Rethinking Lex Orandi Lex Credendi


This is a simplified version of what I’ve written on lex orandi lex credendi elsewhere. It is also a revised version of a segment from the WorshipConcord Seminar, Moving Forward in Harmony: Reintroducing the Conversation about Worship in the Lutheran Congregation. It is adapted from the segment on assumptions and methodology. I am sharing it now because the discussion on the WorshipConcord Journal page in the recent past has been focused on assumptions and methodology. I also share it because it is one of the central problematic issues in the Lutheran conversation about worship today. JAW

Rethinking Lex Orandi Lex Credendi

The lex orandi lex credendi principle is at the front of the form-substance debate, because it is used to express the assumption that form must not be separated from substance. In fact, the phrase is used in at least three different ways by scholars, so it is sometimes difficult to have a firm grasp of what it means in any given context.

I want to define these two terms for you, so you have some sense of the way they are being used in the debate today. Lex orandi is typically defined as the way we pray. It is used to refer to the specific form of the church’s worship, whether that form is traditional or contemporary. Lex orandi is always defined in terms of the way the church prays.

Lex credendi is typically defined as what we believe. All the biblical doctrines of the church, but especially our theology of the Gospel and the sacraments. Lex credendi is always defined in terms of what the church believes.

Now, I want to say up front that this definition of lex credendi is essentially correct. But the historic evidence shows that lex credendi actually more narrowly refers to the atonement or the doctrine of justification. The historical evidence also shows that the typical definition of lex orandi today, as a reference to the way the church prays, is incorrect. And I will explain why it is incorrect after I point out how the entire phrase lex orandi lex credendi is almost always used in the present debate.

The phrase lex orandi lex credendi is used to express at least three theological assumptions about worship, two of which are incorrect. It is used to express the assumption that the church’s lex orandi is a reflection of the church’s lex credendi, in other words, the way a church prays reflects what a church believes. It is incorrectly used to express the assumption that lex orandi IS lex credendi, which means that form can not be separated from substance. And it is incorrectly used to express the assumption that lex orandi, or the way the church prays, determines the lex credendi, or what the church believes—the way the church prays determines what the church believes. But is the lex orandi lex credendi principle, for all its ambiguities, compatible with our Lutheran theology of worship?

I would like to share with you the historical and theological context of the phrase, so that we can be precise about what the phrase means for the discussion about liturgy today. Lex orandi lex credendi was derived by later theologians from a phrase used by Prosper of Aquitaine in fifth-century Rome.

That phrase is ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi, and I will translate this for you after we’ve looked at more of the context. Prosper used ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi in a document titled Capitulum 8. Prosper used the phrase in his defense of Augustine’s theology of grace against the false doctrine of the Semi-Pelagians.

The Semi-Pelagians argued that man is responsible for his own conversion. Their claim was that it is necessary for human free will to make the first step of conversion, and that God would then do the rest. To make a small application to today’s context, some contemporary Christian worship songs contain decision theology, and decision theology is simply a present-day manifestation of Semi-Pelagianism. Which begs the question: Are we careful to choose contemporary songs for our worship services, which do not have decision theology in them?

Augustine’s theology highlighted original sin and the total depravity of the human condition. To which God responded in love with his own work of radical grace and salvation in the incarnation, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. Again, to make application to today, would it not be a faithful approach to contemporary worship, to use total depravity and radical grace as a filter through which we screen or judge or, dare I even say, compose contemporary worship songs for Lutheran congregations?

The typical translation of Prosper’s ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi is, ‘so that the law of praying establishes the law of believing,’ which would then mean that the way a church prays determines what a church believes . . . hence, lex orandi lex credendi. But this is bad methodology, to isolate ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi from its context.

I would suggest an entirely different approach to the phrase based on its historical and theological context. Ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi should be translated, “. . . how the command to make supplication (lex supplicandi) forms the basis of right believing (legem credendi).” Let me share with you the context.

Prosper wrote the following: “The most faithful fathers have taught us to ascribe to the grace of Christ the beginnings of good will, increases of acceptable desires, and perseverance in these to the end. . . .” In other words, according to Prosper, the beginning, the middle, and the end of the life of faith are all to be ascribed to the grace of Christ, which is in stark contrast to the Semi-Pelagian doctrine of the exercise of human free will at the beginning, in conversion.

Prosper continues: “. . . Let us consider also the sacraments of the priestly rites which, having been transmitted by the apostles, are celebrated uniformly throughout the entire world and the whole catholic church. The sacraments show how the command to make supplication forms the basis of right believing.” Ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi.

What is “the command to make supplication”? Here Prosper refers to 1 Timothy 2.1-6: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.”

From this passage of Scripture the Semi-Pelagians argued that it was necessary for man to exercise his free will in conversion. The syllogism goes something like this: God wills all men to be saved. But not all men are saved. Therefore God’s will by itself must not be effective in man’s conversion; man must exercise his own free will to attain what God desires.

Prosper argued that the command to pray in 1 Timothy 2, and the church’s fulfillment of that command, demonstrated the truth that depraved man must rely only on God’s grace for his conversion. While the Semi-Pelagians highlighted their belief in God’s failure to save all men, Prosper stressed God’s grace in the act of atonement, “the one mediator between God and men.”

In 1 Timothy 2 there is no reference to the form of the prayer. There is only the command to pray. Against the Semi-Pelagians Prosper demonstrated the biblical position: that everyone, no exception, stands in total and unqualified need of God’s grace, and the church’s obedience to the Apostle’s command to pray acknowledges this, that human conversion takes place only by the will and grace of God.

