Reformed Baptist Fellowship

Calvin and the Worship of God

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on February 12, 2010 at 3:16 am

by W. Robert Godfrey, Ph.D.

Previously Published in The Worship of God, Christian Focus Publications, 2005

John Calvin is a hero for Reformed people. He is a hero because he was such a profound teacher of biblical Christianity. His systematic theology and his biblical commentaries remain models of brilliant scholarship and sensitive faith. While not necessarily agreeing with Calvin at every point and certainly not regarding him as an absolute authority, Reformed people continue to follow basically the theological map charted by Calvin.

Ironically, however, many Reformed people today do not follow Calvin’s view of worship. Many are not even acquainted with his views. If Calvin is as biblical and theologically profound as many Reformed people believe him to be, perhaps his approach to worship needs to be reconsidered.

Importance of Worship
The first surprise for students of Calvin is likely to be the great importance that he attached to worship. In 1543 he wrote a treatise entitled “On the Necessity of Reforming the Church.” The work was written as an explanation and defense of the Reformation to be presented to the Emperor Charles V. Near the beginning Calvin wrote:

If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence amongst us, and maintains its truth, it will be found that the following two not only occupy the principal place, but comprehend under them all the other parts, and consequently the whole substance of Christianity, viz., a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained. (1)

Remarkably Calvin put worship ahead of salvation in his list of the two most important elements of biblical Christianity.

This prominence given to worship by Calvin is repeated often. In the Institutes Calvin noted that the first four commandments of the Ten Commandments relate to worship. He concluded: “Surely the first foundation of righteousness is the worship of God.” (2)In his celebrated defense of the Reformation, “Reply to Sadoleto,” Calvin noted that “…there is nothing more perilous to our salvation than a preposterous and perverse worship of God.” (3)

Why is worship so important? For Calvin worship was the key meeting place of God and his people: “…let us know and be fully persuaded, that wherever the faithful, who worship him purely and in due form, according to the appointment of his word, are assembled together to engage in the solemn acts of religious worship, he is graciously present, and presides in the midst of them.” (4) The restoration of the fellowship between God and his people is expressed most fully in worship. As that fellowship was broken by sin and rebellion, so its restoration must be expressed in obedience to God. “Only when we follow what God has commanded us do we truly worship Him, and render obedience to His Word.” (5)

Calvin’s approach to worship later came to be called the regulative principle. This principle holds that the Scriptures must so regulate public worship that only what is explicitly commanded in the Bible may be an element of worship. (6) Calvin was eloquent on the theme:

I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honour of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, ‘Obedience is better than sacrifice.’ ‘In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men,’ (1 Sam. xv. 22; Matth. xv. 9.) Every addition to His word, especially in this matter, is a lie. Mere ‘will worship’ [Col. ii. 23]…is vanity. This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate. (7)

Calvin knew the human tendency to think that sincerity and fervor can substitute for truth and faithfulness, but he rejected any such notion absolutely.

Calvin based his great caution about worship in the Fall. One of the most profound effects of the Fall for Calvin was that men have become idolaters. (8) The seed of religion left in them does not lead them to the true God, but leads them to fashion gods of their own design. (9) “Experience teaches us how fertile is the field of falsehood in the human mind, and that the smallest of grains, when sown there, will grow to yield an immense harvest.” (10) Even among Christians the temptation to idolatry remains strong. “The mind of man, I say, is like a work place of idolatrie” (11) and “…every one of us is, even from his mother’s womb, a master craftsman of idols.” (12)

The temptation to idolatry requires that Christians be very careful and vigilant in regulating their worship by the Scriptures. Calvin reminded Christians that “…too much diligence and care cannot be taken to cleanse ourselves wholly from all sorts of pollutions; for as long as any relics of superstition continue among us, they will ever entangle us…” (13)

Calvin’s great caution and concern on matters of worship reflected his belief that Christians too often want to please themselves in worship rather than please God. “Nor can it be doubted but that, under the pretense of holy zeal, superstitious men give way to the indulgences of the flesh; and Satan baits his fictitious modes of worship with such attractions, that they are willingly and eagerly caught hold of and obstinately retained.” (14) Calvin sharply warned of the great difference between the attitudes of God and man toward worship: “This single consideration, when the inquiry relates to the worship of God, ought to be sufficient for restraining the insolence of our mind, that God is so far from being like us, that those things which please us most are for him loathsome and nauseating.” (15) He related this warning particularly to the human tendency to want worship which is pleasing to the senses when he wrote: “And undoubtedly this is the origin of all superstitions, that men are delighted with their own inventions, and choose to be wise in their own eyes rather than restrain their senses in obedience to God.” (16) His conclusion on various activities and ceremonies in worship is striking: “the more it delights human nature, the more it is to be suspected by believers.” (17) These matters are so serious for Calvin because “nothing is more abominable in the sight of God than pretended worship, which proceeds from human contrivance.” (18)

For Calvin worship was not a means to an end. Worship was not a means to evangelize or entertain. Worship was an end in itself. Worship was not to be arranged by pragmatic considerations, but was rather to be determined by theological principles derived from the Scriptures. The most basic realities of the Christian life were involved. In worship God meets with his people to bless them. What could be more important? What should require more care and faithfulness?

