Photo by Bettina & Dominique Zygmont

So, it turns out that the best way to increase traffic to your blog is to suggest that contemporary Jesus worship is idolatrous.  Who knew?

In all seriousness, I have enjoyed reading and participating in the debate that ensued from this post.  As I continue thinking about this issue, and as I process the various comments that have been left, I want to offer a few further thoughts and some clarifications.

First, it occurred to me today that without intending to do so, I’ve been engaged in the approach to practical theology that I learned from my late professor Don Browning.  In his standard text, A Fundamental Practical Theology, Browning outlines four movements of practical theology: descriptive theology, historical theology, systematic theology, and strategic practical theology.  I began by describing what seems to me to be a theological tension in the worship of Jesus Christ (especially in contemporary praise music).  To be honest, my description was somewhat thin, not the kind of thick description Browning instructed us to do.  (It was, after all, a blog post, a genre of writing that is immediate and provisional, not refined or final.)  Now I’m working through the historical and systematic moments of Browning’s scheme.

As I do so, and in response to some of the comments I’ve received, here are some notes about where I am coming from and what some of my assumptions and influences are.

  • I am not in any way advocating a Christianity that is devoid of Christ.  To do so would not make any sense.  The historic and living presence of Christ is definitive for the church and for my personal faith.  I am constantly concerned with Jesus and how his life, death, and resurrection shapes my life, the church, and our mission in the world.
  • Jesus Christ is the definitive revelation of God, God’s will, and God’s way for me.  I follow God in the way of Jesus.  I fully experience God in the way of Jesus.
  • I am not questioning the divinity of Jesus.  There is something undeniably divine about the mystery of the incarnation and the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth.  But, I don’t believe that the incarnation is as simple as YHWH, the God of Israel, taking on human flesh and walking among us.  This is clear from the complex ways that various New Testament and early Christian writings try to discuss this mystery.  If the incarnation were a simple concept, it would not have taken the church four centuries of convoluted theological and philosophical wordsmithing to develop a formulaic doctrine that most followers of  Jesus still find confusing.  In this sense, I guess I understand why the simplified Jesus of t-shirts, bumper stickers, and praise songs is so compelling.
  • In general, I am critical of any portrayal of Jesus that presents him as a magical solution to all of life’s problems, as if believing in Jesus (or a particular set of doctrines about Jesus) makes everything in life okay.  This is what Karl Marx rightly called an opiate.  The Jesus I follow calls me to a radical life of humility, submission, and service but never promises that all my problems will go away if I simply believe in him.  There is nothing simple about the Jesus I follow.
  • When any portrayal of Jesus—whether conservative or liberal—exclusively highlights only one aspect of the complexity of Jesus, or tries to package Jesus in such a way that his life and teaching is overly simple, that is idolatry.  Any Jesus that can be reduced to a soundbite, slogan, t-shirt, or four spiritual laws is neither Jesus nor God.  That Jesus is an idol.
  • I have been most impressed by comments to my post that call for a more rigorous trinitarianism in our worship.  If our theology is truly trinitarian, our worship should reflect that.  If all we ever do is sing love songs to Jesus or songs about the blood of Jesus that solves all problems, our worship is not as full as it should be.
  • I realize and openly admit that my approach to Jesus over the last decade has been primarily focused on the “historical” Jesus and informed by scholars like Marcus Borg.  It occurs to me that this approach  may have gotten a little out of balance.  I actually think Borg provides some of this balance himself (at least compared to some of his Jesus Seminar colleagues), and I know that I should spend a little more time being intentional about engaging in more mystical approaches to the living presence of Christ.  My faith dwells deeply in the life of my mind, but it should never be confined to that space.
  • My approach to the Bible and Christian theology is inescapably informed by historical criticism. It is abundantly clear that our canon of scripture and what eventually became orthodox theology developed in a (mostly) discernible historical process of evolution and adaptation.  I am typically suspicious of taking the end result of this process (which is not really an end but only one more step in the development) as the definitive perspective for all time.   As it applies to the current topic of christology, it is possible to trace the development of beliefs about Jesus from the earliest Pauline letters through the gospels, the rest of the New Testament, and the history of early church theology.  Christological (or trinitarian) doctrines did not appear fully formed in a sealed scroll from heaven.  For more on this development, check out The Christological Controversy edited by Richard A. Norris, Jr.
  • The canonical approach I use to interpret the Bible is based on an assumption of diversity, not unity.  I think it is a literary, historical, and theological fallacy to operate as if the Bible contains a single theological vision.  Rather, I believe that the Bible collects together into a single canon a richly diverse array of theologies and perspectives on God and how God interacts with humanity.  The creative tension that ensues from holding these various theologies together is both engaging and constructive.
  • My vision of the church is remarkably similar to my approach to the Bible.  I think the diversity of the Bible is a reflection of the diversity of the church.  I don’t want to belong to an exclusively liberal church any more than I want to belong to an exclusively conservative one.  Again, the creative tension that results from the drawing together of this diversity into unity is what fuels the work of the Spirit in the church and in the world.
  • I don’t think everyone in the church has to have the exact same beliefs or practices.  I am perfectly happy for people to spend most of their worship time worshiping Jesus.  I’m not interested in doing that, but I won’t resent others for doing so.  And when it comes to big gatherings like General Assembly or Triennium, my best hope is that participants will be exposed to a variety of approaches to worship.  This is especially true for youth gatherings.

