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HOW THE HOLY SPIRIT GROUNDS THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD THROUGH LITURGY

Updated: Jan 3

By Dr. Douglas Groothuis


God’s creatures ought to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23) through the inspiration of Holy Spirit so that the nations may be glad and sing for joy. This is because God rules the peoples with equity and guides the nations of the earth (Psalm 67:4). God wants to be known, and, thus, to be properly worshipped as our Creator and Redeemer. Worship is the paramount issue for human existence and no small matter to the one to whom worship is due. God’s absolute and incorruptible worth demands our total allegiance. God beckons us to offer our all to him as our Lord. As the Westminster Larger Catechism states: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”


This worship cannot happen without a deep intellectual, emotional, and imaginative knowledge of the one true God. My thesis is that the knowledge of God can and should be grounded through the historic liturgy of the church in worship. This is but one way to grow in the knowledge of God, but an often-neglected way among Evangelicals. Put more formally, this is a paper that addresses one doxastic practice whereby Christians may deepen their knowledge of God intellectually and affectively.


I respect the regulative principle of worship of some Reformed traditions because of its concern to root out manmade superstition and ungodly duties (Matthew 15:1-11). However, my approach is that Scripture is the norm to evaluate and inspire all worship forms. We are not a limited to worship as only explicitly prescribed in Scripture. This is the normative principle of worship.[i] While some low-church Christians take the normative principle to allow for services largely devoid of historic liturgy, I employ the principle to allow for practices not explicitly mentioned in Scripture, but which cohere with Scripture, and which have a long history of sacred use.


Perhaps some low-church Evangelicals ought to rethink their ignorance of or even repugnance for the church’s historic liturgy.[ii] (All churches, even the most informal, have some patterns of liturgy.) For some, the Christian life is usually understood as one having the right beliefs, praying regularly, doing good works, and a finding a good church that can help you believe and pray correctly and to do good works. The church as a worshipping community is often undervalued. In his egregious 2005 book, Revolution, George Barna argued that if Christians were in some kind of fellowship, were reading their Bible, keeping their nose clean, and witnessing, the institutional church was not needed.[iii] Before proceeding with my formal argument, let me offer a brief explanation and defense of liturgy itself.


What is Liturgy?


Human culture is suffused with orderly patterns of engagement fitted for particular situations and goals, which are repeated in appropriate ways to anchor actions in meaning. Many of these are implicit, not explicit. They are second nature, such as using a napkin when you eat. To act in accord with these patterns and protocols is a constitutive part of being human. We are creatures who need order in order to thrive (or even survive). Consider some examples.


Every sport has its rules and its unwritten protocols. Baseball has, among other things, four bases, nine players on a team, three strikes and you’re out, and the seventh-inning stretch (although the latter is not part of the official rules). When a judge enters a courtroom, all are summoned to rise to their feet. Published writing follows grammatical rules and stylistic guidelines (or should). If all these kinds of orderly patterns of engagement taken away, culture would devolve into a pointlessly undulated mass of incoherence. In other words, a kind of liturgy is inescapable in human affairs.[iv] But what patterns should guild the church such that she grows in the knowledge of her Lord?


First, there are some ordered patterns of engagement that are fitted only for worship and not apropos elsewhere. To say that “everything is liturgy” is to say that nothing is really sacred liturgy. As Rebecca Merrill Groothuis wrote:


There must not ultimately be a distinction between secular and sacred: all of life should be offered up to God in thanksgiving; all work should be done unto God as service. Yet we must be careful this does not result in an obliterating of all sense of the sacred. Sometimes, places, and events are more richly evocative of eternal reality. They exist only to express worship to God; there is no missing the meaning. It thus uniquely demonstrates what all other human activity is—at root. It is corporate, celebrative, symbolic’ in short, sacred.[v]


Second, having a formal structure to worship need not mean that people are merely “going through the motions” without sincerity. There is dead liturgy and there is living liturgy. Both depend on the nature of the liturgy itself and on the heart orientation of those involved. Thomas Howard defines liturgy as “the ceremonial enactment of the whole gospel.”[vi] I agree, but will extend the definition.


