Neither Traditional Nor Contemporary

Recovering the Reformed Confession-FeaturedJonathan Aigner has published an interesting piece at the Aquila Report sympathizing with those who lament the loss of what he describes as “traditional worship” and offering a way forward. He is exactly right that this is a deeply emotional issue about which it is difficult for both sides to hear criticisms. Aigner is right when he says, “It’s not enough to say ‘we like it.’ That doesn’t matter. The worst thing that ‘contemporary worship’ did was come on the scene, label itself as a viable choice, and then get away with labeling the liturgy as a choice…”. He’s right when he says, “The bottom line is this. We don’t keep tradition because it’s tradition, or because it’s old, or because it’s comfortable.” He’s right to remind us of the right reasons for keeping tradition and he’s right to encourage defenders of “traditional worship” to be reasonable, not to be sentimental or nostalgic, to be eschatological in their outlook, not to be elitists, to be intentionally theological, and to be open to new “material, language, and influence.”

Yet there are some considerations that both proponents of both “traditional” and “contemporary” worship should consider that Aigner does not mention. There is a third way that shares some of the concerns of both the advocates of “contemporary” and “traditional” worship.

It’s not certain from what tradition he writes so I won’t make any assumptions in that regard.1 In the Reformed and Presbyterian confessions, however, we begin with a conviction that is not expressed explicitly in the article. In the Westminster Confession (21.6) we say:

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 the Holy Scripture.

This the very same doctrine confessed by the European Reformed Churches in Heidelberg Catechism 96, “[t]hat we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.”

In public worship, according to the Reformed and Presbyterian understanding of Scripture, a session or consistory may only require a congregation to do those things that God himself has required in his Word (sola Scriptura). This was our answer to the Roman Churches and even to those Protestant churches that permitted or required practices in public worship that God has not commanded. Where Rome and some Protestants asked, “Is it forbidden?” we asked, “Is it commanded?” These are distinct questions that produce different answers, as we shall see below.

The Reformed confession distinguishes between the elements of worship and its circumstances. In WCF 21.1 we say that the “light of nature” reveals certain things, that God is, that he sovereign over all, that he is generally benevolent, and that he is “therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might.” We know this from nature. We also know from nature that “in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God…” (WCF 21.7). These things that are known from nature are called circumstances. God’s Word does not stipulate the hour of worship. It does not stipulate in which language a service is conducted nor the place of worship. These things are deduced by reason and experience. Is most of the congregation Francophone? Then the language is French. Is the congregation set in a rural area where farmers have to tend to livestock before services? Then 11:00 AM is reasonable. We call what the congregation does in the worship service, however, elements and there are essentially two of them: Word and prayer. In his Word God speaks to us, in the call to worship, in the reading of the law and the gospel, in the Scripture text, in the sermon, in the sacraments, and in the benediction. These are all expressions of God’s Word to us. We respond with God’s Word in prayer whether said or in song. This call and response structure to worship is basic to the Reformed understanding of public worship.

Aigner’s essay also seems to assume that public worship will include non-canonical hymns and songs and that we need a rationale to determine which ones. Perhaps but that seems to be more assumed than proved. WCF 21.5 says:

The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God

We say that because, when the Confessions were written in the 16th and 17th centuries, none of our congregations sang anything but God’s Word. The majority view was that God’s Word commands us only to sing Psalms (exclusive psalmody). There was a minority view that God’s Word commands us to sing only his Word including more than Psalms (e.g., the Song of Mary, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, Phil 2). I detailed these approaches in Recovering the Reformed Confession. Both sides agreed that only God’s Word is to be sung in response to God’s Word. They were operating from the same principle: we must do in worship only what God requires. We must use only those elements he has instituted and we must use them the way he has commanded. This principle, however, seems to have fallen on hard times. It does not feature prominently in the debates over “contemporary” and “traditional” worship.

