The branch of study which we purpose to treat in this rubric is formally known as Liturgies. With reference to the term Liturgy to the sphere of divine service, the Christian use of the word is based upon the Septuagint, which translates the Hebrew aboda, in relation to the temple service, by leitourgia. In the New Testament, however, the word does not occur in connection with ceremonial affairs, but indicates the service which the Christian renders to God in faith and obedience, as in Hebrews 8:2, 6; Philippians 2:17; Romans 15:16; or with reference to brotherly support, as in Romans 15:27;Philippians 2:25, 30; II Corinthians 9:12. The relation to ceremonial practices recurs most closely in Acts 13:2, though here too, the idea of ceremonially regulated usage is to be rejected. The ecclesiastical use of the term refers principally to the Old Testament, significantly implying a transfer of pre-Christian legalism to the Christian dispensation. Hence the current expressions for Levitical and priestly acts were applied to divine worship, especially in order to designate the central and sacrificial act. Moreover, leitourgia andleitourgein were once more employed in the ceremonial sense. The Western Church early borrowed the term to designate the Eucharist. The Evangelical confessions gave preference to the termcaerimonia; and it was only under the influence of Humanism beginning with the sixteenth century, that the word liturgia came into current use, first among the Roman Catholics, and later among the Protestants. The term is now used in a widened sense, and the phrases baptismal, marriage, confirmation, and burial liturgies are loosely employed. Scripture translates the term by service, worship and ministry.
The term itself, as we use it here, applies to the forms and practices that are associated with the manner of our public worship of God. As to the derivation of the term, it is a composite from leitos, meaning public or people, and ergon, meaning work. Given an ecclesiastical connotation it means the service, ministry, worship of the people of God according to an appointed form or order of worship. With the various elements that constitute this order of worship we concern ourselves in this study.
It is to be noted at once, however, that public worship is never to be construed as a mere form! When in actual practice it degrades to this, it cannot rightly be called worship any more, even though it externally retains a semblance of religious service. Public worship is that service of God which takes place whenever God meets with His people as the instituted church on earth, and that too, through the medium of the instituted offices. Where this essential element is lacking worship has been abrogated. This worship must principally always be “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). This implies, as Rev. Hoeksema writes in hisLiturgics, “that it is not limited by a prescribed code of laws or rules that determine its external form, but is characterized by freedom, so that the form of public worship is controlled and determined by and is the proper expression of its idea, viz., the meeting of God with His people. God comes to His people to have fellowship with them and to bless them. The church approaches God to serve and to worship Him and to extol His glory. This also means that it is the worship of God as the God of our salvation in Jesus Christ and through the Spirit. 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.”
In a restricted sense, then, our study denotes the composite aggregate of the permanent elements of worship outside of the sermon; that is, the parts which, in harmony with the principles of religious logic, are comprised in the official church manual, or liturgy proper. Under this classification we will have to consider such elements as the Votum, Salutation, Reading of Scripture, the Law and Confession, the Songs, Prayers, Offerings, Sacraments, Ordination of Office Bearers, Public Confession, Excommunication and the Benediction.
In a broader sense, we must concern ourselves not only with these things as a part of the worship itself, but also with the appointed forms that are used by the church in this worship. By so extending the liturgical idea we may refer to the back of our Psalters for a depository of confessional wealth that has all too often been neglected by the church as material for study. To be sure we read the Baptism Form at baptism, the Lord’s Supper Form at communion, the Installation Forms annually, etc., but scarcely are they given any careful scrutiny or study. The major creeds of our faith are still perused in our societies and catechetical classes but there is reason to believe that there are many who have no closer acquaintance with the liturgical forms than that which is acquired through their occasional use in the church It is hoped that this study will stimulate many to delve more deeply into our rich spiritual heritage which comes to expression here. And so we plan, in addition to the elements that comprise our worship proper, to discuss in detail each of our liturgical forms, in order to enhance our appreciation of that form of worship we have been taught.
Although it is not to be regretted, we cannot avoid facing the fact that our liturgy has been handed down to us from foreign ancestry, with the result that we and our children are not so well informed about the history of these formularies. We and our children who for decades have been using the English language as the medium: in public worship and religious training are cut off from many sources of valuable information concerning our liturgy which are available in the Dutch language. Of course this does not mean that we are entirely unacquainted with our Psalter and the forms contained therein. This we have, but the background to these forms remains rather obscure to the present generation and this may well be a contributing factor to the lack of interest to diligently study the content of our formularies. A great service would be rendered if some of these works of the fathers were translated and made available to the church of today.
