Books: Leading in Worship; Worship in Spirit and Truth

Leading in Worship by Terry L. Johnson. Oak Ridge, TN: The Covenant Foundation, 1996.184 pp.
Worship in Spirit and Truth by John Frame. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1996.171 pp.

Here are two books by conservative Presbyterians who do not at all agree on how Presbyterians (and other Christians) ought to worship.

Johnson's book consists of two main sections—an essay on Reformed worship and a collection of liturgical resources. We'll look at the second part first.

The subtitle of the book indicates its intended audience and aim: "A Sourcebook for Presbyterian Students and Ministers Drawing Upon the Biblical and Historic Forms of the Reformed Tradition." The materials are derived mostly from Reformed, Puritan, and Presbyterian sources. Calvin looms large, as do Martin Bucer and Richard Baxter, and there's frequent reliance on the Westminster Confession, the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, the 1906 Book of Common Worship, and the PCA Book of Church Order. Johnson has supplied worship leaders with a rich choice of prayers, calls to worship, benedictions, and complete orders of worship.

The other important part of the book is a thorough introductory essay (pp. 1-20) on the uniqueness of Reformed worship and the urgency of maintaining that worship in today's churches. Relying on older Presbyterian writers and especially on the recent work of Hughes Oliphant Old, Johnson clearly summarizes the classic position of Presbyterian worship. Basic to this position is the "regulative principle"—the teaching that in Christian worship one may perform only those actions found in Scripture.

Johnson's essay is much better than similar Presbyterian writings on worship. Although he has grave reservations about, for example, "praise and worship," he generally avoids caricature of the positions he disagrees with. 1 intend to use his essay in my classes on worship.

But I continue to have many questions about his position. First, although Johnson purports that the traditional view has "400 years of agreement" since all hold to the regulative principle, I do not see such unanimity among adherents of this principle. For example, Johnson approves of the celebration - of Christmas, but the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia judges: "The observance of Christmas and Easter, because of their pagan origins, is prohibited by the Word of God." Again, Johnson advocates using musical instruments in worship, but that same Evangelical Presbyterian Church finds the use of instruments in conflict with God's Word. Johnson approves of the singing of hymns in public worship; others judge that singing such "songs of human composition" violates God's law. As long as one finds such strong disagreements among adherents to the regulative principle, perhaps the rest of us can be excused for having some reservations about it.

Other questions arise. Johnson pontificates that those who do not hold to his biblical principles for worship are destined to destroy Presbyterian churches. "We may face the defection of a whole generation if we do not achieve a greater uniformity of worship" (p. 2). Strong language. But it is hard to be persuaded by such arguments, since Johnson's own use of Scripture is highly selective. He keeps reminding us (properly) that we should sing the psalms. But where does he join the psalmist in ecstatic dance (Ps. 150)? Or lifting hands in prayer? (Yes, the Lord will again have to call upon the streams and hills to dance, because his Presbyterian and Reformed people sit demurely in the pews.) Where's the free-flowing, participatory worship of 1 Corinthians 14? Where's the falling down of Revelations 5? Where is, as one author calls it, the biblical "praying with our bones"? Instead of Scripture's wholehearted and whole-bodied boisterous praise, Johnson tends to turn worship into a quiet, proper, intellectual exercise. The sanctuary seems to have been turned into a classroom.

Are there no alternatives to Johnson's interpretation? In a long footnote (pp. 13-14) he deals with a just-published book by John Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth. Although Johnson and Frame share a common theological tradition, Johnson expresses vigorous disagreement with Frame's views on worship. I now turn to Frame's book.

John Frame, professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (Escondido), has written a fine study on worship. His topics include worship in Scripture, sacraments, the elements of worship, and three chapters on music. Although trained and well versed in classical music and conservative theology, Frame includes a carefully argued defense of the contemporary style of worship and music. It is a defense well worth reading.

However, in this review I want to focus especially on his treatment of the regulative principle. In some ways the book is an in-house discussion (quarrel?) among conservative Presbyterians. (Readers acquainted with the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church will recognize ongoing controversies.) But the discussion has wider relevance as well. All congregations should wrestle with the question: How does Scripture guide (regulate!) our worship?

Frame, like Johnson, adheres to the Westminster Confession on the acceptable way of worshiping the true God. God may not be worshiped according to ... any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture. Frame, however, faults the Puritan and Presbyterian tradition for a highly restrictive, minimalist interpretation of the regulative principle (no hymn singing, organ music, litanies, Easter celebration, and the like), and seeks to move beyond that restrictive tradition. He advocates a retention of the Westminster statement as a general principle, but with local applications that allow great diversity in terms of worship customs, musical styles, and liturgical orders. This diversity includes liturgical dance, drama, informal worship, and a variety of musical instruments. Most of these liturgical features are, of course, not new. Frame is hardly the first to suggest that (Reformed) worship may include a celebration of Christmas or that Christian symbols are fitting for worship. The value of his discussion lies in the fact that Frame approaches these issues in the context of a minimalist Presbyterian worship tradition, and that he grounds these worship features on biblical foundations.

I judge Frame's book to be successful. He has written a sane, refreshing, biblically informed guide on (Reformed) worship. However, I am not sure if he has been successful in demonstrating that his version of the regulative principle grows out of the Westminster Confession. Can he advocate (or at least allow) liturgical dance and drama presentations and expect the Westminster divines to nod approvingly? (Interestingly, a Westminster colleague of Frame, Robert Godfrey, recently argued on the basis of the Heidelberg Catechism that drama in worship is idolatry; see Outlook, October 1996. Again, my difficulty with the regulative principle—one adherent uses it to espouse drama in worship, while a colleague judges it not only inappropriate, but idolatrous.) But perhaps the Confession is more elastic than I thought. And certainly Frame's conclusion rings true to my reading of a Reformed interpretation of Scripture: Both in church meetings and in other settings, our responsibility is to discover what God has commanded in Scripture, and then to apply his commands to the specifics of the situation (p. 43).

Frame's book grew out of an adult church school class. A class could study Frame's book with great profit and be assured of stimulating discussion.

Harry Boonstra ( is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 45 © September 1997, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.