When our confessions were written, the Reformed and Presbyterian churches had removed musical instruments from church buildings and ceased using them in public worship because they believed them to belong to the period of types and shadows, not to the new covenant. After all, there is no evidence that the Apostles used musical instruments in their worship services. Certainly we know that the second-century church rejected the use of musical instruments. There were no musical instruments in Christian worship until the 7th century and they did not become widespread until a few centuries before the Reformation. When the Reformed stopped using musical instruments in the 1520s they were restoring the ancient practice of the church. Instruments had no more standing in the Reformation than the medieval instruction of five false sacraments in the 14th century. Musical instruments did not make their way back into Presbyterian worship until the 18th century and non-canonical songs began to return about the same time. The use of non-canonical songs, choirs, and organs in the Christian Reformed Church was controversial as late as the 1930s.

When Aigner’s essay speaks of “traditional” it seems to assume a definition that starts in the 18th or 19th century. We can’t blame him. When I searched Google Images for “traditional Presbyterian worship” to illustrate the post most of the images I saw reflected a baseline established in the 18th and 19th centuries. Why should that be? From a historical perspective, if our churches were formally organized and our confessions written and published in the 16th and 17th centuries, why isn’t our original practice normative for “traditional”? From that approach, the debate is between older revisionists and newer revisionists. The older revisionists seem to be saying, “I like the changes we introduced in the 18th and 19th centuries. We should stop there.” The newer revisionists seem to be saying, “No, let’s update the revisions.” As a matter of logic it’s hard to see why the “contemporary” revisionists are not more consistent than the older.

I am arguing that Aigner and others need to reconsider their baseline. The practice of the first 600 years of the church and for the 200 years of Reformation is more ancient than the 18th and 19th-century revisions that his approach seeks to preserve. To the “contemporary worship” folk I say: Perhaps historic worship would interest you more if you saw how truly radical it is? When the Reformed removed organs and sang only God’s Word they were seen as radicals and, in their time, “progressive.” Calvin Seerveld has noted how upbeat and shocking the Genevan tunes for the Psalms were in their own time. Queen Elizabeth I dismissed them as “Genevan jigs” and irreverent. Seerveld observes the joyous, upbeat tunes used by Louis Bourgeois (1510–59). Some of those tunes still work in our culture. There is nothing regressive about recovering the Reformed confession (theology, piety, and practice) of worship. Back in 2008 I called for better tunes for the Psalms. Since then some new Psalters have been published and more are on the way that answer that call. There is nothing about our principle that prevents us from using contemporary tunes. We should use the best and most suitable tunes in public worship as we sing God’s Word back to him.

Algner’s list of recommendations is helpful and the third way I’m proposing satisfies them. It is

  • reasonable
  • not sentimental/nostalgic
  • eschatological
  • not elitist
  • intentionally theological
  • open to new language and influences

For many, the reintroduction of the singing of God’s Word as the response to his Word would be “new material” even if the material itself is ancient. God’s holy, inspired, inerrant, infallible Word is sufficient for worship. It contains all that we need: praise and adoration to God for who he is and what he has done, thanks to God for his grace and mercy to us in Christ, confession of our sins, the declaration of forgiveness to believers, and supplication for our needs. Everything that a Christian should ever want to say to God is found in his Word.

Finally, I understand Aigner’s sense of loss and the pain it brings, even if I don’t share all of his litany. I also understand the frustration that advocates of contemporary worship feel when “traditionalists” try to put on the brakes. It does seem arbitrary. The resolution lies in the churchly, confessional understanding of God’s Word that we all share in the Reformed confessions. We need to sit down together and talk honestly about how we got where we are. How did organs (and later guitars and drums) and non-canonical songs find their way back into our services that intentionally excluded them? What did we learn in the 18th and 19th centuries that caused us to change our practice? Are we all acting consistently with our confession of Scripture or is there a third way, a way forward out of the impasse?


1. Jonathan Aigner seems to be minister of traditional worship in a Methodist congregation.

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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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  1. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks for this analysis–I really appreciated your point about reevaluating our baseline for worship standards. I like a lot of the conclusions Aigner draws, but I’m not sure he always reaches those conclusions in a manner consistent with Reformed practice.

