Palm Sunday: Calvin on using our bodies in worship...

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The inward attitude certainly holds first place in prayer, but outward signs, kneeling, uncovering the head, lifting up the hands, have a twofold use. The first is that...  - John Calvin

(2009) One man commented under an earlier post that he considered the discipline of lifting hands and kneeling in prayer to be unworthy of reformed worship. Maybe a sort of pietistic emotional manipulation? Here's how a conversation with him might go...

TB: So lifting hands is wrong? Why? Who said so?

John Doe: Well, any idiot can see it's those nasty Pentecostals and charismatics who do that sort of thing. Ugh! Who wants to be mistaken for a charismatic? Or a Vineyard type? Ugggghhhh!

TB: So we don't do it because we don't want to have anyone think we're Pentecostals—is that it?

John Doe: Well no, of course that's not the only reason. There are lots and lots of reasons, but I can't spend all day telling you something you should know without thinking. Lifting hands is wrong. End of story. No self-respecting, proud, cerebral, Old School Presbyterian slothful in worship would ever be caught dead lifting his hands in prayer! Now stop bothering me. I have more important things to do with my time than argue with you.

TB: But I wasn't arguing. I was only trying to find out where it says in the Bible, or where Calvin says, it's wrong to lift our hands or kneel in worship. Is it wrong to ask questions?

No, I don't mean to be mean in making up this dialog. But really, it's about time Reformed men realize the reason charismatics lift their hands and kneel in worship and modern presbyterians don't is that somehow, somewhere we lost our way and now think we're honoring Scripture and our spiritual fathers when in fact we're directly contradicting them.

Here's just a tiny smidgen of proof, showing why we at Clearnote Church, Bloomington ask our worship leaders to urge the brethren, by the mercies of God, to present their bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, as our spiritual service of worship.

John Doe: Bodies? Who said "bodies?" The Bible teaches us to worship God "in spirit and in truth." What do bodies have to do with it?

TB: Ah yes. You've run rings around me logically. I was certainly hoping you wouldn't make that particular point, but I can see that you're more than a match for me. So without further ado, I'll leave you to Calvin.

* * *

The inward attitude certainly holds first place in prayer, but outward signs, kneeling, uncovering the head, lifting up the hands, have a twofold use. The first is that we may employ all our members (all the parts of our body) for the glory and worship of God; secondly, that we are, so to speak, jolted out of our laziness by this help. There is also a third use in solemn and public prayer, because in this way the sons of God profess their piety, and they inflame each other with reverence of God. But just as the lifting up of the hands is a symbol of confidence and longing, so in order to show our humility, we fall down on our knees. (John Calvin, Commentary on Acts 20:36)

Lifting up pure hands As if he had said, "Provided that it be accompanied by a good conscience, there will be nothing to prevent all the nations from calling upon God everywhere." But he has employed the sign instead of the reality, for "pure hands" are the expressions of a pure heart; just as, on the contrary, Isaiah rebukes the Jews for lifting up "bloody hands," when he attacks their cruelty. (Isaiah 1:15.) Besides, this attitude has been generally used in worship during all ages; for it is a feeling which nature has implanted in us, when we ask God, to look upwards, and has always been so strong, that even idolaters themselves, although in other respects they make a god of images of wood and stone, still retained the custom of lifting up their hands to heaven. Let us therefore learn that the attitude is in accordance with true godliness, provided that it be attended by the corresponding truth which is represented by it, namely, that, having been informed that we ought to seek God in heaven, first, we should form no conception of Him that is earthly or carnal; and, secondly, that we should lay aside carnal affections, so that nothing may prevent our hearts from rising above the world. (John Calvin, Commentary on 1Timothy 2:8)

As for bodily gestures customarily observed in praying, such as kneeling and uncovering the head, they are exercises whereby we try to rise to a greater reverence for God. (John Calvin, Institutes, III.20.33)

Let us take, for example, kneeling when solemn prayers are being said. The question is whether it is a human tradition, which any man may lawfully repudiate or neglect. I say that it is human, as it is also divine. It is of God in so far as it is a part of that decorum whose care and observance the apostle has commended to us. But it is of men in so far as it specifically designates what had in general been suggested rather than explicitly stated. (John Calvin, Institutes, IV.10.30)

...nothing prohibits a man who cannot bend his knees because of disease from standing to pray. (John Calvin, Institutes, IV.10.31)

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!