“Engaging with God, A Biblical Theology of Worship” by David Peterson

“Engaging with God, A Biblical Theology of Worship” by David Peterson

Peterson, David. Engaging with God, A Biblical Theology of Worship. Downers Grove:  IVP Academic, 1992.

Engaging with God a Biblical Theology of Worship is a helpful outline of how local churches ought to think about what “worship” is. If churches desire to order their life together according to Scripture this is a great aid. It’s divided into ten chapters moving through the main themes of the Old and New Testaments in a way that is relevant to a church’s assembly.

If churches are not building their ministries and services off of what Scripture directs in regard to engaging God they must ask if they are accomplishing what the church is instructed to do from the Bible as it gathers.  Ian Murray in Evangelicalism Divided clearly shows that good motives are not enough to preserve a ministry.  Motives, therefore, must be rightly ordered, and methods must be rightly ordered as well.  So one must ask, “What should be accomplished in churches as they gather?” 

Many churches and certainly much of the Christian subculture in the United States has made the mistake of confusing the concept of worship with music, [1] or even activities confined to a Sunday morning service. When I graduated from college I can remember a pastor asked me to sit and talk with him about worship because I was a music major. He thought that because I was a musician and a Christian that I had some kind of expert advice regarding worship. I was clueless why he would want to talk to me about how we practiced corporate worship, because at the time I didn’t have a well-shaped theological knowledge of what worship was or how it was expressed in a gathering of a particular local church.

Here’s the central question of the book, “What is Christian worship?” Peterson’s thesis answers: “Worship of the living and true God is essentially an engagement with him on the terms that he proposes and in the way that he alone makes possible. [2] If worship is an engagement with God, churches should expel the idea that worship is confined to a church service. Second, they should be more careful about how they speak of music and engagement with God. Often the assumption is that the “music” is the worship and everything else is, well, everything else. Peterson confronts the first problem by this argument, particularly that worship is not an engagement with God confined to a Sunday morning or only in a congregational setting:

This use of terminology of worship with reference to a Christ-centered, gospel-serving, life-orientation is obscured by the common practice of restricting any talk of worship to what is done in church.  Furthermore, people who emphasize that they are ‘going to church to worship God’ tend to disregard what the New Testament says about the purpose of the Christian assembly. [3]

David Peterson’s Engaging God is a pursuit to give a biblical and balanced approach to answer this problem. [4]  He describes biblically acceptable worship: “Throughout the Bible, acceptable worship means approaching or engaging with God on the terms that he proposes and in the manner that he makes possible.” [5] One of his aims is to expose the discontinuity between the Testaments on the subject of worship. [6] He does an excellent job in showing how cultic sacrifice was a necessity to acceptable worship in the Old Testament; specifically, the act of performing sacrifices:

Moreover, there are texts which speak with approval of future sacrificial activity, portraying a time when God would renew his people and their worship (e.g. Is. 19:19-21; 56:6-7; 60:7; Je. 17:24-27; 33:10-11, 17-18; Ezk. 20:40-41). In other words, it is not correct to say that the prophets condemned sacrifice absolutely or that they envisaged the survival of Israel apart from the provision of some form of sacrifice. [7]

Peterson clearly approaches what words are used in Hebrew to designate approaching God in worship.  Some of the words he discussed were what the Septuagint translates as proskynein.  The Hebrew that is translated by that word are histahwa, [8] often juxtaposed with abad. [9]  Another way that the Septuagint translates abad is with the Greek word latreuein [10] and douleuein. [11] Latreuein is also a Greek rendering of the Hebrew seret. [12] Two other Greek words regarding worship as service are therapeuein [13] and diakonein.  However, diakonein is not used at all in the Septuagint as Peterson discusses. In his discussion of worship as reverence or respect in the Old Testament Peterson discussed the Greek word sebomai. [14]  The Septuagint approaches the Hebrew word that depicts the “fear of the Lord” or reverence yare with a preference of the Greek word phoboun. [15]  This is not a fear of the Lord that is shown in a terror or trembling dreadful way, [16] rather a fear of the Lord that expresses itself in keeping God’s commandments. [17] Peterson summarizes all of this to say that, “acceptable worship in the Old Testament terms involves homage, service, and reverence, demonstrated in the whole of life.” [18] Peterson’s point in reconstructing modern views of worship by a biblical theological framework is that churches might correctly practice a ministry based off of the Bible not contemporary cultural inclinations. Peterson’s aim is for his readers to clearly see that to meet the demands of God for their engagement of Him they cannot merely do it in “cultic” activity alone; therefore, worship is a life style: “When Christians imply that reverence is essentially a matter of one’s demeanor in church services, they show little understanding of the Bible’s teaching on this subject!” [19]

