Sunday, July 12, 2009

2 Calvin and the Regulation of Worship

I picked up the seven volume edition of the Tracts and Letters of Calvin (which doesn't exhaust all his writings outside of the commentaries, sermons and the Institutes by any means, but is still a great set) earlier this year, and decided I'd start perusing them while on a trip to Ithaca this past week to work with colleagues on the experiment I'm part of. This seven volume collection is available directly from Banner of Truth for a steal of a price ($80, shipping included!) during this 500th anniversary year of Calvin's birth.

I began with one of the treatises in volume 1, entitled "The Necessity of Reforming the Church". Calvin writes this as a letter of exhortation to the Holy Roman Emporer Charles, as he puts it in the subtitle, "seriously to undertake the task of restoring the church." In it, Calvin lays out plainly the errors of the church of his day, and the reasons the reformers took up the cause of reform. In one of the first paragraphs, he very succinctly states the case:
"If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence amongst us, and maintains its truth, it will be 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: that is, a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained. When these are kept out of view, though we may glory in the name of Christians, our profession is empty and vain. (p. 126)"
Calvin's summary might take some aback, just a bit - "first", he says, "of the mode in which God is duly worshipped" and "secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained." Now I don't think, as some have maintained, that this ordering means that Calvin thought that the proper worship of God trumps the doctrine of salvation in terms of importance... as becomes apparent very quickly, Calvin sees the doctrine of salvation, and of God's person and attributes as tied up intimately with the regulation of worship, so much so that they cannot rightly be separated. It seems possible that the ordering of these topics in this treatise is rhetorical -taking the abuses and errors of the Romish church in order from the more public and external to the less overt and internal - though all the errors be egregious indeed.

Calvin offers a somewhat different way of illustrating the church's maintenance of truth in a later sentence:
"[R]ule in the church, the pastoral office, and all other matters of order, resemble the body, whereas the doctrine which regulates the due worship of God, and points out the ground on which the consciences of men must rest their hope of salvation, is the soul which animates the body, and, in short, makes it not to be a dead and useless carcase [sic]." (pp. 126-127)
Calvin next takes up one of the best brief statements of the Regulative principle of worship I think I've ever read. I'm going to include these paragraphs in full here because they point out, I think, the connections Calvin makes between worship and the doctrine of God - and help explain the prominence and priority Calvin gives to right worship in the reformation of the church. First, Calvin outlines what is meant by due worship of God:
"Let us now see what is meant by the due worship of God. Its chief foundation is to acknowledge him to be, as he is, the only source of all virtue, justice, holiness, wisdom, truth, power, goodness, mercy, life, and salvation; in accordance with this, to ascribe and render to him the glory of all that is good, to seek all things in him alone, and in every want have recourse to him alone. Hence arises prayer, hence praise and thanksgiving ­ these being attestations to the glory which we attribute to him. This is that genuine sanctification of his name which he requires of us above all things. To this is united adoration, by which we manifest for him the reverence due to his greatness and excellency; and to this ceremonies are subservient, as helps or instruments, in order that, in the performance of divine worship, the body may be exercised at the same time with the soul. Next after these comes self-abasement, when, renouncing the world and the flesh, we are transformed in the renewing of our mind and living no longer to ourselves, submit to be ruled and actuated by him. By this self-abasement we are trained to obedience and devotedness to his will, so that his fear reigns in our hearts, and regulates all the actions of our lives.

That in these things consists the true and sincere worship which alone God approves, and in which alone he delights, is both taught by the Holy Spirit throughout the scriptures, and is also, antecedent to discussion, the obvious dictate of piety. Nor from the beginning was there any other method of worshipping God, the only difference being, that this spiritual truth, which with us is naked and simple, was under the former dispensation wrapped up in figures. And this is the meaning of our Saviour's words, "The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth" (John 4:23). For by these words he meant not to declare that God was not worshipped by the fathers in this spiritual manner, but only to point out a distinction in the external form: that is, that while they had the Spirit shadowed forth by many figures, we have it in simplicity. But it has always been an acknowledged point, that God, who is a Spirit, must be worshipped in spirit and in truth." (pp. 127-128)

True worship is lost without a right understanding of who God is and what his attributes are; of who we are, and how infinitely incapable we are of pleasing God. True worship also is, Calvin notes, impossible unless we approach God as he has commanded. God regulates "all the actions of our lives," Calvin writes. His assertion is that it is quite plain that this is the case - for even upon simple grounds of piety, would it not be patently obvious that God should be worshipped in the way that He commands? Calvin goes on - and in these few paragraphs lays out what I think, again, is a concise and powerful argument for proper worship, regulated by God Himself:

"Moreover, the rule which distinguishes between pure and vitiated worship is of universal application, in order that we may not adopt any device which seems fit to ourselves, but look to the injunctions of him who alone is entitled to prescribe. Therefore, if we would have him to approve our worship, this rule, which he everywhere enforces with the utmost strictness, must be carefully observed. For there is a twofold reason why the Lord, in condemning and prohibiting all fictitious worship, requires us to give obedience only to his own voice. First, it tends greatly to establish his authority that we do not follow our own pleasure, but depend entirely on his sovereignty; and, secondly, such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do is to go astray. And then when once we have turned aside from the right path, there is no end to our wanderings, until we get buried under a multitude of superstitions. Justly, therefore, does the Lord, in order to assert his full right of dominion, strictly enjoin what he wishes us to do, and at once reject all human devices which are at variance with his command. Justly, too, does he, in express terms, define our limits, that we may not, by fabricating perverse modes of worship, provoke his anger against us.

I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of 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. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, 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. 15:22; Matt. 15:9). Every addition to his word, especially in this matter, is a lie. Mere "will worship" (ethelothreeskeia) is vanity. This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate." (pp. 128-129)

The more I think about this issue, especially in light of reading Calvin's brief treatment in these paragraphs, the more I am amazed at our arrogance in the church, in which we say that we are free to worship God in whatever way pleases us. Is God not owed complete obedience in all things? Is He not right, as Sovereign King, to determine the proper means of serving Him? Today man-centered and man-oriented worship is entirely rampant... and the opinions against which Calvin writes in the above, "that whatever they do [in worship] has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honour of God." (p. 128) I have heard arguments against strictness in worship many times that amount to just this, now 500 years later. "But as long as we love Jesus, it really doesn't matter how we worship him." "They like to dance in worship, and that's good - it shows how much they love God." This is just what Calvin was addressing (though the specifics of corrupted worship were different in his day). God Almighty has declared to us His expectations of us. Shall we not simply obey Him? Where do we think we have the right to dictate terms of our service to our Sovereign?

More later... much to chew on.


VirginiaHuguenot said...

Very well said, Todd. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and Calvin's.

Unknown said...


I think this issue is one of the major issues facing the Church in today's world. Without a doubt there is a real problem here, even within Reformed and Presbyterian denominations.


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