Jonathan 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
- not sentimental/nostalgic
- 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.