Trinitarian Worship & Confession

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi


by Jeffrey J. Meyers


[This paper was originally presented by Pastor Meyers at the Connecticut Valley Conference on Reformed Theology on March 15, 1997.  The theme of the conference was “Why the Trinity Matters.”]


In his lecture last evening Dr. Toon asked why it was that the American Evangelical Church is not more trinitarian in her confession and teaching?  That is a good question.  How can this be, when, as we have seen at this conference, the Bible itself is wholly trinitarian in content and shape?  This afternoon I hope to provide a partial answer to this question.  Why has the confession and exposition of the trinitarian nature of God played such an insignificant role in American Evangelical theology?  That question can only be answered by examining the connection between the corporate life of the church in worship and her doctrinal confession. 

In Jaroslav Pelikan’s delightful dictionary, The Melody of Theology, he cites this “shocking” passage from an appendix to Adolf von Harnack’s History of Dogma: “the history of dogma in the first three centuries is not mirrored in the liturgy, as far as we know it, nor is the liturgy a clearly emerging basis of the dogmatics.”  Harnack misses something essential here, according to Pelikan.  Harnack’s bold assertion, Pelikan insists, “needs to be offset by a far greater recognition of the role that liturgy and the lex orandi of Christian worship have played in the development of doctrine as the lex credendi[1]

Harnack’s one-sidedness is very typical of a kind modern theological intellectualism that fails to see the complex nexus between the life of the church and the confession of the church, between liturgy and dogma, worship and doctrine.  Not just any old connection, but a particular kind of connection.  Pelikan refers to the common Latin theological tag lex orandi, lex credendi .  Lex means law or rule.  Orandi is prayer.[2]  Ora et Labora (“pray and work”).  Ora pro nobis (“pray for me”).  Here the Lex orandi, the rule of prayer, refers to the corporate, liturgical prayer of the church in worship.  Lex credendi means “rule of belief” or “confession.”  You can hear the word credo (“I believe”) in this Latin word credendi.  In its most general sense, then, Lex orandi, lex credendi means “the rule of prayer influences the rule of belief.” 

Reformed Presbyterians may not be familiar with how this slogan is used in liturgical theology.  We typically reverse the common order to lex credendi, lex orandi.  If Reformed Protestants are going to accept the slogan, then this is the way we will usually interpret it.  On this interpretation doctrine is normative for worship in that what the church believes ought to determine the content and practice of worship; that is, biblical, systematic, and historical theologians ought to be self-consciously engaged in determining the doctrinally correct form and content of worship.  The lex credendi of the church must be used to establish the lex orandi of its worship.  A practice or prayer that violates biblically-derived doctrines or established creeds may not be allowed.  This much at least is sloganized in the famous “regulative principle” of Reformed worship.  Doctrine ought not to be derived from liturgy; rather, liturgy must be built upon sound doctrine.  Calvin articulates this particular link between doctrine and worship in his On the Necessity of Reforming the Church:


There is nothing to which all men should pay more attention, nothing in which God wishes us to exhibit a more intense eagerness than in endeavoring that the glory of his Name may remain undiminished, his kingdom be advanced, and the pure doctrine, which alone can guide us to true worship, flourish in full strength.[3]


Luther expresses something like this in his admonition to the clergy of Lubeck in 1530: "Do not begin with innovations in rites. . . Put first and foremost what is fundamental in our teaching. . . Reform of impious rites will come of itself when what is fundamental in our doctrine has been effectively presented and has taken root in our pious hearts.”[4] Luther’s formulation, however, hints at a more subtle sense in which the lex credendi influences the lex orandi of worship.  Here we might speak of the inevitable influence that the doctrinal presuppositions of any given Christian community will exercise upon their practice of worship.  Such beliefs may not even be recognized or actively applied to liturgical matters by theologians and pastors, but they will inescapably “influence” the form and content of the community’s lex orandi.  There are, no doubt, aspects of the lex orandi which worshipers, pastors, and even theologians might not even notice as members of a certain worshipping community, but which later generations will pick out as originating in some deep-seated, not always verbalized, doctrinal presuppositions shared by the entire community. 

