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New Horizons

Is Reformed Worship Eurocentric?

Terry L. Johnson

The immediate roots of Reformed worship clearly are anchored in Europe, even Northern Europe. Does this mean that Reformed worship is “Eurocentric” in some kind of limiting way?

Some critics argue that Reformed worship is what it is because of culturally relative distinctions that can be discarded in favor of other culturally relative distinctions of non-European cultures. They seem to have in mind a more emotionally expressive preaching and praying, a more physically and vocally active participation, and a more musically dominated approach. They tend to describe Reformed worship as overly intellectual, word-dominant, and rationalistic. These characteristics are attributed to the culture of Europe rather than to biblical or theological conviction.

Is this argument correct? Americans at this particular point in our history are obsessed with ethnicity and race. Nearly everything—religion, employment, politics, music, language—is reduced to race. Yet as Christians, our concern ultimately is not with race, but with truth. (This is not to say that there are not important racial issues past and present and future that must be dealt with, but rather that everything should not be viewed through the lens of race.) Although its immediate roots are in Europe, what are the distant roots of Reformed worship? Does it have foundational roots in the patristic church that are non-European? The answer is yes. To be Reformed is to be profoundly catholic.[1]

Christianity: Not a European Import

Consider first that Christianity itself is not Eurocentric. Jesus and his disciples were Middle-Easterners. They were Semitic. The earliest churches were in Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Ethiopia, and North Africa. Not until Acts 16 does the gospel cross over into Macedonia and Europe. Thomas Oden, who is general editor of the landmark multi-volume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, argues that the flow of ideas and influence that have given shape to historic Christianity was not north to south, as has been often assumed, from Europe to Africa, but south to north, from Africa to Europe.[2] The intellectual centers of early Christianity in the earliest days were in the Middle East, in Alexandria, Egypt, and especially in North Africa. Classic ecumenical Christianity “was largely defined in Africa,” Oden writes. It is not a European import. “The Christian leaders in Africa figured out how best to read the law and prophets meaningfully, to think philosophically, and to teach the ecumenical rule of triune faith cohesively, long before these patterns became normative elsewhere.”[3]

For example, Tertullian (c. 160–220), reared in Carthage in North Africa (present day Tunisia) created much of Latin Christianity’s orthodox theological terminology (e.g., substantia as in “one substance,” personae as in “three persons,” and trinitas, “Trinity”) and developed the early Christological formulations. Origen (c. 185–c. 254), born in Alexandria, Egypt, was one of the first Christians to develop a systematic statement of faith. He was an energetic Bible commentator and an effective apologist. Cyprian (d. 258), also of Carthage, has been called “one of the greatest theologians in the history of the Christian church.” Athanasius of Alexandria, Egypt (c. 296–373), nicknamed the “Black dwarf,” by the way, was the great champion of orthodoxy against Arianism and famously stood for the doctrine of the Trinity contra mundum, against the world. His treatise, On the Incarnation of the Word of God, is a theological classic. Augustine of Hippo, born in present day Algeria (354–430), North Africa, is, of course, the single most important theologian in the history of the Christian church, writing with decisive insight on the subjects of the Trinity, the dual nature of Christ, original sin, free will, grace, predestination, and the church and sacraments. The Cappadocian fathers, natives of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), were the decisive influence leading to the final defeat of Arianism at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

Anyone who wishes to identify Christianity as “Western” or “European” or “white” must not only ignore the Middle Eastern origins of the Hebrew patriarchs and prophets, of Jesus and the apostles, but also the development of the defining doctrines of the Christian religion in the first four centuries. Historic orthodoxy and catholic doctrines of the creeds and counsels primarily are products of African and Middle Eastern church fathers.

When Christianity invaded Northern Europe, the missionary preachers did not encounter the Dutch Masters hanging in townhomes or Bach fugues being played in assembly halls. They encountered crude barbarism. The European culture that developed was the fruit of the interaction between Christianity and the native genius of the various people groups. Christianity is not European, but European culture owes much to Christianity.

