Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Worship in Spirit & Truth - Part 1

This post is actually the next installment for my series on the "regulative principle of worship." But since it's all about John 4:24 and it will take me two posts to deal with the phrase "worship in Spirit and truth," I've renamed it accordingly.

A New-Testament-only approach to the regulative principle invariably ends up advocating an overly inward, rationalistic approach to worship. The inward, spiritual, non-material movement of the mind is more important that the movement of the body (tongue or knees or hands) in worship. So anything material detracts from the true “spiritual” worship of the New Testament.

Here's an illustration of this: A long time ago in a church far, far away a seminary professor of mine, after participating in worship at our church, commented to me about how much he appreciated the times of silence in the service. “That was true spiritual worship!” he said. Now, I think times of silence in the worship service are fine, but they are definitely not more “spiritual” than when the congregation is belting out a vigorous hymn or Psalm. In the Bible the adjective “spiritual” means “of the Holy Spirit,” not something non-material or inward or mental as opposed to the material, physical, and outward.

This “spiritualizing” of the regulative principle of worship is the fourth distortion to analyze. It is often justified by a misreading of Jesus’ discussion with the Samaritan woman in John 4. Jesus’ assertion in John 4:24 is often lifted from its context and dangerously misconstrued to function as a warning against all “outward” and “external” liturgical worship. A more literal translation, however, will help us understand what Jesus means by worshiping in “Spirit and truth”:
The [Samaritan] woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our Father’s bowed down [proskuneo] on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to bow down.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will your people bow down to the Father. Your people bow down to what you do not know; we bow down to the one we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming and is now here, when true worshipers will bow down to the Father in Spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to bow down to him. God is Spirit, and those who bow down to him must bow down in Spirit and truth.” (John 4:19-24).
Jesus is not saying that God is non-material, so therefore his worshippers must unite with him by means of their spirits or souls. He is not disparaging the body in worship or advocating some sort of "immaterial" worship, whatever that might be.

The NIV study Bible is quite wrong in its explanatory note: “The place of worship is irrelevant, because true worship must be in keeping with God’s nature, which is spirit.” Jesus is not redirecting genuine worship to inward, sincere worship. This follows from two considerations: 1) the meaning of the word proskuneo, often translated “to worship,” and 2) the redemptive-historical context of Jesus’ remarks.

First, the Greek verb proskuneo (used 9 times in 6 verses in John 4:20-26) means “to bow down,” “to kneel,” or “prostrate oneself.” Even though my translation of this passage is awkward, I have tried to bring out the ritual dimensions of the conversation by consistently translating proskuneo as “bow down.” One must remember the very concrete meaning of proskuneo in the ancient world. Doing “obeisance” means bending your body and placing yourself “under” another. When you proskuneo-ed before someone, you bowed down in their presence, even at their feet.

The English word “worship,” especially as it is used in modern times, is not a very helpful translation. One of the problems with our word “worship” is that it now refers to all sorts of activities, both physical and mental. In fact, a recent fad is to stress that all of life is “worship” and that genuine worship is mental and happens every day and all through the day in our minds and hearts. In some sense this is true, but only in a very loose sense. When used in this sense “worship” denotes a mental disposition.

But this is not the sense in which this word proskuneo or “bowing down” is ordinarily used in the Scriptures. If you want to say that all of life is “bowing down,” that is fine; but this can only be so in a very abstract or metaphorical way. If you are working hard on a painting job, for example, you may, indeed you should mentally give thanks and praise to God while you do so, but . . . you are not bowing down at that time with others in a congregation to offer praise and thanksgiving to God.

The woman and Jesus are not talking about this kind of mental attitude. Jesus is addressing the question of where one should bow down to the Father. It's all about the proper location. Jesus is talking about the ritual act of bowing down or kneeling before God in order to honor him and express one’s proper devotion.

The Samaritan woman asks, in effect, “Where is the place, the location, where we should bow down to God?” We will see how Jesus answers that question in a moment, but for now simply attend to the kind of devotion in question. The activity in view here is what we might call “special” as opposed to “general” devotion. It is special in the sense that it happens at a known location and it involves the people of God in acts of embodied ritual devotion before God. Furthermore, the bowing down in question has to do with corporate or public worship, not private worship.

Bowing down, then, is a kind of synecdoche for everything the people of God do when they gather together in corporate worship. It simply has to be this. Everyone, both Jews and Samaritans knew that one could pray and praise and petition God, one could even get down on one’s knees anytime or place. Individual bowing down was never restricted to the Temple or Jerusalem or in Samaria, to Mt. Gerizim. Individual, private, mental worship had no restrictions in the Old Covenant.