Prosper appealed to the sacraments and the apostolic command to pray, the lex. He did not appeal to the liturgy. For Prosper, it is Scripture that determines the content of the church’s prayer, and it is not that the church’s practice of liturgy determines what the church believes.

This is also true for Basil of Caesarea, roughly a half-century before Prosper of Aquitaine. While Basil valued unwritten apostolic tradition in the liturgical practice of the church, this unwritten apostolic tradition did not refer to the entire structure of “the historic liturgy.” For Basil the unwritten apostolic tradition referred to four elements of liturgical practice in the fourth century: making the sign of the cross, facing east at prayer, the epiclesis or calling upon the Holy Spirit at the consecration of Holy Communion, and the eucharistic prayer. Liturgical innovation, however, was not beneath Basil. He was accused by the clergy of Neocaesarea of using a form of singing the psalms that until that time had been unknown in catholic churches. Basil accused the Neocaesareans of straining at a gnat while ignoring the greatest of the commandments, the commandment to love, a point we should all carefully consider in today’s context. The point I want to make is this: Ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi does not mean lex orandi lex credendi—the way a church prays determines what a church believes. It does not mean this.

And I could say more . . . about the beginnings of ecumenical Liturgical Theology between the 1930s and ’50s, and how scholars from this movement, such as Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorf, Josef Jungmann, Jean Danielou, Aidan Kavanagh, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Frank Senn, built their theology of liturgy on the work of a late-nineteenth-century French Roman Catholic monk by the name of Prosper Gueranger.

Gueranger, as far as I have been able to determine, coined the phrase lex orandi lex credendi. The ecumenical liturgical scholars who followed Gueranger searched the historical data of the ancient liturgies and the church fathers in an effort to find Father Gueranger’s principle. Ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi then became lex orandi lex credendi. It is one example, from the ecumenical Liturgical Theology movement of the mid-twentieth century, it is one example of how bad methodology became bad theology.

This fundamental principle of Liturgical Theology, lex orandi lex credendi, is one of the central problematic methodological issues in the conversation about worship among Lutherans today.


James Alan Waddell

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Lex Orandi Lex Credendi As a Theological Locus of Lutheran Liturgy


Here I offer a more detailed treatment of the lex orandi lex credendi principle. It is an adaptation (and continuation) of work I have presented elsewhere. If you are interested in grist for the mill of a more detailed theological conversation about worship, then read on. But a caveat. We realize that our readers here at WorshipConcord come from a broad spectrum of theological training and background, anywhere from a good basic reliance on the Bible and the Small Catechism to a more developed ability to move around in and understand in more detail the 1580 Book of Concord in German and Latin (Die Bekenntnisschriften). This is why I shared the basic version first, “Rethinking Lex Orandi Lex Credendi.”

I also want to reiterate what I have stated elsewhere. This conversation, not entirely but in large part, needs to be focused on assumptions and methodology. It should not be focused on personalities or take the form of ad hominem. When we focus on assumptions and methodology, this drives at the heart of the issue. Consequently, it is not ad hominem to address the assumptions and methodologies of specific individuals. This is a fair approach to any issue the church faces. We are accountable to each other. None of us is above accountability. I include myself in this. And as I have stated before, I am open to the persuasion of others, as long as that persuasion is based on the hard data of the only authoritative sources we know as Lutheran Christians: Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions; also so long as that persuasion is based on the methodology of reading texts in their contexts. JAW

I. Introduction

Why is lex orandi lex credendi held by some Lutherans in their theology of worship and used in their writings? Where does the lex orandi lex credendi principle come from? Rather than just dismiss lex orandi lex credendi as a principle that can be used to leverage a particular point of view and close off attempts to have a conversation about worship in Lutheran churches (and it is indeed used this way), the principle warrants further reflection and discussion. There is a dissenting voice on the application of the lex orandi lex credendi principle to our Lutheran theology of worship, one that is intellectually legitimate, biblically and confessionally integrated, culturally and missionally aware and engaged.

The following appeared in a 2004 issue of the Concordia Journal:

In order to arrive at collegial consensus we also need to rediscover the art of conversation as debate and disputation. Here a recovery of the discipline of rhetoric might help. Rhetoric shaped the argument of the Apology. It gave the structure of the Formula. Among other features, it first requires us to identify the status controversiae. It requires an exact identification of the issue with which we are dealing. If we do not find it, we talk past each other.[1]

Defining the issue at stake indeed helps the conversation, so that we not talk past each other. Martin Franzmann once wrote:

Qui non intelligit res non potest ex verbis sensum elicere. [‘He who does not understand the subject-matter is unable to make sense of the words.’] Interpretation is a ‘circular’ process (from verba to res to verba), and in this process the res is of crucial importance, since the question addressed to the text helps determine the answer to be gotten from the text.[2]

But even before we can define the issue, the res, so that the discussion can fruitfully develop, we must first agree that the assumptions we hold and the methodologies we use for theological investigation affect the way we engage each other (and often whether we engage each other at all!) and ultimately the outcome of the discussion. This is a difficult problem, because assumptions are often deeply rooted and emotionally invested. In other words, assumptions and methodologies have a way of pre-determining the conclusions we draw when we study the sources, and more often than not they stifle discussion from the outset. It is necessary to peel back the layers of assumptions before we can begin to define or address an issue.