As he outlines worship in the New Testament he discusses how it took place inside the new religious community in the reality that it was centered “simply and entirely” on Jesus Christ. In his discussion of Acts he shows that the word worship in Greek is rarely used to describe what takes place in a public gathering of Christians. It is used only once in regard to a congregational setting. This is in Acts 13:2, “the prophets and teachers of Antioch are said to be ‘worshipping’ or, more literally, ‘serving’ the Lord (leitourgounton…to kyrio) and fasting, when the Holy Spirit calls for the sending forth of Barnabas and Saul on their first missionary journey.” [20] By highlighting the rare references in the New Testament to “corporate worship” Peterson shows that when the church gathers corporately it is indeed part of the worship of God, but it does not gather together for the sole purpose of worship. [21] Rather, terminology for upbuilding or edification is used instead of language of worship. He outlines that, “the purpose of Christian ministry, and therefore the purpose of the Christian gathering, is to prepare the saints to meet with their Lord.” [22]

Peterson’s biblical theology of worship is compelling and is faithful to the biblical text. However, he does seem to justify his ecclesiological position [23] by saying that Acts is not prescriptive for later generations of Christians. [24] There may indeed be some things that are not prescriptive, but to leave that comment undeveloped could undermine his entire argument to base what we do off of what the Bible, in the context of the new covenant, prescribes in order for people to engage with God. Likewise, from this biblical framework of worship we cannot assume that edification in a congregational gathering occurs at the expense of worship.  Peterson clearly lays out that worship and edification are two sides of the same coin. [25] He rightly points out with this work that we often emphasize worship at the expense of edification.

Worship therefore is not confined to music or an aesthetic experience that gives goose bumps in the congregational gathering of the local church. Those experiences may not be indicators that one has met with God or that one has been edified by the local church at all. Churches must reclaim the ordering of gatherings by the Word of God, sola scriptura. As J. Ligon Duncan III wrote regarding the regulative principle, (1) it is simple, [26] (2) it is biblical, [27] (3) it is transferable, [28] (4) it is flexible, [29] and (5) it is reverent. [30] The approach of building everything the church does from the Scriptures will direct prayers, preaching, and singing, even a Christian’s demeanor as he or she interacts always looking to build each other up for the glory of God. A balanced approach to letting the Word inform every aspect of church gatherings would bring an approach to singing that runs the gamut of emotions that are expressed in the Psalms. [31] This concept has limitations, but they do not overrule the mandate to order the life of the believer and the church by precepts that God has laid out in His Word. Charity must be exercised in some grey areas (e.g. ownership of church property, instrumentation in music, etc.). An approach derivative from the Bible touches everything in the local church from polity, to missions. It even effects how a church can determine a conclusion in the perceived grey areas.

In leading churches, leaders have to be careful that they do not manipulate people into a false sense of worship. Many people are unaware that worship is a life orientation, and they often mistake an aesthetic feeling as a type of mystic form of worship. There is mystery in worship but seeking to build off the mystery without letting the Scriptures inform practice caters to men and not God.

I recommend this book to any Christian that is grappling with what the local church is supposed to do as it gathers for “corporate worship”. I recommend that any reader of this also read D. A. Carson’s chapter in the work Worship by the Book – he gives a helpful balance to Peterson’s thesis. This book is helpful to Christians in helping add knowledge to zeal in recapturing what it means to worship God in all of life in spirit and truth.  The desire of Christians and Christian leaders should be that churches might reclaim a biblical approach to worship and edification as Christians spur one another on toward love and good works (Hebrews 10:24).

