We Have Seen His Glory: A Vision of Kingdom Worship
By Ben Witherington, III
Reviewed by Dr. Andrew Snider
21.2 (Fall 2010) : 266-268
This is the latest offering from the Liturgical Studies Series which is facilitated by John D. Witvliet and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Prominent NT scholar Ben Witherington III is concerned that there is no significant theological treatment of worship from the NT perspective. This book is his attempt to fill that gap with an eschatologically-oriented approach to worship, as the subtitle of the book demonstrates.
Chapter 1 is a meditation on John 4 and Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. The author draws the conclusion that God is seeking eschatological worshipers, those who realize that worship is now possible anywhere, because the Spirit has been poured out on all kinds of people. Witherington also drives home the point that worship is “the ultimate ethical act” and is in fact “the ultimate Reviews 269 fulfillment of the Shema, the Great Commandment, and indeed the First and Second Commandments” (7-8).
Chapter 2 centers on a sermon by the author which relates the worship experiences of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and the apostle John in Revelation 4–5. The author makes several points related to the centrality of God and His glory in worship, rightly pointing out that true worship is a response to God’s initiative in revealing Himself and establishing relationship with His creatures.
The rest of the book follows this paradigm—meditations on key passages of Scripture and extrabiblical evidence with regard to worship: the Sabbath and Christian worship as a kind of work (chapter 3), the early church and its continuities and discontinuities with Judaism and the synagogue (chapter 4), Christian singing and praying from the perspective of Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 (including a focus on the Christological hymn fragments in the NT, chapter 5), preaching and the rhetorical world of the NT (chapter 6), a further consideration of the issue of worship and work (chapter 7), and the final chapter, which seeks to draw much of this together under the rubric of Kingdom-oriented worship.
The final chapter, in which the author tries to tie the discussion together coherently, is by far the best chapter in the book. Here Witherington recapitulates and reemphasizes the best themes of the book: worship must be theocentric and Christocentric instead of anthropocentric; worship should have a forward-look, an eschatological element that looks forward to the “not yet” from the perspective in the “already”; and Witherington’s strong and unapologetic call for deeper, stronger preaching.
Also on a positive note, his discussion of the Christological benedictions and doxologies of the NT is helpful, for one of the difficulties of worship theology is demonstrating biblically the transition from OT to NT worship. His discussion of the Lord’s Prayer follows this naturally, although the implications Witherington draws for NT corporate worship sometimes feel a bit strained.
The rest of the book, unfortunately, does not cohere well in that it is often unclear how the material being presented or argued contributes to the author’s case for eschatological, Kingdom-oriented worship. For example, Witherington’s lengthy consideration of whether the earliest Christians were averse to purpose-built structures for worship may be timely in view of the house-church movement, but it does not fit comfortably in this book. Also, on the topic of preaching, the author spends 11 pages (87-98) making an impassioned case for his larger agenda in NT interpretation: rhetorical criticism (cf. his New Testament Rhetoric [Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2008]) with no clear connection to the matter at hand.
In addition, certain suggestions made by Witherington regarding worship are left unclear or undeveloped. His assertion near the beginning that “eschatological worship dwells no more in the past” (9) is both reiterated and softened at various points in the book. The author makes no extended attempt to show how he balances this assertion with the obvious emphasis on the historical realities of the faith that must permeate all Christian worship. In the end, his weighty conclusion is not only questionable but potentially dangerous: “[A]lthough eschatological worship in the twenty-first century needs to remember the past, including the past works of Christ, it must be essentially a form of forward motion, not retrograde action. We must go boldly where we have not gone before. This means new liturgies, new hymns, new praises, new forms of worship, new openness to the Spirit, and new forms of church as well as renewed focus on the teaching and preaching office of the minister” (158). The body of Witherington’s book does not come anywhere close to justifying such a comprehensive and paradigm-shifting suggestion.
Other examples of unclear or undeveloped ideas could be cited, including his notion that God does not want to receive glory, for that would be self-centered (12-13, a notion that does not even sit well with the subtitle of the book). In this category would also be Witherington’s repeated use of the language of vision-catching: he is most anxious that the church “catch the vision” of Kingdom worship (see especially chapter 2), but there is little in the book to help the reader tell whether he or she has made progress in catching it.
To summarize, Witherington’s book contains an invigorating introduction and a variously profound conclusion, but the journey from the former to the latter is a bumpy one indeed, with many side excursions along the way. Though there are significant insights on a number of topics (some directly related to corporate worship, some apparently not), it does not receive this reviewer’s recommendation as a must-have on the topic of the theology or practice of worship.