In this space we have dealt previously with a variety of subjects bearing on our worship as a congregation on the Lord’s Day. We have discussed larger issues, such as the structure of the liturgy itself or what is to be sung in the praise of God, and smaller matters, such as what ministers should wear when leading worship. This time I want to consider one of the shortest elements in the worship service, the benediction. Here too, however, all is not as simple as it may at first appear. Witness this recent correspondence (edited and shortened somewhat) between one of our elders, Dick Hannula, and myself.
I take your point that we have in the Bible instances of benedictions being offered with raised hands. I certainly have no objection to that. All things considered, I would have adopted that practice when I was ordained and did, in fact, use that posture early on. After all, it was the universal tradition or custom pertaining in our circles when I became a minister. Both your biblical argument and the one from tradition weigh with me. If it is not certain that benedictions were invariably pronounced in that posture – Mark 10:16 is one instance that suggests a benediction without upraised hands; Luke 10:5 may be another – the two instances you mention are surely important.
My decision not to use that posture had primarily to do and has today to do with the fact that the entire idea of the benediction has been largely lost in our spiritual culture. Even many PCA ministers do not understand or appreciate what they are doing when they practice it. God's people, as a result, have little appreciation of this rite or the meaning of the words pronounced. The proof of that is not only that congregations regularly have their eyes shut when the benediction is pronounced – that is, they view it as some kind of prayer – but that very often what is said is not a benediction at all.
At the service of inauguration at Covenant College recently, a prominent PCA minister, cited, for his benediction, the text at the end of Jude, "Now unto him who is able to keep you from falling..." That is an ascription of praise to Christ, it is not a blessing of the people. I hear such “benedictions” all the time everywhere I go. What this means is that, as an element in Christian worship, the benediction has withered into some vague form of words appropriate for the end of a service, a kind of pious good-bye. It is an expression of hope, of good will, rather than, as it is in the Bible, the declaration of God’s blessing to and upon his people. The minister often has his eyes closed, the congregation generally does, and the words chosen are, added together, a mixture of texts with widely disparate intentions. The modern evangelical benediction is far removed from the view of it articulated by the great Anglican, Charles Simeon.
“I feel that in pronouncing [the benediction], I do not do it as a mere finale, but that I am actually dispensing peace from God, and at God’s command. I know not the individuals to whom my benediction is a blessing; but I know that I am the appointed instrument by whom God is conveying the blessing to those who are able to receive it.”
My intention in not using the traditional posture was precisely to break in the congregation's mind the connection between Evangelicalism’s ordinary practice of the benediction and their own understanding of its nature and importance. My sense is that nowadays by raising my hands – a posture that we use almost exclusively for forms of address to God, both in prayer and in the singing of hymns – I confirm the deeply ingrained notion that the benediction is a prayer or, even less, a wish.
But in the benediction, biblically understood, we are not asking God for anything; he is giving something to us. In the Bible far and away the largest number of instances of the raising of hands are instances of prayer. The fact that the raising of hands is not peculiar to benedictions but is ordinarily associated with prayer, in my view, may have contributed significantly to the widespread confusion. To have the minister look at the congregation, catch its eye, as it were, and keep his hands down serves, I think, to arrest the congregation’s attention and so create a different understanding of the rite and to preserve it against the tide of the spiritual culture.
The fact that people so often ask me why I do not raise my hands and I am able to explain what a benediction is, has served to confirm the wisdom of the practice. I'm not sure but that it hasn't been very helpful to have Rick use one posture and I another. It is, for a similar reason, that I do not offer a prayer at baptisms. It has been customary to pray at baptism in most traditions, but I have moved that prayer from the rite itself to congregational petitions precisely to help break the grip of our spiritual culture, which is so widely and deeply confused as to the meaning of baptism, upon our own understanding and appreciation of the ritual. In baptism itself we are neither promising God that we will do something, nor are we asking God to do something, we are watching him do something. A prayer immediately before or after baptism, I think, is bound to perpetuate the confusion, not remove it.
I notice that at certain times in church history postures that have been widely misunderstood or misused have sometimes been minimized or dropped altogether, if not positively spoken against, at least temporarily by reformers of worship. For example, Calvin and the Reformers made a point sometimes of not using or speaking of the unimportance of the rite of laying on of hands because of false associations in the minds of church folk in their day. The fact that the posture was entirely appropriate, even biblically approved, did not persuade them that it was in all times and circumstances necessary and perhaps especially so in times of liturgical reform. It is interesting, for example, that we have the same prayers or types of prayers offered with very different postures in the Bible (e.g. penitential prayers offered both kneeling and standing) which at least indicates that in the matter of certain ritual acts there is little support for the notion of one, indispensable posture.
Since receiving your letter, however, I have thought about whether I should, for the sake of the principles you mention, alter my practice. I'm still in a divided mind about it. If I do, I'll certainly make a full explanation to the congregation. Thanks for the stimulation of your critique and argument.