On a trinitarian approach to liturgy

(Note: this post draws from The Trinitarian DNA of Christian Worship, an essay by John D. Witvliet.)

If the corporate worship of the church was grounded fully in and shaped by the doctrine of the Trinity, what would it look like? This post addresses that question, beginning with this definition of Christian worship from Thomas F. (T. F.) Torrance:

In our worship the Holy Spirit comes forth from God, uniting us to the response and obedience and faith and prayer of Jesus, and returns to God, raising us up in Jesus to participate in the worship of heaven and in the eternal communion of the Holy Trinity.

For T.F., it's important to understand that Christian worship has two directional movements: 1) God's coming to the church, and 2) the church's response to God. Both movements involve the action of each member of the Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit. The agents that enable God's coming to us and our response back to God are not less than divine persons, whose work can be trusted to be efficacious. Trinitarian theologian Colin Gunton put it this way: 

The first and last thing we have to say about God the Trinity is that he is a God who enables us to worship him.

A trinitarian theology of worship helps us view our worship as real participation (sharing) in the worship of Jesus toward the Father, by the Spirt. Jesus' whole life on earth was an act of worship to God and that worship continues now in heaven. Both Jesus' earthly life and his ongoing life in heaven are thus to be understood as priestly.

Our participation in Christ's ongoing worship is possible only because of the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is a "liturgical agent" who makes possible and effects the worship of God. Christian worship is born of the outpouring of the Spirit. For example, the Lord's Supper is only effectual because of the presence of the Holy Spirit who brings us into communion with Christ.

Worship, viewed from this trinitarian lens, consists in proclamation from the Father in Christ through the Spirit, and response in the Spirit through Christ back to the Father—a pattern that is a doxological summary of the history of salvation. We thus understand that revelation and response, which are both fundamental to worship, are gifts of divine grace—gifts to be received rather than accomplishments to be sought. This truth has been strongly articulated by James B. (J.B.) Torrance in stressing the God-humanward movement in Christ and in warning against seeing that movement as something that we somehow achieve, thus ignoring the priesthood of Christ and throwing us back upon ourselves to make our response, ignoring the reality that God has already provided for us that Response which alone is acceptable to him—the offering made for the whole human race in the life, obedience, passion and continuing high priestly intercession of Jesus Christ.

J.B. argues that a distorted view of worship is functionally unitarian, operating apart from the work of the Holy Spirit and the mediatorship of Christ. Even though we might sing trinitarian hymns and observe Trinity Sunday, many Christians tend to approach God more like the pristine, isolated God of deism than like the active, mediating Presence that God truly is. For J.B., the key understanding of worship is that both the God-humanward movement and the human-Godward relationship are freely given to us by and in Jesus Christ. A trinitarian theology of worship thus emphasizes that worship is a gift of divine grace. This theological understanding has multiple significant consequences for how the corporate worship (liturgy) of the church is structured. Here are three:

  • A trinitarian theology of worship means beginning the worship service with prayers that express our longing for the Holy Spirit to work through liturgical actions to nurture and inspire faith—prayers for illumination that precede proclamation, and even prayers prior to our acts of praise. Such prayers demonstrate that the church is appearing before God to worship with empty, upturned hands.
  • A trinitarian theology of worship calls for liturgical proclamation that is explicitly rooted in God's revelation in Jesus Christ through the Spirit. Just as the praise and prayer of the church is an act of acknowledgment, recognition, reception, and participation in the mediation of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, so too liturgical proclamation is best conceived as participation in, and grateful reception of the gift of the Word of God. Liturgical proclamation does not require generating a new message, a new Word, a new gospel--it simply requires rehearsing the gospel given in Christ. We do not have to invent what we are to say, we have only to listen and pass it on. This has to do with preaching that calls attention to God's work in Christ—preaching that is focused on none other than the preaching of Jesus himself who comes to us clothed in his gospel. Preaching that ignores what God has done already in Christ brings about despair rather than hope.
  • A trinitarian theology of worship calls for acts that acknowledge the mediation of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. This occurs explicitly in trinitarian formulas at the end of sung psalms or spoken prayers (especially prayers offered to God in the name of Jesus through the Spirit, or through Jesus in the Spirit). Trinitarian doxologies at the end of prayers, sermons, absolutions, and benedictions all attest that the action being completed is accomplished only as a gift of grace. They emphasize that the whole worship service is taking place in the presence, under the authority, and with the power of the Trinity. These liturgical formulas are acts of recognition, reception, and participation—the explicit acknowledgment that worship is a graced event.

The challenge that denominational leaders, church pastors, and worship leaders/planners face in structuring worship in accordance with trinitarian theology is to enact a liturgy that brings the mediation of Son and Spirit into the consciousness of ordinary worshipers—worshipers who otherwise may live with the implicit feeling that the success of a worship service depends either on the prowess of the preacher or musicians or on their own mental efforts to make worship somehow “work.” We who preach or lead music violate this principle every time we unwittingly promote a rather sacramental view of ourselves as the ones who engineer a spiritual experience for people. Instead, our goal should be to help people sense the presence and work of the Triune God in both worship and in life in general. Offering worshipers this an all-encompassing, grace-filled vision to supplant the rather vague and impersonal notions of deity that our culture perpetuates is an act of profound pastoral care.


Artwork: Luca Rossetti da Orta, The Holy Trinity, fresco, 1738–9, St. Gaudenzio Church at Ivrea (Torino), Italy (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)