Is High-Church Presbyterianism an Oxymoron?
by D. G. Hart
The words “high church” and “Presbyterian” are seldom found together, and for good reason. Anglo-American Presbyterians and their Reformed siblings on the European continent have not distinguished themselves for possessing either overly refined liturgical sensibilities or highly effective mechanisms for protecting the prerogatives of clergy.
Of course, for the descendants of Calvin, theology is a breeze. But on the Protestant ecclesiastical spectrum from low to high, the best Presbyterians can do is position themselves about where Congregationalists do, toward the middle, with Lutherans and Episcopalians above, and Methodists and Baptists below. This may explain the old line about Baptists being Methodists with shoes, and Presbyterians being Baptists who can read.
Still, as decent and orderly as it may be for Presbyterians to inhabit the moderate middle of Protestant notions about liturgy and the ministry of the Church, if left to their own devices they invariably descend to the nether regions of churchly sensibilities. So for Baptists on the way up, the Presbyterian option is a happy one since it rarely demands a significant adjustment beyond coming to terms with infant baptism.
My wife and I both were reared in fundamentalist Baptist congregations and now belong to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), a largely low-church communion. Five out of our six brothers and sisters have been members of the southern equivalent of the OPC, the Presbyterian Church in America. Though anecdotal, such evidence confirms the point that Presbyterianism is not a stretch for Baptists. In fact, it may be the denominational preference for Baptists experiencing upward social mobility.
But while Presbyterianism offers a more high-brow form of Protestant Christianity for Baptists, its low-church impulses are legion to believers who desire a more sober and formal expression of devotion. We may be too far from the publication of Robert Webber’s Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail to claim that Presbyterians in search of serious worship are becoming Episcopalians. That may have been true in the 1970s, but today Presbyterians seeking ecclesiastical upward mobility have broadened their horizons and can now be found among the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics.
Rare is the Presbyterian congregation that offers such liturgically minded souls a comfortable home. Other Presbyterian seekers, trying to extract liturgical graciousness out of a tradition that appears to have none, turn to a high-brow form of blended worship. Instead of introducing praise songs and choruses into the average Presbyterian order of worship—the low-brow version—those wanting greater formality import into Presbyterian services liturgical elements from other high-church traditions.
Can Presbyterians Be High-Church?
But perhaps either turning to other traditions wholesale or supplementing Presbyterian devotion with Anglican and Orthodox forms is unnecessary. Maybe there is buried within the historical mass of low-church Presbyterianism a high-church tradition every bit as divinely appointed and liturgically well conceived as the best of the other traditions higher up the scale. If so, then low-church Presbyterianism is the real oxymoron.
Many Christians might be surprised by the high-church tendencies within the Reformed tradition, Presbyterians perhaps being the most amazed. So accustomed are Protestants in North America to remembering the anti-papist sentiments of the Reformation that they forget how many of the practices and beliefs of Christendom were perpetuated in Calvinistic and Lutheran churches, chief among them a respect for ritual, formality, and holy office. The Protestant Reformation, after all, was just that, a reformation of forms and structures, not a repudiation of ritual or legitimate ecclesiastical authority (a debatable statement, of course, to Roman Catholics).
In fact, it is a gross distortion of the Reformed tradition specifically to attribute to it the low-church characteristics that dominate Evangelicalism in the United States. The early creeds of the Presbyterian and Reformed churches assume a high regard for the ordained ministry of the Church, from the function of pastors to the means of grace, as well as an adherence to correct forms in liturgy and polity. The Roman Catholic Church may have been corrupt in the Reformers’ estimation, but nowhere did they show the kind of contempt for the visible church and corporate expressions of Christian devotion that sometimes characterize American Protestantism. Only in the seventeenth century, the age of pietism and Puritanism, were such high-church views widely questioned.
Worship is the most obvious area in which high-church and low-church Protestantism are clearly set apart. Leaving aside the Sacraments for the moment, high-church liturgy is more formal and reserved, using approved forms and rituals, than is low-church worship, which tends toward spontaneous and folksy expressions of devotion. One searches in vain to find informality or room for individual expression in the Reformed liturgies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In fact, practically all the churches in the Calvinist wing of the Reformation produced and used written forms and followed a set order of service. In other words, liturgical unanimity prevailed as much among Reformed churches in the Netherlands or Presbyterian churches in Scotland as it did among English Protestants who followed the Book of Common Prayer.
This is precisely the point behind Charles Baird’s Presbyterian Liturgies, a collection of forms and services from Reformed churches in Europe and Britain. A young nineteenth-century American Presbyterian minister, Baird assembled the liturgies of Reformed churches because of frustration with his own church’s Directory for Public Worship. Baird believed, on the one hand, that the Directory’s general instructions for ordering the service prevented “the use of the best liturgical compositions,” forcing instead, reliance “on our individual resources of conception, however crude, and meager, and immature we may find them.”
