Book Review: For the Glory of God
For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship by Daniel I. Block. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014, vii + 410 pp., $34.99, hardcover.
Daniel I. Block, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, writes from the conviction that “true worship involves reverential human acts of submission and homage before the divine Sovereign in response to his gracious revelation of himself and in accord with his will” (23). Block seeks to elucidate this thesis by synthesizing all that the Bible says concerning the topic of worship. What Block ultimately seeks to “recover” as the title suggests, is a theology of worship that takes into account the actual words of the Bible, a theology that derives from deep reflection on the Bible and which concerns all of life, not simply the Sunday service.
The book is driven by two foundational principles. First, “true worship is essentially a vertical exercise, the human response to the divine Creator and Redeemer” (6). Block reiterates this point at the beginning of every chapter. Since worship is vertical, its aim is directed to the glory of God instead of the pleasure of human beings, a notion that is lost in the contemporary worship scene today.
The second foundational principle is that “knowledge of nature and forms of worship that glorify God comes primarily from Scripture” (6). Thus, the Old Testament (OT, or “First Testament” as Block has a penchant for saying) and New Testament (NT) are the rule of worship. All forms and practices must derive from them. Being a professor of OT for several decades, Blocks makes his case primarily from that section of the Bible, and particularly from the Pentateuch. Indeed, he states, “since the NT gives minimal attention to corporate worship, true Christian worship should be grounded on theological principles established in the First Testament” (25).
Block contends that a recovery of biblical worship must begin with definitions. Indeed, every chapter is full of them, which in Block’s style is not boring but engaging. After addressing the object and subjects of worship in the Bible (Christ and Christians, respectively), the first half of the book deals with daily work and family life as worship. The second half addresses a series of topics more naturally associated with worship: liturgical exercises practice by the assembled community of faith such as ordinances, preaching, prayer, music, sacrifice/offerings, leadership, etc.
Block concludes his work with several appendices, including a chart of all doxologies in the Bible, the “Hymnic Fragments in the Pauline Epistles,” and translations of source documents of “Sunday Worship in Early Christianity.” Block also has a fondness for diagrams, which are provided throughout the book and very helpful considering the scope of this project, although some of these diagrams are useless (see Figure 6.3, “The Eucharistic Helix,” 158).
A large-scale publication on biblical worship is needed for every generation, and Block has provided it for this one. The amount of detail and careful exegesis is every chapter is unparalleled among books on this topic. For the Glory of God is thus an excellent sourcebook, but could also serve as a manual for conducting church worship since Block seeks primarily to be faithful to the biblical text.
Block is right to note that Christians have wiped away the significance of the OT in worship, a key theme of this book. Christians often operate under a practical Marcionism that is foreign to what Jesus and the apostles commended the church to do, and many times their only appeal to worship in the OT is to the book of Psalms. Block admonishes Christians who dismiss the OT as irrelevant for establishing the theology and practice of worship, or to do so solely from the Psalms. This is a helpful corrective, and a return to the OT for establishing the principles of worship in the NT is part of the “recovery” process as well. Indeed, “those who will not take seriously the authority and transformative power of the Pentateuch and the rest of the First Testament have no right to appeal, nor grounds for appealing, to the book of Psalms in worship” (6). In order to be faithful God in Christ, the whole testimony of Scripture must come to bear on the life of the believer and in the practice of the church.
In biblical theology, moving from the OT to the NT is often difficult given the continuities and discontinuities between the testaments. Yet at the end of each chapter, Block shows that what we know of worship in the NT has been established first in the OT, in most cases with greater detail and instruction. Thus, Block accomplishes theological move with characteristic alacrity, sensitivity, and a view toward the benefit of the church.
And yet I take issue with Block’s major statement that “unless the NT expressly declares the First Testament notions [of worship] obsolete, they continue” (7, 25). This view is prevalent throughout the book with obvious implications for tricky subjects like sabbatarianism. Overall, Block leans too heavily on the OT to the neglect of the NT. From Block’s perspective, the OT is the “gift” of Christian worship while the NT simply makes a “contribution.” This drives a hard wedge between the testaments on the topic of worship, much like dispensationalism. The NT is an afterthought in each chapter, comprising the final page or few paragraphs. This practice wrongly dichotomizes the OT from the NT. If one is to be biblical, then there is no avoiding that Jesus and the apostles encourage the church to read the OT anew with a view toward Christ. Thus, we can no longer treat OT texts without that view, because in light of Christ the OT books are now Christian books. They concern Jesus (Luke 24:27) and are about Jesus (24:44). Paul, at the end of his life, likewise reads and teaches the Bible with a view toward Jesus. He spends his last days “testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets” (Acts 28:23, 31).