Distant Roots of Reformed Worship

Doxology is but the expression of theology. Given that the theological roots of Reformed orthodoxy primarily are non-European (and especially Augustinian), we may expect that the liturgical elements of Reformed worship will have these same non-European, patristic roots. An examination of those core elements—lectio-continua reading and preaching, psalm-singing, covenantal sacraments, and prayer—will confirm our hunch.

Lectio-continua reading and preaching

Verse-by-verse preaching has been a hallmark of Reformed Protestantism from the very beginning. Why? Because of what can be known from the Bible and church history. The apostle Paul exhorts his successor, Timothy, and all subsequent successors, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). The text literally reads, “the reading.” It could be called the reading because it was a known entity, inherited from the synagogues, of reading sequentially through books of the Bible (see Luke 4:16–17; Acts 13:15; 15:21). The lectio continua was characteristic of the Bible readings and preaching in the early church. Of this, liturgical scholars agree.

We also see this clearly in the work of the church fathers. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–205) provides one of the earliest extant Christian sermons, a verse-by-verse exposition of Mark 10:17–31, preached with historical-grammatical awareness in which he allows Scripture to interpret Scripture.[4] Origen may be considered the father of biblical exposition. He wrote commentaries on almost all the books of the Bible, and his homilies are among the oldest examples of biblical preaching. While ministering in Caesarea (northern Palestine) he preached through the whole Bible. John Chrysostom (c. 344/354–407), Syrian by birth, preached through most of the books of the New Testament. His sermons on Matthew influenced Reformer Ulrich Zwingli, leading to his decision to preach verse by verse through Matthew beginning the first Sunday in January 1519, at Zurich’s Great Minster church. This has been called “the first liturgical reform of Protestantism.” Augustine of Hippo (354–430) is regarded by Hughes Old as not only “a master of classical oratory,” but also “a great expository preacher.” As a former professor of rhetoric, Augustine could have used a more artistic, more embellished, more rhetorically sophisticated and popularly esteemed form of preaching. But he clearly chose not to do so, “sticking instead with the form of the expository sermon as it was developed in the synagogue in the early Christian church.”[5]

These early non-European Christians gave to us the formative examples of straight-forward, text-driven expository preaching. The decision to preach text-driven, lectio continua, verse-by-verse sermons is not a decision to preach like Europeans, but a decision to preach after the model of the best of the Christian tradition.

Psalm-singing

The Reformation revived congregational singing of psalms and biblical hymns. The psalter itself, a book of songs in the center of the Bible, was argument enough for the church to undertake psalm-singing as a regular part of its worship. The apostles commend it (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; James 5:13), and so the Reformers embraced it. They also learned of the importance of congregational psalm-singing from the church fathers. For example, Tertullian, in the second century, testified that psalm-singing was not only an essential feature of the worship of his day, but also had become an important part of the daily life of the people. Athanasius says it was the custom of his day to sing psalms, which he calls “a mirror of the soul.” Eusebius (c. 260–c. 340), Bishop of Caesarea, left this vivid picture of the psalm-singing of his day: “The command to sing Psalms in the name of the Lord was obeyed by everyone in every place: for the command to sing is in force in all churches which exist among nations, not only the Greeks but also throughout the whole world, and in towns, villages and in the fields.”[6]

Covenantal sacraments

Jesus said of the Lord’s Supper, “This … is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20; Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; 1 Cor. 11:25). By invoking the covenant on an occasion of participation in a covenantal meal, Passover, Jesus was signaling the fundamental meaning of the eucharist. It is a covenant meal which is both a sign and seal of that covenant. Likewise, circumcision is identified by the apostle Paul as “sign” and “seal” of justification in Romans 4:11. Circumcision is identified with baptism in Colossians 2:11–12, Paul even calling it “the circumcision of Christ.” Baptism is the covenant rite of admission.

