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Following the culture? (2)

September 2015 | by Terry Johnson

Paul writing an epistle by Valentin de Boulogne 1619Continued from Following the culture? (1)

The apostles established a ministry common to the churches, a common worship, in which all the churches were expected to participate.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, writing in defence of diversity in worship, points out that, ‘The Corinthian church did things differently from the Jerusalem church’ (Themes from the Reformed tradition, p.277). Indeed it did, and its divergence from the practice of ‘all the churches’ is the very thing that the apostle Paul gently seeks to correct. He expects the Corinthian church to conform to the orderly pattern found in ‘all the churches’.

He does not merely appeal to scriptural or apostolic authority as he instructs the church. He buttresses his argument by appealing to universal or catholic practice. The whole weight of the church universal stands behind his exhortation.

Underscoring elsewhere the importance of unity, the apostle Paul cites baptism in addition to the above items: ‘There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism’ (Ephesians 4:4-5).

Uniformity of practice

Note that he assumes the positive value of uniformity of practice. The ‘churches of God’ have one practice, or ‘one baptism’, and the churches of Ephesus and Corinth are expected to conform to that practice.

It is doubtful that the common practice of the churches of which Paul speaks refers to that moment only, as though the standards to which they were to conform were always changing. Rather, it implies continuity not only from church to church but from one generation to the next.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the Pastoral Epistles. Paul is keenly aware of his impending death. He is being ‘poured out as a drink offering’ (2 Timothy 4:6). He aims to ‘set in order what remains’, that is, bring order to the church’s disorder, provide a pattern for its ongoing life and ministry (Titus 1:5).

What does he say? ‘Continue’, is his counsel. ‘Continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of’ (2 Timothy 3:14). Continue the apostolic pattern of ministry, ‘knowing from whom you have learned them’.

Continue in the Word-based, Word-filled ministry of 2 Timothy 3:15ff. Continue in the ‘difficult times that will come’. Continue until the ‘last days’ (2 Timothy 3:1).

The pattern of ministry in what we can call the ‘regular’ times from which the apostle was writing will continue to be the pattern of ministry through ‘difficult times’ ahead, right up to the end.               

Catholicity of ministry

This is catholicity of ministry. Preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:1ff). Read the Word (1 Timothy 4:13). Pray with depth and breadth (1 Timothy 2:1ff). These central elements, along with singing praise (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16) and administering the sacraments (1 Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:17-34), are forever normative for the ministry and worship of the church.

Uniformity in ministry is a virtue, and conformity at least at some important visible level is a requirement in the New Testament. It seems not to matter if a church is Greek (Corinth), or Asian (Ephesus), or Mid-Eastern (Jerusalem), or Latin (Rome): it is expected that the churches will not deviate from the apostolically established practice of the whole church.

Idiosyncratic churches created to suit the taste and style preferences of specific ethnic groups or generations would seem not to have been contemplated.

To what categories of worship does the principle of catholicity apply? 1 Corinthians 11–14; Ephesians 4; 1 and 2 Timothy; and Titus demonstrate the apostles expected uniformity of practice in prayer, singing, reading Scripture, preaching the Word, the Lord’s Supper, baptism, orderliness and decorum, and the role of women in public worship.

This is a substantial list. Catholicity in ministry and worship was important to the apostles and should be important to us as well. The church then, and the church now, needs a common worship.

Thankfully, the Reformers understood the importance of the catholic tradition. They maintained continuity with the past, sought uniformity in the present, and instituted reforms that they hoped would endure, which future generations could embrace. So should we.             

John CalvinHistoric practices

They were not revolutionaries, as was the case with many Anabaptist radicals. They were not revolutionaries in the sense in which Frank Viola and George Barna are in their book, Pagan Christianity? (Tyndale House, 2008) — a pretentious book in which the entire Christian tradition is rejected, from the Church Fathers, to the Middle Ages, to the Reformation, to post-Reformation Protestantism.

This is a form of radicalism unknown among Reformed Protestants. The Reformers respected historic practices. It is clear that both the Zurich and Strasbourg liturgies from which Calvin drew inspiration were ‘derived from the mass’ (J. G. Davies, Dictionary of liturgy and worship,p.150).

