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In 1543, the great French and Genevan Reformer John Calvin (July 10, 1509 – May 27, 1564) wrote a treatise addressed to Emperor Charles V entitled, “On the Necessity of Reforming the Church,” wherein he discusses the two things that make up “the principal place… and the whole substance of Christianity”: first, worship, and second, salvation.
Another Reformer, John Knox of Scotland, called Calvin’s Geneva “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the Apostles.” In this post, I will introduce the subject of Calvin’s reformation of medieval public worship in Geneva. And in later posts, I hope to expand on this introduction to the principles below that govern Reformed worship.
What then did Calvin teach about public worship?
Regulated by Scripture
Foremost is his teaching that worship must be regulated by Scripture. Calvin affirms that “true and sincere worship which God alone approves, and in which he delights, is both taught by the Holy Spirit throughout the Scriptures.” He gives two reasons for this rule: (1) so that “we do not follow our own pleasure”; and (2) because “when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do is to go astray… [and] fabricat[e] perverse modes of worship.”
In his Institutes, Calvin correctly perceives that the human heart is “a perpetual factory of idols” (1.11.8). From where did he get that idea? He gathered this from Paul as the apostle wrote that man “became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened… and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (Rom. 1:21-23). Today, there is no end to gimmickry in the churches —altar calls, drama, dance, talk shows, puppet shows, ear-splitting unsuitable music, movie clips—which have truly fulfilled Calvin’s “perpetual idol factories.”
Calvin’s words of warning to the Christian world ring loudly today:
“Whatever they do [in worship] has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honor of God.”
Thus, contrary to current evangelical thinking, Scriptures tell us that being earnest and sincere is not enough to please God! “Obedience is better than sacrifice” (Psa. 40:6-8).
Saturated with Scripture
From the Invocation (Psalm 124:8), Sursum Corda (Psa. 25:1 “Lift up your hearts”), recitation of the Creeds, Confession and Absolution of Sin, Reading of God’s Law, to the Benediction (Num. 6:24-25), the worship services in Calvin’s Geneva church were saturated with Scripture.
Calvin also saw the error of the medieval church in having only the priest chant and the choirs sing during the services, so he hired musicians to compose the Psalms into songs which are easy for the congregation to sing. Because children in the schools were taught to sing these Psalms, Calvin had them teach the congregation how to sing them. The Psalter was the inspired songbook of God’s old covenant people, and it should be the inspired songbook of the new covenant Israel of God. Psalm 100, “All People That On Earth Do Dwell,” widely used as a Doxology, is an example of a song from the Reformation Psalters.
How tragic that our churches today have forgotten the Psalter for singing! From the apostolic period to the 18th century, Protestant churches sang Psalms almost exclusively. How woeful that none of my ten students has ever heard of Martin Luther’s free translation of Psalm 46, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” a hymn sung by Protestants for almost 500 years now!
But evangelical churches sing Psalms, don’t they? No, I’m not talking about the “7-11” contemporary ditties (7 phrases sung 11 times) which take snippets (commonly used out of context) from a verse or two of the Psalms. The Genevan Psalter consists of versifications of whole or large portions of the Psalms. For Calvin, true worship includes the singing and praying of the Psalms:
“It is a thing very expedient for the edification of the church to sing some psalms in the form of public prayers through which one may pray to God or sing His praise so that the hearts of all might be moved and incited to form like prayers and to render like praises in thanks to God with similar affection.”
This is why in the prayers—Prayer for Illumination, Pastoral Prayer, Prayer of Consecration, and Prayer of Thanksgiving—large Scripture portions were also used. Again, today, this practice is unknown and frowned upon as uninteresting and contrary to “praying in the Spirit.” What a travesty of the union between Word and Spirit!
As well, Calvin’s preaching was always an exposition of Scripture texts. This was very different from the preaching of the medieval church, which was nothing more than an invitation to the sacraments, which alone dispensed grace. While Calvin’s preaching centered on Scripture, Romish preaching centered on the priest and the Eucharist. In similar fashion, the “message” in our day is nothing more than a prelude to the revivalistic “altar call.”
And in the service of the Lord’s Supper, Calvin’s Words of Institution, Instruction, Distribution of Elements, Prayer of Thanksgiving, and Song of Thanksgiving were filled with Scripture.
Ancient and Simple
Calvin not only studied Hebrew and Greek to exegete Scripture for preaching and teaching. He also studied ancient church worship. And he found out that ancient church worship was simple, not “external show” or “naked ceremonies,” which are but shadows of Christ. Worse than these ceremonies are “human inventions.” We are to worship God “simply in spirit and in truth.” You can see how Calvin’s worship services compare with ancient worship services in the liturgies below.
