Steeped in the Scriptures
God’s Word works slowly.
Its growth happens less like a chia pet and more like a cherry tree—which can take up to a decade before it starts to bear fruit. So I argued in this past Sunday’s sermon.
I suggested that the paradigm for this slow work of the Word of God is the Church’s worship. Week by week, year by year, century by century, countless Christians have worshipped according to the fixed form, the structured pattern, that we call liturgy.
Some criticize liturgical worship by saying that it’s “just the words of men,” rather than the Word of God. With all its responsive readings, chanting, and written prayers—so the argument goes—liturgical Christians like us Lutherans are worshiping God in vain, “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”
Is that actually the case?
I don’t see why we should be any less scientific about this than anything else. So I have formulated a simple test:
- Take the liturgy for a given Sunday, including its Scripture readings and Collect of the Day
- Count up the words
- Tally how many of these are “words of men” and how many are from the Word of God
I’m going to use three categories:
- Direct quotations of the Bible or near paraphrases (for instance, changing the person or number of a pronoun).
- Allusions and clear echoes to the biblical text.
- “Words of men.” For this amorphous and somewhat ambiguous category, I’m going to include anything that has been composed by people, post biblical era, that also lacks clear biblical allusions.
Okay, enough methodological gobbledygook. What do we find?
- 66% (1,653 words) are direct quotations from Scripture. In addition to the obvious readings of the day, consider some other examples:
- “Glory be to God on High, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” (Luke 2.14, from the Hymn of Praise)
- “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51.10, from the Offertory)
- “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word.” (Luke 2.29, from the Post-Communion Canticle)
- 20% (505 words) are allusions and echoes from the Bible. This is more difficult to nail down, but consider some examples:
- “Let us draw near with a true heart and confess our sins unto God our Father” (from the opening versicles; see Hebrews 10.22).
- “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible” (from the Creed; see Genesis 1.1-2, Hebrews 11.1, Colossians 1.15-20, among others).
- “Lift up your hearts.” “We lift them up unto the Lord” (from the Preface; see Psalm 25.1, Lamentations 3.41).
- 14% (346 words) are so-called “words of men.” This is obviously subjective, but I have opted to err on the side of including parts in this category that could arguably be allusions.
- “I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities…” (from the Confession of Sins)
- “We give thanks to You, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift…” (from the Post-Communion Collect)
So: what does this mean?
Of course this is hardly conclusive data, but at the very least it gives the lie to the old saw that the liturgy is just “the words of men” rather than the Word of God. Poppycock, I say.
66%—two-thirds—are straight-up quotes from the Bible! Even the portions that I categorized as “words of men” aren’t just mindless ramblings. This isn’t 37% of our prayers being the word “just.” Even there, it’s thoughtful, biblically-informed reflection.
And so I stand by my original contention. Liturgical worship is the essence of the slow work of God’s Word. In the liturgy, we are being steeped in Scripture: week by week, year by year, decade by decade. In the liturgy, we live and move and have our being in the words and world of the Bible.
God’s Word works slowly; best to be immersed in it as much as possible. This is the gift of the liturgy.
I used Divine Service Setting III in the Lutheran Service Book, p. 184ff.
I opted to use the liturgy for this coming Sunday, Quinquagesima. (I’m not cheating by using, say, Palm Sunday, which has not only the bonus processional Gospel but also the long passion narrative.)
After removing the headings, rubrics, etc., and keeping only what is actually spoken we are left with 2,505 words. I didn’t include a sermon, though of course the intent of the sermon is faithfully to proclaim God’s Word. I also didn’t include any hymns or the Prayers of the Day.
In order to determine what parts of this are quotations from Scripture, I relied on the notes in the Lutheran Service Book, the search tool at ESV.org, and my own noggin.