This is a fundamental hermeneutical concern. (The word “hermeneutic” refers to our method of reading texts, or how we explain the way we read texts.) As Franzmann pointed out, interpretation is a circular process. What we bring to the process of reading a text is just as significant as what we derive from a text. This is not a postmodern ‘the-reader-determines-the-meaning-of-a-text’ move. It is a recognition that we had better be absolutely clear and confident about both what we bring to the process and what the sources are for what we bring. Lutheran assumptions have always been rooted in Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. Anything else is human opinion.

Having said that, holding to the normative priority of lex orandi through the aphoristic (and by now dogmatically mythical) lex orandi lex credendi (the belief that the way the church prays determines what the church believes) is a significant assumption underlying much of the discussion about liturgy and adiaphora in Lutheran circles today. What is the source of this assumption?

II. Lex Orandi Lex Credendi in the Past

Even if the expression lex orandi lex credendi may help us to distinguish doctrine and practice in liturgy,[3] and it is indeed helpful in this respect, it must be acknowledged that the expression itself is at odds with its alleged historical source and original intent. Paul De Clerck has demythologized for us the liturgical principle, lex orandi lex credendi.[4] De Clerck’s hermeneutical deconstruction reveals that Prosper of Aquitaine’s phrase, ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi, has a historical context and is not the ambiguous adage used by Liturgical Theology. From the historical context in which he defended Augustine in the heat of the Semi-Pelagian controversy, Prosper used 1 Timothy 2.1-6 (a passage the Semi-Pelagians quoted to defend their point of view), in order to underscore the apostolic and catholic doctrine that God’s grace is universal. Prosper cited 1 Timothy 2.1-6, in order to emphasize the need for the church to pray that God, by his grace, would bring unbelievers and enemies of the truth to believe in his Son. It is in this context that Prosper wrote ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi, that the church’s prayer may be directed to the end that by God’s grace unbelievers would become believers in Christ.[5]

De Clerck bases his understanding of Prosper’s ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi on a careful comparative analysis of two documents authored by Prosper—Capitulum 8 and De vocatione omnium gentium. De Clerck’s analysis demonstrates that the phrase, ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi, refers specifically to the apostle’s admonition at 1 Timothy 2.1-2. De Clerck writes: “The expression ‘lex supplicandi’ does not signify ‘liturgy’ or ‘liturgical prayer,’ but rather ‘the injunction made by the apostle to pray for all,’ just as Paul gave it in writing in 1 Tim. 2:1-2.”[6] After outlining the content of the prayers described in Capitulum 8 and De vocatione, De Clerck further argues:

. . . one should have no difficulty in perceiving that Prosper doubtless is not trying to describe the actual usage of these prayers, but rather that he wishes to frame his argument with the guarantees demanded by his adversaries. We indeed know by which criteria these latter would recognize doctrine as orthodox: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est. The norm which will permit the theological debate to be settled once and for all is, therefore, the fact that the Church prays for everyone, for Christians as also for unbelievers, faithful in this to the New Testament. . . . if the Church has the custom of praying for unbelievers and other enemies of the cross of Christ in order that they be converted and receive faith and charity, then this is clear proof that God alone is able to be the author of conversion. ‘The command to make supplication’ formulated by the Bible and put into practice by the Church ‘determines, therefore, the rule of faith.’[7]

The text of Capitulum 8 reads as follows:

Moreover, the holy decrees of the most blessed and apostolic foundation (sedis) are inviolable. By these decrees the elevation of pestiferous novelty has been put down and the most faithful fathers have taught us to ascribe to the grace of Christ the beginnings of good will, increases of acceptable desires, and perseverance in these to the end. Let us consider also the sacraments of the priestly rites which, having been transmitted by the apostles, are celebrated uniformly throughout the entire world and the whole catholic church. The sacraments show how the command to make supplication forms the basis of right believing [ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi]. For when the leaders of the people execute their duties like an ambassador acting with divine forbearance, they act on behalf of humankind, and with the whole church joining together their deep sighs, they stand and they pray that faith be given to those who do not believe, that idolaters be set free from impious errors, that the light of the truth appear to the Jews after the veil of the heart has been removed, that heretics come to their senses by the comprehension of the catholic faith, that schismatics receive a spirit of renewed charity, that the remedies of repentance be given to the lapsed, and finally that the heavenly court of mercy be opened to the catechumens who have been led to the sacraments of regeneration. Moreover, that these things are not asked of the Lord in vain by just going through the motions, the accomplishment of these very matters demonstrates; since God condescends to lead out of all kinds of errors many, whom he transfers into the kingdom of the Son he loves, having redeemed them from the power of darkness (Coloss. 1, 13), even as he makes vessels of mercy from vessels of wrath (Rom. 9, 22). This is believed to be so completely of divine doing that endless thanksgivings to the God who does these things, and the acknowledgment of praise, are paid back to him for the illumination of such people or their correction.[8]

In Prosper’s phrase, ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi, the combination “legem . . . lex statuat” is virtually untranslatable. Wooden and literalistic translations are problematic. Prosper clearly intended these two uses of the same word (lex) in this context to form a semantic link.[9] Prosper wrote as if the conversion of the unbeliever were conditioned upon the apostolic command to pray (with all of its theological connotations) and not the prayer itself.[10] The proper terms of conversion (legem credendi), namely, that which is based on the grace and will of God as this is explicitly given at 1 Timothy 2.1-6, are also the rightly ordered content of the church’s prayer as it was commanded by the apostle (lex . . . supplicandi). It is rightly ordered because the content of the prayer corresponds to the apostle’s command at 1 Timothy 2.1-6.[11] The prayer itself becomes a theological acknowledgment (confession) that God alone by his grace is the one who brings about conversion. It would be wrongly ordered not because the form of the prayer were somehow mistaken, but because the substance of the prayer did not correspond to what is given in the biblical text. Without the church’s prayer properly ordered according to the biblical content, the conversion of the unbeliever would be consequently not a biblical, and therefore not a Christian, conversion.[12]