Liturgy is the historic Christian practice of richly orchestrated and theologically scripted religious services which employ particular symbolism—such as bread and wine, vestments, and crosses—to focus the worshippers’ attention on sacred meanings derived from the Holy Scriptures and developed by the historic orthodox church. In so doing, liturgical actions both honor God and edify those worshipping.


By religious service, I mean more than a Sunday gathering. Religious services include marriages and funerals as well. One may also practice personal liturgies, such as the daily office. My focus is on the regular gathering of the faithful, whether weekly or for special services, such as Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, or an Easter Vigil.

Liturgy may be understood in two aspects: the expressive and the formative. The expressive pertains to how the liturgical agent affirms emotions or beliefs in what she does in worship. The formative aspect pertains to how the liturgy affects and transforms her as a person. I will, address primarily the formative aspect of liturgy as it pertains to the knowledge of God.[vii] Liturgy, energized by the Holy Spirit, forms us to know God more profoundly and so follow God more ardently.


Traditions differ on the shape of the order of liturgical worship. However, several features are fairly constant. These include singing at various points, a call to worship, prayer by clergy and congregation, Scripture reading, confession of sin, assurance of pardon, passing the peace, confession of the creed, the offering, the sermon (or homily), the Eucharist, benediction, and charge.


Liturgy reduces distractions in worship by placing the worshipper in a unique habitat where they can develop sacred habits. Crossing oneself before hearing the reading of the Gospel text can become muscle memory that remains cognitive and not only reflexive. Ideally, the church sanctuary should be a place marked by the transcendent as mediated through the immanent. It should be flooded with an aesthetically appropriate symbolic ambience. In other words, a church, if possible, should be more than a warehouse or auditorium with a good sound system.


In the church, we can form sacred habits fitting the purpose of the place: the worship of the triune God. Divine truths find their anchor through the liturgy. Worshipers not only speak biblical truths (such as the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed), but express truth through scripted ceremonies. This is not play-acting, but intentional actions—such as kneeling, confessing sin corporately, receiving the Eucharist—actions that conform to and announce sacred realities.


Disclaimers


Before I defend my thesis that the Holy Spirit grounds the knowledge of God through appropriate liturgy of the church in her worship, we need some disclaimers. Nothing I offer entails or even implies a denial of the historic, five-solas theology of the Reformation. I have become a Thirty-nine Articles Anglican, and the road stops at Canterbury. There was an English Reformation, after all.


Although all sacerodotalists are sacramentalists, not all sacramentalists are sacerodotalists, nor should they be. I am not a sacerodotalist. I am a sacramentalist. However, one need not even be a sacramentalist to benefit from the arguments and practices I advocate. Lastly, I do not hold that the sacraments automatically confer grace, irrespective of the participants’ receptiveness. Now on to the formal argument.


The Formal Argument 


I will fill out the following case.


1.      Christians need to grow in the knowledge of God and to make him known and obeyed universally. This is a theological premise. Paul wrote so that his readers “may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 1:2-3). 

 

2.     Knowing is multi-dimensional, involving heart, mind, and body. This is an epistemological premise backed by Jesus’ command to love God with all of our being (Matthew 22:37-39), since loving God requires that we know God truly, if not perfectly or exhaustively (1 Corinthians 13:12).

 

3.     Liturgy provides a unique means to know with heart, mind, and body. This is a theological and epistemic premise.

 

4.    Therefore: Churches should provide liturgy as a means for better knowing and serving God. This is a theological conclusion.


Few Evangelicals will question premises (1) and (2). The rub comes with premise (3) which is necessary for the conclusion to be sound.


The Knowledge of God


If God wants to be known, they how do we then know him? All the knowledge of God comes through his self-revelation, whether in nature, conscience, Scripture, history, or worship. This is the objective pole of the knowledge of God.” God is “the source, standard, and stipulator of knowledge,” as Carl Henry said. But, second, there is a subjective pole that concerns how humans come to know the God who reveals himself. Humans gain the knowledge of the holy in many ways (such as reading and meditating on Scripture), but I will limit myself to the knowledge that comes from participation in the worship of the gathered church. Our subjectivity as knowers should be aflame with the knowledge and worship of God, so that we are not imprisoned by a puny self that seeks only its own impoverished desires.


