General and Introductory Materials
Part 3 Theological Issues

Chapter d32 The Axiom:  Lex Orandi

Lex Orandi, legem credendi constituit

Preliminary Questions

Bibliography

Methodology

The Axiom

Translation and meaning

Origin and History

Commentaries

To Think About

Preliminary Questions

What is the relationship between prayer and belief?  How does the methodology of Sacramental Theology differ from that of Systematic Theology?

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Bibliography

Goeffrey Wainwright. Doxology.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. See especially Chapters VII and VIII, pp 218-283.

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Methodology

1.  Each branch of the theological disciplines (Historical Theology, Biblical Theology, Systematic Theology, Moral Theology, Sacramental / Liturgical Theology, etc.) has its own proper method.

2.  Sacramental / Liturgical Theology employs a five step methodology:

Step One: The Celebration of a Liturgical Rite  The experience of the liturgy is the "content" of the discipline.  (And from this follows the importance of the axiom Lex orandi.)  Note, however, that our sacramental/liturgical experiences are often very personal; two people can participate in the same celebration and not have the same experience.   This ambiguity must be recognized and acknowledged at the outset.  We do not all have exactly the same starting point for the study.

Step Two: Critical Reflection  (Americans, in general, are not accustomed to critical reflection on an experience but prefer to go from experience to new experience.)   The critical reflection on the liturgical experience uses all the tools and resources at our disposal: Theology: What does the experience tell us of God and God's creation? History: What is the history of the rite? How has the rite been experienced through the centuries? What has been the history of this experience and what influences in history have changed its expression and why. Sacred Scripture: What are the origins of the experience and the essential meaning. Ecclesiology: What does the celebration tell us of the nature of the Church celebrating? Canon Law: What has the Church legislated regarding the experience? How has the Church protected the authenticity of the experience through its legislation. Pastoral sociology, psychology, and anthropology: What does study of who we are and our cultural context say as to the way we have conditioned the reception of the experience. Communication arts, music, art, architecture, drama, Catechetics, pedagogy: How was the experience transmitted; what symbols and expressions communicated meaning. Personal Faith History: How has our own faith experience contributed to our reception of the liturgical experience? How do we react to and incorporate our previous, formative liturgical experience?

Step Three: Discover the "meaning" of the liturgical celebration   "Meaning" is in quotation marks because we can never arrive at the meaning of a ritual.  First, there is no "naked faith" running around out there. Our faith is always "clothed" in a ritual, a creed, a parable, a definition, etc. Second, a liturgical rite is always more than meaning.

Step Four: Projection of a New and Better Liturgical Experience   The norms for what is "better" are one of the tools that the liturgist must acquire. This step involves a certain VISION of the future. (Note:  NF's are often more comfortable with this step than are ST's.)

Step Five: The Celebration of the New Liturgical Rite  The process then starts over with step five becoming the new step one. For example, those who projected the Rite for Christian Initiation of Adults did not have a personal experience of a catechumenate but knew of it only through books and manuscripts. Now that the RCIA is in use, their step five is our step one. The process will never be complete until we can know the meaning fully -- that is, when we fully answer the two great questions:  Who is God? and  Who are we?

Note:  A good experience will usually make for a good reflection and sound theological conclusions as to the meaning of the sacrament.  A poor experience will make the succeeding four steps very difficult and often hazardous.  E.g. a theology of Eucharist based on an Eucharistic Prayer with no mention of the Holy Spirit.  

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The Axiom

Lex orandi legem credendi constituit.
Sometime you find:  Legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi.  Aidan Kavanaugh insists this is the true one. 
And sometimes:  Ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi.

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Translation and meaning

Lex (Subject:  the law or the rule) orandi (present participle: of praying)  legem (accusative, the object of the sentence: the law or the rule) credendi (present participle, of believing) constituit (the verb:  constitutes).  The law / of praying / the law / of believing / constitutes.  The law of prayer determines the law of belief.  The way we pray reveals what we believe.  What is prayed indicates what may and must be believed.  As we pray, so we believe, and so we teach.  The Liturgy is a theological locus (source).

Ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi.  That the law of supplication (the rule of prayer) might establish the rule of faith.