Because the New Testament writers saw the church as the reality of the shadows of the Old Testament temple (1 Cor 3:16-17; 1 Peter 2:4), they patterned their worship, in turn, from the patterns they saw in Temple worship.
Reverential but Joyful
When traditionalists defend “traditional” worship, they often invoke Calvin’s worship, thinking that the stern and frozen worship they desire is what Calvin imposed on the people. For Calvin, worship is, at the same time, reverential and joyful:
“Unquestionably we do exhort men to worship God neither in a frigid nor a careless manner… His benefits towards ourselves we extol as eloquently as we can, while we call upon others to reverence his majesty, render due homage to his greatness, feel due gratitude for his mercies, and unite in showing forth his praise.”
This is one of the reasons why he desired the singing of Psalms in worship. He saw that the Psalms deal with the entire range of human emotions, reverence and joy included:
“[T]here is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror… all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”
Liturgical, Covenantal and Dialogical
For the first 1,700 years of Christian history, worship services were in two main parts: the Service of the Word, and the Service of the Lord’s Supper. Because Calvin knew that Word and Sacrament are not to be detached from each other, he advocated a weekly Lord’s Supper, but the higher authorities denied his request.
Calvin saw that from the worship service at Mount Sinai (Exod. 19-24), the liturgical movement was this:
1. assembly, sacrifices, and confession of sin;
2. God speaks his word;
3. the people respond in thanksgiving and vows of obedience;
4. the people share a covenant meal before God; and
5. God sends forth the people in joy and peace.
The order in which the tabernacle (and later temple) sacrifices were offered was the sin offering first, the burnt offering second, and the fellowship offering last (Num 6:16, 17). Thus the pattern of the worship of God’s people in the temple is this: (1) confession of sin through the sin offering; (2) consecration of oneself to God through the burnt offering; and (3) communion with God through the fellowship offering.
This liturgy of worship is rooted in God’s covenants with his people, beginning with Adam down to the new covenant worship instituted by Christ. The first worship service of God’s covenant nation Israel at Mount Sinai became a pattern for subsequent covenant renewal services all throughout the time of the Tabernacle and the Temple. Every time God gathered his covenant community for worship, he reminded them of their covenant vows, of blessings for obedience, and curses for disobedience.
During these covenant renewal services, God proclaimed and explained all the laws and regulations of his covenant, and the people responded with a vow, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” This they pledged at Mount Sinai (Exod 19:8, 24:3) and renewed in the plains of Moab before entering Canaan (Deut 5:27), at Mounts Ebal and Gerizim (Josh 8:30-35), by King Hezekiah (2 Chron 29:29-30) and by Ezra and Nehemiah (Neh 9-10). In the covenant renewal service, God speaks and the people respond.
Calvin already understood this covenant renewal and dialogical idea, “In like manner, the design with which sacrifices were instituted by God was to bind his people more closely to himself, and to ratify and confirm his covenant” (Commentary on Psalm 50:5).
How did this pattern of worship degenerate into the kind of mindless worship that we see today in most evangelical churches?
When Revivalism swept the Christian churches starting from the 19th century “Second Great Awakening,” the Reading of the Law, the Confession, and the Word of Pardon slowly disappeared, as “God’s love for all” replaced “God’s wrath on sinful man.” Slowly, the altar of the Lord’s Supper, being a remembrance of God’s forgiveness of sin in Christ, was also replaced by the revivalists’ “altar call.” Thus, today’s “liturgy” follows this pattern: sing-a-lot-of-ditties, pray-a-ditty, preach-a-moralistic-ditty, and here comes the altar-call-ditty.
In the Publisher’s Introduction to Calvin’s tract, the writer lays out similarities between the pathetic conditions of the medieval church and of the postmodern evangelical churches:
“The perceptive reader will see many parallels between the spiritual climate of Calvin’s day and the religious chaos in our own society. If religious corruptions required reformation then, similar corruptions demand serious reform today. We witness the sad spectacle of Protestant churches fascinated with liturgical rites and innovations in worship… If anything, Calvin’s tract demonstrates how far modern Protestants have declined from the doctrines and practices of the Reformation. “The Necessity of Reforming the Church” is more than just an historic monument to the Reformation. It is a spiritual manifesto, calling us to repentance in an era of gross religious corruption.”
If you see in your own church a lack of God-centered, Christ-centered, Word-and-Sacrament-centered worship, then ask yourself, “Is our church an heir of the 16th century Protestant Reformation, or is our church in need of another sweeping 21st century Reformation?”