Before speaking of the knowledge-generating powers of the Holy Spirit, a word about knowledge itself is needed. Following Bertrand Russell’s treatment, there are two main types of knowledge: propositional knowledge (sometimes called knowledge by description) and knowledge by acquaintance.[viii] I will add a third kind of knowledge, know how.

Propositional knowledge requires three elements. Two pertain to the subject (S) and one pertains to the object (P).


1.      S believes that P is true. This is cognitive assent.

2.     P is true. This is correspondence to reality.

3.     S has sufficient intellectual justification that P is true. This is epistemic support.


Each of these conditions are individually necessary for knowledge and they are jointly sufficient for knowledge. Propositional knowledge is knowledge that P is true.[ix]

A true statement matches or corresponds to reality isomorphically. More simply, a true statement fits the facts addressed.[x] The statement, “Jesus is Lord,” is true if and only if there is a person who fits that description: Jesus Christ.


There are two other kinds of knowledge—both of which are pertinent to gaining knowledge through liturgy. A second kind of knowledge, for Russell, is knowledge by acquaintance. I can be acquainted with a chair by sense perceptions of it without necessarily having any propositional knowledge about the chair. Or, for a more interesting example, having a face-to-face conversation with John Coltrane means that you become acquainted with him. You were in his communicative presence without mediation. The same holds true for listening to Coltrane perform jazz, although no words would be exchanged. As Abraham Heschel put it, we meet people; but we know things.


In addition, there is knowledge as a skill through learned behavior. This is know-how. Contemporary jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez has the ability or skill to perform at the Olympian level. Another person may have more propositional knowledge of drum kits than Sanchez—say, knowledge of the evolution of the drum kit in America—but not have his knowledge as a highly skilled drummer. Propositional knowledge cannot be separated from skill knowledge, however. If he is to play well, Sanchez must know where the high-hat pedal is, what kind of drumsticks, mallets, and brushes sound best on his kit, and more. He needs to read music also, a propositional skill. 


These three standard categories are not watertight, but porous; nevertheless, they mark out significant aspects of what it means to know anything. We will find that liturgy is instrumental for all three kinds of knowledge.


The Holy Spirit and Knowledge


The relation of the Holy Spirit to knowledge is a multifaceted and contested question. To sketch out an answer requires a short account of the identity and ministry of the Spirit. He is traditionally known as the third person of the Holy Trinity, although being third does not mean coming in third, as in a bronze medal. All three divine persons—Father, Son, and Spirit—are eternal and equal with one another in power, glory, and being. They are three-in-one and one-in-three. However, each member of the Trinity has different functions, but we should never forget the wonders of perichoresis or curcumincessio.[xi]


The focus here is on the epistemic ministry of the Holy Spirit. He reveals truth in Scripture and illuminates truth for human knowers as well as equipping them to live out that truth in his holy power. Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the “Spirit of truth” three times in the Gospel of John, thus emphasizing his role as revelator, one who discloses truth and gives knowledge (14:15; 15:26; 16:13).


Paul teaches that the Holy Spirit leads and equips the church to worship in an orderly, truthful, and God-honoring manner (1 Corinthians 12-14). For example, in a church service, no one genuinely can say “Jesus is Lord” sincerely apart from the Holy Spirit. Conversely, no one can say “Jesus is accursed” through the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). The Holy Spirit guides the church into truth and delivers her from error.


Consider this historic affirmation. The Nicene Creed affirms this about the Holy Spirit:


we believe in the Holy Spirit,     

the Lord, the giver of life.     

He proceeds from the Father and the Son, 

and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified. 

He spoke through the prophets.


The Holy Spirit also spoke through the Holy Scriptures by inspiring them (2 Timothy 3:15-17; 2 Peter 1:19-21) and illuminates people to understand the Biblical message as they read the inspired Scriptures. Since the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth, it is reasonable to believe that He would make the Trinity known through guided patterns of religious observance as well—that is, liturgy—as He did through the worship ceremonies in the Hebrew Bible.[xii] The liturgy today is not divinely directed as were the Old Testament rituals of worship. However, if liturgy’s meaning is derived from Scripture and a good argument can be made for its truth-conducive elements and effects, I see no reason to forbid it and good reason to include it as vital to the Christian life. Hence, my adherence to the normative principle of worship.


