allmen explores this idea.

Jesus’ Liturgical Life.

Jesus’ own life, says von Allmen, is fundamentally liturgical. Jesus’ life was the perfect worship acceptable to God. Von Allmen examines scripture and finds two liturgical phases of Jesus’ earthly ministry: the first is a Galilean phase, and the second a Jerusalemite phase.

“The very plan of the synoptic gospels corresponds to the order of worship which doubtless goes back to apostolic times. . . . [The] first part—the Galilean ministry—is centered on the preaching of Jesus, on the appeal addressed to [men], on the choice with which they are confronted. This is what will later be described as the mass of the catechumens.

Then follows a second part which explains, justifies and elicits the true content of the first; it deals with the ministry in Jerusalem, and is centered on the death of Christ, and the irruption of the eschatological resurrection, taking events up to the point when Jesus leaves His own, blessing them and sending them forth into the world to bear witness to Himself. This is what will be later described as the mass of the faithful.” — Worship, 23.

These two phases correlate to the primary movements of the church’s liturgy—that is, a first movement centered in the preaching of the Word, and a subsequent movement centered around the Table. Thus, von Allmen joined his voice with many other liturgical reformers in the 1960s in calling for a return to the ancient and biblical pattern of both apostolic witness and weekly Communion in the body and blood of Christ. He calls these the “pulse-beat of liturgical life” (Worship, 284).

In fact, at nearly every opportunity von Allmen argued the imperative need for the church to reclaim this essential liturgical structure.

The proclamation of the Word of God is necessary to the Eucharist to prevent it from becoming self-centered and magical, [and] the Eucharist is necessary to preaching to prevent it from degenerating into self-centered intellectualism or mere chat.

“We have no right—that is, if we wish to remain a Church that is Reformed according to the Word of God—to confirm our confessional liturgical peculiarities in their most notorious features, that is, in their breaking of the normal rhythm of Christian worship.” — Worship, 144, 287.

The obvious implication is that churches should ideally structure their worship services—every single week—around the poles of preaching and feasting.

Narrative Preaching.

Another implication follows from von Allmen’s theory of recapitulation: the narrative character of preaching.

“Our preaching continues the past preaching of Jesus, and it looks forward to the Word he will speak at his return. That is why God himself is at work, in this present day, when we preach.” — Preaching & Congregation, 7.

It is the duty of the preacher to translate and make present the Word of God for a particular people in a particular place and time. So von Allmen argues for the narrative content of the gospel, that is, that God’s grace toward God’s people is encountered in a story—a salvation history:

“In preaching the Gospel, we enroll our parishioners in a story; we do not explain an idea to them.” — Preaching & Congregation, 21.

The tension between sermon and liturgy might be compared to the tension found in the eschatological tension between the ascension and the second coming, the already and the not yet.

“[I]f the liturgy attaches the Church to the history of salvation, the sermon recalls to her that she participates in that history in the midst of this world. Two escapist paths are thus barred: escape toward a Church complacently practicing a doscetic liturgiolatry, sheltered from the world by her form of worship, and escape towards a Church indulging in breathless prophetic activity, cut off from the peace of God, from her eschatological rest by continuous homiletical exertion.” — Preaching & Congregation, 36.

About von Allmen

Jean-Jacques von Allmen is among the most admired liturgical theologians of the 20th century. Yet his work is largely—and lamentably—unknown to most worship leaders.

Von Allmen was a parish pastor in the Swiss village of Lucerne for 17 years, and then professor of practical theology at the University of Neuchâtel from 1958 until his retiring in 1980 and his death in 1994. A friend of Karl Barth and Brother Roger of the Taizé community, he worked tirelessly within his own confessional circle for liturgical reform, but was broadly ecumenical in his sensibilities and appreciations.

His theological work was always grounded in his experience of the local congregation at church and as church. He is perhaps best known for influential books on biblical theology: A Companion to the Bible (Oxford, 1958); liturgical theology: Worship: Its Theology and Practice (Oxford, 1965); as well as The Lord’s Supper (Lutterworth, 1969), and homiletics: Preaching & Congregation (John Knox, 1961).

Click on the links to continue reading Part 2 and Part 3 of this series.

Ron Rienstra is associate professor of preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary and co-author of Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry (Baker Academic, 2009).