The God We Worship (Wolterstorff)


Puritanboard Amanuensis
Wolterstorff, Nicholas. The God We Worship: An Exploration of Liturgical Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015.

I usually get nervous when I read new books about liturgical theology. The experience reminds me of the old prayer, “Protect us from other people’s good ideas.” Fortunately, this is not Nicholas Wolterstorff’s aim. He isn’t “renovating” traditional liturgies. Rather, by bringing all of his philosophical acumen to bear, he explores what we mean by our conceptual statements within worship.

Wolterstorff defines liturgical theology as “the site where the church, by means of the work of its theologians and philosophers, arrives at a self-understanding of the theology implicit and explicit in its liturgy.” There is more in this claim than is apparent on its surface. This plays directly not only in the type of God we worship (e.g., his attributes and properties) but in what we are able to say about this God.

God’s excellence: What “grounds” God’s excellence? Wolterstorff suggests it is God’s glory, a theme common in the Psalms.

God’s holiness: for Jonathan Edwards God’s holiness is altogether attractive. It is “beauty and sweetness.” It’s certainly that, but when you look at Isaiah 6 that’s not really the picture we see. No doubt Isaiah thought God beautiful and sweet; nevertheless, in the passage he recoiled. Barth, on the other hand, says God’s holiness is in the judging actions of God’s love. Again, that might be true but that’s not what is evident in Isaiah.

Isaiah, by contrast, felt unclean. God’s holiness is God’s space.

The next chapter is titled “The God Who is Vulnerable.” This seems like we are already off to a bad start. Is Wolterstorff denying impassibility? Is he saying God can suffer? No. He isn’t saying God is vulnerable to passions, but that God is vulnerable to being wronged. Can we wrong God? Certainly. Does this mean he is suffering? I don’t think so. If we are duty-bound to God praise and glory to God, and we refuse to do so, are we not wronging God?

When we praise and speak to God, we are entering into the realm of speech-acts (and also raising the sometimes uncomfortable issue of whether God can respond). Wolterstorff makes the following claim:

(1) In our liturgy we are addressing God as one who is a listener.

Here we are starting to cut hard against a traditional type of theology, an extreme form of divine simplicity seen in Maimonides and some medieval Christians, that views God as a purely simple essence who can’t listen (or speak) because he already knows all possibilities. If God is the ground of being or the Unconditioned Condition why would he bother responding? Indeed, it’s doubtful he could speak.

We will return to Maimonides’ bad theology. For now, we should reflect on what it means to speak. In speech act theory we have several terms:

Locutionary act: It is raining. A locutionary act is the sentence.
Illocutionary act: My act of asserting “it is raining.”

The point is this: my locutionary act, as Wolterstorff points out is perceptible. You can hear me utter the sentence “It is raining” (or you can see me write it, etc). It functions akin to a universal. My act of making this, my illocutionary act, it’s imperceptible. What I think Wolterstoff is saying is that my illocutionary act is tied to intentionality. I am intending to make this statement (and I, in fact, do). You can’t see my intentionality.

The relationship between locutionary act and illocutionary act is not causal. One act doesn’t cause another. Wolterstorff suggests that the act is a “counting-as” act. “My performance of that locutionary act counts as my illocutionary act.” This will make more sense when we get to prayer and preaching.

Maimonides, having reduced almost all of the biblical statements about God to anthropomorphisms, had to address the problem of whether God could even hear us. This is related to but not identical with the Calvinist problem of why pray. Since God is immaterial and doesn’t have eardrums, can he “hear” our vocal vibrations in the air? We would say, “He doesn’t need to, since he can see our thoughts.” True enough, but then why pray aloud at all?

Speech-act theory offers a way of dealing with this issue. “To speak is not to express some mental state but to perform some illocutionary act,” so Wolterstorff says. Yes, most of the time the illocutionary act reveals my mental states, but the two aren’t identical. Strictly speaking whether God can hear my vocal words is irrelevant to the nature of speech, if speech is understood as an illocutionary act. The aim of these acts is that “God will attend to them, grasp them, and respond favorably.”

Pace Maimonides, they aren’t bodily actions. We perform them by doing something with our bodies. It doesn’t matter that God doesn’t have ears. Not even humans can bodily perceive illocutionary acts. If we say that God listens, we mean that “God attends to and understands imperceptible particulars of a certain sort, namely, illocutionary acts.”

If we say that God listens to our prayer, do we expect him to perform some speech act in response? Wolterstorff goes on to describe the distinction between analogical predication and analogical extension. As I understand him, analogical extension is when we use a predicate, “is f,” of something when we use it to say of something that “it possesses the property of either being f or something a good deal like it.”

If I say “My dog is a gem,” I am speaking analogically, meaning my dog is precious. He has little in common with the properties of “gem-ness.” Analogical extension is a bit stronger. This is what we mean when we say that God “attends to” or “grasps” our prayers.

Having successfully dispatched Maimonides’ first objection, Maimonides (or the tradition he represents) would respond, “Yeah, but does God speak to you? He doesn’t have vocal cords.” Further, would not God’s speaking (and hence acting in miracle) violate the causal order?

Wolterstorff dodges these questions. He responds with a fine exposition of the Lord’s Prayer but never really deals with Maimonides. He does deal with something like it. God speaks to us in the liturgy via the preaching of the word and the proclamation that our sins are forgiven. I suppose that deals with one angle of Maimonides’ objection, though it doesn’t address the claim of miracles and the causal order.

Without entering into the cessationist vs. continuationist debate, one line of response would be found in 1 Cor. 12-14 in terms of prophets’ hearing God speak. Of course, Wolterstorff in contrast to Barth deals with Old Testament prophets speaking on behalf of God (this would be similar to a “counting-as” relation). Further, given what Wolterstorff said earlier about illocutionary acts not being causal, would that not provide a line of response to Maimonides?

Notwithstanding the above observation, this is a fine and unique book on liturgical theology.