Prosper has argued here that it is the “priestly rites,” or more specifically “the sacraments,” which have been “transmitted by the apostles” and are “celebrated uniformly throughout the entire world and the whole catholic church.” Prosper crafted his argument sacramentally, and not liturgically! This leads us to recognize that the sixteenth-century confessing Lutherans were consistent with the historic church’s (at least Prosper’s) understanding that it was necessary to make a distinction between that which is apostolic and is therefore given by Christ (the Gospel and the sacraments; the satis est of AC VII), and that which is external and given by the church (humanly instituted rites and ceremonies in liturgy; the nicht not of AC VII).[13]

De Clerck further argues that Prosper’s phrase may not be used to justify “liturgical immobility.”

One may not then appeal to this traditional adage to justify liturgical immobility, as if whatever expression of the prayer of the Church, or the first liturgical usage to come along, expressed in and of itself the faith of the Church. The liturgy is a “theological locus” to the degree that it is founded on scripture and gives of the living tradition its peculiar echo, which is poetic, symbolic, and existential much more than rational. Such a rich understanding has not always been held, especially for the last hundred years.[14]

This is in fact exactly what has been done. The meaning of Prosper of Aquitaine’s phrase was later changed and more narrowly applied to suggest that the way the church worships determines what the church believes (lex orandi lex credendi). This use of Prosper’s phrase has no recognizable connection to what Prosper actually wrote.[15] Rather, the largely ambiguous principle of Liturgical Theology conveys something entirely different, suggesting the philosophical principle that form and substance are indissolubly connected, to the extent that they are even equated with each other. As a methodological concern it is necessary first to have convincing proof of the premise (on the basis of the hard data of the sources read in their historical and theological contexts) before making the assertion. Defending historic liturgical forms is a good thing. However, our assumptions and methodology must first be grounded in Scripture and the Confessions, then clearly articulated and understood, before we can defend positions which may or may not derive from our Lutheran (confessing evangelical catholic) identity.

III. Lex Orandi Lex Credendi in the Present

In the process of peeling back the layers we find that one assumption behind (the assumption of) the normative priority of lex orandi is that liturgy is “primary” theology and theological reflection is “secondary” theology. If we take liturgy to be “primary theology,” this would be acceptable only if it is understood to mean liturgy as the primary point at which the presence of the living God speaking his Word—theou logos—is applied to the lives of God’s people. Hermann Sasse maintained that the Sanctus is “primary” theology, when he wrote: “The Sanctus, which was sung by the seraphim, was primary ‘theology,’ since it was sung in the presence of the Lord.”[16] Yet Sasse maintained the Sanctus as “primary” theology in the context of arguing that “dogma is the norm for the liturgy.”[17] While Sasse was able to argue these two points and hold them together, the discourse on liturgy today in the Lutheran Church is not. Rather, it is maintained that both dogma and liturgy are equally normative for the church’s theology and practice of liturgy. This is neither a conundrum nor a paradox. It is an outright theological contradiction, because it confuses (equates) liturgy with the formal and material principles of liturgy (Scripture and the Gospel).[18]

Liturgical Theology does not understand liturgy as primary theology in the same sense as Sasse understood it. Liturgical Theology understands liturgy as primary theology in the sense that liturgy is first order theology; it is the crucible within which the church’s faith (fides quae creditur) is forged. This subordinates theological reflection, and even Scripture itself, as something secondarily derivative of liturgy.[19] This relegation of theological reflection to a secondary status ignores the historical reality that the church has done battle with heretical movements throughout its history utilizing extensive theological prose, sermons, personal correspondence and commentary in its polemical discourse,[20] some of which went into the creedal formulations of the early church.[21] As these creeds were then confessed in the church’s liturgy, they were used as a kind of shibboleth to include the orthodox faithful and to exclude what was heretical. The relegation of theological reflection to a secondary status assumes a great deal in terms of the origins of catholic liturgical traditions. These traditions did not spring spontaneously from the hearts and lips of God’s people assembled for the synaxis of Word and Meal, like Greek soldiers in the Iliad shouting in unison their affirmative acclamations to the exhortations of their generals. There is no mystery here. No doubt faithful catholic bishops, presbyters, and deacons composed liturgical texts and taught them to their people, and this composition and instruction took place in the context of specific and intentional theological reflection in real historical contexts.[22] The church historians Sozomen and Theodoret described how Ephrem of Syria actually gave orthodox catholic substance to Gnostic hymn forms, in order to keep the faithful from being snatched from the orthodox catholic fold.[23]

Bryan Spinks argues that the relationship between lex credendi and lex orandi is a complex one. Spinks maintains that, if we are being honest about the process of creating liturgy, normativity operates in both directions.[24] In such a hermeneutic of liturgy, neither lex credendi nor lex orandi is preeminent.