Baird was concerned for the quality of liturgical expression, desiring worship that was “performed with dignity and propriety” in order that, in the words of the Westminster Directory, the service “may not be disgraced by mean, irregular, or extravagant effusions.”1 Accordingly, Baird devoted three chapters to Calvin’s liturgies, one to Reformed liturgies in France, two to Scottish Presbyterianism, three to English developments among Puritans and the Church of England, one to the Dutch Reformed, one to the German Reformed, and finally, one to American Presbyterianism of a higher sort. All of the churches ordered their services after the general pattern established by Calvin in Geneva, which ran as follows:
Confession of Sins
Prayer for Pardon
Singing of a Psalm
Prayer for Illumination
Lessons from Scripture
Collection of Offerings
Prayers of Intercession
Apostles’ Creed (sung while elements of Lord’s Supper are prepared)
Words of Institution
Instruction and Exhortation
Prayer of Thanksgiving
With the exception of Presbyterian churches that follow the Praise & Worship liturgy by dividing the service in half, with 30 minutes of singing and another 30 of preaching, most Presbyterian congregations today follow this order in some fashion. And that is why the order of service is not a sufficient qualification for inclusion in the high-church wing of Protestantism. More important than a structured liturgy is the use of forms and written prayers.
Again, Presbyterians might be the most startled to learn how many prayers the Reformers wrote, not just because those who heard their sermons or lectures transcribed them, but because Protestant leaders composed prayers to be used by other church members and officers. In the sense of a high-church Presbyterianism that relies on written prayers, very few congregations would qualify, and those that do use forms usually mix and match liturgical elements from non-Reformed traditions, seemingly unaware of prayers used by their theological forebears. So ingrained in the Presbyterian conscience is the low-church sensibility that any hankering after a more dignified expression of worship results in scavenging through Episcopalian or Eastern Orthodox liturgies.
But as books like Baird’s Presbyterian Liturgies indicate, the leaders of Reformed and Presbyterian churches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries not only supplied the order or worship, but also the prayers and forms to be used. For instance, Calvin’s Genevan liturgy included all the prayers, those of confession of sin, for illumination, and intercession. The latter began in the following manner:
Almighty God, our heavenly Father! who hast promised to grant our requests in the name of thy well-beloved Son: Thou hast taught us in his name also to assemble ourselves together, assured that he shall be present in our midst, to intercede for us with thee, and obtain for us all things that we may agree on earth to ask thee. Wherefore, having met in thy presence, dependent on thy promise, we earnestly beseech thee, O gracious God and Father! For his sake who is our only Savior and Mediator, that of thy boundless mercy thou wilt freely pardon our offences; and so lift up our thoughts and draw forth our desires toward thyself, that we may seek thee according to thy holy and reasonable will.2
Calvin not only wrote prayers for pastors to use in public worship but also ones for parents to use at home. In fact, up until 1987 when it introduced its new Psalter Hymnal, the Christian Reformed Church’s hymnals included Calvin’s prayers for public and private worship, along with prayers for church assemblies. The prayers for families ran to only four in number, ones for the beginning and close of the day, and for before and after meals.
If the reproduction of these prayers in hymnals is any indication, the practice of the Continental branch of the Reformed tradition would have included formality in expressions of devotion both at church and at home. The image that comes to mind of Reformed liturgy and family worship is one where believers reach not only for the Bible but also for another book, one that includes prayers to express their praise, thanksgivings, and petitions to God.
Calvin’s Good Reasons
The image of Reformed believers with their eyes open in prayer, because of the use of a prayer book, is one that would strike many contemporary Presbyterians as a sign of spiritual rigor mortis. In many Presbyterian circles it is common to assume that real faith expresses itself spontaneously, without the props of formalism (i.e., “dead” orthodoxy).
But Calvin had good reasons for writing out prayers, not just for families but also for pastors. “I highly approve of it that there be a certain form,” he declared, “from which the ministers be not allowed to vary: that first, some provision be made to help the simplicity and unskillfulness of some; secondly, that the consent and harmony of the churches one with another may appear; and lastly, that the capricious giddiness and levity of such as affect innovations may be prevented.”3
What is striking about Calvin’s reasons for written prayers is that they fall squarely within that range of sentiments that sometimes prompt Presbyterians to look outside Reformed churches for high-church expressions of devotion. First, he admits implicitly that some people pray better than others, and that worship, which is designed for God’s pleasure, should use the best efforts that the Church can produce. In other words, worship is not a form of spiritual affirmative action that allows everyone equal time in the liturgy. Better to use the prayers deemed superior, even if prepared by saints of the past, than to give precedence to the words assembled by the current pastor simply because he is the one now given the responsibility for praying.
Second, Calvin regards uniformity in liturgical expression as a good thing rather than as a sign of complacency, a sentiment that stands in contrast both to the liturgical diversity that now prevails among Presbyterians and to the logic of cultural contextualization that often justifies such diversity of worship. For Calvin, Reformed theology should be embodied in certain liturgical manners; it is not a shapeless substance that can take any possible form as long as one is sincere or earnest.
