The great danger the church faces today is the separation of
our theology from our practice or the viewing of the Bible as somehow
separate from theology
by Dr Robert Godfrey
In Taylors, South Carolina on March 11, 2OO3, at the Greenville Seminary
Conference on Worship, Robert Godfrey, President of Westminster Theological
Seminary in California, discussed John Calvin's views on worship. Dr.
Godfrey, who is also a church history professor as well as a minister
the United Reformed Churches of North America, began by reading Psalm
by addressing common misapprehensions regarding Calvin. People think of
him, stated Dr. Godfrey, as a "joyless killjoy, ruining people's
Geneva." People have had this sort of negative reaction to Calvin
l6th century when, 'His enemies circulated the rumour that his wife had
died of boredom"
Nearly as many misapprehensions abound about Calvin among Calvinists
because we think of him as more of a theologian than as a pastor. We must
not, Dr. Godfrey said, divorce Calvin the theologian from Calvin the
pastor, one concerned not only with the truth but with the application
ministration of that truth.
The great danger the church faces today is the separation of our theology
from our practice or the viewing of the Bible as somehow separate from
theology. Calvin believed that there was no theology that did not come
of the Bible, but that out of the Bible came a theology of coherence.
distressing, President Godfrey said, when people dismiss the theology
the Reformation as being not adequately Biblical. Concerned with being
"mean spirited" in his reply, Godfrey responded that most people
would make such a charge do not know one tenth as much about the Bible
John Calvin or Martin Luther did.
Calvin did not separate his theology from the Bible or from his pastoring.
He was an extraordinary preacher, a devoted pastor, a catechist who wrote
his own catechism, a visitor of the sick, a counsellor, and one deeply
concerned about missions, ecumenism, church polity, and church discipline.
He was, according to the seminary president, a pastor in every area
life, and he was a pastor in the matter of the careful thought he gave
In his treatise, "On the Necessity of Reforming the Church,"
a document to
be presented by the leaders of the Protestant movement to the Emperor
Charles V, Calvin wrote.
"If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly; the Christian
has a standing existence amongst us, and maintains its truth, it will
found that the following two not only occupy the principal place, but
comprehend under them all the other parts, and consequently the whole
substance of Christianity, viz., a knowledge, first, of the mode in which
God is duly worshipped; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation
is to be obtained."
The speaker stated that Calvin's ranking worship as first in importance
over salvation is due to one very important fact, namely that salvation
a means to an end, with worship being the end itself: We are saved, Dr.
Godfrey said to worship God, now and eternally, with our public worship
being a foretaste of the heavenly worship that awaits us. So, worship
not peripheral to John Calvin but fundamental.
In Calvin's reply to Cardinal Sadoleto, one of the brilliant defences
the Reformation, Calvin penned these words: "There is nothing more
to our salvation than a preposterous and perverse worship of God."
took worship very seriously. He wrote, "Let us know and be fully
that wherever the faithful, who worship him purely and in due form,
according to the appointment of his word, are assembled together to engage
in the solemn acts of religious worship, he is graciously present, and
presides in the midst of them."
This, Dr. Godfrey said, is what has been lost in our worship due largely
the Revivalist tradition - the fact that worship is not primarily about
getting people saved or about instructing people but about meeting with
God. He stated he believes that people's attraction to more liturgical
churches is that in such churches it is often clear the people have come
meet with God, and too often in our Evangelical churches we have lost
sense of reverent anticipation in worship.
"Meeting with God" is perhaps the best brief definition of
worship, and it
is something Calvin understood. Calvin felt as a result that worship must
be structured according to God's word. Although the phrase "Regulative
Principle" does not appear in Calvin's writings, the idea is pervasive.
Those who suggest that the Puritans were less open in their ideas of
worship than Calvin can suggest such only, it seems to Dr. Godfrey, if
have not read Calvin who said:
"I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves
all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite
persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very
bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient
sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honor of God."
Most people think, Dr. Godfrey stated, that if what they do in worship
sincere, God will be pleased. This is not true. It doesn't matter how
sincere you are. If you're wrong, you're still wrong. Again, according
"But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly
whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His
command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear
and distinct, 'Obedience is better than sacrifice.' 'In vain do they
worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men,' (1 Sam. xv.
22; Matth. xv 9). Every addition to His word, especially in this matter,
a lie. Mere "will worship" is vanity. This is the decision,
and when once
the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate."
"That," said the church history professor, "is as narrow-minded
Puritan ever was." Calvin believed we were by nature idolaters. We
the first commandment that we are not free to worship other gods. The
second commandment also relates to the problem of idolatry and warns us
against worship of the true God in a false way. When Israel built the
golden calf, it was meant to be a representation of Yahweh, not another
According to Calvin, "Experience teaches us how fertile is the
falsehood in the human mind and the smallest grains when sown there will
grow to yield an immense harvest."
The fact that Calvin believed human hearts to be factories of idols
explains why Calvin thought it so necessary to be so careful about our
worship. Dr. Godfrey stated that because we are so prone to corruption
our worship, we are desperately in need of a full revelation from God
how we are to worship, and Calvin believed we have been given such an
exhaustive revelation. He saw that too often, we want to please ourselves
rather than please God in our worship. Calvin wrote, "Nor can it
but that, under the pretence of holy zeal, superstitious men give way
the indulgences of the flesh; and Satan baits his fictitious modes of
worship with such attractions, that they are willingly and eagerly caught
hold of and obstinately retained."