Liturgy is a font of theology; it incorporates and hands on the Catholic sense of things.  In short, liturgy is the norm of prayer that establishes the norm of belief.  In liturgy we actually do (i.e., live, make the real) theology; and we ought to believe in accord with what we do...Liturgical texts, in relation to action, bring the faith to expression; they are not mere instruction for believers; they contain a variety of literary genres and theologically relevant ways of speaking which cannot be reduced to one category; and they are more than just the vehicle of ideas.  Liturgy offers a holistic view in which the strengths and limitations of dogmatic teaching on the subject of the sacraments can be properly evaluated. (Kilmartins-323-324.)

Liturgy is a font of theology; it incorporates and hands on the Catholic sense of things.  In short, liturgy is the norm of prayer that established the norm of belief.  In liturgy we actually do (i.e., live, make real) theology; and we ought to believe in accord with what we do.  (Kilmartin 323)

Liturgical texts, in relation to action, bring the faith to expression; they are not mere instruction for believers; they contain a variety of literary genres and theologically relevant ways of speaking which cannot be reduced to one category; and they are more than just the vehicle of ideas.  Liturgy offers a holistic view in which the strengths and limitations of dogmatic teaching on the subject of the sacraments can be properly evaluated. (Kilmartin 324)

The sign precedes the discourse.   (e.g. We baptize people, and then ask:  What does this mean.  The community gathers on the Lord's Day and celebrates the Lord's Supper; and then we ask, what does this mean?

Metaphor:  Joe and Margaret love each other. We know Joe we do not know Margret.  However we can tell something of who Margaret is by the way Joe talks about her and the way Joe acts towards her.  The way he acts reveals what he believes. 

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Origin and History of the Axiom

It is very old and we are not sure where it comes from.  The BCL Newsletter December 1980, pp 237 & 239, identifies the principle as: "Legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi," "The law of prayer establishes the law of belief," and in the footnote states: "This axiom comes from the so-called capitula Coelestini which were annexed to a letter of Pope Celestine I (422-32), but probably are the work of Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 440)."

Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan says that the principle "Ut legem credendi lex statat supplicandi" is most probably from the book The Defense of St. Augustine by Prosper of Aquitaine. But it was soon attributed to Pope Celestine.

In its original meaning, "The law of prayer determines the law of belief." "The way we pray reveals what we believe." "What is prayed indicates what may and must be believed." The liturgy itself is a locus (source) for theology. The Church is constituted liturgically: it is baptism, confirmation, eucharist - sacrament - which makes Church; it is not the Church which, having been instituted directly by Christ, then administers the sacraments.  In the course of history the axiom sometimes gets reversed.

Those who need to protect the faith sometimes turn the axiom around to read "Legem orandi lex credendi."  What we believe determines how to pray.  Dogma is prior to liturgy and determines liturgy.  This is the interpretation of Pope Pius XII in Mediator Dei, November 20, 1947 (number 48 in the NCWC Vatican Library Translation). As the pope is the supreme moderator of faith and morals, so only the pope can determine or change liturgical practice. There is an objective body of Divine Truth, The Deposit of Faith, which is then embodied in the official rites.

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Commentaries

1.  "No doctrine is a doctrine of the Church unless it can be prayed." (Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan. "Lex Orandi: The Dogma of Prayer..." from Conference II: Institute of Spirituality. St. John's University: Collegeville. June 23, 1978.)

2.  "Dix the liturgist and Schillebeeckx the systematic theologian find common ground in the eucharistic words and deeds of Jesus. And this is altogether appropriate, for it reminds us that doctrine is first of all doxology, that faith is first rooted in the gestures and utterances of worship." (Nathan Mitchell. Cult and Controversy: The Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass. New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1982, p 4.)

3.   K. Barth:  Church law is liturgical in its origin, that it creates order based upon the cult and is renewed in the cult at the same time that it assures liturgical order.

4.  Congar:  it is the sacraments which constitute and structure the Church, and consequently the liturgy constitutes one of the sources of Church law.  In this regard, Congar quotes St. Thomas:  "The source of all law is found in the sacraments."  (see Richstatter, Liturgical Law Today, pp. 69.)

