Calvin’s Doctrine of the Church (VII)
At the front-end of the 21st century there is a rather large controversy raging about worship and worship style. We have been discussing this in our recent issues. How serious are these issues? They are quite serious. Many congregations have had serious problems, bitter and divisive confrontations, and some have split over this issue. Emotions are at a fever pitch and some have drawn the line in the proverbial sand accusing the “other side” of a number of things. Few, however, have stopped to consider Scripture or our spiritual heritage. That is what we are doing in these articles. In particular, we are focusing the insights that the Reformer, John Calvin gives us through his various writings.
In our time, some churches have, unfortunately, opted for going to the extreme and offering almost any worship style imaginable in order to draw the crowds. One recent example in my immediate geographical area will suffice. In the not too distant past on Saddleback’s (Rick Warren) web site they offered their latest in a long line of worship styles: hula worship. They are now offering hula dancers for those who want to worship in a particularly “aloha” style. There is a veritable smorgasbord of “worship styles” offered to attempt to offer to the worshipper/consumer what he or she wants.
I ran across a statement from the late Dr. James Boice a couple of days ago that struck me as patently true. Dr. Boice was describing some of the Gallup polling information about religion in the United States. In the 1990s, the good folks at Gallup concluded, based on survey that 95% of Americans claim to believe in God. Moreover, 71% believe in life after death; 84% believe in heaven; 67% believe in hell, and large majorities say that they believe in the Ten Commandments—even though most cannot tell you what they are. In addition, nearly every home in America has at least one Bible. As statistics go, this might give reason for being encouraged. I am not, even though according to the same poll approximately 50% of Americans are found in church each Sunday, with only around 8% claiming to have no religious affiliation whatsoever.
When George Gallup probed; polled deeper he discovered an anomaly: For those who claimed to be religious, only 12.5% said that religion made any difference in their lives at all. Thankfully, Boice is willing to say what many today shy away from, namely that “many who consider themselves Christians, even in so-called evangelical churches, are not Christians. They may profess the right things. They may lead seemingly acceptable lives, if we don’t scratch too far below the surface. But they are not on the path. They are not following hard after holiness. They are not born again.” This deplorable spiritual condition cannot be drawn back completely to poor worship services, but an unbiblical worship certainly plays a significant role in the “dumbing down” of the modern Christian.
So, does it really matter how we worship? Do we need to think past the very superficial notion of what will most likely draw the biggest crowd? Indeed we do! We have inherited a rich, rich heritage from the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition and we would do well to go back and look at it time and time again. If the Church is to be reformed this ought to occur along the lines of what Scripture has to say about worship and what is pleasing to God and not what is pleasing to man or what tickles his ears/fancy (1 Tim. 4:3ff.).
In a similar vein, David Wells asked a series of poignant questions and gives us some very penetrating cultural analysis of the state of the Church in his book Losing Our Virtue. He asks the following questions: “Does the Church have the courage to become relevant by becoming biblical? It is willing to break with the cultural habits of the time and propose something quite absurd, like recovering both the word and the meaning of sin? Is it sagacious enough to be able to show how the postmodern world is trapped within itself?” This type of reflection is desperately needed and would go a long way in recovering proper worship. Does the modern Church, as he asks, truly have the requisite courage to become biblical? That is the true “relevance” that the Church has. Trying to fit into the culture or be like it is hardly relevant. It is more destructive. Or, would the modern Church prefer to hula itself to death? Wells concludes, “There is plenty of evidence that this kind of courage is now missing from large sectors of the Church.”
Wells employs an apt example by citing the Crystal Cathedral, which he describes as a “Christian parroting of Disneyland.” Schuller’s silliness involves the spiritual sleight of hand of exchanging sin for “poor self-image.” Therefore, the “language of sin was banished from the Crystal Cathedral, as were penitential prayers, and in their place came therapeutic language.” I would add that Schuller is certainly not the only one who has seen fit to abandon using the “s” word. A representative number of evangelicals, mega-church, church-growthers have followed suit. Some even announce with a sense of pride that the “s” word will not be heard in their respective churches. That is precisely why Wells is so spot on when he says, “where sin has lost its moral weight, the Cross will lose its centrality, Christ will lose his uniqueness, and his Father will no longer be the God of the Bible.”
This being the case, what, according to Calvin, should we be aiming at and looking for when we consider a proper liturgy? This question is aimed first at church leaders, pastors, Sessions, Consistories. When you convene your meetings and have your discussions about worship and worship style—you have had such meetings haven’t you?—what were the primary considerations in why you worship like you worship?
The question is also aimed at the man or woman in the pew. When you set out to seek out, find, and then attach yourself to a local congregation, what did you expect in terms of worship? Were you willing to settle for unbiblical worship as long as the programs for your children were good? If that were the case, when was the last time you did an in depth study of the youth programs where you attend? Do you even know what is being taught there? Was the proper worship of God, i.e., worship according to biblical principles a primary consideration for you? Was it a consideration at all? If not, then perhaps now is the time to reorient and ask yourself some penetrating questions. So let’s take a few moments and listen to what Calvin had to say.
Liturgy By Any Other Name
When we inspect Calvin’s Institutes and other writings, we don’t find him—or other Reformers for that matter—speaking about worship style or even the word liturgy. He does, however, talk about the Christian’s service to God (le service de Dieu) or the “form” of service to God (la forme de server Dieu), which gives us some insight into how he thinks about what we call worship today.
In these senses Calvin is speaking about our honor or reverence to God. In other words, honor and reverence stand high on his list of why we gather and are gathered to worship. If we were to compile as list of contemporary reasons why modern evangelicals worship those two words would, in all likelihood, be glaring omissions. We have noted previously how Calvin placed such an emphasis on the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit in theology, worship, and life, so it comes as no surprise that he “was concerned that Christian worship—the prayers, the preaching, and the celebration of the sacraments—be ‘a living movement proceeding from the Holy Spirit.’”
So what did Calvin and the Reformers think about the nature of worship? More often than not, the word of choice for Calvin when it came to what we call worship was the Latin word ritus. In classical Latin it referred to external observances and the manner in which they were performed. This gives us some needed insight into how Calvin thought about worship. That is to say, both what was done and how it was done was important to him. There is a priority in his approach to worship. The proper elements of worship (what) were culled from Scripture and then the manner in which they were to be performed was pondered.
Worship should,therefore, contain external elements, but these are to serve as catalysts to help the believer worship internally. Now, many pastors today in the modern mega-church or Emergent Church or simply in a broadly based evangelical church might say much the same thing. All the modern accoutrements are merely “aids” if you will to help in our user-friendly, seeker-sensitive services.Calvin would disagree with this modern approach precisely at the points of the what and the how. We cannot and we must not do whatever is good in our own eyes when we worship God as the Scripture is very clear. There are numerous answers to what precisely constitutes worship that is pleasing in God’s sight; that is honoring to him; and that is reverently done. In addition, there are a number of approaches to what Calvin taught about worship. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to settle on one approach that Old suggests in his article: drawing our concepts of worship from the first four of the Ten Commandments. In the Institutes Calvin tells us that the first part of the Ten Commandments pertains “to those duties of religion which particularly concern the worship of his majesty.” That will be our approach in the next installment.
 James M. Boice, Romans, Vol. 2, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992), p. 803.
 David Wells, Losing Our Virtue. Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
 Ibid., 199.
 Ibid., 200.
 Hughes Oliphant Old, “Calvin’s Theology of Worship,” in J. Ligon Duncan III, Philip G. Ryken, & Derek W.H. Thomas [eds.], Give Praise to God, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 2003), p. 413.
 Ibid., 416, citing the Institutes.