The Sursum Corda Promotes Corporate Worship

Jeffrey B. Wilson

Ordained Servant: December 2014


Also in this issue

Grace Mullen: A Life in the Shadows

Playing before the Lord by Calvin R. Stapert

Precious in God’s Sight, But What Do God’s People See? Review Article

Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff: A Review Article

A Christmas Carol

Sonnet in Winter

In 1572 various ecclesiastical movements, agitating for change in the Church of England, began to line up together with the publication of a tract called An Admonition to Parliament. This publication fired a shot at the established church and in doing so marked off those who wanted wholesale revision within the official worship and government of the Church of England from those who essentially embraced the status quo. The agitators were a disparate collection of Barrowist, Brownist, and Anabaptist separatists, Independents, Puritans (who were willing to honor the civil magistrate so long as their worship was unimpeded), and Presbyterians. One of the Presbyterian leaders was Thomas Cartwright. Four months after the first tract was published, Cartwright sent another in which he challenged the use of specific prayers prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer. In this manifesto he opposed the church regulating what every local congregation was to do and say in worship. Among other concerns, Cartwright argued for a freedom of worship. In this pamphlet he provocatively asks, “Againe, where learned they to multiplie up many prayers of one effect, so many times Glorye be to the Father, so manye times the Lorde be with you, so many times let us pray. Whence learned they all those needelesse repetitions?[1] He considered these phrases of worship residue from the Catholic Church and he denounced such prayer as contrary to the words of Christ, “You when you pray use not vaine repetitions as the heathen doe, says he.” Although Cartwright does not mention it by name, his polemic presumably would include the sursum corda (lift up your hearts). In the historic liturgies of the church the sursum corda is the preface to the prayer of thanksgiving used during the celebration of communion. The complete dialogue is as follows:

Minister: The Lord be with you.
Congregation: And also with you.
Minister: Lift up your hearts.
Congregation: We lift them up to the Lord.
Minister: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
Congregation: It is right to give him thanks and praise.

After the sursum corda, the minister offers thanksgiving to God focused on the acts of Jesus Christ for our redemption: his incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension and outpouring of the Spirit. Because the centerpiece of this preface to the Eucharistic prayer is the summons to “lift up your hearts,” it is called the sursum corda, and in the historic liturgies it is said every time communion is served and the prayer of thanksgiving is prayed. Those in the Puritan movement argued for extemporaneous, non-repetitive prayer because they believed a free form of worship was inspired by the Spirit.[2] Over time the effect of the popular dissention from the established church was to erase responses and dialogues from the worship of many Protestant churches, including Presbyterian ones. It is the argument of this essay that the sursum corda should be included in our liturgies because it contributes to a richer theology of the Lord’s Supper and promotes the active participation of the congregation in corporate worship.

John Calvin and Peter Martyr Vermigli did not believe the sursum corda was vain or empty. Since they were enmeshed in the controversy with the Roman Catholic Church, the Mass was their immediate context for instruction and debate about worship. The sursum corda was a rubric in the Catholic liturgy. Yet both Calvin and Vermigli knew that it had been used by the early Church Fathers and was not exclusively Roman Catholic. Calvin includes this observation in his comments about rightly apprehending Christ in the Lord’s Supper, “And for the same reason it was established of old that before consecration the people should be told in a loud voice to lift up their hearts.”[3] Vermigli thought the sursum corda and the prayer of thanksgiving were worth keeping, partly because the Fathers (like Chrysostom and Augustine) taught the necessity of the sursum corda.[4]