In a discussion of the lex orandi lex credendi hermeneutical circle [entanglement?] Andrew Bartelt honestly recognizes the difficulty in laying any emphasis on one or the other and has ultimately argued the priority of lex credendi, contending that, while it is possible for the issue to be driven in either direction, ultimately the substance must shape the form.[25] Werner Elert has given a similar treatment of this with explicit reference to Augustana VII. He wrote:

A great church style can flourish only in the soil of a common appreciation of what is fitting for a great church. According to the persuasion of the evangelicals, it was the sense of the seventh article of the Augsburg Confession—the article on ceremonies—that the latter cannot rest on the former. And in Lutheranism it was actually based on the fact that the ‘doctrine of the Gospel’ (doctrina evangelii) was a common possession. Therefore there was an evangelical basis for community of style. This basis could express itself in a style-forming manner provided that ideal community of possession . . . was felt in the longitudinal axis of history.[26]

Hermann Sasse has also written against the lex orandi lex credendi principle, asserting the priority of lex credendi:

Confession and liturgy belong inseparably together if the church is to be healthy. Liturgy is prayed dogma; dogma is the doctrinal content of the liturgy. The placement of liturgy above dogma, for which one calls in the liturgical movements of all confessions with the well-known saying ‘lex orandi lex credendi’ [the law of what is to be prayed is the law of what is to be believed] (‘ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi,’ Celestine I, Denzinger 139, called to remembrance by Pius XI in ‘Divini Cultus,’ Denz. 2200), has been opposed in the Roman Church by the present Pope [Pius XII] in his encyclical ‘Mediator Dei,’ in which he points out that one can also turn this saying around and that in all circumstances dogma should be the norm for the liturgy. If that is already known in Rome, how much more should it be known in the church that makes or would like to make the right understanding of the Gospel also be the criterion for the liturgy.[27]

While dogma and liturgy are indeed inseparably linked, as Sasse claimed, that does not mean, however, that doctrine and form of liturgy are so equated with each other that the form is intractably established as its own norming formal principle, also as Sasse claimed.[28]

In contrast to Sasse’s consistent and repeated assertions of the normative priority of lex credendi, Liturgical Theology assumes the priority of lex orandi. Paul V. Marshall, former professor of liturgics at the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, some years ago discussed the problems inherent to the lex orandi lex credendi assumption. He suggested that what he calls “the liturgical circle” is much broader than has recently been suggested by Liturgical Theology. In the following quote, Marshall is critical of the prevailing use of the term “orthodoxy”:

There is an unnecessarily restrictive claim beyond the evidence, however, in saying “‘Orthodoxy’ has always meant right praise, and must mean that today.”. . . There seems to be no evidence that orthodoxia meant right praise in antiquity. Standard lexical sources locate its roots in orthos (“straight”; “right”) and dokeo (“teach”); there was even an ancient verb, well attested, orthodoxeo, “to have the right opinion.” Scholars have documented a classical use, beginning with Aristophanes, of orthodoxia as “right opinion.” Geoffrey Lampe provides illustrations for “right belief” and evidence for “membership in a right-believing church,” but none for “right praise.” By proceeding without that restrictive meaning together with a freedom from the interpretation of Prosper’s lex advanced by the school of primary theology, we have much more room to describe what one might call the liturgical circle, a constant feeding each other of theology, liturgy, the arts, pastoral and missionary work, and their ancillary activities under the umbrella of the Christian life, not liturgy.[29]

Marshall’s overall analysis, though relatively brief in comparison to a century of discourse from Liturgical Theology—which Marshall refers to as “the school of primary theology”—is probably the most penetrating and cogent to date.

IV. Does Lex Orandi Lex Credendi Have a Future in the Lutheran Church?

The central theological premise of Liturgical Theology in the Lutheran Church is that liturgy is primary theology and that theological reflection is secondary.[30] It even goes so far as to subordinate Scripture to liturgy. This is to press lex orandi lex credendi beyond what is given in Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions and, as we have already seen, it is to give ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi a meaning Prosper of Aquitaine never intended. Not surprisingly this line of argumentation also leads to the unfortunate assertion that there is no more room for freedom in Lutheran practice than in Lutheran theology.

I hold essentially all of the same concerns as those articulated by the defenders of the church’s liturgy. The misuse of Lutheran theology to justify the uncritical use of contemporary worship forms (adiaphora, therefore “freedom”) is problematic on several levels. Theological shallowness in the biblical and sacramental cohesion of the church’s liturgical expression leads well-meaning congregations away from the good order of the true Gospel and the right administration of the sacraments. There is in many quarters of the church a need to better ground our people in sound biblical, Lutheran theology of the Gospel, the sacraments, and liturgy. Should our response be to defend historic liturgical forms on the basis of the Platonizing assumption that form equals substance, or its corollary assumption that liturgy is “transcendent” of culture (a layer of assumption that deserves its own peeling[31])? The fact that there are those who abuse the church’s theology of humanly instituted rites and ceremonies in liturgy does not warrant that we take to the ditch on the other side. The sixteenth-century confessing Lutherans were very clear about distinguishing form from substance in their theology of humanly instituted rites and ceremonies.[32]

As a theological locus of Lutheran liturgy, lex orandi lex credendi is incompatible with the church’s doctrine of sola scriptura.[33]

We believe, teach, and confess that the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged.[34]

The confessing evangelicals understood the writings and traditions of the church (including its liturgy) not as norms in and of themselves, but as historical and theological witnesses to the church’s identity through time, an identity which they sought to embrace, defend, uphold and promote. The confessing evangelicals were careful to distinguish the broader context of catholic writings and traditions from the common form of doctrine subscribed by the church “because it is drawn from the Word of God.”[35]

Arguments that are not crafted on the basis of the hard data of Lutheran sources, but are creatively designed and in large part rightly aimed at addressing legitimate concerns raised by the abuses of contemporary forms, at best only take us to the point of identifying the problems. At worst they over-correct, caricaturing confession by asserting the error’s opposite. The second use of the law is certainly needed in the present context. We must be “rigorously self-reflective,” as someone recently wrote, when it comes to our theology and practice of liturgy, always and only for the sake of the church, for the sake of the gospel in the church.