Having said all of this, I still have gut level theological questions about the way Jesus is worshiped in much of the church.  There is a disconnect for me between the way Jesus lived and died in humility, servanthood, and weakness and the way he is exalted in worship in ways that would make a truly humble person uncomfortable at best.  There is a disconnect for me in exchanging the worship of YHWH with the worship of Jesus, no matter how we conceptualize the incarnation.  I’m sure part of it is an aversion to the triumphal Jesus of Christian empire.  I’m sure part of it is a my sensitivity to the theological tensions between the various christologies of the the New Testament and church history.  But, again, I think that tension is a good one.  And it will continue to compel me to ask questions and work through them in faith, hope, and love.

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit johnvest.com.

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Comments

  1. John, what a wonderful question and opinion! As someone who was brought up Catholic and is now non denominational, I have been very confused about this for a very long time! I was brought with the Triology and the idea that Jesus would sit next to God in heaven. When I moved to Vegas, I meet more and more non-denoms (as I like to call them) who believe that Jesus and God become one upon his arrival to heaven. I still to this day can not wrap my head around this! The more I read the more I agee with the way I was raised. A few month’s ago I applied to a church and one of the questions was, “Do you believe that Jesus became one with God?”. It seemed to me odd but at the time I answered yes. I have been contemplating this and your whole question and response has made me sure in my answer! Thanks!

  2. That’s really interesting. I read that post you are referencing and didn’t comment on it because I thought it was pretty much right on. I didn’t feel like you were being that progressive in what you were saying. I guess that helps me to locate myself in the wider theological spectrum. It’s interesting what gets people riled up.

    Anytime you make a comment criticizing a big event that many (most?) youth ministries make the cornerstone of their ministries will get you some traffic. It’s interesting the assumptions people can make in passive aggressive statements without actually engaging the issue.

    At least people are reading and commenting on your blog, right!

    Anyways, I thought it was a good post. I tend to share your sentiments.

  3. John, that is a very well written post. I think that the historical perspective is often missing–I’m not a scholar like you but i understand that it took at least a century for the current New Testament to be determined. But it seems to me the best way to “worship” Jesus is by trying to emulate his life.

  4. I’d like to comment on what you say about “the way [Jesus] is exalted in worship in ways that would make a truly humble person uncomfortable at best”. Here you seem to be assuming humility on the part of those who are like you, but not on the part of those who are different from you.

    I am one of those who unashamedly exalts Jesus in worship. Yet I do not see my worship as Christocentric, but as thoroughly theocentric, because I see Jesus as part of that inseparable Trinity.

    But Jesus is the way God expressed God’s self to us in human form, and it is the way I see God most emotionally, so my heart leads me to worship him, as well as God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. And when I exalt Jesus in worship, in comparison with his greatness and resurrected glory, I do feel truly humble, and not, as you say, uncomfortable.

    It is always helpful not to project motives or feelings onto those with whom you differ. You might be wiser not to do so in the future.

    • @Debbie: I’m not talking about the humility of worshippers at all. The humility I’m talking about is that of Jesus. My question is whether humble Jesus would be uncomfortable with this kind of worship of him. What I’m asking is really rather simple: assuming that there is some degree of correspondence between the pre- and post-resurrection Jesus, it seems odd to transition from someone who redefined power and lived in humility to someone who receives the kind of praise previously reserved only for God the creator. It’s as if we are doing to Jesus after his death what he didn’t seem to want us to do during his lifetime.

  5. I have been reading Christianity: The First 3000 Years. At over 1100 pages, it is a project. Much of what is in the book, gives a careful reader pause, when considering canon and precedent. The history that is presented, should cause serious reflection on our theology and belief. Mr. Vest’s comments are thoughtful and thought provoking. I commend him.