The Practice of Worship
The importance Calvin placed on worship is reflected in his active involvement in reforming worship. He not only had a theology of worship, but also a keen pastoral involvement in worship. He frequently led worship as pastor and preacher. He prepared service books or liturgies that his churches in Strassburg and Geneva followed. He eagerly promoted the preparation of the Genevan Psalter that ultimately included all of the Psalms in metrical form to be sung by the congregation.

Calvin was concerned about the environment of worship. He “purified” the cathedral church of Geneva, St. Pierre’s, where he preached. All religious symbols including crosses were removed from the interior of the church. The exterior cross on the top of St. Pierre’s was not removed, but when it was destroyed by lightning, it was not replaced.

As he worked on the reform of worship, several important influences played a role in the formation of his thought. The Bible was of course the most important. Calvin always sought to test his ideas against the standard of the Bible. But Calvin was no rugged individualist. He sought the wisdom and insight of other Christians into the Bible’s teaching on worship. He carefully studied the ancient fathers of the church for their insights as is clear in this statement to the Roman Catholic bishop Jacopo Sadoleto:

I will not press you so closely as to call you back to that form which the Apostles instituted (though in it we have the only model of a true church, and whosoever deviates from it in the smallest degree is in error), but to indulge you so far, place, I pray, before your eyes, that ancient form of the Church, such as their writings prove it to have been in the age of Chrysostom and Basil, among the Greeks, and of Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustine, among the Latins; after so doing, contemplate the ruins of that Church, as now surviving among yourselves. (19)

Calvin’s genuine concern to follow the wisdom of the fathers can be further seen in his title for the Genevan service book, “The Form of Prayers and Manner of Ministering the Sacraments according to the Use of the Ancient Church.” Also in his “Preface” to the Genevan Psalter (1545) Calvin acknowledged especially the influence of Augustine and Chrysostom.

Of Calvin’s contemporaries clearly the most influential on worship was Martin Bucer of Strassburg. Calvin spent his years of exile from Geneva (1538–1541) in Strassburg, and Calvin closely followed Bucer’s approach to the liturgy.

Calvin’s Sunday morning liturgy in Geneva was very similar to Bucer’s. The basic order was as follows:


Call to worship: Psalm 124:8
Confession of sins
Prayer for pardon
Singing of a Psalm
Prayer for illumination
Scripture reading


Collection of offerings
Prayers of intercession and
a long paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer
Singing of Apostles’ Creed
(while elements of the Lord’s Supper are prepared)
Words of Institution
Instruction and Exhortation
Communion (while a Psalm is sung or Scripture read)
Prayer of thanksgiving
Benediction (Numbers 6:24 26)

This pattern is the one regularly used by Calvin on Sunday mornings except that communion was not administered weekly. Calvin desired a weekly communion, but could never get permission from the city government to do so. On the matter of the frequency of communion Calvin wrote as late as 1561: “I have taken care to record publicly that our custom is defective, so that those who come after me may be able to correct it more freely and easily.” (21)

While Calvin was quite content to use form prayers and liturgies in the Sunday morning service, he also recognized a legitimate role for freedom from specific forms in worship. Before presenting the ordinary Sunday service Calvin’s “Form of Prayers” stated: “On ordinary Meetings the Minister leads the devotions of the people in whatever words seem to him suitable, adapting his address to the time and the subject of the Discourse which he is to deliver, but the following Form is generally used on the Morning of the Lord’s Day.” (22)

Basic Principles of Worship
Calvin nowhere neatly listed his basic principles of worship. But a study of Calvin’s writings and work points to several principles that flow from and reflect his theology.

The first principle is, of course, the centrality of the Word of God. The Word not only directs worship, but is also very largely the content of worship. The Word is read and preached, and the Word is also sung and seen (in communion). The worshiper meets God through the Word.

