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Reformation Worship: An Interview on Liturgies from the Past for the Present (Part 2)

Reformation Worship contains 26 liturgies from sixteenth-century Reformers for the purpose of “enriching our worship in the present by learning from their worship in the past.” This new resource, edited by Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey, might be the most helpful resource of 2018 for those who oversee public worship. We would commend the book’s website to you. There you will find the full list of liturgies, endorsements, and access to the book’s preface and opening chapter. Yesterday, part one of our interview with the editors was published; here is part two.[1]

Practically speaking, what are some of those things that have come down to us, which the Reformers recovered and refined in their liturgies?

We outline those in our third chapter. The first chapter is a biblical theology of worship in the Bible; the second is a historical overview of Reformation worship; and the third chapter is called “Worshiping in the Tradition: Principles from the Past for the Present.” In that chapter, we present the characteristic traits of Christian worship that have existed for two millennia. We wanted to show these as timeless principles of Christian worship that were present in the apostolic and early church, and which were refined by the Reformers in the 16th century. They are applicable to any era of the church. Let us give two examples.

First, Christian worship is Trinitarian. Now, that statement may seem unremarkable to many, but it is amazing how many modern evangelical and Reformed church services hardly mention our Triune God. We have been in services where Jesus is mentioned a lot, but God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are not mentioned, or if they are, it is only in passing. In contrast, the liturgies of the Reformation were permeated with references to the Trinity: in the prayers, in the praises, in the Creeds, in the sermons, and in the benediction. Just because a church mentions Jesus a lot, doesn’t mean Christian worship is taking place. Cults mention Jesus a lot, but an affirmation and praise of the Trinity is almost absent.

Second, the Ten Commandments, Lord’s Prayer and the Creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, or Athanasian) were read, prayed, and affirmed, respectively, on a weekly basis. Integral to most Reformation liturgies was the reading of the law before or after the confession of sin; the Lord’s Prayer was prayed at least once—in many cases, more than once; and almost to a man, the Reformers incorporated the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds in their weekly services. The modern church needs to ask itself, not just if these elements are present from time to time, but are they part of the fabric of our weekly, regular worship services.

But doesn’t church history show us that mere tradition can kill a church after a generation or two? And doesn’t a “fixed” church service put off the younger generation?

Well, to answer your first question, two key quotes in our book come to mind. The first is from Charles W. Baird who was influential in reforming worship in the Presbyterian church of America in the 19th century. He wrote a book called Eutaxia or The Presbyterian Liturgies: A Historical Sketch. (If you enjoy singing the Gloria Patri or the Doxology in a Presbyterian service, then that’s because of the influence of Charles W. Baird.) Baird said this about the Reformation and liturgy: “History gives forth but one utterance on the subject. Wherever Protestant Communions have been established, the institution of worship has been secured by formularies, in whose production the most able minds to be enlisted have been employed.”

So church history actually demonstrates that where God has been pleased to reform the church and grow it, set forms of worship always follow. And let’s be honest, every church, from whatever tradition or denomination, has a liturgy. It’s not whether we will have a liturgy; it’s just which liturgy we will have. Every week God’s people in whatever church they worship participate in a liturgy—the question is: Does the liturgy glorify God and reflect the fact this church claims to be a Christian church?

Additionally, we need to make a distinction between tradition and traditionalism. Jaroslav Pelikan has helpfully noted that, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”

In other words, tradition is not the problem. Traditionalism is. The two are not the same. And when it comes to Christian worship according to tradition—not traditionalism—then there ought to be a certain “fixed regularity” to it. This is because the church has always heard God’s call to worship through his Word; it has always praised the Triune God, prayed the Lord’s Prayer, read his Word in public and had it proclaimed; participated in the Lord’s Supper, and been dismissed with a benediction. Why would we not want these elements to feature regularly in our services of worship? There are ways to provide variety within the elements themselves, but the elements ought to be fairly “fixed.” In fact, C.S. Lewis said there was a certain advantage to experiencing the same worship service each week:

Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best—if you like, it “works” best—when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.

