Thursday, 22 January 2009

Recovering the Reformed Confession Part 6 - Out with the new, in with the ancient

In chapter 7, the most dense of the book, Clark begins by saying "There can be little question whether Reformed worship is in trouble and perhaps everywhere." (p227) Quoting W. Robert Godfrey he notes that, "the last thirty years or so have seen the most dramatic and speedy changes in Protestant worship since the Protestant Reformation." (p227)

On p228 he goes on, "as Terry Johnson notes, 'the way we worship today will determine the shape and substance of our piety for generations to come.' The fact that many Reformed Christians alive today have never seen or participated in a worship service that Calvin, the Heidelberg Reformers, or the Westminster divines would recognize does not bode well for the future of Reformed theology, piety and practice."

Therefore, he argues that "an essential part of recovering the Reformed confession is to recover the Reformed principle and practice of worship." (p228)

This is a chapter where many who wish to associate with Reformed theology will spit the dummy. They just won't like it. How do I know? Well, as an evangelical I didn't like it, but I had to ask myself, "why?"

In this chapter, Clark asserts that you cannot separate Reformed theology from Reformed worship. Worship and theology are mutually serving and shaping entities. If you worship like a charismatic it's because, deep down, you think like a charismatic. To embark on a recovery of Reformed Christian theology will take you on a trajectory towards a reformation of the worship service.

Many who associate with the Reformed movement advocate the principle of sola Scriptura with respect to theology but not with respect to the worship service. Yet as Clark notes again and again, the Reformed churches advocated the regulative principle of worship (RPW). The RPW is the principle that we may worship God in a way only that is explicitly asked of us in Scripture. In contrast, Anglicans, Lutherans and most evangelicals believe that we may do what is not expressly forbidden. The Reformed community, in response, have traditionally pointed to examples like Nadab and Abihu who thought it was fine to offer a sacrifice not explicitly commanded.

Essential to reformed worship as confessed by the WCF for instance is, "Gods Word (21.5) and prayer (21.3-4). It treats the sacraments under the heading of the Word because they are the gospel made visible." (p230) These are the 'elements' of worship, i.e. the essentials. Other things like where we meet, what we wear, at what time, etc are to be treated as 'circumstances'.

Clark argues again and again that God's Word and prayer are ALL that God has required of us during worship. Many will breath a sigh of relief. At last, no more crappy drama skits. No more cheesy chairmen gags. No more announcements. No more sentimental Powerpoint slideshows that make you cringe so bad you pull a muscle in your butt cheeks.

But the implications are more wide reaching. Clark argues that if we wish to truly reform worship, we must sing only inspired texts (i.e. Psalms, the Decalogue, the Magnificat, etc). After all, if the service is about Word and prayer, it must not only include the Word read/preached but also only the Word sung.

And if the worship leader gasps as Clark removes the photocopied chord sheet of 'The Days of Elijah', he positively palpitates as Clark very gently asks him to hand over his guitar and rainbow strap too. You see, the majority report in the Reformed churches was that musical instruments belonged to the old covenant. Lest we think this a legalistic Reformed innovation, Clark has evidence that the earliest postapostolic churh rejected uninspired singing and musical instruments as pagan. (p246)

Again I'll say, I didn't like this chapter. But again, I ask myself "why?" Has having a band really become such a sacred cow to me? Am I attending worship for my personal excitement? Am I at church for the "liver shiver" or the QIRE? In most evangelical churches, try getting rid of the sermon for a couple of weeks and you'll get minimal unrest. Suggest, on the other hand, ditching the band and you become as popular as a hang-glider with diarrhoea.

I couldn't help thinking as I read through the chapter that I've never sung a Psalm in worship in my life, and I don't think I'm alone in evangelicalism. To those of us who wish to Reform our theology, piety and practice, but can't stomach Clark's bold proposals with respect to worship, we should at least consider taking some steps in this direction. For instance, perhaps start singing and prioritising the Psalms. Chuck out the "My Jesus, My Boyfriend" hymns. If someone proposes to do in worship anything that isn't explicitly Word or prayer, reject it and tell them to save it for the school show.

I'm still thinking through the issues here, but it's very difficult to argue with what Clark has done in this chapter. Everyone I've asked about the RPW with respect to musical instruments, Psalm singing, etc seem to come back with a similar response "it sounds biblical and is hard to argue with, but I just don't like it." Well, I'm sure the Israelites didn't like the idea of letting go of their beloved bronze snake before reformer Hezekiah broke it in pieces. Maybe it's time we metaphorically smashed some stuff to please our Lord.

I've gone on, but it's a long chapter. Read it for yourself.


R. Scott Clark said...


Thanks Nick!

Anonymous said...

Current Worship Reformation trend concentrates too much on the "form". Worship is not defined by what we do outwardly. It literally means "bowing down", in spirit and in truth. That inward component should be emphasized more. Singing psalms doesn't make our praise automatically acceptable to God. It has to be done in the name of Christ. Worship, offering, prayers... all things must be done in the name of Christ.

Bob S said...

"Worship is not defined by what we do outwardly."