Criticism of Calvin’s approach to worship often focuses on his stress upon the Bible. One such criticism is that Calvin is biblicistic in his approach to worship. Such a criticism declares that there is no Book of Leviticus in the New Testament and so the church has great freedom to worship as it sees best. Calvin’s response would be that the absence of a Levitical book in the New Testament reflects more the simplicity of the church’s worship in Christ than creative freedom. For Calvin the teaching of the New Testament is full and complete as a guide and warrant for the simple worship of the children of God in the Spirit. No more freedom is given in the New Testament to invent forms of worship than was given in the Old.

Calvin certainly recognized that incidental matters of worship are not specified in the Bible. In such areas the church has freedom under the general guidelines of the Word to reach specific decisions that will be edifying for the church. (23) For example the Bible does not specify when on Sunday the church should gather for worship. But some time must be chosen and that choice should be based on what will best facilitate gathering for worship. Such decisions can be changed when necessary and can never be viewed as binding the conscience as if they were necessary for salvation. (24)

Another criticism of Calvin’s stress on the Word is that Calvin’s worship becomes too intellectual or didactic because of an excessive concentration on the Bible. Calvin’s defenders would respond that the Bible itself points to the importance of preaching and teaching, which is especially vital when knowledge of sound doctrine is at a low ebb. But defenders would also insist that his worship service is not solely or overwhelmingly intellectual. Congregational praise and prayer are key element” and in Calvin’s ideal service communion weekly draws the worshiper back to the heart of the gospel. The Lord’s Supper for Calvin was a rich experience. Calvin could write: “Now, if anyone should ask me how this [Christ lifting believers up in the Supper to heaven to commune with him] takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare. And, to speak more plainly, I rather experience than understand it.” (25)

A second basic principle for Calvin was simplicity. The maturity of the children of God in the new covenant meant that Christians were not dependent on the childish props of the old covenant. In Christ the Christian is already seated with Christ in the heavenlies and the need of visible supports for faith is greatly diminished:

What shall I say of ceremonies which, with Christ half buried, cause us to return to Jewish symbols? ‘Our Lord Christ,’ says Augustine, ‘has bound the fellowship of the new people together with sacraments, very few in number, very excellent in meaning, very easy to observe.’ How far from this simplicity is the multitude and variety of rites, with which we see the church entangled today, cannot be fully told.(26)

Simplicity did not mean the absence of liturgical structure. Calvin’s service with its movement from confession to praise to preaching to intercessions to communion shows that. Simplicity meant the removal of physical symbolism and ceremonies that were not instituted in the Bible. Simplicity is closely linked to spirituality. In the simplicity of the Spirit’s power, Christ is present among his people in the preaching and sacrament. Nothing may be added to that divine arrangement.

Simplicity rather than the “showy” serves the pure worship of the church: “For Paul is urging the Corinthians to value or strive after, above all, those gifts which are the most effective for upbuilding. For the fault of caring more for ostentation rather than beneficial things was rife among them.” (27) The eye of faith rather than the eye of the flesh is to be active in worship.

Closely related to simplicity is a third basic principle: worship is spiritual ascent. For Calvin Christians ascend into heaven while worshipping. Worship draws the Christian into heaven in communion with the ascended Christ. This ascent in worship is mysterious even for Calvin but a foundational current in his thought. (28)

The idea of ascent is part of the pattern of Christian experience flowing from Christ’s saving work. Christ descended in his incarnation to lift us to heaven.

Now, that the Mosaic ceremonies are abolished we worship at the footstool of God, when we yield a reverential submission to his word, and rise from the sacraments to a true spiritual service of him. Knowing that God has not descended from heaven directly or in his absolute character, but that his feet are withdrawn from us, being placed on a footstool, we should be careful to rise to him by the intermediate steps. Christ is he not only on whom the feet of God rest, but in whom the whole fullness of God’s essence and glory resides, and in him therefore, we should seek the Father. With this view he descended, that we might rise heavenward. (29)

Christ continues to help us heavenward as his Spirit descends to empower the Word and sacraments of the church. “It is thus that the Holy Spirit condescends for our profit, and in accommodation to our infirmity, raising our thought to heavenly and divine things by these worldly elements.” (30) The worshipper needs these means or “ladders” that God provides to help with that ascent:

He does not enjoin us to ascend forthwith into heaven, but, consulting our weakness, he descends to us …This…may well suffice to put to shame the arrogance of those who without concern can bear to be deprived of those means, or rather, who proudly despise them, as if it were in their power to ascend to heaven in a moment’s flight…We must not, however, imagine that the prophet suffered himself to rest in earthly elements, but only that he made use of them as a ladder, by which he might ascend to God, finding that he had not wings with which to fly thither. (31)

A visually elaborate context would interfere with our spiritual ascent binding our minds too much to earth. “Such is the weakness of our minds that we rise with difficulty to the contemplation of his glory in the heavens.” (32) False worship especially idolatrous worship panders to human weakness and tries to force God to descend to earth when his will is for the Christian to ascend to heaven:

The reason why God holds images so much in abhorrence appears very plainly from this, that he cannot endure that the worship due to himself should be taken from him and given to them. …when men attempt to attach God to their inventions, and to make him, as it were, descend from heaven, then a pure fiction is substituted in his place….Averse to seek God in a spiritual manner, they therefore pull him down from his throne, and place him under inanimate things. (33)

Christians are called to worship the heavenly God in heaven, God’s true temple.