The problem with liturgical novelty is that, in the words of Lewis again, “it fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about the worship is a different thing from worshipping.”

As regards the second question of traditional worship putting off a younger generation, two anecdotes come to mind. First, current research shows that millennials are interested in liturgy more than previous generations; or to be more accurate: millennials are more into elements of traditional Christian worship than their parents were. And second, I remember hearing a church planter in New York say that of the different kinds of worship services that they conducted in the city (contemporary vs traditional), the one that was more popular among the younger generation was the one with the more traditional feel. We don’t think that is coincidental, because in the end candy doesn’t satisfy for long—but steak and chips do.

Who exactly is Reformation Worship for: church ministers mainly, or could church members benefit from it too?

We would say everyone who loves God and wants to glorify him better in public worship should read this book. If Valley of Vision was a book for every Christian to enrich their Christian life, then Reformation Worship is a book for every Christian to enrich their church life. Yes, in the first place it is aimed at those who lead Christian worship, but to a larger degree it is aimed at those who are led in corporate worship. This was, of course, the stance of the Reformers who served their people in the writing of these liturgies. They had in mind, not merely the elites and intellectuals of their day, but all people under their care. Cranmer intentionally named his liturgical treatise, the Book of Common Prayer.  In the same vein, this book is for the common man and woman, to help them worship God through new eyes each Lord’s Day. Our own experience in reading these liturgies has been just that. And our prayer is that the modern reader will experience the same, as they immerse themselves in liturgies penned just under five hundred years ago, but whose structure, language, and rhythm continue effectively to communicate the gospel in Word and Sacrament even today. Ultimately, we pray that anyone who reads this book will experience what John Calvin described to be the purpose of all church worship: “To what end is the preaching of the Word, the Sacraments, the holy congregations themselves, and indeed the whole external government of the church, except that we may be united to God?”

That said, we hope that these liturgies will not only be read privately (and devotionally), but that they will once again be practiced publicly in Christ’s Church (not necessarily as whole or adapted services, but at least in part by influence). In this regard, the book will be especially helpful to ministers as they craft and conduct worship services each week. It will help them reflect on the order of the service, the key elements to include; and it will give them good ideas for the content of the service—prayers, praises, Creeds, benedictions etc. This entire project will be completely worthwhile if even one small, rural, congregation had their hearts and souls stirred such that they enjoyed a greater vision of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ through his Word and Sacrament on the Lord’s Day.

[1] Some of the answers in this interview are derived directly from the book and are used here with permission.

Jonathan Gibson

Jonathan Gibson (PhD, Cambridge) is ordained in the International Presbyterian Church, UK, and is Assistant Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. Previously, he served as Associate Minister at Cambridge Presbyterian Church, England. He studied theology at Moore Theological College, Sydney, and then completed a PhD in Hebrew Studies, at Girton College, Cambridge. He is contributor to and co-editor with David Gibson of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her (Crossway, 2013), as well as author of historical and biblical articles in Themelios, Journal of Biblical Literature, Tyndale Bulletin, and “Obadiah” in the NIV Proclamation Bible. His PhD dissertation was published as Covenant Continuity and Fidelity: A Study of Inner-Biblical Allusion and Exegesis in Malachi (Bloomsbury, 2016). He is married to Jacqueline, and they have two children: Benjamin and Leila.

Mark Earngey

Mark Earngey (DPhil candidate, Oxford) is ordained in the Anglican Church of Australia (Diocese of Sydney) and is currently a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University. His dissertation, “New Light on the Life and Theology of Bishop John Ponet (1516–1556),” aims to bring significant new manuscript evidence to bear upon one of the leading, but highly neglected, theologians of the early English Reformation. Previously, he served as Assistant Minister at Toongabbie Anglican Church, Sydney. He studied theology at Moore Theological College, Sydney, and has completed an MPhil. in Theology at the University of Oxford. He is married to Tanya, and they have three children: Grace, Simeon, and Sophia.

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