Please, pay careful attention to this point. The big point being made by Jesus in this passage cannot be that now in the New Testament individuals can individually bow down, pray to, or mentally worship God wherever they want. That had always been the case. The controversy here is about where the people of Samaria should gather to bow down in special corporate worship. All special, corporate worship in the Bible is external and bodily and involves the biblical ritual (among others) of kneeling or bowing down.

So what did Jesus mean when he said that the time is coming when people would "bow down in Spirit and truth"? I'll deal with that in the next part.


Pat Sciacca said...

Maybe, I misunderstand where you are going with this, but it seems to me that what Jesus was saying is that since God is Spirit, spirit and truth is what God seeks from man. The physical location of where man worships is now no longer important. For it is not the external gathering to a particular place and saying words of worship, which is mostly all that the Israelites gave to God, but true worship of the heart and mind. In this sense, Jesus was redirecting outward external worship to an inward spiritual worship. For it is in our hearts and mind that we truly worship God, that we truly bow down before Him. Bowing down is not a synecdoche for everything we do when we gather together in corporate worship. Bowing down is metaphorical for the true spirit of humble adoration and reverence of God. Surely, all that we do when we come together for corporate worship should be done out of such a spirit. But we can and we do do that wherever we may be. Not 24 hours a day, but consciously at different times and different places. We bow down before God when we read the Scriptures and when we pray.

I don't think God desires that we physically bow or kneel down before either in private or in public worship, though it doesn't hurt to posture yourself that way to show/remind yourself what our minds should be thinking.

The whole point as to public worship is that no physical act is per se worship, nor is any act more spiritual than another. Material things don't add or subtract from worship. The regulative principle simply seeks to govern which acts are warranted by Scripture to be done in corporate worship.


Jeff Meyers said...

Sorry, Pat. I don't be mean to be blunt; but your view is precisely what I was trying to show Jesus was not talking about. You are not paying attention to exactly what Jesus says. Read my next installment and see if that helps.

Pat Sciacca said...

Sorry, Jeff. But I am not convinced. I think you are presenting a mystical view of Spirit and overemphasizing the nature of the gathering of the church. But first, understand that I am not saying that Jesus was telling us to forget about being with an assembly of believers or to forget about all external acts when doing so. But the point of what Jesus said IS precisely that true worship is of the mind and heart. The question of the Samaritan woman is not where is the Spirit of God that we may go and worship him. Her question is where do we need to go to worship God. The point of Jesus' answer is that worship isn't so much about the place as it is about our minds/hearts. What God desires, as he says in John 4:23, are true worshipers, those that worship Him in spirit and in truth, that is, those who worship him in their minds and according to truth. Jesus did not say that the time was coming when true worshipers could worship God anywhere they decide to gather themselves. That may be an implication, but what Jesus stresses is spirit and truth. What God desires is not worshipers who go to a place or gathering where the Spirit of truth is, for that is anywhere and at any time the Scripture is read, but those whose worship of God is first and foremost in their minds and according to truth. Again,it is not external acts per se that worship God. And certainly not acts according to our own choosing (Samaritans choosing their own place). Thus, in verse 24, the meaning of spirit must match that of verse 23. It is not Spirit with a capital S, referring to the Holy Spirit, but it IS referring to his nature. So also, in "God is light" and "God is love." These propositions tell us about what God is. Your idea of relational being seems like mystical nonsense. God is relational in so far as He reveals Himselt to us by His Word. God is only in/at the place where the church gathers only in so far as His Word is communicated. In this NT era, we have our own Bibles and we can read and God reveals Himself to us. There is no "special" sense in which God is present at the gatherings of the church, except in so far as God uses it bring education to a flock and its member can mutually edify one another. As far as our worshiping God in the church as opposed to in private, the only difference is that it is corporate and public. But God is no more present there than He is with us in private. Again, the main purpose of the gathering of the church is mutual edification. We do not gather together as a church because in some way God will be more present to us to be worshiped.

I think you are simply overstating your case in attacking a spiritualizing interpretation of John 4:24 or a view that says external acts do not worship but only internal ones. In doing so, I believe you have misunderstood/misinterpreted the text. And I believe it swings the pendulum to the other extreme in emphasing the external element in worship and overemphasizing and mysticizing the church in its gathering together. BTW, Luther's statement is wrong. We do no see and hear the Holy Spirit. So also is Althaus'. Christ is not present to us in earthly ways. He is present to us by the Word only.


