Monday, July 02, 2007

Christ Redefines the Feasts

I want to posit an idea in this post that isn't new of itself. However, I have encountered it primarily among dispensationalists and I am wondering what we (having rejected dispensationalism) might take from it. If Lev 23 lays out an observance of time that is centered upon Christ (as I have argued), then we would expect to be able to look closer and see evidence of this. So let's do as much and see how we fare. Nota Bene: I am setting aside the Sabbath in the following because I believe it is an overarching principle that must be dealt with separately.

It is recognized by all that the first observance commanded, namely Passover, looked back to Israel's deliverance from the slavery of Egypt. From this side of the cross, we see that that very deliverance was a figure of Christ's work to deliver us from the bondage of sin. The lamb is central to the observance of Passover and becomes a key figure, especially in Isaiah and the Gospels, for the Messiah. Now that Christ has come and the cross work is finished, Passover has been redefined so that we look back to the cross and forward to the ultimate and perfect fruit of the cross work: the redemption of creation (and of special interest to us, of the elect). Although we observe communion weekly, or monthly, or quarterly, as the case may be, we do so always with Holy Week in view. Communion and Passover are inextricably linked.

Next, we come to the feast of firstfruits. This is an important step in our thinking. Christ nowhere explicitly reinterprets this for us, so we might be justified in arguing that its observance, in whatever sense, can be dismissed. However, Christ was resurrected on Firstfruits. And inasmuch, he is the Firstfruit...he is the firstborn among many brethren. We understand Firstfruits not as a literal celebration of the grace of God in his provision wrought from the earth itself, but in the provision of the first righteous man in the great work of redemption. And so, Resurrection Sunday is our Christian observance of Firstfruits.

Fifty days later (according to Lev 23) is the feast of Weeks. Can anyone miss that fact that God is following a pattern here? Christ is crucified on Passover, Resurrected on Firstfruits, and the Spirit descends upon the church at Pentecost, the conclusion to the Feast of Weeks. I am still studying Weeks to understand it well enough to draw a correlation between the two. For that matter I feel as though my understanding of Pentecost and the coming of the HS could use some tweaking as well. So I will have to revisit this topic.

We now have a trajectory through the feasts. Is there any dissent? Are there any among my readers that would begrudge this assertion? Are the feasts not clearly symbolic of the overarching work of redemption that God is unfolding in creation? If we are agreed that it is so, then it is with great interest that we turn to Trumpets. In redemptive history, we seem to have come to a standstill of sorts. Although the kingdom is certainly present and (I would argue) advancing, and the work of redemption is still unfolding, we have not experienced the next great event in redemptive history as it is foretold. Christ will return to His people. There will be final judgment. And we will enter into eternal rest in perfect community with God and one another. My study for the time being will take me into the remaining feasts (Trumpets, Atonement, and Booths) and how they may correlate to such events.

I want to make on thing clear, however. I am not interested in predictive effort. My point in this exercise, contra the dispensationalists, is not to ascertain the timing of Christ's Second Coming, which I believe to be a wasted effort, and moreso, contrary to the spirit taught by Christ and the apostles. I am trying, rather, to determine how our cyclical observance of time might be properly related to the OT command to observe these feasts forever. How might this command, properly understood and reinterpreted in light of Christ, change or inform our worship, both our annual cycle and within the observance of the feasts themselves.

So far we have seen that the church is keeping the feasts as commanded in the observance of communion, Resurrection Sunday, and Pentecost. However, after this we are in ordinary time until Advent. I'm curious to find out if Advent (during which time we look back to the coming of Christ into time and space, but more importantly look forward to his coming again) is not correlated to Trumpets.

One thing is clearly taught by those that observe a Christian year...the point of such observance is essentially to unite ourselves to Christ in a more tangible and physical way by re-enacting his life and ministry each year. By such observance, we are reminded of the life and ministry of the one to whom we are to conform, and in so observing, find ourselves being conformed! So the Christian year is consciously formed upon the life and ministry of Christ. This is a fascinating point to me given that trajectory I'm arguing for in this post: The feasts commanded by God for the ordering of the Jewish annual cycle also seem to be structured around the life and ministry of Christ. This is not accidental.

To someone raised in a liturgical tradition, it may seem as if I am reinventing the wheel with all this. But for those of us not only raised outside such tradition, but in traditions that demand that anything we do be biblically based, it is very important that we attempt to understand this biblically. This is especially of importance as we begin to evaluate the fuller tradition in the liturgical year. Is it, for example, proper to observe all the very many feast days and saints days that have accrued over the centuries? Cranmer himself dealt with this when formulating the prayer book. He removed a great many feasts and saints days from the Christian year. I think he might have been motivated primarily by a desire to simplify the observance of the Christian calendar, but that does not negate the clear implication that he felt comfortable doing so! He could only have felt at liberty to abandon these days if he did not feel compelled to observe them in the first place.

The question for us today, especially those that are not confessionally tied to the Prayer Book, is this: has the church once again accrued unnecessary feasts? More fundamentally, did Cranmer succeed in reducing the calendar to its essentials? In reflecting upon our own tradition, is it proper, necessary, or even helpful to reduce the calendar to its essentials. Must we only do those things commanded, or are we at liberty to add those things to our worship that might be helpful or have some wisdom in their observance. I suspect that the regulative principle would answer that we may not add, and this will be something for us to consider in the coming posts.


M. Jay Bennett said...

". . . it is very important that we attempt to understand this biblically."

I think this is the key with regard to convincing others within our tradition to embrace an official liturgy similar to the book of Common Prayer.

Hart makes a good case from history, a case to which I am willing to ascribe a lot of credence. But in the end those in our camp, I think, will need to see that a particular liturgical structure is biblically defensible if they are to be persuaded. (Hart may do this later in his book. I'm only a couple chapters in.)

What do you think?

Matt Bradley said...

I think you are on the right track. It comes down to the issue of the regulative principle in worship I think. How is the principle understood? Should it be applied according to a looser understanding or a more strict understanding? If we apply a more strict understanding, can we establish an argument for a higher liturgy from the Scripture to the satisfaction of at least a majority in our tradition?

The answer lies in part in our conclusion regarding the particular form of the liturgy we espouse. Is it eisegesis if we find a liturgy and then attempt to defend it biblically? Perhaps. In that case, we must start with Scripture and see what form it teaches and then follow that form. This would be very much in accordance with the regulative principle, I should think.

What causes me to pause with regard to the regulative principle is that it seems to rule out, if applied too strictly, forms of worship that are very beneficial in leading us to the greatest glorification of Christ in our worship. But this is just a hunch I have. Further study will support me or refute me.

In short, I think that any effort to encourage a reconsideration of liturgy among Presbyterians ultimately begs three questions:

1) What shape should the liturgy take? OR What does the scripture teach with regard to the forms of worship? In other words, what are we encouraging them to do and is it biblical?

2) What part does or should the regulative principle play in this discussion? OR How should we apply the regulative principle to this question? In other words: Is this Presbyterian or at least Presbyterian enough?

3) What form should the encouragement take? In other words, how should we seek to affect change? Should we be actively seeking a rule of worship to which everyone must conform, or would it be better to establish a form of worship which is allowable according to our confessional standards and scripture and then invite congregations and presbyteries to commit themselves to this form as they are so moved?

As important as all the other peripheral discussions will be, I think these are the three questions that must be carefully asked and answered.