Theological Discourse and the Recovery of Sacred Form

            St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ 27th Oration is startling to our 21st-century ears.

            “Discussion of theology is not for everyone, I tell you, not for everyone.”[1] The 4th-century bishop goes on: “Nor, I would add, is it for every occasion, or every audience; neither are all its aspects open to inquiry.”[2] Theologizing, Nazianzen suggests, “is not for all people.” Rather, it is “only for those who . . . have found a sound footing in study, and, more importantly, have undergone, or at the very least are undergoing, purification of body and soul.”[3] His next words should stop us in our tracks: “For one who is not pure to lay hold of pure things is dangerous, just as it is for weak eyes to look at the sun’s brightness.”[4] Discussion about God is sacred and holy. To treat it cavalierly is to play with fire.

            It is nigh impossible to follow St. Gregory’s counsel today. In our age, nothing is sacred. All things are trivialized. The advent of television secured the desacralization of every facet of society once deemed worthy of honor, and the Internet has successfully poured roughly fifteen truckloads of salt into this gaping wound through its meme-ification of all things. The widespread access to any and all information presents a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in viewing certain objects of conversation as sacred. To put it simply, one can read the Bible and Facebook on his phone; far from making the latter holy (as should be obvious from a quick glance), the former is cheapened. Naturally, the discerning reader will note the irony of this online blog post. Am I violating the Nazianzen Principle by engaging in this sort of discussion on this medium? Probably.

            But a more generous reading of this endeavor of mine (a reading I plead for) would simply restate what I noted above: It is nigh impossible to follow St. Gregory’s counsel today. There is a sense of inevitability to our conundrum. So, why do I bring this up? Why bother?

            The inability to fix something incrementally does not follow from the failure to fix everything immediately. In other words, we shouldn’t just throw our hands up. We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Along these lines, it should also be said, we should not shrink back from all theologizing out of fear. In a secular age, to think seriously about God at all is already a feat. Such theological reasoning and discussion should not be ruled out from the get-go simply out of anxiety to handle the sacred with care. We must weigh these things. Nevertheless, St. Gregory’s words should make some impact on us. Let me give one key reflection, particularly for the evangelical context, for that is what I know best.

            If the liturgy isn’t sacred, nothing will be sacred.

            Tackling the generic category of honoring sacred things (such as speech about God) before tackling the more specific topic of church liturgy is putting the cart before the horse. This is because the liturgy is the beating heart of the Christian life. Each saint is trained up in the life of Christ by following his or her priest from earth to heaven, giving thanks for all things through the body and blood of Christ offered in the bread and the cup. Put differently, church services form Christians for the task of approaching the rest of the world. Honor towards that which is sacred, such as speech about God, follows from the liturgy. It is fitting, then, that we start with this.

            It is not an overstatement to claim that Gregory of Nazianzus’ statements are uninterpretable for Christians who do not observe the historic liturgy. In fact, they likely strike most as stuffy, arrogant, and over the top. “Oh, come on, Greg. Is it really that big of a deal?” Christians fed on recent pop-evangelical liturgical forms, forms that emerged out of a culture burned-over with shallow consumerism, may be struck by any notion of sacred. This is not their fault. It is a generational sin. But it must be taken care of.

            The historic Christian liturgy was forged through centuries of wisdom, taking its cues from the ancient faith of Israel, now fully revealed in Jesus Christ. If Sunday morning is not treated with this sort of reverence, then we might as well stop the conversation right now. Church is the one time a week when Christians come together to meet with God, by hearing his eternal Word proclaimed, by joining the chorus of the heavenly angels, by confessing their sins and receiving forgiveness, by greeting the saints whom they will know for eternity, and, above all, by taking, eating, and drinking the very body and blood of God Incarnate. If this is treated casually, we have bigger problems than St. Gregory of Nazianzus would have foreseen.

            I am sure it would come as a shock to many that the level of casualness displayed in many evangelical churches is only a few decades old. Certainly, it has been building for centuries. But the forms of liturgy we now know would look like, to our fathers and mothers in the faith, something other than Christian worship. The first step towards recovering honor towards the sacred is the retrieval of sacred form. As C. S. Lewis says, when one’s watch is incorrect, it is necessary to turn back the clock.

