Theopolitan Liturgy | Peter J. Leithart
Leithart, Peter J. Theopolitan Liturgy. West Monroe, LA: Theopolis Books, 2019. 146 pp. $11.95.
In a time when the distractions and depravities of secular culture are bombarding the liturgical life of the Christian church, an intentional shift toward a biblical theology of worship is more important than ever. Peter Leithart, President of the Theopolis Institute and teacher at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, wrote Theopolitan Liturgy to delve into what the Bible says about liturgy and to explore the “analogies among and the intertwinings of three levels of reality: creation, culture, and liturgy” (xii–xiii). Through five thought-provoking chapters, Leithart argues that the church’s liturgy (when shaped by Scripture) is “culture transformed into Kingdom” (xx).
Five overarching themes comprise the chapters of Leithart’s volume: place, dialogue, sacrifice, time, and joy. Through numerous comparisons to Old Testament accounts of the worship practices of ancient Israel, the author surveys how human culture “distorts” these five aspects of creation and how liturgy “corrects, redirects, glorifies, and completes” each of them (xiii). It is important to note from the outset that Leithart has clearly written this book from the transformationalist point of view. In the volume’s preface (and continually throughout the book), Leithart reveals his presuppositions about the church’s role in society. He emphatically states that when liturgies meet the biblical standard, the inevitable result is the consecration and transformation of culture: “the liturgy is culture being Christianized” (xix).
The author’s discussion of place begins in the Garden of Eden. He professes that God’s intent for creating the world was to establish a liturgical space that would be filled with “joyous eternal worship” (3). The Garden was to be a “sanctuary for God’s image” and a dwelling place for his presence (4). Just as God’s creation begins as worship space in the book of Genesis, it also ends in a worship space in the book of Revelation, with a “shout” and “radiating waves of praise” surrounding the Lamb of God (7). Because the biblical narrative begins and ends with sacred space, Leithart asserts that “man’s purpose is to transform creation into sanctuary” (14).
In the second chapter, Leithart begins his discussion of dialogue by noting that one of the first things that Scripture reveals about God is that he speaks. His first words “let there be light” enable a response from creation. In the same way that God “initiates the liturgy of history” by his spoken word, the grand liturgy will end with a pronouncement of his final word of judgment. The whole of human history “is suspended between God’s first and final word” (28–29). Leithart also points to a “redemption” of dialogue that occurs within liturgy as language is “Christianized, infused, and corrected by the Scriptures” (39).
The strengths of this book are found in the statements that are fully consistent with Scripture. Leithart writes that God’s character is reflected in what he has spoken; his words are altogether true, authoritative, powerful, and accomplish exactly what he intends: “when he makes a promise, we should trust it. When he says something is true, we should believe it. When he commands, we should obey . . . everything in our lives is shaped by how we answer his words” (27). When speaking of the actions and content of liturgy, Leithart effectively notes the significance of thanking God for his Word during corporate worship. In many church traditions, after a passage of Scripture is read aloud, the reader will say “The Word of the Lord,” to which the congregation responds in unison with the words “Thanks be to God.” Leithart rightly observes that “no matter what word he speaks, no matter how shattering or startling, the liturgy trains the church to say, ‘Thank you.’ It’s more than etiquette. It’s a confession of faith” (44).
Although such statements are true and useful, the book also contains a number of esoteric passages that are superfluous and do not always align with Scripture. Throughout the narrative of the book, the author’s words often wax strangely mystical, as seen in the following passage: “The God who creates the universe as a cosmic temple is himself an eternal divine temple. God is a dwelling for God. . . . God is our liturgical space. . . . He is redeemed space, the one safe place in a world of displacement” (20–21). Although Leithart’s text is filled with Scripture references and symbolism, extraneous embellishments such as these read as theological stream of consciousness and greatly distract from his biblically faithful observations.
Another example of theological haphazardness occurs in the preface, in which the author states that the church’s liturgy, and even the Bible, are “incomplete” without culture: “Studied in private, the Bible doesn’t do its temple-building work. The Bible can’t be all it’s supposed to be outside the liturgy” (xiv–xv). Such a statement is inconsistent with the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture and elevates liturgy to an almost idolatrous state. The Word of God stands eternally complete, entirely unaffected by the action or inaction of human beings. As Psalm 19:7 reveals, “the law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.” The Apostle Paul instructs in 2 Timothy 3:16–17 that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
Despite the unusual tangents taken by Leithart, he does make other statements of value throughout the book. When describing the church’s worship, Leithart declares that the forms of liturgy “are acceptable only if they conform to God’s word” (71). Regarding time, he states that when the church conforms to the rhythms of the world, “she becomes worldly at a fundamental level” (99). In his discussion of joy, Leithart rightly notes that it is God who “always initiates worship” in the church (112).
Leithart’s thesis that liturgy is “culture transformed into Kingdom” is a discussion well suited for seminary and university classrooms. While Leithart brings many interesting points to consider, the nature of the church’s liturgy is best understood and developed through the biblical commission to make disciples—to form worshipers.
Holly M. Farrow