Review: Reformation Worship: Liturgies From the Past For The Present

Unless you are a member of a congregation of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America (RPCNA, “the Covenanters”) or another similar denomination, in all probability the way your congregation worships today is not much like the way Reformed and Presbyterian congregations worshiped in the 16th and 17th centuries. If, however, you are like most other P&R Christians, you probably are not aware of that discrepancy. You might assume that the way your congregation conducts its public worship is the way the P&R  churches have always done but, in fact, that assumption would not be justified. Indeed, Indeed, it is likely that your session (consistory), presbytery (classis), and general assembly (synod) is not highly conscious of the changes that have taken place in P&R worship since the close of the 17th century. In light of the changes that have taken place during the intervening centuries, we might wish for a clear window  of sorts into the way we once conducted services. Well, now there is just such a window. Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey have compiled and published, under one cover, a collection of Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican liturgies from the 16th century beginning with Luther’s 1523 Form of the Mass and concluding with the English Reformed Middleburg Liturgy from 1586. In between they have translated and published the liturgy of the  Swiss Reformed pastor/theologian Johnnes Oeclampadius (1526), Zwingli’s Act or Custom of the Supper and Form of Prayer (1525), and church orders from Zwingli’s successor, Heinrich Bullinger (1535), Martin Bucer’s Straburg Liturgy (1539), the Liturgy of Miles Coverdale (1548), Calvin’s Form of Prayers (1545–66), Marten Micronius’ Christian Ordinances (1554), Johannes à Lasco’s Form and Method (1555), the Practice of the Lord’s Supper (1550), Form of Prayers (1556),  and Book of Common Order (1564) of John Knox, Ludwig Lavater’s Short Work on Rites and Regulations (Zürich, 1559), The Palatinate Church Order (1563), Petrus Dathenus’ Psalms of David (1567), and Middleburg Liturgy of the English Reformed in the Netherlands (1586). The editors also include The German Mass (Lutheran) of 1524, works by the Lutheran Johannes Bugenhagen, and extracts from Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer (1549, 1552). This volume includes a foreword by Sinclair Ferguson and introductory essays by Gibson, Assistant Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew and Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) and Earngey, a DPhil candidate in the University of Oxford and a minister in the Anglican communion,  and concludes with an appendix a fascinating chart allowing the reader to compare the various liturgies. Gibson’s is a biblical-theological survey of worship in Scripture and Earngey’s is a historical survey of the Reformation of worship. Some of these (e.g., the Middleburg Liturgy and Calvin’s Form of Prayers) have been previously published in English but, to my knowledge, most of these have not been published in previous collections. Those in the German and Dutch Reformed traditions will be particularly interested to study the work of Micronius, who was formative in the early years of the Dutch Reformed Church, and the Palatinate Liturgy of 1563.

It might be a little unusual but I want to begin with the foreword. In it Ferguson rightly acknowledges the value of the present volume (more on that below). He rightly notes the importance of the reformation of worship along with the recovery of the gospel in the 16th century. He rightly notes that medieval worship had become “kind of a spectator event” (p. xvii). He writes, it “is tempting to think that such a reformation is needed again in an age when church consultants assess ‘the quality of morning worship’ (a task one would have thought beyond the wit of anyone but its Divine Recipient)” (bid). In our current pragmatic culture of worship, these liturgies are a bit like “a cold shower in the morning” shocking but invigorating (p. xix). Still, he writes,

this is not a plea for a wooden adopting, or a slavish imitation of any or all of the liturgies collected here; nor is it an intimidating and metallic insistence that we should use them today “because the Reformers used them.” That could—and almost certainly would—have a deadening effect on our worship. Most of us do not live on the continent of Europe, and none of us lives in the sixteenth century. Our greatest need is for worship in Spirit as well as in truth today. But the liturgies here should stimulate us to careful thought, and cause us to ask how can apply their principles today in a way that echoes their Trinitarian, Christ-centered, biblically informed content. so that our worship, in our place and time, will echo the gospel content and rhythm they exhibit.

Let me be clear: I agree with the thrust of Ferguson’s agenda here but I would like to push back a bit. All of us would surely agree that the “slavish” and “wooden” imitation of these liturgies would be problematic nevertheless we are all imitating someone. That is how most of us learned our approach to public worship. We do what we have seen done. Thus, imitation is unavoidable. The real question is whom  are we going to imitate? The tendency for the last century of more has been to assume that Reformed worship is deficient and needs to be supplemented by other traditions, most prominently Pentecostalism and Anglicanism. When we do that we are imitating them. Why not learn by imitating our forefathers (and mothers)? Perhaps we will decide that some of what they did does not fit our context but let us give their application of the rule of worship to their setting due consideration.

Certainly that the Reformers used these liturgies is not sufficient warrant for us to use them. God’s Word is the only warrant for what we do in worship (sola scriptura).  The reason we ought to learn from them is because of the principle of worship to which Ferguson refers. We confess it this way in Westminster Confession 21.1: “…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 was substantially the doctrine of Heidelberg Catechism 96 and that of the rest of the Reformed churches. So, our principle is clear. What we see in the Reformed liturgies in this collection (as distinct from the Anglican and Lutheran, which worked from a different principle, namely that the church may do in worship whatever is not forbidden) is the way that principle was applied in the 16th century. What is remarkable about the history of worship, a history to which the documents in this collection gives witness, is the consistency with which it was applied and executed in the 16th and 17th centuries. We ought to let these witnesses to the early Reformed practice of worship challenge us. We need to see how radically different our worship is from theirs and we need to ask ourselves why that is. We need to reckon honestly with the changes that have occurred and we should question our default assumption that we are right and they were wrong.