One of the inherent problems with the Mass, according to Calvin, was that it focused the congregation’s faith on the elements of the sacrament, the bread and the wine, rather than on the ascended Jesus Christ whose humanity was locally present in heaven. More to the point, Calvin said the reality upon which the sacraments rest is Christ himself. The reality and the elements are not the same thing. By confusing the elements with Christ’s body, the Catholic Mass wrongly directed the church’s faith to the sacramental elements. As Calvin saw it, this error led to superstition and idolatry. Arguing that a proper distinction must be made in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Calvin decisively uses the language of the sursum corda in his writings. In his Short Treatise on the Holy Supper Calvin says, “Moreover, the practice always observed in the ancient church was that, before celebrating the Supper, the people were solemnly exhorted to lift their hearts on high, to show that we must not stop at the visible sign, to adore Jesus Christ rightly.”[5] For Calvin, faith is properly set upon Jesus Christ. In his treatment of the sacraments he refers to Augustine who warned against “not lifting our minds beyond the visible sign, to transfer to it the credit for those benefits which are conferred upon us by Christ alone.”[6] Vermigli echoed this same point saying, “Wherefore in the church it is not by chance that rule obtains, before we come to the mystery, of calling out sursum corda, that is as if to say, ‘Let your souls cling not to these things that are seen, but to those which are promised.’ ”[7] Not limited to the communion meal, this faith set upon Christ pertains to the entire Christian life. Writing on the Life of the Christian Man, in his Institutes, Calvin gives this instruction, “Ever since Christ himself, who is our Head, ascended into heaven, it behooves us, having laid aside love of earthly things, wholeheartedly to aspire heavenward.”[8] The entire Christian life is lived in faith properly set upon the ascended Jesus Christ. This heavenly aspiration of the life of the Christian is centered in worship at the Lord’s Supper, with the words of the sursum corda, “lift up your hearts.” These words in the liturgy state the directionality for faith and the life of the Christian. It encapsulates the nature of Christian faith as directed from creaturely things to Christ.

The richness of the sursum corda is found in the directionality of the faith of the church to Christ; but there is also the directionality of Christ to the church. Jesus Christ who ascended into heaven comes to be present with the church. Calvin’s teaching on the Spirit as the bond between the Christian and Christ is well known. The Spirit who is sent by Christ at Pentecost unites the church with the ascended Lord. In the Lord’s Supper the Spirit’s bond makes Christ present with his church. In his discussion of the benefits of receiving the Lord’s Supper, Calvin insists on the presence of Christ: “We say Christ descends to us both by the outward symbol and by his Spirit, that he may truly quicken our souls by the substance of his flesh and of his blood.”[9] On this point Vermigli used the sursum corda to explain Christ’s participation with the church. The faith of the Christian is lifted up to Christ which Vermigli explains further:

For there [at the Lord’s Supper] you must not think either of the bread or of the wine—your mind and sense must cleave only to the things represented unto you. Therefore it is said “Lift up your hearts,” when you lift up your mind from the signs to the invisible things offered you.[10]

For Vermigli there is a real reception of Christ offered to the Christian, “I judge the real and substantial body of Christ to be only in the heavens, yet the faithful truly receive, spiritually and through faith, the communication of His true body and His true blood, which was delivered to the cross for our sake.”[11] The Church’s faith is not lifted up to a static Christ, but to the One who promises to give himself to his people for food.[12] Calvin agrees in his treatise on the Lord’s Supper:

On the one hand we must, to shut out all carnal fancies, raise our hearts on high to heaven, not thinking that our Lord Jesus Christ is so abased as to be enclosed under any corruptible elements. On the other hand, not to diminish the efficacy of this sacred mystery, we must hold that it is accomplished by the secret and miraculous virtue of God, and that the Spirit of God is the bond of participation, for which reason it is called spiritual.[13]

The sursum corda, then, is the church’s prayerful declaration that its faith is lifted up to the Lord; the same Lord Jesus Christ who comes to be present with the church by his Spirit.

Calvin and Vermigli had no reservations about the value of the sursum corda for the church’s celebration of the sacrament of communion. For them it was not an empty liturgical phrase. However, there is some ambiguity in the way they used it, which leads to the question, is the directionality of the sursum corda individual or corporate? These two reformers do not address this question and their use of the sursum corda leaves the door open either way. Each individual Christian could take the words “lift up your hearts” as a call to set his or her own faith on Christ, by himself or herself. In a society where individualism is ubiquitous, this becomes the default way of hearing the sursum corda. To put it another way, with an individualistic conception of the sursum corda, each Christian’s faith lifted up to the Lord is a singular line, like an arrow flying to its mark. The problem with this way of understanding the sursum corda is that it isolates the individual Christian within the church by encouraging each person to focus on himself or herself, obscuring the corporate nature of the church, its worship, and its sacraments.

