Worship by the Book by D.A. Carson – A Review

Worship by the Book edited by D.A. Carson combines two main elements related to worship; a theology of worship and the practical implementation of that theology. Carson sets out to establish what genuine worship is according to an honest reading of Scripture and then provides three chapters to demonstrate how others are taking Scripture and applying it to their weekly worship services. After Carson lays the groundwork with a definition and brief theology of worship, three pastors, Mark Ashton, R. Kent Hughes, and Timothy J. Keller, provide their own substantiation of Carson’s work and discuss their particular denominational usage of the theology described. So, what follows are three chapters devoted to “theological reflection to practical implementation of patterns of corporate worship” (7). 

Carson makes no apology for the format of the book, citing many things that his book is not doing. He admits to this work being less than a comprehensive theology of worship, or a detailed historical account of worship. He also warns the reader that what follows is not simply a “how to” book with the opportunity to fill in the blank with your own church name. Therefore, the main thrust of the book is to seamlessly move from doing theology to do practical worship during a Sunday morning service. All of the authors warn of understanding worship just in the sense of a Sunday morning activity, but that is nevertheless where the practical elements of the book end up. 

The first several pages of Carson’s chapter moves him toward a lengthy definition of worship, but in these initial pages he points out a few key themes that makes the ongoing worship wars discussion so difficult. Staying consistent with Carson’s other works, such as Exegetical Fallacies, he shows the fallacious method of arriving at a conclusion about any theological topic, especially worship, through the means of a word study alone. Carson notes the differences that each Biblical author might have when using the word and there is a cultural difference between the way the Greek and Hebrew words for worship line up with our modern understanding. Even more important is the distinction Carson makes between arriving at a definition of worship through either systematic theology or biblical theology. Carson warns that an overemphasis of either approach without a proper balance will lead to a skewed understanding of how the Bible speaks about worship. 

Finally, after a brief mention of David Peterson’s Engaging with God, Carson elaborates with a detailed definition of worship that spans half a page. By his own admission, the definition is long and complex. However, Carson spends the rest of his chapter breaking apart his definition phrase by phrase. A basic summary of his definition is that worship ascribes proper worth to God and consists of both adoration and action. In other words, if our worship does not cause sincere action for others on our part, then true worship is lacking. 

The Anglican pastor Mark Ashton writes the second chapter concerning worship through the lens of Thomas Cranmer and the Book of Common Prayer. The discussion centers around the 21st century debate for the Anglican use of the Book of Common Prayer. Ashton is fair in his assessment that both sides of the argument are lacking; the historical side who wants to stick with the original language of Cranmer’s work is missing the big picture because the whole point was to provide a liturgy in the language of the people. However, the contemporaries who want to do away with the concept all together are missing the power of Cranmer’s achievement and contribution to worship. That contribution and legacy are centered around three elements from Cranmer’s work; biblical, accessible, and balanced. Ashton moves from how Cranmer used these concepts in his approach to worship and then transitions into how the contemporary church must do the same thing in order for Cranmer’s legacy to remain useful and influential. Throughout the course of his chapter, Ashton continues to tie the effectiveness of the Book of Common Prayer to its close relationship with the Bible. He says, “it was actually the Bible that gave the Book of Common Prayer its power” (108).

R. Kent Hughes takes the next chapter and spends some time talking about the Free Church movement and how worship is manifested in that arena. He spends a good deal of time revisiting some aspects of Worship that Carson highlighted in his chapter, including the action, adoration, and God-centered of worship. Hughes then goes into practical elements in almost a Dutch Uncle kind of talk, speaking of the need for musicians to be well prepared and having the maturity to remove themselves from the platform even at the last minute if they realize that are not ready for worship. Hughes understands music in worship as an instrument of service to the preached Word. He calls music the “servant of preaching” (167). 

The final chapter written by Tim Keller, a Presbyterian pastor, focuses on the differences between contemporary and historical worship. Taking a position similar to Ashton, he warns that any extreme position to either side will not prove effective for today’s church. To that end he says, “I believe the solution to the problem of the ‘worship wars’ is neither to reject nor to enshrine historic tradition but to forge new forms of corporate worship that take seriously both our histories and contemporary realities” (198). 

After describing the need to properly understand both the historic and contemporary aspects of worship, Keller then moves into the Reformed tradition and more specifically, how Calvin understood worship. Once again, the need for balance is cited as a motivating factor behind Calvin’s corporate worship. What is described is a similar position that Carson and Ashton both elaborated on; the requirement for the edification of one another and the ascribing proper worth to God. One of the distinctive qualities of Calvin’s worship is that he kept it simple. This agrees with Calvin’s philosophy on writing and his commentaries, brevity and simplicity, he says, is best. At the heart of everything, however, is the centrality of the Word of God. Although it does not give detail to every aspect of how corporate worship should be organized, it must remain the central player in the worship discussion. Keller finished his discussion with the local Reformed church and how to best implement Calvin’s method into the church today, giving considerable attention to the need to contemporize language and music without losing the content and meaning. 

The strength of Worship by the Book is the first chapter. D.A. Carson effectively leads the way by giving a thorough and understandable account for what worship is and what it is not. Especially effective is his explanation of the definition of worship he provides, especially in the section concerning human worship this side of the fall. Carson correctly asserts that all humans, regardless of their intent or desire, will end up worshipping someone or something and that this self-centered worship has led to some of the unrest we are experiencing in our churches today. What is extraordinarily helpful is the list of practical conclusions Carson makes at the end of his chapter. He summarizes all that he has said in a succinct fashion and provides a way for the reader to be refreshed of the content without taking the time to read over the chapter in its entirety. 

Any book authored or edited by D.A. Carson is worth a look and Worship by the Book is no exception. As with most books, a select percentage of the readership will find more treasure hidden in its pages than others. The book succeeds in laying out a nice definition and theological explanation of worship. It fails in the continuity of the definition and the appendices are not as helpful as they appear. Having said that, Worship by the Book is a good source for thoughts on worship from a series of pastors who can be trusted. That alone makes it worth the read.

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