            The words of Nazianzen quoted above presume a close relation between “form” and “content.” In other words, he is not solely concerned with what is being said about God (though he certainly cares very much about that), but with how it is being said. He is concerned, therefore, with form. For Nazianzen, being a theologian is more than right doctrine and careful footnotes; it is about a certain manner of life in purity and honor. What is more, the very occasion for theological reflection matters as well: it is not for all people or all circumstances.

            Too often, we today presume that the Christian faith is a message that is essentially liquidized: it’s flexible and mobile, able to be shoved into any number of containers. These “containers” are disposable. You can throw Christianity into a red solo cup, a plastic water bottle, a child’s teacup, or a silver chalice (though why would you go to all that trouble and spend all that money?); it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the content, the message, is conveyed through whatever (ultimately disposable) form you toss it in. So, what matters in a church service is only the doctrinal accuracy of the sermons and songs. The kind of music we hear, the way the statements are made, the clothes that the pastor and congregation are wearing, are adiaphora, that is, irrelevant.

            This is wrong. Let us look to the Incarnation. The Word was made flesh, human. If we view the human nature that the Word of God assumed as in any way dispensable for the Gospel, we have constructed another gospel. The Word is not the content, and his humanity the mere accidental form. The Word is made present through the flesh and has bound himself inseparably to it. Insofar as Word is content and flesh is form, and insofar as we are even right to conceptually distinguish the two, they are nevertheless indivisible. The rigid form/content distinction betrays a theology that is insufficiently Christological. Therefore, the way we pray, the way we worship, matters, just as Christ’s flesh matters, for it was the flesh that was crucified and raised on the third day. Form matters.

            To look at this from a different angle: in order to comprehend St. Gregory’s words, we need to be immersed in the spiritual formation in which he was immersed. Retrieval of historic Christian faith, above all patristic faith, which is the common inheritance of Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians, is a full-package deal. We must retrieve their “doctrinal” commitments, but never in isolation. We must also retrieve their practices of worship and their commitment to ecumenical unity in the apostolic faith. We must be, as the Nicene Creed says, One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. To be anything less is to miss the mark.

            It seems to me that the exhortation of Gregory Nazianzen is a good shock to our system. By hearing his words regarding the way we approach theological discussion, it provides us with a good opportunity to do a liturgical audit: Have we become too shallow in our worship, perhaps not in personal sincerity but in manner and form? Or, to put it more encouragingly, are we possibly missing out on a beautiful inheritance of liturgical worship, which not only would form us in faithful continuity to the past, but provide us with greater encouragement as we await the eschatological future?

            Some conclusions from this are unavoidably practical. The historic Christian liturgy can serve as a measuring rod that evangelicals can use to examine their liturgies. Once this is done, elements previously assumed to be matters of indifference will be revealed as essential for sacred form. For example, what should the pastor wear during the liturgy? This really matters. If the priestly office isn’t sacred, no vocation will ever be. We should think about vestments. Or, what about our use of the Psalms? They should be sung and chanted by believers in church, for they teach Christians how and what to pray. If gathered prayer isn’t sacred, private prayer will never be. Moreover, homilies must be constructed with soberness and weightiness; they are not TED talks. They are certainly opportunities for teaching about the Scriptures, but they also train the laity in speaking about God. If Gospel proclamation from the pulpit isn’t sacred, how could we expect ordinary day-to-day speech to ever be?

            We can do better. Let us begin with the household of God, and then we can return to St. Gregory’s words.

[1] St Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 26.

[2] St Gregory, On God, 27.

[3] St Gregory, On God, 27.

[4] St Gregory, On God, 27. Emphasis added.

One response to “Theological Discourse and the Recovery of Sacred Form”

  1. Jackson, thank you for another wonderful post! This is so beautifully presented. I love thinking of how breathtaking and holy worship must have been in the early years of The Church.

    Liked by 1 person

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