Genius of Reformed Liturgy

When the Swiss Reformers rebelled against the liturgical traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, they did so in terms of a coherent, controlling idea, a new vision. They had what we now recognize as a distinctively “Reformed” view of what we should do in liturgy and how we should understand it.

Under the leadership of John Calvin and others, these Reformers put their vision into practice and in doing so brought about the most radical liturgical reform that the Christian church has ever known. Note the word reform. The Reformers saw themselves not as beginning over but as returning to the liturgy of the early church.

The Beginnings of Christian Worship

We get a glimpse of what that early liturgy was like in the writings of Justin Martyr. “On the day named after the sun,” says Justin, “all who live in city or countryside assemble.” He then draws the following picture of a Christian liturgy in Rome around A.D. 150:

The service opened with someone reading the writings of the apostles and prophets “for as long as time permitted.” When the reading was finished, the ‘presider’ addressed the people in a sermon, exhorting them “to imitate the splendid things” they had heard.

Following this “service of the Word,” the people offered intercessory prayers, as Justin says, “for ourselves, for him who has just been enlightened [just baptized], and for all men everywhere.” In Rome, as throughout the early church, the people stood during prayers with hands raised, and responded with “Amen.”

After the prayers the people greeted each other with a kiss. Then they celebrated the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper. Along with other offerings, the people brought bread and a cup of wine mixed with water to the presider. The presider took the gifts and offered prayer “glorifying the Father of the universe through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” uttering “a lengthy thanksgiving [Eucharist] because the Father has judged us worthy of these gifts.” After the people had assented with an “Amen,” the deacons distributed the gifts.

An important thing to note in this liturgy is that it had two main parts—the service of the Word and the service of the Lord’s Supper—and that the intercessory prayers formed a bridge between the two. The church (except for certain sects) followed this liturgical structure in all times and at all places until 1525.

Equally important in the liturgy described by Justin is the absence of division between clergy and people. The extent to which Justin refers to the people as the subject or object of the actions is striking: we pray, we eat, we greet one another, we say “Amen,” the presider exhorts us. The liturgy belonged to the people.

How did these early Christians view the Lord’s Supper? As the Greek word itself suggests (eucharisteo = give thanks), the overarching context was one of thanksgiving to God for creation and redemption. But the eucharist was more than thanksgiving. It was also an act offellowship, an offering (in fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy of the pure offering of the Gentiles—Mai. 1:10-12), and a memorial, a remembrance of Christ’s passion.

Giving thanks, fellowshipping, presenting an offering, and doing in memorial— all these are elements of devotion we address to God. But Justin also saw the eucharist as God's gracious act toward us. We are nourished and transformed by the eating and drinking, for “through the word of prayer that comes from him, the food over which the eucharist has been spoken becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus.”

Later Developments

The liturgy as the Reformers knew it in central Europe of the early sixteenth-century was profoundly different from this second-century liturgy described by Justin. The enduring structure of Word and sacrament was still there. But across the intervening centuries the liturgy as a whole had been radically altered.

The difference in how the liturgy looked, how it sounded, and how it was done would have struck one first. The people no longer spoke; priests and choir alone voiced words. The people no longer understood what the presider said; Latin had remained in the liturgy even when the people no longer understood a word of it. The prayers were no longer “of the people”; instead they were recited inaudibly by the priest. Sermons had all but disappeared. And the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper were now rarely shared with the people.

To these and many other such practices and abuses, the Reformers reacted intensely. They recognized that the liturgy, which in the early church had given equal position to Word and sacrament, now placed almost total emphasis on its eucharistic component. The first half of the liturgy (the service of the Word) had lost its independent significance and was understood merely as preparation for the eucharist.

The eucharist too was understood and experienced in a far different way than it had once been. Gradually, over the years, people began to believe that liturgy was something the clergy did on behalf of the people. And at the heart of what God had assigned the clergy to do was celebrate the sacraments—especially the sacrament of the eucharist.

By the time of the Reformation the church came to think of a sacrament as something that both symbolized and conveyed a gift of divine grace. That is to say,in the Lord’s Supper the bread and the wine effected the grace— not God by way of the bread and wine, but the bread and wine themselves. The priest was thus a dispenser of grace.