  6. John,
    It sounds like you are saying that Jesus is not God. Or are you saying that only the Father and the Holy Spirit should be prasied. Or are you some how making a disconnect between Jesus and the eternal Son?

  7. I was guided to this blog just yesterday and have found John’s comments on Triennium and Jesus very compelling. I find myself resonating with the tension between an exalted Jesus and an earthly servant Jesus. (I’m a church musician, and ironically our opening hymn this coming Sunday is “Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation.” )

    It seems to me that some of this this tension is itself contained in the gospels and in the flow of the liturgical year. What comes to my mind is the Transfiguration in the synoptic gospels. In each of the accounts, Jesus is shown in a cosmic brilliance along with Moses and Elijah. Only a few disciples are permitted to see this, and in fact their urge to contain the vision of grandeur in three dwellings is rejected by Jesus; and when the vision and the heavenly Voice are faded, the first thing greeting Jesus upon descending the mountain is a call for earthly healing. In the course of the liturgical year, Transfiguration Sunday always immediately precedes As Wednesday, as if both to acknowledge a cosmic Jesus and also to warn of avoiding the earthly one. (This is similar to the placement of Christ the King Sunday, whose lectionary texts are pointed towards an exalted Jesus, as the Sunday before Advent begins, when texts suddenly begin their focus on how unexpected, overturning, and earthly Jesus will be.) It doesn’t seem that the gospels, with their accounts of transfiguration and ascension, deny to Jesus a presence of divine authority or even cosmic glory – but these also are quite fleeting moments and are vastly out-proportioned by an earthly servant who unflinchingly lives into both the joy and sorrow of servant life. One of the possible disconnects in virtually any congregation’s worship life might be Easter Sunday itself, when we unveil some of our greatest pomp and circumstance in the telling of a story (the resurrection) that in every gospel is a quiet, mysterious, and even fearful story. (In Mark, the shorter ending leaves the resurrection with the fearful flight of disciples; the longer ending adds a one-verse ascension to God’s right hand.)

    I would recommend a remarkable hymn text by Sylvian Dunstan called “Christus Paradox”, in which this tension is explored. (Text is published by GIA Publications and found in newer hymnals and hymnal supplements.)

    Regarding youth, worship and music: I haven’t been to Triennium, but I have had a little experience at Montreat Youth Conferences, most recently serving as a co-music leader. I think it is true that, in any genre of church music, our affinity for a musical style can threaten to overshadow the words we’re actually singing. This can be just as true for “classical”/organ/choral kinds of worship, or old-time “gospel” worship, as it can be for what we might call “contemporary” worship or the kind of worship that’s common at big youth events. I cannot testify to a broad experience with worship at large youth events, but I can testify that at the conference at which I helped to co-lead music, we sang the standard repertory of such conferences, but Watts, Wesley, John Bell, Taize, spirituals, folk-music, hymn texts by current, cutting edge writers, and more – and the youth there sang every bit of it, with all of its variety of mood and with all of its theological viewpoints, with immediacy and involvement. I believe God’s voice to be present in all of this music and all of these, and I include “contemporary” or “youth” music; I also believe that we need all of that music
    and all of those words so that we hear as much of God’s voice as we can.
    I believe that we do our youth a remarkable dis-service when we assume that they only “want” or “like” one style of worship or music. I think it is unfaithful to a God who creates with diversity, to a Jesus who didn’t much ask what people liked, to a church that claims to worship with the faithful of every time and place, and
    to our responsibilities as adults who mentor and lead young people. The life Jesus demonstrates and calls us to is not one in which what we enjoy or prefer is always important. I cannot think of another sphere of adult/youth life in which we would simply do what we think kids want without also giving to them and even demanding of them what we know will enrich them, whether they see that fully at the moment or not. This is what parenting is and what teaching is; isn’t it also what Christian mentoring is? Part of our job in leading youth is to help them place themselves in the full community of the church, not just to give them a niche where they do their own thing.

    Music and poetry in worship help to portray God. John speaks of the Biblical writers developing, over centuries, theologies about Christ. Music and poetry have also done this over centuries. Many of us received the Bible, with all its complexity, as a gift when we were kids in the church. The gift of music and poetry, in all its complexity and centuries of wonderment, is something that kids in the church deserve as well. Dare we limit it to either a certain kind of theology or a certain kind of music?

  8. “orthodox theology developed in a (mostly) discernible historical process of evolution and adaptation.”