Nope. It's not one or the other, it's both. It starts with what we do outwardly, which should then help generate the proper attitude of our hearts, much more that because we internally desire to please God, we obey him by worshiping internally and externally as he has commanded.

Although it isn't the interpretation of RRC, some have taken "in spirit and truth" to refer to the internal and external aspects of worship.

The Reformed generally consider the First Commandment to refer to whom we worship, the Second refers to how we worship externally, while the Third refers to the internal attitude of worship - it is to take God's name in vain to worship hypocritically or in unbelief - and the Fourth refers to when/what day. See for instance, GI Williamson on the same in his Shorter Catechism study.

Phil B said...

Have you never sung "All people that on earth do dwell" in worship?

And what's "These are the days of Elijah" all about? I thought the day of Elijah and Moses had been and gone in preparation of Jesus. I really don't understand it.

Keep coming, Nick. The Reformation is great.

Phil B said...

Oh, and where did you get the book? I can't find it for love nor money in the UK.

Nick Mackison said...

Phil, I agree that 'Days of Elijah' is senseless pants. But hey, who cares about the words when the tune is great?

You can't get RRC in the UK. I had to order it from, although it took ages to arrive. I'd go with if you fancy it.

Scott, it was my pleasure!

Phil Walker said...

I too cannot stand "These are the days", and people at church just don't get why. Even when I point out that the second verse says that David re-built the Temple, they still don't see it.

We do sing psalms now and again, though. Our minister is quite fond of a fairly modern version of Psalm 135, "Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord", and of course people know some of the old metrical psalms, even if they frequently don't recognise them as Scripture. Heck, our minister once did a service of mostly psalms, but at the end chose a Tate & Brady and didn't recognise it as a psalm!

Phil Walker said...

Oh yeah, and I've just been reminded by the order of service that came through, we also sing "How lovely on the mountains" in the version which is mostly drawn from That Passage in Isaiah.

JohnGreenview said...

There is clearly a place for singing Psalms: the NT recommends we do so. Yet it is also true that the Psalms are Old Covenant based, though predicting Christ and the new. It is appropriate, as the NT makes clear, to have explicitly New Covenant 'hymns and spiritual songs', indeed perhaps the 'psalms' in this text are New Covenant.

I am not convinced that the principle 'what is not commanded is forbidden' is a principle we can clearly see taught in the NT. I understand the desire to create it, since it makes it easier to cut out all the rubbish and means what matters is intact.

Perhaps a better way is to ask clearly biblical questions such as, is the activity spiritually edifying(or is it only entertainment)?

NC (NT) worship stresses simplicity and internality (in contrast to the elaboration and externality of OC worship)... in spirit and truth.

What is sure, where we need aesthetics to manufacture spirituality we are already lost - be it a building, band, icon or whatever.

Even if we don't completely buy into the regulative principle surely we must ask questions of our church music such as which dominates - congregational praise or the musical accompaniment? Which stirs our heart? Or perhaps more importantly, which stirs God's heart?

If our focus (and enjoyment) is the music rather than the Maker, and if our praise is suffocated by the accompaniment rather than supported by it, then an important balance has been lost. Wise leaders, even if they do not adhere to the regulative principle, will be sensitive to such matters.

As a PS I find it rather incongruous that some of my good reformed brothers who are rigorously committed to the regulative principle of what is not commanded is forbidden can be so committed to infant baptism - nowhere commanded in the NT.

Stephen Ley said...

Excellent post. I just got done reading that chapter and it's furnished a lot of food for thought. Consider me "almost persuaded" (to quote the words of a revivalist hymn I heard over and over growing up). I'm not ready to advocate shutting down the choir and getting rid of the organ and hymnbook at my very traditional Presbyterian church here in the least not yet. I think if we started seeing more NT texts set to excellent music (like Clark recommends) that the case for the RPW would be easier to make in our churches.

Grace and peace to you.

Anonymous said...

Bob S said...
It starts with what we do outwardly, which should then help generate the proper attitude of our hearts...

I have to disagree Bob. I am not saying outward form is not important, but worship starts with what we do inwardly and that's what Christ emphasized when he said "in truth and in spirit" (regardless how you interpret "truth" and "spirit"). Gospel driven life always starts with inner being and state. Reaching holiness or piety by controlling the outer form was precisely the approach of the Pharisees. Recall our Lord's response to that.

Whoever wants to define worship in terms of outer form, please consider the following passages before talking about exclusive psalmody, etc.: Exodus 4:31, Matthew 14:33, Matthew 28:9, John 9:38.

Bob S. said...

Hun, in all fairness can we go on to quote the rest of the sentence: "much more that because we internally desire to please God, we obey him by worshiping internally AND [emphasis added] externally as he has commanded"?

Worship begins in the heart and flows outward in the channels the Lord has ordained/commanded.
It is not one or the other, but both and in that order.
So what are we trying to say? As long as the heart is right, whatever goes in worship is sanctified/merely adiaphora? I would hope not, but regardless of our personal opinions, the Reformed spelled out what it means to worship the Lord in body and soul in their expositions of the Second and Third commandment.
Further, while it included psalmody, in that the primacy of Scripture was fundamental, that was a given.
Thank you.