Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Book Review: Engaging with God.

This piece responds to David Peterson’s Engaging With God: A Biblical Theology of Worship. I will begin with a brief summary of the material and conclude with personal responses to the material.

1. Summary of Material

The book sets the stage with a provocative quote (from W. Nicholls), reading in part: “Worship is the supreme and only indispensable activity of the Christian Church.” (p. 15.) At first blush, this assertion seems an overstatement. However, as the following pages make clear, the book defines worship very broadly so that it cannot be seen as subordinate or dispensable. For example, the author writes: “Worship is a subject that should dominate our lives seven days a week.” (p. 21.) And, “Worship in the New Testament is a comprehensive category describing the Christian’s total existence.” (p. 18.) Peterson then posits his overarching thesis or hypothesis as follows: “[W]orship of the living and true God is essentially an engagement with him on the terms that he proposes and in the way that he also makes possible.” (p. 20.)

In turn, the book explores his concepts of “engagement” with God and the terms and ways God makes it possible. In Chapter One, Peterson looks at how engagement with God was explicated and conducted in the Old Testament. However, he does not posit that the Old Testament is a prescription for Christian worship. He contends: “What the New Testament says about worship, however, also sometimes stands in stark contrast to the perspectives of the Old Testament. Despite the continuity between the Testaments, the gospel demands a transformation of many of the traditional categories and patterns of worship. History shows that Christians have sometimes wrongly applied Old Testament terms and concepts to the church and different aspects of Christian worship. One of the aims of this book is, therefore, to expose the discontinuity between the Testaments on this subject.” (p. 24.)

In Chapter Two, Peterson revisits his thesis that worship is an engagement with God on the terms he proposes and in the way he makes possible. (p. 55.) Here, he discusses worship in the context of honoring, serving and respecting God. However, he does not stop there. In Chapter Three, entitled, “Jesus and the New Temple”, Peterson extends his analysis by analyzing Jesus’ transformative role in worship. He writes: “Jesus is the truth [ ], who uniquely reveals the character of God and his purposes [ ]. So the true worshippers will be those who relate to God through Jesus Christ.” (p. 99.) This begins to explain Peterson’s subthesis that there is a “discontinuity between the Testaments.” (p. 24.) Chapter Four similarly explores Jesus’ role in the new covenant; which in turn requires worship of Jesus and a study of his sacrificial service as an example for Christian worship. (p. 129.)

In Chapter Five, Peterson looks at worship through the Acts of the Apostles (and the example of the early church). In this chapter, he focuses on the central role of Jesus (p. 136-37) and an engagement with the word of the Lord. (p. 137.) Peterson looks at the four (4) activities of the early church: teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and to prayer. (p. 152; cf. Acts 2:42.)

Chapter Six explores Pauline theology with respect to worship, which is broadly defined to include a “consecrated lifestyle of the converted” (p. 167) and expressions of faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ and the ministries that encourage such faith (p. 187). Chapter Seven discusses serving God in the assembly of his people. Interestingly, here Peterson writes: “evangelism is not the primary purpose of the gathering.” (p. 195.) Rather, he posits that “edification for the meeting of God’s people” is of central importance in Paul’s teaching. (p. 196.)

Chapter Eight analyzes the worship of Jesus through the lens of Hebrews. The following quote is a poignant summary: “The Christian gathering ought to focus on the finished work of Christ, the needs of his people as they seek to serve him in the present, the resources tat are available from our heavenly high priest for running the Christian race…” (p. 254; emphasis supplied.) Likewise, Chapter Nine discusses worship in light of Revelation. “Revelation to John stresses the importance of praise and acclamation as a means of honouring God and encouraging his people to trust him and obey him.” (p. 279.) The book concludes with a summary and an epilogue that provides an example of what a church might look like putting into practice the principles of the text. (p. 292.)

2. Critical Interaction with Material

I appreciated this text for its scholarly and biblical approach to the study of worship. In this regard, the book was appropriately named a “biblical theology of worship”. Peterson correctly argued that true worship requires a deep knowledge of the Word, and Peterson’s book serves that contention, as it is steeped in the Bible.

However, I have two (2) somewhat mild critiques. First, while Peterson observes that those unfamiliar with Hebrew or Greek would “be pleased to discover that technicalities are confined to the endnotes as much as possible.” (p. 56), the reality is that the book wrestled with numerous technicalities and arcane explications of Greek and Hebrew words that I though were beyond the intended audience of the text. The preface contrarily suggested that the book was “readily available to a wide circle of readers” (p. 10). I didn’t think that was quite the case. Although the book was accessible, its heavy dependence on the original languages I think somewhat defeated this stated purpose.

Second, I found that Peterson’s thesis was riddled with abstractions, and his failure to ultimately flesh them out with practical examples prevented the book from reaching its full potential. Peterson’s thesis is as follows: “[W]orship of the living and true God is essentially an engagement with him on the terms that he proposes and in the way that he also makes possible.” (p. 20; emphasis added.) This thesis is repeated at least two times later in the book. Peterson, however, fails to explain in concrete and practical fashion precisely what he means by “terms” and “way”. While he belatedly offers an “epilogue” of what a worshipping church might look liked under these principles there are effete and unexplained. For example, he simply speaks about scripture readings, prayer and hymns. (pp. 289-92.) I was hoping for a more insightful and perhaps revolutionary (or revelatory) approach.