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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