Review–Engaging with God by David Peterson

David Peterson, Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship. InterVarsity Press, 1992. 317 pp. R449

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INTRODUCTION

The modern church of today finds itself in a rather precarious situation. It may not be the selling of indulgences or the baptizing of the dead as in bygone eras, but the church, specifically of the western hemisphere (culturally speaking) occupies a ledge with increasing challenges to authentic, biblical worship. Dominated by culture, it seems, many have caved to the pressures of today in order reach the multitudes. How does one attempt to understand our worship of God, something, I think all would admit, that is vital to our existence? Those seeking an answer need not look further than the essential contribution to this question provided by David Peterson in his Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship.

Formerly serving as the principal at Oak Hill Theological College in London, David Peterson is the author of Hebrews and Perfection and has contributed to the New Studies in Biblical Theology series with his Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness.

At the heart of this present work under study is the reality that worship is an engagement with God “on the terms that he proposes and in the way that he alone makes possible” (20). All at once, the church is warned against sentimentalism, consumerism, and pragmatism. Instead, as Peterson’s argument develops, such an engagement is to involve all of life, not just the thirty-minute songs of praise on a Sunday morning.

Summary

Whilst the definition of engaging with God above serves as the key thesis of the book, it has been helpful to discern another secondary, and perhaps derivative feature, that is key to his overall argument. If the definition above is taken to reflect the vertical axis of worship– that between God and us–then I believe that Peterson also offers a corresponding horizontal one: Engaging with God is also a clear reaction against understanding worship as simply being equated with the Sunday gathering, worship is instead to encapsulate all of life.


Engaging with God is…a clear reaction against understanding worship as simply being equated with the Sunday gathering, worship is instead to encapsulate all of life.


Peterson attempts to prove these two axes through the important art and science of biblical theology, that is, an exercise in exposing the “progressive and developing character of God’s revelation within the pages of Scripture” (21), whilst maintaining historical and exegetical fidelity (20). It is only when worship is considered in light of “God’s total plan and purpose for his people”, that vitality and meaning will be restored to Christian gatherings (21).

From Peterson’s analysis of the Old Testament we learn that worship rests in God’s initiative primarily through his self-revealing acts of redemption (48). In this way, the Exodus event is particularly paradigmatic: Israel is rescued in order to exclusively serve and worship God (26-27). This narrative shifts as the contours of Israel’s story progresses from tabernacle to temple. However, God’s rule is preeminent and if Israel is to remain his people, they must faithfully present cultic, along with whole-life, obedience (29). This is substantiated with an important survey of lexical usage that reveals worship as entailing honor, service, and respect in the whole of life (73). Worship was not merely limited to the cultic observances, but called Israel to live particular lives, lives of dependence and submission that included adoration (63).

Peterson’s argument progresses to the New Testament to consider major themes and relationships such as Jesus as the new temple (80-102), Jesus and the new covenant (108-130), as well as the life of the early church (136-160). With the advent of Christ, the one in whom God’s presence uniquely dwelt, the role of the tabernacle and temple are superseded (101). In line with Old Testament prophecy, the presence of Jesus brings about the hope of a restored temple, in which God’s purposes through Israel would be realized (95). This results in a new covenant in which Old Testament cultic phenomenon are brought to an end as the final, sufficient atoning sacrifice is given in the beloved Son (129). Jesus accomplishes the messianic salvation and makes available the blessings of the new covenant (109). These truths are shown to stand as the foundational realities that give birth to the worship rhythms of the early church (137). As those who are the direct recipients of Christ’s End-time blessings, a pivotal shift takes place from temple-Judaism to a salvation that reaches the ends of the world, transcending place and people (159). Through the out-pouring of the Spirit, a people are liberated to serve God by gathering and ministering to each other in word and deed (159).


In line with Old Testament prophecy, the presence of Jesus brings about the hope of a restored temple, in which God’s purposes through Israel would be realized.


Finally, Peterson examines the epistles of the New Testament, considering the Apostle Paul’s own ministry (166-188), the life of the early church congregations (194-221), and the eschatological hope of the church (228-279). In this new “gospel era”, expressions of faith– in word and deed– now constitute acceptable worship (187). God is said to be worshipped through the reciprocating actions of edification that take place through the life of the church (219-20). Such a life indeed reflects a heavenly reality, the true Jerusalem (254) and ultimately points to the destiny of Israel as being finally realized in the church (279). Worship, then, is inextricably tied to Christ, his person and finished work. He now stands as the ultimate meeting point of heaven and earth and is the decisive means of reconciliation between God and humanity (285). Worship is transformed to include our response to this redemptive work and the necessary all-of-life devotion and service that is to ensue through the agency of the Holy Spirit (286). It is such worship that is on God’s terms, and in the way that he alone has made possible through his Son that renders our engagement with him acceptable.

Critical Evaluation

Concerning Biblical Theology

Before one considers the actual presentation of Peterson’s thesis, I thought it necessary to ask a more fundamental question: does Peterson present a faithful biblical theology of worship? I am strongly inclined to suggest that he does just that. If, as Peterson states, biblical theology attempts to do two things: first, to “exegete and present that which each Bible writer is himself in situ presenting”, and second, to do so whilst simultaneously exposing the “progressive and developing character of God’s revelation within the pages of Scripture”, then yes, Peterson appears to faithfully drill deep and cover a wide scope of biblical data. Such careful work is evidenced in his exhaustive account of worship in both the Old and New Testaments. From the Exodus (27) to the New Exodus (118-19), from old (28-29) to new covenant (108), from tabernacle (31) to temple (43) to Christ and the church (159, 200-03), Peterson ties together, quite wonderfully, the thread of several key and vital threads of worship as it is biblically defined.

Such a breadth of study is further backed up by an even more careful lexical analysis and word usage. Peterson delicately unearths Hebrew words in their historical context, along with their Greek equivalent in the LXX (55-74). Even this progression on the lexical level is important if we are to embrace a faithful biblical theology: it further strengthens the vertical and horizontal axes of Peterson’s thesis: that worship is on God’s terms and includes all of life.

One critique that could be offered in the area of Peterson’s biblical theology methodology is the glaring omission of the Garden of Eden and the God-human relations pre-fall in his Old Testament survey. Peterson offers some discussion around the historical practices of neighboring nations (30), but a discussion on worship pre-fall could have aided the progressive analysis and also provided a stronger basis from which to defend his thesis since many theologians recognize major worship themes in both the Garden (establishing temple paradigms) and the image of God (as setting the course for priestly and cultic terminology that is picked up in the Israel story).

A Look at the Thesis

Moving now to consider Peterson’s thesis: is the proposal sound and is it successfully defended? I am of the opinion that Peterson’s argument is a thoroughly compelling one. As noted briefly above, Peterson’s biblical theology is comprehensive and detailed. Besides the creation account, it elucidates several key passages, events, and symbols of Israel’s history and traces their development into the new covenant era where Christ fulfills their intended end. What makes Peterson’s argument strong is its thoroughness. Thanks to the depth of study, primarily in the Old Testament, the conclusions reached in the New are multi-dimensional and layered with thick meaning. One of the many benefits of such a study is that it brings the work of Christ to full bloom. Without the rich history and unearthing of Israel’s past– cultic and whole-of-life– the New Testament can appear slim and bare. But this is not so with Peterson’s study. Instead the language of New Testament worship is shown to resemble its strong continuity with the Old, albeit in transformed categories. Which brings me to another strength of Peterson’s work.

Transformed Worship

Arguably one of Peterson’s most important contributions in my mind is the category of “transformed worship” (203). In his own words, “Paul uses transformed cultic language to indicate that a sanctified lifestyle is the ‘worship’ appropriate to the new temple” (203). On the basis of Christ’s finished work, the Apostle Paul appears to have a radical new understanding of worship as entailing our response to the gospel (174). What we have now in the new covenant is the transformation of worship itself. This is why Paul could talk of the ministry of believers as being a “sacrificial service” (Phil 2:17), or of the call of each individual to offer themselves as “living sacrifices” (Rom 12:1) (183). Indeed, Paul expresses his thanks for the Philippians by utilizing cultic terminology (4:18), the same technical language used to speak of sacrifices acceptable to God in the old covenant (184). This category of “transformed worship” (203) is vital if we are to make sense of the progressive revelation.

Concerning Corporate Gatherings

Another benefit of Peterson’s Engaging with God is its reaction to prevailing ideas that worship is simply confined to the Sunday gathering, or, even more exclusively, to the actual moment where a church sings praises to God. We have all witnessed it: the individual leading the service calls the congregation to stand as we “worship God.” Peterson’s analysis will not allow us to be content with such diminutive understandings. As his study shows, the New Testament presents a rich array of worship terminology that is fundamentally rooted in the Old Testament cultic practices. As stated above, the category of transformed worship enables us to understand that the worship that is acceptable to God in the new covenant far exceeds the songs that are sung, but includes our ministry to one another in word and deed (187). It is this work that essentially fulfills the mandate and destiny given to Israel to be a kingdom of priests unto God (Rev 1:6; Exod 19:6). As Peterson states, the “spiritual cult of the new temple consists in living a life worthy of our calling” (205). Thus all of life is implicated.

What are we then to make of the corporate gathering? Peterson’s analysis here also presents a striking novelty: it is not primarily the worship of God that is to control our gatherings but the edification of the people of God (206). It is through this reciprocal priestly service that God is indeed glorified and worshipped. Thus, those churches that attempt to garner feelings and emotions in order to engage with God to the exclusion of teaching, instruction, and allowing for the saints to minister to one another, are sadly in a precarious situation, far removed from the new testament witness of what constitutes acceptable worship.      


It is not primarily the worship of God that is to control our gatherings but the edification of the people of God.


Conclusion

According to Peterson, a biblical theology of worship reveals that it is an engagement with God on the terms that he proposes and in the way in which he alone makes possible (20). Essentially a diachronic analysis Engaging with God attempts to defend this definition by traversing the biblical canon, from Genesis to Revelation, to show how the progress of Scripture gives birth to such an understanding of worship. Key symbols, events, and persons are considered, however it is Christ who supersedes and fulfills all. Now as the contact point between heaven and earth, all peoples are called to worship God. Peterson’s argument is robust and thorough, with very little asking for negative critique. By providing a faithful biblical theology of worship, elucidating helpful categories such as the transformation of worship in the new covenant (203), and showing how the corporate gathering is for edification, Peterson’s Engaging with God is personally one book that has had a severe impact on my life and ministry. All pastors and those involved in leading churches should take the time to reap the deep biblical truths from this excellent resource. Such a contribution to the subject of worship is a necessary remedy for today’s cultural pressures exerted on the church.

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