What were they? Many simply designate them as pagan places of worship. These were the groves and other ‘pleasant’ places that stirred spiritual feelings. You find the same thing today all over the Italian countryside. Many times while hiking on a trail in the Dolomites I would suddenly come to some beautiful vista or stumble upon a forest waterfall, and always there would be a little shrine. A statue of Mary with some flowers and candles etc... Essentially a High Place.[i]
There were times when driving down the road you'd see a little old lady or two on their knees offering devotions to the Virgin.
In my flesh I completely understand the impulse. You almost feel like your worship would be enhanced. Your prayers and songs would almost mean more in that locale. There's nothing wrong with appreciating nature and beauty, but worship is an area where we must tread lightly. Our flesh, our sinful nature is as Calvin said a factory which produces idols. Nature, art, music can be very emotive and very stirring. It's all the more reason to be careful when attempting to integrate these things into worship. In my flesh I love all the shrines and high places. Every lost person ultimately will find more joy in worshipping the creation in lieu of the Creator (Romans 1). As I've written elsewhere if my flesh were my spiritual guide I would probably be sitting in an Eastern Orthodox congregation. But my conscience is bound by the Word of God.
In the Old Testament, the elements of worship were typological and carefully prescribed. Elements are the actual set apart and prescribed motions, rituals or objects employed. They are holy not due to intrinsic value, but because God has declared them so. Changes or innovations ruined the typology and immediately (in theological terms) established a form of idolatry...a false view of God and redemption, essentially a false God.
In the New Testament that typology has been removed. We don't want to return to it and symbolically speaking sew up the veil that was rent. Nor do we want to innovate and integrate elements from our pagan culture. In the end Scripture Alone (as per 2 Timothy 3.16) is sufficient.
16 All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
We don't have to bear the yoke of the Old Testament law. We don't have to follow the calendar, the dietary laws or any of the other codes. We've been liberated. Everything we need can be found in the Apostolic writings of the New Testament. No one can bring us into bondage by trying to impose the Old Testament on us. Nor do we have any indication from the New Testament that we go back and 'cherry-pick' the elements we wish to retain while jettisoning the rest. That's Judaizing and ends up becoming a form of legalism.
Paul says in Galatians 3:
10 For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.[ii]
If you want the Law, then you have to embrace it completely. It’s a unit, not something that can be broken up and applied in part.
It may seem harmless to borrow here and there from the Old Testament arrangement. And yet, when this is done and incorporated into worship those who rightly understand Redemptive-History are placed in a dilemma. They must either bend to this legalism being imposed on them. (In other words in order to worship with the congregation they are forced to embrace these illegitimate practices), or they’re forced into non-conformity and will be charged with causing division within the body…destroying the unity.
In fact it is those who are imposing the extra-Scriptural requirements who are guilty of Schism. It is they who are ‘imposing’ unjustifiable requirements on the congregation. This is the yoke not of the Old Testament law…that yoke was ordained and served a temporary purpose. No, this is the yoke of legalism, binding the conscience where Scripture does not bind. (Matthew 15.9)
Many try to escape this charge by insisting that when they use candles, vestments, musical instruments or whatever, they're not using them as elements. They’re merely circumstances or incidentals. That argument fails. In the Old Testament these things were clearly typological elements.
How do we know? The instruments were played by Levites, thus they weren't something indifferent (adiaphora) like what day of the week we meet or what time, or how we've arranged our chairs. These things were part of the Redemptive typology, part of the picture of Salvation being demonstrated in Old Testament history. The candles or lamps were commanded. The vestments carefully delineated. If they belonged to the Levite-Temple structure…these things were holy and clearly not something indifferent.
When Christians attempt to copy these things they are simultaneously Judaizing (misusing and misappropriating the Old Testament) and Paganizing (innovating and borrowing from the culture around them).
Why is copying the Old Testament also an example of Paganizing? Because ultimately you can’t copy the Old Testament. Attempting to do so is bad enough, but in the end you can only produce some kind of cheap imitation that almost always has been syncretized with something out of the Western tradition.
