Calvin the Liturgist: How 'Calvinist' is Your Church's Liturgy?

If John Calvin were a member of your worship committee, what comments might he have about the shape and content of the liturgy your congregation follows on Sunday morning! Would he be impressed with your creative litanies, warmed by your pastor's folksy opening remarks! Or would he be critical of some of your more innovative practices, appalled that you celebrate the Lord's Supper only four times a year?

In the following article James De Jong, president of Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan; takes a look at Calvin's well-defined ideas about the nature and form of worship and reminds contemporary Christians what it means to worship in the Calvinist tradition.

True worship was John Calvin's main passion. In fact, he devoted his life to helping people genuinely honor God through simple uncluttered worship. His reforms in Strassburg and neva cleared away " liturgical trappings' that got in the way of communion with the Almighty. His writings —commentaries, Institutes, tracts, letters, psalm versifications, catechisms, and church regulations—all had one purpose: helping others know God that they might glorify him forever.

Calvin's approach to liturgy, described in The Form of Prayers, was biblically thoughtful and consistent with early church worship. While the Genevan Reformer did not dwell on technique or modify his liturgy from week to week, his theological writings and his service books show that he was a sensitive, complete liturgist.

Tone of Worship

"The due worship of God" is God-directed, says Calvin in The Necessity of Reforming the Church. Believers approach God in full awareness of who he is, and together they magnify his greatness. This reverent tone pervades ^ the service, flowing naturally into authentic prayer, praise, adoration, thanksgiving, humbling of self, and commitment to God's will; it achieves profound expression in the Lord's Supper. For Calvin, then, the spiritual quality of the worship service was more important than the shape of the liturgy. For him the spirituality of worship began in the sanctuary but carried over into daily life. He believed that people ought to ^L live worshipfully.

To achieve this tone of spirituality, said Calvin, simplicity is important. Liturgical practices that call attention to themselves obscure God, kill worship, and subvert the life of faith. One must understand Calvin's long passages against images, relics, veneration of the saints, sacramental ism, and all human ceremonies as his conscientious effort to restore direct, simple fellowship between God and his people. What was at stake was the renewal of spiritual life. For John Calvin, the true preaching of the Word, heartfelt prayer, congre- gational praise, and proper use of the sacraments were the liturgical means for joining the believing worshiper to the living God.

Calvin's Service

Calvin's service opened with the minister entering, positioning himself behind the communion table, and saying: "Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth" (Psalm 124:8).

A call to confession of sins and an appropriate prayer followed. In Strassburg he used an absolution at this point in the service ("To all those who thus repent and seek Jesus Christ for their salvation, I pronounce absolution in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."); in Geneva he replaced the absolution with a statement of forgiveness. The singing of the first table of the Law, followed by a prayer and the singing of the second table, concluded the service of confession.

As the people sang the second table of the Law, the minister entered the pulpit (in later years Calvin conducted the entire service from the pulpit). The minister then led the congregation in a prayer for illumination, concluded with the Lord's Prayer. The singing of a psalm, a Scripture reading, and the sermon followed.

Calvin's service ended with collections for the poor, intercessions, singing the Apostles' Creed, brief pastoral encouragements, singing another psalm, and the Aaronic benediction.

Sacrament Celebration

Calvin advocated weekly celebration of the Lord's Supper, insisting that infrequent communion was an "invention of the devil." However, the Genevan magistrates voted against him on this issue. They argued that weekly celebration of the sacrament was too Roman Catholic.

On those Sundays—at least once every three months—when the congregation did celebrate communion, the sacrament was the final part of the liturgy, just before the benediction. The Lord's Prayer and the creed, which the congregation usually recited earlier in the service, were included in the communion liturgy on these Sundays.

Calvin's eucharistic liturgy included the biblical words of institution, an exhortation to celebrate faithfully, the prayer of consecration, the fraction or presentation of the elements, partaking by the people, a prayer of thanksgiving, singing the Song of Simeon (Nunc dimittis), and the benediction. The congregation received the elements while standing by the table. While the two elements were distributed and taken, the worship leader read a psalm or other appropriate selections from Scripture. This practice continued, with modification, in other European Reformed churches.

Liturgical Practices

Calvin preached without notes. He used the original Hebrew or Greek text and worked through the passage clause by clause or section by section, making applications as he went. Using the lectio continua approach, he preached the Old Testament on weekdays and the New on Sunday mornings. For the second Sunday service he regularly chose a psalm for his text.

Calvin used plain, almost colloquial language. He employed a wide range of emotions in his delivery, sometimes choosing rhetorical techniques, like dialoguing with an opponent. And he consistently challenged people to respond in faith.

Children and their role in the service were important to Calvin. He taught children new psalm versifications and had them lead and enrich the singing of the congregation.

Prayer, he believed, should be confident and understandable, relying heavily on God's promises. In his liturgies Calvin used a combination of written prayer (printed in the worship book) and extemporaneous prayer.

Calvin also had some definite ideas about the Lord's Supper. He believed the church should not admit members to the table until they had made profesion faith. The profession included testimony to the minister that the person "wishes to live according to the Reformation of the Gospel and knows the creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the commandments of God." Elements of the Supper were not to be gazed on or idolized. Calvin opposed carrying the bread about in the service, elevating it, or otherwise showing it undue interest. He was indifferent to the color of the wine and to whether people tore the bread from a loaf handed between them or had it passed already divided. Basically he expected members to be present at the supper, to behave, and to attend from start to finish—all of which were issues often discussed in consistory.

Reliable Guides

To most of us Calvin's liturgy sounds surprisingly familiar. That's because many of his ideas and practices are evident in Reformed worship services today. His principles still are reliable guides. Many worship committees would benefit from a careful study of these principles before adding needless clutter and confusion to the Sunday morning liturgy in an attempt to be inno- vative."

Calvin's main legacy to us, however, is not his liturgy. His most important contribution to the Reformation and to Christians today was his emphasis on worship as genuinely spiritual. He directed all of his work toward helping people genuinely honor and reverence God.

Calvin's Liturgies: Strassburg and Geneva
Strassburg, 15 Geneva, 1542
The Liturgy of the Word
Scripture Sentence:      
Psalm 124:8    
Scripture Sentence:
Psalm 124:8
Confession of sins  Confession of sins 
Scriptural words of pardon  Prayer for pardon
Metrical Decalogue
sung with Kyrie eleison
after each Law
Metrical Psalm
Collect for Illumination   Collect for Illumination
Lection Lection
Sermon Sermon
The Liturgy of the Upper Room
Collection of alms   Collection of alms  
Intercessions  Intercessions 
Lord's Prayer in long paraphrase  Lord's Prayer in long paraphrase 
Preparation of elements while
Apostles' Creed sung
Preparation of elements while
Apostles' Creed sung
Consecration Prayer  
Lord's Prayer  
Words of Institution  Words of Institution 
Exhortation Exhortation
  Consecration Prayer
Fraction Fraction
Delivery Delivery
Communion, while
psalm sung 
Communion, while
psalm or Scriptures read
Post-communion collect Post-communion collect
Nunc dimittis in meter  
Aaronic Blessing  Aaronic Blessing 
Reformed Worship 9 © September 1988, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.