The church went on to say that once the bread and wine had been consecrated by the priest, these elements actually became the body and blood of Christ. The bread and wine were “transubstantiated.” So, gradually the sacrament came to be viewed not only as a memorial of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross but also as a “propitiatory sacrifice” in which God’s favor could be secured.

What did all this mean for the layperson? If we keep in mind the insistence that the bread and wine are transubstantiated into Christ’s body and blood, so that Christ becomes bodily present, the answer will not be hard to guess: adoration. Adoration of the Christ who is bodily present under the appearance of bread and wine became for the laity the central worship act.

If we put all these features together, what leaps to the eye is that the medieval church had a liturgy in which, to an extraordinary degree, God’s actions were lost from view. The actions were all the people’s. The priest addresses God. The priest brings about Christ’s bodily presence, and the laypeople adore Christ under the bread-like and winelike appearances. When they receive the consecrated bread from the hands of the priest the people are infused with grace.

The Reformers rejected the sole emphasis on the Lord’s Supper, working to regain the balance between Word and sacrament…

The great Catholic liturgical scholar J. A. Jungmann puts it like this: “Hearing Mass was reduced to a matter of securing favors from God.”

The Reformation of the Liturgy

The Reformers rejected the sole emphasis on the Lord’s Supper, working to regain the balance between Word and sacrament that had been present in the liturgy of Justin Martyr’s day. In the medieval church, as we saw earlier, that balance was lost. The Scriptures were read inaudibly in an alien tongue, the sermon all but disappeared, and in theory and practice the entire service of the Word lost its significance and was treated merely as preparation for the Lord’s Supper.

Word The Reformers recovered the audible reading of Scripture, in the language of the people, followed by explanation and application in the sermon. They stressed the strong tie between the Scripture reading and sermon, and saw the sermon genuinely as “God’s Word.” God’s voice, said Calvin, resounds in “the mouths and the tongues” of preachers, so that hearing ministers preach is like hearing God himself speak. God “uses the ministry of men to declare openly his will to us by mouth as a sort of delegated work, not by transferring to them his right and honor, but only that through their mouths he may do his own work—-just as a workman uses a tool to do his work.” In short, through the sovereign action of the Spirit the minister speaks the Word of God—not in the weak sense that he now reflects on the anciently spoken Word of God, but in the radical sense that God now speaks through him. In listening to church proclamation we hear God speaking.

The Reformers also insisted that we must not hear this Word from afar—that we must receive this Word of God in humility and faith. For such reception, we need the work of the Spirit. So these Reformers introduced into their liturgies the “prayer of illumination” before Scripture and sermon, asking for the presence of the Spirit. Indeed, it can be said that it was the Swiss Reformers who brought the Spirit back into the Western liturgy.

Sacrament Already we have a good grasp of the controlling idea of Reformed liturgy. But it may help to also look at the Reformers’ views on the Lord's Supper.

Chapter xviii of Book IV of Calvin’s Institutes is a sustained attack on the Mass as it was practiced and understood in central Europe in Calvin's time. At what he calls the “crowning point” of his discussion, Calvin says that whereas “the Supper itself is a gift of God, which ought to have been received with thanksgiving, …the sacrifice of the Mass is represented as paying a price to God, which he should receive by way of satisfaction. There is as much difference between this sacrifice and the sacrament of the Supper as there is between giving and receiving.” The Lord has ”given us a Table at which to feast, not an altar upon which to offer a victim; he has not consecrated priests to offer sacrifice, but ministers to distribute the sacred banquet.“

To fully grasp what Calvin is saying here, it is important to realize that though he adamantly denies that the Lord’s Supper is a sacrifice of propitiation for sin, he repeatedly insists that it is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. “The Lord’s Supper cannot be without a sacrifice of this kind,” he says, “in which, while we proclaim his death and give thanks, we do nothing but offer a sacrifice of praise.”

Yet the fundamental structure of the Lord’s Supper for Calvin is not sacrifice but sacrament: God acting and we receiving, rather than we acting and God receiving. And, just as in proclamation, God’s action must be received in faith and applied by the Spirit. The eucharistic portion of Calvin’s Strassbourg and Geneva liturgies opens with a prayer for faithful receiving.