How, then, might the Holy Spirit ground the knowledge of God through liturgy? By grounding knowledge, I mean either (1) giving new knowledge or (2) deepening previous knowledge propositionally or existentially. Therefore, worship through liturgy may provide the justification for a belief or deepen our awareness of the truth of a belief. But why think liturgy is a proper means to gain this knowledge?


Liturgy brings mind and body together as biblical truths are enacted. I say enacted, following Nicholas Wolterstorff.[xiii] To enact a biblical truth is to engage in deliberate scripted, and often symbolic actions that involve the senses in remembering and celebrating doctrines and events. Kneeling, for example, is a posture of humility. Crossing oneself is an action that makes the Cross of Christ tactile on one’s body (as is wearing a cross). Repeating the Apostle’s Creed or words of response during the Eucharist reinforces the truth of the Creed and the reality of the last supper and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on our behalf.[xiv] Habitual recitation of eternal truths in a liturgical setting is not a vane repetition, but a holy recapitulation. Knowledge can be grounded through the coordination of bodily actions—speaking or otherwise—and Christian doctrine. Although he does not speak of liturgy per se, Blaise Pascal addresses this in Pensées. 


It is superstitious to put one’s hopes in formalities, but arrogant to refuse to submit to them.[xv]


We must combine outward and inward to obtain anything from God; in other words we must go down on our knees, pray with our lips, etc., so that the proud man who would not submit to God must now submit to his creature. If we expect help from this outward part we are being superstitious, if we refuse to combine it with the inward we are being arrogant.[xvi]


Pascal emphases “obtaining anything from God” with respect to becoming humble. He is not giving a formula for unmitigated prosperity. Merely going through the motions or observing formalities in order to be properly religions is superficial and, worse yet, superstitious. Scripture warns of this many times (Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 15:8). However, refusing to humble oneself through kneeling, praying with the lips, etc., is to be proud and unresponsive. Pascal assumes that the external actions are consonant with established church practices, which themselves are biblically sanctioned.


Having laid this groundwork, we can return to the three senses of knowing (propositional, acquaintance, and skill) with respect to liturgy.


Three Kinds of Knowledge Cultivated by Worship


First, sound liturgy teaches propositional truths about God and his ways, as found in the Bible. Reciting the Creed is a clear example, as are the words of institution spoken at the Eucharist. Through reciting or hearing these words, the worshipper reaffirms her beliefs or, perhaps, acquires true and justified beliefs (knowledge) for the first time about some aspect of God or the gospel. Enacting the gospel, as Howard put it, helps ground it deeply in our awareness. He says, “By enacting what is true, we learn what is true.”[xvii]


In the last section of Pascal’s wager argument, he encourages the one who wants to believe God but cannot to be involved in religious practices to that he might naturally begin to find Christian faith. This is often dismissed as a crass act of self-interested anti-intellectualism: Make yourself believe so you can get the eternal goods. I have written elsewhere on how wrong-headed this is.[xviii] But it suffices for us to see that this counsel has epistemic support. Often a proper belief which results in knowledge is blocked, not by having inadequate evidence, but because of some disorder in the soul. By participating in liturgy these blocks might be removed so that proper beliefs are acquired and knowledge is gained. As Vernon Grounds once said, “The ruts of routine may become the groves of grace.” Although he said this of personal devotions not of liturgy, the principle applies to liturgy as well.


Second, the knowledgeable and skillful engagement with liturgy can lead the worshipper to a direct acquaintance with God himself. When one enacts the gospel with a gospel-shaped heart, mind, and body, God may make himself known in a profound way to the worshipper. This can happen at any point in the service—and, of course, in non-liturgical services. Paul also writes of the presence of the Holy Spirit in worship services causing unbelievers to be aware that God is in their midst (1 Corinthians 14:24-25).


Third, engaging in biblical liturgy develops skills conducive to proper worship. This concerns doxastic practices.[xix] Worship is not only a matter of private thoughts or warm hearts, but of public actions enacted in agreement with divine realities. To recite the confession of sin weekly along with other sinners, helps ground the knowledge of our true condition before our thrice-holy God (Isaiah 6:1-3). To do so on one’s knees is even better, but not all churches have kneelers or even room to kneel. Further, some people are physically incapable of kneeling (or getting up afterward).