An historical example might be the way baptismal liturgies & prayers were gradually transformed under the influence of the new Reformation doctrinal commitments.[5]  The rite of the Lord’s supper developed similarly, according to the various doctrinal commitments in each Reformation community.  Thus, there would appear to be a behind-the-scenes “influence” that the lex credendi of any particular community has upon its worship, and this often without the community itself even recognizing such an operation at work.  Why, for example, does the modern Evangelical church refuse to practice the Lord’s supper weekly?  If this intimate nexus between doctrine and liturgy exists, then the question is: what doctrinal presuppositions fuel such a departure from the historic practice?  In other words, what do we believe about the Lord’s Supper that has caused us to marginalize its practice in the life of the worshipping church?  You see, a church inevitably embodies in it’s corporate worship, in its manner of prayer, what it believers.  Lex credendi influences lex orandi.  I believe that this constitutes a fruitful area for theological research, but it is not exactly the question which I want to pursue in this lecture. 

That, then, is the way Protestants typically understand the relationship between worship and prayer, liturgy and doctrine.  Doctrine must and does influence liturgy.  But this is not the precise relationship that the phrase was originally intended to describe.  Protestants have transposed the direction of influence.  Historically the slogan has been understood to mean that the rule of prayer is an appropriate norm for or inevitable source of the church’s doctrinal confession.  From lex orandi to lex credendi.  Liturgy functions as a norm or source in the development of Christian dogma.  For Roman Catholics the slogan functions as a kind of “liturgical regulative principle” for dogmatic development--the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi enables them to appeal to past liturgical practice to justify a particular doctrinal development.  For example, both the Roman dogmas of the immaculate conception (promulgated by Pius X in 1854) and the assumption of Mary (1950), although formulated and defined as church dogma late in Christian history, are said to have been present in seed form in the early liturgical practice and prayers of Church in accordance with the rule “law of prayer is the law of belief.”  The lex orandi, lex credendi principle, therefore, authorizes the Magisterium of the church to formulate dogma based on the liturgical tradition of the church.  This is how the formula has been used by the Roman Catholic church—in this procedural way, justifying the derivation of doctrine from the liturgical life of the church.

Of course, Reformation Christians have trouble with this understanding.  We deny that the lex orandi of the Christian community ought to be used as an authoritative source for the lex credendi of the church, that the liturgy ought to function as a normative fountainhead for doctrinal formulations.  On this understanding, liturgical tradition operates as an authority, occupying a special, if not equivalent position alongside the Bible as a source for doctrinal definitions.

Once again, however, there is a more subtle sense in which lex orandi, lex credendi might be affirmed by Reformation Christians.  Unfortunately, the overreaction of many Protestants to the Roman Catholic understanding often clouds some very fruitful investigations into the influence of liturgy upon theology.  Here we ought to recognize that the lex orandi will inevitably influence the development of church’s lex credendi.  We might call this the hidden or secret influence interpretation.  Here’s how it works.  The way a community of faith worships will inexorably, though not always obviously and almost never immediately, affect the content of the worshipping community’s confession of the faith.  What I mean by “hidden” is that the lines of influence may not always be clear enough for a contemporary member of the community to say, “Ah, yes, one day we will believe such-and-such because we are in the habit of praying or worshipping in such-and-such a manner.”  The lines of influence remain “hidden” until the doctrinal implications make their appearance in the form of public teaching and confession.

Furthermore, it may be easier for us to do a historical study of the influence of the lex orandi on the developing lex credendi of the church than for us to understand how contemporary changes in a church’s liturgy will effect the emerging lex credendi of the future.    The reason I put “hidden” in parenthesis is that what is hidden from one generation is often only too clear to the next which has to live with the doctrinal effects of the worship of their forefathers, whether advantageous or deleterious.  So Prosper of Aquitane, in the early fifth century, defended the Augustinian doctrine of sin and grace against the Pelagians by appealing to the lex orandi of the undivided church.  Augustine and his disciple Prosper both appeal to the form and content of the traditional baptismal liturgies to bolster the Scriptural argument against the Pelagian contention that children are born into the world without original sin.  Look, Augustine says in effect, the way we have always baptized babies proves that the universal church has always understood that infants stand in need of the forgiveness of sins.[6]  Prosper couldn’t appeal to any ecumenical counciliar or creedal formulations, since the councils of Nicea, Constantinople, or Ephesus never dealt directly with these questions.   Prosper appealed to the existing liturgical customs and practices, particularly the prayers, to prove the antiquity of Augustine’s views.  This is how the church has always prayed (lex orandi), Prosper argued, therefore, the doctrinal formulations (lex credendi) of Augustine should not surprise anyone as novel.  Augustine’s doctrine is just the creedal, confessional flowering of our church’s traditional way of prayer and worship.  Prosper’s comment, legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi (“let the law of prayer establish the law of belief”) is the source of the formula that we have been discussing.[7] 