There are a host of passages that make it very clear the Old Testament law no longer can bind us.
9 The next day, as they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. 10 Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance 11 and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. 13 And a voice came to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”
14 But Peter said, “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.”
15 And a voice spoke to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” 16 This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again.
Or do you not know, brethren (for I speak to those who know the law), that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives? 2 For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. 3 So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress, though she has married another man. 4 Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another—to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God. 5 For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death. 6 But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.
19 What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator. 20 Now a mediator does not mediate for one only, but God is one.
21 Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. 22 But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 23 But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. 25 But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.
8 But then, indeed, when you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods. 9 But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years. 11 I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain.
11 In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. 13 And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, 14 having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. 15 Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.
16 So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ. 18 Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God.
20 Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations— 21 “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” 22 which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? 23 These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.
11 Therefore, if perfection were through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need was there that another priest should rise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be called according to the order of Aaron? 12 For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law. 13 For He of whom these things are spoken belongs to another tribe, from which no man has officiated at the altar.
14 For it is evident that our Lord arose from Judah, of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood. 15 And it is yet far more evident if, in the likeness of Melchizedek, there arises another priest 16 who has come, not according to the law of a fleshly commandment, but according to the power of an endless life. 17 For He testifies:
“You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek.”
According to the order of Melchizedek.”
18 For on the one hand there is an annulling of the former commandment because of its weakness and unprofitableness, 19 for the law made nothing perfect; on the other hand, there is the bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God.
Worship practices from the Old Testament have no place in New Testament worship. Nor can innovators bind our consciences by bringing in pagan traditions. If the latter is desired or permissible, Paul's words to Timothy (2 Timothy 3.16) become meaningless. If we ‘need’ more than what we’re given then the Scriptures clearly are not sufficient and able to equip us…make us complete.
If additions are not needed, then why are they being added? Who gave you the authority to add them and to bind the consciences of others? What Scriptural basis do you have to think your additions will please God?
To be clear, there is continuity between the Old and New Testaments. The continuity centers on the Person of Christ and thus the two cannot be wholly divorced. Paul teaches in Galatians 3 that we who are ‘in’ Christ are the children of Abraham. The New Covenant is specifically tied to the covenant promises made to Abraham. In John 3 Christ clearly teaches that rebirth was something taught in the Old Testament. Paul teaches in Romans 4 that Abraham was saved/justified in the same way we are by grace through faith. There's one Gospel for all ages but it has been administered in different forms. All too often the Church has focused on the forms...and missed the substance. This was one of the great theological errors of the Pharisees. After the Gentiles came into the Church, the threat of pagan practice entering the Church was renewed, just as it had been before when the Israelites dwelt alongside the Canaanites.
Church history is replete with examples of God's people borrowing from the culture around them. It had already started before the Edict of Milan, but with the rise of Constantine, the floodgates opened and the Church began to profoundly change. For a host of reasons the post-Constantinian Church began to synthesize the Biblical religion with the impulses of the pagan cultures around them.
The Israelite high places were no different. Like New Testament worship, the Divinely sanctioned central altar in the tabernacle or temple apparently proved too dull or restrictive. They sought to imitate their neighbours. They craved the things the nations had to offer. They wanted more beautiful worship experiences with sights and sounds. They wanted the tactile above and beyond what the Old Covenant granted, which was significantly more than what we find in the New Testament. Worship in the New Testament is extremely simple. In this age of worshipping in Spirit and Truth (John 4.24) we neither need nor desire the trappings (often called a form of bondage) of the Jewish system nor the innovation/cheap imitation of the (Pagan) Samaritans.
Undoubtedly there were some high places in Israel/Judah devoted specifically to a Baal, Chemosh or whomever but often (in fact I think most often) these places of syncretic worship were dedicated to YHWH (Jehovah). One testimonial to this fact stems from the Assyrian invasion under Hezekiah. They had destroyed the northern kingdom and had invaded Judah. In that dramatic scene the Rabshakeh cries out to the defenders of Jerusalem and threatens them. He says that they shouldn't suppose that Jehovah will save them because Hezekiah has just torn down His high places. What, Hezekiah has torn down the high places to Jehovah? Absolutely and he was praised for doing it. They were places of idolatry and harlotry. He even destroyed the bronze serpent raised by Moses in the wilderness. The people had also turned it into an idol.
