More on Worship and the RPW

I have some posts in response to the post earlier today on worship. Jamie asks,

…Do you believe in any kind of responsive reading of creeds or confessions? I was in a Free Church of Scotland all last year, and I know that their answer would be no. I suppose in some churches members may have to sign off on the confessions (this is not the case in the Free Church), but there may also be believers from other denominations present.

Hi Jamie,

Good to hear from you. Welcome back to the States.

This is a good and difficult question. The answer is yes and no. In our congregation we do use uninspired responsive readings and I don’t participate in those. Over the years I have come to the conviction that God’s people are to respond to his Word only with his Word. Thus, I don’t oppose responsive readings per se but I do oppose uninspired responsive readings or the congregational use of uninspired liturgical material. My explanation for this stems from the nature of the RPW and from the dialogical principle of Reformed worship. God speaks and the people respond. How are we to respond? Evidently, judging by Scripture and the practice of the earliest post-apostolic Christians, with God’s own Word. I discuss this at some length in the forthcoming volume, Recovering the Reformed Confession due out September, 2008.

In URC congregations there is general agreement that laity and officers both have to agree to the Reformed confessions, but even in American Presbyterian churches where such is not the case, elders still have to plan services according to the confession and WCF 21 is very clear about the RPW. The original understanding of the RPW is enshrined in the Directory for Public Worship which has us singing only God’s Word. The original Reformed were quite united on this point. The only real diversity was the occasional singing of the creed (Geneva) and the Synod of Dort which allowed, temporarily, one hymn that they almost certainly intended to omit. They had no idea that Synod would not meet again for so long!

So, the congregation may use biblical confessional materials and biblical songs so long as they are the Word of God and not paraphrases (which many of our “psalms” in our Psalter-Hymnal and in the Trinity Hymnal are).

Ministers, who are leading services, may use uninspired materials to exposit Scripture just as they give uninspired sermons, but the whole congregation does not have the office of minister (or teaching elder) and is not called to exposit Scripture in the stated service.

Jeff asks,

…Is there anything in particular regarding a conservative (i.e. LCMS) Lutheran liturgy to which you would object? Is it just the hymnody, or are there actual elements you feel are inappropriate? I am diametrically opposed to so-called contemporary services (for reasons both theological and aesthetic), but I also wonder how you would respond to the “psalms, hymns, spiritual songs” argument for hymnody.

Hi Jeff,

These are good questions. Yes, there is much in the Lutheran liturgy which I could not “do” as a worshiper. First, in my experience, the LCMS has a broad range of practices running from Anglo-Catholic veneration of the Bible to broad evangelical revivalism. Both extremes create grave difficulties for Reformed folk (and for confessional Lutheran people too!). We worship in a Wisconsin Synod congregation from time to time. We enjoy the preaching of the law and gospel and the great clarity on justification. I don’t sing the hymns and the like and, of course, we’re not permitted at the table.

The Lutherans and Anglicans operate on a rather different principle than we confess. They confess that they may do in worship whatever is not forbidden. Therefore they feel the liberty to ask worshipers to sing uninspired hymns and recite uninspired creeds.

As I understand Reformed worship there are three elements: Word, prayer, and sacrament. The minister administers Word and sacrament and prays for us, but we are also called to pray in response in word and song. Those responses should be canonical and not just pious. In other words, to use uninspired songs and responses is, in my view, to corrupt one of the elements of worship.

As to “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” I address this at length in the forthcoming volume. Let me answer by asking you what you assume when you ask the question? Do you assume that these are necessarily uninspired and if so, why do you assume that? Are such assumptions valid? There are good reasons for thinking otherwise.

Finally, you raise the question of preference. If we’re going to bring about a Reformation of Reformed worship we have to recover our principle of worship and its application. We have to operate on principle and not on preference. Thus, I have no problem with contemporary tunes for the Psalms or for the Song of Mary or the other biblical songs. The principle is that the songs we sing ought to canonical. Tunes, of course, ought to be approrpiate to congregational worship and ought to be as inclusive as possible since the congregation is neither 80 and white or 15 and African. We are white and black, young and old and thus we need tunes that are useful to all the congregation.

Thanks for the questions!

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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