We might say the same thing about the trinitarian creedal formulations of Athanasius, the Cappadocians, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, and Apostles’ Creed.  These doctrinal formulations developed in the context and with the full support of the church’s worship.  The doctrine of the Trinity was first a way of worshipping and praying to the true God in Christ by the Spirit.  The passages in the New Testament that distinguish most clearly between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are those that deal with the worship of the church, prayer, the Lord’s Supper, & Baptism.  When Paul writes about prayer, he reflects upon the manner in which Christ and the Holy Spirit enable us to approach the Father.  It is through Christ that we have access by one Spirit to the Father (Eph. 2:18).  “And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, "Abba, Father!" (Gal. 4:6).  Only by the Holy Spirit are we given access through the Son to the Father’s presence.  These passages describe our doxological approach to God in prayer (lex ordandi).  Out of this dynamic trinitarian langauge of worship and prayer the dogmatic confession of the doctrine of the Trinity eventually emerges.

You see, the causal connections may be hidden to a contemporary observer, but the fact that liturgy influences belief is true, regardless of whether one can ascertain the precise way in which the process proceeds.  Here we would insist with Pelikan, contra Harnack, that the liturgy often is an emerging basis for Church dogma, a powerful force in the life of the Church’s dogmatic development, and one that must be carefully considered. 

A question might arise at this point. Does the Bible support this particular understanding of the relationship between worship and doctrine?  Rather than cite a list of proof texts that might support this dynamic connection, we shall examine one passage in the Gospel of Mark that makes it clear just how potent ritual can be in doctrinal development, for better or for worse.  In Mark 7 the Pharisees and Scribes of the law interrogate Jesus: “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?” (vs. 5).  They were right to confront Jesus since he was their leader.  The disciples were doing what Jesus had taught them.  Not only did Jesus himself ignore the religious practices of the Pharisees and Scribes, but he displayed outright contempt for the whole structure of their oral tradition.  Public contempt.  Open defiance.  Jesus and his disciples publically flouted the rituals and ceremonies that they considered so essential.  Why?  What could it hurt to follow these traditional washing rituals that had developed over the years?  Jesus answers the Pharisees and Scribes’ question with what is in effect a two-part answer.  First, citing Isaiah 29:13 he argues that they have elevated their own traditions to the level of the commandments of God.  By elevating these extra-biblical rituals, they have managed to excuse themselves and others from the genuine requirements of the law of God (Mk. 7:6-13). 

The second part of Jesus’ answer is extremely relevant to our current investigation.  It’s not merely that people are led to despise and break the commandments of God. That certainly is bad enough.  There is more!  Jesus calls the multitude together and says to them: “When He had called all the multitude to Himself, He said to them, ‘Hear Me, everyone, and understand: There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man’” (Mk. 7:14-15).  Why does Jesus now begin to talk about what “goes into” a man?  Remember the whole episode began as a controversy over how to eat bread, not over the laws of clean and unclean meats (Leviticus 11).[8]  Where would anyone get the idea that what “goes into man” makes him unclean?  The answer is: these Pharisaical rituals led people to believe that man’s problem is what comes from outside of him into him.  Jesus explains how the oppressive oral law rituals requiring scrupulous and continuous washing before eating had a very dangerous effect on the way people thought about man and sin and ultimately salvation.  Rituals eventually influence what one believes.  Over time how one worships, the ceremonies one performs, will determine what one believes!  This is the principle lex orandi, lex credendi. 

Now this principle can work for good or it can work for evil.  When one worships according to God’s prescription, then God’s rituals will cultivate a true understanding of the relationship between God and man.  If one carefully followed the Old Testament laws of ritual cleanness and meditated on them day and night, one would never arrive at an environmental understanding of man’s predicament.  When Jesus proclaimed, “What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders. . .” (Mk 7:20-21), he was not promulgating some new doctrine. Rather, he was only unpacking the doctrinal significance of the divinely prescribed rituals of Leviticus, which dealt with unclearness arising from all sorts of skin eruptions and emissions. 

