Off the (J.) Mark

Two very consequential subtopics have (re-)arisen as I’ve revisited the Youth Advance worship experiences of 1998.  The fundamental distinction, borrowed from lexical studies, may be seen in these pairings:

1) worship and 2) service
~ or, in other words ~
1) reverent messaging to the Creator and 2) living for others

Most members of that YA group understood some core worship concepts, but some of the teens, like many adults, were confused about what worship is (and isn’t).  And so I’d like to explain a dichotomy, working with a particular delineation.

In Leaven, Winter 1998—coincidentally, the same year of the Youth Advance about which I’ve been writingthe highly respected and consistently sought-after Dr. John Mark Hicks wrote this:

“The concept of all of life as worship is a consistent theme in the New Testament.”

Hicks appealed to Romans 12:1-2, as have so many before him and after him.  Although he also spoke with clarity about other ideas, he seemed to relegate a pervasive vertical worship principle, along with key NT words such as psalmos and proskuneo, to insignificance.  In articulating the notion of “whole-life worship” as the New Testament principle, Hicks was in effect negating the place of direct worship for the Christian.  Hicks has much to offer, and I’ve appreciated more than one thing I’ve heard from and about him.  However, inasmuch as he was suggesting that so-called whole-life worship is worship under the New Covenant, he erred.

Semi-significant aside:  Ironically enough, most of the American-English-speaking world also errs when it pronounces the word “err”—if one is interested in the original along with dictionaries’ current reflections of use, that is.  Indeed this interest seems increasingly uncommon:  it took me five tries to find an online dictionary that has the original pronunciation of “err,” which rhymes with “blur,” not “lair.”  Sadly, it takes a lot more than five tries to find groups of Christians that really understand and practice worship.  You may think that retreating to the original indicates antiquarianism (and I admit this tendency with English usage), but please consider that it may also indicate a sincere desire to get back to basics and original meanings (and I am proud of this tendency with biblical words and concepts).  The attested pronunciations of “err” are, of course, far less significant than the attested meanings of words that designate believers’ responses to God.

Now, back to Romans 12.  Christian living and duties are obviously important—and the specific occurrence of this text within the whole of Romans certainly bears that out—but they are not worship per se.  The idea that the presentation of the Christian’s body is the sum total of “spiritual worship” weakens both the philosophy and the reality of Christian worship—and merges it inappropriately with the notions of priestly (now, of course, all believers are priests) service, duty, and living, which are also important.  

I might say that what Paul articulates in Romans 12:1-2 reaches further than worship, but that would be a theological assessment, not a textually based fact.  Speaking objectively, we must say that Paul was not speaking of worship per se when he wrote logikan latreian in Romans 12.  Rather, he wrote of a different kind of responsiveness, in the light of God’s grace shown to all.  Moreover, a Bible translation is off the mark—darkened, I suspect, by centuries of presumptuous religious tradition that elevates liturgical leaders to the place of Hebrew priests—if it renders these Greek words “spiritual worship.”  

A better, admittedly verbose translation of logikan latreian might be that which is logically considered to be the equivalent of the old “priestly service.”  In an indirect sense, the new version of priestly sacrifice and service might be said to resemble—and to figuratively become—”worship,” and this seems to be what Paul was getting at in his Romans 12 exhortation to respond to God.  Whatever Paul meant, and even if I have mistakenly attributed the quote-marks around “worship” there, it seems unlikely—yea, impossible—that Paul would in one fell swoop have been negating vertical worship (≈ speaking/praying/singing adoring, reverent messages to the great God), when he actually models and exudes such worship in other places.

It is my studied position, then, that latreuo should be delineated as something other than proskuneo . . . and that the New Covenant version of the former compliments, but does not supplant, the latter.  (What is supplanted is the whole Levitical priest package!)  “All of life as ‘worship'” is an important, horizontally oriented idea that stands on its own, distinct from the essence of vertically oriented proskuneo.  There is nothing I know of in the New Testament that suggests we shouldn’t continue to praise or worship.  On the contrary, praise is secreted from the very pores of all scripture.  Direct worship of God is assumed.  They are normative in both Hebrew and Christian contexts.

In a multi-author book, I came upon a chapter that deals thoroughly with the NT worship words—showing, among other things, and much better than I could, that proskuneo and latreuo connote distinct ideas.  That article deserves a hearing and a spreading; I’ll probably sound this bell again soon, in order to delineate even more clearly the paradigmatic sense relationship¹ of these two words.

In the meantime, for more on Romans 12, worship, and service. . . .

¹ “. . . We may say that words are in paradigmatic relation insofar as they can occupy the same slot in a particular context. . . .  We should note that paradigmatic sense relations exploit the opposition or contrast existing between words. . . .”  Moisés Silva, “Sense Relations,” in Biblical Words and Their Meaning:  An Introduction to Lexical Semantics, p. 119