Semper Reformanda

John Calvin, Worship, and Reformed Traditions

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Barbara Pitkin
Refo500 Academic Series [R5AS]
  • Bristol, CT: 
    Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht
    , February
     205 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The eight contributions in this book originated at the Calvin Studies Society Colloquium in 2015. The theme was Reformed worship, approached in conversation and reflection on its various dimensions. The presentations have now been revised and enriched by the comments and discussions at the colloquium. While the pieces are diverse, there is a coherence to the book as a whole.

Against stereotypes of Reformed worship as sterile, static, and largely individualistic and experiential, the chapters here counter this supposed sterility of piety in the Reformed tradition. The Reformed were concerned about avoiding idolatry in worship and thus were careful with material objects and sensory experience. But their biblical orientation focused on worship in accordance with the Word of God as the true and right standard for the worship of God. Explorations of a broad range of Reformed worship and liturgical resources show that an array of worship attitudes and practices found their place within the early, growing tradition. In this sense, the volume’s title: Semper Reformanda— “always being reformed” according to the Word of God is highly appropriate when applied to worship. 

Several themes are articulated in this book. First is a demonstration of the broadening character of Reformed worship and gleaning insights from multi-disciplinary approaches that use a number of different sources. These include ritual studies, liturgical innovation, material culture, and social impact. A second dimension here is “material, sensory, emotional, and experiential dimensions of Reformed religious culture” (9). Material objects such as religious books and communion ware as well as debates over the nature of the Supper, convey issues, in their own ways, relating to community experience and identity. Third, worship in the Reformed traditions embrace conflict and renewal. Liturgical changes and worship practices—such as the use of pipe organs in 17th-century Netherlands—sparked engagements about the nature and function of worship. Finally, in the formation of Reformed religious identities, worship and the engagement of the religious Other are shown to be key factors. Differing traditions and their mutual engagements, as well as engagement with non-Christian faiths, were influential.

Four essays are found in each of these two parts: “Foundations: Reforming Worship in Sixteenth-Century Thought and Practice”; and “Legacies: Practical and Theoretical Transformations of Reformed Worship Traditions.” Several pieces stand out.

Karin Maag’s interesting study of Geneva in the wake of Protestant Reform indicates that the city was not homogeneous when it came to worship attitudes. Maag shows that “Genevans, their extended families, and visitors had a much more flexible attitude towards acceptable expressions of worship and devotion” (17) than did the ruling, governmental powers. Examples of citizens’ continuing contact with Roman Catholicism after 1535, when the Mass was officially banned in Geneva, show some wished to continue in Catholicism, some were linked to Catholicism by kinship ties or business networks, and some encountered Roman Catholic worship when traveling. Famously, the Genevan Consistory produced a list of banned baptismal names for babies due to the names’ association with the Roman Church. Genevan pastors adopted strict views about the need to keep superstitious and godly worship completely separate. Maag notes that “the Genevan authorities’ hardline response to these various cases underscores their perception that allowing even a modicum of flexibility in terms of worship practices was a step too far, one that would usher in idolatry and pollution” (30). Some Genevans who wanted more flexible worship practices were alienated.

Sue A. Rozeboom’s chapter, “By Your Spirit: The Pneumatology of Sixteenth-Century Reformed Liturgies for the Lord’s Supper,” shows varieties in Reformed theologies of the Supper through the lens of the epiclesis, a prayer for the Spirit to act to a sanctifying and consecratory purpose in the Eucharist (77). Rozeboom examines Calvin’s thought, Reformed liturgies preceding Calvin’s, and Reforming liturgies succeeding Calvin’s before her final case study of Thomas Cranmer and the 1552 Book of Common Prayer in England. Rozeboom shows how liturgical language for eucharistic rubrics was reflective of theological convictions about the nature of the Supper—such as those between Calvin and Zwingli and Oecolampadius, as a prime example. Overall, as Reformed Christians throughout Europe developed their liturgies for the Lord’s Supper, a key element of the nature of the Spirit’s work needed to be clearly stated in the liturgical language of the Eucharistic rite.

The “Legacies” part of this book, emphasizing practical and theoretical transformation of worship traditions, presents studies of the material culture of the Lord’s Supper in the Dutch Republic by Andrew Spicer; of the controversy over the use of the organ in worship (a position staunchly opposed by the Utrecht theologian Gisbertus Voetius) by Randall D. Engle; and Charles H. Parker’s, “The Seduction of Idols: Dutch Calvinist Readings of Worship and Society in Seventeenth-Century Asia.” These three pieces admirably highlight the ways material culture was a significant dimension of the Reformed worship experience and the ever-present concerns about idolatry.

Theodore Vial’s “Toward a Reformed Theory of Ritual in Modernity” concludes the volume. Vial explores three liturgical battles among the Reformed through ritual theory. These are from the Dutch Reformed Church, the Prussian Union of Churches, and the Mercersburg Theology in America. Vial argues these Reformed debates have continuing influences in relation to modern secular theories of ritual. 

The richness of Reformed liturgical history is conveyed in these chapters. The range of topics show the pervasive ways in which Reformed worship and its theological underpinnings bring “real-life” struggles to the fore. These also initiate reflections and expressions that present deep-held convictions. These activities and actions contribute to ongoing perceptions of Reformed identities among congregations and for Reformed Christians in worldwide settings. This interesting volume repays study and contemplation. Its historical studies shed light on worship today—perhaps in unexpected ways.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Donald McKim is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Barbara Pitkin is Senior Lecturer in Christian History at Stanford University.


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