Reformed worship (IV): a return to Egypt...

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(NOTE: This is the fourth post in a series on Reformed worship. Here are the firstsecondthirdfifth, and sixth.)

Those inclined to follow Leithart and his Trinity House friends into their “Future of Protestantism” might be wise to look around and consider what road they're on. If a man begins to pass landmarks he's seen before and he has some degree of wisdom and humility, he'll stop long enough to consider whether he might be going backward—not forward. But if the driver is the typical male who believes his manhood is at risk if he ever turns around and drives in the opposite direction, someone in the back seat would do well to pipe up and say, “Hey, we’ve already been down this road!”

Leithart's thoughts on Protestantism's future were first published on the web site of the Roman Catholic journal, "First Things" (I'm a charter subscriber). After appearing on the "First Things" site, Leithart was invited by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) to talk to their students and, following that talk, "First Things" ran the latest version of the piece as the lead article in their August/September 2014 print edition.

Leithart speaks clearly of the central place high liturgy and weekly observance of the sacraments occupy in his Future of Protestantism project. Much of the work of Leithart and his Trinity House friends deconstructing the Reformed church and moving it into the sphere of Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy is to be accomplished through the repudiation of Reformed worship.

Take, for instance, the Reformed church's regulative principle of worship. It's apparent these Trinity House men view this historic doctrinal commitment of Reformed churches as nothing more than Reformed nativism or tribalism. Since it separates us from brothers and sisters in Christ in the Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox churches, we must rid ourselves of it.

Is it that simple? Let us remember...

Chesterton's warning against the man who claims to be reforming while he's actually deforming—the man who wants to tear the gate down but can't tell you why the gate was put there in the first place.

Back in the seventeenth century, Scriptural simplicity in worship was contrary to the worship of Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Church of England Anglicans and the adoption of Biblical simplicity wasn't because seventeenth century Presbyterians were ignorant of any alternative.

Writing their Directory for the Publick Worship of God, the Westminster Divines were intentional in rejecting the set forms and prayers of Anglicanism's Book of Common Prayer. In the Preface to their new Directory, they explained the Directory was an effort to reform their churches from the harm done among their pastors and people by worship according to the Book of Common Prayer's straitjacketed formalism. They had seen how the Book of Common Prayer's complication factor and set forms of prayer encouraged passivity and superstition within their congregations and spiritual and theological slothfulness among their pastors. Thus we read:

In the beginning of the blessed Reformation, our wise and pious ancestors took care to set forth an order for redress of many things, which they then, by the word, discovered to be vain erroneous, superstitious, and idolatrous, in the publick worship of God. This occasioned many godly and learned men to rejoice much in the Book of Common Prayer...

Howbeit, long and sad experience hath made it manifest, that the Liturgy used in the Church of England, (notwithstanding all the pains and religious intentions of the Compilers of it,) hath proved an offence... For, not to speak of urging the reading of all the prayers, which very greatly increased the burden of it, the many unprofitable and burdensome ceremonies contained in it have occasioned much mischief... Prelates, and their faction, have laboured to raise the estimation of it to such a height, as if there were no other worship, or way of worship of God, amongst us... to the great hinderance of the preaching of the word, and (in some places, especially of late) to the justling of it out as unnecessary, or at best, as far inferior to the reading of common prayer; which was made no better than an idol by many ignorant and superstitious people, who, pleasing themselves in their presence at that service, and their lip-labour in bearing a part in it, have thereby hardened themselves in their ignorance and carelessness of saving knowledge and true piety.

In the meantime, Papists boasted that the book was a compliance with them in a great part of their service; and so were not a little confirmed in their superstition and idolatry, expecting rather our return to them, than endeavouring the reformation of themselves...

What antidote did the Westminster Divines prescribe? A return to the simplicity of Scripture:

 (O)ur care hath been to hold forth such things as are of divine institution in every ordinance....

Those familiar with the Biblical Horizons/Trinity House project of rapprochement with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy understand the central role Trinity House member, Jeff Meyers, plays in their project. Reading the Westminster Directory's Preface, we are awakened to the fact that Covenant Renewal Worship represents a return to the Book of Common Prayer's complications and set forms; a return to Church of England liturgy. As a response to made-for-TV evangelical pomo worship-tainment, high liturgy is a tempting option. The formalist's liturgy has the merit of mandating intellectual engagement and congregational participation, as well as providing a sense of historical connectedness. But at what cost? Are we willing to see our people and pastors return to the same errors and sins the Westminster Divines fled in the mid-seventeenth century?

From the beginning, the foundational principles of Reformed and Presbyterian worship have been the rejection of formulaic liturgy and formalistic prayers in order to embrace a Scriptural simplicity dependent upon the interior spiritual and theological life of the pastor and the power of the Holy Spirit. Where the pastor was lazy and hard of heart, the people suffered the impoverishment of their worship both in the superficiality of his prayers in their behalf and in the brevity and sterility of his preaching of the Word of God.

Those who lead Covenant Renewal Worship respond to such a view by asserting that their read liturgy is a prophylactic against such spiritual disease. The recited words of the liturgy, they say, are profound expressions of faith and joy, and far from sterile. If the only alternative is Evangelical pomo worshiptainment, then of course. There's much to commend Covenant Renewal Worship as a reform from such kitsch and tripe.

But what is it that necessitates that those repenting of pomo worshiptainment must embrace sacramental, sacerdotal Anglican formalism? Is there no one willing to call men to the godly simplicity of historic Reformed liturgy?

We should keep in mind, in this connection, that it is sin to honor the Lord with our lips when our hearts are far from Him. It is not the action and form of the liturgy that please the Lord—unison voices, recited prayers, beautiful words, coordinated movements, and strict order—but rather, faithful and humble and repentant and meek hearts. Some Covenant Renewal advocates would say faithful hearts matter, but there would be others who would say what matters is presence at the liturgy in unity with the Body. That is where formalism often leads us: we downplay the interior, subjective work of the Holy Spirit, trusting our forms instead. But this is nothing less than the repudiation of Reformed worship.

So what are we to say about all the hoopla in the Presbyterian Church in America and smaller Reformed denominations over this and that sacrifice in this and that order, this and that stole and chasuble, this and that chant and harmony, this and that collect and blessing and holy day?

Men, we have serious work at hand that is being neglected in our giggling excitement over liturgical formulas and every last detail of the weekly celebration of the sacraments. We must remember we are not called to be priests, but prophets.

For this reason, I consider the deconstruction of Reformed worship liturgy by Peter Leithart, Jeff Meyers, and their Trinity House friends to be more deform than reform. In the interest of union with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, Leithart and his friends are calling Presbyterians to repudiate the countours and commitments of historic Reformed worship, chief among which are Biblical simplicity, the rejection of prescribed forms, and the humble reliance upon the Holy Spirit setting our pastors on fire by His power and Word. Covenant Renewal Worship is not leading us into a future of Protestantism that is even more faithful to the Word of God. Rather, it is leading us into a future of Protestantism that makes nice with Rome. 

It's not the future of Protestantism, but its past.

It's the return to Egypt.

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!