‘Lex orandi, lex credendi’: The Original Sense and Historical Avatars of an Equivocal Adage

(Studia Liturgica 24 (1994) 178-200)

My first assignment for the session 2 unit on Worship and Liturgy takes it’s cue from this article by French Theologian and Roman Catholic Priest Paul DeClerck.  Lex orandi lex credendi is a latin phrase that has framed the theological questions of liturgy since the 5th century:  “the law of faith [is] the law of belief.”  DeClerck notes that this works really differently in a time of change such as our present.  In a time of stability it makes sense to say, ‘see how the church prays, and you will know what it believes.’  But in our time, “is it not in terms of certain new or renewed ideas that one intends to revise practices or texts which no longer, or badly correspond to them?”  My present experiences of church worship seem to circle around the theme: ‘see how the church prays, and you will know how disconnected what they believe and how they behave really are!’  (Let alone how disconnected from everyday life and the ‘outside’ world.)

So DeClerck raises the question, how do we understand the relationship between theology (what we believe) and liturgy, or worship, in it’s broadest sense?  Do we work out good doctrine and then re-write the prayer book?  Do we research the historical witness of the church through it’s liturgies and re-write our doctrine?  His answer is subtle.  When the lex orandi lex credendi rule is applied too tightly from one end, it tends to be redressed too tightly from the other end.  He illustrates by showing how Pope Pius XII did a complete backflip on a centuries old understanding of the adage in a 1950 encyclical which, from the middle ages to the twentieth century, was interpreted as “the rule of prayer determines the rule of belief”  (or liturgy is a source of authority for the construction of theology).  Pius XII was reacting against the kind of modernist definition of religion discussed here recently in relation to Schleiermacher.  George Tyrrell was an English Roman Catholic arguing for an understanding of the christian liturgy as “begotten by a mysterious, abiding contact of the human soul with God; and the Creed is but the record of the gradual unravelling of the meaning of that experience through the collective spiritual labour of the Church, guided by the Spirit of Christ, into all truth.”  Well, if that’s what your polemical partner is saying, the redress is to argue that no, Holy Mother Church is the keeper of the keys to all conceptions of god and She will determine therefore how and what we pray!  (Sorry, please forgive my gen-X, anti-establishmentarianism.)

So, strangely, I am back to a familiar reddresstheology theme – we are emerging from a time in history where the pendulum swung one way too far (Enlightenment Humanism) then, I think, another way too far (Authoritarian Response from Inherited Church) so that what we need to do now is stop, take a deep breath, and find the middle ground.  This is actually the exercise in liminal rationality that I wrote about in the liminality essay.  The task is critique and where possible integration, where not possible, a willingness to leave uncertain, integrating each of the snippets of wisdom available to us on their own merits.

The importance of non-dichotomous thinking is really well demonstrated by deClerck in this law of prayer:law of belief maxim.  He splendidly employs the language of this adage as an ‘avatar’  to describe the (Riceourian) way in which these words act as a kind of symbol.  For non-science fiction and gaming fans, you will probably need to do what I did and grab a dictionary!

1: the incarnation of a Hindu deity (as Vishnu)
2a : an incarnation in human form   b : an embodiment (as of a concept or philosophy) often in a person
3: a variant phase or version of a continuing basic entity
4: an electronic image that represents and is manipulated by a computer user (as in a computer game)
It’s the third meaning that DeClerck has in mind:  lex orandi lex credendi is shorthand for a certain understanding of the connection between theology and worship.  However, the blessing and curse of symbols is their slippery attachment to a definitive reference.  Hence, over a couple of millenia, the meaning of the adage has the opportunity to get completely disconnected from it’s original intention.  Herein lies my dilemma and the reason I am struggling to write an essay on this topic which needs to be submitted in 3 days!  How do we determine the reference point for definition?  Does there need to be a reference point for there to be any useful meaning in the avatar or is that just our addiction to Platonic epistemology?   Why is the original meaning of the avatar the reference point for all other meanings, particularly when it involves complex historical argumentation to unearth it?  And is there anything wrong with having more than one interpretation of an avatar anyway? 
Postmodern approaches to epistemology have much more subtle ways of dealing with these questions and even though deClerck is essentially arguing for the primacy of the original meaning above other historical avatars, I think he is on to something with the swinging pendulum.  There is usefulness in the notion that a definition does reach it’s limits.  Concepts, words, thoughts, definitions – all these things are finite as human beings are finite.  They are human constructions.  Therefore an apophatic definition might be the best starting point.  Apophatic just means ‘negative’  – we affirm what we do not know in order to define what we might know.  I use the technical term deliberately to allude to Apophatic Theology, which is an ancient theological method, and it is no accident that Emerging Theologians are re-discovering it value in a fragmented culture.
How then, do I understand the adage itself:  law of prayer:law of belief?    Well, they are a complex, interdependent human mystery!  Our heart, soul, mind and strength do not operate independently, though their relationship operates differently at different times and differently within different people.  So yes, our prayers reflect what we actually believe in our deepest selves, but also what we are told to believe by our socialised self!  Our theology reflects our conscious logic and careful considerations, but it also reflects our unconscious irrationalities and emotional motivations.  The up side is that when theology and worship go together – it enables us to sing praise and love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength.

2 thoughts on “‘Lex orandi, lex credendi’: The Original Sense and Historical Avatars of an Equivocal Adage

  1. Hi Chelle
    Do you have an electronic copy of de Clerck’s article that you could share? I’m interested in his discussion of the lex orandi but especially in any primary source material he quotes from Prosper of Aquitaine.


    • Hi Christopher,
      I’ve had a quick look for you and havne’t found a free online copy of the article. You’ll need to access via a library database or pay for the article directly from the journal. You can find some of Prosper of Aquitaine’s writings on Google books. Sorry can’t be more helpful. Hope you find what you need.

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