Jim Hart: The Role of Historical Reflection in Worship Education

“We Believe in the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”: The Role of Historical Reflection in Worship Education

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ (Mt 16:13-20, ESV).

Dr. James Hart
Dr. James Hart

G.K. Chesterton famously quipped, “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.”[1]

In the past year I have reviewed worship curricula in various Evangelical colleges, universities and seminaries, and I have noticed in many schools a lack of coursework in the historical development of Christian worship. Sometimes it is missing altogether. I suspect this omission is not an accidental oversight, but rather intentional. I suspect this reveals an individualistic, sectarian, even separatist ecclesiology. I suspect there may be a privileging of biblical theological study that is divorced from history either through at best a disinterest or a neglect, or at worst a distrust or a blatant disregard of the authority of history, tradition and the wisdom of the Church. I suspect that in the biblical and theological study of worship in some Christian higher education institutions, there is possibly a hubristic approach to scriptural interpretation that is decidedly and determinedly a-historical and perhaps in some cases anti-historical.

In the Nicene Creed, we proclaim four “We believes”:

1. We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,

2. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God,

3. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,

But then we say,

4. We believe in the one holy catholic and apostolic church.

It almost seems blasphemous to include an “institution” in the same statement of faith with the Triune God. We believe in the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit . . . and the Church? We believe in the three persons of the eternal Godhead . . . and an organization? But the Church is not a human institution or organization. It isn’t a club one joins or even a random assemblage of folk with common beliefs. It is rather an interdependent organism, a living thing, a great gathering force, a communion of love. It is called by God, instituted by Jesus Christ himself and constituted by the Holy Spirit. It shares in the very life and being of Christ as his mystical Body.

There are two sacraments the Church has always, everywhere accepted: Christ as the sacrament of the Father, and the Church as the sacrament of Christ. One of the cornerstones of the theology of the Church is this: the Church is the ongoing incarnation of Christ in the world—the very sacrament of Christ to all of creation.

In the passage above from Matthew 16, Peter makes the first apostolic declaration: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” This is the very foundation and definition of the Christian faith. Jesus declares that Peter is blessed, not because he proclaimed this of his own intellect or emotion, not out of his human mind, and not because he parroted someone else’s conviction. But he made this proclamation as prompted by “the Father in heaven.” Peter was a willing instrument of God the Father, and upon him and the truth of this declaration the church is built. Note: the church’s foundation is not simply a person or simply a theological apostolic truth, but both together, and both affirmed by Jesus himself, the author and perfecter of the faith. The Church truly is the sacrament of Christ in the world, and, therefore, she has the authority of Christ. At her trial before her martyrdom, St. Joan of Arc said, “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I know this: they are simply one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.”

Let’s examine the four descriptors of the church:

One: The Shema is the centerpiece of Jewish morning and evening prayer: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Dt 6:4). Shema is reflected in the first line of the creed: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty.” These proclamations disempower all other claims to deity—no other claimant is God. The Church assimilates all that is good and beautiful and true and right in the cosmos and brings them under the aegis of the one God. The Church is one.

Holy: The Church is set apart, although not perfect. However, as the mystical Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the Church bears Christ’s holiness to the world through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The grace of God manifested in and through the Church’s ministry makes it holy. The Church is holy.

Catholic: Catholic means “universal,” or “according to the whole.” Through the Church God gathers the world to himself, embracing and transcending nationalities, ethnicities and cultures. The Church is called out from the oppressive regimes of the powers of darkness and declared to be, universally, “What belongs to the Lord.” Isn’t that beautiful? The Church is catholic.

Apostolic: This means “rooted in the apostles,” those who stayed with Jesus. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (Jn 6:53). After that many disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. Jesus turned to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Peter then proclaimed, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” These are the apostles who remained with Jesus even when the following got tough. But it’s not just a 2000-year-old apostolicity. The Apostolic Tradition is living and active, established by the Lord Jesus, formed by the faith of the apostles and sustained by their successors—the ordained, living authority of the Church. John Henry Newman, nineteenth-century cardinal, discerned that the faith is not passed on like a dumb object. Rather it unfolds like a river that deepens and broadens in time, or grows like a great oak tree that emerges from an acorn. Note: the river doesn’t reject its source nor the tree its roots, but allows them to grow and deepen, just like the life of God engulfing the cosmos. It is a living and growing apostolicity!

So the Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. IWS is quite fortunate to have had a founder who was a patristics scholar and historical theologian. Bob Webber was committed not only to the authority of scripture, but the authority of the Church, holding these two authorities in the highest, but equal, respect. This is revealed in many parts of “A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future” that was written in 2006. Besides his family, Bob considered IWS and the Call to be his greatest lifetime legacies. Here is some of what he and the other authors of the Call wrote concerning the authority of the Great Historic Tradition resident in the Church:

In the Prologue: In every age the Holy Spirit calls the Church to examine its faithfulness to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, authoritatively recorded in Scripture and handed down through the Church. . . . We call evangelicals to strengthen their witness through a recovery of the faith articulated by the consensus of the ancient Church and its guardians in the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, the Protestant Reformation and the evangelical awakenings.

