Origin of Folding Hands in Prayer

folded handsOne of the fun things about studying worship and liturgy is finding out the origin of things we do, either consciously or unconsciously.  One of my pet peeves is all the well-intentioned Sunday school teachers who exhort their students to “close your eyes and fold your hands” in prayer.  Where does the Bible command this?  Where do we see this bodily position used in Biblical prayer?  We don’t, as far as I know.  Imagine my delight when I came across a passage, from Miri Rubin’s Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture, which explains the origin of this wide-spread custom.  In the late medieval period, it was commonly thought that great blessings and spiritual merit came from seeing, and viewing, the bread of the Eucharist.  The most powerful and effective viewing time was when the priest lifted up (elevated) the Eucharist.  We have records of people running from church to church to see as many elevated Eucharists as they could.  Since this was a holy moment, the people were encouraged to respond appropriately:

medieval eucharist“Proper humility was recommended at this moment, when people were to kneel and gaze at the body and the blood.  This is the attitude most commonly shown in visual representations of the elevation, a group of men and women with clasped hands, and sometimes holding their hands to their mouths in a gesture of awe, kneeling behind the servers and priest.  They are most frequently shown to be clasping their hands in a gesture which becomes increasingly common in thirteenth-century representations, one which we nowadays think of as natural for private prayer” (Corpus Christi, 155-56).

child_prayingI don’t mean to be too hard on the Sunday School teachers, but it is simply interesting how we inherit all sorts of traditions from the past, and are blissfully ignorant of the origins of most things.  This should make us both more humble in our own worship practices, as well as thankful for all the rich history and traditions that have been handed down to us.  Thankfully, God sees the heart, which is really the point of prayer.  May we all have hearts full of child-like faith, no matter how we express that with our bodies!

I blogged about prayer postures some time ago:

Charles Baird’s “A Chapter on Liturgies”–Free!

I recently discovered that one of the classic texts on Presbyterian & Reformed liturgies is now available for free on Google Books!  Charles Baird’s A Chapter on Liturgies:  Historical Sketches was a ground-breaking work published in the late 1800s, when many people were ignorant of the rich liturgical history of the Reformed churches.  Baird’s project was so novel (given the anti-liturgical prejudices in the Reformed world at the time) that he published the first edition of the work anonymously.  It bore the unwieldy title of Eutaxia; Or the Presbyterian Liturgies: Historical Sketches, by A Minister of the Presbyterian Church (now republished by Forgotten Books in a facsimile format). Although the research is dated and must be compared with more recent scholarship, it is well worth perusing.  Unfortunately, much ignorance and prejudice about liturgy still prevails in Reformed churches.  Baird’s even-handed and honest history will help many churches grow and appreciate the liturgical resources in their own traditions.


Is There Balm for Evangilead?

In his article, “The Emerging Divide in Evangelical Theology,” published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 56/2 (2013), 355-77, Gerald McDermott surveys theological and cultural developments in the Evangelical world.  The article is helpful and illuminating throughout, but his three suggestions at the end of the article are directly related to the vision of the Reformed Liturgical Institute.  These suggestions are given in the hopes of healing the growing divisions in the Evangelical world.

His first suggestion is, “evangelicals would have to look more seriously at their own tradition [and he then holds up Jonathan Edwards as an example of how to be faithful to both Scripture and tradition]” (376).

Secondly, “evangelical theology would need to renounce the triumphalism that has heretofore treated church history as little more than darkness before the Reformation or 18th-century awakenings.  It would need to submit to a vision of the whole that can be found only by living in the whole (theological) tradition” (376).

“Third, evangelical theologians need to beware of the peculiarly academic sort of ambition that seeks acceptance and recognition by our liberal colleagues” (376).

His concluding observations are right on target:  “I will go so far to say that if evangelical theology does not adopt these suggestions, it will not survive.  But it will strengthen itself and preserve itself against internal dissolution if it sees itself as a reform movement in the church catholic.  The monastic movements, the Christian reform movement, the Dominican preaching revival, the Franciscans, and the Reformation itself thrived and influenced the broader church by relating to and learning from the broader church.  Only if evangelical theology sees itself as a renewal and reform movement raised up by the Spirit from amidst and for the purpose of the wider church catholic, and therefore learns from that universal church, will it save itself from disintegrating into even more subjectivist and individualistic sects, many of them neither evangelical nor orthodox.

“Evangelicals have always put a premium on the local church.  If they have talked about the universal church, typically they have thought only in terms of the universal church of fellow evangelicals.  It is time for evangelicals to look more broadly, at the universal church beyond evangelical boundaries, not only around the world today, but especially to the last two thousand years of rich theological reflection” (376-77).

The Blessed Unity of Our Singing

In A New Song for an Old World:  Musical Thought in the Early Church, Calvin Stapert shows how important congregational singing was to the early church as a visible and audible expression of Christian unity:

Building on Paul’s exhortation in Romans 15:5-6, Stapert asks:  “Does ‘with one voice’ refer directly to singing?  Probably not–at least not exclusively.  But no one can doubt that it articulates a principle that the church took very seriously for her singing.  The importance of singing ‘with one voice’ was a constant refrain among the early Christian writers.  Listen to some of its recurrences during the first few centuries of the Christian era.  Clement of Rome (ca. 96):

In the same way [as the angels] ought we ourselves, gathered together in a conscious unity, to cry to Him as it were with a single voice …

Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-ca. 215):

The union of many in one, issuing in the production of divine harmony out of a medley of sounds and division, becomes one symphony following one choir-leader and teacher, the Word, reaching and resting in the same truth, and crying Abba, Father.

Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 260-ca. 340):

And so more sweetly pleasing to God than any musical instrument would be the symphony of the people of God, by which, in every church of God, with kindred spirit and single disposition, with one mind and unanimity of faith and piety, we raise melody in unison in our psalmody.

