Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Some Lessons from Eamon Duffy's "The Stripping of the Altars."

Sorry I haven't blogged much lately, I've been working up my final draft of the Christology book.  Anyways, I've also been reading Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars, about popular religion in England in the 15th and 16th centuries and how it was transformed by the Reformation.  

One interesting point that one finds in Duffy (though I don't think it is his intention to highlight this) is that worship in the pre-Reformation English Church was pretty much entertainment.  Sound familiar?  Now it's a different sort of entertainment, but it's still that.  The English Church in particular went to great lengths to engage in what might be called pageantry.  For example, on Candlemas, they would literally have people dress up like Mary and Joseph and present the infant Jesus to people dressed like Anna and Simeon in the church service.  On Good Friday, they would consecrate a host, put it in a special monstrance, and then bury it until Easter morning in a special crypt they built in the Church.  In other words, Jesus would literally rise from a tomb all over again!  

This brings up an important point about our present situation.  When worship is entertainment or pageantry, it's bad- whether it's liturgical or not.  Traditional Lutheran liturgical worship is good because it centers on Word and sacrament.  But if it's not doing that, it's just as bad as Contemporary pop-rock worship.

Now some people might find this a puzzling point to make in our context, but I don't think it is.  I won't name any names, but there are definitely pastors in the LCMS who hold that certain liturgical forms are simply good for their sake.  They go on and on about the history of the liturgical form, and don't talk too much about whether or not the form promotes Word and sacrament.  

One LCMS theologian (who will not be named) wrote a book where he discusses how Christian worship when properly understood is a liturgical "script" meant to reenact the events of holy week.  Thinking like this is as problematic as Church-Growth talk.  Both assume that the worship's purpose is to do something to make the Word work.  Language of "reenactment" presupposes a theology of an absent Christ.  If Christ isn't present in the Word, converting and justifying sinners, then we need to stand in for him and do his work for him through our worship.  

This approach is obvious attempted by the Church-Growth movement with it's boyfriend Jesus songs.  But it is oddly enough also the approach of those hyper-liturgical folks in the late Middle Ages and some people in LCMS.  From this perspective, since Jesus is absent in the historical past, liturgy must serve the function of reenacting the events so as to make them present.  In this, the power of the Word is denigrated.  Ultimately, this approach to Christian worship works from the same faulty assumptions as Church-Growth and should be resisted.  


  1. Interesting and thoughtful post! Thanks for the insights, I had never thought of it that way before.

  2. The problem with both ends of our beloved synod is a lack of faith in the power and importance of the preached Word. The diminished amount of time alloted to preaching in our circles is a great shame and an indicator of our Synod's poor spiritual health.

  3. I recall hearing that the Passion plays were an outgrowth of the Middle Ages in terms of pagaentry and drama. I also believe that the Eastern liturgy has some ceremonies involving burying Christ, carrying the body around the nave, and then having a ceremonial tomb opened on Easter.

    Are you sure that there is a problem with the liturgy as recollective or representative drama? I'm not competent to engage all the thinkers who have or haven't thought that way about the liturgy, but coming at it from a different angle, isn't stained glass or murals of saints and salvation history an attempt (certainly within the context of the liturgy) to re-enact or represent those events? I believe David Scaer (among many, many others) have referred to that art as a visible sermon.

  4. Included in that train of thought would also be the elements of certain histoirc Roman monastic liturgies (notably the Carthusian Rite), in which at the Canon the celebrant stretches out his arms, facing the altar, in an imitation of Christ's outstretched arms on the cross.

    The Eastern liturgy of the Proskomide includes the piercing of the bread with a lance, in imitation of the piercing of Christ's side.

    I also recall reading a commentary on the Eastern liturgy (Cabasilas?) which was attempting to merge two strains of interpretation of the liturgy: the liturgy as earthly symbols of actions taking place in the heavenly Temple, and the liturgy as present-day re-enactment of events taking place during Christ's passion (consecration -> death, presentation of the Gifts through the sacred Doors -> resurrection).

    Not to say that any of these are correct.

  5. The Church Growth Movement is bringing a lowest common denominator pagan culture into Christian worship, whereas the culture described in Eamon Duffy's book was inherently Christian and infused with Christian customs.

  6. It depends ... some were common errors of the Catholic Church, that is recognised as such by the hierarchy (and not only by the proto-Reformers and the Reformers) but was turned a blind eye ... some of the errors and superstitions are as described by Jack above; others were inherently Graeco-Roman in origin ... think of the statues/ statuaries and contrast that with the strictly liturgical icons of the East (Byzantine) ... many of these were EXTRA-liturgical events and acts whereas Christian culture is inherently *liturgical* ... and the divine liturgy is centred around the proclamation of the Word in its oral and sacramental forms, without which there is *no* CONFESSION OF FAITH.

