The Theater of God's Glory

Calvin, Creation, and the Liturgical Arts

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W. David O. Taylor
Calvin Institute of Christian Workshop Liturgical Studies
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , August
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


“God did not will in outward discipline or ceremonies to prescribe what we ought to do,” John Calvin wrote in the fourth book of the Institutes, but allowed for variation according to “the customs of each nation and age,” with love being the “best judge” in guiding new practices. 

W. David O. Taylor draws on this (142) and other passages where Calvin seems to hedge against his apparently categorical prohibition of liturgical innovation and the use of material arts in worship in The Theater of God’s Glory: Calvin, Creation, and the Liturgical Arts to suggest that Calvin’s pessimism about the arts in public worship is not as clear-cut as it may seem. This engaging and creative monograph argues that the Trinitarian orientation of Calvin’s theology of the material creation leaves open the possibility of a positive assessment of the liturgical arts on Calvinian terms, despite Calvin’s well-documented wariness about physical aids in worship (5).

In his ambitious project of trying to redeem Calvin as a positive resource for the liturgical arts, Taylor must overcome multiple challenges: Calvin required that worship practices be scripturally sanctioned, but did not transfer the positive role for materials in Old Testament worship into the church age; Calvin’s depiction of the created order as the “theater of God’s glory” does not necessarily apply to human handiwork; and Calvin drew a line between enjoying music and art in a non-liturgical context and using these in a worship setting. In general, Taylor has greater success demonstrating Calvin’s positive regard for the role of materials in these limited contexts than he has transcending Calvin’s various self-imposed restrictions.

Most of my issues with the book are related in some way to its hybrid genre, it being a conversation with a historical figure, though explicitly “not a historical study” (7). John Witvliet’s foreword places the book in the genre of “the use of history” (ix). Citing this intention to write a work of constructive, and not historical, theology, Taylor minimizes the impact of Calvin’s historical context on his liturgical theology, stating early on that he will note “relevant historical data” only “where it seems necessary” (7). Yet the places where Taylor does “concede” and connect Calvin’s arguments to his polemical context are particularly helpful in elucidating why Calvin may have taken certain positions. The unintelligibility of Roman Catholic music required a “forceful word” on instruments in worship (31-32), the ostentation of Catholic ornamentation helps to explain Calvin’s emphasis on simplicity (181), and Lutheran arguments for the ubiquity of Christ’s human nature moved Calvin to emphasize his spiritual nature (126-27). Calvin can seem, moreover, to contradict himself when he presents different emphases against different opponents (e.g., 113, 144). While his circumstances may not have “caused” Calvin’s liturgical practices in such a way as to override his free will as a theologian, they do carry valuable explanatory power. Greater attention to Calvin’s particular polemical situations could also strengthen Taylor’s own warrant for re-appropriating Calvinian principles in a different context.

In the introduction Taylor limits his focus to Calvin (“not the ‘Reformed’ tradition,” 6n23), and in the conclusion he acknowledges unaddressed questions about Calvin’s contemporaries (194). While limitations on a book’s scope are, of course, necessary, somewhat more engagement with some of Calvin’s contemporaries would have been helpful in situating Calvin’s views on the arts. A deeper exploration, for instance, of Calvin’s position between Zwingli and Bucer on music in worship (touched on briefly on p. 30) could have further clarified Calvin’s own views (and how they might transfer to other contexts), and Taylor’s observation that Calvin’s concern about the potential dangers of material symbols in worship was one “that Calvin’s contemporaries did not share to the same degree” (174) could have been fruitfully developed.

Taylor by turn argues with, against, and “beyond” Calvin. From an historian’s perspective, this last category works better when Taylor writes in terms of Calvin’s “unexplored trajectories” (147) than when he argues that Calvin failed to carry the implications of his own instincts far enough (e.g. 9, 97, 185). The first phrasing asserts that Calvin’s framework can lead in directions that Calvin did not pursue, without suggesting that Calvin failed to grasp the full logic of his own works. Taylor stops short of arguing that Calvin didn’t understand Calvin, but various suggestions that he did not carry his own thought far enough come off as unwarranted speculation. As one example, Taylor states that “it is not too much of a stretch to believe that Calvin might agree” that we can offer our artistic gifts in worship in like manner to the Israelites (95), even though in the passage Taylor cites in support (Comm. Ps. 24:7) Calvin refers to these Israelites as being “rude, and still in their infancy.”

In his attempt to establish a connection between a positive regard for creation and for material arts, Taylor occasionally employs some logical leaps. He argues, for instance, that given Calvin’s assertion that “human beings ‘cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see’ God in creation, then this reality must also, in some sense, be true of the faithful who gather in spaces built out of the material of creation” (86). But this is rather like saying that the indoors are like the outdoors because the indoors are fashioned out of material found outdoors. The line of argument neglects to consider whether the Creator’s imprint is revealed in the material of creation itself, or in the material coupled with the form; and Calvin’s reference, leading into the passage Taylor cites (from Institutes 1.5.1), to God’s perfections being manifest in “the whole structure of the universe” suggests that Calvin likely had in mind the form of God’s unmodified creation.

Taylor is to be commended for such an ambitious undertaking and, qualms about historical context notwithstanding, he has provided an important contribution to a developing Reformed theology of the liturgical arts. If it is too much to seek Calvin’s blessing for the liturgical arts, his skepticism can be appropriated to help direct worship arts toward fruitful ends and away from possible abuses—ensuring that these arts offer “articulate” praise (5, 88, 187) that is bound to the Word (186, 193), and which intentionally serve the “purposes of public worship” (187). Likewise, those who resist the liturgical arts on the basis of Calvin’s rejection can benefit from Taylor’s challenge to this perspective and wrestle with a different explanation of what it means to worship God faithfully “in spirit and in truth.”

About the Reviewer(s): 

Darren M. Pollock is Pastor of Panorama Presbyterian Church and Adjunct Professor of Church History at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

W. David O. Taylor is assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and the director of Brehm Texas, an initiative in worship, theology, and the arts.


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