Ambrose (ca. 339-397):

[A Psalm is] a pledge of peace and harmony, which produces one song from various and sundry voices in the manner of a cithara …  A psalm joins those with differences, unites those at odds and reconciles those who have been offended, for who will not concede to him with whom one sings to God in one voice?  It is after all a great bond of unity for the full number of people to join in one chorus.  The strings of the cithara differ, but create one harmony (symphonia).”

Stapert comments:  “Unity was an important matter to the early Christians, and, as these quotations show, almost from the beginning music was an expression of, a metaphor for, and a means toward unity” (25-26).

Did Luther Believe in Consubstantiation?

I’ve heard before that the term “consubstantiation” doesn’t really describe Luther’s theology of the Eucharist.  I’m not surprised.  It’s much easier to latch onto a quick description of someone’s views, rather than representing them faithfully.  Frank Senn, a reputable liturgical scholar and a Lutheran himself, provides some background and clarification:

“We have seen that the medieval church explained the real presence of Christ in the sacrament of the altar in terms of transubstantiation.  Luther was slow in giving up this doctrine.  He related his surprise, in Babylonian Captivity, at discovering the opinion of Peter d’Ailly of Paris that it would require fewer miracles to explain the real presence in terms of consubstantiation, since the bread and the wine would then remain on the altar with the body and blood of Christ after the consecration.  From this Luther concluded that ‘the opinion of Thomas’ on transubstantiation should have remained an opinion, and should not have been made an article of faith.  But it cannot be concluded from this that Luther held to the theory of consubstantiation.  Neither here nor in any other passage does Luther use this term to describe his own views, and it was never accepted as a doctrine in the Lutheran Confessions–although the Formula of Concord does speak of the sacramental union of ‘the two essences [Latin: substantiae; German: zwei Wesen], the natural bread and the true, natural body of Christ’ being ‘present together here on earth in the ordered action of the sacrament” (Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical, 307).

A few pages later, Senn concludes:  “The Lutheran position on the real presence, as developed in the course of the controversy with the Swiss reformers, ultimately depends on no philosophic explanation, neither consubstantiation nor even a doctrine of ubiquity.  None of these can serve the Lutheran position.  Rather, the Lutheran position depends on the mystery of the word, which is God’s effective self-communication and self-disclosure.  What is disclosed in the sacrament is the same reality that is disclosed in the incarnation:  a God who meets us deep in the flesh in order to know us as we are, forgive us, share his own life with us, and save us.  Only in the preaching of the gospel and in the performance of the sign-acts of the sacraments do we have any assurance by words of promise that God in Christ continues to come to us in a saving way” (Christian Liturgy, 310).”

Now, I’m not a Lutheran, and perhaps other Lutheran scholars might disagree with Senn’s rejection of “consubstantiation” as an accurate label for Lutheran thinking on the Eucharist.  But, I think that Senn’s summary provides an admirable statement, faithful to both Scripture and the church’s tradition.

Name-Calling Irony

As I reviewed Lee Palmer Wandel’s The Eucharist in the Reformation, something jumped out at me–the Calvinistic evangelicals of the sixteenth century were called “Sacramentarians” by their Roman Catholic and Lutheran opponents (Wandel, pg. 177).  Now, just type in “sacramentarian” + “federal vision” on Google, and see how the label has switched.  Funny how labels morph over time …

Getting the Reformation Wrong

Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some MisunderstandingsGetting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings by James R. Payton Jr.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

James Payton has produced what promises to be a remarkable book. I haven’t gotten very far, but he is already cutting the legs out from under many standard Reformed evangelical lecture quotables. I don’t know if this book will make many friends for Dr. Payton in the world of conservative Reformdom (or conservative anything-dom), but it deserves a careful reading by all those are serious about the study of history. (On a personal note, Dr. Payton is a careful scholar, as well as a kind one. When I was doing my M.A. research, he was kind enough to send me a copy of his doctoral dissertation, which related to my topic. He also helped me with a short bibliography on a topic I was pursuing at Trinity Theology College.)  Here are some of the golden nuggets I’ve found in the book so far:

Renaissance Humanism

It is a truism in discussions of Christian “world-view thinking” to say that the Renaissance was a move towards a man-centered worldview, in other words, humanism. Dr. Payton shows that we have totally mis-read the “h-word” in regard to the Renaissance:

“But during the Renaissance umanista carried no philosophic implications. Rather, it had pedgagogical ones: a ‘humanist’ was someone who taught the ‘humanities’–the liberal arts. These Renaissance figures focused not on some perceived or alleged philosophical differences from their scholastic opponents, but on the pedagogical difference from them. Where scholastics concentrated on logic, dialectic and metaphysics, Renaissance humanists focused on grammar, poetry, rhetoric and history. Rather than ensconcing themselves in the ‘professional’ schools at the universities (law, medicine and theology), the Renaissance figures emphasized the importance of preparatory or undergraduate education in its own right. Their purpose was to prepare their students to become capable and functioning members of society–not as specialists in law, medicine or theology, but as well-rounded individuals who could serve the needs of the burgeoning society in Italy. Burckhardt’s [first real historian of the Italian Renaissance] readers had committed an egregious category mistake: they had misappropriated the understanding of ‘humanism’ of their own day, with all its philosophical and humanity-centered implications, to interpret the ‘humanism’ of the Renaissance, a movement that had no such philosophical emphasis or implications,” (61-62).

“Renaissance figures produced a great deal of devotional literature, careful textual studies of the New Testament and treatises on various doctrinal topics. Rather than dismiss these as holdovers from a superstitious upbringing, scholars have come to recognize them as evidence of the Renaissance figures’ ongoing Christian commitment” (64).

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