Finally, he believed written prayers prevented the kind of flippancy and disrespect so often expressed in the practice of spontaneous prayer, especially when sincerity and passion, more than dignity or truth, are the criteria.
All these reasons, in other words, suggest that if Calvin were living today he would be looking for a high-church liturgy along with those disgruntled Presbyterians attracted to Canterbury or Constantinople. Which is another way of saying that the road to old Geneva might offer a form of worship just as sober and careful as that of today’s high-church traditions.
The Supper as Visible Word & Sacrament
In addition to his understanding of prayer, Calvin’s estimate of the Lord’s Supper gives further warrant to Presbyterians searching for high-church liturgy. Any Presbyterian frustrated by the monthly to quarterly administration of the Supper in most Presbyterian and Reformed churches will find Calvin’s desire for weekly observance a welcome tonic. But even more important than the liturgical adjustment that weekly observance of the Sacrament requires—not just in the length but also in the gravity of the service—is Calvin’s understanding of the Real Presence of Christ in the Supper.
The feature of Reformed worship that distinguishes it from the other Reformation traditions is the centrality of the sermon. And it is precisely the practice of a lengthy exposition of Scripture that appears to conflict with a high regard (and frequent administration) of the Supper. Some have argued that by making the Word of God so central in worship and thus placing great weight upon the sermon, the Reformed tradition has neglected the latter half of Word and Sacrament.
Although later Reformed Christians and Presbyterians may have slighted the Lord’s Supper, Calvin did not do so, nor did earlier generations of Reformed believers. In fact, rather than regarding the Supper as something that supplements the more central ministry of the Word, Calvin taught that the elements of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were visible forms of the Word. Just as the sermon communicates verbally the promise of God’s forgiveness in Christ, so the Sacraments represent those same promises graphically. Calvin wrote, “He is mistaken who thinks that something more is conferred on him by the Sacraments than is offered by the word of God and received by true faith.”
At the same time, if the Sacraments present no more than the Word preached, the inverse can also be affirmed, namely that Baptism and the Supper confer no less. As Brian A. Gerrish has argued, “the sacraments, like preaching, are the vehicle of Christ’s self-communication, of the real presence.” “Only the most perverse misreading,” Gerrish adds, “could conclude that the sacraments for Calvin have a purely symbolic or pedagogical function.”
For this reason it is fitting for those who stand in the Calvinist tradition to speak of the Real Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Christ’s presence in the Sacrament stems from the nature of signs as Calvin conceived of them. Though it is possible to distinguish the sign from the thing signified, Calvin wrote that this is a “distinction without division.” In other words, it may be possible to distinguish the substance from the sign, but it was impossible to separate them. And because Christ himself is the substance of the Supper, the bread and wine are nothing less than, in the words of Gerrish, “pledges of the real presence.”4
For this reason, Reformed believers should also be comfortable with the language of the means of grace. To be sure, the low-church outlook of today’s Presbyterians makes them shudder at such a notion because of its associations with sacerdotalism. Nevertheless, the first expressions of the Reformed tradition in the sixteenth century were not hesitant to affirm that God used the means of Word and Sacrament, in the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, to “communicate the benefits of redemption” to believers. Not only does the Lord’s Supper nourish and build up believers in the hope of the gospel, but as the Shorter Catechism also explains, the worthy receivers, not corporally or carnally, but by faith “partake of [Christ’s] body and blood with all his benefits.”
Of course, to guard against sacerdotalism, the Reformed tradition has understood the efficacy of the Sacraments to depend solely upon the blessing of Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the faith of the recipient. In other words, the Supper does not automatically confer grace, though something always happens, either in the form of blessing or curse.
Still, the means of grace for the Reformed are just that— means, not merely symbols, whereby God works in the lives of his people. Given this understanding of the Sacraments, the Reformed tradition is not opposed to rite or ceremony. Instead, it is a question of which ordinances God has promised to use for the blessing and edification of believers. The good rituals are the Word and Sacraments; the bad ones are any rite or ceremony devised by human wisdom, no matter how well intended, which have no sanction in Scripture.
Yet, a high view of the Lord’s Supper, according to Calvin, does not diminish a high estimation of preaching. In fact, to read some of the early Reformed creeds is to encounter a conception of preaching that makes today’s Presbyterians, who stress good preaching (to the neglect of Sacraments) but complain about thirty-minute sermons being too short, look tame.
As opposed to the contemporary image of the sermon as a teaching device that equips the laity for “every-member ministries,” sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed Christians regarded preaching as a divine act. Inherent in Reformed liturgy is the dialogical principle that regards worship as a holy conversation between God and his people. God initiates through his Word, and believers respond in praise, prayer, hearing the Word preached and read, and receiving the Sacraments.
