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The Liturgical Nature of Cultus

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series

"Worldview-Forming Worship"

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Last week I described the liturgical nature of culture. Yet there is a second element within the broader concept of liturgy, actually the more common use of the term, and the one that centers on the primary focus of this book—worship. While the Greek term leitourgia was originally used to describe all sorts of social works, what I have called “culture,” it later came to refer specifically to public works of worship to God, primarily due to its use in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX). The LXX translators deliberately chose this term to uniquely denote the formal service of the priests on behalf of the people of God, and they used it almost exclusively for that kind of work in contrast to other public patterns of behavior. This use of the term set the standard for the years to come, and this is how we typically use the word liturgy today, to refer to corporate worship.

Here, too, there is a relationship to the Latin root for the word “culture,” which originally denoted the cultivation of plants and animals. The term “cultus” grew from this original Latin source alongside “culture,” and referred to the public acts of worship performed by a religious community. Sigmund Mowinckel provided this helpful definition of the original meaning of the word:

Cult . . . may be defined as the socially established and regulated holy acts and words in which the encounter and communion of the Deity with the congregation is established, developed, and brought to its ultimate goal . . . a relation in which a religion becomes a vitalizing function as a communion of God and congregation, and of the members of the congregation among themselves . . . the visible and audible expression of the relation between the congregation and the deity.

In other words, “cultus” is another word for rituals and expressions of communal worship.

Like theology, cultus is more deliberately formed. Religious communities establish rituals, ceremonies, artistic expressions, and other sacred acts in ways that express and nurture their religion. Yet here, too, there is often an unconscious interplay between cultus and culture. Often people’s worship becomes shaped and molded by the common culture around them. Likewise, the cultic acts of a dominant religious community within a society can have a significant impact upon the cultural behaviors of that society.

Both of these behavioral patterns, culture—the general patterns of a society’s behavior, and cultus—the patterns of a religious community’s worship, are encompassed under the category of liturgy. These are practices that have formed over time within a community that both reflect and form underlying religion (worldview + theology).

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.