Jeff Meyers said...

I'd be more inclined to interact with you some more if I knew who you were, Pat. Care to share some details. Your Blogger profile is empty.

Jeff Meyers said...

Crud. I just wrote a longer response to you, Pat. But it got lost in the ether. Arggh.

1. You are ignoring the time references in this passage, Pat. Jesus is talking to the woman about changes that are coming because of his ministry. What was true in the old world (a centralized location for worship, etc.) will no longer be true as a result of Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension. Your interpretation cannot make sense of this.

2. Honestly, I disagree with just about every line of your comment, Pat. I'll just ask one question: have you read my book on worship? I don't mean that to be an arrogant put down. You see, I deal with most of the misconceptions you have about corporate Christian worship in the book.

Again, share some details about your background and context, and I may want to respond a bit more.

Pat Sciacca said...

Jeff, who I am is not relevant. The only thing that matters is whether we properly represent God's mind as indicated from the Scriptures.


Pat Sciacca said...

1) I am not overlooking the time references in the text. I said that a change in the place(s) of worship is implied in the text. But that is not Jesus' emphasis. It is about the KIND of worshipers God seek. The misconception in the Samaritan woman's question is not that the Samaritans are worshiping in the wrong place, though they were, or that she needs to realize that the idea of temple worship in Jerusalem has ended or is about to end. No, her misconception is that God is worshiped in the externals.

2) I can't understand how you can disagree with just about every line of what I wrote. It seems to me be precisely as I've stated it. Maybe you completely misunderstand.

3) I'm not sure I would care to read your book if you have such a misconception of the nature of the gathering of the church and God's presence there.

4)I really can't figure why knowing about me would make you want to respond more. Maybe you wonder if it's worth the effort to try to convince me. Of course, I wonder the same thing about you.


Jeff Meyers said...


You have access to who I am, what I do, my name, my address, my church, etc. But I have no clue if I should even take you seriously or not. Is Pat your real name? Are you just baiting me? I've had way too many anonymous discussions on the net over the years that turn out to be with bogus conversation partners. Sorry.

The reason I disagree with so much of what you have written is because of your categorical statements like God is not "worshipped in the externals." Or "there is no "special" sense in which God is present at the gatherings of the church." You have bought, as they say, hook, line, and sinker, all the popular dichotomies about worship.

Jeff Meyers said...

Tell you what, Pat. I'll post something on God's special presence in worship next. Then I'll do something with the external/internal dichotomy after that. I've been planning to do something more on worship anyway. See if those help.


Pat Sciacca said...

Jeff, I really still don't quite get it. How can you have had conversations with bogus converstion partners? Were they not real people you were communing with? What does it mean to bait you? Why should any of it bother you? But if it makes you feel better, my full name is Patrick Sciacca,Esq. I am a member of an OPC in NH.

As to the categorical statements: First, "God is not worshipped in the externals." I've looked over my comments and I never did say such a thing. I said "it is not external acts per se that worship God." And "no physical act is per se worship." We do worship God by physically bowing down before him, by singing praise to his name,etc., but only in so far as it is true in our mind and according to truth. I did say that the Samaritan was mistaken in thinking that God is worshiped in the externals. What I meant was in/by the external themselves, that is per se.
Second, "there is no "special" sense in which God is present at the gatherings of the church." That one I will hold to. To think otherwise is to view God apart from propositions about God (as if we can speak of God being there in church without Him speaking or apart from any communication of His Word)and to view his relationship and communication to men to be apart from the propositions of Scripture.


Jeff Meyers said...

Thanks for the personal information, Pat. That helps.

But one question: What exactly do you mean by "to think otherwise is to view God apart from propositions about God? I think I agree with your parenthetical qualification. I'm not arguing for any special presence of God apart from his Word or his people. God is specially present with his people and by means of his Word and the Lord's Supper. But I'm not sure what all this talk about propositions is all about. Are you working from the perspective, say, of Gordon Clark?

Stay tuned for a new post.

Wait until my next few posts and see if they help.

Pat Sciacca said...

Jeff, It seemed to me you were advocating a special presence of God over and above His Word. God is present with his people as his people look to His Word. You seemed to suggest that God is specially present where the church gathers, simply because they gather. Then God communicates his Word. God, of course is omnipresent. He is present to us when his Word is before our minds. Again, God is no more present when I read the Word alone or when I hear the word preached in church.

Yes, Gordon Clark. God is his propositions, He is his mind. He is truth itself.