Theology and worship are, or at least ought to be, inseparable. Furthermore, every Christian is a theologian, not just the academics. And we Christians should follow the examples of our early brothers and sisters in Christ who “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). What a fine description of the theological task within the life of the Church!
Dennis Okholm has done a great service to the Church, then, by writing Learning Theology through the Church’s Worship: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Baker Academic, 2018), an accessible introduction to Christian theology that highlights the connections between Christian doctrine and worship. If you’re looking for a brief (242 pages) lex orandi, lex credendi (roughly: “the law of praying is the law of believing”) introduction to systematic theology—perhaps to use for adult catechesis in your church—this book is for you!
Okholm (Ph.D., Princeton Theological Seminary) is an Anglican priest, a canon theologian (Diocese of C4SO), and a professor of theology (Azusa Pacific University). He freely admits that Learning Theology through the Church’s Worship is in many ways a more accessible heir to Geoffrey Wainwright’s Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine, and Life, A Systematic Theology (Oxford, 1980). He writes that “I wanted to do something in the same spirit [as Wainwright] that would be accessible to students who had little or no previous knowledge of theology, liturgy, or both. Hence, this book” (ix).
What’s in the book?
Here’s the table of contents:
- Preface: How to Read This Book
- Liturgical Ophthalmology, or Why Christian Theology and Ethics Begin and End with Worship // We Enter by “Gathering”
- What Is Christian Theology? // We Pray the “Collect” of the Day
- What Are the Sources for and the Results of Doing Theology? // We Hear Scripture and Respond in the “Liturgy of the Word”
- Who Is God? The Doctrine of the Trinity // We Recite the “Creed” in Response to Hearing the Word
- Who Is Jesus Christ? Christology // We Ponder the Creed’s Meaning for Our Belief in Jesus Christ
- How Did the World Come into Existence and What Keeps It Going? Creation and Providence // We Join in the “Prayers of the People”: Thanksgiving and Intercession for the World and the Church
- What Is a Human Being? Theological Anthropology // We Kneel in the “Confession” of Our Sins
- What Did Christ Do for Humans? Soteriology // We Hear That We Are Forgiven in the “Absolution”
- Who Is the Holy Spirit and What Does the Holy Spirit Do? Pneumatology // We Pray the “Epiclesis” That Invokes the Holy Spirit’s Active Presence in Communion
- What Is the Church? Ecclesiology // We Continue the “Liturgy of the Table” with the “Passing of the Peace of Christ”
- The Sacraments // We Practice “Baptism” and Celebrate “Eucharist”
- What Is the Future of God, Humans, and the World? Eschatology // The “Dismissal” That Sends Us Out into the World from Which We Gathered
- The Benediction
- Appendix: Examples of Assignments to Be Used with This Book
As you can tell from the chapter titles/subtitles, Okholm works his way through standard theological topics (prolegomena, christology, ecclesiology, etc.) while pairing them with various elements from Christian liturgy (creed, prayers of the people, confession, absolution, etc.).
Like any good introduction to systematic theology, Okholm’s covers a lot of ground, both topically and historically, while managing to keep things accessible for newcomers.
Unique strengths of Okholm’s work include, among other things:
- His definition and description of theology as “(a) human (b) response to the revelation of God, done (c) within and for the Christian Church, which engages in (d) critical reflection for responsible talk about God” (p. 25, original italics removed).
- His discussion of the relationship between Christian liturgy and the development of the canon of Scripture (pp. 61–65).
- His discussion of the relationship between Christian liturgy and the development of the doctrine of the Trinity (pp. 81ff.).
My main quibble with the book is that, while it will do much to educate the student who has little or no previous knowledge of theology, it will not do (as) much, on its own, to bring the reader up to speed on the form and content of Christian liturgy, especially if they are coming from a tradition with less explicit/traditional liturgy. For example, although Okholm engages with the content of the creed(s) at length, there is very little substantive engagement with other liturgical elements like the collects, prayers of the people, confession, and absolution. Put simply, this book is a better introduction to systematic theology than an introduction to liturgy, and it could be helpfully supplemented by (1) active liturgical worship and (2) books such as Frank Senn’s Introduction to Christian Liturgy or Simon Chan’s Liturgical Theology.
To be fair, though, the author explicitly hopes “that professors will supplement this text with whatever they think students need in addition” (x). And perhaps touching lightly on the actual content of liturgy, in addition to being a necessity to keep the book ecumenical, would be less of a weakness if the book were used in the context of the liturgical life of an actual church. I could easily imagine this being used by a parish as a text for adult catechesis or Sunday school.
For an accessible, worship-oriented introduction to Christian Theology, pick up a copy of Dennis Okholm’s Learning Theology through the Church’s Worship today!
Disclosure: I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.