One of the central premises of the lex orandi lex credendi argument is that we can not include contemporary forms because those forms have no basis in Lutheran theology. This is a proposition that is rooted in the philosophical assumption that form equals substance and therefore the two can not be distinguished. Yet Martin Chemnitz argued, “For in the administration of the sacraments we distinguish among the ceremonies, and teach that a distinction must be made.”[36] Chemnitz distinguished between (1) liturgical rites which were commanded by Christ and therefore should not be changed, (2) liturgical rites which have testimonies and examples in Scripture, even used in the earliest apostolic churches, and which should be used without imposing them as a requirement against the church’s freedom, and (3) liturgical rites which are neither commanded nor forbidden by God, which may or may not be used, depending on the church’s circumstances and needs for edification in the Gospel.

In contrast to Chemnitz, those today who hold the assumption that form equals substance press this assumption to argue that Lutheran theology results in Lutheran (historic traditional) liturgical forms. American Evangelical theology results in American Evangelical (contemporary) worship forms. Pray like a Baptist and you will eventually believe like a Baptist. But if this is true, then honestly we must also say, Pray like a Roman Catholic and you will eventually have a Roman Catholic understanding of the Gospel, the flip-side of precisely the same coin. This argument is too simplistic. The difference between strumming a guitar and playing a pipe organ is not the issue.

The sixteenth-century confessional witness does not use this argument with reference to what they called external forms.[37] On the one hand, the confessing Lutherans clearly struggled against anti-sacramental theology and forms of worship in the broader context of a Reformation that had gone haywire among the radical and reactionary Anabaptists (Schwärmerei). It is equally true that the confessing Lutherans kept traditional forms of worship coming out of the late-medieval Roman Catholic context after reforming the abuses that had accrued over the centuries. But in the process, deeply rooted in the theology of Scripture and armed (both thetically and antithetically) with a remarkable erudition in the theology of the church fathers, the confessing Lutherans clearly distinguished humanly instituted rites and ceremonies in the church’s liturgy (which they consistently and repeatedly referred to as “external observances,” “rites,” “ceremonies,” “adiaphora,” etc.) from the Gospel and the sacraments which they believed (and confessed) alone constituted the essence of the church (AC VII; Ap VII & VIII; FC X). In light of this, lex orandi lex credendi in the Lutheran Church should appear to have a dubious future.

V. Concluding Remarks

When reading Prosper of Aquitaine’s ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi, the phrase must be understood in its historical and theological context. The principle of Liturgical Theology, lex orandi lex credendi, makes no sense in view of Prosper’s original composition and meaning. When it is argued that we can take the lex orandi lex credendi principle, sanitize it, and give it a Lutheran spin (which is a postmodern move I might add), then we have not been consistent in the application of our method. Consistency would demand that we then acknowledge (at least in principle) the rightness of including so-called “contemporary” forms in the church’s liturgy, as long as these forms have been blessed with Lutheran substance.

On the other hand, if it is true that the substance “shapes” the form, the lex credendi lex orandi proposition (lex orandi lex credendi’s twin sibling; and on the basis of historical and theological hard data from Scripture, the Lutheran Confessions and the church fathers it does not appear to be the case that this is an entirely defensible assumption either),[38] then finis. End of discussion. But if the sources lend themselves to another interpretation, that both the ancients and the early moderns (confessing Lutherans) made a distinction between substance and form in their theology and practice (while at the same time not despising but respecting and embracing the church’s traditions), then the discussion in the Lutheran Church should only be just beginning; in fact it is long overdue. What can we learn from the past? Our response to the theological neglect and liturgical abuses of the day is not to find correction by stumbling along in the ditch on the other side. Luther and Chemnitz both knew this, and they practiced it in the sanctified leadership they demonstrated in the pastoral liturgical reforms they accomplished in their local contexts, Luther in Wittenberg and Chemnitz in Braunschweig Wölfenbüttel.

The German Mass may serve as a workable model for theologically sound inculturated liturgical reform.[39] It provides the catholic and orthodox foundation in its structure and substance. It makes provision for genuine Gospel freedom in the execution of the form. It provides a means for curbing the proliferation of disorder taking place through the uncritical adoption of American Evangelical contemporary worship forms in Lutheran congregations. It offers a reasonable compromise for those who have abandoned historic Lutheran forms altogether. And it constitutes a theologically faithful order for those pastors who seek positive theological guidance for the inclusion of “contemporary” forms in Lutheran congregations. No need to reinvent the wheel; just to add a little air or change the tire from time to time.

It is curious that the theological principle of Liturgical Theology, lex orandi lex credendi, sprung from the soil of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, is held by Lutheran pastors and theologians. If it is true that a liturgical form grows only in the soil of the confession which begets and nurtures it, then it must be even more true that a theological principle grows only in the soil of the confession which begets and nurtures it. If it is not possible for Lutheran congregations to adopt contemporary forms because these forms do not have their origins in the soil of our confession, then why is it not even more impossible for Lutheran pastors and theologians to adopt a theological principle born and nurtured in a soil that is not Lutheran?

The use of the lex orandi lex credendi principle today in the Lutheran Church must be recognized for what it is, a theological innovation that has no grounding in the hard data of the sources of Lutheran tradition. It has, in fact, been explicitly opposed by such a prominent theologian as Hermann Sasse. All of this should cast a shadow of substantial doubt on the future of lex orandi lex credendi as a theological locus of liturgy in the Lutheran Church, and return us to the solid and positive theological grounding of sola scriptura and the fullness of the confession this entails—evangelical, catholic, missional, consensual.