[1] Or the have confused worship with some other kind of aesthetic stimuli affecting the congregation such as art, or drama, or images.
[2] Peterson, David Engaging With God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (Downers Grove:  InterVarsity Press, 1992), 20.
[3] Ibid., 219.
[4] Chapter one is an outline of the prescribed method to engage God in the Old Testament, Peterson also outlines worship (or engaging God) from the book of Matthew and John in chapter three, Acts in chapter five, Paul’s perspective in chapter six and seven, the book of Hebrews perspective in chapter eight, and the book of Revelation’s perspective in chapter nine.
[5] Ibid.,  283.
[6] Ibid., 24.
[7] Ibid., 45.
[8] Ibid., 57 & 58. This means to bend oneself over at the waist (Gn. 18:2; Ex 18:7; 1 Ki. 1:47; Gn. 23:7, 12; 33:3, 6-7; 37:7, 9-10; Ru.2:10; 2 Ki. 4:36; 1 Sa. 20:41; Ex. 11:8; 2 Sa. 14:4; 2 Sa. 16:4 etc.).
[9] Ibid., 61. This means to serve (Ex 20:5; 23:24; Dt. 4:19; 5:9; 1 Ki. 16:31; 2 Ki. 17:16; 21:3, 21; Ex. 32:8; Nu. 25:2; Ezk. 8:16; etc.).
[10] Ibid., 64. This is rendered to serve.   
[11] Ibid., 65. This means a service denoting whole-hearted commitment to God expressed in cultic activity. (e.g. 1 Ch. 25:6; 2 Ch. 30:8).
[12] Ibid., 67. This means to minister, or to serve (Ezk 44:12; 2 Ch. 15:16; Jos. 1:1; 1 Ki. 1:4, 15; 19:21; etc.).
[13] Ibid., 68. This means a willingness to serve and to care for someone more powerful or someone in need.
[14] Ibid., 71. These are related terms encompassed not only a reverential attitude to the gods but also the cultic activity, which gave expression to that reverence.
[15] Ibid., 71. This Greek word denotes a contrast with the Greek notion of piety, reverence or the fear of the Lord in the OT means specifically faithfulness and obedience to the covenant demands of God and this is synonymous with true religion (e.g. Gn. 20:11; Ex. 18:21; Ps. 25:14; Mal. 3:16; 4:2).
[16] Ibid., 71. (Ex. 3:6; 19:16; 20:18-19; Ps. 2:11-12; Is. 2:10, 19, 21)
[17] Ibid., 71. (Dt. 5:29; 6:2, 24; Ec. 12:13; 1 Sa. 12:14; Hg. 1:12; Dt. 8:6; 10:12; 2 Ch 6:31; Jb. 1:1, 8; 2:3; 28:28; Pr. 3:7; Dt. 6:13; 10:20; Jos. 24:14)
[18] Ibid., 73.  
[19] Ibid., 73. 
[20] Ibid., 150. 
[21] Ibid., 206. (e.g. 1 Cor. 14:3, 4, 5, 12, 17, 26; 1 Thes. 5:11; Eph. 4:11-16)
[22] Ibid., 209.
[23] He holds to an Anglican polity.
[24] Ibid., 211. 
[25] Ibid., 215. 
[26] Duncan III, J. Ligon Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship (Phillipsburg:  P & R Publishing, 2003), 69. 
[27] Ibid., 69-70. 
[28] Ibid., 70-71.
[29] Ibid., 72.
[30] Ibid., 72-73.
[31] Which would answer Carl Trueman’s lament in his article What Can Miserable Christians Sing: Trueman, Carl R. The Wages of Spin (Ross Shire: Mentor, 2004), 163.

Noah Braymen is an elder at Redeemer Baptist Church and lives with his wife and three children in Des Moines, Iowa. You can find him on Twitter at @NoahBraymen.