In the first section: “On the Primacy of the Biblical Narrative”: We call for a return to the priority of the divinely authorized canonical story of the Triune God. This story—Creation, Incarnation, and Re-creation—was effected by Christ’s recapitulation of human history and summarized by the early Church in its Rules of Faith.

In the second section: “On the Church, the Continuation of God’s Narrative”: We call evangelicals to take seriously the visible character of the Church. We call for a commitment to its mission in the world in fidelity to God’s mission (Missio Dei), and for an exploration of the ecumenical implications this has for the unity, holiness catholicity, and apostolicity of the Church. Thus, we call evangelicals to turn away from an individualism that makes the Church a mere addendum to God’s redemptive plan. Individualistic evangelicalism has contributed to the current problems of churchless Christianity, redefinitions of the Church according to business models, separatist ecclesiologies and judgmental attitudes toward the Church. Therefore, we call evangelicals to recover their place in the community of the Church catholic.

In the third section: “On the Church’s Theological Reflection on God’s Narrative”: Thus, we call evangelicals to turn away from methods that separate theological reflection from the common traditions of the Church. These modern methods compartmentalize God’s story by analyzing its separate parts, while ignoring God’s entire redemptive work as recapitulated in Christ. Anti-historical attitudes also disregard the common biblical and theological legacy of the ancient Church. Such disregard ignores the hermeneutical value of the Church’s ecumenical creeds. This reduces God’s story of the world to one of many competing theologies and impairs the unified witness of the Church to God’s plan for the history of the world. Therefore, we call evangelicals to unity in “the tradition that has been believed everywhere, always and by all,” as well as to humility and charity in their various Protestant traditions.

In the fourth section: “On Church’s Worship as Telling and Enacting God’s Narrative”: Therefore, we call evangelicals to recover the historic substance of worship of Word and Table and to attend to the Christian year, which marks time according to God’s saving acts.

In the fifth section: “On Spiritual Formation in the Church as Embodiment of God’s Narrative”: Therefore, we call evangelicals to return to a historic spirituality like that taught and practiced in the ancient catechumenate.[2]

It is impossible to overstate the importance of embracing the authority of scripture as it is interpreted through the historic and living authority of the historic and living Church of Jesus Christ.

We have the great privilege of calling the world to right worship, to the right ordering of human life, to Orthodoxy. This well-ordered worship, rooted in scripture and the Church, tells the world its true story. Right worship orders our lives, our families, our cities, our cultures, even the entire cosmos, to Christ. Simon Chan wrote, “Worship is not just one of the many practices of the church; it is the church’s definitive practice.”[3] We could call IWS, “The Institute for the Study of the Definitive Practice of the Church,” but it won’t fit on the letterhead or t-shirts.

When Thomas Merton visited the Abbey of Gethsemani for the first time, he said, “I have found the still point around which the whole country revolves without knowing it.” What is “the still point”? It is the adoration of God, right worship, orthodoxy, the worship of God formed by the authorities of scripture and the historic and living Church. I have been to Gethsemani; I understand Merton’s perspective. My first visit to a Trappist monastery left me with the same kind of impression—something so important happens in that environment of continuous worship and prayer, rooted in God’s Word and God’s Church, that it seems the whole creation is saturated and transfigured by the Divine life.

Many of us have seen and experienced sectarian, truncated, individualistic, self-determining, narcissistic worship, lacking a sense of connectedness to the Great Tradition of the Church. We are called to lead worship that is shaped by scripture. But we are called, as well, to lead worship that is formed by the wisdom and Divine life of the Great Tradition that is found within the Church. This wisdom and life of the Church reveals and embraces the apostolic faith, and bears the holiness, righteousness and transforming power of Christ to the entire created order. We, the Church, participate with Christ in the power and assistance of the Holy Spirit in transfiguring creation and calling it forth into the New Eden of God, the Heavenly Jerusalem, the eschatological purpose of the Church, both now, in this age, and in the age to come. God help us to be faithful to that call.

In his book, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”[4]

“He cannot have God for his Father,” wrote St. Cyprian, “who has not the Church for his mother.”

Bob Webber wrote in the epilogue to the AEF Call:

We pray that we can move with intention to proclaim a loving, transcendent, triune God who has become involved in our history. In line with Scripture, creed and tradition, it is our deepest desire to embody God’s purposes in the mission of the Church through our theological reflection, our worship, our spirituality and our life in the world, all the while proclaiming that Jesus [the Christ, the Son of the Living God] is Lord over all creation.[5]

Thanks be to God.


[1] G. K. Chesterton, The Catholic Church and Conversion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1926), 111.

[2] A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future, © Northern Seminary 2006, Robert Webber and Phil Kenyon. Permission is granted to reproduce the call in unaltered form with proper citation.

[3] Simon Chan, Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 43.

[4] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 62

[5] Robert Webber and Phil Kenyon, A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future.

About the author

Dr. James R. Hart served as President of the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies from 2007-2024.