A fourth basic principle for Calvin was reverence. Reverence is indeed a basic element of Christianity for him:

Here indeed is pure and real religion: faith so joined with an earnest fear of God that this fear also embraces willing reverence, and carries with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed in the law. And we ought to note this fact even more diligently: all men have a vague general veneration of God, but very few really reverence him; and wherever there is great ostentation in ceremonies, sincerity of heart is rare indeed. (34)

The worship of God must express a decorum and dignity appropriate to the meeting of God with his children: “…we have been adopted for this reason: to reverence him as our Father.” (35)

In the contemporary church Calvin’s concern for reverence has undergone sharp criticism. Critics insist that Calvin’s worship had too little emotion and particularly too little joy. Calvin was not opposed to emotion and believed that a full range of emotion not just joy! should be expressed in Christian life and worship:

For the principle which the Stoics assume, that all the passions are perturbations and like diseases, is false, and has its origin in ignorance; for either to grieve, or to fear, or to rejoice, or to hope, is by no means repugnant to reason, nor does it interfere with tranquillity and moderation of mind; it is only excess or intemperance which corrupts what would else be pure. And surely grief, anger, desire, hope, fear, are affections of our unfallen (integrae) nature, implanted in us by God, and such as we may not find fault with, without insulting God himself. (36)

But Calvin did insist that emotion must be moderate. Self-control is a key fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Moderation is proper even in expressing joy. The Psalmist declares, “Worship the Lord with reverence, and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11). Calvin wrote:

To prevent them from supposing that the service to which he calls them is grievous, he teaches them by the word rejoice how pleasant and desirable it is, since it furnishes matter of true gladness. But lest they should, according to their usual way, wax wanton, and, intoxicated with vain pleasures, imagine themselves happy while they are enemies to God, he exhorts them farther by the words with fear to an humble and dutiful submission. There is a great difference between the pleasant and cheerful state of a peaceful conscience, which the faithful enjoy in having the favour of God, whom they fear, and the unbridled insolence to which the wicked are carried, by contempt and forgetfulness of God. The language of the prophet, therefore, implies, that so long as the proud profligately rejoice in the gratification of the lusts of the flesh, they sport with their own destruction, while, on the contrary, the only true and salutary joy is that which arises from resting in the fear and reverence of God.(37)

He made a similar comment on the biblical text, “…let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:29): “…although readiness and joy are demanded in our service, at the same time no worship is pleasing to Him that is not allied to humility and due reverence.” (38)

Part of the reverence of Reformed worship is found in the role of the minister. He speaks for God to the people and for the people to God. Some criticize this practice as limiting the participation of the people in worship. Calvin’s response would be twofold. First, such a criticism misses the importance of the ministry in Christ’s church: “For neither the light and heat of the sun, nor food and drink, are so necessary to nourish and sustain the present life as the apostolic and pastoral office is necessary to preserve the church on earth.” (39) The ministers as they preach faithfully speak for God: “…he [God] proves our obedience by a very good test when we hear his ministers speaking just as if he himself spoke.” (40) Second, Calvin would argue that the congregation does participate actively in worship. They must listen actively in faith to the preaching of the Word. They must join in the sung praise of God. They must pray with the minister lifting their hearts and minds to God. Such activities are the reverent participation to which God calls his people.

Music for Worship
Calvin’s position on music is one application of his theology of worship. Calvin’s view of music focuses most sharply the differences between Calvin and many contemporary evangelicals, even those who would call themselves Reformed. Music was important to Calvin. He wrote of music: “…we find by experience that it has a sacred and almost incredible power to move hearts in one way or another. Therefore we ought to be even more diligent in regulating it in such a way that it shall be useful to us and in no way pernicious.” (41)

Calvin greatly simplified the use of music in worship in comparison with the musical developments of the late medieval period. Calvin eliminated choirs and musical instruments from public worship. The only music in worship was congregational singing unaccompanied by musical instruments. The simplicity of singing and the unity of the congregation was best preserved, Calvin believed, by singing in unison.

