Liturgical Hermeneutics, Part 1: Liturgy as Object, Source & Canon for Theology

Feast of St Agatha the Martyr

Liturgy_Square_2.jpegTHE RUSSIAN Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann is probably most known for his work in liturgical theology. His passion for this subject was driven by his perception of a divorce between liturgy and theology. In fact, he argued that this split is the only reason liturgical theology ought to exist. In his words, liturgical theology developed solely “because theology ceased to seek in the lex orandi [“law of prayer”] its source and food, because liturgy ceased to be conducive to theology.” The historical development of such a split, then, legitimized the need for liturgical theology as a field of study whose primary goal is to facilitate “a slow and patient bringing together of that which was for too long a time and because of many factors broken and isolated.”         

Two key patristic phrases are consistently employed in liturgical theology to defend the reunion of liturgy and theology with a foundational emphasis on liturgy. The primary dictum, set forth in the fifth century by St. Prosper of Aquitaine (and source of endless debate), asserts that the law of prayer establishes the law of belief. The second phrase, promulgated much earlier in the second century by St. Irenaeus (probably the oldest use of the principle), suggests that one’s theological opinion should be established by the eucharist. Liturgical experience for the Fathers was thus both a source and a canon for their theological thought. In other words, the hermeneutical foundation for patristic theology was located in the Church’s liturgical tradition, the lex orandi, described by Schmemann as “the epiphany and the experience of the Church of herself and of her faith.”

For Schmemann, liturgical theology seeks to understand and interpret the tradition of the Church through the liturgy. As Schmemann observes, however, to do so requires theology to turn to the liturgy not only as the source of theology—the essence of liturgical theology—but also as its object. Schmemann’s “Orthodox hermeneutic” thus places the liturgy as its object strictly as a means to the ultimate end of discovering the liturgy as the source of theology, as the “real ‘key’” of both the liturgy and tradition. As Walter Dean Ray puts it in his study of Schmemann’s liturgical hermeneutics, “If Fr. Schmemann is right, if liturgy must be the source of theology, then theology must first show how liturgy can be this source. How does liturgy function as source? This is the fundamental hermeneutic question.”

Fr. Jeremy Driscoll, Benedictine monk and Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, offers an example of theology demonstrating how the liturgical tradition functioned as a source in the early Church. In his article on the baptismal theology of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Driscoll notes that during the early centuries of the Church a “theologian” would have been a bishop with two primary duties: 1) in his church presiding over his community’s liturgical celebration, i.e. preaching and administering the eucharist; and 2) in his community caring for the members of his flock. A theologian in the early church, according to Driscoll, was primarily a pastoral liturgist.

The bishop and his flock regularly encountered the Word of God in the homily and in the eucharist. Theology was simply a description of that encounter. Driscoll describes this dynamic:

Discerning the dynamic lex orandi—lex credendi [“law of prayer—law of belief”] is not simply a question of asserting that what the Church believes is already somehow expressed in liturgical texts and rites, but more fundamentally that what the Church believes is an articulation of what is accomplished by God in the liturgy and experienced and first known there by the Church.

This is an important distinction that is a clear echo of Schmemann in two ways. First, Schmemann repeatedly emphasized that theology is not so much an explanation of God as it is a finite attempt to find the right words to describe the faith of the Church, i.e. what one experiences in its liturgical gathering. In other words, the lex credendi of the Church that is established by the lex orandi of the Church is a feeble attempt to articulate what God’s work has done in the lives of His people within the context of the Church gathered around the eucharistic altar. And second, the lex orandi—liturgical texts and rites—cannot merely be plumbed for lex credendi as theological doctrine. This is why Fr. Alexander did not place much hope in the movement of a “return to the Fathers.” He worried that such a movement would merely be a return to texts instead of an acquisition of the mind of the Fathers. When disconnected from the liturgical and ecclesial experience that is grounded in apostolic tradition, texts can be interpreted in any number of ways to prove any number of biases.

Driscoll goes on to reflect on the emergence of Christian dogma. When early Christians first began developing an intellectual foundation for the one true faith, Driscoll suggests that the need for such an enterprise was initially only recognized intuitively. As he puts it,

there was a massive “something” on which thinking rested, to which efforts at articulation continually referred. This “something” was the absolutely new reality entrusted to and experienced by the Apostles. Indeed, it was a Presence, a Somebody, a Somebody filled with divine glory: Jesus Christ risen from the dead.

Their descriptions and defenses of the one true faith, then, did not primarily appeal to liturgical texts or biblical sources such as the gospel accounts of Christ or the Pauline epistles, though the scriptures (i.e. the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms) certainly were foundational for them. Instead, they consistently turned to “a Somebody”, the ongoing presence of the crucified and risen Christ. And His presence was particularly perceptible, or rather, based on Christ’s promises, most certainly available in two places: baptism and eucharist. 

Both baptism and eucharist were commanded by the Lord. And both commands included a promise. When Christ sent His disciples out to all the nations to make disciples and to baptize them in the name of the Trinity, he promised them He would always be with them to the end of the age (Mt. 28:20). When He commanded them to take the cup and the bread, He promised them His presence once again through His body and blood (Lk. 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:23-26). As commands of Christ, baptism and eucharist thus became the two key components of the lex orandi from the very beginning. And as Driscoll concludes, “On the foundation of what God accomplishes in these celebrations and from the community’s experience of them there developed a history of thought, a history of theology. Some ways of understanding things eventually became normative themselves: a lex credendi.”

Having affirmed Schmemann’s emphasis upon an early Christian unity of liturgy and theology, Driscoll proceeds to demonstrate how the early Christian experience of baptism helped St. Irenaeus shape a formulation of the Trinity long before the Ecumenical Councils began articulating Trinitarian doctrine. Without a church library or an online search engine to acquire an arsenal of proof texts, and without using specific liturgical texts or ritual shapes, Irenaeus nonetheless developed and contributed at least two important theological descriptions of the Trinitarian nature of God. These lex credendi were developed by Irenaeus based upon his reflection on actual liturgical experiences, i.e. on what God accomplishes in them and what the Church receives, experiences, and comes to know through them: 1) an anti-gnostic defense for a human knowledge and vision of the incomprehensible and invisible God; and 2) a catechetical description of Trinitarian deification. We’ll turn to Irenaeus’ second Trinitarian description in the next post.


Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.

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