The Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) have not been noticeably affected by the powerful movement of liturgical “renewal.” The form of their worship services—both of them every Sabbath—is basically that of the Reformed tradition going back to the Synod of Dordt at the beginning of the 17th century. John Calvin would recognize our services of public worship. Not only would he recognize them, but he would also approve them. He would urge us to administer the Lord’s Supper more often, and he would question us about our use of instrumental accompaniment for the congregation’s singing of the Psalms. But he would approve our liturgy.
Liturgy is the form of the public worship of the church. It refers to what we do at a worship service and the order in which we do it. In his privately printed notes on “Liturgics,” Dutch Reformed theologian H. Beuker described liturgy this way: “Liturgy with the Reformed always signifies the established forms for the spiritual (public) worship service….” Every church has a liturgy. It may be elaborate or simple, highly structured or open to variation, predominant or incidental. But there is a liturgical aspect to every gathering of believers and their children for the public praise of the God and Father of Jesus Christ. The question is not, “Do we have a liturgy?” but, “What is our liturgy?”
This makes the present movement of liturgical change that is sweeping the Protestant churches of interest to every denomination.
Three distinct trends can be distinguished. All three ought to be of concern to the church that knows herself to be called by God to be distinctively Reformed in worship. There is the carefully calculated, sophisticated form of worship that caters to the wishes and feelings of the people, especially the young, educated, wealthy people. This worship is characterized by contemporary music, dramatic presentations, and short, positive—at all costs positive—non-doctrinal sermons about practical problems in the people’s lives. Leading the way in North America is the Willow Creek Church in Illinois. We may call this the “user-friendly” liturgy.
A second trend is the free-wheeling, exuberant, disorderly services of the charismatics. What will take place and when are up to the unpredictable spirit of the movement, who functions according to no known law. This worship is characterized by hand-waving, healing, tongues, prophesying by members of the congregation, and, of late, uncontrollable laughter. The local Assembly of God practices this liturgy. Many evangelical and some Reformed and Presbyterian churches play with this liturgical dynamite. It advertises itself as the liturgy of “life” in distinction from that of doctrine and order.
The third major strain of liturgical “renewal” in Protestantism is the development of elaborate ceremony. The service is filled with all kinds of symbolical activities, e.g., candle-lighting, and symbolical objects, e.g., banners. Much is made of the “church year.” It becomes important that the clergy are dressed in special, impressive garb. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper takes the central place in worship. This is the liturgy of Romanizing ritual. Those who would challenge the adjective are invited to read Thomas Howard’s Evangelical is Not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament (Ignatius, 1984). Prominent theonomists are heading in this direction. The magazine, Reformed Worship, promotes this liturgy.
These are not innocent developments. They are not relatively insignificant developments. The true church of God has fought great wars over the issue of liturgy. The Reformation fought the ritualism of Roman Catholic worship. This was necessarily involved in the Reformation’s denial that the church’s performance of the ceremonies of the sacraments bestows grace and in the Reformation’s assertion that the heart of true worship is the teaching of sound doctrine.
Jenny Geddes threw her stool at Archbishop Laud’s bishop, thus occasioning the struggle of Scottish Presbyterianism first against Charles I and then against Charles II, when, in St. Giles, Laud’s bishop attempted to impose upon the Presbyterians the Anglican form of worship. One of the issues at stake was the Lordship of Jesus Christ over His church.
The Dutch Reformed should not forget that the Secession of 1834 in the Netherlands occurred, in part, because of the intrusion into Reformed worship of sentimental, man-centered, Arminian hymns. The modernist State Church had arranged a “user-friendly” service of worship.
To suppose that differences in liturgy are unimportant in comparison with differences in theology is a mistake. It is impossible to separate liturgy from theology. In a provocative article on Reformed liturgy, Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff points out that Reformed liturgy differs from Roman Catholic liturgy because of differing theological conceptions of both the preaching of the Word and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (“The Reformed Liturgy,” in Major Themes in the Reformed Tradition, Eerdmans, 1992, pp. 273-304).
The Reformed faith condemns and rejects all three of the leading liturgical trends in Protestantism today. Against all three liturgies, the “user-friendly,” the lively disorder of neo-Pentecostalism, and the ritualistic, the Reformed faith charges that they are lawless. They have no regard for God’s rules in Scripture for His worship. All three strains of liturgical experimentation feel free to introduce whatever seems to the worship committee, the minister, or the church to enhance worship.
Second, contemporary liturgical “renewal” in all its forms denigrates and displaces the Word of God in the worship of the church. The effect of the changes is that the preaching of the doctrines of Scripture loses its central, primary place. I know of no movement of liturgical “renewal” that has as its main purpose to restore or emphasize the preaching of the Word and, with this, the office of the ministry of the Word.
