January 31, 2004

The Congregation’s Amen

Category: Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

The last question in the Heidelberg Catechism, which ends the Catechism’s treatment of the Lord’s Prayer, deals with the significance of the word Amen. As I was preparing for my afternoon sermon in connection with that question, I remembered something I had read back in seminary.

Here are some snippets from Dr. K. Deddens’ book on the liturgy, Where Everything Points to Him. Deddens was the Professor of Diaconology and Ecclesiology at the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches.

Deddens surveys the use of the word in Num. 5:11-31; Deut. 27:11-26; Neh. 5:13; and 1 Kings 1:36 and writes:

It is important for us to note that the amen does not serve to confirm what the speaker has himself said; rather, it confirms the word of someone else. And it is not uttered by the one who has made the statement in question but by someone who has heard it (p. 155).

Deddens then looks at the Amen as a response to praise:

We also find an Amen at the end of the doxology which closes off the books or sections within the book of Psalms (see Ps. 14:41; 72:19; 89:53; and 106:48). Moreover, Psalm 150 can be regarded as an Amen ending the entire book of Psalms with its five parts. When the praise of the LORD is being sung, the “Amen” can be expected from His congregation by way of response (p. 155).

Next Deddens examines the New Testament use of the word:

In I Corinthians 14:16 it is spoken by the hearers in the congregation: “If you bless with the spirit, how can any one in the position of an outsider say the ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?” II Corinthians 1:20 also speaks of the congregation’s Amen and says that it is only possible through Christ. And in Revelation 5:14, this word is mentioned as a liturgical response in worship that takes place in heaven (p. 156).In the second place, the word “Amen” is used in the New Testament after prayers, and especially after doxologies (see, for example, Rom. 1:25; 9:5; 11:36; 16:27; Gal. 1:5; Eph. 3:21; Phil. :20; I Tim. 1:17; 6:16; II Tim. 4:18; Heb. 13:21; 1 Pet. 4:11; 5:11; Jude vs. 5; Rev. 1:6; 7:12). The author uses it to indicate that when the congregation hears the praise of God read aloud, she ought to respond with an Amen (p. 157).

Deddens then presents how the word was used in church history:

It is clear from the Old and New Testaments, then, that the Amen was spoken by the congregation as a liturgical word. We also find it being used in this way during the first centuries of the Christian church.Justin Martyr, writing in the second century, tells us that the congregation expressed her agreement at the end of the communion liturgy by way of an Amen. In the Byzantine liturgy and also the liturgy of Jerusalem the people answered with an Amen when the words instituting the Lord’s Supper were read, and the same practice was to be found in North Africa during the time of Augustine (end of the fourth century and beginning of the fifth). The Amen was also used as an expression of agreement after prayers, Scripture reading and sermons. In his commentary on the letter to the Galatians, Jerome, who also lived at about this time, tells us that the Amen resounded through the basilica like a thunderclap!

It is regrettable that the use of the word “Amen” by the congregation came to an end in later centuries. The word as such could still be heard in worship services, but it no longer came from everyone’s mouth; it was only the priest who used this word, and when he did so, it was not by way of acclamation. Moreover, he would usually utter this word in a soft tone of voice.

Just as the congregation had become silent when her songs were taken away, so the same thing happened with her “Amen.” The congregation no longer responded to the Scripture reading, the sermon and the prayers; the priest was the one who uttered the Amen. Only the acts of the priest had value; all that was left for the congregation to do was to listen, and perhaps to add her silent Amen to what she heard (pp. 158-159).

Deddens closes with some recommendations:

A number of leaders in the Reformed community have argued that we should not restrict the Amen to the pulpit but should give it back to the congregation, to be used in connection with praise, prayer, preaching, and the blessing…. In ancient times it was the congregation that spoke or sang the Amen and then she did not need a song to do so by way of paraphrase. A song made up of repeated Amens would be better! And there are other possibilities that could be considered; we should always be open to something new when it comes to forms.But what is needed first of all is reflection on this matter, and a communal conviction that the responsive character of the Amen needs to come to the fore in our worship services, which means that the Amen must come from the mouth not of the minister but of the hearers…. If we would move in such a direction, we would promote the congregation’s activity in worship as she seeks to serve the LORD in a covenantal way! (pp. 159-160).

It is odd, isn’t it, that in so many Reformed churches the congregation is silent, except for singing, while the minister does all the speaking. I’ve been in Reformed churches where the minister alone recites the creed. But, as Deddens insists, that’s not the Reformed way at all. It was the Reformers who insisted on congregational participation. As James Jordan writes:

… the Reformers wanted participation in worship from the whole priesthood of believers. They wrote dialogue liturgies in which the people had many things to say and sing. They had their congregations singing, for instance, the creeds, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. Soon, however, the strength of the Medieval devotional tradition reasserted itself — the “low mass” tradition in which the people only sat and watched and listened, while the minister did everything. This Medieval tradition was the essence of the Puritan view of worship. In worship, the Puritans departed from the desires of the Protestant Reformers. — The Sociology of the Church, p. 29.

Alas, now we have a situation where in many (thankfully, not all) Reformed churches the minister says and does almost everything and the people stay silent — and where people actually think that this is Reformed worship and that the use of regular, memorized liturgical responses is kinda almost Roman Catholic. But … who is closer to the Reformers’ view of worship? A Reformed congregation where only the minister speaks? Or an active, responsive “high liturgy” church?

And then factor in the ancient principle Lex orandi, lex credendi: the law of prayer (worship) is the law of belief. How do these two forms of worship shape our doctrines, not to mention our practice outside of church? I grant that you can go through the motions when it comes to liturgical responses, but you can certainly go through the motions when it comes to sitting silently, too — and probably far more easily, since so little is demanded of you.

But I wonder: What view of God fits with the minister doing everything and the congregation little or nothing? What view of the church? What view of our responsibility? What view of the covenant?

And now we’re back to Deddens’ concern: The Bible teaches that our relationship with God is mutual and that worship is covenantal fellowship with God. That mutual covenantal fellowship demands dialogue. If the congregation stays silent, she is not just un-Reformed; she is unresponsive, and we are not allowed to be unresponsive to God.

Posted by John Barach @ 6:02 pm | Discuss (0)

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