The overemphasis on the OT in worship has implications in other areas as well, and Block is not always consistent. For example, in the chapter on sacrifices and offerings of worship, Block goes out of his way to show that there is no trace of messianic anticipation in the Pentateuch, and that the substitutionary nature of a once-for-all sacrifice is out of place (255). Yet a few pages over (257ff.) in discussing the pattern of the tabernacle that Moses perceived in Exodus 25 and 40, Block states to the contrary that “Moses apparently saw the true heavenly dwelling of YHWH and then received instructions to have the Israelites construct a replica in which the sacrifices and rituals would represent the singular heavenly sacrifice of the true Lamb of God” (258, emphasis mine). Further down the same page, Blocks writes, “the replica tabernacle and its rituals pointed to YHWH’s heavenly temple and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to which the triune God had committed himself before the foundation of the world.” This seems to me to be a description of a substitutionary sacrifice, the type of which the apostles in the NT pointed so frequently to convince first-century Jews that they had been reading the OT wrong all along. “The gospel was preached to Abraham beforehand,” Paul says (Gal 3:8). Jesus himself, “beginning with Moses” (Luke 24:27) interprets for his disciples the things “concerning himself.” In this way, the OT sacrificial system does point to Jesus, the Lamb of God.
A final area of disagreement is with Block’s contention that verbal expressions of one’s own love for God have no biblical warrant: “No one in the First Testament ever tells God, ‘I love you.’ Appeals to love God are common (Deut 6:5), but no authors or characters have the audacity to claim that they measure up to the standard demanded by the word” (238). After reading this statement one may think of Psalm 18:1, which is customarily translated, “I love you, O Lord.” Block’s comment on on this passage (pg 238, fn54) does not clarify the matter. Block contends that the object of the Hebrew word for “love” is missing in Psalm 18:1 because it would be presumptuous for the Psalmist to declare explicitly his love for God. Thus, Block says we should not sing songs that are self-laudatory, songs about our love for God instead of his love for us (238). But this view overstates the point. Appeals to love God in the Bible are not simply common, but ubiquitous, especially when one considers the evidence in the NT. What about the greatest commandment? If one has a correct theology of love coupled with a correct theology of worship as Block has outlined, is it not good and appropriate for that person to express love for God in their worship? When doing biblical theology one cannot end with the OT, especially not with a large topic like “love for God.” Even if Block is right to note that no one ever says “I love God” in the OT, the NT provides clear evidence that Christians can say it in good conscience. The Apostle Paul goes on to say “if anyone loves God, he is known by God” (1 Cor 8:3), and “if anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed!” (1 Cor 16:22). Surely Paul would allow a congregation to sing together, “I love the Lord,” no?
This point about love language for God leads to an issue I frequently see in worship books/conferences/websites, and For the Glory of God is no exception. On the issue of criticizing worship songs, there is no end. What authors typically do is cite bad worship songs and then lump all non-hymns into that category. The songs that Block criticizes in For the Glory of God, for example, are so old as to be irrelevant (“Father, I Adore You” , “I Love You Lord” , “Come As You Are” ). There are perhaps some churches that still utilize those three songs, but these songs are not the norm. It is true that these songs place an inordinate amount of emphasis on one’s personal relationship to God rather than his work in believers, but this does not mean that contemporary worship songs are bereft of theological content. There is a bevy of good songwriters producing theologically rich music/songs for the church today, writers like Bob Kauflin, Stuart Townend, Keith Getty, Aaron Keyes, Matt Papa, Shane Bernard, Ross King, Aaron Ivey, Brooks Ritter, Sandra McCracken, Mike Cosper, Matt Boswell, and more. Perhaps Block is not aware of these authors, but the accessibility that music leaders have to good church music today is astounding. Thus, I agree with Block that pastors should be sensitive/careful about song selections. If pastors are choosing poor worship songs/hymns for their services, then they are starving their congregations who will eventually find themselves malnourished for good theology. Finding good content is not the problem since that content is easily accessible. But I do not agree that the songs Block chose to criticism represent the whole.
These criticisms aside, to say that Block has written the book on the theology of worship is an understatement. I know of no other work that is as comprehensive as this one for the topic. Peterson, Due, Ross and others have all made significant contributions, to be sure, and yet the impressive scope and exegesis of Block’s work stands apart. Young scholars should take note: doing a biblical theology begins not with themes, concepts, and ideas, but with the actual words of the Bible. And to the topic at hand, Block is unrivaled. He is biblically faithful. We should also take note that Block’s exegesis and application come from decades of teaching and writing about this topic. Let us not be quick to publish our views without seriously pondering the text over a long period of time. Block is a model on this point, and we should be grateful.
And yet if read with a closed mind and without pastoral sensitivity, this work could also serve as the church curmudgeon’s handbook. The testimony of church history attests to the wide variety of opinions and practices for worship, and now For the Glory of God offers yet another. Even so, I have benefited from this book, and, if anything, Block has caused me to “look to the book,” as it were, and like the Bereans in Acts 17, to go back to the Bible and test all things against the testimony of Scripture as I plan worship services.
Josh Philpot (@joshphilpot) is the Pastor for Worship and Administration at Founders Baptist Church in Houston, Texas.
Editor's Note: This review was also published in the Journal of the Evangelical Study of the Old Testament 4.2, 209-13. You can access that journal for free here: http://jesot.org.