    Just a note–I believe his last name is Aigner, not Algner. The Aquila Report accidentally capitalized the I in the original version. I only noticed because I did a similar response piece to another of his blog posts (

    Blessings to you.

    Michael Kearney
    West Sayville URC
    Long Island, New York

  2. Dr Clark,

    How did singing metrical Psalms become the preferred approach rather than the chanting of them?

    Also, in justifying the addition of hymns to what was to be sung in worship, the forward to the 1934 CRC Psalter Hymnal states “We realized full well that metrical versions of the Psalms can scarcely be called inspired, and that it is hardly consistent to forbid the use of the New Testament in song while we insist that it shall be used in preaching.” It seems to be me they have a valid point, if in fact word changes and paraphrases are used in order to make the text fit the tune.

    Chanting Psalms has the advantage of not requiring any adaptation of the Psalm to a meter or rhyme scheme, and therefore a sound translation of the Bible can be used. But it would take some getting used to.


    Jim Heetderks

    • Hi Jim,

      We know that Christ and the disciples sang the Psalms but we don’t know the manner or the tune. That’s why we’ve thought of those things as circumstances. The Reformed have chanted the Psalms and they’ve also sang them one line at a time—this mode, however, did not prove to be successful. I think that singing has been preferred over chanting. Singing is a natural impulse. We want to sing praises.

      If we compare the 1959 PH with the older Psalters or with the RP psalters, there’s a significance difference in some settings. Traditionally we’ve tried to follow the Psalms pretty closely. If I must choose, I would choose fidelity to the Scriptures over tunes/meters. In other words, if a tune or a meter seems to require paraphrase, then I would find another tune/meter.

      I believe the RPs have some psalms for chanting in their Psalters but I don’t think I’ve heard it done but I don’t see how anyone could oppose it as a matter of principle.

  3. Has anyone ever attempted to challenge the claim made by Dr. Clark that musical instruments were absent from worship for the first few hundred years?

    It does seem reasonable to suggest that instruments used now (contemporary guitars, drums, organs, flutes, etc.) create or add something new to worship that was not present with the apostles; also the sound systems and amplification of the sounds made by the instruments makes a big difference. Different instruments seem to create different moods, and it’s the effect on the emotions that worries me. Just go down to a large crusade or even a church that attempts to use music to sway emotions certain ways. This reminds of the song that says “all to Jesus I surrender” or “there’s room at the cross for you” and the altar calls made.

    On sound systems, I remember for a while helping a church with this. There were times when preachers wanted the sound to be a certain way (like more bass), and they held microphones in such a way as to alter the sound of their voices. This was not at a Reformed church, so I don’t think your average OPC or URCNA would have this going on. But I do think some large churches would not be able to be as large if the sound systems were removed, which I think would be better.

  4. Much of this discussion or debate is no longer relevant. I come out of the circe 1980 something worship debates that used these terms. Since them, I became of parents of 20 and 30 somethings who laugh when people try to describe this debate to them. I’m telling the truth here; I literally got a laugh from a couple of 30 somethings a few years ago during such a discussion. I thinks its all part of that whole post-modern thing. They want what most would describe as traditional worship, but are not ready to take sides in such a debate including getting into bloody debates on the regulative principle. This is a discussion that many have not taken up.

  5. I’m sure the worship wars will continue regardless of what consensus we may or may not reach in a forum like this, but it’s worth pondering once in a while in the manner presented by RSC. I’ll submit these observations garnered from my 60+ years of attendance at all different kinds of worship services:

    – Larger congregations frequently have a more plentiful supply of talented musicians. If those congregations happen to be located in close proximity to an institution of higher learning that is well-known for its school of music, the supply of musicians may be even greater. It is not unusual for those musicians to have their way with a church’s music director/minister, which often results in large a large choir, brass or string ensembles, a costly organ, etc. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, a situation like this frequently results in a special class system within the congregation where “I am talented (and you are not)” or “I have been specially blessed with this God-given talent for music and therefore feel compelled to use it (or else)”. Too often talented musicians seem to view their skills as more than just a Godly gift, but as a “spiritual gift” (something for which there is no scriptural precedent) that either needs to be exploited to the maximum or else is being wasted.

