Our Clearnote Pastors College theology of worship class has been discussing the question of whether or not ministers should wear liturgical vestments in (as well as out of) Divine Service, and if so on what grounds? Our readings have ranged from the gushingly “for” to the violently “against.” Perhaps the most interesting and helpful writer we've encountered on the subject has been Dutch polymath, Abraham Kuyper.
Recently published for the first time in English, Kuyper’s Onze Eeredienst (Our Worship) is a rare, matter-of-fact treatment of biblical worship—the topic Scottish luminary James Bannerman declared to contain ecclesiology's most interesting and difficult questions. Having ventured out beyond my depth in the turgid waters of worship theology, Kuyper’s frank, level-headed approach is a welcome gulp of fresh air, even where I disagree with him. He has a way of demystifying things. And today, worship theology needs demystifying.
On the issue of vestments, Kuyper makes two historical claims I want to summarize for our readers to discuss.
He begins with the suggestion that if a preacher from one of the New Testament churches—say, Ephesus, Colossae, Athens, or Rome—were suddenly to appear today, people would think he looked...
more like a priest than a preacher:
…in the time of the apostles, the basic middle-class clothes of the Greeks and Romans looked much more like the attire of the Roman Catholic clergy today than like our own fashion. The clerical vestment prescribed by the Catholic Church is not a brand-new invention, but basically a costume that was partly adopted from the Roman times, and was further developed and adapted for its particular purpose (pg. 58).
In other words, early church pastors donned the uniform, not of an officiant, but of the average middle class citizen. And though it might appear to our situated eyes as priestly, in their day the garb stood for nothing more than mere submission to societal norms of decorum. As fashions changed in society, however, they didn’t in the church. The church was stodgy and the old manner of dress was retained, later being elevated to the place of sacred symbol.
He then looks to the next great genesis in church history, the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was characterized by a rejection of the idolatries of Rome with all its symbols in an attempt to restore the Church to her New Testament simplicity. To what form of dress did the Reformers turn at that pivotal moment?
When the Reformation came and the ministers naturally could no longer wear the costume of the Catholic Church, they predictably chose academic dress, not to assume a learned appearance, but because it was the nearest alternative. Hence we see all the Reformers and the first ministers pictured in the vestments that were in use at that time. We can hardly imagine Luther and Calvin not dressed in that robe. But that robe was not a clerical costume, not an ecclesiastical gown, but a very simple robe that every educated person then wore. The customary clothing of the educated classes became a clerical robe. That robe too gradually disappeared from the Reformed churches when the garment disappeared from common use. It was worn as long as the academics wore it in public, but they gave it up when it disappeared from the street. This indicates that the robe in our Reformed churches was never a vestment of office (pg. 59).
Arguments in favor of symbolic dress generally depend upon two things: first, the assumption that the ceremonial garments of the Old Covenant (or some similarly symbolic attire) are legitimately retained by liturgical leaders in the absence of a clear New Covenant prohibition; and second, that the preponderance of liturgical garb in church history greatly proves this point.
If Kuyper’s right in his assessment of the origins of vestments, though, the second of these pillars is removed while the first seems to be more Lutheran than Reformed. As in the Lutheran "what's not prohibited is permitted" versus the Reformed "what's not commanded is prohibited." High-minded arguments for the symbolic importance of vestments seem to be the blowing of smoke.
One interesting tidbit I hope will encourage the subset of our readers who wear robes (you know who you are): Kuyper says, in light of the symbolism of the book of Revelation, perhaps it would be legitimate for the entire congregation together to decide to wear ceremonial vestments—this is not a serious proposal of his, I don’t think, but one he momentarily entertains—and if they did, unquestionably the color of these should be…
Clerical clothing has been fashionable in many colors. But it is noteworthy that the early Christians, if they did wear “church clothes,” chose the color white, to express what Scripture says about “the white robes of the saints.” Whenever clothing of holiness is mentioned in Scripture, it is always white. There is no doubt, therefore, that if one were to use symbolic clothing for believers, it would not be black but white (pg. 63).