Review: Simon Chan’s “Liturgical Theology”

Tony SigWhen I first heard that an Assemblies of God theologian had written a book entitled “Liturgical Theology” I was giddy with excitement. I never would have guessed that this would be something that Pentecostals would be exploring.  But, because Pentecostals and Evangelicals have not much meditated on the Church’s worship, both historically and theologically, this book is a challenge to engrained and unexamined habits.  The quote on the book says in no uncertain terms “Bad worship produces bad theology, and bad theology produces an unhealthy church.”  In this way the book is not a simple introduction it is a dare for Evangelicals to think critically and theologically about what we do when we “worship.”

In the first chapter of the book Chan begins with building an ecclesiology.  asserts that “the church is an ontological reality.” Not as  a thing called out to ‘fix’ a creation gone awry, but a thing which exists for itself and for God, having been called out purely for God’s own glory.

Instead of seeing the church as called out of Creation to fulfill a purpose Chan proposes that

“The church precedes creation in that it is what God has in view from all eternity and creation is the means by which God fulfills his eternal purpose in time.  The church does not exist in order to fix a broken creation, rather creation exists to realize the church.”

In his section on the body of Christ Chan explores the way in which the church is a sacramental communion which is fed by the Eucharist and is ‘Christ embodied in his church.”  In a creative move he challenges what he believes is a crude understanding of church Tradition in Evangelical circles as a sort of one-time propositional deposit which is simply re-proclaimed.  Instead, Chan argues, as we are ontologically linked to the living Christ, so the Tradition is alive and in process as the Church is continually being formed into his likeness.

Moving on he takes in sweeping and quick motion chapters on the “Foundations” of his thesis.  One on the “Worship of the Church,” “The Shape of the Liturgy,” and “The Liturgy as Ecclesial Practice.”

Speaking of the “Worship of the Church,” Chan examines Worship and the Church, Theology and the Divine Glory, continually playing off of three points he makes early on. 1) Worship is that which distinguishes the Church as the Church 2) Worship realizes the Church and 3) Worship is God’s action in the Church.

In the third chapter, he moves on to what could be called, in my opinion, the central challenge Chan is making through the whole book.  Of course he goes over much more in the book, but one gets the impression that Chan wants to bring Evangelical “worship” out of the seeker ages and start taking serious consideration of what we are doing.

“Unless our respective orders of service . . . conform to the basic ordo, we are not being shaped into the community we are meant to be”

And it is here that for the first time we get into the nitty gritty of how Word and Sacrament relate to one another.  For Chan, the Eucharist is the total focus of the liturgy.  Even Word relates to it.  Indeed, there are important ways that the Eucharist is an acted Word, allowing us to “take in” the Gospel as Communion with God rather than just the intellectual illumination of the preached word.

From here we are introduced to the Liturgy as an Ecclesial practice.  Where are the “subjective” and “objective” poles in a “worship service?”  How does it relate to private individual devotion and the Church at large?  How does it form us?  We are told that it is not intention that provides grace.  Rather since all of salvation is “gift,” simply by “being there” ascribing glory to God, we are being shaped by His action in us, even when we don’t “feel” it.

Chan calls for a revival of the Chatechumenate and challenges Evangelicals to see “salvation” not as a mere “conversion experience” but as a grand process.  We should be instructing new “converts” more and restricting Eucharist to the baptized.  It is the massive focus on the “conversion experience” which ends up completely individualizing salvation and relativising the Sacraments to fancy (or unfancy in most congregations) acoutriments that should be repeated but are barely necessary, if at all, for salvation.

The penultimate chapter walks us through the various parts of the Liturgy itself.  A very handy chapter to be sure, especially for those unfamiliar with the “liturgy.”  He explains the theological significance of the different parts and how they relate to one another and to the doctrines of the Church.

He examines, finally, the “active participation” aspect to the liturgy.  Presumably to fend off those who want to glibly insult the liturgy as “cold externalism” or “ritualism.”  Though grace is inwardly received without “intent” or “purpose,” Chan is keen to help us understand how one can be attentive to the various parts of the liturgy and encourages us to meditate and be “caught up” in the worship.  As Hans Gadamer posits that “play does not fulfill its purpose unless one loses themselves in play” so Chan, trying to avoid both ritualism and subjectivism, says that “the point of the liturgy is to get lost in it” to be caught up into the action of God among his people, to receive His gifts without demanding full comprehension.