    Thus proclamation shapes worship as much as worship shape proclamation ...

  7. Agreed Jason. Nilewatch, the thing is that I think many of their practices were quite explicitly pagan. For one thing, I'm reading a section right now where Duffy is talking about how they had these popular devotions and catechism where magic and astrology was taught along with Christian theology.

    Here's the thing, (and think this addresses Phil's concern as well), whenever you have a theology of worship that involves reenactment, you're in pagan territory. Read Eliade or some of the other 20th century theorists of religion. Most pagan rituals work on the assumption that one taps into the gods' power or gain fellowship with them by reenacting the myth. In fact, Eliade describes ritual as essentially reenactment of a myth. Christian worship should be different. This is something lost on many Catholics, who see Christianity as the fulfillment of religion and not its negation. Look at Odo Casel's "Mystery of Christian Worship" where he sees the Mass as a kind of Greek mystery cult that actually works.

  8. Do you think the book you are referring to (by the LCMS pastor) views reenactment the same way as what you are criticizing? That isn't how I understood his view of "reenactment"...

  9. I think Jack's point not well understood here ... I maybe wrong ... but the question is whether the liturgy "re-enacted" represents a "liturgical REVERSAL" -- that is whether the liturgy is understood as God's work done to us instead of the reverse ... It's an either/ or question here ... a mixture or confusion would violate the christological principle as embodied by the Chalcedonian Definition and the destroy the Law and Gospel distinction bordering on the Nestorian and Semi-Pelagian heresies ...

    The liturgy is the place and hour where we encounter crucified and risen Christ and thus are incorporated into His story ...

    On the other hand, the liturgy outlook which Jack has critiqued seems to reverse the subject-object relationship ... that is, we as SPECTATORS(subject) and Jesus as the object ...

    Hence, contrary to the OLD Testament where the law, particularly the ritual and ceremonial law is meant to be used as sign and symbol of an anticipated future(reality/hope) ... In the NEW Testament, the worship of God happens because we are ALREADY RECAPITULATED in Jesus Christ Who HAS recapitulated all the signal events of salvation history -- eschatological (already/not yet) ... And we precisely recapitulated via PROCLAMATION ...

    The problem with *Lutherans* today is that they get caught up with the Old Testament way of thinking ...

  10. Jason- there's much good in what you said. I think though I would say that the OT also had a real presence of Christ in the cult. In the Tabernacle, the pre-incarnate Christ dwelt with Israel as the kavod and channeled his holiness to them. Kleinig has much good to say about this.

    Dazed and confused- Yes, I've read other things by this fellow (who I again will not name directly) and he has a very strong sense of this. I was reading a piece by him the other day and found him speaking about pastors being "icons." When I met him in person, he defend the veneration of icons to me and said that Lutherans should accept the 7th ecumenical council- despite Luther and Chemnitz's rejection of it. He entirely has a theology of representation in absence.

    I don't think he's intentionally doing this to be Romanizing. My instinct is that he hates the Church-Growth movement so much that he thinks that everything high-churchy is automatically good. So, in doing this he's taken over a lot of EO and RC liturgical jargon and forms which carry with it this theology of representation and absence.

  11. Dear Jack,

    What's the name of the book by Kleinig that you referred to? It's interesting that you should mention christophany ... have been thinking about the topic ... you see there is a Strict Baptist whom I recently "befriended over FB" and he denies the eternal Sonship of the Son!

    Hopefully there is a good deal of discussion of christophany in your forthcoming book which I look forward to getting!

  12. Although I'm into Byzantine theology, the idea that Lutherans should recognise the 7th Ecumenical Council sounds bizarre ... to be a Lutheran is recognise that justification is lord, master and ruler of all doctrines (words to that effect) if not the basis and boundary of theology and proclamation ...

    The problem with the mandatory requirement to venerate icons is that it turns the Incarnation into an Exemplum (Exemplar) and this parallels the synergistic heresy of the EO and hence the concept of icon becomes inherently legal rather than evangelical --- the Self-Giving or Self-Donation of the Icon of all icons, that is Jesus Christ Himself.

    So, yes there are Lutherans in the LCMS who don't care two hoots about distorting justification by faith alone just so it fits with their theological and liturgical proclivities ...

  13. So, yes, we must avoid the two extremes of fundamentalistic, piestistic, revivalistic, charismatic types who abhor the catholicity of the Church (they just cannot handle the doctrine and practice) and the high-churchy, smells and bells who accept lock, stock and barrel (as you say Jack everything SO-CALLED catholic must be automatically good) so-called western catholic inheritance or whatever (because they just cannot handle the relationship between their confessional identity as Lutherans with the liturgical proclivities) it's too much ... one have to give way and usually it's the Lutheran side - we see this in their understanding of the Lord's Supper ... so, yes, both have the same fundie mindset(!)