Gibson’s essay “Worship On Earth As It Is In Heaven” is a clear, fast-moving, edifying biblical-theological survey of the place of worship in redemptive history. Earngey’s historical essay begins by emphasizing the gradual process of the reformation of worship (an overlooked point) and the commonalities shared by the various Protestant traditions represented in the book. Among the elements of diversity he observes the difference between those Protestants who followed “free forms” of worship in distinction from those who followed “fixed forms” (p. 36). He also notes differences over the frequency of communion (pp. 39–40), “physical acts and vestments” (pp. 40–45). This section would be strengthened by discussion of the different principles by which the three liturgical traditions represented here operated. Calvin called the Reformed principle “the rule of worship,” which was articulated in WCF 21, Heidelberg 96–98 and in many of the other Reformed confessions and church orders. The two other traditions represented here operated under what has come to be known as the “normative principle” (we may do what is not forbidden). It would have been clarifying to observe a second distinction, that between the elements of worship (essentially the adminstration of the Word) and circumstances (e.g., time, place, dress, posture, and tune), to which the WCF refers when it speaks of “the light of nature” (21.1) and “the law of nature” (in 21.7). Circumstances are those things determined by the law of nature, i.e., time, place, language etc. The Word of God, however, regulates the elements in a distinct way. He also notes some diversity in the observance of the traditional church calendar and the use of songs other than Psalms in worship. It would have been edifying for the reader to know a bit more about the historical circumstances in which some of those decisions were made. We should not infer that the churches were free agents. There were plenty of compromises between ecclesiastical and civil authorities in the cities where the Reformed Reformation predominated. E.g., in Geneva Calvin was not permitted to pronounce the absolution nor to administer communion weekly nor were the ministers in the Netherlands always free to apply the rule of worship consistently because of the interference of Erasmian-inspired magistrates who, e.g., liked the pipe organ and did not much care what the ministers thought about it. The third essay, “Worshiping in the Tradition: Principles From the Pastor For the Present”  is jointly written by the editors. In it they note the relatively conservative, churchly approach taken by the magisterial Protestants generally, and some of the major theological emphases of Reformation-era worship, namely, that it was Trinitarian, focused on the incarnate Word, full of the Scriptures, centered on the preached Word, sacramental, that it was tied to the use of church discipline, creedal, prayerful, doxological, and carefully conducted. For those just coming to the historic Reformed tradition, especially for those whose experience is entirely in the contemporary tradition this essay would be a fine place to start.

This collection is enormously valuable. As a student and teacher of the history of worship source documents are primary sources. In them we can see for ourselves how our fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters in the faith thought about God, how they addressed him, how they regarded public worship, how they structured their services, and how they articulated the law and the gospel. Particularly in the Reformed liturgies we can see the dialogical character of Reformed worship, i.e., the way the liturgies were structured so that the minister spoke God’s Word to the congregation and the congregation responded with his Word (typically a Psalm). The Reformed built their services on the principle of the sufficiency of Scripture.

We are all indebted to the editors for their labors on our behalf. Every Reformed congregation that would learn from the tradition will want to get this volume for their library and for their pastor. There is much to be learned here and carefully, judiciously, patiently, graciously (mutatis mutandis) imitated. Of course Christian college and seminary libraries will want this volume for their collection and serious students of the history of worship will want to get and make use of this volume.

Reformation Worship: Liturgies From The Past For the Present, ed. Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2018), 688 pages. dexwsq


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  1. Thanks for this review. I was raised in a more liturgical church (conservative Lutheran) and miss at least some of the liturgy. Although I do believe it was practiced rather lifelessly, parts have stuck with me as particularly edifying–e.g., the confession of sin. We–i.e., my particular community of Baptists–would do well to recover some liturgical order in our Lord’s Day worship.

    By the way, you might want to check the spelling of what I’m pretty sure you meant to say “assess” in the paragraph immediately under the heading “Evaluation.”

  2. The portion I quote here appears to need some correction / clarification. It reads (to my ear) as though you are saying that Calvin, WCF, and HC hold out the ‘Normative Principle’ but I’m fairly certain we’d agree, this is incorrect. Rather, these hold out the ‘Regulative Principle’ (we may do only what is commanded).

    > This section would be strengthened by discussion of the different principles by which the three liturgical traditions represented here operated. Calvin called the Reformed principle “the rule of worship,” which was articulated in WCF 21, Heidelberg 96–98 and in many of the other Reformed confessions and church orders and what has come to be known as the “normative principle” (we may do what is not forbidden).

    Hoping this helps…

  3. Price has now gone up to 69.99!!! This morning (April 5th) it was still available for the 34.99 rate. Your review must have caused a surge in demand…

  4. It would be interesting to see how it compares and contrasts with Hughes Oliphant Old’s last book, “Holy Communion in the Piety of the Reformed Church” (2013).

  5. Hi Dr. Clark,

    Would you say this book is a modern day version of Baird’s “Eutaxia” or is it different enough that any student of worship should own both books?

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