    – On more than a few occasions I have heard the defense for a CCW worship format in a given congregation come from some of the older members under the guise that “we need to do something to attract/retain the youth!” This fascinates me because until about 15 years ago I always belonged to confessional congregations who catechized their young people and confirmed them after careful examination of their acquired beliefs. The corollary here to music is whether the congregation is leading and training the youth in worship or allowing the youth to drag their music styles, influenced by the surrounding contemporary culture, into the church. I can find no scriptural justification for the latter.

    – An easy way to deal (although it’s likely never to happen) with the two situations above would be to adopt the kind of a cappella singing of scripture, only, as described above. That movement would remove any potential for musical arrogance on anyone’s part, whether by virtue of talent or by blind adherence to nothing but CCW styles. Just my $.02

  6. A cappella singing only wouldn’t remove potential for musical arrogance. The voice is an instrument (some people more gifted than others?). Whether the first century church used instruments or not I do not know, but instruments were definitely used in the OT, strings, flutes… David was a musician and wrote his Psalms to go with music.

    Dr. Clark is right, we WANT to sing. Music is an undeniable part of our human nature, perhaps a more emotional part, but emotions are also an undeniable part of our human nature. If we are going to give our God our all, then…

    It is difficult for us to sing the Hebrew poetry from the Bible in English, because the rhymes and rhythms don’t translate, but I think there are many among us who are capable of making the words and sentiments as beautiful. I think we should give at least as much license to our musicians as we do to our preachers anyway.

    • Deb,

      I agree that any form of singing can be abused (sin corrupts everything) but using instruments does automatically divide the congregation in two: those who can read music and/or play it and those who cannot. Virtually anyone can make a joyful noise, whether in tune or not. I think we ought to pay far more attention to the RPW and less attention to aesthetics, since Scripture tells us much more about how God will be worshipped and virtually nothing about aesthetics, which is natural philosophy/science. The study of aesthetics and culture will always be useful but it should never be normative. Typically, however, when the musicians are in charge of worship (rather than the ministers and elders) aesthetics rules over principle.

      My understanding is that originally we didn’t use parts. We sang in unison. That would help prevent or at least mitigate musical elitism.

    • Hi Deb,

      Yes, and they explicitly encourage the use of instruments and they exhort holy war against nearby pagans. The original Reformed view was that all those things, along with the priesthood and the Israelite state, belonged to the time of types and shadows. Gradually, from the 7th century, the medieval church began to bring back the priestly types, including instruments.

  7. Taking up Jim Heetderks’ musings above regarding chanting: I would definitely like to see it considered. I think the idea of being able to sing the text (and chanting is a form of singing, if strange to our ears) straight from a good translation of the Bible is a good one. And who knows, it may be just the thing to capture the attention of younger folks. I’ve been reading about and practicing it some myself. Yes, it’s different— and I like it because it’s actually the text, and am excited about the possibilities. The idea of singing the Psalms at all is so “different” to the vast majority of congregations that we may as well take up a different way of singing them. I also ponder, have all the possibilities of ways to chant been exhausted? Or could there be a form of chant yet to be developed that will fit the need of the hour? Whether sung or chanted, a wide-spread reform back to singing the Psalms will only come about, as always, by the work of the Spirit. We must pray for and about these things.Thanks Dr. Clark.

  8. How is this for irony?

    I don’t like to sing because I dislike my voice, I’m not good at it and it doesn’t sound good. I’m very self-conscious. But I’m a musician, a guitarist, and I was briefly (and unfortunately) in a praise band where I had an out for singing. Since becoming Reformed and agreeing with exclusive psalmody, I can no longer have that out for singing by playing in the band…so I have to sing…and I don’t like singing but I love the Psalms.

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