What the Reformed Liturgical Heritage Has to Offer


The best book I know on the historical genesis and theological reasons for Reformed worship is Worship: Reformed According to Scripture by Hughes Oliphant Old. His last chapter is a good summary of what the Reformed liturgical heritage has to offer American Protestants today. His prescriptions and warnings can be neatly outlined.

In considering what the Reformed liturgical heritage has to offer, we must avoid two extremes:

  1. “The first is a sort of archaeological reconstruction in the English language of the Genevan Psalter or a meticulous following of the Westminster Directory for Worship” (161). What we need in the church today is reform not reconstruction. Some aspects of the older liturgies are not as helpful today (e.g., an ascetic attitude toward music, exclusive psalmody, long Communion exhortations).
  2. “Liturgical romanticism is the other [extreme]” (165). By this, Old means “perpetual revolution in liturgical matters.” The motto “reformed and always reforming” does mean we constantly reconsider our theology and worship. This would defeat the whole purpose of having a tradition and a liturgy. We must have something to hand down, but this tradition can also be reinterpreted and reevaluated.

Reasons for maintaining the Reformed liturgical tradition:

  1. “We human beings feel a need to keep in contact with our roots” (167). We need to know we are a part of something bigger and longer-lasting than ourselves.
  2. “The tradition contains material of lasting value” (167). The Reformed tradition borrowed from the best of the Church Fathers as well as incorporating the best of the Reformers themselves. The Reformation was as much about worship as anything. The Reformers were great scholars and churchmen. Their insights into worship should not be quickly dismissed.
  3. “We should maintain the tradition because it witnesses to the authority of Scripture” (170). The Fathers and the Reformers were steeped in Scripture, argued from Scripture, and filled their worship services with Scripture. The Reformed tradition is valuable only in so far as it bears witness to the Word of God.

Some of the most valuable liturgical traditions, rooted in Scripture, found within the Reformed heritage (172-176):

  1. Expository preaching.
  2. Verse by verse preaching (lectio continua).
  3. Praying and singing of the psalms.
  4. A full diet of prayer (e.g., praise, confession, thanksgiving, supplication, intercession).
  5. A rediscovery of the Lord’s Supper as a covenantal meal.
  6. An appreciation of the Lord’s Supper as eucharist (i.e. celebrating with thanksgiving and doxology).
  7. An understanding of the epicletic nature of the Lord’s Supper (i.e., we pray through Christ for the Holy Spirit to unite us, nourish us, and sanctify us at the Table).
  8. An understanding of the diaconal nature of the Lord’s Supper (e.g., taking an offering after Communion or emphasizing our call to serve others in the body of Christ).
  9. The centrality of covenant theology in the administration of baptism.
  10. One baptism for the forgiveness of sins; no secondary rites should be admitted.
  11. Baptism is an initiatory sign of what happens to us through the whole of the Christian life.
  12. Baptism should not be separated from discipleship (i.e., it should always entail the teaching of “all that I have commanded you” [Matt. 28:20]).
  13. The emphasis on the daily service of morning and evening prayer.
  14. The importance of family worship in the home.
  15. “The greatest single contribution that the Reformed liturgical heritage can make to contemporary American Protestantism is its sense of the majesty and sovereignty of God, its sense of reverence and simple dignity, its conviction that worship must above all serve the praise of God” (176).

The concluding paragraph from Old is worth reading in full:

This program for the renewal of worship in American Protestant churches of today may not be exactly what everyone is looking for. In our evangelistic zeal we are looking for programs that will attract people. We think we have to put honey on the lip of the bitter cup of salvation. It is the story of the wedding of Cana all over again, but with this difference. At the crucial moment when the wine failed, we took matters into our own hands and used those five stone jars to mix up a batch of Kool-Aid instead. It seemed like a good solution in terms of our American culture. Unfortunately, all too soon the guests discovered the fraud. Alas! What are we to do now? How can we possibly minister to those who thirst for the real thing? There is but one thing to do, as Mary, the mother of Jesus, understood, so very well. You remember how the story goes. After presenting the problem to Jesus, Mary turned to the servants and said to them, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). The servants did just that, and the water was turned to wine, wine rich and mellow beyond anything they had ever tasted. (176)

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