What We Believe

Evangelical versus Liturgical? by Melanie C. Ross

Matthew W. Kingsbury

Evangelical versus Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy, by Melanie C. Ross. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014, xv + 149 pages, $17.00, paper.

In Evangelical versus Liturgical? Melanie C. Ross proposes to defy the commonly assumed dichotomy between evangelical churches and those that employ a high-church liturgy drawn from the historic Christian tradition. This project of challenging ecclesiastical categories, at least in theme, will be familiar to Orthodox Presbyterians who have been following our own D. G. Hart, especially his The Lost Soul of American Protestantism.[1] It may also challenge some of the dichotomies, and liturgical assumptions, of many OPC pastors.

In her introduction, Ross, a liturgical scholar at Yale Divinity School, references Gordon Lathrop’s formulation of the dichotomy: the liturgical fourfold ordo of word, bath, table, and prayer versus the evangelical threefold ordo of warm-up, sermon, conversion (3).[2] Through a historical comparison of Charles Finney and George Whitefield (chapter 1), two case studies of evangelical congregations (chapters 2 and 5), and putting liturgical scholars in dialogue with evangelical theologians (chapters 3 and 4), she questions whether this formula, while convenient, accurately describes the lived experience of modern churches. Along the way, the reader quickly observes it is also shorthand for a number of other assumptions, and these together create the challenge to today’s confessional Presbyterian in America.

In fact, Ross explores less a dichotomy than a collection of overlapping dichotomies: evangelical vs. liberal (48ff); an emphasis on theological content over liturgical shape (55); fundamentalist/evangelical vs. ecumenical (56); gnostic (or non-sacramental) vs. canonical (i.e., the visible church as divinely instituted by the means of grace, 88);[3] evangelical vs. mainline (126); evangelical vs. critical biblical scholarship (132ff). Ross writes as a liturgical scholar for liturgical scholars, and these categories reflect the assumptions of the camp, which (unsurprisingly) are somewhat hostile to evangelical faith and practice. With varying degrees of success, Ross subverts and challenges these categories in an attempt to promote dialogue and mutual edification between the liturgical and evangelical camps. In this sense, Ross effectively defies the dichotomy and gives liturgical scholars reason to critically explore, rather than dismiss, the worship theory and practice of American evangelicalism. As this is the latest in the prestigious Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies series, she may even persuade some to do so.

If the OPC has liturgical scholars, they are the ministers of Word and sacrament serving our congregations, and those may struggle to orient themselves within the dichotomies listed in the preceding paragraph. That struggle, and its implicit challenge to our interpretive paradigms, offers a great help to pastors ministering within the context of American confessional Presbyterianism: “help” in the sense of at least three ways to reconceive our ministries and our place in the American ecclesiastical context.

Orthodox Presbyterians seeking a mooring for their identity in this book between the Scylla of Finneyite evangelicals and the Charybdis of liberal liturgists may find themselves in Robert Webber’s distinction

between “separatist” and “ecumenical” evangelicals. The former ... “define themselves over against Catholic, Orthodox, and mainline Protestant denominations....” The latter are those who campaign for “a return to weekly Eucharist, a recognition of real presence, [and] the restoration of the church year.” ... Ecumenical evangelicals, Webber observes, are often repentant separatists.... (3)[4]

Historically, the OPC, along with our friends in NAPARC,[5] is decidedly on the separatist side. However, as the three specific liturgical reforms Webber cites are gaining traction in our circles among (relatively) younger ministers who are at least, if not more, committed to robust confessionalism than their immediate predecessors, we may be ready to shed our separatist impulses.

This leads to a second way in which to reimagine ourselves in the ecumenical landscape. The liturgical renewal movement was an ecumenical force which swept through mainline Protestantism after the Second World War, allowing divergent ecclesiastical traditions to work together on the basis of liturgical commonalities.[6] In principle, there is no reason this type of cooperation must remain the provenance of the doctrinally declined. As the congregation that I serve has followed The Revised Common Lectionary for several cycles now, I have discovered a point of contact with brethren in conservative Lutheran and Anglican traditions.[7] While I believe the liturgical reforms mentioned above are driven primarily by pastoral concerns, they can also turn us outward toward the “separated brethren” in our local communities.

If we are to turn toward other confessional Protestants, we will, in the third place, have to turn away from our de facto embrace of evangelical liturgics. While the regulative principle of worship is a bedrock of confessional Presbyterianism, by itself it forms a rather weak practical foundation on which to build an order of worship.[8] Given the infrequency with which they celebrate the Eucharist or baptism, many of our congregations can hardly be said to follow the fourfold ordo of word, bath, table, and prayer. Instead, we come much closer to a threefold ordo of warm-up, sermon, and hymn. This is evidenced by congregations in which the first part of the service (which may contain a complex of formal elements such as an invocation, reading of the Law, confession, and declaration of pardon) bears no thematic relationship to the sermon itself.[9] Further, how many of our pastors deliver what is in effect a second sermon when celebrating the Lord’s Supper because the sacrament is not perceived to be inseparably related to the Word preached? We would all do well to consider the examples of Eastbrook and West Shore churches (chapters 2 and 5), which, while they can justly be criticized on regulative principle grounds, nonetheless strive to make their worship services thematically coherent wholes out of a desire to both edify worshipers and glorify God.

To press the point home: what makes Christians into faithful lifelong disciples? For many of us, the answer would no doubt be personal appropriation of orthodox biblical doctrine, as taught in our confessional standards. However, Westminster Shorter Catechism 88 (but really through to 107) suggests disciples are formed primarily through the ordinary means of grace, especially as they are experienced in corporate worship: Word, sacrament, and prayer.[10] In other words, our own standards sympathize with liturgical concerns.

At the present moment, the OPC is neither evangelical nor liturgical, with all that both of those terms imply. As Melanie C. Ross explores those traditions and their relationship, she invites us, with them (as she quotes D. G. Hart), to return to the riches of the Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions where these matters have been defined and articulated and where worship is the logical extension of a congregation’s confession of faith and lies at the heart of the church’s mission (10).


[1] Which work is cited by Ms. Ross; Hart also gets a block quote on page 10.

[2] Which, in chapter 1, she traces to the Second Great Awakening and Charles Finney (12–19).

[3] This comparison is the subject of all of chapter 3 (77–103).

[4] Ross here cites Webber’s “The Impact of the Liturgical Movement on the Evangelical Church,” Reformed Liturgy and Music 21, no. 2 (1987): 111. Webber (1933–2007) was a theologian who focused on worship.

[5] North American Presbyterian and Reformed Churches.

[6] To the extent that I grew up in the United Christian Parish in Reston, Virginia, a cooperative endeavor between five liberal denominations, beginning in 1973, which, during my youth, had three congregations served by pastors from three denominations but with one order of worship followed by all.

[7] And a means by which to speak both winsomely and evangelistically to Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.

[8] How many of our ministers were required to take a class on liturgics in seminary? How many ordination trials include even one question on liturgics (as distinguished from defining the regulative principle of worship)?

[9] I was once a member of a PCA congregation in which the first part of the service followed the Shorter Catechism’s exposition of the Law, while the sermon (longer than the rest of the service combined) was a consecutive exposition of Scripture.

[10] In other words, the fourfold ordo. See Ross’s discussion of this issue on pp. 53-55, which summarize chapter 3’s case study of Eastbrook Church in Wisconsin.

Matthew W. Kingsbury is the pastor of Park Hill Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Denver, Colorado. Ordained Servant Online, May 2015.

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