    I think that the historical process of evolution and adaption is not mostly discernible. I don’t think historical Jesus attempts work because we can’t really get back beyond the editors. We have letters and Gospels. The Gospels have clearly been edited and thus changing the original intent of what Jesus said and did to fit the issues in the community it was written for. I am not convinced we can find the historical Jesus behind the editing. The letters all seem to be written by people who were not with Jesus during his earthly ministry.

    Having said that I think worship of Jesus is something that we can do only AFTER the resurrection and the ascension. Paul’s letter to the Philippians either creates a hymn or quotes a hymn in the second chapter. After the Son emptied himself and became a human and a slave (much better translation of doulos than servant) the people of his day for the most part did not see beyond the human into the divine. Notice in the poem God highly exalts Jesus after his sacrifice, resurrection and ascension. THEN every knew shall bow and every tongue confess etc.

    In other words while on earth Jesus was the God/man most could not see. And even when they did, (Like on the mountain of the transfiguration) the disciples didn’t really understand.

    Chalcedon attempt to discern this but ultimately comes up with a list of negatives. We know that Jesus is fully human and fully divine but any attempt to describe the connection between divine and human in Jesus is going to be inaccurate.

    So while he was on earth, from his birth to his death Jesus was the servant and suffering servant at that, who taught a lot about how to live. Only after his ascension are we able to praise him as Christus Victor. And one of my favorite passages on this subject is in Colossians which says that Jesus triumphed over the powers and authorities (I think but demonic and human) exposing them for who they really were/are.

    We need the balance. If we go with only the suffering Jesus to Christus Victor we skip a lot of what Jesus said and did while on earth. And notice that the early creeds didn’t deal with Jesus as human on earth. They skip that because it wasn’t controversial. If we only look to the human Jesus on earth we miss the exalted Jesus.

    We can’t have one without the other if we are going to come to any real understanding of who Christ was/is. And I suspect that Evangelicals lean to far the the exalted Jesus and Progressive lean too far to the human Jesus.

    Good post! It seems that you are not the heretic that you were accused of being after your earlier post! LOL

  9. John,
    I would like to commend you on a truly thought provoking series of articles. I think I get where you’re coming from, and I would agree that worship that places an extreme emphasis on the Cross, Resurrection, and Atonement could send an unhealthy message. I shudder to think of how short the scriptures would be if that’s all there was to Jesus. I hope you don’t mind that I made a copy of your article “Jesus, Bloody Jesus at the Presbyterian Your Triennium” and used it as a topic of discussion at my last Worship Team meeting. Our rather Conservative team received it well and agreed with you. Keep up the good work, and don’t let the fusspots and scolds get you down.
    You’re getting famous. Look what they’re saying about you! http://naminghisgrace.blogspot.com/2010/07/my-thoughts-on-john-vests-thoughts.html

  10. John, I’m not sure that there is this sudden transition from the humble Jesus to the resurrected Lord. Christ manifested his power and divine nature at various points during his earthly ministry. His various miracles demonstrated that there was more to his nature than the simple carpenter and prophet from Nazareth. The transfiguration demonstrated to his followers that he was not a simple man. Finally, the ground shifted dramatically, both figuratively and literally, with the resurrection and his victory over sin and death. We follow, and worship not only the humble carpenter of Nazareth but the resurrected Lord who sits at the right hand of the Father. One of my favorite visuals of this is Hubert van Eyck’s masterpiece, the Ghent triptych, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, which shows the Lamb of God, shedding blood, standing in the midst of kings and powers who are worshipping him.

  11. I agree with those who talk about the both/and nature of Jesus–both glorious and humble. When you speak of him in your reply to me as only the person who lived in humility, it leaves out a large part of who he is. You say that you believe in him as part of the Trinity. That Trinity has divine glory, and it belongs to Jesus as part of that Trinity.

    You see evangelicals acknowledging the glorious aspect of Jesus in their worship. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that they know nothing of his humble nature in his earthly life. Don’t take one impression of evangelicals and think that that is all that they are about. His humility and servanthood are great examples that lead evangelicals to many acts of servanthood themselves (for some examples, see http://www.fpcbellevue.org–just one evangelical church among many extending itself in service to a hurting mankind). But gratitude for all Jesus has done is just one reason that leads evangelicals to exalt him in worship of Jesus in his glorious aspect.

  12. Your post reminds me of the time Jesus healed ten men with leprosy in Mark 17:11 – 19
    Ten were healed but only one came back “praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus feet and thanked him – and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked”Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well”

    Here Jesus is the servant healing all ten whether they believed or not , but only one had been made well because of his faith. Only one was saved though all were healed.
    Social justice was achieved for all, but there was something greater – the healing of the soul.
    The one who knows this healing – wellness – truely will be grateful and worshipful.