Calvin says as well that God is so far unlike us that those things that
please us most are loathsome and nauseating to God, that the more something
delights human nature, the more it ought to be suspected among believers.
The professor pointed out that the Medieval church had seen itself as
zealous in the worship of God and had marshalled all their artistic talents
for the worship of God. It seemed to that church that one could not feel
closer to God than one did in their magnificent cathedrals. But, such
invention did not express in a faithful, way what God has revealed about
how He desires to be worshipped. Calvin purified the cathedral church
Geneva, taking out all images and religious symbols. The Bible was the
important source of influence for Calvin, but being a truly catholic
Christian, he also studied care fully the writings of the ancient fathers
of the church to test his own Biblical interpretation. He concluded that
pure worship contained two parts: The liturgy of the Word and the liturgy
of the upper room.
Regarding the Lord's Supper, Calvin concluded that it should be
administered weekly. Believing that the Lord's Supper is a summary of
Gospel, he believed there was an appropriateness that every sermon should
end with the Gospel by the partaking of the Lord's Supper. True saving
faith comes by the preaching of the Gospel, and that Gospel is confirmed
us by the Sacraments.
Regarding the liturgy of the Word, God, said the URCNA minister, comes
meet with us in our worship, and the function of ministers is to speak
God's Word to the people of God. That is why a minister has no right ever
in a sermon to speak his opinions. The people of God should not be
subjected to a minister's personal opinions on the Sabbath day from the
pulpit, as he is there, not to speak his personal opinions but to
administer the means of God's grace to God's people.
Several principles inform Calvin's approach to worship.
1] First is the centrality of the Word. Reformed worship, though accused
being too intellectualistic, is in fact God's idea. God gave us a Word
study. The suggestion that we are no longer meant to be careful in our
instruction for worship is often summarized that "There is no book
Leviticus in the New Testament." Godfrey said there is indeed a book
Leviticus in the New Testament, and its Acts 2:42. The difference between
Old Covenant worship and New Covenant worship is not that one is rigidly
instructed and the other is free. It is rather that the old is complex,
the new is simple. It is preaching and prayer and fellowship and
Don't we, though, need more emotion in our worship? When the Bible informs
our worship, it does inform our minds, but it calls upon our hearts to
engaged as well.
2] The second basic principle is that of simplicity. This meant for
the absence of distractions such as elaborate decoration and rites of
invention. Calvin was opposed to showiness in worship. It should be rather
a focusing on God in simplicity.
3] The third principle is that we ascend spiritually when we meet with
God. Part of the reason the Reformed wanted simple places of worship was
prevent our thinking of them as temples and thus becoming unduly attached
to the place in which we worship. Calvin, in the Reformed tradition, knew
that the real place in which we worship is Heaven. We see this Heavenly
Jerusalem not with our eyes but by faith, and it is to this Zion that
lift up our hearts to meet with God in worship. We don't recreate a temple
here on earth, because our privilege as children of the New Covenant is
worship in the Heavenly temple with Christ.
4] Fourthly, Calvin was very concerned about reverence. Dr. Godfrey
from Psalm 2, "Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling";
then questioned whether or not contemporary worship, in which there is
emphasis on rejoicing, there is also trembling to accompany the rejoicing.
Joy can't trump reverence, he said. Neither, of course, can reverence
joy, but real joy is not 'just goofiness" or feeling good. There
tension at all between real joy and reverence. Calvin wrote, "Here
is pure and real religion: faith so joined with an earnest fear of God
this fear also embraces willing reverence, and carries with it such
legitimate worship as is prescribed in the law," and, "we ought
this fact even more diligently: all men have a vague veneration for God,
but very few really reverence him; and wherever there is great ostentation
in ceremonies, sincerity of heart is rare indeed."
Calvin believed that our emotions ought to be engaged in worship and
we were created to be emotional beings. But he also believed that we must
be very careful with our emotions due to our fallenness.
According to the lecturer, many people today seem to think that our
emotions are to be depended on as a totally reliable guide to genuineness
and to action. Forms of 19th century Revivalism carried too much free
Calvin's recognition of the part emotions play in worship caused him
very concerned about worship music. He understood that music is one of
chief ways by which we give expression to our emotions in worship. He
thought about it very carefully due to knowing it was powerful and so
the potential to be either advantageous or pernicious. As a consequence,
believed music of the church needed careful regulation. Calvin, in
following what he thought was the teaching of the ancient church, practised
exclusive Psalmody and eliminated musical instruments in the church. He
thought the church should no more retain musical instruments than that
should retain incense and sacrifice. For Calvin, the most important thing
about music was that we should have the right words to sing to God
supported by melodies that can appropriately carry the weight of the
subject. There must be a correspondence between what we are singing and
we are singing it.
Calvin was deeply concerned about the heart in worship. While sincerity
does not justify practice, correct practice doesn't count much with God
it's not coming from a sincere heart. We should, Dr. Godfrey said, meditate
on Psalm 50 to be careful about more than just the externals of worship.
must be those who come to meet with God, to hear the Gospel, to praise
pray and be built up in the faith.
Calvin was a wonderful pastor, and it is his pastoral ministry in its
integration of theology and practice that we need to ponder as Reformed
people to help lead us in new paths of faithfulness.
Presbyterian and Reformed News, January-March 2003
Web Site: www.presbyteriannews.org