Learning Theology through the Church’s Worship: An Introduction to Christian Belief | Dennis Okholm

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Okholm, Dennis. Learning Theology through the Church’s Worship: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018. 242 pp. $14.84.

Students of theology may attest to the difficulties inherent in learning theology through a firehose during the course of their formal training. Theological concepts, given the sheer number to be covered in a limited time, can easily drift into the abstract. In his book, Learning Theology through the Church’s Worship, Dennis Okholm argues that theology is best learned and understood in the context of a worshipping community whose liturgy helps its members to view the world through a Christian lens (xii). He offers an introduction to systematic theology that presents each of the systems of theology in the context of one of the parts of the traditional Christian liturgy. Okholm arrived at his own ecclesiastical context along a winding path from Baptist and Pentecostal, to Presbyterian, and finally to the Anglican church (xi). He currently teaches at Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Theological Seminary and has written widely on theology, apologetics, and spirituality.

Okholm begins by defining both liturgy and theology since the interaction of these is central to his systematic theology. Liturgy is “ophthalmology” in the sense that it teaches the believer to see the world as God intends (Chapter 1), and true theology is studying God with the awareness of his presence—or theology with prayer (Chapter 2). He ties liturgy and theology together thus: Bibliology corresponds to the act of hearing and responding to Scripture in the liturgy (Chapter 3), Theology Proper to the reading of the Apostles’ Creed (Chapter 4), Christology to Christological reflection upon the Creed (Chapter 5), and Creation and Providence to the prayers of the people (Chapter 6). He seems to treat Anthropology and Hamartiology together in relating them to the time of confession (Chapter 7). The Liturgy of the Table, Okholm argues, displays Soteriology in the “absolution” (Chapter 8), Pneumatology in “epiclesis” (Chapter 9), and Ecclesiology in “passing of the peace of Christ” (Chapter 10). Finally, the dismissal rehearses the doctrine of Eschatology (Chapter 12).

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Okholm’s foundational concept of liturgy as “ophthalmology” suggests that church leaders must carefully consider how the activities in their church gatherings shape belief. The structuring of these gatherings should help church members make sense out of life in God’s world. One way he suggests this might be done is through a liturgical calendar that outlines the metanarrative of Scripture (42). Elements of the liturgy that highlight God’s providence over creation shape worshipers’ view of the world as belonging to God (111ff), rehearsing confession and assurance reminds them that they are sinners (127), and a constant return to the work of the cross reminds them that their access to God is through the work of Christ alone (153ff). More than existing to provide an uplifting spiritual experience, weekly services are for shaping and strengthening belief—for correcting spiritual myopia (2–3).

One of Okholm’s strongest points is in relating Bibliology to the Liturgy of the Word (45). Just as the Liturgy of the Word is the umbrella category that includes various aspects of the Christian worship service, so Bibliology is the foundation for the study of Christian theology. If Christian worship consists primarily of hearing and responding to Scripture, worshipers’ understanding of what the Scriptures are will directly impact each of the elements of their worship. If the Bible is the inspired Word of God authoritative for life, they will engage in worship differently than if they believed it to be merely the words of men. Likewise, Bibliology has great influence on the approach to the other doctrines. If worshipers believe Scripture to be the authoritative and complete self-revelation of God, they will base the study of theology primarily on what Scripture says (65–67).

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Perhaps the weakest point in this book is the claim that liturgy has determined the dogma of the church. Though he promises to demonstrate this at the outset (xii), Okholm fails to prove that doctrine has arisen or should arise from liturgy. He expands momentarily on this idea, appealing to the lex orandi lex credendi principle in chapter 2, but this treatment may not be clear enough for the beginning student of theology, who seems to be his target reader (19–22). Furthermore, Okholm fails to caution his readers on the pitfalls inherent to liturgy shaping theology. Liturgy shaping theology should prompt careful reflection as to whether the outcome is faithful to the written Word.

Also, Okholm’s connection between the dismissal and Eschatology seems forced (209ff). Although knowledge of last things should add a sense of urgency to the believer as he leaves the gathering, this sense of urgency should apply to all aspects of the believer’s life. Why not connect Eschatology to the Lord’s Table? We recall the words of Paul that in the celebration of Communion we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26, ESV) A correlation could also be drawn to the liturgy as a whole when the author of Hebrews urges the believers to continue in their confession, relationships, and church attendance “all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb 10:25). Eschatology brings an urgency to the gathering of the church as much as to its dismissal.

Learning Theology through the Church’s Worship is a thought-provoking introduction to systematic theology that would prove useful to seminarians and worship leaders alike. Okholm presents theology in the context of a worshipping community and thereby reminds his readers that the task of theology is not simply academic. Theology determines the structure and content of church gatherings so that in worship the church members “see” theology played out and their faith is strengthened.

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Stephen Lounsbrough

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