Hageman says of Bucer’s service (Strasbourg, 1538), from which Calvin borrowed so much of his Genevan order, ‘His liturgy was still a recognizable evangelical version of the historic liturgy of western Christendom’ (Pulpit and table, p.26). Calvin, for his part, ‘preserved the historic shape of the liturgy for us’ (Ibid., p.126). However the Reformers also sought to reform medieval novelties by Scripture and in light of the known practices of the church of the early centuries.

Medieval tradition, which they knew well and from which they borrowed much, was reevaluated in light of Scripture and especially patristic tradition. Calvin’s worship directory, for example, was entitled, The form of church prayers … according to the custom of the ancient church (1542).

Calvin accused Cardinal Sadoleto of maliciously hiding the facts that ‘we agree more clearly with antiquity than all of you’, and that the Reformers ‘ask for nothing else than that the ancient face of the Church may be restored’ (Tributes to John Calvin, p.211; my emphasis). He cites Augustine on nearly every page of the Institutes and frequently makes positive reference to Bernard of Clairvaux among other medieval churchmen.

John Owen and the theologians of Protestant orthodoxy demonstrate a profound awareness of the patristic, medieval and contemporary Roman Catholic traditions. At the same time, the Reformers didn’t follow the Fathers slavishly or regard them as infallible.

Richard Baxter, for example, warns of over-reverence for the Church Fathers. The Fathers, one must remember, are also the ‘church children’. ‘Abundance of the fathers were learned men, and of far less knowledge than ordinary divines have now; and the chief of them were far short in knowledge of the chiefest that God of late hath given us’ (Works, Vol. 1, p.731).

Again, he warns: ‘We must not be so blind or unthankful to God as to deny that later times have brought forth abundance of theological writings, incomparably more methodical, judicious, full, clear, and excellently fitted also by application, to the good of souls, than any that are known to us since the writing of the sacred Scriptures. Reverence of antiquity hath its proper place and use, but is not to make men fools, non-proficients, or contemners of God’s greater mercies’ (Ibid., p.732).               

Witnesses to Scripture 

Still, in their place, the ancient Fathers, as well as the practices of the whole church, were valued as witnesses to the meaning of Scripture. Hughes Old summarises their perspective:

‘While the Reformers understood the Scriptures to be their sole authority, they were very interested in how generations of Christians down through history had understood the Scriptures.

‘Studying the history of Christian worship, they found many good examples of how the church had truly understood Scripture. Often the Fathers of the ancient church had been most faithful witnesses to the authority of Scripture’ (Worship, p.4).

Among the practices of the apostolic and patristic churches that were revived by the Reformers for the ordinary worship of the Lord’s Day were the following: invocation; congregational singing; liturgical use of the Ten Commandments; congregational confession of sin; lectio continua Bible reading and preaching; prayer of illumination; prayers of intercession; communion in both kinds; liturgical use of the Creed, and benediction.

This is an impressive list, comprehending most of what Protestants have done in worship for nearly 500 years, and in which even Roman Catholics have joined them since Vatican II in the mid-1960s.

They too are now emphasising biblical preaching. They too are now enjoying congregational singing. They too have revived the prayers of intercession. They too are receiving communion in both kinds. They too are making liturgical use of the creed. They too are closing their services with a benediction.              


The Reformers, however, also rejected a number of post-Constantinian (after AD 313) developments that could not be justified by Scripture and patristic practice: liturgical use of incense; expansive church calendar; liturgical use of icons and images; lectionary of lectio selecta readings; altars and priests; and sacrament as ‘sacrifice’.

The Reformers were ready to dispense with customary medieval practices that could not be squared with either Scripture or the catholic principle of ‘that which has been believed and practised by all believers and at all times’. Unbiblical post-Constantinian innovations were to be rejected in favour of that which was biblical and properly catholic.

The author is senior minister of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia, USA. This extract (also ET, August 2015) is edited with permission from his recent book, Worshipping with Calvin (EP Books; 433 pages, £14.99; ISBN: 9780852349366).
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