But God’s speech does not simply extend to those elements of worship where his Word is read, such as in the apostolic salutation, the lessons, words of institution, or benediction. It also includes the very words of the minister himself. According to the Second Helvetic Confession, chapter one, “when this Word of God is now preached in the church by ministers lawfully called . . . the very Word of God is proclaimed and received by the faithful.”
Such a conception of preaching obviously raises the stakes for what transpires when the minister goes to the pulpit. And the stakes escalate when Heinrich Bullinger adds later in the Second Helvetic Confession that preaching, even when conducted by an unregenerate man, is nevertheless the very Word of God. Here the Reformed tradition appealed to Augustine’s argument against the Donatists and contended that “the voice of Christ is to be heard, though it be out of the mouths of evil ministers” in the same way that the Sacraments are “effectual to the godly” even if administered by “unworthy ministers” (chap. 18).
In this scheme preaching functions almost as a ritual, obviously without a set form, but still carrying the liturgical weight of other elements because the sermon itself is the time when God speaks through his under-servant to his people. Preaching is not simply a common act of speech where the minister tries to put across a particular moral or doctrinal truth. It is a holy activity that God has ordained to reveal himself in worship.
Ministerial Keys of the Kingdom
A high view of the Word (preached) and Sacrament, in turn leads to a very different picture of the minister than the one that prevails in contemporary Presbyterian churches. Indeed, the special office of ordination is the place where low-church Presbyterianism comes full circle and reduces the work of the pastor to one of the many ministries that God’s people conduct in all stations and walks of life. Here the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and the Great Commission have been perverted to mean that ministers render services that are no different from what other believers do, except that pastors do it full-time, whereas the laity does it as an avocation.
Yet, if preaching really is the Word of God and if the Sacraments really communicate the benefits of redemption, then the people who perform such acts are clearly different from other believers and should be set apart (ordained) to perform such holy tasks. What is more, Christ’s words in Matthew 28:18–20 to go into all the world and make disciples are not a legitimate basis for every Christian thinking that he is called to minister the Word.
Christ’s instructions make it clear that the means of discipling the nations are Word (teaching) and Sacrament (baptism). And if Evangelical or low-church Presbyterians are going to cite the Great Commission in challenging the uniqueness of the special ministerial office, then they will need to make sure that in addition to their Bibles they also carry some water for baptizing.
This is the logic behind the Reformed understanding of ordination, a conception that adds yet one more piece to the mosaic of high-church Presbyterianism. Ordination in most Christian traditions has to do with setting individuals apart for special tasks within the Church. And since the work of ministers, as the Apostle Paul put it, involves being a steward of the “mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1), the vocation of ministers is a holy or sacred calling. They have been set apart to do work that is holy, not common.
According to the Geneva Confession of 1537, such a high calling requires church members to “receive the true ministers of the Word of God as messengers and ambassadors of God,” to “hearken” to these ministers as to Christ himself, and to consider the work of ministers “as a commission from God necessary in the church.” Calvin added that the ministry was not a “contrivance of men,” as if devised as a wise way to run the church in the event of illiterate or lazy laity. Instead, the ministry was “an appointment made by the Son of God,” and to reject or despise the Christian minister was to rebel against and insult Christ himself.”5
Aside from the Pauline Epistles, the shapers of the Reformed tradition went for biblical support to another set of texts that scares most low-church Protestants: Matthew 16:19 and 18:15ff., where Christ instructs the apostles about the “keys of the kingdom.” The obvious reason for low-church fear here is Rome’s appeal to these passages for papal supremacy and authority. But that appeal did not put off the earliest Protestants who were not interested in throwing out the ministry altogether to be rid of papal claims. From their perspective, Rome’s application of these texts was flawed, but not the idea of church officers possessing the keys of the kingdom. For that reason, the Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 83 reads, “The preaching of the holy gospel and Christian discipline toward repentance” are the keys of the kingdom, both of which “open the kingdom of heaven to believers and close it to unbelievers.”
To be sure, the Reformed took the keys away from the sacerdotal ministry of individual priests and gave it to the declarative work of ministers and elders. Still, just to avoid what they regarded as the errors of Rome, they did not devise a conception of the Christian life that made church membership optional or secondary to personal and parachurch forms of piety. Reformed and Presbyterian Christians have asserted that membership in the church matters desperately, so much so that the Westminster divines wrote of the visible church that, outside of it, there is no “ordinary possibility of salvation” ( Westminster Confession of Faith 25.ii).
The Glorious Sabbath of the Lamb
The one area where the Reformed tradition obviously veers from other high-church traditions is on the matter of a church calendar. Here, however, is one of the great ironies of contemporary Presbyterianism since its low-church sensibilities have cultivated a remarkable attachment to the “lite” variety of the church calendar, namely, observing only Christmas and Easter. This is ironic because if today’s Presbyterians who cling to their Christmas pageants and revere their Good Friday services ever had to confront the high-church origins of their favorite holy days, they might also quickly change their minds.