The question still arises: Why a liturgy? The question is urgent in the face of the indictment that Reformed Churches generally have been classified as being non-liturgical. As such they are grouped with the Baptists and Methodists in distinction from the Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans who use a rather elaborate ritual at the time of public worship. This classification is hardly correct, although it may be admitted that the Reformed Churches have usually maintained a simple and rather sober order of worship, in contrast to the elaborate ritual of Rome. Reformed Churches have, however, insisted upon a definite pattern and adopted certain formularies, the use of which has been made obligatory upon pastors and congregations. It is hardly fair to classify them asnon-liturgical. Perhaps it is resentment to this indictment that has led many Reformed Churches in our day to depart from the liturgical traditions of the past and to embark upon a course that tends to sacrifice content for form.
But is even the minimum liturgiology necessary? Would it not be better to permit each church to use formularies and follow practices in their worship which are best suited to the particular need instead of maintaining a uniform, established pattern? We believe that it would not, and that for various reasons.
The question of the necessity of ecclesiastical liturgy may be answered in various ways then. First we might point to the fact that the Church Order, by which we are bound, prescribes certain liturgical formularies and makes them obligatory. Conceivably this argument can be met with the objection that the Church Order does not stand on a par with Holy Writ, that it is also the work of man and therefore subject to revision if such revision is for the profit of the churches. The mere insistence of the Church Order, therefore, cannot be a conclusive argument; but before we are permitted to dispense with its rulings we are bound to give consideration to the reasons which lie behind those rulings. In that light we can discover why the Church Order makes obligatory the use of various liturgical forms.
We find, then, that the absence of all liturgical forms would lead to chaos in public worship. Not only must we permit that each church is at liberty to adopt its own formularies and practices but this must be carried one step further. Each member of the church may press for personal likes and dislikes in the order of worship; and if these things were left to be decided by the consistory, the fact that the constituency of that body changes from time to time would only lead to repeated changes and frequent inconsistencies in the matters of the worship of the church. This would result in general confusion. It is far better that there be an established, uniform order in all the churches of like faith.
Of greater consequence to this argument, however, is the fact that we may adduce from Scripture itself support for our liturgical practices. We know that in matters of worship there were various irregularities and difficulties in the church at Corinth. Paul’s letter to, the church there bears this out. God had given to this church a rich dispensation of the Spirit and a wide diversity of spiritual gifts. But when the church assembled for worship, everyone wanted to be heard and assmne leadership. To avert this unedifying situation the apostle laid before them the fundamental principle for all worship that “all things must be done decently and in order” since “God is not the author of confusion but of peace” (I Cor. 14:33, 40). And these things which he wrote, the apostle informed them, “are the commandments of the Lord” (I Cor. 14:37). Proper liturgy is conducive to attaining that order in worship that is pleasing to God and in accord with His commandments.
This follows from the fact that God Himself, in His very nature, is a God of order. This order in God is reflected in various ways in His self-revelation. He has created us as creatures of time and space, giving us a body that possesses the senses of hearing and sight by which we may enjoy His rich provision in the means of grace. To do this these means must be set before us in an orderly manner. The preaching of the Word, which addresses itself to the soul by means of the ear-gate, and the administration of the sacraments, which appeals to the heart and mind through the eye-gate, must be arranged and presented in an orderly manner to be truly effective.
God’s order is appropriately reflected in all the works of His hand. It is observed in the sun and the moon and the stars, in the cycle of the seasons with summer and winter, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat. In the animal world as well as among the human race this order is evident. And the special revelation of God, as it reveals His purpose of peace with a people of His own possession, demonstrates God’s love of order even more eloquently.
As image bearers of God, who have been redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus Christ and restored after His image, we must reflect in our lives, and not the least in our public worship, something of this order. Only then can we worship intelligently. Only then can we worship actively, following all that is being clone and joining with heart and mouth in His praise. Only then can we worship appropriately, wedding truth, goodness, and beauty in a round of praise. Only then do we worship properly. Thus form and content in worship should be happily joined together. To attain this our liturgical formularies have purpose and place. When we so understand the purpose of these forms asaids to worship, we will begin to appreciate them more. And as we make them the object of diligent study, our liturgical forms will become what they should be—a means to the end of praising the God of our salvation!