Julie Canlis has called attention to the ambiguity of Calvin’s doctrine of the sursum corda. She argues that this doctrine can remain nothing “more than a ‘cognitive plus’ or ‘mere psychological process.’ ”[14] Calvin placed the sursum corda in his exhortation at the beginning of the communion liturgy. Consequently, it no longer functioned as a liturgical dialogue with the congregation. Taken this way the sursum corda can become an invitation to a personal communion with Christ, and the bond of the Spirit becomes merely a personal bond. So, each individual Christian participates in Christ, one-to-one. Canlis compares Calvin’s doctrine with Irenaeus’s theology of recapitulation which teaches that God’s redemption in Christ extends beyond the individual to a collective humanity and to the creation. Calvin was no stranger to Irenaeus and drew upon this Church Father in his theology. On union with Christ, Calvin can be understood in broader terms than just the individual.[15] Yet if a theology of corporate union with Christ does not find liturgical expression in worship, then participants in worship can easily continue in their individualistic thinking, even with Calvin’s use of the sursum corda. This is what makes Calvin’s use of the sursum corda ambiguous.

What we do and say in worship goes a long way toward shaping the church’s faith and theology. Far better than dropping the sursum corda from worship, or turning it into a monologue, is using it in dialogue with the congregation, and using it every time the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. But is such liturgical repetition to be avoided, as Cartwright suggested in his manifesto? Of course mindless, insincere repetition should be avoided in worship. Worship should engage our hearts and our minds. Jesus did warn against vainly repeating ritualistic words themselves, as if that alone were pleasing to God.[16] In the writings of the prophets God declares that obedience and justice should accompany the worship of his people.[17] Rattling off the same prayer without being engaged in the prayer makes for empty praying. However, removing a prayer or a liturgical response from worship will not prevent mindlessness and insincerity in worship. People can be disengaged from the liturgy—their thoughts drifting away to work or pleasure—even with an order of worship that is new and different every week. There needs to be a distinction made between the behavior of vain repetition and the content of the liturgy of worship. If the content of a prayer is faithful to Scripture and is in a form conducive for worship, then it is not vapid and fruitless in and of itself. In the case of vain repetition, with a prayer that is biblical, the problem is with the one praying it, not the form of the prayer.

There is another way. Instead of excising biblically rich liturgy, like the sursum corda, from the worship of the church, it can be incorporated into the prayers and responses of the people in order to become the language of the congregation. In so doing, the content of the liturgy becomes “our” prayer and “our” language of worship. This can be done with the sursum corda. In the church I serve we use the sursum corda every week. It resonates within me every time I say it. It sharpens my focus for the Lord’s Supper. My heart is lifted up to the Lord by means of the bond of the Spirit, and so the Lord himself is present with me and he offers himself to me for the food of eternal life. I think of this every time I say the sursum corda, and I am not the only one: the members of the church I serve also think about this when they say the liturgy because they have been taught what it means and because they have taken it to heart. The words of the sursum corda have become their words. With the sursum corda our prayer is filled with fruitful theological content when we come to the Lord’s Table.

Beyond giving content to the people’s prayers, the sursum corda also serves to unite the congregation in worship. By saying it together, the ambivalence of Calvin’s use of the sursum corda is cleared away. When the minister says, “Lift up your hearts,” and when the congregation together responds with one voice, “We lift them up to the Lord,” an individualistic interpretation of our relationship to God gives way to an interpretation more reflective of the unity of the church. Saying the same thing together helps combat individualism. Along with all of Christ’s people, we are lifted up to Christ—one body, one family. Together we partake of his one body and blood shed for us. Together we are justified and forgiven of our sins—each one of us, yes, but also all of us together. Our Lord gives himself to us in love. He did not do this for each one of us alone. We share in his salvation together in Christ. The sursum corda, used responsively in worship, helps tip the balance of the church’s worship from being a collection of individuals who dwell on their one-to-one relationship with God, to the people of Christ joined together and lifted up to the Lord in the unity of the Spirit.

