A Trinitarian Theology of Sacrificial Worship (And, Ergo, Morality)

Man, I really know how to do the click-baity headlines.

Anyway, I’m continuing to riff on morality as worship, which is a vein I think I’ll keep mining (see also this).

If the reason why we should behave morally is because it is a form of worship, then the question naturally poses itself of why we should worship God.

It seems like a stupid question, and maybe it is. But I like stupid questions (and this is my blog), so let’s go.

A first and obvious answer comes: because that’s what we’re made for. This is, of course, absolutely true. But it also poses further questions: why did God make us to worship him? (And why is it that we should do what we were made for?–we should not take the answer as self-evident, although I leave it to the side for now.)

One answer to both this question and the previous one would be to say that God is, definitionally, worthy of worship. This is also absolutely correct. Especially since you take into account that we all worship something (because we were made for worship), then yes, logic dictates that we should worship what is most worthy of worship, then God, as the most transcendent True, Good and Beautiful, is the “object” most worthy of worship.

Ok, fair enough. But it still seems to me that we’re still left dancing around what smells like a key question, which is why worship is the primary mode through which we should conceive of our relationship with God–indeed all our existence, since we’ve said that our behavior ought to be a form of worship. After all, the Commandment says “You shall love God with all your heart”, not “You shall worship God”–not that these two are incompatible, but I am just exploring the question of why we should think of the template of “worship” as centrally important rather than, yes, important, but not central. And to pose that question is to ask what is worship?

One of the primary modes in which worship is conceived in the Old Testament is sacrifice. In a certain cast of Christian mind, sacrifice is associated with paganism, and in particular the sacrificial order under the Old Covenant is seen as a sort-of pre-Pelagian religion where sacrifice is used as a means of placating, or making up for one’s faults through one’s own efforts, a vision which is superseded by the order of grace under the New Covenant. Nevermind whether that is an accurate account of the sacrificial order in the Old Testament (my strong impression is that it isn’t, but I confess to limited expertise on the topic), the point is that this is a mental picture of “sacrifice” that we find a lot floating around in Christian tradition.

I think a better mental picture of sacrifice, probably in the Old Covenant but certainly in the New Covenant, is as an order of gratitude. There are two versions of this; one is whereby the sacrifice does not, indeed, “make up” for your sin, but by grace God condescends to accept the unworthy sacrifice as reparation of the offense anyway; and the other is as a sacrifice of thanksgiving; indeed, your sacrifice does not “bring” anything to God, and it is absolutely worthless (what need does God have of a slain bull?), but you bring it anyway, because everything you have is worthless, but whatever you do have you do give to God as thanksgiving.

And now I think we have a thread on which it is worth pulling a little bit further. Because when we think of sacrifice not as imposition and not (or not mainly) as reparation but as gift, we are immediately pointed to the master idea for understanding God, Man, and the Universe, which is the Trinity. The three Persons of the Trinity exist in an eternal union of mutual self-giving in love. And God, as we know from the Tetragrammaton and from philosophy, is the very nature of Being itself. Therefore, to be is to give. God is Being itself, and God exists as interpersonal gift. Therefore, to truly be is to give.

This, to me, is what the notion of sacrificial worship points to: to worship is to give. To give up–to sacrifice. Why? Because the order of being itself is gift, and to give is to truly be as we were “meant to be”, not because God fancied to make us that way just like he fancied to make us with two legs instead of eight, but because that is the nature of what it means “to be.” But this order of relationship between Creator and creature, unlike the relationships within the Trinity, is fundamentally unequal: God gives us everything and whatever we give is (almost) nothing; this is why this order is properly called, and thought of, as worship.

To worship, therefore, is, in a fundamental way, simply to acknowledge who God is. “I am the LORD.” To acknowledge God as the Triune essence of Being is immediately to worship him; that is to say, recognizing the proper nature of existence is to put ourselves in accord with it, is to put ourselves in a mode of relationship towards God which is properly called worship.

Stripped of some of the theologico-philosophical language, we worship God, we want to be worshipping creatures, people who worship God in everything they do and feel and think, because God is Love, God made us for Love, and to be this Love, we acknowledge Him as all-Transcendent, and ourselves as creatures, and freely give to Him in gratitude for His free gift to us.

We, of course, most readily see this in the person of Jesus Christ. “I am the Way.” It does not mean “to follow my teachings” or even “my example” is the Way. It means “to be Me is the Way.” And who is Jesus? He is the totally self-giving. As a Divine Person of the Trinity, He is total Gift to the Father. And as a man also he was, total Gift unto the Cross, the perfect sacrifice, where He was “the altar, the priest and the sacrifice.” Jesus’ life is one long liturgy of worship of God.

And well, saying this is really nothing new or original. We’re really back at the start. But hopefully this little exploration leaves us a little bit closer to what it truly means to worship God, at least conceptually.

Previously: Morality as Worship; St Maximilian Kolbe as worshipper.



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  • mochalite

    “… why worship is the primary mode through which we should conceive of our relationship with God–indeed all our existence.”

    Oh, man, this post is dense-pack worship theology! Would love to read your unpacking in future posts of the other bits you mentioned: (1) The OT sacrificial system. I’d argue that there’s a nontrivial difference between “superseded” and “fulfilled” … the one lets us leave it behind, while the other doesn’t; and (2) how do we know that we were made for worship?

    “To acknowledge God as the Triune essence of Being is immediately to worship him.” I agree, and I think Psalm 100 is right on point. I love its structure (Kenneth E. Bailey’s very cool writings on poetic structure in Scripture would call this ABCBA):

    1 Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.
    2 Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing.
    3 Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
    4 Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be
    thankful unto him, and bless his name.
    5 For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all

    The center is “know,” and all the verbs that require action on our part “make, serve, come, sing, enter, praise, thank, bless” are predicated on what we are to know: We didn’t make ourselves and are not autonomous … we’re under God’s care; and the nature of God is goodness, mercy, and truth forever … worth our doing all those other things!

    So, when the prophets were trying to get Israel to transition in their vision of who God is and what He is doing, they used your notion of sacrifice as gift/worship instead of blood/reparation. Micah 6:6-8 (some of the most majestic words in Scripture, imo):

    6 With what shall I come before the Lord, And bow myself before the High God?
    Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, With calves a year old?
    7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil?
    Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the
    sin of my soul?
    8 He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?

    In other words, goodness, mercy, and truth … just like God, with the humility
    that our created status requires. (unpacking humility would make another
    fascinating post).

    You ended with “And well, saying this is really nothing new or original.” No, but like the old hymn says, “Tell me the story of Jesus, write on my heart every word.” We can never hear this too often!

    • A wonderful comment, as always.

      (I feel like such a broken record saying this all the time, but so many of your comments leave me thinking just that, with nothing else to add.)

      • mochalite

        And I feel redundant raving over so many of your posts, but they really are marvelous and spark all kinds of thought-prayer connections! I think that God, being the Father that He is, is thrilled when his children puzzle on things and figure them out. So, redundant or not, I’ll keep commenting.