Worshipping with Calvin (Review)

Published: RTR 74, no. 2, 2015

Worshipping with Calvin: Recovering the Historic Ministry and Worship of Reformed Protestantism

By Terry L. Johnson.

For those who think that ‘Reformed’ is only a theological system, and who are not abreast of the movement to recapture the Reformed worship tradition, this book is a must-read. ‘With Calvin’, in the title, is misleading, and potentially off-putting, and ‘Reformed worship’ could be misunderstood. Relying on the seminal work of Hughes Oliphant Old, biblical and historical data is marshalled to demonstrate that there is an Apostolic-Patristic-Reformed approach to worship. This historic and catholic (now Reformed-catholic) tradition has dominated in Church history, apart from two major deviations. High-church formalism dominated in the Middle Ages, centred on the sacrifice of the mass. More recently, there have been low-church developments, driven by an entertainment culture (which developments, this reviewer would add, have their roots in 19th century emotionalist revivalism, an evangelical romanticism paralleling the emergence of theological liberalism, both driven by the desire to make headway in an enlightenment culture). Lifting the cup in the supper would seem to be a matter indifferent in itself, but it was rejected by the Reformers, since it flowed from abusive theology. So it is that centralised instruments, lighting, stages, singers, handheld microphones, etc, are not always adiaphora, but the fruit of the poisoned tree (p. 77; not Johnson’s metaphor). Johnson argues for catholicity over culturally-driven and culturally-specific worship (p. 275), noting that ‘catholicity’ is a concept barely considered by today’s evangelicals.

Without covering the wealth of information in the book, one highlight is the way Johnson establishes that catholic worship is Word-based in every element: the lectio continua and expository preaching; prayers built upon and infused with Scripture; songs infused with Scripture, predominantly the Psalms; sacraments in the context of the Word.

As to the weaknesses of the book, first, those who have been taught that electronic keyboards are the salvation of the Church should not to be put off by chapter 1. Johnson initially expresses a level of frustration with the current state of the Church, that will only be appreciated after the book has been digested. Secondly, the book is written in an American context. The all-of-life perspective, familiar in Australia, is only briefly countered, by reference to Kuyper. Still, the raw data of a historic, catholic tradition speaks for itself, and confounds localised aberrations. Thirdly, the attention given to musical style within the catholic tradition is limited and therefore vulnerable to criticism, although there is a studious critique of African-American worship music. Fourthly, Johnson gives little detail on how to implement reform. He promises this will come in a second volume. This is eagerly anticipated, especially since Johnson calls this not only the ‘worship’ of the Church, but the Church’s ‘ministry’. This could be a paradigm-shifting concept.

This is a book that calls for change—not quite as shocking or courageous as the destruction of organs at the Reformation, but still a shift away from entertainment culture, from artistic licence in song lyrics, from worship with no historical connectedness, and from worship being just our worship in our hermetic, 21st century subculture. It calls for biblically infused worship, worship that leads culture rather than follows it, and worship in which Paul, Augustine and Calvin could all appreciatively participate. This might involve painful, psychical reorientation for an evangelicalism more accustomed to seeking societal acceptance, and the easier path will be for historic worship to be dismissed as pre-modern irrelevancy. The challenge is whether we want to be ourselves, or be the Church—culture or catholicity.