Is Reformed Worship Biblical?Mar 28th, 2012 | By David Anders | Category: Blog Posts
Nothing characterized early Calvinism more than the “reform” of liturgy and worship. John Calvin railed against late medieval liturgy and devotion as superstitious and idolatrous, and even called on governments to suppress such “superstition” with the sword. In his mind, “superstition” was any form of worship not prescribed directly by God in Scripture.
Calvin was so strict about this that he even condemned the liturgy of the hours, since Scripture nowhere enjoins rising in the evening to pray.1
According to Calvin, the central element of Christian worship is the preaching of Scripture by the ordained ministry. In his mind, this is the hinge on which all else turns. Even sacraments, for Calvin, derive their efficacy from the hearing of the preached word.
For this reason, Calvin’s liturgical writing and Geneva’s legislation insisted that the sacraments be performed before an assembled congregation, and always conjoined to the preaching ministry. Private masses or baptisms, including midwife or emergency baptisms, were forbidden. The words of institution were to be pronounced audibly and in the vernacular.2
To support his teaching on worship, Calvin pointed to the example of the early Church. (He was especially fond of Augustine.) He also drew on the work of late medieval liturgists, the Reformer Martin Bucer, and, in constructing his own liturgies for Strasbourg and Geneva, he even drew on the structure of the Mass of the Roman Rite. To what extent, though, were Calvin’s liturgy and theology of worship actually guided by Scripture? Does Scripture actually teach the form of worship and administration of sacraments envisioned by Calvin?
Scripture on the Administration of Baptism
Let’s begin with baptism. There are a number of baptisms in Scripture. However, I am at a loss to see how any one them conforms to the pattern set forth by Calvin. Leaving aside the very unliturgical and outdoor baptisms of John the Baptist, let us restrict ourselves to those performed in the post-resurrection Christian community. Do any of them suggest that baptism must be performed by an ordained minister, before an assembled congregation, and conjoined to the preaching of Scripture?
Matthew 28: 16-20 – Christ’s commission to the apostles: This text gives no explicit instruction on the timing or context of baptism. If anything, it seems to suggest that teaching is to follow baptism.
Acts 2:41- Peter calls on crowds to repent and be baptized. 3,000 are added to the Church. Again, no details on the administration of the sacrament.
Acts 8:36 – A baptism, administered by a deacon, performed by the side of the road.
Acts 9:18 – Paul is baptized in a private home, by a prophet. Again, no indication of a public liturgy.
Acts 16:15- Lydia’s conversion. Baptized in the presence of Paul, Timothy, and Silas. No indication of a public liturgy.
Acts 16:33 – The Philippian jailor is baptized privately, “at that hour of the night.”
What can we conclude from Scripture? Baptisms can be performed in private homes, on the side of the road, in the dead of night, by deacons and prophets.
Scripture on the Administration of the Eucharist
What of the Eucharist? Does Scripture indicate that the Eucharist must be celebrated in a public setting and only when conjoined to the preaching of Scripture? It seems to me that the Reformers were on slightly firmer ground here, as Acts 2:42 and 1 Corinthians 11 clearly suggest that the Eucharist was a communal affair. However, these texts do not prescribe this, nor do they insist on the element of preaching. The main prescription Paul gives is to follow the liturgical consensus and tradition of the Church.
Nor do the Gospel narratives of the institution clearly support Calvin’s views (Matt. 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22). I grant that Scripture reading was likely used on Holy Thursday as part of a passover meal, and that Christ’s words were audible and in the vernacular. However, the celebration was clearly private and domestic, in keeping with Jewish custom, and there is no indication that Christ limited future celebration to preaching liturgies.
Scripture on Preaching
Finally, what of the role of preaching, especially exegetical preaching, in Christian worship? There is clear evidence that the apostles practiced exegetical preaching in the context of outdoor evangelism, but there is nothing in Scripture which prescribes this for the Christian liturgy. I grant that Paul exhorts Timothy to know the Scriptures. The Bereans are also commended for their knowledge of Scripture. But there is no indication that this is to form the central place in Christian worship, nor that it is necessary for the celebration of the sacraments.
