It is widely understood that the Reformation was a movement of theological reform. Luther’s dramatic confrontations, from the posting of the 95 theses on Oct. 31, 1517, to his trial in 1521 at Worms, to his burning of the Papal Bull that condemned him a year later, and the countless subsequent conflicts with the religious and civil authorities, were all theologically-driven. The central Protestant doctrinal concerns have been succinctly summarized by the mottos of the Reformation, the so-called “solas”: Scripture, Christ, Faith, Grace, & God’s glory alone.1 What must I do to be saved? Turn to Scripture alone for the answer, which will direct us to Christ alone, whose benefits are received by faith alone, as enabled by grace alone, all to the glory of God alone. The whole gospel as we understand it is a gift of the Reformation to our churches today.
The Reformers were convinced that the worship of the late medieval church had become too complicated. They looked about the church of the day and saw cluttered around the word and sacraments a host of extra-biblical anointings, exercisms, processionals, gestures, postures, and symbols, so that, says Calvin, “the very ceremonies established by God cannot lift their head in such a great crowd, but lie as if crushed.”3
“The (public) reading” was a lectio continua reading, as was the case in the synagogue, as even Roman Catholic scholars acknowledge (cf. Acts 13:15; 15:21).7 With so little Bible reading evident in churches today, we would do well to recall that the Reformers urged the reading of whole chapters from each testament in the church’s regular services.8
We will ensure that psalms are sung, as they have been the primary songbook for the church for most of its 2000 years, and that our hymns are full of biblical content, that they “edify” (1 Cor 14:13-19), that they “teach and admonish” (Eph 5:19, 20), that the “word of Christ dwells richly” in them (Col 3:16). We will not settle for sweet-sounding but biblically and doctrinally anemic songs that have become so popular in recent years, and are not unlike the medieval “versicles” rejected by the Reformers. We will make sure that our prayers are biblically enriched, and so also edify (1 Cor 14:13-19). We will ensure that the administration of the sacraments is accompanied by scriptural explanation. Calvin insists that “the right administering of the sacrament cannot stand apart from the word.”9 “The sacrament,” he maintains, “requires preaching.”10
Musically, the revolutionary idea of the Reformation was that you could sing to your God yourself in church, not just listen to a trained initiate do it for you in a secret, private language which he understood and you didn’t. This idea is rooted in doctrine, and creates a divide which runs from before the Reformation and forward for the rest of this history, between music written for the trained professional, and music meant for anybody, anytime, anywhere.17
We also will be careful not to underestimate the importance of the Lord’s Supper. Calvin said,
Finally, we will conduct our ministry and worship sola Deo Gloria. This was the motto of mottos, the motive of motives, the sum of all their work. This is what drove the theological reforms as well as the liturgical reforms that flowed from them. The Reformers were convinced that only when these reforms were enacted would God get the glory that He deserves. Glorifying God means limiting our services to those elements that God Himself authorizes and filling those services with Scripture, prayer, congregational singing, and the frequent administration of the Lord’s Supper. Thankfully, even post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism has embraced many of the Reformers’ critiques of the late-Medieval church. Since the mid-1960’s, the bishops have encouraged vernacular services, vernacular Bible translations and Bible readings, congregational singing, and expanded prayer genres.23
See the present author’s The Case for Traditional Protestantism (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2004).
Quoted in Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Abingdon Cokesbury Press, 1950), 339.
Ibid., IV:xviii.20, 1448.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Library of Christian Classics, Vol. 2, ed. By John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), IV, I.xi.8, 108.
cf. Isa 11:1ff; 43:23, 24; Jer 6:20, 7:4; Hos 6:6; Joel 2:12, 13; Am 5:21-24; Mic 6:6-8; Zech 7:4; Mal 1:6-14.
Ottomar F. Cypris, Martin Bucer’s Ground and Reason: A Commentary and Translation (1524, 1971; Yulee, FL: Good Samaritan Books, 2016).
Eg. Joseph A. Jungmann, The Early Liturgy, University of Notre Dame Liturgical Studies, Volume VI (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1959), 167.
E.g. the Westminster Directory urges that a whole chapter from each testament be read in each service.
Calvin, Institutes, IV.xvii.39, 1416.
Ibid., IV.xix.6, 1454.
Kent Hughes, “Free Church Worship,” in D.A. Carson (ed), Worship By the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002),147.
The appelation was that of Princeton’s Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921).
Hughes O. Old, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture, Revised and Expanded Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 173.
Cited in Bainton, Here I Stand, 341, 343.
Both are cautious about its capacity to corrupt as well.
Quoted in Bartlett R. Butler, “Hymns” in Hillerbrand (ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, Vol. 2 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 290.
Cited by David A. Hoekema in The Christian Century magazine, Sept. 13, 2017, 38, quoting Andrew Gant, O Sing unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2017), 55 (my emphasis).
T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2010).
John Calvin, “Preface to the Psalter,” 1543, found in Elsie Ann McKee (ed.), John Calvin: Writings on Personal Piety, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 2001), 91-97.
Cited in Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1061), 98.
John Calvin, Short Treatise on the Holy Supper of our Lord and Only Savior Jesus Christ, in J. K. S. Reid (ed.), Calvin’s Theological Treatises, Liberty of Christian Classics, vol. 22 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), 149.
E.g. “Prayer of the Faithful,” also called the “Universal Prayer,” a prayer of intercession for the church, the world, and the needy; the benediction; and the communion epiclesis, invoking the Holy Spirit.
Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church, 111; cf. Martin Luther, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church in James Atkinson (ed.), Three Treatises (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970),151-153.