Singing was a basic element of worship for Calvin because he saw singing as a particularly heartfelt way to pray: “As for public prayers, there are two kinds. The ones with the word alone: the others with singing.” (42)

Calvin believed that the Psalms were the best songs for the Christian community to sing:

Moreover, that which St. Augustine has said is true, that no one is able to sing things worthy of God except that which he has received from him. Therefore, when we have looked thoroughly, and searched here and there, we shall not find better songs nor more fitting for the purpose, than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit spoke and made through him. And moreover, when we sing them, we are certain that God puts in our mouths these, as if he himself were singing in us to exalt his glory. (43)

Calvin elaborated on his strong feelings about the value of the Psalms to the Christian community in the preface to his Psalms commentary:

I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, ‘An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror…in short, there is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising God, or in which we are more powerfully stirred up to the performance of this religious exercise. (44)

Calvin’s approach to music may well seem strange and idiosyncratic today. Calvin believed, however, that he was simply restoring the use of music sanctioned by the Bible and followed by the ancient church. From reading the fathers (especially Athanasius, Chrysostom and Augustine) Calvin learned that the ancient church sang exclusively (or almost exclusively) Psalms in unison without instrumental accompaniment. (45) He believed that he was purifying the church from recent musical innovations in the western church.

On the issue of musical instruments Calvin was convinced that the fathers rightly saw that the new covenant required abandoning instruments for public worship:

To sing the praises of God upon the harp and psaltery unquestionably formed a part of the training of the law, and of the service of God under that dispensation of shadows and figures; but they are not now to be used in public thanksgiving. We are not, indeed, forbidden to use, in private, musical instruments, but they are banished out of the churches by the plain command of the Holy Spirit, when Paul, in 1 Cor. xiv. 13, lays it down as an invariable rule, that we must praise God, and pray to him only in a known tongue. (46)

Calvin linked the movement of New Testament worship away from instruments to the greater simplicity of the new covenant: “…musical instruments were among the legal ceremonies which Christ at His coming abolished; and therefore we, under the Gospel, must maintain a greater simplicity.” (47) Calvin’s statements show that his criticism of instruments was primarily directed against any role for musical instruments independent of accompanying congregational singing, but in practice he did eliminate instruments completely from worship.

Calvin argued that the instruments were instituted for the Jews to wean them gradually from the dissolute ways of the world: “…that he might lead men away from those vain and corrupt pleasures to which they are excessively addicted, to a holy and profitable joy.” (48) But the maturity of the church after the appearance of Jesus made such “puerile instruction’ unnecessary and detrimental to spirituality.

But when they [believers] frequent their sacred assemblies, musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting up of lamps, and the restoration of the other shadows of the law. The Papists, therefore, have foolishly borrowed this, as well as many other things, from the Jews….but we should always take care that no corruption creep in which might both defile the pure worship of God and involve men in superstition.(49)

Calvin’s concern for proper worship extended also to the tunes to be used for the Psalms. He carefully supervised the preparation of the Genevan Psalter over the years to insure the composition of appropriate music and in the providence of God was blessed with composers of extraordinary talent like Louis Bourgeois. Calvin expressed his basic position on tunes in these words: “Touching the melody, it has seemed best that it be moderated in the manner we have adopted to carry the weight and majesty appropriate to the subject, and even to be proper for singing in the Church….” (50) The music for the songs of the church must be reverent in relation to God and singable for the congregation.

Calvin’s critics suggest that his approach to music is dominated by the very cautious attitudes of Plato toward music. Certainly Plato, both directly and mediated through the fathers, was a great influence on Calvin. Calvin did refer to Plato’s attitude toward music quite favorably both in the “Preface” to the Genevan Psalter and elsewhere: “…we all know from experience how great a power music has for moving men’s feelings, so that Plato teaches, quite rightly, that in one way or another music is of the greatest value in shaping the moral tone of the state.” (51) The real issue is not the influence of Plato, but whether Calvin’s use of Plato enables him to see the implications of biblical teaching more clearly or not. Calvin clearly felt it did. The power inherent in music meant that it had to be handled carefully:

And in truth we know by experience that singing has great force and vigour to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal. Care must always be taken that the song be neither light nor frivolous; but that it have weight and majesty (as St. Augustine says), and also, there is a great difference between music which one makes to entertain men at table and in their houses, and the Psalms which are sung in the Church in the presence of God and his angels. (52)

Indeed the tunes of the Genevan Psalter show a remarkable range of emotion carefully reflecting the emotions of the Psalms for which they were composed. (53)