5.  We act ourselves into ways of thinking, we don't think ourselves into ways of acting." (John Westerhoff quoted in God's Friends 11:3 [November 2000] p 3.]

6.  "Liturgy is the privileged locus of Tradition, not only from the point of view of conservation and preservation, but also from that of progress and development." (Yves Congar, O.P., Tradition and Traditions. New York, Macmillan, 1966, p. 429. Cited by Gerard Austin in Fountain of Life, p.)

7.  "I am convinced that the particular genius of Catholicism consists in this: It is celebration, not doctrine, which lies at the heart of religion. . . . Christian faith did not begin with concepts and meanings which people then went on to find rituals for. The rituals came first. . . . The disciples at Emmaus did not invent a symbol to celebrate the experience and story they had shared that day." (T. Guzie, The Book of Sacramental Basics, pp 134-135.)

8.  "Why do so many scientists read science fiction? Because nothing is invented unless it is first imagined." (From an advertisement in Omni.)

9.  "The vast majority of people make choices more out of the myths they live than out of the abstract principles they have learned." (T. Guzie, The Book of Sacramental Basics.)

10.  "History shows for the most part that where the sacraments are concerned, practice is invariably a step or two ahead of theology. With the exception of the Reformation, the practice of baptism gives rise to theological reflection rather than being shaped by a prior theological principles." (Mark Searle "Infant Baptism Reconsidered", Alternative Futures for Worship, V 2, p. 16.)

11.  "For the most of the forty years that have elapsed since the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, we have often (and quite rightly) turned to the liturgy as our principal agent of evangelization. In dong this, we were acting on a very reliable, very traditional truth of our Christian tradition: Lex orandi, lex credendi, doxology determines doctrines (not vice versa); prayer and praise regulate faith; we learn how and what to believe by first learning how and what to worship. Gathering Sunday by Sunday at the Lord's Table, we discover who we are and what our evangelizing mission must be in and for the world, for our life as a people begins at a dining table, and it will end there as well – at that final, festive dinner when God gathers in all the people of the earth to sit, eating one loaf, drinking one cup, rejoicing in the Supper of the Lamb. (Nathan D. Mitchell, "The Amen Corner." Worship 76:1 (January 2002), p 74.)

12.  "Liturgy is a font of theology; it incorporates and hands on the Catholic sense of things.  In short, Liturgy is the norm of prayer that establishes the norm of belief.  In liturgy we actually do (i.e., live, make real) theology; and we ought to believe in accord with what we do.  On the other hand, dogmas are also sources of theology.  But the relation between liturgy and dogma is not explained simply by subordinating the one to the other.  The norm of belief cannot be reduced to fixed formulas which cannot be varied; so too with prayer.  The eucharistic font of theology has its own special contribution to make."  (The Eucharist in the West.  Kilmartin.  p 323) 

13.  "In summary, the gradual incorporation of the Feast of Trinity Sunday is symptomatic of the increasing abstractness of Western Trinitarian theology from the end of the fourth century on.  As it moved away from its original focus on salvation history toward a metaphysics of intra-divine life, Trinitarian theology became an account of God in se rather than God pro nobis.  By the end of the patristic period, Prosper of Aquitaine's (fifth-century) axiom, legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi (the law of prayer determines the law of belief) had in effect been reversed; because of the threat to Christian faith posed by Arianism and other 'heresies,' liturgy came to function as a defense against doctrinal deviations.  Lex credendi in many cases dictated lex orandi." (LaCunga, p 257)  LaCunga, Catherine Mowry. "Making the Most of Trinity Sunday".  Worship 60 (1986) 210-24.  Reprinted in Between Memory and Hope (Maxwell E. Johnson, Editor)  pp 247-261.

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To Think About

What role does the text and ceremonies of the rites play in your theological understanding and catechetical preaching of the rites? 

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Copyright: Tom Richstatter, Franciscan Province of St. John the Baptist, Cincinnati Ohio, Order of Friars Minor. All Rights Reserved.  This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.  Every effort has been, and is being made, to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own.  Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it.  This site was updated on 03/20/15 .  Your comments are welcome at trichstatter@franciscan.org