Here and Now

By now the point will be clear: the liturgy as the Reformers understood and practiced it consists of God acting and us responding in faith through the work of the Spirit. The controlling idea in Reformed worship is that God acts in worship and that we are not to hold God’s actions at arm’s length but to appropriate them into our innermost being. Worship is a meeting between God and his people, a meeting in which both parties act—God as the initiator and we as the responders.

In the Supper, said Calvin, God seals (confirms) the promises he has made to us in Jesus Christ. Here and now he says that his promises are “for real.” Calvin’s point is not that the bread and wine are signs and seals of God's promises. His point is that God himself here and now acts, by way of the bread and wine, to authenticate his promises.

But more than that. Not only does God promise in the Lord’s Supper that we shall be mystically united with the flesh and blood of his Son. Through his Spirit he also effectuates this promise. If we approach the Supper in faith, our faith will be nourished and strengthened, and thereby our unity with Christ in his humanity will be deepened. In “the sacred mystery of the Supper”, says Calvin, God “inwardly fulfills what he outwardly designates.”

Along with this emphasis on God as active in the sacrament comes Calvin’s sharp criticism of the Roman church for the infrequency of its lay communion. “What we have so far said of the sacrament,” he remarks, “abundantly shows that it was not ordained to be received only once a year … It should have been done far differently: The Lord’s Table should have been spread at least once a week for the assembly of Christians… All, like hungry men, should flock to such a bounteous repast.”

Zwingli felt differently about the matter. He saw the Lord’s Supper not as a means of grace but as a mode of thanksgiving. And so, he took the momentous step of destroying the enduring shape of the liturgy, pulling apart its two high points of Word and sacrament, disposing them into two separate services, a preaching service and a Lord’s Supper service, and specifying that the Lord’s Supper service be held four times a year. It is ironic that all the confessions of the Reformed churches should side with Calvin against Zwingli on the theology of the Lord’s Supper, while their liturgies almost always side with Zwingli against Calvin.

Finely Tuned Balance

To understand why the Reformed liturgy acquired the character it did over the centuries, we should note one additional curious feature, present there since the beginning: although the people were frequently and lengthily exhorted to receive God’s actions with praise and thanksgiving, they were given scant opportunity to do so in the liturgy. This lack violated everything that the Reformers said about the liturgy. In their liturgical documents and theology they reveal a passionate concern that our recital of God’s actions not remain “out there somewhere” but be appropriated in faith and gratitude. Surely expressions of praise and gratitude are the appropriate implementation of this vision. Yet the exhortation tone overwhelmed worshipful expression.

Of course, one of the hallmarks of the Reformed churches —from the very beginning—has been the vigorous congregational singing of psalms and hymns. And certainly such singing is rightly seen as an act of worship and praise. Yet it must in honesty be granted that over the centuries this praise function of the congregation's singing has all too often been lost from view. H. O. Old expresses the point well: The singing “is often understood as a decoration of the service of worship, a way of achieving splendor, or perhaps as the means of giving the bitter pill of religion the chocolate coating of either culture or entertainment. At other times it has been understood as a way of achieving ‘audience participation’ or as a means of getting the people to respond to the preaching or praying of the pastor. At still other times it has been understood as being primarily a means of expressing the theme of the sermon or the ‘Christian year,’ making it a pedagogical device.” Too seldom has singing been understood as the congregation’s response of praise to God's actions.

Perhaps this theme of response, along with serious reflection on the appropriate frequency of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, is the greatest challenge to us in the Reformed churches as we begin our fifth century: we should strive to enrich the response dimension of the liturgy so that it is no longer overwhelmed by the proclamation dimension, but exists with it in finely tuned balance. In most places preaching has rightly remained alive among us (though perhaps too seldom is it understood as God speaking). If now we can enliven the response dimension, then finally the genius of the liturgy as understood in the Reformed tradition will have come into its own: in the liturgy God and his people interact in the power of the Spirit.

Nicholas Wolterstorff is Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology (emeritus), Yale University. He is a member of Church of the Servant, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 2 © December 1986, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.