But now, what happens when the rituals that God has established are replaced with man-made rituals.  What effect will they have on the what the worshipper believes and confesses?  Well, that’s always hard to say beforehand.  Introducing new rituals into the worshiping community is always a dangerous gamble.  You don’t know what the effect might be in the future on the confession of the people.  But we can look back and learn our lesson: the laws that were spun out of the brains of the religious leaders of Israel, that had no grounding in the law of God, these led to dangerous doctrinal misunderstandings—misconceptions that touched on the the conception of man’s fundamental problem before God.  Jesus here is trying to expose doctrinal error which has infected the Jewish church because of the introduction of these oral law rituals about washing and cleansing. 

There is, therefore, I would argue, a much more profound interplay between worship and doctrine than most Reformed Protestants are ready to admit.  Neither is the interplay as one-sided as most Reformed scholars would have us believe.  Without denying for one moment the importance of the normative influence of doctrine upon worship, it must be insisted that the relationship is more like a two-way street, the movement from the current lex orandi of the worshipping community to the future lex credendi of the believing community may not be as visible and quantifiable as the opposite movement, but we ignore it at our own peril.

Carlos M. N. Eire argues that it is part of the genius of Reformed theology to affirm what Harnack denied-- precisely the profound, complex connection between worship and doctrine that we have been discussing.  “Religion is not merely a set of doctrines, but rather a way of worshipping, and a way of living.  ‘True Piety begets true confession.’   This is enormously significant.  One may even argue that it becomes the fundamental defining characteristic of Calvinism.”[9]  True Piety begets true confession.  Eire is quoting Calvin![10]  What is this but lex orandi begets lex credendi?  And Eire says that this becomes a defining characteristic of Calvinism”!  Well, if this part of the genius of Reformed theology, the “fundamental defining characteristic” of Calvinism, I think someone ought to tell the contemporary American Reformed Presbyterian church and especially the seminaries!  Concerning disputes about the form and content of the liturgy, Calvin astonishes us with an affirmation of the vital, intimate connection between the church’s worship and confession: “For it is not true that we dispute about a worthless shadow.  The whole substance of the Christian religion is brought into question.”[11] (On the Necessity of Reforming the Church).  Why then do our Reformed seminaries ignore liturgical theology?  While Reformed seminarians are busying their brains with Berkof, the seeds of the destruction of our distinctive doctrinal commitments are being sown in our churches every Sunday as our people are blown to and fro by every wind of liturgical fad. 

The conference committee members are all looking at each other right now wondering why they invited this guy.  Maybe if he had his doctorate he’d have been able to read the conference brochure and figure out that this was a conference on the doctrine of the Trinity.  So what does all of this have to do with the Trinity, you ask?  Well, that’s a fair question.  First, let me tell you a story that will ground what I am saying in the day-to-day world of the local parish.

Once one of my parishioners approached me inquiring about the Trinity.  One of his work-mates was a member of a nominally Christian sect which denied the dogma of the Trinity.  My parishioner was genuinely surprised that his friend was so adamantly anti-trinitarian in his opinions.  Now, you have to understand something about my parishioner.  He had been a member of our church for less than a year.  Before joining with us he was a member of a typical, American independent church for over 15 years.  He and his wife came to me after they were married looking for the proverbial middle road between Catholicism and Independency.  They were both professing believers.  She had become a believer in his old church, but she could not stomach the “free church” worship on Sundays.  That’s the background.

As I said, this man came to me one day asking about the Trinity.  He said, “You know, Pastor, I’ve noticed since I’ve been here how much this church emphasizes the Trinity.  Why is that?”

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  Here’s a pastor that is a graduate student in systematics looking forward to a dissertation on the Trinity.  He’s probably always preaching and teaching on the Trinity.  But I’m not, I promise you.  I have preached only two sermons on the Trinity in the past three years.  Seriously.  No sermon series.  No extended Sunday classes either.  So when this man said to me, “Why does this church emphasize the Trinity so much,” I was a little surprised. 

“What do you mean?” I asked.  “We don’t use the word “Trinity” all that much do we?”

He said, “No, no, that’s not it.  It seems like the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit always show up in our prayers, creeds, and hymns.  I’m not used to that.  I don’t really understand it.  Why is that so important?  In my old church we never recited the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed.  I never even heard of these creeds until I began to worship here.  We never sang the hymns that you sing here either.  So many of them have the Trinity in them.  We never sang the Doxology or the Gloria Patri or the Te Deum.  We never prayed in unison using printed prayers.  Most of our prayers were offered up informally by those who were so moved.  They were not carefully composed.  We prayed in Jesus name, but, to my knowledge, no one ever ended a prayer with. . . what is it?”

I said, “You mean praying to the Father ‘through Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end.  Amen’?”

“Yeah, that’s it!”