From its very beginning, the Reformed tradition, because of its application of the regulative principle of worship, has opposed the celebration of any day other than the Sabbath as a required assembly for church members. The regulative principle teaches succinctly that the Church, corporately conceived, as opposed to individual members, may only require what has clear and explicit warrant in God’s Word. The church calendar, accordingly, may be a thoughtful way to remind believers that the way they mark time is different from that of the world. But lacking a clear warrant from Scripture, older generations of Presbyterians rejected the calendar as a human invention, no matter how wise or venerable, and therefore illegitimate for the church as a body. Individuals might observe certain holy days, but church officers could only require observance of the one holy day countenanced in the New Testament, namely, the Lord’s Day.
Obviously, the Reformed tradition looks incredible at this point (at least) to others in more liturgical traditions. But the point here is not to convince other high-church Protestants that the Reformed tradition is right or even plausible, but to show how far contemporary low-church Presbyterianism is from its Reformed origins. And as is the case with other liturgical expressions of the faith, high-church Presbyterianism does not reject the church calendar as much as it offers an alternative, one that revolves around the week-in and week-out observance of the Sabbath. Reformed Protestants, then, have 52 holy days a year.
On these sacred days when Christians rest from their weekly labors and gather for worship, they not only follow the pattern of days that God established in the creation week, but they also look forward to the Sabbath rest that awaits all God’s children when Christ returns. This is especially true in worship itself when, as Reformed believe, the Church gathers spiritually on the Lord’s Day with the rest of the saints and angels in the presence of Christ to perform those acts of worship and service that prefigure the marriage supper of the Lamb. Looking at the Sabbath in this high-church way, as a foretaste of glory, can be helpful in avoiding the self-righteousness that has often surrounded the virtuous Sabbath regimen of Presbyterians.
But do all of these Reformed practices a high-church Presbyterian make? By looking at those observances that characterize high-church traditions and comparing them with older Reformed practices, it should at least be evident that good Presbyterians may have legitimate sympathy with the kind of piety that undergirds high-church Lutheranism or Anglicanism.
The Puritans & Liberty of Conscience
Whether or not the Reformed convictions outlined so far qualify as high-church, they clearly differ from the current practices of most Presbyterians. The question remains, why the disparity between older and contemporary forms of Reformed church life?
Probably the greatest hurdle within the Presbyterian tradition to a greater recognition of the importance of liturgy in the life of Christians is the legacy of Puritanism. Puritans rightly advocated the regulative principle of worship, that is, the idea that whatever is done in public worship must find explicit warrant from Scripture. If the Bible does not require it, then it may not be done even if the thing proposed is not inherently sinful. So, for instance, the Bible may not prohibit explicitly a time of testimonies during worship. But unless testimonies find direct sanction in Scripture, they may not be included. The regulative principle finds support in both the Continental Reformed and Anglo-Presbyterian traditions and differs from Episcopalian and Lutheran practices where the Bible is used primarily as a negative referent (i.e., “What may not be done?”).
In Puritan hands, the regulative principle bred opposition to the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. To be sure, some of this hostility stemmed from Puritan hypersensitivity to any trace of Catholicism extant in the liturgy. What is more, Puritans had a legitimate fear of centralized church authority that could force a minister to say prayers or use forms that ran contrary to his conscience.
Indeed, a point often lost in battles over worship or disputes about the regulative principle of worship is that liberty of conscience is bound up with Calvinistic understandings of worship. It’s not just that the Bible has to regulate all that takes place in public worship—a fairly narrow conception. Puritans also recognized that the Bible is the only legitimate authority to bind an individual’s conscience—a notion that recognizes both the legitimacy of different opinions on the circumstances of worship but also that public worship, whether intended or not, forces all believers to submit to the liturgy by either participating or refraining from the service. Corporate worship is something done by all. And so because all church members should participate in all elements of worship, the best way to compel such involvement is to demonstrate that the Bible requires a given practice.
But as laudable as the Puritan effort was to protect the consciences of individuals from unlawful rules, its issue has been liturgical chaos. The reasoning was that any required liturgy in all congregations is an interference with liberty of conscience, especially since the Bible nowhere elaborates a set order of service. This logic was especially evident in the Westminster Assembly’s Directory for Public Worship, which only made suggestions about forms rather than actually offering prayers and forms that ministers should use. The Directory was a concession to Congregationalists and Independents who believed a set liturgy smacked of tyranny.
So strong has been the Reformed and Presbyterian desire to protect liberty of conscience that even in those churches where there has been greater tolerance of set liturgies, such as in Scotland and the Netherlands, higher assemblies have been reluctant to require all churches to use approved forms. Instead, Reformed and Presbyterian churches have gone against Calvin’s advocacy of liturgical uniformity to protect the respective powers of local pastors, sessions, and consistories.