The Reformers spoke of the sacraments as “visible words” and as “outward signs of inward graces.” Where did they get this language? From the Bible. The apostle Paul says that by administering the Lord’s Supper we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). The Lord’s Supper is a form of words. He also speaks of “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink” (1 Cor. 10:3, 4), as well as “the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:6; compare with Rom. 6:3–11), that is, of external signs of inward graces.

Yet the Reformers also learned this language from the African and Middle Eastern church fathers. The Africans Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine all gave prominence to a covenantal understanding of sacraments as oaths by which covenants are ratified or confirmed. Augustine defined the sacrament as “visible words” and as external signs of inward graces, both classic definitions. This covenantal understanding had a profound influence on the church’s understanding of the meaning and manner of administration of the sacraments, and especially influenced the Reformers and subsequent Protestantism. The eucharistic reforms of the sixteenth century are rooted in Scripture and largely non-European patristic testimony.

Prayer

Reformed Protestants have insisted on biblical prayer—and by “biblical,” they meant prayer in the language of the Bible. The Bible gives us terminology to use in prayer, as each generation must ask, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). It also gives us the categories: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim. 2:1–2). The Reformers identified six basic prayer genres in Scripture: praise, confession of sin, thanksgiving, intercession, illumination, benediction. Further, they identified five categories into which intercessions might be divided: sanctification of saints; church and its ministry; sick and suffering; civil authorities; Christian mission. They found support for this also in the writings of the fathers: Syrian and Egyptian liturgies, Augustine, Tertullian, Ambrose, etc.[7] By restoring the prayers of praise, intercessions, illumination, and benediction, the Reformers launched a veritable “revolution in prayer.”[8]

Simplicity

Reformed worship is simple. Reformed Protestants merely urge that Christian assemblies do that which Scripture directs. The resulting services are simple and plain: the Word is read, preached, sung, prayed, and seen. Unauthorized ceremonies, rituals, gestures, symbols, and postures are eliminated so as not to distract attention from the ordinary means of grace, the Word, sacraments, and prayer. Worship must be “according to Scripture,” regulated by Scripture, and therefore limited to what God has authorized. This means that worship will be simple. It will be focused. This too was emphasized by the early Christians, especially the Africans. They took seriously the prophetic tradition which warned of external ostentation at the expense of internal or heart service (e.g., Amos 5:21–24; Isa. 1:10–15; Jer. 7:1–11). Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215), Tertullian, and Lactantius (c. 250–325), another North African theologian, came to their understanding of Christian worship before it had been influenced by what Hughes Old calls, “the trappings of the imperial court.”[9]

We recognize that many questions are left unresolved by our review of the roots of Reformed worship. Yet those of us wishing to see the growth of Reformed and Presbyterian Protestantism can’t but rejoice to discover so many of our “patristic roots” in Africa and non-European sources. Calvin was reviving the ministry and worship of the ancient church when he published his “Form of Church Prayers according to the custom of the Ancient Church.” Not only did the Reformers look to Scripture for the patterns, but also to the best of the early churches. When we bring Reformed Protestantism to Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the African diaspora around the world, we bring not a European import, but that which is scriptural and indigenous to the African, the Middle Eastern, and non-European peoples. 

Endnotes

[1] Hughes O. Old’s Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship (Theologischer, 1970) evaluates and in the end substantiates Calvin’s claim that his “Form of Church Prayers” expressed more the convictions of the church Fathers than the culture of the Reformers.

[2] Thomas C. Oden, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, volumes 1–30 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998).

[3] Thomas C. Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 29–30.

[4] See Hughes O. Old, The Reading & Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 1–7 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998–2010); 1:294–305.

[5] Ibid., 2:381. See also 4:46 and 2:324

[6] J. G. Davies, The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), 451.

[7] See Old, Patristic Roots, 219–250; Worship, 91–107.

[8] Old, Class Lectures, Erskine Theological Seminary, May 11, 2004.

[9] Hughes O. Old, Themes and Variations for a Christian Doxology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 98.

The author, a PCA minister, is senior pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia. New Horizons, May 2019.

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