Calvin: The Rule Of Worship Necessitated The Reformation

Now, even at this very time, when we are seeking and searching to find out the misdeeds on account of which God punishes us, and in what we have offended, you allege against us, that we have changed the divine service, and the order of the Church, which had been so well established and observed in this town. This is not any new reproach, for it was made against Jeremiah in his time, as he relates in the forty-fourth chapter. It is, that the hypocrites complain, that since they had left off the adoration of the Queen of Heaven, they had had nothing but famine, war, and all poverty. Lactantius also, an ancient doctor of the Church, and St. Augustine, demonstrate that in their time all the afflictions which had happened in the world were imputed to the Evangel, because it had brought about the abolition of the Pagan superstitions, which were thought to be service to God. You will reply, that it was not all alike; we hold that it was. What then is to be done? We must ascertain what is the truth upon the point, in order to pronounce a sound and correct opinion. Well, then, besides that our consciences speak peace to us before God as touching that, the thing itself can clearly answer for us before men. For no one has hitherto shewn us that we had changed anything which was commanded of God, nor that we had introduced any novelty against his person, nor that we had declined from the truth to lay hold on some evil doctrine. On the contrary, it is notorious that we have reformed our Church according to the pure doctrine of God, which is the rule to apply and to keep up a healthy state. It is true, that it is rather an odious thing to alter what has been hitherto received. But the order which our Lord has once delivered to us ought to be for ever inviolable. Thus, when it has been forsaken for a season, it ought to be renewed and set up again, even should heaven and earth commingle. There is no antiquity, no custom which can be set up or pleaded in prejudice of this doctrine, that the government of the Church established by the authority of God should be perpetual even to the end of the world, since he has willed and determined that it should be so. The reasons which have made us change are more than sufficiently urgent. The first point in Christianity is the true adoration of God. Now, we have come to know, that the form of adoration which we have been in the habit of observing was false and perverted, and, moreover, that it was not in the spirit of truth, (John 4,) but in external ceremonies, and even in superstitious practices. It is certain that then we did not adore God alone, but wood and stones instead of him, the pictures, the reliquaries of the dead, and things of a like kind. To the adoration of God is conjoined the rule of worshipping him aright. And in what manner is it that he is invoked throughout the Papacy, except with doubt and distrust, inasmuch as they know nothing about the office of Jesus Christ as our Advocate and Intercessor, by whom we obtain our requests? (Rom. 8; 1 Tim. 2; 1 John 2; Heb. 4) Besides, what are the public prayers but murmurs and ululations, vain repetitions without understanding? Thirdly, how many blasphemies are there in it, in so far as the power of the sole Mediator is attributed to saints and saintesses, to obtain grace in their name and by their merits? After the invocation follows the service, as if we were instructed to serve God by the vain traditions of men. On the contrary, he wills and requires that we take for our rule his will alone throughout. (Deut. 12; 1 Kings 15) As concerning the confidence and firm persuasion of our salvation, which is like, as it were, the foundation of all, instead of relying on his pure mercy, in order to have our consciences at rest, and give to him the glory which appertains to him, we were taught, like the rest of the world, to put our trust partly in ourselves, and partly in other creatures. There is no need, however, to rehearse all the rest, for there would be no end of that. For, in short, it has come to this, that the grace of Jesus Christ was, as it were, buried out of sight to us. When we have understood so much, and that it has been clearly proven to us, that all that was abomination in the sight of God, what could we have done? Were we to withstand God, and to resist his truth? Had it merely been a matter of Church order, if it had been at all bearable, we might have been content to remain, but it was such a Babel of confusion and disorder, that there remained no other remedy but that of an entire renovation. What shall we say of the Sacraments, the observance and use of which had been altogether perverted from the ordinance of Jesus Christ our Lord? How many silly baptismal ceremonies had been sought out and invented by men, without the authority of God! And what is worse, the true and pure institution of our Lord was, as it were, abolished by such frivolous patchwork. In short, they set a greater value upon the anointing chrism than the water, and at present it seems to be a settled point with you, that our baptism is null, because we have only retained what the Lord has commanded, and what the Apostles have observed and held fast in practice. As for the holy Supper, it has been much more profaned. Our Lord has left us that as a pledge, on purpose that (we might be) certain that our souls are nourished from his body and from his blood, to make us partakers of all his benefits, and peculiarly so of his death and passion. In order that we may do this, we ought to distribute it according to the terms of his commandment, namely, in declaring the worth and efficacy of the mystery. On the contrary, they have converted it into a sacrifice, to make reconciliation anew with God by man’s work, and not for the living only, but also for the dead. The priest, to make what he considers a due use of the sacrament, separates himself from the Church. The whole is done and spoken in an unknown language, after the manner of enchanters with their charms. When Easter comes, again they only give to the people the half of the sacrament, depriving them of the cup, against the express command of the Master. To consent to such sacrilege as that, is not even to be thought of. And yet, nevertheless, they reproach us with having let down and abased this holy sacrament. But the thing speaks for itself, that we have restored it in complete integrity, where it had been corrupted and polluted in so many ways. St. Paul, wishing to correct an abuse which had grown up among the Corinthians in reference to this sacrament, sends them back to the first institution of the ordinance by the Lord himself, as to an inviolable statute. (1 Cor. 11) What could we do, then, to correct the infinite abuses with which it had been contaminated, except to follow that same rule? Let them shew us, if they can, if there be anything in the manner of our worship which is not conformable to the institution of our Lord, to the usage of the Apostles, and we are ready to amend our fault. But when they accuse us without either rhyme or reason, that will not in the least disturb or excite us, so as to make us renounce the true and settled institution. Wherefore, that which you impute to us as a fault, we hold and take to be a work of God, the best which we had been able to attain to. Yet nevertheless, we do not deny that we have come very far short in many respects, for which our Lord has good right to punish us, but it is in regard that our life does not correspond with his holy doctrine of which we make a profession.

—John Calvin, “To Monsieur Le Curé de Cernex” 1543) in Letters of John Calvin, ed. Jules Bonnet (repr. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 1.367–70.

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  1. I’m somewhat confused by what the Reformed Liturgy should look like. There’s the Regulative Principle, but I don’t see where this translates into what we are supposed to do on Sundays for worship services. Even celebrating the Lord’s Supper is done at different intervals, some places only celebrate it every few weeks, others more/less frequently. I’m curious what your thoughts are. Also, do all the Reformed follow the same “liturgy” as Calvin?

    • Nick,

      The rule of worship resulted in a relative unity of practice in the 16th and 17th centuries. There was some diversity, e.g., some congregations and traditions said or sang the Creed and some did not.

      The structure of Reformed worship was simple: there were essentially two elements, the Word (read, preached, confessed, made visible in the sacraments) and prayer/praise, the congregation’s response to the Word by singing the Word.

      There were liturgies. From memory, Calvin’s liturgy in Geneva, 1542, began with an invocation (votum), a confession of sin [in Strasburg they had a declaration of pardon but the congregation in Geneva wouldn’t have it], the reading/singing of the decalogue, a psalm, the sermon, a psalm and, when the city Council permitted, the Lord’s Supper. There is a sketch of Calvin’s liturgy in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

      We cannot judge the tradition by modern practice, since most church (with a few notable exceptions) no longer observe the rule of worship as it was originally understood and practiced.

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