At Odds with Order
Yet, the Presbyterian commitment to liberty of conscience, while admirable, is at odds with the equally laudable Presbyterian desire for the unity of the Church. Presbyterians have little difficulty assenting to theological and ecclesiological unity, but draw the line when it comes to liturgical uniformity. For instance, rare is the Presbyterian who wonders about the value of confessing the Westminster Standards as the theological norm for ministerial fellowship. Indeed, most conservative Presbyterians take pride in being theologically precise. And Presbyterian confessionalism is likely responsible for the large measure of theological unity that prevails in those communions that stress adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms.
Likewise, Presbyterians are generally sticklers for church polity. Here the Form of Government and Book of Church Discipline quench the Presbyterian thirst for decency and order. And even though these documents governing church law do not have scriptural proof texts like the Westminster Standards, few Presbyterians regard the rules governing church officers as overly onerous. In fact, without them the church would be chaotic and arbitrary.
Why is it, then, that when it comes to worship Presbyterians get itchy and let indecency and disorder prevail? If Presbyterians can assent to a detailed set of confessional and catechetical documents, why not a book of common prayer? And if Presbyterians can submit to the rigors of following proper procedure in session and presbytery meetings, why no set order of worship? Liturgical forms and written prayers may bind the conscience, but no more so than the Westminster Standards or the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s form for ordaining elders. Yet, so wary are Presbyterians of liturgical formalism that they shun common forms for worship.
The ironic exception is the OPC’s Directory for Public Worship that includes a form for the dedication of a new building, complete with litanies and prayers. Here, the same sort of voluntary assent that informs adherence to creeds and polity needs to undergird the Presbyterian and Reformed use of liturgy. As long as church officers assent to the confession and catechisms of the church voluntarily with the idea of preserving the unity of the church, why would it be such a stretch to add liturgy to creeds and polity?
“Warm Outgoings of the Heart”
The danger, of course, is that liberty of conscience can often be a smoke screen for an experiential piety that is at odds with the formality inherent in set liturgies. Ever since the revivals of the eighteenth century, which Presbyterians mostly embraced, the Reformed tradition in North America has been afflicted with the Evangelical assumption that for Christian devotion to be sincere it cannot be expressed in words or forms devised by someone else.
Charles Hodge put that sentiment well when he wrote that written prayers “tend to formality, and cannot be an adequate substitute for the warm outgoings of the heart moved by the spirit of genuine devotion.”6 This outlook has cultivated among Presbyterians the sense that if a minister or ordinary believer uses a prayer book, he is simply going through the motions, or worse, exhibiting dead orthodoxy. Here Presbyterianism took a wrong turn. It assumed the yoke of enthusiasm, in the sense the term was used by R. A. Knox when he wrote of “a new approach to religion” in which the Christian faith shifts from “a matter of outward forms and ordinances” to “an affair of the heart.”7
Of course, Presbyterians cannot blame their tradition’s affinity for enthusiasm solely on revivalists such as George Whitefield or Jonathan Edwards. The Scottish Presbyterian practice of communion seasons, as historians have recently argued, where churches administered the Supper only two to four times a year and did so with a week of festivities leading up to the Sacrament, also worked enthusiatical leaven into the lump of Presbyterian practice. Those festivities soon evolved into camp meetings and revivals where the excitement of receiving the Spirit overwhelmed the experience of receiving the benefits of Christ in the Supper. (Cf. William De Arteaga, “When Heaven Touches Earth,” Touchstone 10.2, Spring 1997.)
Yet, however they came by their enthusiastic ways, the logic of Presbyterian anti-formalism demands closer scrutiny. The notion that genuine religion has to be expressed in a believer’s own words actually leads in charismatic, not Presbyterian, directions. When Pentecostals speak in tongues, they display a piety that is logically consistent with the Evangelical demand for expressing the faith in a person’s own words. But if Presbyterians recognize that using the words of others, such as the words of Scripture or those of the confession of faith, are healthy and legitimate, then they should not balk at using the words of others in worship.
In fact, the corporateness of worship requires such dependence since the demand for order means that only one person speaks or prays at a time; or if everyone speaks or prays, they do so in unison. Consequently, when my pastor prays the intercessory prayer, since he is praying on behalf of the whole congregation, I am using someone else’s words regardless of whether he wrote his own prayer or is using one from a book. And in the case of congregational singing, everyone in the church is relying on the words of a poet to express his praise to God. Ironically, then, any congregation (Presbyterian included) not following Quaker or Pentecostal patterns of worship that encourage individual expression, automatically excludes the efforts of believers to express devotion in their own words in corporate worship.
The selectivity of Presbyterians on this point—not objecting to hymnals but opposing prayer books—has as much to do with the flip side of Evangelical piety. It is not simply that genuine devotion cannot legitimately rely on the words of others—how else do we know if it is sincere?—but also that the hierarchy implicit in a set collection of prayers is illegitimate. After all, Evangelicalism in the United States has an anti-clerical impulse that seeks to remove all barriers (i.e., authorities) that come between believers and their God. Using approved prayers not only puts words in believers’ mouths, but also forces them to submit to the clergy who wrote those prayers.
