Against my will, I have been called into battle in the “Worship Wars.” In this series of posts, I plan to lay out some of the weapons I expect to use in the upcoming skirmishes. The first one is a well-worn old Latin battle-axe...
“LEX ORANDI LEX CREDENDI”
By now, we footsoldiers in the worship wars are sick of hearing the sound of this gun rattling away. It’s in Latin, for all sake; what can it have to do with our current concerns? Besides, you can’t even begin to load this shell into your dialectical artillery-piece without touching off an argument over which end is supposed to go first. Is it “The Law of Prayer is the Law of Faith,” meaning the liturgy is shaped by what the church teaches? Or is it “The Law of Faith is the Law of Prayer,” meaning the church’s doctrine is formed by its worship customs? Is this a description of what tends to happen, or is it a prescription as to what should happen? The answers to these questions seem to be Yes, Yes, and Yes. That’s a lot of help!
So let’s cut out the debate about whether lex orandi comes before or after lex credendi, whether the principle is prescriptive or descriptive, whether it’s even valid at all. Let’s just make an observation from the Christian church’s history—from the early and medieval church’s struggles against heresy, and from the doctrinal controversies of the Reformation era. Generally speaking, change in church practice goes hand-in-glove with change in a community’s beliefs and teachings. New sets of hymns, new orders of worship, new instructions for how to celebrate the Sacraments, were always involved in a struggle between opposing doctrines, between different spirits. Either the new custom was a weapon of doctrinal debate, or it developed from the outcome of that debate—from the Nicene Creed to celebrating the Lord’s Supper in both kinds. And regardless of which change seems to have started first, or which triggered the other—regardless of whether or not the people who brought about the one change intended, or even expected, the other—changes in doctrine and changes in practice tend to go together.
What difference does this make? It’s simple. Today we hear many voices calling for change in the way our church worships. They claim this change won’t affect how our church believes and teaches. Based on what we observe from church history, this claim is patently absurd. Change in the church’s worship customs always has, and always will, either result from or result in people believing otherwise than before. So to claim that a change in our church’s worship will have no effect on its teaching is naïve if not deceitful.
The fact that we are discussing such a change may mean that some of us already believe differently, and so a new spirit has already been at work, unnoticed, among us. If this is the case, then the church must examine the difference between the old spirit and the new spirit and, finally, make a commitment to one or the other. Whichever teaching is right, whichever spirit is from God, must prevail. If the new spirit prevails, this means the church must cleanse itself of (perhaps long-established) false doctrine and adjust its worship practice accordingly. This is what happened in the Reformation. If the old spirit prevails, this means our ministers and laypeople, working together, must do a better job of passing along the true faith through more tightly focused catechesis, preaching, and church discipline.
Bodo Nischan points out, in an essay on the 16th-century Lutheran/Calvinist controversy on baptism, that laypeople may not follow doctrinal arguments and theological niceties; but they will pick up on a change in the church’s ceremony. Nischan writes: "Laypeople, who might not understand the subtle arguments of the theologians, could easily recognize liturgical differences" (The Sixteenth Century Journal 18/1:34). To the lay mind, liturgical symbols and actions are pregnant with meaning, and adding or deleting a given ceremony can have a deep impact on the people’s thinking. Whether or not the Lord’s Supper was celebrated with the fractio (breaking the bread during consecration) said a lot about whether and in what way Christ’s body is present in the sacrament, even to people who could not articulate the difference between Lutheran and Reformed doctrine. Whether or not a baptism included the rite of exorcism was not just a practical issue; it went to the root of what people believed about original sin and the power of Baptism.
Sometimes we may not know, in advance, how a change in our church’s worship practices will impact what we believe, teach, and confess. Sometimes, a ceremony’s relevance to a given doctrine is only indirectly expressed in the rite itself. Sometimes we are not immediately aware of the significance of an act or symbol. The result of a change in ceremony may not be apparent to our perspective. It may even be that the people who are fighting for the truth make an unpleasant impression on us, while the people we like and admire are telling us charming half-truths that conceal the issues at stake. Or it may simply be that we are unaware of the impact a worship change will have on our faith. But let’s not kid ourselves. Change in one will bring about change in the other. We will not be ready to make a decision for or against liturgical change until we recognize this fact and carefully study both sides of the question. The implications will matter for every member of the church.