The Catholic Church does conjoin Scripture and the Sacraments, and does value biblical preaching. But how does the Church know to do these things? The Scriptures themselves are remarkably obscure on these questions. In fact, the Protestant biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias reasoned that Scripture deliberately witholds information about the celebration of the sacraments, in keeping with the ancient Christian practice of the disciplina arcani. (Hiding the sacraments from the uninitiated.)3
The truth is, we only know how to conduct Christian worship from tradition. As it turns out, Calvin himself had to construct his liturgy using traditional sources. Auguste Lecerf has noted that Geneva’s liturgy follows the main divisions of the Roman rite. The tripartite structure of both the Mass and the Genevan liturgy consists in the Ante-communion (invocation, psalm, confession, prayer for illumination, reading and exposition of the sacred text, and prayers of intercession), the canon of the Mass (or liturgy of the Supper), and the post-communion (thanksgivings and benediction). Like the sursum corda, moreover, Calvin’s invocation (“Our help is in the name of God …”) is a biblical text, but it comes into the Reformed liturgies directly through the missal. (“Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini.”)4
In this post, I do not intend to criticize the Reformed liturgy. In fact, I find much there that is admirable and in common with Catholics. I wish to point out, rather, that the elements of Reformed worship simply cannot be sustained on the basis of Scripture alone. To be quite frank, if I believed in the “Regulative Principle,” I would say that the Pentecostal tradition would be on far stronger ground than the Reformed. Theirs is a straightforward application of the principle: “Do what you see the apostles doing in Scripture.” And, “Follow Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 14 literally.”
- Calvin writes, “Superstition may be viewed, either in itself, or in the disposition of the mind. In itself when men have the audacity to contrive what God has not commanded. Such are those actions which spring from will-worship, (ejqeloqrhskeia, Colossians 2:23,) Which is commonly called devotion [vulgo devotionem]. One man shall set up an idol, another shall build a chapels another shall appoint annual festivals, and innumerable things of the same nature. When men venture to take such liberties as to invent new modes of worship, that is superstition.” Commentary on Isaiah 1:14
In 1549, Calvin writes to Bucer urging him to encourage Somerset in his opposition to superstition. “I have attempted to encourage the Lord Protector,” Calvin says, “and it will be your duty to insist … that those rites which savor of superstition be entirely removed.” In 1550 Calvin writes to Somerset again, urging him to stay the course “for the re-establishing of the Gospel in all its purity in England, and that every kind of superstition might be abolished.” In a short letter to King Edward in 1551, Calvin recalls the reign of Josiah, during which the king pursued godliness, although “there was still some remainder of bygone superstitions.” Calvin entreats the young monarch to follow the example of that biblical king, “that you might have the honor, not only of having overthrown impieties which are clearly repugnant to the honor and service of God, but also of having abolished and razed to the ground whatsoever served merely to nourish superstition.” To Cranmer, finally, in 1550, Calvin writes in order to encourage him to pursue the same path. See Calvin to Bucer, 21 October 1549, Letters 2: 233; Calvin to Somerset, January 1550, Letters 2: 258; Calvin to the King of England, January 1551, Letters 2: 301. On the important image of Josiah in Calvin’s conception of Christian kingship, see Graeme Murdock, “The Importance of Being Josiah: An Image of Calvinist Identity,” Sixteenth Century Journal 29 (1998): 1043-1059. Calvin to Cranmer, December 1550, Letters 2: 356-358. On Calvin’s critique of the liturgy of the hours, see Calvin, La famine spirituelle: sermon inédit sur Esaïe 55, 1-2 (Église française de Londres, Ms. viii. f. 2), ed. Max Engammare. English, trans. Francis Higman. (Geneva: Droz, 2000), 54. [↩]
- Baptism is to be performed “with the whole church looking on as witness,” and accompanied by a recitation of the confession of faith “with which the catechumen should be instructed.” The supper, likewise, is to be “set before the church,” and accompanied by a sermon, the words of institution, excommunications, and a recitation of “the promises which were left to us in it.” It is to be concluded with “an exhortation to sincere faith and confession of faith, to love and behavior worthy of Christians.”Institutes, 1536 Edition ed. Ford Lewis Battles (Geneva: Eerdmans, 1995),122. See also Institutes 4.14.4; 4.15.20. [↩]
- Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (London: SCM Press, 1962). [↩]
- Auguste Lecerf, “The Liturgy of the Holy Supper at Geneva in 1542,” trans. Floyd D. Shafer, Reformed Liturgics 3 (1966): 208. [↩]