- The God We Worship:An Exploration of Liturgical Theology by Nicholas Wolterstorff
Nicholas Wolterstorff is an analytic philosopher whose work is heavily informed by Reformed theology. In this work he attempts to determine, and state explicitly, the understanding of God that is only implicit in Christian worship. His source material for this consideration of Christian worship is what he calls the “scripts” of Christian liturgies, a concept based on Alexander Schmemann’s concept of the Ordo, or texts regulating the liturgy. Wolterstorff focuses on the points of convergence of Orthodox, Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, [End Page 447] and Reformed liturgies—liturgies which have “stood the test of time across many centuries by billions of Christians” (19). For example, the beginning of the Sanctus leads Wolterstorff to discuss the notion of holiness, where he considers ideas from Isaiah 6, Jonathan Edwards, Karl Barth, and Mary Douglas.
His primary influences for this project are two twentieth-century liturgical theologians, Schmemann and J.-J. von Allmen of his own Reformed tradition. He is also strongly influenced by the thinking of Barth, Thomas Aquinas, and N.T. Wright. These thinkers, in conjunction with Wolterstorff ‘s devotion to speech-act theory, lead to two especially provocative conclusions. The first is that God is vulnerable to being wronged. “It’s not just a good thing for the church to enact its liturgy for the worship of God; it’s obligatory that it do so. But if it is obligatory . . . then it wrongs someone if it fails to do that. Who could that be other than God?” (44) The second is that liturgies consistently and pervasively understand God to be a listener. “. . . [M]ost of us have been schooled to think of God as agent. A good many have written about God speaking or revealing, myself included; very few have written about God as listening, my prior self again included” (62). He spends much of his work explaining and justifying these conclusions.
Wolterstorff ‘s method is a source of both his work’s weaknesses and its strengths. One could question whether his approach is too general. He acknowledges early on that his focus is on the deepest levels of implicitness, what is implicit in the liturgies as a whole, and in the basic types of liturgical acts (18). Still, for a work of liturgical theology, he uses surprisingly little source material from liturgical texts. Much of this book reflects the liturgy of the Reformed tradition which leads him to his conclusions. He explicitly states that he is focusing on the commonalities between various liturgies, but leaves little room for comment on the differences, liturgical or theological. As a consequence, few examples from non-Reformed traditions are included.
However, his method may also be his greatest contribution, which could be used for further study of a single tradition or a part of the liturgy. Wolterstorff himself models this approach in his ninth chapter, in which he presents a Reformed understanding of God implicit [End Page 448] in the Eucharist, which he bases on John Calvin’s analysis of the Eucharistic actions from the Institutes.
This work will be of considerable interest to scholars of sacramental and liturgical theology. As a work asking “Who is God?” this would fit in well also with graduate theological study, perhaps as an early text in a sacramental theology course.