But again, evangelical anti-clericalism is unbecoming for Presbyterians since Calvin’s spiritual heirs are willing to use the words of the Westminster divines for their confession of faith, thereby assenting to the authority of those ministers and elders, along with the church officers who chose the Confession and Catechisms as the doctrinal standards for American Presbyterian denominations. What contemporary Presbyterians become edgy at is the prospect of submitting to present-day church officers. Such submission appears to be a breach of the priesthood of all believers.
And yet, if they can acknowledge that God appoints human authorities to oversee the civil and familial realms (i.e., magistrates and parents), why are ecclesiastical authorities inherently suspect? In particular, if God has ordained pastors, teachers, and evangelists to establish and nurture his people, why should church members object to using the words written and approved by ministers for use in worship?
More often than not, Presbyterians oppose liturgy because they also refuse to acknowledge the legitimate authority of church officers. This connection suggests that for Presbyterians to move in a high-church direction, using liturgies is insufficient. It also requires a proper recognition of the work and authority of holy office.
A Doomed Alertness
The abandonment of liturgical forms for heartfelt experience, so characteristic of low-church Presbyterianism, is a significant departure from the genius of the Protestant Reformation, and thus puts Presbyterians in the awkward position of trying to accommodate John Calvin and John Wesley. What many contemporary Presbyterians seem to forget is that the Reformation was just that, a reformation, not a revival.
You can tell the difference between the two, according to the Belgic Confession, Article 29, by determining whether the church uses the correct forms—namely, is the Word being faithfully preached, are the Sacraments being faithfully administered, and is discipline being properly administered? The Belgic Confession, along with the rest of the Reformed creeds from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, has nothing to say about the typical way we spot a revival, that is, by a large number of new conversions and greater earnestness on the part of believers. So for Protestant Reformers, the issue was not whether a church was dead or alive.
The Evangelical concept of dead orthodoxy was virtually unknown prior to the revivals of the eighteenth century. For the Reformers, the issue was whether a church was false or true. For Luther, Calvin, and Cramner, the way to distinguish the true Church was by looking above all at the forms used in worship and the ways in which ordination took place. These were matters that were unambiguous—either a prayer, sermon, or service of ordination conformed to the teaching of Scripture or it did not (conceding that Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Reformed Christians read the Bible in different ways at times on these points).
But to tell whether a church or person was spiritually alive, revived, or dead was not so certain. And unfortunately, ever since the First Great Awakening, Presbyterians have been more attentive to the invisible work of the Spirit rather than the visible work of the Church, an alertness that is doomed to frustration because of the Spirit’s mysterious movements.
The Church as Mother
Nevertheless, the answer to low-church Presbyterianism is not the introduction of collects, forms for the administration of the Lord’s Supper, or the weekly recitation of the Creed. As edifying and necessary as liturgical worship is, low-church Presbyterians will not recognize its virtues unless, ironically, they experience a change of heart. High-church liturgy requires a high-church piety. The same goes for high-church polity and high-church confessionalism.
In other words, Presbyterians need to learn that the ministry of the Church is a means of grace. According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism (88), “the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates . . . the benefits of redemption are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments and prayer, all of which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.” Taking care to use the right and fitting words in the ordinances or rituals used in worship, or being careful about what men are ordained to the ministry, are not luxuries. God himself has promised to use and will bless faithful prayers, songs, sermons, and sacramental forms of rightly ordained ministers.
For many American Protestants, too often the church is only an option for expression of heartfelt devotion, a choice that is the equivalent of personal forms of devotion or parachurch initiatives. To be sure, the church gathered in worship and led by ministers is the place where believers corporately express praise and adoration to their heavenly Father, and they should take great care in the way they express themselves to the sovereign Lord of the universe. But the church is also a place where, through his under-shepherds, God ministers to his people. Especially in the Word read and preached, and in the administration of the Sacraments, God reminds his people of his forgiveness and builds them up in holiness and comfort.
A high view of the church, her worship, ministry, and creed, then, requires a piety that recognizes the believer’s dependence on the means that God has ordained to bless his children. If church is simply a way to display our devotion or zeal, then forms and ministers can become a burden. But if church is a place to go to hear the good news from men duly ordained, then liturgy and clergy become, by the blessing of the Holy Spirit, the lifeblood of the believer’s pilgrimage and devotion.
In other words, Presbyterians need to recover the notion of the Church as mother. That idea is foreign to many of John Calvin’s theological heirs, even though the Geneva Reformer wrote explicitly about the church’s nurturing capacity. In book four of his Institutes, Calvin asserts that the image of church as mother is one that expresses just how important her work is to God’s children. “For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like angels” (IV.i.4). Calvin taught, along with a large part of the early Reformed tradition, that without the Church a believer would wither and die, just as a baby without his mother.