The upshot of all of this is that this man had always thought that the Trinity was a doctrine that served primarily to mark the line that divides Christianity and the cults, but he never quite understood the significance of the doctrine beyond that for his life and worship.  Unfortunately, I think that this is how the doctrine of the Trinity functions too often at the popular level —it is little more than boundary marker against error and heresy.  If that!  Dorothy Sayers suggests that the average church-goer’s conception of the doctrine of the Trinity is more like a parody of the Athanasian Creed: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the whole thing incomprehensible.  Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult--nothing to do with daily life or ethics.”[12]  Timothy Lull wrote recently that the Trinity should be subtitled “the guilt producing doctrine” because we cannot quite muster the theological enthusiasm of the ancient Athanasian Creed.[13]  I think the reason this is the case is because the way we worship, the way we pray, the order and content of our liturgy--these are not adequately shaped by our trinitarian convictions.  Our lex orandi does not sufficiently reflect our lex credendi.

Like so many American Evangelicals, this man had no appreciation for the doctrine of the Trinity because he was not accustomed to worshipping the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit--at least not explicitly and formally.  His lex credendi was deficient because of his lex orandi was deficient, the rule of prayer influenced his habits of mind.  I’m not suggesting that he didn’t in fact worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in his free church tradition.  Rather, I am proposing that he didn’t worship the Triune God explicitly and liturgically.  The corporate worship of his old church did not structure his mind and heart so as to understand what he was doing on the Lord’s Day.  Consequently, his confession of God was inadequate and dangerously skewed towards Unitarianism.  Lex orandi, lex credendi.

If only Reformed pastors and scholars could begin to study such “enormously significant” connections, we could then also begin to follow the example of Augustine's liturgical program in Hippo, which Peter Brown summarizes as, “removing habits that give rise to false opinions.”[14]  Isn’t it reasonable to assume that the routines of life and liturgy will naturally affect the routines of the mind?   That the way we now worship, the way we pray, the way we approach God in corporate worship in our churches will determine what our spiritual grandchildren one day will believe, teach, and confess?  Shouldn’t the way we worship and pray as a corporate body be inculcating habits the give rise to orthodox convictions?  Shouldn’t the lex orandi of the church be more thoroughly trinitarian in it’s content and shape?

This is my burden in this lecture.  I am deeply concerned that contemporary Evangelical and Reformed churches are in danger of losing the rich trinitarian life and structure of the church in corporate worship.  I fear that the Trinity is being marginalized in the corporate, Lord’s day worship of our churches.  What difference would it make in your church if the doctrine, the confession of the Trinity were to disappear?  Would anybody even notice that it happened?  What difference would it make in the liturgy, the content and manner by which the assembled church approaches God? 

What we do on the Lord’s Day in God’s presence defines who we are.  We are most authentically the Church when we gather around Word, the Table, and ordained minister on the Lord’s Day in corporate worship.  St. Paul makes an extremely significant remark in 1 Corinthians 11 in his rebuke to the Corinthian church.  He says, “In the following directives I have no praise for you, since you come together not for the better, but for the worse.  In the first place, I hear that when you come together as the church, there are divisions among you. . . . When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat. . .” (1 Cor. 11:17-21).  Paul is concerned that their “coming together as the church” manifest what they truly are and believe.  The church gathered for worship will reveal in her words and actions what she really is and believes.  Philip Butin reminds that this was Calvin’s understanding:  “The Worship of the visible Church, theologically speaking, is pivotal in the divine-human relationship for Calvin. This is because it is the event in which the visible community of believers. . . is most authentically the church.”[15]  In 1989, the British Council of Church’s published the results of a study commission on the Trinity.  It’s called The Forgotten Trinity.  The work begins with the corporate worship of the church.  “It is in our worship that most of us become aware of the doctrine of the Trinity”[16]

The Trinity is not primarily a doctrine about which we think, reflect, dispute, and write scholarly monographs.  All of these activities are important and have their place.  They are all ways in which faith seeks understanding, according Anselm’s memorable tag: fides quaerens intellectum.  Nevertheless, foundational to all of our second-level discourse about the doctrine of the Trinity is our faith, our trust (our credo) in the Triune God, our praising his name, our speech to him.  True Christian worship can only be offered to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  More specifically, true worship is offered to the Father, through the Son, in or by the Holy Spirit.  Anything else is sub-Christian at best.  We first hear the Triune God talking to us and so we learn to talk TO the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, only THEN do we begin to learn to talk ABOUT them.