For Calvin true worship must wed inward sincerity to outward faithfulness to God’s Word. Worship must be outwardly obedient to God’s inspired direction and also flow from the heart: “…it is not sufficient to utter the praises of God with our tongues, if they do not proceed from the heart…” (54) In true worship the believer exercises faith and repentance as he meets with God and grows in grace. (55) As Hughes Oliphant Old stated, “The outward form of worship and the inward adoration of the heart must remain firmly joined together.” (56)

Calvin’s labor to relate the inward and outward dimensions of worship properly flowed out of his theology as a whole. Reformed Christianity for him was an integrated whole. His doctrine of sin made him deeply suspicious of human instincts and human desires in the matter of worship. His doctrine of grace led him to expect God to be sovereign in directing worship. He would have insisted that those who think that they can preserve Reformed systematic theology while abandoning a Reformed theology of worship are wrong. (57) Rather he would suggest that where theology stresses the sovereign power and work of God, where the priority of his action and the regulative authority of his Word are recognized, there a form of worship very like Calvin’s own will emerge. The church today needs to listen anew to Calvin on worship so that its worship will not be man-centered, but God-centered and God-directed.

1 John Calvin, “On the Necessity of Reforming the Church,” Selected Works of John Calvin, ed. by Henry Beveridge, Grand Rapids, Michigan (Baker Book House), 1983, vol. 1, p. 126.[back to text]
2 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, edited by J.T. McNeill, Philadelphia (Westminster Press), 1960, II, viii, 11.[back to text]
3 John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto, A Reformation Debate, ed. by John C. Olin, New York (Harper and Row), 1966, p. 59.[back to text]
4 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Grand Rapids, Michigan (Baker Book House), 1979, vol. 1, p. 122.[back to text]
5 John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians, ed. D.W. Torrance et al., Grand Rapids, Michigan (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), 1973, p. 118 (on Romans 5:19).[back to text]
6 Attempts have been made at times to argue that the regulative principle is a Puritan invention foreign to the thought of Calvin. Such a division cannot be maintained. It is true that Calvin’s application of the principle was not always in harmony with some Puritan applications, but Puritans differed among themselves on the application of the principle. This crucial distinction between principle and application is missed in Ralph J. Gore, Jr., “The Pursuit of Plainness: Rethinking the Puritan Regulative Principle of Worship,” Ph.D. dissertation, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1988, and therefore the relationship between Calvin and the Puritans on this point is fundamentally misunderstood.[back to text]
7 Calvin, “On the Necessity…,” Selected Works, vol. 1, p. 128f.[back to text]
8 See the excellent discussion of Carlos M.N. Eire, War Against the Idols. The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin, Cambridge (Cambridge University Press), 1986, pp. 195-233.[back to text]
9 Ibid., p. 209.[back to text]
10 Ibid., p. 223 (citing Calvin, Corpus Reformatorum, 13.85.)[back to text]
11 Cited by T. Brienen, De Lituraie bij Johannes Calviin, Kampen (De Groot Goudriaan), 1987, p. 145 (from a sermon by Calvin on Deuteronomy 11.)[back to text]
12 Eire, op. cit., p. 208 (citing Calvin’s Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, CR, 48.562.)[back to text]
13 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, Grand Rapids, Michigan (Baker Book House), 1984, vol. 1, p. 108 (on Hosea 2:17).[back to text]
14 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses, Grand Rapids, Michigan (Baker Book House), 1984, vol. 3, p. 346.[back to text]
15 Eire, op. cit., p. 208 (citing Calvin’s Commentary on the Gospel of John, CR 47.90.)[back to text]
16 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Grand Rapids, Michigan (Baker Book House), 1979, vol. 4, p. 381.[back to text]
17 Calvin, Institutes, IV, x, 11.[back to text]
18 Calvin, Comm. on Isaiah, vol. 4, p. 385.[back to text]
19 Calvin, A Reformation Debate, p. 62.[back to text]
20 This listing basically follows William D. Maxwell, An Outline of Christian Worship, London (Oxford University Press), 1958, pp. 114f. For the similarities between Calvin and Bucer on the structure of the liturgy, see Maxwell, pp. 87ff.[back to text]
21 Cited in The Liturgy of the Church of Scotland, Part I. Calvin’s Liturgy, ed. by Stephen A. Hurlbut, Washington, D.C. (The St. Albans Press), 1944, p. 6 (from Calvini Opera, x, i, 213).[back to text]
22 Calvin, “Form of Prayers,” Selected Works, vol. 2, p. 100.[back to text]
23 Calvin makes this point clearly in Institutes IV, x, 30: “Let us take, for example, kneeling when solemn prayers are being said. The question is whether it is a human tradition, which any man may lawfully repudiate or neglect. I say that it is human, as it is also divine. It is of God in so far as it is a part of that decorum whose care and observance the apostle has commended to UB. But it is of men in so far as it specifically designates what had in general been suggested rather than explicitly stated….I mean that the Lord has in his sacred oracles faithfully embraced and clearly expressed both the whole sum of true righteousness, and all aspects of the worship of his majesty, and whatever was necessary to salvation; therefore, in these the Master alone is to be heard. But because he did not will in outward discipline and ceremonies to prescribe in detail what we ought to do (because he foresaw that this depended upon the state of the times, and he did not deem one form suitable for all ages), here we must take refuge in those general rules which he has given, that whatever the necessity of the church will require for order and decorum should be tested against these …Indeed, I admit that we ought not to charge into innovation rashly, suddenly, for insufficient cause. But love will best Judge what may hurt or edify; and if we let love be our guide, all will be safe.” The Westminster Confession of Faith makes basically the same point in its distinction between elements of worship which must be warranted by Scripture and the circumstances of worship about which the church has a measure of freedom (see chapters I,6; XX,2; XXI,1[back to text]