The Church, through her ministers, rites of preaching and Sacraments, care and instruction, sustains the Christian through his pilgrimage, just as God provided for the Israelites during their wilderness wanderings. The means of grace that God has ordained the Church to minister are like the manna and quail he fed to the Israelites until they reached the Promised Land.
But to recognize the Church as mother, Presbyterians also need to remember their pilgrim status. And chances are that an impoverished estimate of the Church stems directly from an overly high estimate of ourselves. Which is only to say that Calvin’s high view of the Church and the care she provides was bound up with a sober view of the need believers have to be sustained and built up in the faith.
The common attitude toward the Church among low-church Presbyterians is strikingly evident in their infrequent observance of the Lord’s Supper. What does it say, for instance, about Presbyterian piety that most congregations celebrate the Sacrament at most twelve times a year? Some might respond that such infrequency reflects a high view of the ordinance—to observe it weekly could encourage indifference and nonchalance. But just as likely does such irregularity communicate the impression that we really do not need the grace that comes with the Supper. As believers we are relatively strong, and the Word read and preached is sufficient to recharge our spiritual batteries.
“Pupils All Our Lives”
And thus is one’s estimate of the Church tied to one’s assessment of the Christian life. In this case it looks as if low-church Presbyterians have adopted the attitude of the Israelites when they complained about their diet in the wilderness. The difference is that Presbyterians are not grumbling about the monotony of the fare as much as they are following a new diet that denies them the bread and cup of eternal life three out of every four weeks. Had the Israelites refused the manna with the same frequency, chances are they would have perished well before reaching the banks of the Jordan.
But since the only way for Presbyterians to have a high view of the Church is to recover Calvin’s idea of the Church as mother, they also will need to abandon the notion of the Church as personal trainer. For too many people in the Reformed tradition, the conception of the Christian life is one of perpetual motion. God requires many good works to be performed, from mid-week Bible studies to developing a Christian view of the arts, and the church’s task is simply to supply pep talks and programs for personal improvement. The real work of the Church, then, is what God’s people do throughout the workweek, with Sunday providing a form of continuing education.
But this view of the church and the Christian life does not recognize how needy and frail God’s people are, and how perilous is the battle in which Christian pilgrims must fight. Less confidence about our abilities and a greater recognition of our infirmities would lead to a different view of the church. If Presbyterians continue to think of the church as a place for pep rallies, then all the formality and liturgy in the world will not make them high-church. It will only take away the zip from their gatherings, which are supposed to add spice to the Christian life.
Perhaps Christ’s instruction in John 6 is the only thing that will break through the low-church mentality. In this passage Christ tried to redirect his followers’ earthly desires to a hunger for the Bread of Life. And to do so he told them that the manna the Israelites received in the wilderness prefigured not the bread and fish that he had fed to the five thousand but his own Body and Blood. “I am the bread of life,” he said. “Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (48–51). Christ continued, “for my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed” (55).
Many of Christ’s disciples responded to this teaching by remarking how difficult it was: “Who can listen to it?” (60). For low-church Presbyterians, learning about the ministry of the Church is similarly difficult, almost as hard as overcoming 250 years of Presbyterian church history in the United States.
But if Calvin was correct, if “our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from [the church’s] school until we have been pupils all our lives”—if, in fact, “away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation” ( Institutes, IV, i.4), it may be time for Presbyterians to start undoing their past and relearning their tradition. The health of the doctrine and church order they hold so dear actually depends on it.
1. The Presbyterian Liturgies: Historical Sketches (1855; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1957), pp. 5, 7.
2. From Baird, Presbyterian Liturgies, p. 38.
3. Quoted in Baird, Presbyterian Liturgies, p. 23.
4. B. A. Gerrish, “John Calvin and the Reformed Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper,” McCormick Quarterly 22 (Jan. 1969), pp. 90, 91.
5. J. L. Ainslie, The Doctrines of Ministerial Order in the Reformed Churches of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1940), pp. 8–9.
6. Hodge, “Presbyterian Liturgies,” in The Church and Its Polity (London: T. Nelson, 1879), p. 162.
7. Knox, Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950), p. 2.
An elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and a former professor of church history at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, D. G. Hart became academic dean and professor of church history at Westminster Seminary in California in September. His recent publications include The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies and American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999) and The Dictionary of the Presbyterian and Reformed Tradition in America (InterVarsity Press, 1999).
D. G. Hart works for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (www.isi.org) and is an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He is the author of A Studen't Guide to Religious Studies (ISI Books) and John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist (P&R Books).
Not a subscriber? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of content!
Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives for only $19.95. NEW: Download PDF of issues! That's only $1.66 per month!
Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access for only $39.95. NEW: Download PDF of issues! That's only $3.34 per month!
Transactions will be processed on the secure server of The Fellowship of St. James website, the publisher of Touchstone.
OR get a subscription to Touchstone to read on your Kindle for only $1.99 per month! (This option is KINDLE ONLY and does not include either print or online.)
Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.
more from the online archives