Think about how we begin our Christian life among the assembled people of God when we are named and claimed by the Triune God at the baptismal font.  The Father adopts us in his one and only Son by means of the washing of regeneration, giving us a new life in his redeemed family.  We then gather together weekly as the Spirit-anointed royal priests and we are enabled to boldly approach the Father through the Son and experience the closest possible communion with the Triune God!   The Spirit of God makes the preaching of the Word of God an effectual means of leading the people through the Son to the Father.  The Father then invites his children to partake of the richness of his grace at the Table, where, first, we give thanks to the Father in the Spirit for the gift of his Son, and then through the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit we are made partakers of the life-giving flesh and blood of his Son.  And this is just a rudimentary outline of the rich trinitarian experience of the church in worship.  Truly everything the church does in corporate worship has a trinitarian shape and content.

Moreover, the church’s worship is not merely a performance coram deo[17] or even coram Trinitate.  Corporate worship is even richer than we suppose and our marginalization of the Trinity’s significance for worship has greatly impoverished our conception of the work (liturgy) of worship.  Worship is not merely something we do for God or to God or in God’s presence.  Worship is something God does for us in the Person of Christ through the power of the Spirit.  Worship is not primarily our act, but foundationally the gift of God.  Our English word for worship does not include this idea like the German term Gottesdienst does.  The word Gottesdienst is gloriously ambiguous. It means “the service of God”  Well, does this mean the service of man to God or the service of God to man?  Is it an objective or subjective genitive?  Yes.  First, God serves us in worship. God gathers us together and ministers to us, drawing us into his inner life of love and fellowship.  In this way, secondly, we serve him.

Furthermore, this service of God in our behalf has a very definite trinitarian shape to it. God’s service to us is to graciously draw us into the presence the Father in Spiritual union with the God-man Jesus Christ.  The man Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and man.  He is the priest.  He offers himself as man before the Father and he does so as the Representative Man, the High Priest of Redeemed humanity.  John Thompson says it well: “Jesus Christ is thus the one true worshiper. . . By the Holy Spirit we are drawn into the worship and response Christ offers to the Father.  Ours is a response to a response. The Spirit enables this and so gives what he demands, the worship of our hearts and lives.”[18]  So that worship or Gottesdienst is not foundationally what WE DO.  Rather what we are graciously given to do in Christ.  Worship is the service of the Triune God to the congregation. 

James B. Torrance is right I believe when he says that there is something grotesquely Unitarian, even Pelagian, about the popular view of worship in Evangelicalism.[19]  And, sadly, this is more and more the case in Reformed churches as well.  God is at a distance and we come and do all kinds of things before him to please him.  This is paganism.  There is a real sense it which genuine Christian worship is not merely coram Deo or Coram Trinitate or even ad Deum or ad Trinitatem, but in Trinitate.  (The Latin preposition “in” here should be understood in the richest possible sense to include both the instrumental [“by means of”] as well as the spatial sense of “in”). 

A trinitarian conception of worship, therefore, recognizes the two movements of God: 1) God to humanity--from the Father, through the Son by the Spirit to redeem man; and 2) humanity to God--in reverse direction--by the Spirit through the Son to the Father.  Consider Jonathan Edwards’ profound explanation for creation:  “The end, the ultimate end of the creation of God was to provide a spouse for His Son, Jesus Christ, that might enjoy Him, and on whom He might pour forth His love.  Heaven and earth were created in order that the Son of God might communicate His love to His spouse and bring that bride into the very family life of the Trinity.”  That’s a marvelous statement.  Edwards again: “There was, as it were, an eternal society or family in the Godhead, in the Trinity of persons.  It seems to be God’s design to admit the church into the divine family as his Son’s wife.”[20]  Our humanity has been drawn up into the very life of the Triune God.  And by the Spirit we are graciously granted communion with the Son who presents us to the Father.  The doctrine of the Trinity arose not only from the Scripture’s objective witness to the truth, but it also arose from the church’s participation in the life of God, a participation granted by the Spirit through the Son.  We become members of the Triune family!

Now, I ask you, where are these trinitarian realities embodied in the worship, the lex orandi of our churches?  Where is the evidence in our churches of the reality that the congregation on the Lord’s Day is being led by the Spirit through the Son into the Father’s presence?  Is anybody even aware that it is happening? 

