At the time of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the worship of the Reformed churches was easily distinguished from that of its nemesis Rome, and it was distinguished from its Protestant alternatives, Lutheranism and Anglicanism. The twentieth-century Anglican author Evelyn Underhill may not have liked the worship that characterized Calvinism, but she had little trouble recognizing its uniqueness. According to Underhill in her 1937 book Worship, for John Calvin, the abiding reality of worship was “God’s unspeakable Majesty and Otherness, and the nothingness and simplicity of man.” This truth dramatically affected Reformed worship. Underhill continued: “No ceremonial acts or gestures were permitted. No hymns were sung but those derived from a Biblical source. The bleak stripped interior of the real Calvinist church is itself sacramental; a witness to the inadequacy of the human over against the divine.”
Although the majesty and transcendence of God accounts greatly for the austere simplicity that has historically characterized Reformed worship, so too did Calvin’s sober estimate of the Bible’s authority. Following Calvin, the Reformed churches have taught that believers may worship God only as He has instructed us to worship Him through His Word. This idea is sometimes called the “Regulative Principle of Worship,” and it further distinguishes Reformed churches from Lutherans and Anglicans. The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) summarizes this doctrine well in chapter twenty-one: “The acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in Holy Scripture.” Consequently, while Lutherans and Anglicans will use Scripture as a negative reference for worship — they will not do anything that Scripture forbids — Reformed Christians have historically looked to Scripture for positive warrant — they will only do what Scripture commands explicitly or by good and necessary consequence. For instance, Lutherans and Anglicans continued to use candles in worship (sometimes a sign of God’s presence, other times signifying prayer) because the Bible did not prohibit such a practice. But, for many Reformed churches, Scripture’s silence on a matter was not sufficient for doing it. Instead, they needed some positive command in the Bible to engage in such activity during worship. The Regulative Principle was a prominent factor in the Calvinist drive for simple worship, that is, worship without ornamentation, images, or theatrical gestures. Believer’s motives may have been noble, but, as Calvin taught, the sinfulness of the human heart also made it an untrustworthy source, even if regenerate, for ideas about how to worship God. The only reliable guide, then, to what pleases God in worship is His own revealed will, made known in Scripture.
Although the Reformed churches abandoned many of Rome’s circumstances of worship that Lutherans and Anglicans continued to use, Reformed worship did remain liturgical and sacramental. That is, Reformed pastors continued to order the worship service according to a fixed order and with prescribed forms, including prayer books. John Calvin produced prayers to be used in public worship for ministers who were less accomplished at public prayer. For example, the services in Geneva used the following order of worship: invocation, confession of sins, assurance of pardon, singing of psalms, prayer for illumination, lessons from Scripture, sermon, collection, prayers of intercession, the Apostles’ Creed, words of institution, instruction and exhortation, communion, prayer of thanksgiving, benediction.
Although Calvin desired weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, he was never able to persuade Geneva’s magistrates to institute such a novel practice; it was unusual because typically members of the Roman Catholic church then, unlike today, received the sacrament once a year, and even then only the bread for fear that they would spill the wine, believed to be the very blood of Christ. Still, Calvin cleverly orchestrated the monthly observance of the Lord’s Supper in Geneva’s congregations so that the sacrament would be celebrated weekly in the city even if not in the same congregation.
In addition to its liturgical and sacramental character, Reformed worship in the sixteenth century introduced the practice of congregational song. Throughout the Middle Ages, the congregation participated in the Mass largely by observing; this included choirs that performed the duties of singing during the service. All the Protestant churches reformed this practice by opening singing to the whole congregation. The Reformed churches eventually became famous for singing only psalms in worship. In fact, the Reformed and Anglican churches did not begin to introduce hymns into worship until the eighteenth century when the hymnody of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley became popular. But, in Reformed worship, congregational song consisted exclusively of psalm singing, again because of the Regulative Principle.
The introduction of hymnody was not the only or the first change that moved Reformed worship away from sixteenth-century patterns. An important development, especially for the English-speaking side of the tradition (called Presbyterian as opposed to the Reformed nomenclature used on the Continent), was the debate in seventeenth-century England between Puritans and the Anglican establishment. Over the course of these debates, the Calvinistic wing of the Church of England with the leanings toward Congregationalism became critical of liturgies and read prayers. For some, like John Owen, the issue was whether the state (which oversaw the church) had the prerogative to impose what ministers should say and do during worship. Others worried that ministers would grow dependent on the prescribed forms and prayers and so become less effective in their ministries. The cumulative effect was to cultivate distrust of liturgy and prayer books. In the case of Congregationalists, this shift led to the rise of so-called “free worship,” that is, an order of service more spontaneous and less bound by a liturgy devised for all congregations in a denomination. In the case of Presbyterians, who relied upon the achievements of the Westminster Assembly, the result was a directory for worship, which, as the example of the Westminster Divines indicates, was a book with advice about how to conduct worship but without specific order, prayers, and forms. Consequently, unlike the German and Dutch Reformed churches that continued in some fashion to use liturgies from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Presbyterians had greater freedom to devise their own manner of worship because the directory was not prescriptive.
The other significant change in Reformed worship since the sixteenth century was the rise of hymn-singing. Whatever the merits and defects of exclusive psalmody, the advent of hymns did introduce a new emphasis upon the worshiper’s experience. What is seldom remembered about the classic hymns of Watts and Wesley is that the advocates of revivals were the greatest proponents of hymnody. The reason often stemmed from a desire to avoid any restriction, including the prevailing order for worship, upon the free movement of the Spirit. As such, ministers seeking a more powerful display of the Spirit regarded hymns as accomplishing what psalm-singing (as well as formal and somber patterns of worship) could not. With the advent of hymnody in Reformed churches, especially among American Presbyterians for whom the First Great Awakening was a watershed, the criteria for meaningful worship began to turn toward the subjective experience of worship and away from the objective content of the Word, sacraments, and prayer.
The separation of church and state, prompted by the revolutions of the eighteenth century in Europe and North America, was another significant development for Reformed worship. As worthwhile as the church’s freedom has been to oversee its own affairs, rather than depending upon the political calculations of the monarch or magistrate, such liberty has also been the occasion for ever greater diversity in worship even within the same denomination. A state church could require and enforce a certain pattern of worship, thus yielding consistency across the congregations. But without the sanction of the state, Reformed churches have been reticent to require uniformity of worship. The result today is that a Presbyterian or Reformed Christian does not know what manner of service he will find when he enters a church in his theological tradition. As much as such diversity may add spice to ecclesiastical life, it also prevents the likes of an Evelyn Underhill to be able to claim that Calvinists are known for their particular way of worshiping God. Consequently, today’s churches need to examine their worship heritage to learn the genius of Reformed worship and find means for restoring consistency to Reformed ministry.