Third, as regards the people-oriented liturgy in evangelicalism, Protestantism has forgotten that worship does not center on the worshiping congregation but on the worshipped God. The question is not, “What makes us feel good?” but, “What is this great and glorious God worthy of?” “User-friendly” liturgy is frivolous, superficial, and often trivial. The frivolity begins with Pastor Tom, Dick, and Harry, or Bill flashing his pearly-whites and saying, “Good morning.” Reformed worship begins with God’s greeting of His people in Christ, “Grace, mercy, and peace be granted to you.”
Fourth, charismatic, worship is false. The extraordinary operations and gifts of the Holy Spirit ended with the office of the apostles. Period.
Fifth, the invented pomp and ceremony of Protestant ritual, like that of Rome, is empty and useless. God is not honored by it; the congregation is not blessed. The judgment by Southern Presbyterian James Henley Thornwell upon the liturgy of ritual is true:
The miserable votaries of Rome confound the emotions of mysterious awe produced by the solemnities of a sensual worship with reverence for God and the impressions of grace. Doomed to grope among the beggarly elements of earth, they regale the eye, the fancy and the ear, but the heart withers. Imagination riots on imposing festivals and magnificent processions, symbols and ceremonies, libations and sacrifices; the successive stages of worship are like scenes of enchantment, but the gorgeous splendours of the liturgy, which famish the soul while they delight the sense, are sad memorials of religion “lying in state surrounded with the silent pomp of death.” The Holy Ghost has been supplanted by charms, and physical causes have usurped the province of supernatural grace (Collected Writings, Vol. 3, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974, p. 319).
And the explanation of a Protestant church’s turning to ritual by Christian Reformed preachers Idzerd Van Dellen and Martin Monsma is also true: “As spiritual life begins to wane, formalistic and extraordinary observances begin to increase. He who serves God in Spirit and with devotion will have little need for the unusual, and for constant innovations” (The Church Order Commentary, Zondervan, 1941, p. 275).
The Reformed faith condemns these liturgies in the interests of maintaining its own characteristic worship.
The principle of Reformed worship is that the public service of worship is that the public service of worship is God’s presence and fellowship with His people in Christ. The service is covenantal. God is with us. Godis with us, the God who makes Himself known and gives Himself to us chiefly through the preaching of the Word and, in connection with this Word, by the two Christ-ordained (simple) ceremonies of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. God is with us, the God who is to be loved, reverenced, praised, and thanked.
This determines the purpose of Reformed worship. It is not to please self-centered, self-seeking, self-satisfied Americans. When Herman Hoeksema describes the purpose of worship, he even denies that the purpose is “that of saving souls.” But the purpose, according to Hoeksema, is “the public and united service and glorification of God with thanksgiving and joy in an orderly manner.” Only then is the purpose also, “and in subordination,” the “edification of the saints” (unpublished notes on “Liturgics,” p. 1).
It is characteristic of Reformed worship that the reading and preaching of the Bible is central and dominating.
The elements of worship—the how of worship—are decided by God Himself. The Reformed faith holds the “regulative principle” of worship. This is not Scottish Presbyterian. It is Reformed. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that we may not “worship Him in any other way than He has commanded in His Word” (Question 96). This “regulative principle” is nothing less than the rule of the second commandment of the law. Obedience to this rule in public worship is not bondage, but “true liberty,” as Hoeksema points out: “In the Spirit of Christ, we have the true liberty, which is not the same as wantonness, but which means in regard to public worship that the form and the principles of public worship are derived freely from the Word of God.” The prescribed elements of worship are listed in Lord’s Day 38 of the Catechism.
It belongs to the Reformed liturgical mind that it is opposed to change. Are we to suppose that at the end of the 20th century the triune God has changed Hismind about the right worship of Himself?
The Reformed mind has its differences with C. S. Lewis, including his ideas on liturgy, but it appreciates his warning against the liturgical tinkering that bedevils Protestant churches in our day:
(A worship service) . . . “works” best when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it…. The perfect church service would be the one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping…. “‘Tis mad idolatry that makes the service greater than the god.” A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the question “What on earth is he up to now?” wll intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste. There is really some excuse for the man who said, “I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even Teach my performing dogs new tricks.”
This incessant changing of the form of worship is “the Liturgical Fidget” (The Joyful Christian, Macmillan, 1977, pp. 80, 81). It is a theological, ecclesiastical, and spiritual affliction.
The PRC may resist liturgical “renewal.” Their liturgy never died. It is not out-of-date.
They are called to maintain a Reformed liturgy. They will do this only if the members know what they have and think into what they are doing in the services of worship. They will do this only if they reverence the great God whose worth they are to extol at church. They will do this only if they submit to the will of God concerning the acceptable manner of His worship. They will do this only if the Spirit of Christ graciously works in them to worship the Father “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).