Are our prayers consistent with this reality, both in form and content?  Do we pray to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit?  Do we make this explicit and routine so that the congregation can be trained in orthodox habits of prayer that will endure?  Does the order of our approach to God (the sequential order in our liturgy) consistent with the Triune God’s service to us?   

What about the hymns and songs we sing?  Are they explicitly trinitarian as corporate sung prayers of petition and praise?  The Reformers, especially Luther, were sensitive to this.  Originally for children, Luther’s hymn “Lord, Keep us steadfast in thy Word, “ is a particularly good trinitarian prayer:


1. Lord, keep us steadfast in thy Word

            And curb the Turks’ and papists’ sword

            Who Jesus Christ thine only Son

            Fain would tumble from off thy throne.

2.  Proof of thy might, Lord Christ, afford,

            For thou of all the lords are Lord;

            thine own poor Christendom defend

            That it may praise thee without end.

3.  God Holy Ghost, who comfort art,

            Give to they folk on earth one heart; 

            Stand by us breathing our last breath,

            Lead us to life straight out of death.[21]


What about the ecumenical Creeds?  What has happened to them?  Do we recite these Creeds in corporate worship?  Some Reformed theologians have criticized the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds.  The most notable and referenced critic of the Apostles’ Creed in our circles is the Scottish Presbyterian theologian William Cunningham.  After a string of criticisms, his conclusion is that “the Apostles’ Creed, as it is called, is not entitled to much respect, and is not fitted to be of much use, as a summary of the leading doctrines of Christianity.”[22]  His fundamental objection to this creed is that it says nothing about “justification by faith.”  This is a very weighty objection, but it arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of the language and purpose of these creeds.  These creeds are not designed primarily to be a list of doctrines to which Christians give their assent.  The Apostles’ Creed is not primarily a list of ideas that we give subscribe to, rather it is a public, personal confession of our trust in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, acknowledging God’s work of creation, redemption, and sanctification for us.   When you recite these creeds you are not saying something like, “I hold this opinion on this subject” or “I think that these ideas and concepts are true.”  Not exactly.  Some confessions and catechisms provide for this kind of thing.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism is filled with abstract definitions of doctrinal terms: Q. What is justification?  A. Justification is . . .  There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it’s not how the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed have been written.

The first two words of these creeds are often dangerously misunderstood.  These creeds begin with the words “I believe.”  Unfortunately, in the minds of many Christians this assertion is basically equivalent to “I think” or “I am of the opinion.”  Nothing could be more erroneous.  The word “creed” comes from the Latin verb credo—the first word in the Latin creeds.  The Greek translation of the creeds uses the word pisteuo, which is precisely the word that is used for “faith” in the New Testament (John 3:16, 36; Rom. 10:10).   When you say, “I believe [credo, pisteuo] in God the Father Almighty,” you are not stating an opinion or even assenting to a doctrine; rather, you are confessing your personal trust, your faith in the Father Almighty.  “I believe [credo, pisteuo]” is exactly equivalent to the language of personal trust used in the New Testament: “I believe in” or “I place my faith in” or “I trust in”  (“Believe [pistueo] on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household,” Acts 16:31). 

No one is justified merely because he assents to the Reformation doctrine of justification.  Unfortunately, many people even in our own churches are convinced that they are justified merely because they believe the doctrine of salvation by grace alone.  Don’t make that mistake.  Only those who place their faith and trust in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can know that they are justified.  The creeds provide opportunities to verbalize one’s faith and trust in the God who justifies us in Christ Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit.  There is no doctrine of justification by faith articulated in the creeds because the creeds express the faith of justified sinners!  Credere in Deum or better Credere in Trinitatem constitutes the very life of the church coram deo or coram Trinitate.  In response to the Father’s beneficent creating, the Son’s incarnation, and the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification, the church speaks: Credo.  I believe.  I place my faith in.  I trust in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

 Confessing the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed at the beginning of the worship service reminds us that we are gathered together, in opposition to the world, as those who trust in the one true God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  If these creeds really are personal confessions of faith and trust, if they really do embody the core biblical teachings about God and his work, then you and I ought to recite these creeds wholeheartedly and energetically.  When the pastor calls to the congregation, “Christians, what do you believe?” or better “Christians, in whom do you trust?” you should respond with a vigorous, loud recitation of the creed.  Faithfulness to the true and living God is a life-long calling. The challenge of remaining loyal to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit engages the church as her most arduous and adventurous task.

