What if Theology is Best Learned in Worship, Not the Classroom?

Zac HicksWorship Theology & ThoughtLeave a Comment

I’ve been blown away, lately, by what liturgical theologians (scholars who study the forms and practice of Christian worship) call the distinction between “primary theology” and “secondary theology.” Roughly, “primary theology” is the theology that is “done” through the experience of the people of God in the worship service. “Secondary theology” is what we typically think of as “theology”–abstract theory we study and ponder in books and classes.

Where is Theology Done?

In some of the worship circles I float in, we’ve talked a lot about how worship leaders need to have good theology and need to apply that theology to our worship so that we are more biblical and informed in our practice. In fact, I’m delighted by the awakening I’m witnessing among many young worship leaders I interact with who don’t just want to be rock stars. They want to be faithful pastors and passionate theologians. These are all good things.

But I have a deeper question, which I don’t think subtracts from or subverts what I just said. If anything, it adds to it. The question is, Where do Christians primarily DO theology? Where does and/or should theologizing primarily occur? I’m going to answer this question in a slightly different way than I think the scholars I’ve been reading (Oswald Bayer, Simon Chan, Aidan Kavanagh, Alexander Schmemann) would answer it but hopefully in a way that we can digest.

Knowing Through Worship

Worship, particularly corporate worship, is the deepest form of “studying theology.” We know God most deeply and fully as we worship Him. Before we climb up the abstraction ladder of systematic theology textbooks and impressive philosophical theologians, we can simply ask, “How does the Bible speak of ‘knowing God’?” When Martin Luther asked this question, he found the Hebrew word yada (“to know”) deeply instructive. Adam “knew” his wife. God “knows beforehand” His people. These aren’t abstract “knowings.” They are a grasping and comprehension through feeling, by experience

Now, this sounds a little scary to us conservative evangelicals. It sounds like “stuff liberals say.” It sounds like a slippery slope to heresy. We’ll talk about that, but track with me for a second. If you’ve been reading my posts for a while, you’ve been following what we’ve been saying about James K. A. Smith’s powerful observations in Desiring the Kingdom, namely, that we are primarily and fundamentally desiring beings rather than thinking beings. If this is true, then the best, most full way we “know” things is as our desires are engaged. Well, I think we can all agree that corporate worship is much more of a natural (God-ordained) context for desire-based knowing to take place than in a library with our head in a textbook or in a classroom with a laptop and a talking head up front.

Worship: Where We Talk TO God

Worship is where our awareness of who God is and what He has done spills over into embodied, affection-injected truth. This is because, unlike the classroom, we’re not merely talking about God (abstract, secondary theology), we are talking to God (primary theology). We are not just thinking abstractly about the Trinity, we are participating in Him. It’s one thing to cognitively “get” that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit enjoy everlasting, mutual self-giving love. It’s another to stand in the middle of that love and experience it. This latter idea is the deepest sense of “doing theology,” of “knowing God.”

So what of classroom theology? Should it be abandoned? Not at all. Simon Chan explains:

Here is where the theologian comes in. There is no reason that [this person] could not also be doing primary liturgical theology if he happens to be a member of…the worshiping community… In fact, he may be able to reflect on their common experience more accurately and, along the way, correct others’ primary expressions of their vital faith. Primary theology, in that sense, needs secondary theology if it is not to fall into error… We should therefore not make too sharp a distinction between primary and secondary theology. What the church should guard against is a secondary theology that is done outside the worshiping community, a theology that abstracts from and generalizes about the liturgy based on some supposedly “neutral” criteria.*

That’s really good.

An Encouragement, and a Warning

I want to leave worshipers and worship leaders with one resulting encouragement and one warning. First, I want to encourage worship leaders and worshipers that you are theologians and you are actively doing theology the way God has meant for it to be done when you gather and worship. Sometimes I and others who write like I do give off the impression that unless you’re seminary-trained voracious readers you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing. Please forgive us. What you do, week in and week out, is of central value to the Church’s “theologizing,” whether or not you can distinguish between God’s communicable and incommunicable attributes and different eschatological viewpoints. You are brokering the context where God’s people most deeply and fully “know” Him and love Him. You stand on the front lines of the Church’s theologizing.

Second, I want to warn you against becoming enthralled by speakers, teachers, and “theologians” who are not deeply invested in the life and worship of a local church. My next post this week will follow up with this thought by interacting with a few choice quotes from Chan about how lethal the divorce between worship and theology can be. Any abstract theology that is not “done” at some level through interaction with the Church’s worship-life is not tapped into how God would have theology to be done

*Simon Chan, Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 51.

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