Synagogue Or Temple? Models For The Christian Worship -- By: Peter J. Leithart

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 64:1 (Spring 2002)
Article: Synagogue Or Temple? Models For The Christian Worship
Author: Peter J. Leithart


Synagogue Or Temple?
Models For The Christian Worship

Peter J. Leithart*

[*Peter Leithart teaches theology and literature at New St. Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho.]

Modern liturgists commonly argue that the early Christian liturgy, or at least the synaxis, had its roots in the worship of the first-century Jewish synagogue rather than the worship of the Jerusalem temple.1 Some, to be sure, have noted that the opposition of temple and synagogue is far from absolute,2 yet the issue has been posed as an attempt to “decide whether the Temple or the Synagogue served as the model for the liturgical institutions of the incipient Church.”3 Treatments of early Christian liturgy that do not implicitly rest on this opposition are rare.4

Especially among Reformed liturgists, the appeal to the synagogue origins of Christian worship supports a liturgical theology that emphasizes simplicity over complexity, preaching over ceremony, Word over Sacrament. Hughes Oliphant Old, for example, claims that “the first Christians took over many of the worship traditions of the synagogue. They did not take over the rich and sumptuous ceremony of the Temple, but rather the simpler synagogue service, with its Scripture reading, its sermon, its prayers, and its psalmody.”5 Quoting Old, Terry L. Johnson, a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America, asserts that “the foundation for the simple and spiritual worship of the New Testament may be found in the synagogue services that developed in the exilic period in response to the prophetic critique of the formalism and ceremonial ostentation that surrounded temple worship…. The worship of the synagogue was essentially the worship of the temple minus the apparatus of sacrifice: temple, priest, altar, victim, incense, and ritual.”6 Appeal to the synagogue worship has been a central theme in the Reformed polemic against the “ostentatious” ritualism of Rome and a central part of the defense of Puritan worship.

Use of the synagogue as a model for worship has created fundamental tensions in Reformed liturgics. Certain sectors of the Reformed church have emphasized the need for Scriptural regulation of worship. This “regulative principle of worship” was stated by John Girardeau, in a nineteenth-century book condemning the use of instrumental music: “A divine warrant is necessary for every element of...

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