The Quest for Biblical Worship (Part 2)
Posted by Terry L. Johnson
Reformed churches not only have the regulative principle worship (RPW) to guide them regarding elements and forms, but they also, throughout their history, have had liturgies and directories. The liturgies were the more restrictive (e.g. Strasburg, Geneva, Amsterdam), the directories (Westminster Directory of Public Worship and the family of directories it spawned) less so, allowing more freedom, leaving more to the discretion of the minister. Yet a high degree of uniformity has always been the goal, even among Presbyterians.
The Directory and Directions
We might ask ourselves, what is the function of a directory if not to direct? What is the point of providing examples of prayer and descriptions of preaching and rubrics for communion and baptism if it is not for those examples and descriptions and rubrics to be followed? The aim of the original Directory was substantial uniformity, or “sameness,” with the past, in the present and for the future. The Westminster divines explained in the “Preface” to the Directory that they were “persuaded” that “our first reformers… were they now alive… would join with us in this work.” There is the connection with the past, with the first generation of Reformers whose work revived the worship of “the ancient church,” as Calvin claimed.
Moreover, they understood themselves to be answering “the expectation of other reformed churches” abroad for whom, along with “many of the godly at home,” the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) “proved an offense.” There is uniformity with present-day Reformed churches, domestic and foreign.
Consequently, they argued, their work of “further reformation” was required, bringing the churches of England, Ireland and Scotland into conformity with “the reformed churches abroad.” There is the goal of perpetuating their work into the future. Through the Directory they aimed to “give some public testimony of our endeavors for uniformity in divine worship” which they had promised in their Solemn League and Covenant, wherein they pledged to endeavor to bring about “the nearest conjunction and uniformity in religion, confession of faith, form of church government, directory for worship and catechizing.”
No one, from Bucer to Calvin to the Westminster Assembly to the late 20th century considered liturgical uniformity unusual, indeed the opposite. All thought substantial uniformity was necessary to (1) promote unity; (2) to guard the church from the introduction of unbiblical (as determined by the RPW) and therefore unauthorized elements into the services of the church; and (3) ensure that the authorized elements receive the attention they are due. Medieval novelties were removed by the Reformers; future novelties were barred. Our fear of uniformity, our resistance to conformity to historic liturgical forms is unprecedented and unbiblical. Unbiblical? Let me explain.
How much “sameness” is enough and how much is too much? The devil, quite literally, is in the details. The Apostles expect a high degree of uniformity between the churches and demand a high degree of conformity. The same Paul who gave directions to the chaotic Corinthians for “when you come together as a church,” not just informally, casually, or ad hoc, but officially, “as a church” (1 Cor 11:18; cf 5:4; 11:32, 34; 14:26), also exhorts them, “We have no other practice, nor have the churches of God” (1 Cor 11:16; cf 1:2; 4:17; 14:33). He appeals to the uniform practice of the churches, and he expects aberrant churches to conform to that standard. The point of the historic Reformed orders of service is that of the Apostles: unity in worship and ministry. The radical sects might do whatever they perceived the Spirit was leading them to do, but Presbyterians have maintained standardized orders based on the elements and forms determined by the RPW. This meant substantial lectio continua reading of Scripture, expository preaching, the singing of psalms and (later) biblically sound hymns, a full diet of biblical prayer, and the simple administration of the sacraments. This also meant the elimination of all unauthorized elements, ceremonies, rituals, postures, and gestures that might disrupt the church’s unity in worship or might distract attention, time, and energy from the ordinary and authorized means of grace.
The goal of Reformed worship from the beginning, as repeatedly stated in Martin Bucer’s defense of the reforms implemented in Strasburg in 1524, Ground and Reason (Grund und Ursach), was to fill the biblical elements with biblical content: the word read, preached, sung, prayed, and seen (in the sacraments). Let this be enough. If we could agree on these few elements and forms, administered in simplicity, we’d still have issues to discuss. Yet such agreement would go a long way toward unifying the church at the hour of worship, promoting appropriate sameness without strangeness, that we might “together… with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 15:6).
*This is the second installment of Dr. Johnson’s short series of posts on “The Quest for Biblical Worship.” You can find the first post in this series here.