In the interest of enriching our liturgy and promoting corporate worship, let us return the sursum corda to its place as a dialogue at the beginning of the prayer of thanksgiving in the service of communion. Many churches have already done this, including some in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The OPC’s Directory for Worship has retained the first line of the sursum corda, “lift up your hearts,” in its suggested form of the exhortation given by the minister before the Lord’s Supper. This placement is according to Calvin’s use, and it serves its purpose to teach the congregation the proper focus of our faith as we partake of the sacrament. However, it can have the undesirable effect of sidelining the congregation and making the people passive in the liturgy. By pulling the sursum corda out of the communion exhortation and returning it to its place as a dialogue with the congregation, the church’s service of communion becomes a corporate act and increases the participation of the people in worship.


[1] W. H. Frere and C. E. Douglas, eds., Puritan Manifestoes: A Study of the Origin of the Puritan Revolt (London: Society For Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1907, digital scan reprint from the University of Toronto library), 114.

[2] Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans (Glasgow: Maclehose, 1948), 56.

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, LCC, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977), 1412.

[4] Joseph McClelland and Thomas F. Torrance, The Visible Words of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 205 and 232.

[5] John Calvin, “Short Treatise on the Holy Supper of Our Lord and Only Savior Jesus Christ,” in Calvin: Theological Treatises, LCC, trans. J. K. S. Reid (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954), 159.

[6] Calvin, Institutes, 4.14.17, 1292.

[7] Quoted in McLelland and Torrance, The Visible Words of God, 136.

[8] Calvin, Institutes, 3.6.3, 687. For further reading on this see Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

[9] Calvin, Institutes, 4.17.24, 1390.

[10] McLelland and Torrance, The Visible Words of God, 175. For one analysis of Calvin and Vermigli’s understanding of the relationship between Christ’s body and the sacrament see George Hunsinger, The Eucharist and Ecumenism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 40. Hunsinger explains that Vermigli preferred the word “transelementation” for the mystery of the transforming union of Christ with the sacrament, like a rod of iron thrust into a fire. “Just as the iron did not cease to be iron, or the fire fire, so did the bread not cease to be bread, or Christ’s flesh his flesh.” Ibid.

[11] McLelland and Torrance, The Visible Words of God, 174.

[12] See John 6:51–58.

[13] Calvin, Short Treatise on the Holy Supper of our Lord and only Savior Jesus Christ, 166. Elsewhere, in his sermon on II Samuel 6:1–7, Calvin says, “Thus, we must note that when God declares himself to us, we must not cling to any earthly thing, but must elevate our sense above the world, and lift ourselves up by faith to his eternal glory. In sum, God comes down to us so that then we might go up to him. That is why the sacraments are compared to the steps of a ladder.” See, John Calvin, Sermons on 2 Samuel, Chapters 1–13, trans. Douglas Kelly (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1992), 234.

[14] Julie Canlis, 168.

[15] Calvin brings out the corporate nature of the church in his doctrine of the unity of the church. He can say we are engrafted into the unity of the church and for believers “no hope of future inheritance remains to us unless we have been united with all other members under Christ, our Head.” For our engrafting into the unity of the church see Calvin, Institutes, 4.1.3, 1014.

Jeffrey B. Wilson is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister serving as pastor of Providence Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Southfield, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, December 2014.

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Ordained Servant: December 2014


Also in this issue

Grace Mullen: A Life in the Shadows

Playing before the Lord by Calvin R. Stapert

Precious in God’s Sight, But What Do God’s People See? Review Article

Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff: A Review Article

A Christmas Carol

Sonnet in Winter

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