If the High Places were merely pagan, then how could there be High Places to Jehovah?
Obviously they were syncretic and the passage regarding the bronze serpent Nehushtan only further demonstrates the point.
But didn't God speak to Solomon at one of the high places?
He did but that doesn't mean he sanctioned it. Some have tried to argue the High Place Solomon visited was 'only' to Jehovah and thus pure. God speaking to him there sanctioned the High Place.
But again the testimony of 2 Kings 18 indicates otherwise.
22 But if you say to me, ‘We trust in the Lord our God,’ is it not He whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah has taken away, and said to Judah and Jerusalem, ‘You shall worship before this altar in Jerusalem’?”’
God is merciful and even today, though many worship in ways they probably shouldn't and certainly can't sanction from the New Testament; nevertheless on some level He accepts their worship. And (in a sense) they please Him, even though their specific deeds even sometimes the ones they find to be very moving are in fact worthless….wood, hay, and straw. (1 Corinthians 3.12)
This understanding generates a certain charity toward others that has for example enabled me in the past to worship within the Church of England. I'm afraid the contemporary worship services of most Evangelical churches lack any semblance of reverence and though in principle what they're doing is not fundamentally different than what's happening in the Anglican Church...the spirit is quite different. Both are wrong. One is somewhat tolerable the other isn't.
We have all overheard or participated in these Traditional/Contemporary arguments and yet almost without fail no one addresses the essential issue. Both have already embraced extra-Scripturalism. It really comes down to taste and context. For me, the only other criterion I can raise which delineates the two is the issue of reverence. The one form has it while the other (I believe) does not.
Moved by love I can put up with a great deal of error, though I find myself becoming less tolerant these days. Nevertheless I would still rather find additions with reverence, then additions rooted in entertainment and marketing. Not only do I find them spiritually offensive, I just plain don't like them. American culture is pretty plastic...cheap and superficial. Attending a contemporary worship service is (to me) more akin to McWorship. I feel like I'm being sold something in a tacky shopping mall. In principle what they're doing is no different than what we find in a 'high' or 'liturgical' service, but practically speaking and in terms of general tone and spirit, there's a bit of a difference. I might be splitting a hair at this point.
But again the latter part is my opinion and does not touch the fundamental issue of whether or not innovation is permissible when it comes to worship.
If Moses was not to carve the stones of the altar, if Nadab and Abihu were vanquished for offering strange fire, if the New Testament identifies religious exercise and spiritual innovations as self-imposed religion, worthless and often worse, then how ought we to think about these things?
All too often the culture is determining what's being done. If the culture has been misidentified as holy or particularly blessed then cultural norms can easily enter the church. Already reckoned 'good' because they're English, American, Greek or whatever, there's almost no difficulty in synthesizing them with Christian worship. Mom and apple pie become as Christian as the bread and wine of The Supper.
While in the military, for a season I attended an off-base Baptist church that was basically comprised of American military personnel. Even the pastor was retired military and was now a 'missionary' serving overseas in a congregation made up of Americans. We were located in a small Italian town a few miles from the base, but the services were wholly geared toward the American community.[iii]
In that cultural setting, the military 'was' the culture. America being chosen by God, granted military members a special status. On a practical level military ritual was baptized. Thus when one deacon (in Baptist circles this is the equivalent of an elder) was re-enlisting...where else to do it but during the Sunday morning meeting?
Most reading this I hope will make a face in response but again I must ask…if innovation is permitted? It’s hard to draw lines.
The lines are all blurred. The average church attendee doesn't even know why they are there. They don't know what the Church is. They have no doctrine of worship and often virtually no doctrine of God. The culture is baptized and all too often Sunday morning becomes an exercise in idolatry or merely a pep rally or a cheap copy of a Vegas show. And not very good ones at that.