James Alan Waddell



1. Charles Arand, “Not All Adiaphora Are Created Equal,” Concordia Journal 30.3 (July 2004): 156-164; esp. 163.

2. “Seven Theses on Reformation Hermeneutics,” Concordia Theological Monthly 40.4 (April 1969): 235-246; reprinted in Concordia Journal 15.3 (July 1989): 337-350; see esp. 337.

3. See how the doctrine of original sin is supported by the church’s song at FC Ep I.8. This is not to argue the normative priority of lex orandi. It is, rather, to recognize that what the church sings reflects what the church believes. See also FC SD I.23. Note that this does not make reference to how the hymn was sung, but to the hymn’s lyrics. See FC SD, Rule and Norm 1-2 for the confessional position that Scripture alone is normative of doctrine. For yet another confessional appeal to the church’s song, Veni, sancte spiritus, see AC XX.40 (Latin).

4. “‘Lex orandi, lex credendi’: The Original Sense and Historical Avatars of an Equivocal Adage,” trans. Thomas M. Winger, Studa Liturgica 24 (1994): 178-200; originally published as “‘Lex orandi, lex credendi’: Sens originel et avatars historiques d’un adage équivoque,” Questions Liturgiques 59 (1978): 193-212. Cf. also Paul V. Marshall’s “Reconsidering ‘Liturgical Theology’: Is there a Lex Orandi for All Christians?” Studia Liturgica 25 (1995): 129-150; see esp. 139-142.

5. To remove ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi from its historical and theological context in order to give it the meaning lex orandi lex credendi is clearly a methodological problem.

6. “‘Lex orandi, lex credendi’: The Original Sense and Historical Avatars of an Equivocal Adage,” 185-186.

7. “‘Lex orandi, lex credendi’: The Original Sense and Historical Avatars of an Equivocal Adage,” 187-189.

8. My translation. The Latin text of Prosper’s Capitulum 8 is located at PL 51.209-210.

9. The above translation of ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi is based on the lexical entry #8 for lex in Oxford Latin Dictionary, P.G.W. Clark, ed. (New York: Oxford, 1992), the context, and De Clerck’s analysis. Prosper’s use of ut as a purpose or a result clause makes no sense in the context, but it does make sense as an indirect interrogative adverb as it is translated here. This interpretation suggests that Prosper was giving his reader a glimpse at what can be expected upon examination of “the sacraments of the priestly rites,” i.e., he was laying out the premise for what the careful reader will find upon examining “the priestly rites.” It may also function as a circumstantial particle: “Let us consider also the sacraments of the priestly rites . . . as the command to make supplication forms the basis of right believing.” Prosper’s use of ut may also function as a qualifying relative adverbial, “. . . taking into consideration that the command to make supplication forms the basis of right believing.” This interpretation suggests that Prosper was limiting the method by which the reader was to make his examination of “the sacraments of the priestly rites,” by holding to the clearly stated assumption. All of these uses of ut are so close in meaning as to be virtually indistinguishable. Again, the use of ut for purpose or result, as it is typically translated, makes no sense in its context.

10. Prosper’s method, if carefully examined, demonstrates that he used Scripture extensively to develop the argument in his polemic against the semi-Pelagians, and liturgy only to support the arguments he had already derived from Scripture. Cf. the entire text of De vocatione omnium gentium.

11. This is entirely the point of Prosper’s De vocatione 1.12; cf. PL 51.663-665. See also P. De Clerck’s analysis, “‘Lex orandi, lex credendi’: The Original Sense and Historical Avatars of an Equivocal Adage,” 182-185. It is the content or the object of the prayer which is the point of this passage, and not that the church’s prayer is the locus of the church’s theology.

12. This interpretation of ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi is consistent with both the theological and the historical context of Prosper’s argument. This, however, is not true of Liturgical Theology’s transformation of Prosper’s phrase into the ambiguous and legalistic adage: lex orandi lex credendi.

13. See James Alan Waddell, The Struggle to Reclaim the Liturgy in the Lutheran Church: Adiaphora in Historical, Theological and Practical Perspective (Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 2005) 19-41, 73-100.

14. “‘Lex orandi, lex credendi’: The Original Sense and Historical Avatars of an Equivocal Adage,” 193.

15. The aphorism, lex orandi lex credendi, as it is understood by Liturgical Theology was coined in the late nineteenth century by Dom Prosper Guéranger.

16. Sacra Scriptura: Studien zur Lehre von der Heiligen Schrift von Hermann Sasse, Herausgegeben von Friedrich Wilhelm Hopf (Erlangen: Verlag der Ev.-Luth. Mission, 1981) 133.

17. In Sacra Scriptura, 133, Sasse wrote: “. . . das Dogma ist die Norm für die Liturgie.”

18. See James Alan Waddell, “The Church’s Theological Practice of Liturgy: Clarifying Hermeneutical Boundaries,” Concordia Journal 32.1 (January 2006): 2-16. See also The Struggle to Reclaim the Liturgy in the Lutheran Church, 153-182, 205-228.

19. See, e.g., John R. Stephenson’s comments in “Liturgy and Dogma,” LOGIA 13.4 (Reformation 2004): 41-43; see esp. 42, where Stephenson writes, “. . . the whole Bible is a thoroughly liturgical document, which arose from the liturgy for the liturgy, and which cannot be understood apart from the liturgy.” This is a deeply rooted assumption, not based on Scripture or the Lutheran Confessions, but one that leads Stephenson to argue (by direct implication) that because God commanded the details of the Old Testament liturgy, therefore he commands the church today to use “the historic liturgy.” For a confessional passage contradicting this assumption see Ap XXIV.27, 36-37.