24 Calvin, Institutes IV, x, 27: “We see that some form of organization is necessary in all human society to foster the common peace and maintain concord. We further see that in human transactions some procedure is always in effect, which is to be respected in the interest of public decency, and even of humanity itself….But in these observances one thing must be guardedagainst. They are not to be considered necessary for salvation and thus bind consciences byscruples; nor are they to be associated with the worship of God, and piety thus be lodged in them.”[back to text]
25 Ibid., IV, xvii t 32[back to text]
26 Ibid., IV, x, 14[back to text]
27 John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries. The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, Grand Rapids, Michigan (Mm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), 1973, p. 272 (on I Cor. 12:31).[back to text]
28 Calvin uses the idea of the believer’s ascent into heaven in his theology of the Lord’s Supper. He teaches that the believer communes with body and blood of the ascended Lord in heaven and, as noted above (p. 12) acknowledges that this communion in heaven is a mystery.[back to text]
29 Calvin, Comm. on Psalms, vol. 5, p. 150.[back to text]
30 Ibid.[back to text]
31 Ibid., vol. 2, pp. 129f.[back to text]
32 Ibid., vol. 4, p. 52.[back to text]
33 Ibid., vol. 4, pp. 350f.[back to text]
34 Calvin, Institutes, I, ii, 2.[back to text]
35 Ibid., III, xvii, 6.[back to text]
36 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses, Grand Rapids, Michigan (Baker Book House), 1979, vol. III, p. 346 (on Exodus 32:19).[back to text]
37 Calvin, Comm. on Psalms, vol. 1, pp. 23f[back to text]
38 John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries. The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews…Grand Rapids, Michigan (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), 1963, p. 203.[back to text]
39 Calvin, Institutes, IV, iii, 2[back to text]
40 Ibid., IV, i, 5[back to text]
41 John Calvin, “Preface” to the Genevan Psalter (1545), p. 3. This and subsequent quotations is from an English translation (from the Calvini Opera, vol. 6, pp. 172ff) by Charles Garside, Jr. as part of an unpublished bachelor’s thesis at Princeton University.[back to text]
42 Ibid., p. 2.[back to text]
43 Ibid., p. 4.[back to text]
44 Calvin, Comm. on Psalms, vol. 1, pp. xxxvi‑xxxix.[back to text]
45 For the accuracy of Calvin’s understanding of the ancient church, see Johannes Quasten,Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity, Washington, D.C. (National Association of Pastoral Musicians), 1983. The Eastern Orthodox churches to this day do not use musical instruments in their churches.[back to text]
46 Calvin, Comm. on Psalms, vol. 3, p. 98. See also, vol. 1, p. 539.[back to text]
47 Calvin, Comm. on the Four Last Books of Moses, vol. 1, p. 263. See also Comm. on Psalms,vol. 3, p. 312.[back to text]
48 ) Calvin, Comm. on Psalms, vol. 5, p. 320.[back to text]
49 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 539.[back to text]
50 Calvin, “Preface” to Genevan Psalter, p. 4. See a detailed look at this and related matters in Charles Garside, Jr., The Origins of Calvin’s Theology of Music: 1536‑1543 Philadelphia (The American Philosophical Society), 1979[back to text]
51 Calvin, Comm. on 1 Corinthians, p. 289. [back to text]
52 Calvin, “Preface” to Genevan Psalter, p. 3.[back to text]
53 The tunes of the Genevan Psalter with English versifications of the Psalms are available inBook of PraiseAnglo‑Genevan Psalter, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada (Premier Printing, Ltd.), 1987. For a good discussion of the development of the Genevan Psalter, see Pierre Pidoux, “The History of the Origin of the Genevan Psalter,” Reformed Music Journal, I (1989), pp. 4‑6, 32‑35, 64‑68.[back to text]
54 Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 1, p. 126. Later in the same volume, p. 380, Calvin wrote, “It were, indeed, an object much to be desired, that men of all conditions in the world would, with one accord, join in holy melody to the Lord. But as the chief and most essential part of this harmony proceeds from a sincere and pure affection of heart, none will ever, in a right manner, celebrate the glory of God except the man who worships him under the influence of holy fear.”[back to text]
55 Calvin, “On the Necessity…,” Selected Works, vol. 1, pp. 153f: “It is easy to use the words faith and repentance, but the things are most difficult to perform. He, therefore, who makes the worship of God consist in these, by no means loosens the reins of discipline, but compels men to the course which they are most afraid to take.”[back to text]
56 Hughes Oliphant Old, “John Calvin and the Prophetic Criticism of Worship,. in John Calvin and the Church, ed. by Timothy George, Louisville, Kentucky (Westminster Press), 1990, p. 237.[back to text]
57 Ibid., pp. 234f: Old notes “…a completely different concern in liturgical reform on the part of Calvin from the more popular concerns of our day. Calvin’s theology of worship is consistent with his strong doctrine of grace. In the ministry of the Word, prayer, and sacraments, God himself reaches out to his people in redeeming and sanctifying power.”[back to text]