[i] Today in the context of the Evangelical culture war places like Mt. Soledad in San Diego have become something akin to a High Place. While certainly more austere, Evangelicals have attached a strange kind of devotion to these places…minus the candles. Ironically I always knew Mt. Soledad to be the ‘Inspiration Point’ i.e. the make-out place for teenagers in our area. I graduated High School just a few miles from there. As a pagan teenager I remember going up there to look out over the city and party with friends before heading down the road to the Denny’s or to walk along La Jolla Cove as the tide rolled in. For us it was anything but a holy place. I was quite surprised a few years back to see it pop up in the news as a new front in the culture war. Just thinking of the place almost made me blush. In my mind it was a place of debauchery and things to repent of.
Of course in the Evangelical spectrum many historical locations are reckoned sacred…everything from Mt. Vernon to The Alamo. The worst and most blasphemous I’ve ever seen are the memorials on the National Mall…with Lincoln’s far and away the worst of all. I’ve been there many times and can’t help but speak loudly and a little offensively to anyone nearby. His 2nd Inaugural address is a piece of blasphemy.
[ii] Some will argue the scope here is referencing Justification and thus would not affect the provisions in the ceremonial law. They would argue that borrowing from the ceremonial law is not attempting to use the law for the purpose of Justification. This is indicative of another problem, this time a theological one. Many have divided and categorized the law, breaking it into sections that can’t be found in the Scripture itself. Doing this allows them to avoid the somewhat harsh either/or scenario that is often presented with regard to the Mosaic Law. Instead of arguing for complete continuity or discontinuity or in terms of complete compliance they try to argue in terms of general equity. They can extract principles and concepts from the law and apply them to the Church or even society.
But Paul deals with all this in Galatians. He shows how there is a unity…the Abraham/Christ promise. He also explains the Mosaic provisions were temporary and have now been eliminated, having served their purpose. Nowhere do we find these concepts of borrowing equity, nor do we ever find this parsing of the Mosaic code into categories. If there is an instance of ‘borrowing’ it can be found in 1 Timothy 5.17, but Paul’s use is so spiritualizing it defies any type of hermeneutical principle. Rather than principle I would argue he was simply emphasizing a point.
This theological phenomenon of category creation I’ve referred to elsewhere as Aristotle’s Razor. Ockham argued for reduction and simplicity, eliminating all superfluous categorizing. Aristotle believed in systemic integrity and logical coherence. I contend this unnatural division of the Law of Moses is a case of deliberate multiplication and the creation of new categories in order to maintain systemic integrity, to allow the system commitments to function. Where the grid lacks squares, the system provides the principles for what they might think of as safe speculation.
Without these divisions many systems would suddenly struggle to define a Universal Moral Law and/or any kind of civil equity to apply to so-called Christian political structures. For me this doesn’t present a problem, but for many theological systems, the house of cards begins to collapse.
[iii] As a military retiree the ‘pastor’ had full access to the base. In addition to his pension he could utilize financial services, medical facilities and have access to the shopping and grocery stores where he could purchase subsidized American goods. Being proximate to the base he could even pick up the Armed Forces Network and watch Tom Brokaw and Wheel of Fortune every night. He didn’t even have to feel like he’d left the United States and I assure you that’s how he preferred it. That’s actually how most Americans prefer it. The American archipelago of bases has established dozens of “Little America’s” all across the globe.
We were located approximately 1 hour from Venice. Austria was 2 hours away. I could be in the former Yugoslavia in about 1.5 hours. Switzerland was 5 hours away and Rome a mere 8 by train. There were occasions when we’d be sitting there on a Saturday afternoon and someone would say, “Let’s have dinner in Austria!”…and off we went.
I traveled extensively. We also had free military air transport available. It was nothing to hop on a plane to Britain, Germany or Turkey. And yet I met so many military people that sat on base for two years and never even made it to Venice, just an hour away. And there were many more that made it there, but that was as far as they got. I call it Provincialism, which in the end is a mix of fear and great pride…two foundational elements found within the American psyche.