20. Cf., e.g., Ecclesiastical History 5.28.5-6 where Eusebius of Caesarea mentions prose apologetic discourse alongside psalms and hymns which all convey the same theological point, namely, the divinity of Christ. Cf. also, e.g., the works of Irenaeus and Epiphanius.

21. See FC SD, Rule and Norm 4. Cf. also J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Creeds (New York: McKay, 1960) and J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1978).

22. See, e.g., Basil of Caesarea’s Epistle CCVII.2, 4.

23. Cf. the historical record on Ephrem of Syria in Sozomen’s Ecclesiastical History 3.16 and Theodoret’s Ecclesiastical History 4.26 and his Letter 125 to the monks of Constantinople where Theodoret calls Ephrem “the harp of the Spirit.” See James Alan Waddell, “Identifying Authorities and Pastoral Practice in the Early Church. Two Case Studies: Basil of Caesarea and Ephrem of Syria,” Concordia Journal 31.1 (January 2005): 48-59.

24. “Two Seventeenth-Century Examples of Lex Credendi, Lex Orandi: The Baptismal and Eucharistic Theologies and Liturgies of Jeremy Taylor and Richard Baxter,” Studia Liturgica 21 (1991): 165-189.

25. “Is a Synthesis Possible between Evangelical Style and Lutheran Substance? A Lutheran Confessional Response,” The Appeal of American Evangelicalism, Concordia Seminary Monograph Series, Symposium Papers, Number 2 (St. Louis: Concordia Seminary, 1993) 53-59. See also “Keeping Our Balance: Maintaining Unity in a World (and Church!) of Diversity,” Concordia Journal 30.3 (July 2004): 137-155.

26. The Structure of Lutheranism, trans. Walter E. Hansen (St. Louis: Concordia, 1962) 334.

27. “The Lutheran Understanding of the Consecration, Letters to Lutheran Pastors, No. 26, July 1952,” We Confess the Sacraments, We Confess Series, Vol. 2, trans. Norman Nagel (St. Louis: Concordia, 1985) 117. See H. Sasse’s “Consecration and Real Presence,” Scripture and the Church: Selected Essays of Hermann Sasse, Concordia Seminary Monograph Series, Number 2, eds. Jeffrey J. Kloha and Ronald R. Feuerhahn (St. Louis: Concordia Seminary, 1995) 279. See also Sasse’s comments related to this in Sacra Scriptura, 132.

28. See J. Waddell, “The Church’s Theological Practice of Liturgy: Clarifying Hermeneutical Boundaries,” 2-16; esp. 8-16; and The Struggle to Reclaim the Liturgy in the Lutheran Church, 205-228.

29. “Reconsidering ‘Liturgical Theology’: Is there a Lex Orandi for All Christians?” 142. In Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997) 46, Frank Senn writes: “Orthodoxia means ‘right praise’ or ‘true worship’ rather than ‘right doctrine.’” Senn offers no hard data for his assertion. In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea consistently used ‘oρθοδοξία and its synonyms with reference to right doctrine; cf., e.g., 4.21.1; cf. also 4.3.1; 4.22.2.

30. For a balanced critique of Liturgical Theology by a contemporary LCMS theologian, see Kurt E. Marquart’s “Liturgy and Dogmatics,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 67.2 (April 2003): 175-190.

31. See The Struggle to Reclaim the Liturgy in the Lutheran Church, 243-264.

32. Note the confessional rule: abusus non tollit, sed confirmat substantiam, i.e., “Misuse does not destroy the substance, but confirms its existence.” Cf. LC IV.59. The presence of this principle in the confessional witness is evidence that the confessing evangelicals maintained a philosophical distinction between substance and form in their theological discourse.

33. Kurt Marquart’s argument against lex orandi lex credendi as an authoritative substitute for sola scriptura is helpful. Cf. “The Shape and Foundation of Faith,” Teach Me Thy Way, O Lord: Essays in Honor of Glen Zweck on the Occasion of His Sixty-fifth Birthday, J. Bart Day and Andrew D. Smith, eds. (Houston: Zweck Festschrift Committee, 2000) 119-136; see esp. 132-133.

34. FC Ep, Rule and Norm 1. Cf. 2 Timothy 3.16; 2 Peter 1.20-21. Cf. also FC Ep, Rule and Norm 7; FC SD, Rule and Norm 9.

35. FC SD, Rule and Norm 10. Cf. also Luther’s 1539 On the Councils and the Church (AE 41.3-178).

36. Examination of the Council of Trent II, trans. Fred Kramer (St. Louis: Concordia, 1978) First Topic: Concerning the Sacraments in General, X.8, pp. 116-117. For further citations of Chemnitz on this point see The Struggle to Reclaim the Liturgy in the Lutheran Church.

37. For extensive citation of sources on this point, see The Struggle to Reclaim the Liturgy in the Lutheran Church, 73-100.

38. See The Struggle to Reclaim the Liturgy in the Lutheran Church.

39. Luther’s German Mass as a model of liturgical reform today meets all the criteria set by Charles Arand: “(1) Confession of the Gospel; (2) Continuity with the catholic tradition; (3) Contextual sensitivity for mission; (4) Consensus of the church.” See “Not All Adiaphora Are Created Equal,” 157.

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