We could, indeed, we should go through the entire lex orandi of the contemporary Reformed church and think through it liturgical practice at every level.  This needs to be done.  The rite of baptism, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the trinitarian form of order and authority—all of these and more ought to be subjected to a thorough-going trinitarian critique by Reformed liturgists.  By now I hope the point is sufficiently clear.  We began by noting the apparent lack of concern for the Trinity in contemporary American Evangelical Christianity.  What’s the solution to this problem?  How do we rejuvenate the trinitarian lex credendi of the church?  Write more books and articles?  Deliver more lectures and write more scholarly monographs?  Or, God forbid!, form a committee to study the matter?  No.  The only lasting solution lies in restoring the trinitarian lex orandi of the worshipping Church.

In his work on the Trinity, The God of Jesus Christ, Walter Kasper says, “The only answer to the modern God-question and to the situation of modern atheism is the God of Jesus Christ and the trinitarian confession, which must be brought out of it’s present existential obscurity and turned into a grammar for theology as a whole.”  Permit me to transform that quotation just a little and unpack that adjective “existential”:  “The only answer to the modern God-question and to the situation of modern atheism is the God of Jesus Christ and the trinitarian confession, which must be brought out of it’s present liturgical and creedal obscurity in American Evangelicalism and turned into a grammar for worship and church life as a whole.”[23]


Almighty and everlasting God,
You have given us your servants grace
by the confession of a true faith
to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity,
and in the power of the divine Majesty
to worship the unity.
Keep us steadfast in this faith,
that we may evermore by defended from all adversaries:
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.  Amen.  (The Book of Common Prayer



[1]Jaroslav Pelikan, Melody of Theology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 113.

[2] Compare: Ora et labora (“pray and work”); ora pro nobis (“pray for us”).

[3]Quoted in Carlos M. N. Eire, War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 199.

[4]D. Martin Luthers Werke: Briefwechsel (Weimar, 1930-1970), vol. 5, pp. 220-21.

[5]See Hughes Oliphant Old, The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992).

[6]Augustine, “On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and on the Baptism of Infants,” in Philip Schaff, ed., Saint Augustine: Anti-Pelagian Writings, trans. Peter Holmes and Robert Ernest Wallis, vol 5 of A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church  (1887; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971).  Of course, what Augustine is doing here is interpreting the ancient lex orandi of the church.  To Augustine, the lex credendi implied in the lex orandi seems transparent enough.  The fact that the sacrament of remission of sins has been applied to infants necessarily implies that they have something to be forgiven; and since they have committed no personal sin, it must be for the guilt of original sin that they are washed in the laver of regeneration.  Augustine argues that Pelagius knows full well that his position is a novelty asserted against “the ancient ingrafted opinion of the church.”

[7]See Prosper’s Official Pronouncements of the Apostolic See on Divine Grace and Free Will, in Prosper of Auquitatine: Defense of St. Augustine, trans. P. De Letter, vol. 32 of the Ancient Christian Writers (New York: Newman Press, 1963), pp. 183, 234.

[8] For a discussion of how the laws concerning the eating of unclean meats relates to this passage, see James B. Jordan, The Mosaic Deitary Laws and the New Covenant. Studies in Food & Faith 11 (Niceville, FL: Biblical Horizons, 1990).

[9]Eire, War, pp. 232-33.

[10] De fugiendis, Corpus Reformatorum 5:244.

[11]Quoted in Eire, War, p. 232.

[12]Dorothy Sayers, “The Dogma is the Drama,” in The Whimsical Christian: 18 Essays by Dorothy L. Sayers (New York: Collier Books, 1987), p. 25.

[13]Timothy F. Lull, “The Trinity in Recent Literature,” Word and World 2.1 (Winter 1982): 61.

[14]Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1967), p. 345.

[15]Philip Butin, Revelation, Redemption, and Response: Calvin’s Trinitarian Understanding of the Divine-human Relationship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 101.

[16]The Forgotten Trinity: The Report of the B.C.C. Study Commission on Trinitarian Doctrine Today (London: British Council of Churches, Inter-Church House, 1989), vol. 1.

[17] “before the face of God”

[18]John Thompson, Modern Trinitarian Perspectives (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 100.

[19]James B. Torrance, Worship, Community & the Triune God (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 1996).

[20]Miscellany 741.

[21]Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds., Luther’s Works, American Edition (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955-86), vol. 53, 305.

[22]William Cunningham, Historical Theology (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1960 [1862]), p. 90.

[23]Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, trans. by Matthew J. O’Connell (New York: Crossroad, 1996), p. ix.