The Limits Of Cultural Liturgies

The deeper problem here is hermeneutical. O’Donovan—and following him, Smith—fail to give sufficient attention to the Bible’s covenantal storyline, and how that storyline affects the authority of church and state. Specifically, the lessons of the kingdom of Israel transmit directly to Christ and then the church, not directly to Donald Trump (the president of the United States) or Theresa May (the prime minister of the United Kingdom). Trump, May, and every other government has been authorized by God’s covenant with Noah, first articulated in Genesis 10:5–6 and further explained in passages like Romans 13:1–7. Covenantally, nothing changes between Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Pilate, and Trump and May. The authority of governments before and after Christ remains the same. Their jurisdiction remains the same. Yet O’Donovan’s enterprise, which Smith seems to adopt, presumes otherwise, and without biblical backing. As such, O’Donovan and Smith view governments as directly subject to the new covenant gospel in a way that effectively bends them toward an established church.

By the same token, Smith’s doctrine of the church remains under-developed, at least as I encountered it in this book. A proper ecclesiology has two parts: waterspout and bowl. The water of God’s Word pours out through a liturgy—or what we might call the ministry of the Word—giving life to a people. The bowl of membership, signified and sealed through the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), catches that water and holds it up on display. Smith’s liturgical emphasis focuses his ecclesiology almost entirely on the waterspout. When he refers to the sacraments, he tends to refer to their power as signs, more than their binding/loosing function as seals. His final chapter on the “godfather problem”—what do we make of churchgoers whose lives hypocritically mimic the world?—never raises the question of church membership or discipline. He argues they need a more frequent dose of liturgy. Yes, they do. But that’s only half the answer. Paying more attention to your membership and discipline practices is the other half.

God’s distinct authorization of governments (Gen. 9:5–6) and churches (Matt. 16:18–19; 18:15–20; 28:18–20) requires them to be separate. It also requires a doctrine of religious tolerance. Yet an underdeveloped doctrine of church or state allows pastors and princes to tromp around in one another’s yards. I think of a comment O’Donovan once made to me over a breakfast: “Charlemagne has the ability to say ‘right bishop’ or ‘wrong bishop.’”

… Smith’s underlying instinct seems to be to fight the power of culture with the power of another culture: “Only a liturgical anthropology and theory of culture can adequately make sense of our deformation and assimilation, which then also undergirds claims made about the counter-formative nature of Christian worship” (202). And there’s something to that point. Yet remember, the Bible consistently fights strength with weakness, the wisdom of man with the folly of God. Why? To demonstrate that the de-forming power of fallen culture and the new-creation power of the church’s ministry of Word and membership are not symmetrical. The battle isn’t between one kind of liturgy and another. It’s between human words and divine words.

… So, sure, let’s talk about the sociology of liturgies. But sociology isn’t strong enough to wake up a graveyard. Instead, let’s emphasize what God emphasizes in Scripture. God declares that “faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17), so let’s emphasize reading, preaching, singing, praying, and (in the sacraments) seeing God’s Word. God’s Spirit uses God’s Word to do God’s work.

Jonathan Leeman,Doing Political Theology, Waiting For King Jesus

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