Joel D. Fick
In the sixteenth century, a French monk named Antoine Cathelan visited a Genevan church and contemptuously opined on its simplicity of worship: “When the preacher appeared, all the people knelt down, except the preacher. And he began praying, with uncovered head, and his hands joined.”
“His prayer was entirely in French,” continued Cathelan, “created out of his own imagination, which was concluded with the Lord’s Prayer but not the Ave Maria. Then all the people responded quietly ‘Amen.’ And two times a week, [they] sing a Psalm before the sermon (but only in the cities). Everyone sings together while seated, men, women, girls, and infants” (Scott M. Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors , 32).
Cathelan also described the simplicity of its setting. “It is altogether like the interior of a college or school, full of benches, with a pulpit in the middle for the preacher. … The stained glass windows are just about all knocked out, and the plaster dust is up to the ankles.” In comparison to the pomp and circumstance that characterized so much of Christian worship, the worship of the Reformation must have seemed uninspiring. Historian Scott Manetsch concludes that “Cathelan clearly found the entire experience disorienting” and “these features of worship in Geneva scandalized the religious sensibilities of this Franciscan monk” (ibid.).
Fast-forward five hundred years and the average American Evangelical who wanders into a confessionally Reformed church might find the entire experience equally “disorienting.” A generation raised on the drama and drum kits of the contemporary worship service might again find their religious sensibilities scandalized by the sheer simplicity of Reformed worship. The subject of the simplicity of worship is as relevant today, and as worthy of consideration by the heirs of the Reformation, as it was five hundred years ago.
A central concern of the Reformation was reforming the worship of the church. John Calvin said that worship and salvation are as the soul is to the body of the church, while the sacraments and church government are as the body is to the soul. True worship being the very soul of the church was of first and highest concern for Calvin. While Israel “had the Spirit shadowed forth by many figures, we have it in simplicity,” said Calvin in The Necessity of Reforming the Church (emphasis added).
The principle of the simplicity of worship, together with the regulative principle of worship (which holds that God is the one who determines and regulates how he is to be worshiped), was at the heart of the Reformers’ concern. Both Guillaume Farel who preceded Calvin and Theodore Beza who followed him would articulate this concern in similar ways. Farel wrote,
The Church should be decorated and adorned with Jesus Christ and the Word of his gospel and his holy sacraments. This great Sun of Righteousness, Jesus Christ, and the light of his gospel, have nothing to do with our burning torches and our candles and candelabras. God has instead ordained that by true preaching and by the holy sacraments practiced in their simplicity this light might be manifested and illumine us with all glory. (Manetsch, 36)
Similarly, Beza preached:
The church is not a building that we enter to see the beautiful shapes of vaults and pillars, or to admire the splendor of gold and silver and precious stones. Nor is it a place that we visit in order to fill our ears with the singing of choirs and the music of organs. Rather it is a place where the pure Word of God is clearly preached in the presence of each person, with words of exhortation, consolation, warning, and censure necessary for salvation. (Manetsch, 37)
Jesus’s discussion in John 4 with the woman at the well gives insight into how to worship. She asked about the place where worship is to be conducted. Jesus answers that in this new hour, there is a new place, a new realm, a new mountain, a new sphere of worship appropriate to the climactic fulfillment of God’s purposes in sending his Son and in his sending of the Spirit. True worshipers now worship the Father “in spirit and truth” (v. 23, emphasis added).
Geerhardus Vos identifies this realm of the Spirit as the heavenly reality the Spirit embodies. The heavenly reality is the holy habitation of the Spirit and divine throne room where the resurrected Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father. It is to this reality that the author of Hebrews speaks when he distinguishes between the typological and ceremonial rituals of the Law and the fulfillment of those shadows in Christ (Heb. 9:23–24).
This heavenly reality is the realm of “spirit and truth” and it is into this reality that believers, now indwelt with the Spirit of the risen Christ, ascend by faith. This heavenly reality is the realm of the Spirit, or what Meredith Kline calls “the Endoxation of the Spirit” (God, Heaven, and Har Magedon , 13–15). It is not an earthly mountain like Sinai, Jerusalem, or Samaria—but it is a mountain nonetheless. “For you have not come to what may be touched … but you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:18, 22).
The eschatological character of worship in Spirit and truth informs our actual practice as we gather for worship in these last days. It may be objected that the far-surpassing glory of participation in the heavenly realities argues not for simplicity but rather for greater external extravagance. But that could only be true if the symbols had greater glory than the realities to which they pointed. New Covenant worship is a participation in heavenly realities and an assent to the heavenly Zion (the realm of Spirit and truth), but that assent is nevertheless an assent by faith and enabled by the Spirit. The present age in which believers already partake of “the good things that have come” (Heb. 9:11) is what Vos called “semi-eschatological” and our participation in these realities is by faith, “for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7).
It is by faith that God’s people have always been made partakers of the heavenly unseen realities (Heb. 11:1, 7, 9) and it is by faith that we now fix our eyes on Jesus (Heb. 12:2). For “though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8). Our faith, and not our sight, is presently “filled with glory.” When Jesus returns, faith will become sight, but for the present, the glory of those heavenly realities is veiled in simplicity.
The subject of the simplicity of worship is as relevant today as it was five hundred years ago. The Reformed principle of simplicity is simply a “theology of the cross” applied to worship. If it scandalizes someone’s religious sensibilities, whether they be a Jewish Christian tempted to return to the ceremonies of the Old Covenant, a Franciscan monk like Cathelan visiting Geneva, or an American Evangelical visiting a confessionally Reformed church, the feeling of disorientation is likely due to the fact that they have imbibed a philosophy of worship characterized by a “theology of glory.” However, in worship, the glory of the age to come is veiled in the simplicity of the ordinary means of grace.
What is needed, then, is not a greater level of external encumbrances to worship (be they smells, bells, or bands), but a greater appreciation of the eschatological realities to which by faith we have access. Our Book of Church Order sums it up beautifully:
By the Spirit of the exalted Christ, God draws near to his people and they draw near to their God. They come by grace to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, joining innumerable angels and all the people of God in joyous and reverent communion with him…. Public worship is to be conducted in reliance on the gracious working of the Spirit of the exalted Christ, which alone can make anyone capable of such sincerity, reverence, devotion, awe, expectation, and joy. Hence, from its beginning to its end, public worship should be conducted in that simplicity which manifests dependence on the Spirit of Christ to bless his own ordinances. (Directory for Public Worship I.B.3, emphasis added)
The author is the pastor of Redemption OPC in Gainesville, Florida. New Horizons, January 2018.