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Ancient-Future Worship: Always Both-And, Never Either-Or, Part 1

by Darrell A. Harris, D.W.S.

“What has been before will be again,” my paternal grandmother said. She often saw the events of the past not only recurring in the present, but giving shape to the future as well. While the term ancient-future appears at first glance to be a construct comprised of mutually exclusive terms, my grandmother’s wisdom may offer some insight.

After nearly twenty years of friendship with Bob Webber and then having read his Ancient-Future Worship, I am overwhelmed at the scope, the sweep and the comprehensive richness of his concept. As contemporary worshippers hunger for the authenticity of the worship of ancient Israel and the early church, we may be catching glimpses of the eternal future of worship.It occurs to me that there are five paradoxical dyads always in play in ancient-future worship.

Ancient-future worship is always both Trinitarian and Christocentric
Consider these examples of Trinitarian emphasis: the mingling of both singular and plural in the phrases “Let us make” and “in our image,” Abraham’s three visitors addressed as the singular Lord, the wording of the shema (saying that Elohim, a name that suggests plurality, is one,) the Father’s vocal blessing and the appearance of the Spirit like a dove at Christ’s baptism and the triune benediction of 2 Corinthians 13:13.

We can also observe a nascent Christo-centricity in the Hebrew Scriptures. Remember God’s Genesis prophecy that the woman’s seed would crush the serpent’s head, the prophetic Christ-prefiguring appearance of Melchizedek, and the mystery of the fourth person in the fiery furnace. Plus the New Testament references to the Lord Jesus having the preeminence in all things are in abundance.

Ancient-future worship always engages both word and symbol
Most evangelicals don’t need to be convinced of the priority of word. After all, we claim to be people of the book. But we can easily forget the centrality of the word’s counterpart, symbol.

When God promised never to destroy the world by water again, he gave a symbol of his promise, the rainbow. Ancient Israel engaged symbols for all their feasts and observances (blood on doorposts, ritual Passover meal of lamb, building shelters or booths for the Feast of Tabernacles campout, bread, wine, sacrificial offerings, etc.) Jesus constantly engaged symbol for teaching purposes (mustard seed, coin, etc.) And he only gave us one way to remember his death until his return . . . the sharing of the bread and cup.

Our emphasis on word is well placed. It is by the word that all creation was spoken into existence. We are washed with the water of the word. The word will never pass away. But it is symbol that helps us envision, enact and enflesh the word. It is the bread and cup that are a koinonia (or participation) in the very event and the very one being remembered.

Ancient-future worship is both declarative and dialogical
Again, we evangelicals get the declarative part, but sometimes at the expense of the dialog. The public reading of Torah in the synagogue carried over in the public reading of the Gospels and epistles in the early church, and was restored after a season of absence in the Reformation. As British theologian/pianist Jeremy Begbie says, “At the heart of the Christian message, there is something being declared.”

Our worship is also dialogical. Remember the events of Exodus 24:3-8. Moses declares the word of the Lord to the people. Then there follows a group response, “All the Lord God has spoken, we will do.” That event records a dialogical exchange. The same is true of the Lord’s instructions about his laws to his people in the sixth and eleventh chapters of Deuteronomy. They were told to not just write them on their doorposts and hide them in them hearts, but also to chat about them in everyday situations.

Consider also the roots of the ancient liturgical salutation, “The Lord be with you,” adapted from Ruth 2:4. How wonderful to greet one another as Boaz and the field hands did with a dialogical blessing rather than just a cheery hello! Jesus greets his grieving disciples in a similar way after his resurrection (Luke 24:37.)

(End of Part 1 . . . Part 2 will discuss two more pairs of dyads always present in ancient-future worship:
that it is always both communal and missional and that it always remembers a specific past and anticipates a specific future.)

Darrell A. Harris, D.W.S., is a veteran leader in the Christian music field, Dean of the Chapel of Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies, and chief content officer of Stonebridge Institute.