    The Jewish people failed to recognize the Messiah because they failed to see Jesus – Messiah as the suffering servant. Don’t make the same mistake by only seeing Him as the servant.

    Jesus, the Word, is with God now and is God now and will also be there in the end – the Second coming, the Judge, the conqueror. If you only base your view of Jesus on present historical reports you will not see this part of Christ and God’s plan that is not just about servanthood while He was on earth. I think about those who were there when
    Jesus fed the 5,000. They wanted to limit their view of Jesus too and to urge
    Him to continue to be a servant and provide that food continually. We limit who
    Jesus is when we only see Him as the servant because His mission was more than
    just to heal,feed,and serve. We should follow His example of self – less- sacrificial giving
    and discipling by telling the Good News – Jesus is more than a servant.

    There are many who have no theological training, don’t have a historical perspective,who are still poor and needy physically, yet who are
    also so certain that Jesus is the only one who meets their most intimate needs for
    forgiveness – deeper than just the healing of earthly disease like leprosy – and
    who worship JESUS – alone their savior.

  13. As to music here is a bit of irony. My Dad who hated rock music from the day my older brother first brought home an album by Cream, (most popular words in the house when I was in high school was “TURN IT DOWN!”

  14. oops let’s try again. Dad now loves the Contemporary worship service at his church and says he never really worshiped until he started going to that service. My daughter, 26, hates contemporary music and loves the old hymns. Go figure.

  15. @Viola: I’m not really trying to do any of those things. I stated pretty clearly that I wasn’t questioning the divinity of Jesus, though I note in your blog that you are not very satisfied with most of the language I use to talk about such things. I think we have veered off into a mode of discourse that I’m less interested in, especially if it boils down to us pitting different assumptions, presuppositions, and approaches to systematic theology against each other. I’ll flesh this out a little in my next post.

    @Eric: thank you for a very thoughtful comment. I will definitely check out “Christus Paradox”—sounds right up my alley. You are right on about the utility of the liturgical calendar and lectionary cycle to address the issues we have been discussing here. I also appreciate your reflections on art and poetry and critical ways that we engage the gospel. And I agree that we often miss opportunities to expose our youth to a wide variety of music, theology, art, and more. For what it’s worth, the small group curriculum at Triennium made great use of art as a way to explore the stories we were studying.

  16. John maybe I should have used language that was more nuanced in my questions. But when you say “I don’t believe that the incarnation is as simple as YHWH, the God of Israel, taking on human flesh and walking among us, “ or “There is a disconnect for me in exchanging the worship of YHWH with the worship of Jesus, no matter how we conceptualize the incarnation” it sounds like you somehow are not equating Jesus with God. I know you used the word divine but you seem to be making a distinction between Jesus and the Trinity. It really is not clear. Isn’t Jesus, the Son of the Father, included in the Trinity. And how is he, as a humble human, but also God, excluded from worship. Are you saying that the Father is not like the Son? I know questions again.

  17. Would not want this pastor anywhere near my three children. I am reminded that the Bible is like a pool. Shallow enough for children to delight in it. Deep enough for scholars to drown in it. Rev. Vest does not delight. I pray he will not drown…..

  18. Hello Everyone! I struggled when I first was approached
    with the idea the Jesus is NOT God! Especially with my Catholic
    upbringing, I have always believed in the Trinity. But after much
    prayer and study of the scriptures ….I have began to see that
    Jesus WAS the WAY, Truth and Life …….the bridge to the Almighty
    God. Yes, Jesus embodied the EVER present power of God to live and
    be our MESSIAH! But when Jesus left he clearly told the disciples
    that he was leaving and sending something Greater (God’s Spirit) to
    teach, help and direct them as Jesus was directed. Yes, I believe
    when we accept Jesus Christ as our Messiah, we have then can come
    to the Father!!! Pray about this people….read the scriptures and
    see how Jesus always taught us to go to the Father! In His Love,
    Susan

Trackbacks

  1. […] A very helpful comment by church musician Eric Wall reminds us that the liturgical calendar, the lectionary cycle, and the nature of the gospels themselves work through (but I would add, don’t necessarily resolve) the tensions I have called attention to.  We do ourselves a disservice when we forget that biblical theology (as opposed to post-biblical systematic theology)  is mostly accomplished through the art of storytelling, not in the pronouncements of absolute doctrines and well-crafted logical propositions.  The gospel is narrative by nature and should be approached accordingly.  A good example of this is what is known as narrative (or postliberal) theology. […]

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