This certainly is a bold book, and in many ways is to be commended.  As a Pentecostal evangelical Chan certainly is more able than most to transform the idea of the church from a tradition-less biblicism into a living sacramental community given sustenance in the Eucharist and being guided by the presence of the Holy Spirit.  And as younger Evangelicals continue to reject division over interpretive disparities between fellowships, sola scriptura is bound to be itself superceded as common life in Communion is made primary over issues such as ‘pre-destination.’  In these proposals I think Chan to be right on and I hope that this book can be a part of the recapturing by Evangelicals of the whole history and tradition of the Church.

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24 Comments

  1. Wonderful post Tony.

    I wonder how an evangelical can go from no tradition and a non sacramental ideology to a catholic sacramentality. It was not a big step for me to take my already “spiritually sensitive” nature in religious practice and attempt to apply it to my understanding of communion. I had more trouble appreciating the vast historical – ecclesial – implications of this act.

    I guess what I’m really struggling with is what it means to be liturgical and pentecostal. I have an idea of what that is but I am so bogged down by charismania that I forget about the gentle nature of the charismata.

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  2. No buddy, this is the book my folks got me for Christmas a few years back.

    I think that his getting educated at Cambridge helped him become exposed to the Liturgy. And I’ve always said that Pentecostals are born for Catholicism and the Sacraments. It’s just been lost as they have sacrificed their ‘spiritual’ soul for conservative evangelical street cred’

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  3. I agree with Chan in some areas and I disagree with him in others. It seems evident to me that his diagnosis of evangelicalism is correct when he states that we have an inadequate understanding of ecclesiology. If our understanding of ecclesiology was adequate, then we would not be changing it every ten years. I agree with his diagnosis that many of our churches have become man centered rather than God centered. When churches are looking for their “market niche” it is pretty obvious that the focus is on man instead of on God. When new churches are started by polling nonchurchgoers and giving them what they want, it is obviously man centered rather than God centered.
    My disagreement with Chan is when he discards the doctrine of sola scriptura in the first chapter and seeks to remedy the problem with the local church by grounding it in the theology of the early church rather than grounding it in the theology of the New Testament church. As an evangelical Christian I take issue with placing the authority of tradition above the authority of Scripture. I believe tradition has a certain amount of authority. However, I do not believe in placing tradition above Scripture when establishing our basic doctrines, including the doctrine of the church.
    There is much to be learned from early church tradition. Some of the traditions that might be well for us to revisit are the Church calendar that re-tells the Gospel story every year and some form of church catechism as an initiation into the church.

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  4. Sounds like you’ve read it Roger.

    Though I’m not so sure that he wanted to move past sola scriptura to put Tradition on equal footing with Scripture. He seems to think that – and I agree – it is sola scriptura itself that prevents Tradition from having a de jure authority rather than the de facto hidden authority already engrained in interpretation and plastered over by belief in “sola scriptura.” Better, I think, to think in terms of prima Scriptura.

    That, and I think he wants to see the Spirit’s movement in the Church as a single fluid motion so that we do not so distrust how the Church reads God’s revelation.

    So in what ways do you believe Chan has a post New Testament ecclesiology?

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  5. I have been a little familiar with Chan and loved what I read. I will seek this book out.

    We are attempting to work out a Pentecostal liturgical church (kind of as a church plant from our own church). It’s a few of us as Pentecostals hungry for the liturgy. There is also a sense of seeing this as more powerful to touch the international community around us. (We’ll keep praying on that one.)

    At any rate, there is a growing number of Pentecostals in the A/G tradition who are actually working within the A/G to examine liturgy. Who woulda thunk it?

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    1. I actually have several issues with his ecclesiology. But I mostly wanted to present his positions. I have trouble with his un-historical, un-narrated approach to ecclesiology. In the end he (imo) marginalizes Creation to an asphalt parking lot that simply is ‘there’ so that the Church can ‘be.’ I much prefer to see all of Creation participating in God rather than portioning off Christian homosapiens as the only ‘point.’

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  6. Pastor Dan,

    It’s fun to have a former professor show up randomly on the site. If you haven’t read in the “About Us” section, most of us are former NCU attendee’s and I took “Biblical Interpretation” with you a few years back.

    I hope your liturgical service with Dr. Brenneman is going well.

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  7. Chan stated on p.23:
    “The church precedes creation in that it is what God has in view from all eternity and creation is the means by which God fulfills his eternal purpose in time. The church does not exist in order to fix a broken creation, rather creation exists to realize the church.”

    Chan makes this observation in response to the “instrumental interpretation” of the canon which views creation itself as the focus of redemption. The instrumental interpretation understands the canon in terms of a “creation-fall-redemption-consummation narrative.” (p.21) According to this interpretation, the church is merely an instrument in the process of fulfilling God’s purpose in creation.

