I had a Facebook conversation last week that touched on the issue of what’s acceptable in worship. I felt this post from a couple of years back would help to keep the conversation going. If anything, I’d say my convictions in this matter have firmed up.
At my ordination service the first song was Psalm 100, “All people that on earth do dwell”. We sang it to the tune Old Hundreth which was written to be sung in the church in Geneva in Calvin’s day. Despite the efforts of some (tapes of the Vaughan-Williams setting being posted to me, etc) and the uneasiness of a few more we sang it unaccompanied. It was great. For many it was a novelty to sing without the organ/piano/praise band. But why? Especially when Reformed churches have sung a capella psalms from the beginning?
That’s one of the issues that crops up in Dr. R. Scott Clark’s Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety and Practice. The book was written to warn those in the “sideline” churches (such as the OPC, PCA, URCNA) in the US that they’re in danger of losing touch with what it means to be Reformed. His argument is that “Reformed” has been defined in the confessions of the 15th and 16th centuries and that there are a number of things that take the churches away from those confessions.
The first half of the book looks at how this process happens – related to what he calls the “Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty” (QIRC) and the “Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience” (QIRE). In other words: QIRC = Knowing what God knows the way he knows it. QIRE = Looking for an immediate encounter with God.
An example of QIRC is defining orthodoxy by whether you believe God created the world in six literal 24-hour days. An example of QIRE is neglecting attending to the means of grace for “quiet time” spirituality.
In the second half of the book Clark seeks to offer solutions. He reminds his readers that Reformed Theology makes a real distinction between the Creator and the Creation. It also states that despite this distance God has revealed himself in ways we can understand. The Reformed churches have summed up this revelation in their confessions. In being confessional people are signing up to a faith that is Biblical, catholic, vital, evangelical and churchly.
The final chapters of the book are a call to return to the historic practices of the Reformed churches. This means recovering the “Regulative Principle of Worship” (RPW) and a high view of the means of grace. Clark admits here that he’ll step on some toes.
The RPW states that “God may be worshipped only as he has commanded and in no other way” p228. What does this mean in practice? Well, in your Sunday service there must be the elements of Word (readings, preaching, sacraments – the visible Word) and prayer. Anything that is not included in those elements must go. Candles that aren’t for giving light, holding a pebble, drama skits, musical instruments and uninspired hymns are all out. That’s right – nowhere are we commanded to play instruments in worship under the New Covenant so the organ’s out the door. Amazing Grace isn’t given to us by God therefore it’s for Mother’s Day CDs by crooners only.
“That’s crazy”, you say. But look back in the minute book of your church and see the splits that occurred over the introduction of the organ. The arguments weren’t based around God’s Word but whether an organ will make church sound better and attract the kids. Go forward 100 years and the church will have arguments again on whether to introduce the praise band. Clark says dodge the arguments about what gives us the best feelings in worship (QIRE) and get back to singing unaccompanied Psalms and NT songs.
He also reminds us that Reformed piety is based on the fact that God uses means. He doesn’t strike us with lightning, or give us personal revelation. He speaks to us corporately as we gather to hear his Word and through the administration of the sacraments which remind us of and confirm us in God’s grace. So don’t cancel the evening service – get along to it because God has promised to be there.
I liked the book with a couple caveats, which reflect badly on me rather than Dr. Clark:
1. I wish I’d carried on with Latin classes. There’s a lot of it in the footnotes.
2. I wish I’d done some proper theology – there’s a lot of talk of theologians and concepts that I should know but no-one taught me.
Also, the challenge is how to relate this book to the URC(UK), a mainline denomination that’s very far from the Confessions. The QIRE is obvious – it’s everywhere. The upcoming Energy4Life weekend is full of it. Forget gathering to hear God’s Word – let’s juggle! Or scrapbook!
The QIRC is more difficult to find. There’s more of a Quest for Illegitimate Religious Uncertainty. Where God has clearly revealed himself, many would change it completely. All the central doctrines of the church are being questioned – not in a spirit of faithfully hearing what God has said but because it doesn’t chime with our experience or culture.
Of course, the Presbyterian Church of England got rid of the Westminster Confessions in the 1950s and the Congregational Union never subscribed to any confession, not even the Savoy. Dr. Clark would say that those confessions define what it means to be Reformed. Therefore, is it time for the United Reformed Church to change its name to something more honest or for those of us who value the Reformation, Westminster and its documents to stand up for Reformed Theology, Piety and Practice?
I commend the book and pray that Dr Clark’s URC doesn’t go the same way as mine.