Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Terminology/Theology Tuesday: Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

Historically, it has been possible to consider “the well-known and time-honored principle” lex orandi, lex credendi (literally: "law of praying, law of believing") as the fuller legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi: “let the law of prayer establish the law of belief” (Wainwright 1980, 224). But in a convenient sense which has roots in the Latin ambiguity of the phrase, “it is equally possible to reverse subject and predicate,” thus subjecting the liturgy (or ‘prayer’) to the teaching authority of the church: lex credendi legem statuat supplicandi, or “the law of our faith must establish the law of our prayer” (Wainwright 1980, 224). These two understandings have accordingly attended lex orandi, lex credendi from the early days of the church when the principle was derived as an axiom from the capitula Coelistini, a work attributed to pope Celestine I, though the phrase is now commonly credited to Prosper of Aquitaine (Wainwright 1980, 225). As history will demonstrate, this principle has become vital in pursuit of the task of theology.

Both liturgy/worship (‘prayer’) and doctrine/belief (‘faith’) have exercised alternating authority in their interactions with each other at different periods in church history. Champions of the primacy of the ‘law of prayer’ point to a time before confession or creed codified the faith, when Christ taught the earliest disciples how one should pray—and in effect—believe (Pelikan 2005, 158; c.f. Luke 11:1). As Pelikan notes: “therefore not the confession of faith, but prayer, is to be the continuous activity of Christian believers” (Pelikan 2005, 159).  Likewise, the ‘rule of prayer’ has helped settle some of the great doctrinal disputes in church history. Ancient examples include the decades-long formulation of the Trinitarian doctrine. Between the Creed of Nicaea of 325 and The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381, the refining influence of the Gloria Patria ("Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit") helped assure an equality of worship and an equality of glory to the Holy Spirit (Pelikan 2005, 168). This, in effect, became possible under the influence of Basil of Caesarea’s several versions of the Gloria Patria that were in circulation before the council in Constantinople in 381 and which advocate, through liturgy, a position of equality for the Spirit (Pelikan 2005, 168). Later examples of the rule of prayer over the rule of faith include the wars over iconography waged between iconoclasts (those who believed venerating icons was idolatry) and iconodules (those who revered icons and incorporated them into liturgical practice) in the Byzantine Christian Church in the eighth and ninth centuries:
When the reading of the rule of faith put forth by the iconoclasts came into collision with the reading of the rule of prayer represented by the iconodules, the victory in the early battles belonged to the iconoclasts, and the icons were condemned and banished. But the victory in the war eventually went to the icons and their defenders. In the same city in which the dogma of the Trinity had achieved it initial conciliar acceptance and creedal formulation by the First Council of Nicaea in 325, the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 in its confession vindicated the use of icons on the grounds that ‘it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary,’ thereby finally bringing the rule of faith into conformity with the rule of prayer (Pelikan 2005, 173).
Other examples of the effect of liturgical practice upon doctrinal formation include its influence on the development of sacramental theology.

Can one ask what happens when the rule of prayer begins to detract from the rule of faith? Certainly a central, yet not exclusive, task of theology is to know Christ better (Col. 1:28). Is there a sense in which the current liturgical drama encountered in churches can pull one away from this vital task? The acerbic and enlightening sarcasm of Stanley Hauerwas helps answer this question: 
One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship, is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics. You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend. (Hauerwas 1999, 89).
Hauerwas’ prescience is important in revealing the hazard of poor or anemic worship toward God, and in this case, its undue influence upon the ethical production of the church. Often the actualized profession of prayer by the communicant in liturgy differs from the professed ideological faith of the creeds and confessions. There is a danger here, because what we do is oftentimes a far more accurate description of what we believe than the credo. In this case, the rule of prayer may exercise undo influence upon the rule of faith, and it falls to the theologian in concert with lex orandi, lex credendi to sound the prophetic voice: lex credendi legem statuat supplicandi, or “the law of our faith must establish the law of our prayer.” This principle and reflection is especially important in the increasingly superficial worship culture of the Protestant, Free Church traditions in North America.

  • Hauerwas, Stanley, and William H. Willimon. 1999. The Truth About God: The Ten Commandments in the Christian Life. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
  • Saliers, Don. 1994. Worship as Theology: Foretaste of Glory Divine. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
  • Pelikan, Jaroslov. 2005. Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
  • Wainwright, Geoffrey. 1980. Doxology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.