    Chan argues that the instrumental interpretation ignores the fact that creation is virtually ignored after the first 11 chapters of the canon. The main emphasis throughout the canon is a covenant people, and this emphasis is treated as merely paranthetical by the instrumental interpretation.

    These and similar arguments lead to the quote above from page 23.

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  8. Just because the modern evangelical hermeneutic ignores Creation after the first 11 chapters of the canon, doesn’t mean that God, or the canonical authors ignore it. If the redemption of all creation isn’t the point of God’s redemptive plan laid out in Scripture then what is?

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  9. James,
    Actually, the modern evangelical hermeneutic does not ignore Creation. Chan contends that too much emphasis is put on Creation by the modern evangelical hermeneutic. Dispensationalists especially put a great deal of emphasis upon the redemption of all creation. Chan contends that the covenant people are the main focus of the canon and they should be the main focus of ecclesiology.

    Some of his arguments are similar to those presented by Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church and Purpose Driven Life. Basically, he argues that it is not about the individual, nor about the material world, but about God’s covenant people in both the old covenant and the new covenant.

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  10. I of course agree that the covenant people are very important, but not because God likes them better than other people or the rest of creation, but because he has chosen them to fulfill his purposes on earth: namely the redemption of all things. Think of how in the prophet Isaiah it is through God’s covenant with Israel that one day all nations will stream to Mount Zion where they will swear off violence and injustice, beat their weapons into tools with which they can take care of the earth, and when that happens Creation will restored, no longer will humans be at odds with it, little kids will play with vipers, lions will be harmless, etc, etc. My point is that God’s prophetic vision for his covenant people is deeply rooted in the impact they will have on all Creation. To focus only on the covenant people at the expense of their mission of redemption is ludicrous because that mission is what the covenant is all about.

    In any event, I would like to borrow your copy of Liturgical Theology, that would be great! Thanks!

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  11. Thanks for this review. I read his book on Spiritual Theology a few years ago and benefited from it. What you have described seems well beyond my expertise, liturgically challenged man that I am, but I’m glad Chan is wrestling with the gap between evangelical and liturgy and finding ways to bring them closer. Peace to you today.

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  12. Chris,

    If you could handle his “Spiritual Theology” you can handle this book which aims to be an “Introduction” in the true sense of the word. Though I do think that the Eastern Orthodox Alexander Schmemann’s intro is much ‘thicker’ theologically.

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  13. Thanks for the review, I am actually reading the last chapter in this book. I live with my wife in Singapore(from the u.s though)and came across Chan’s book around june and finally bought it. It’s fascinating! I come from a Pentecostal background and do think liturgy is greatly needed and for some odd reason many charismatics are attracted to it also. I also managed to speak to Dr. Simon Chan on the phone about a month ago. It was a delightful conversation!

    Ken

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  14. Ken,

    Thanks for stopping by. Chan himself, being from and teaching in Asia, I think brings some unique perspectives to the table. He has said in interviews that in his experience, Pentecostals will often make “converts” but that many move into the more historic churches, including especially the ‘liturgical’ ones. Has that been an experience of yours where you are at? Do you feel that Pentecostals/Evangelicals over there would be more open to liturgy than Pentecostals/Evangelicals in the West?

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  15. Hi Anthony,

    I come from an AG/independent charismatic background and about 4 years ago really became serious about historic protestantism and eventually started attending a reformed presbyterian church(pca). So when I moved to Asia my wife and I started attending an Anglican Church. The Anglican church in Singapore from my experience has been charismatic, but yet somewhat still liturgical. My gripe with the Reformed Presbyterian is that they materially deny Sola Scriptura with Cessationism. Chan mentioned to me that Cessationism isn’t accepted “scholarly” around the world, but only in certain strongholds, such as in parts of north America. I have witness that on an ecclesiastic level in the asian anglican church here, many are charismatic in expression. So my answer is yes, I have moved to more historic and liturgical service and it hasn’t been a problem for my wife who is chinese and charismatic also.

    It is an exciting time to be a pentecostal!

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  16. I would love to receive a response from Dr. Simon Chan
    on the Catholic Marian doctrines. It seems to me that
    a great over-load has occurred on the subject, especially in terms of the immaculate conception, the
    Queen of Heaven Co-Redemptrix tradition, and the bodily
    assumption position. If these were so important to the
    apostolate and the first century Church why are they
    unmentioned in the New Testament?

    Reply

  17. They weren’t important to first century church. The Assumption was only declared a dogma in 1950, the Co Redemptrix is still not a doctrine, The Immaculate Conception was likewise only declared a dogma in 1854. There are instances of these ideas on earlier dates but they are not at all important to the first centuries of Christianity.

    Reply

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