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Shall the Reformed Win?

Category Articles
Date November 10, 2005

The Worship of God (Christian Focus Publications) is a collection of lectures and sermons, most of them given at the 2003 Spring Theology Conference at Greenville Theological Seminary. Like most collections the quality of chapters is uneven, but overall all it is a helpful contribution in defense of historic Presbyterian worship which is centered on God, full of the Bible, regulated by the Scriptures, and edifying to the soul.

Among the notable contributions are two chapters by the Rev. Terry Johnson. The church owes gratitude to God and thanks to Mr. Johnson, for he has, perhaps more than any other, called the church back to Biblical, apostolic, Reformed worship by mediating the work of Hugh Olds Oliphant to working ministers. His handbook Leading in Worship ought to be close to every Presbyterian minister’s hand and frequently consulted (though one hopes that the user will substitute the language of the English Standard Version in the place of that of the New American Standard). Here Mr. Johnson contributes a spirited defense of the regulative principle and a needed admonition to those committed to the principle to remember that worship is not a matter of right forms only but also of right hearts.

Dr. Morton H. Smith, now retired professor at Greenville, provides what one has come to expect of him during his long and distinguished service as a teacher of theology, an excellent summary of the history of Presbyterian worship especially its developments in North America. Anyone who wants to participate intelligently in the current discussion will need to read Dr. Smith’s chapter unless he already possesses a working knowledge of the subject. This chapter reveals that Dr. Smith’s octogenarian tree is yet green.

Perhaps worth the price of the book is Dr. Robert Godfrey’s comparison of contemporary worship, especially its music, with the Psalms (one of two contributions). In this writer’s evaluation Dr. Godfrey, President of Westminster Seminary in California, has provided a charitable, balanced, yet devastating critique of praise and worship songs and their forbears, the songs that came out of the Second Great Awakening. The power of the combination of lyric and tune upon the whole of the human soul makes the music we sing a far more critical matter than is often realized, and Dr. Godfrey helps us to face and respond to that reality. Dr. Godfrey’s chapter succeeds in remaining grounded in Scriptures and history without being stuck in the mud of provincialism and quaintness.

Dr. Joseph Pipa, President of Greenville Seminary, contributes a sermon and a lecture. The survey of Reformed liturgy is insightful and demonstrates that the distance between the rubrical liturgies and discretionary liturgies is not so great as is sometimes supposed and that there is a fundamental harmony among all the historic Reformed liturgies. Dr. Pipa contributes his own liturgy which follows the Westminster Directory for Worship while being enriched by other Reformed liturgies from Scotland and the Continent. This whole chapter is marked by a broadness of scholarship and spirit that rejects the narrowness of the Independents in favor of a Presbyterian catholicity.

For those interested there are two chapters which debate the cases for exclusive psalmody and for Biblical hymnody. There is also a chapter on the propriety of choirs contributed by a recent graduate of the seminary.

One of the most significant decisions taken by the Presbyterian Church in America was the action of the third General Assembly when the Assembly declared: “The Directory for Worship is an approved guide and should be taken seriously as the mind of the Church agreeable to the Standards. However, it does not have the force of law and is not to be considered obligatory in all its parts.” This statement titled a “Temporary Statement” has become permanent altered only by years making binding the chapters on professions of faith and baptism and the Lord’s Supper eight years after the statement was adopted. According to this writer’s perspective, this decision reflected a desire to avoid an all out donnybrook over the issue of whether the invitation system would be allowed in PCA worship service. (This in itself is telling as a practice which, though now all but dead, showed ago the powerful impact revivalism on Presbyterian worship at the birth of the denomination.)

There are fateful decisions in the life of every denomination. In the Presbyterian Church in America one thinks of the significance of the decision to do missions in part by entering into cooperative agreements with other denominations and with para-church organizations. Or, one might think if the decision to join National Association of Evangelicals, or to effect joining and receiving with the RPCES, or to begin the process of expelling the Christian Reformed Church from the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council, or not to have a delegated Assembly, or to adopt rules that severely limit debate, or the establishment of the Permanent Judicial Commission. But the decision taken thus far that may prove to be the most far reaching in affecting the character of the denomination may be the decision regarding the Directory for Worship. As Dr. Morton H. Smith says in the book here under review, “This was an unprecedented action. No previous Presbyterian denomination had adopted a part of its Constitution in such a provisional way” (p. 96).

The state of worship across the denomination today is at best diverse and at worst chaotic. One can experience something akin to a high church Anglican service, a charismatic service, a traditional Presbyterian service, a seeker service, a “post-modern” service, not only in the same denomination but conceivably in the same city. There is absolutely no uniformity or predictability for the visitor or newcomer to the town. Who know what he will encounter when he enters a worship service of a congregation of the PCA. Depending on one’s convictions and experience he may find himself unable to participate because he finds the service hopelessly irrelevant or beyond the concessions his conscience can charitably make.

This diversity or chaos has profound implications for the church’s doctrine, practice, and unity. This assumes that one even conceives the primary gatherings of the church as occasions of worship, which is not a safe assumption. Proponents of the older, cruder revivalism and of the newer, more sophisticated seeker services will sometimes admit that the focus of the service is not on the worth-ship of God but on the needs-ship of humans to be saved or revived or get their lives together. But, since most still call the primary services (one cannot say “Lord’s Day service” since the main meetings may be held on Saturday night or any other convenient time) worship services, we will treat these meetings as in some sense worship.

Worship affects doctrine because of its simultaneous reflection of the view of God that already exists and its magnetic to pull on one’s view of God toward the God who is worshiped. Worship affects practice for, as the golden calf incident shows the worship of even the true God by forbidden practices will spill over from worship to moral practice.

But for the present the greatest challenge is to the church’s unity. If the PCA member moving to a new town finds he cannot worship in the local PCA congregation(s) because they do not connect with him or because they violate his conscience, then we have a very big problem indeed. The problem is experienced even by the church’s ministers and elders when they find it excruciatingly difficult to participate in some services or parts of services at General Assembly. How long can people who cannot worship together stay together?

If public corporate worship is the primary purpose of the church’s existence, the highest human activity on earth, the greatest privilege of the redeemed, and the nearest thing to heaven experienced in this world, then it would be difficult to exaggerate the significance of worship of the church for the theology of the church, the practice of the church, and the unity of the church. Whoever wins (and, yes, we know that we should desire “win-win” rather than “win-lost” outcomes) the worship wars will determine the theology, practice, and parameters of the church.

Shall Reformed theology survive, thrive, and, please God, win? It depends largely on whether Reformed worship is both maintained and revived in the 21st century. The way people worship determines for them who God is. Calvin got it right when he saw the contest between the Roman church and the Reformed as a war about worship even more than a war about doctrine: “. . . the whole substance of Christianity . . . is a knowledge first of the mode in which God is duly worshiped . . .”

William H. Smith. Jackson, Mississippi.

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