Monday, June 23, 2014

Book Review -- Worshipping With Calvin: Recovering the Historic Ministry and Worship of Reformed Protestantism

“Our sense of urgency is profound as we survey the ecclesiastical landscape,” states Terry L. Johnson in the opening chapter of Worshipping With Calvin, as he recounts the rapid decline of American Evangelical Christians’ fidelity to historic Christian beliefs, morals and piety. Invoking the maxim lex orandi, lex credenda, lex vivendi (“The law of prayer is the law of faith is the law of life”), Johnson asserts that public worship is too often overlooked as a major factor influencing whether or not Christians remain committed to their faith. Furthermore, he argues that many recent innovations to public worship have directly contributed to the overall decline of American Evangelicalism. Johnson’s appeal is for Christians, especially those among the neo-Calvinists of the “young, restless, reformed” movement to “recover the historic ministry and worship of Reformed Protestantism,” in hopes that it would prove just as beneficial to their Christian faith and practice as it has for generations of Christians who have gone before.

After the introductory chapter, Johnson lays out a two-pronged case advocating Reformed Worship and Ministry. The first line of argumentation is along exegetical and historical grounds. Drawing significantly from the work of Hughes Oliphant Old (to whom the book is dedicated), Johnson demonstrates the many ways in which the Reformers sought to base their liturgical reforms primarily on the Scriptures, and then secondarily on the practices of the early church. Instead of manmade traditions, they attempted to pattern the elements of Christian worship after the ways described Bible itself, such as lectio continua reading of the Scriptures, manifold types of prayers, singing of psalms and hymns, and the understanding of the sacraments as visible, covenantal signs. Next, Johnson makes the case for Reformed worship along theological grounds, demonstrating how the Reformers applied the 5 Sola mottoes of the Reformation – sola scriptura, solus Christus, sola fide, sola gratia, and soli Deo Gloria – directly to their liturgical reforms. For example, the principle of sola scriptura gave rise to the Reformed regulative principle of worship, which limits worship practices to only those specified in the Bible. As Johnson argues, both the theological applications of the Reformers and their exegetical/historical research converge to make a persuasive case for the liturgical reforms enacted by the Protestant Reformers.

In the next section of the book, Johnson lays out the following five strengths of Reformed Worship (and compares them with corresponding weaknesses in other approaches to worship):
  • “It is God-centered” – the focus of Christian corporate gathering on the Lord’s Day is to worship God. Believers may be edified by the service, and non-believers may be evangelized, but these are by-products of worship and not the intended purpose.
  • “It is Bible-Filled” - Christian worship is to be saturated with the Bible. The Scriptures should be read publicly and taught. Furthermore, the content of prayers, singing and preaching should all draw heavily from the Scriptures. Lastly, Christian worship should make diligent use of the “visible Word,” the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, which sign and seal the proclamations of the Scriptures.
  • “It is Gospel-Structured” – Christian worship should focus on Christ, re-presenting to us the work of redemption he accomplished. Both in its content and arrangement, Christian worship should clearly portray the gospel and underscore our reliance on Christ not only for forgiveness of sins but for life itself.
  • “It is Church-Aware” – Christian worship should consider the catholicity and traditions of the church. As a result, forms of worship that are innovations or are geared towards a limited niche should be passed over in favor of historic forms that have served the church well across many centuries, lands, and peoples.
  • “It is Spirit-Dependent” – Christian worship should rely on the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts and minds of God’s people. This does not require adopting the more extreme phenomena often associated with the Spirit, but rather entails a constant attitude of dependence on the Spirit to work through the means of grace He has ordained.
Worshipping With Calvin has much to commend to readers. Johnson was a student of Hughes Old, and Johnson’s presentation makes good use of Old’s large body of research on Christian worship, especially on the Reformers attempts to base their liturgical reforms not only on the practices of the patristic era, but ultimately on the Scriptures themselves. Each chapter is thoroughly documented, and Johnson provides a lengthy bibliography for additional study.

I found the two chapters on how “It [i.e., Reformed worship] Is Bible-filled” to be the most compelling in the book. Not only does Johnson demonstrate how the Reformers reinstated the practice of lectio continua reading of the Scripture, he shows how greatly they valued extended readings, due to their confidence in the Spirit’s working through the Word. I was also very much intrigued by how the Reformers incorporated the Scriptures into their public prayers, drawing on both content and patterns of prayer recorded in the Bible. As Johnson demonstrates, the Reformers placed a great deal of importance in composing prayers that would be rich in Scriptural content and (as a result) would edify the congregation. I also appreciated the emphasis that Johnson places on the “visible Word” – the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism – in the life of the congregation and its public worship. Throughout these two chapters, Johnson skillfully explains how the Reformers integrated Scripture into every aspect of their liturgical reforms.

The book was not without a few weaknesses. For example, Johnson argues that worship should be “simple” and done with “dependence upon the Holy Spirit, rather than rituals and ceremonies.” While I certainly agree that the excesses of the medieval church should have been abandoned, I’m not sure an outright rejection of ritual and ceremony is wise. As James K.A. Smith has argued, habits and practices can play a major role in Christian formation, and it seems to me that a more profitable approach would be to identify which rituals and ceremonies might be beneficial to nurturing Christian faith, rather than trying to completing eradicate them (as if that were actually possible!). Of greater concern is Johnson’s almost complete dismissal of contemporary worship styles. These styles are consistently presented negatively, and “metrical psalms and biblical/classical hymns” (curiously, there’s no mention of “spiritual songs”) are lauded as the standard for Christian worship music. It is only in Chapter 8 that Johnson states that Christian worship should “conserve the best from the past and add the best from the present,” implying the possibility of acceptable new music. I am very much in agreement with his argument that Christian worship should consider the catholicity and traditions of the church, and should be wary of abandoning historic forms altogether. But I also believe that the Spirit is still at work today, and it is unwise to close the door to edifying contributions to the life of the Church. After all, each of the metrical psalms and biblical hymns that Johnson advocates was once a new song, and many of them were put into use by the Church shortly after their composition. I’m hoping that Johnson’s forthcoming volume on implementing Reformed worship (Serving With Calvin) will provide some practical guidance on how he envisions “add[ing] the best from the present.”

Overall, Worshipping With Calvin is well-researched and well-argued. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in the topic of Christian worship. Even those outside the Reformed tradition will be challenged and exhorted to examine how they worship, and hopefully encouraged to return to the Bible for guidance on how to worship God as He would desire.

(Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book in exchange for writing a review, with no obligation to provide a favorable opinion.)