© 2007 Westminster Seminary California All rights reserved

PERMISSIONS: You are permitted to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do NOT alter the wording in any way and you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction.  For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred.  Any distributed copy must contain the following statement:  By [author’s full name] © [date] Westminster Seminary California. Website:  E-mail:  Phone:  888/480.8474For Evangelium articles, the reproduced copy must contain: “First published in Evangelium, Vol. __, Issue __ (date).”

  1. What a challenging post this is among reformed baptists, or sovereign grace baptists who rightly point out that “God is either sovereign in salvation or he is not”, and even “sovereign over his worship” as well, while yet making use of musical instruments and avoiding psalm singing (both of which Spurgeon showed us a fine example for simplicity and purity), which is a common mark in todays doctrinally Calvinistic Baptist churches, and entirely separates them from the practices and teachings of both the Puritans as well as Baptists like Spurgeon and John Gill. The plea of “non-essentials” does not excuse willful ignorance or rebellious avoidance of scriptural demands as if we were merely eating or drinking the foods of the heathen.

    The silence on this subject (for apparently it is too strict a principle, although entirely justified above) is absolutely deafening! Is God sovereign over his worship or not? By what argument then is the plea for exception on applying this too? Is it too much to ask for the leading contributors of this blog, who are influential in Reformed Baptist seminaries, to respond to this forthright article that ought to challenge the worship practices of every reformed baptist church, especially their own? Is applying the 2nd commandment delineated in the Baptist catechism (regulative principle in worship), only limited to the removal of choirs and modern contemporary will-worship, or are the RB churches not filled with will-worship too, particularly in the Judaizing practice of musical instruments (the “shadows” of the Old Covenant of the Jews strictly, before the gospel revealed in Christ Jesus)? Since when is “Judaizing” a light thing?

    This post and message deserves a response–either Calvin’s arguments from scripture are true or they are not, but let us not be dishonest by pretending to acknowledge the place of “reformed worship” (as the Puritans of Westminister plainly delineated enough, and the 1689 Confession of Baptists appears to parallel), while making use of these Romish, Judaizing, and innovative practices, and claiming to be “reformed in worship”.

    The truth appears to be plain, that leading Reformed Baptist churches want to avoid, and do not want to deal or apply the Scripture on this subject, and are therefore only partially reformed, and entirely self-satisfied, unscripturally.

    Some have written about “worship wars”, as if to suggest that applying the scripture is a contentious and “secondary matter”, and therefore sinful, instead of scripturally consistent and obedient to God. Paul contended with the churches over will-worship and other worship behavior, and even the biblical (creational, not cultural) requirement of women having their heads covered (not by their hair either, which would require nothing to be said then), while in worship, which Reformed Baptist are also afraid to obey and apply (because worldly conformity rules, along with the subtle feminism heresy of “equality”). Is the rule of scripture really the standard for today’s neo-orthodoxy? To continue to make use of the “forms and shadows” of the Old Covenant, is by implication a virtual denial of the “time of reformation” being fulfilled by Christ, and the “old (Covenant) fading away”, and the “new (Covenant) coming” (see Hebrews 8 and 9).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: