Friday, November 30, 2007

Book Review - A Taste of Heaven: Worship in the Light of Eternity, by R.C. Sproul

Book Review - A Taste of Heaven: Worship in the Light of Eternity, by R.C. Sproul

Teaching a seminary course on Worship means I am always looking for new books to inform and help my understanding of the church’s primary goal in life. I was happy, therefore, to pick up a copy of R.C. Sproul’s latest offering on the subject of worship.

I have to admit I found the work rather disappointing.

Dr. Sproul is a great thinker and prolific author, so who am I to suggest this work is lacking? But having read from cover to cover, I think it is a book that has the potential to do more harm than good.

Sproul has always had a “shock value” to his teaching – some of us can remember being blown away by statements and illustrations he has made over the years. He also has a strong sense of humour... which may be why (with four chapters defending infant baptism and statements like “dispensationalism... is a nineteenth century departure from orthodoxy”) he dedicated this volume to Dr. John MacAruthur.

The book is essentially an examination of how we are to worship God. Sproul’s framework for discovering this is predominantly to look back to how Israel worshiped God in the Old Testament. Now, that right there will cause many to pause and scratch their heads. New Testament worship is discovered by examining the Old Testament? To be fair, Sproul goes to great length to say that the New Testament has the final word on this matter. “Of course, we can’t go to the Old Testament and discover what is there in terms of the format of worship and then simply carry it across and superimpose it into the New Testament community” (15). Yet, while giving a nod to the discontinuity between the Testaments, he can also say, “we can discern principles in the patterns of worship that God revealed from heaven to His people in the Old Testament, and... those principles can and should inform the patterns our worship” (19). This sounds a little too much like having your cake and eating it, too. In fact, this would be my primary criticism of the book. Sproul’s approach flatlines the story of the Bible and results in a somewhat willy-nilly hermeneutic that plucks from the Old whatever “seems to fit” the New.

That is why you end up with Sproul arguing that

· Infant baptism is necessary and the only Biblical position (chapters 6-8)

· We ought to consider the use of incense in worship services (172)

· Pastors wearing robes might be a good idea (147)

· We ought to meet to worship in buildings that communicate the glory and beauty of God (144)

Sproul backs off making any of these assertions (except infant baptism) as “do or die” Biblical principles, but I don’t think that matters.

There is an old axiom in seminary education that says, “The teacher’s questions become the student’s doctrine.” In other words, when a professor suggests a certain thing “might be true,” eager students often consider that to be what the fellow really believes and is too scared or too constrained by other forces to come out and say. Zwingli’s questions on baptism led Grebel and others to embrace the doctrine... a time when this axiom proved incredibly useful! But this manner of instruction mostly leads to confusion and muddled thinking.

For example, when Sproul floats the idea of using incense in worship, he undercuts the clear teaching of Scripture that he has already referenced only paragraphs earlier. In 2 Corinthians 2 and other passages, we are taught that physical incense has been replaced by other things: prayer, ministry, service, a life pleasing to God, etc. The Old Covenant physical smoke symbolized the New Covenant reality or fulfillment. By noting this passage, then suggesting a return to the old, outer rite, Sproul deadens the developing revelation of Christ in the Bible’s story and pulls the rug out from under the New Testament teaching. This is a pattern throughout the book.

I thank the Lord for R.C. Sproul! He has been used of God in so many ways in my generation and has personally blessed me on numerous occasions. But when it comes to worship, there are many more cogent and helpful books to read before this one. I recommend buying “Worship by the Book” edited by D.A. Carson. The first chapter of that work will do ten times more to bolster your worship than thousands of robes, new cathedrals or billowing incense.