Calvin on Worship

I cringe anytime someone calls me a disciple of ___________ (it’s been filled in with people like Piper, Edwards, Calvin, DA Carson, etc.). I have learned a great deal from each of these men, one in person and three through their writings. They are among my hero’s. And I disagree with them all on some points of theology (sadly, I couldn’t be ordained in Piper’s baptist church because of my views of baptism, couldn’t teach at Trinity where DA Carson teaches because of my view of the millennium, which interestingly also put me at odds with Edwards – he couldn’t have taught at Trinity either though. Confused?).

Calvin is certainly one of my hero’s – more so now as I’m reading a biography of his life (not my first). Yet I disagree with him also on finer points of theology. One has to do with worship. Calvin expended a lot of energy reforming worship in Geneva. Here’s a few of the things he did:

1. Instituted quarterly Communion services. He really wanted the Lord’s Supper to be served every week but the City Council did not allow this. Prior to Calvin’s reforms it was observed once a year.
2. Did away with all religious symbols inside the church including crosses.
3. Instituted congregational singing.
4. He did away with choirs and with musical instruments in worship. All congregational singing was in unison and was a cappella. He believed the New Covenant required abandoning instruments in worship. he argued that when Paul commands that we should praise God in language we understand (1 Cor. 14:13). He saw instruments as adding a ‘second voice’ that was not human.

Now lest we judge to harshly, remember there was a historical context. Prior to the Reformation, the common worshiper had little role in the public worship of the church. They did not participate at all except to listen and receive. Calvin’s emphasis on the full participation of the body in worship certainly flows from his understanding of the priesthood of all believers.

Also, I should say I agree in substance with Calvin, but not in the application (which I’ll get to shortly). Stick with me for a a minute because I think Calvin’s understanding for worship is incredibly important and biblical.

Calvin understood that music was incredibly powerful and that this power could have a good or bad effect on people. I’m totally with him here. Been to a concert lately? Ever seen those old videos of the people swooning to the Beatles? Ever been in a worship service with people’s hands raised and singing at the top of their longs songs there were totally wrong theologically? Yep. Calvin writes, “Care must always be taken that the song be neither light nor frivolous; but that it have weight and majesty, and also, there is a great difference between music which one makes to entertain men at table and in their houses, and the Psalms which are sung in the Church in the presence of God and his angels. “

Calvin also understood how important worship is to the people of God. Worship, in Calvin’s view (and mine) was the ‘key meeting place of God and his people’. Worship wasn’t something that served another end (wasn’t a tool for evangelism or even teaching – though it often has evangelistic and didactic results). Instead, worship is and end in and of itself.

In addition, Calvin had a firm grasp on what sin has done to man and how it has effected his worship. Godfrey summarizes, “[he believed] that Christians too often want to please themselves in worship rather than pleasing God”. Ouch.

Calvin believed worship should be based in the Word, simple, and reverent. Internally, it should flow from the heart and externally it should conform to the Biblical patterns of worship. On this I totally agree with Calvin. Again, it comes down to application.

Centuries later the Puritans picked up on Calvin’s theology of worship and articulated it in the Regulative Principle: in corporate worship we should do only those things which Scripture specifically tells us to do. This is in contrast with the Hooker principle which states that the church should feel free to adopt a practice in worship unless it is specifically forbidden in worship.

In substance I agree with Calvin and even more with how the Puritans articulated his principles [biblical principles]. The Puritans were a little more sophisticated in how the articulated it, distinguishing between elements, forms and circumstances. The elements were things like prayers, singing, preaching, etc. They were commanded by Scripture and regulated by it also. The church did not have liberty to add elements or leave them off [hence, most who follow the regulative principle would not allow drama’s in Sunday morning worship]. Forms, on the other hand, were not so tightly regulated. Prayers could be formal or spontaneous; preaching could be from a manuscript or a slim outline. However, forms should fit the elements. In other words, it would be inconsistent to preach in a clown outfit on Sunday mornings. The form doesnt’ fit the high calling of preaching the Word. Circumstances were not regulated by Scripture and included things like what time the services were held, etc.

These distinctions, I think, are helpful – and it’s why I end up disagreeing with Calvin. He seems to have considered instrumentation an ‘element’ (though the category doesnt’ show up in the same way as it does in later Puritan writings). I wouldn’t put it in that category – instead I see instruments as aiding in the singing of praises. I would consider it a form, not an element.

Having said all of this, and probably bored you to death, let me affirm Calvin’s desire to reform worship. I think he was dead on in his evaluation of the importance of worship and in the human proclivity to twist it. I agree with what he wrote to Sadoleto (a Roman Catholic opponent), “there is nothing more perilous to our salvation that a preposterous and perverse worship of God.”

What do you think of Calvin’s understanding? Of worship in the 21st century church (politeness please)?

2 thoughts on “Calvin on Worship

  1. Forms, elements, circumstances. Almost feels like we could write an XML schema for proper worship! (Sorry, had to throw in a bit of technology talk since this is clearly a technical discussion.)

    Actually, this is something I’ve been thinking quite a bit about since Bob brought up his confessional vs. polity issues in a recent BOE discussion. I need to talk to him about that distinction, because it seems to me there may be a third category. But I digress.

    I think 30 years ago I was strongly of the regulative persuasion but now I’ve moved closer to Hooker. But not fully. The problem with being regulative is that no two regulative people ever agree and it inevitably leads to schisms and phariseeism. And it betrays a certain lack of faith in the Spirit of God and a certain overconfidence in human analytical ability to sort everything out properly. I think Roland Allen captures it well in his concept, “fear for the doctrine” in his book, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church. We get so afraid of error that we end up quenching the Spirit and spawning a whole new bunch of errors.

    Well, it’s too late at night for me to write more coherently about this. I will only add that I LOVE Calvin’s desire for a weekly Communion. Oddly, Luther wanted the same thing, but he didn’t get it either. That’s one of the things I miss from the Plymouth Brethren.

  2. I see the same danger of schism you do and I don’t like it either. Instruments, a cappella, pitch pipes, hymns only, exclusive psalmody, blah blah blah.

    On the other hand, I see the dangers in drifting too close to the Hooker principle also. I remember reading about a pastor right here in Indiana who had to be rushed to the hospital after a motorcycle accident in the church during the service. Even Hooker is rolling over in his grave!

    Roland Allen’s point is well taken though. Isn’t there a way to be firm and convicted without being insensitive to the Spirit?

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