Taking the Eucharist in a liturgical church requires some skill in execution, given the theological significance of the event. For example, in my church, we go forward to receive the host and drink the cup or dip the bread into the cup (intinction). I put out my cupped hand to receive the host and hear a word such as “This is the body of Christ, broken for you.” A pastor told me that some novice communicants will reach for the bread, since we reach for food so often in everyday life: “If you want it, here it is. Come and get it,” as the pop song put it.[xx] However, the body of Christ is not something to be acquired. It is a gift to be received—literally with open hands as well as open mouths and open hearts.


Liturgy, the Holy Spirit, and the Knowledge of God


The Holy Spirit can and does ground the knowledge of God through sound liturgy—or so I have argued. If so, then we ought to pay more attention to how we worship, since our worship shapes our theology and vice versa. As Wolterstorff notes, those practicing the philosophy of religion in the last several decades have made great strides in subjects such as the justification of religious beliefs and the coherence of theism. However, the philosophical study of liturgy has been lacking and needs development. This paper is a small move in that direction.[xxi] The stakes are high, since worship is the paramount issue of human existence before God. I hope my arguments are worthy of the seriousness of the matter discussed. Whether they are or not, let us love and worship our God with all of our being (Matthew 22:37-39; 1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17).


[i] The British Anglican Reformer, Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), articulated what would later be called a normative principle in his essay published in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, “Of Ceremonies, Why Some Be Abolished and Some Retained.” Thanks to Dr. Zach Hicks for this reference.

[ii] See Douglas Groothuis, “Liturgy for the Low Church,” Patheos: The Evangelical Pulpit, December 4, 2017, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/evangelicalpulpit/2017/12/liturgy-low-church 

[iii] George Barna, Revolution (Ventura, CA: Barna Books, 2005).

[iv] See Thomas Howard, Evangelical is Not Enough (St. Louis, MO: Ignatius Press, 1984) and Dru Johnson, Human Rites: The Power of Rituals, Habits, and Sacraments (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019).

[v] Becky Merrill Groothuis, review of Thomas Howard, Evangelical is Not Enough in Eternity (September 1985), 69.

[vi] Howard, 100.

[vii] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Acting Liturgically: Philosophical Reflections on Religious Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 5-6. The expressive and formative elements overlap and reinforce each other, however.

[viii] Bertrand Russell, “Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description,” The Problems of Philosophy (orig. pub., 1912; New York: Oxford University Press, 1975).

[ix] See J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, “Knowledge and Rationality,” Philosophical Foundations for the Christian Worldview, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017).

[x] See Douglas Groothuis, “The Nature of Truth,” Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000) and Stewart E. Kelly, “Truth Considered” in Truth Considered and Applied: Examining Postmodernism, History, and Christian Faith (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011).

[xi] See John Frame, Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), 479-80; Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 305-306, 311.

[xii] For an in-depth study, see Dru Johnson, Knowledge by Ritual (Ann Arbor, MI: Eisenbrauns, 2016), although my epistemology differs from his.

[xiii] Wolterstorff, “Part I: Liturgy, Enactments, and Scripts,” Acting Liturgically.

[xiv] I hold the Anglican doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. However, this doctrine is not necessary for one to rationally accept my argument, but it helps. The Eucharist is discussed in articles 28-31 of The Thirty-Nine Articles. John Jefferson Davis speaks of the “real presence” of God in Christian worship in “Reality in Worship,” in Worship and the Reality of God: An Evangelical Doctrine of Real Presence (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2010).

[xv] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Pascal, Blaise. Pensées (Penguin Classics) (pp. 107-108). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

[xvi] Pascal, Blaise. Pensées (Penguin Classics) (p. 300). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

[xvii] Howard, 106.

[xviii] Douglas Groothuis, “The Wager,” On Pascal (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003).

[xix] This is addressed in depth in William P. Alston, Perceiving God (Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).

[xx] “Come and Get it,” Badfinger, 1970.

[xxi] Wolterstorff, Acting Liturgically, 1-5.

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