Many young Americans (myself included) have become increasingly disillusioned with an American pop-evangelicalism that is an inch deep and 2500 miles wide. Like sugar, it’s fun at first, but at some point you realize if you don’t get something a little more substantial, you are going into a coma.
Enter high liturgical traditions such as Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism. These traditions are old— defiantly old, excepting Anglicanism. They make grand claims of ancient historicity, and everything they do in worship certainly has the appearance of age, even to the point of the use of antiquated dead languages. There is unabashed acceptance of the mystical which stands in contrast to the heightened scientific rationalism of much of the reformed church, and the coarse anti-intellectualism of a lot of the non-reformed church. And apart from all of that, their worship and liturgy are downright beautiful.
My own attraction to these things I’ve had to question and hold in check. One major question I’ve had is this: is this just a fad? Am I just falling in lockstep with obvious generational cultural trends? One can purchase a device from Sharper Image that looks like an old landline phone, but connects to your iPhone. Cassette tapes are almost cool again. And rockstar musicians at the top of their game dress as though they are 19th century farm hands from the Irish countryside. The point is, though much of this “vintage attraction” has behind it some right criticisms and good desires, much of it is a facade.
In “The Liturgy Trap,” James Jordan is conciliatory to the frustrations of those in Reformed and Evangelical camps who are drawn in this direction. But “the cure,” he says, “is far worse than the disease.” The meta-point of The Liturgy Trap is that while church tradition has its proper place and should be shown a great deal of attention and respect, still it must always submit and conform to God’s Word. If it is elevated to be on par with scripture or to stand in authority over scripture then we commit the same pharisaical sins that Jesus condemned. This, of course, is not a new argument; it was at the core of the Reformation. But Jordan’s burden is not to convince Catholics, Orthodox, or Anglicans to leave their traditions.The Liturgy Trap is for Reformed and Evangelicals who are tempted to abandon their churches in search of the greener grass of ecclesial antiquity.
Jordan spends the majority of the book laying out some critical theological differences between these traditions: the veneration of Mary, saints and icons; two-stage Christianity in the rite of confirmation; sexuality and the exaltation of virginity and celibacy; and the nature of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.
The final chapter deals with another area in which Reformed and Evangelicals disagree sharply with their Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican siblings, but as previously mentioned it is really an overarching disagreement. At the end of the day, one may make biblical arguments until blue in the face, but if the ultimate trump card, Tradition, is played, then those biblical arguments don’t amount to much . The appeal to church tradition as the authority on what scripture does and does not mean subjugates an objective, infallible, unchangeable authority to a subjective, fallen, ever-changing one. This, Jordan explains, is one of the reasons these traditions have been so susceptible to the errors of the higher criticisms characteristic of liberal theology.
Rebellion is in our blood. Despite the claims of modern philosophy, we can’t control or exercise dominion over scripture. Tradition, however, we can control. Scripture has come to us objectively, passed down faithfully, protected by the Spirit. Tradition, good and helpful as it may be, is a human invention. Jordan says this: “There is a very important difference between Scripture and tradition. We cannot “obey” tradition; we can only follow it. Custom and tradition cannot come to us as law, because they are not authored by God’s voice. They are not written. In the Bible, however, we are confronted by the Person of God, and we are confronted by words He has spoken and caused to be written.”
I highly recommend this book, especially for my Reformed brothers and sisters who’s big hearts and aesthetically oriented minds sometimes lead them astray. I know full well this danger. The Reformed church desperately needs us to stick around! We see the world in a way that our churches cannot afford to lose. We are image-bearers who resemble our Father in creativity, compassion, beauty and justice. At the same time, we desperately need our black-and-white-seeing, proposition-making, truth-loving brothers and sisters to help us rein in some of our passion. They are image-bearers who resemble their Father in truth, steadfastness, and clarity. One body, different parts. The temptation is to say, “I’m an eye, and I’m not really seeing any other eyes here, and the ears are making me uncomfortable, so I’m going to go find a body made entirely of eyes.” That would be a monster! Instead, let us “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:1-6 ESV)