Bill Evans, one of the new bloggers on the block at Baptists and Presbyterians Together (also known as the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals), seems to have an issue with a point I made some time ago when I contrasted the arguments of John Frame and Hughes Oliphant Old on worship. Here is how Evans describes my point:
Hart in essence asked the question of why some Reformed theological “conservatives” can be so “liberal” on worship while those further to the left theologically are often so “conservative” on matters liturgical. His test case is a comparison of PCA teaching elder John Frame’s Worship in Spirit and Truth (P&R, 1996) and PCUSA worship scholar Hughes Oliphant Old’s Worship That Is Reformed according to Scripture (John Knox, 1984). As Hart puts it, “In the ‘liberal’ PCUSA, if Old’s book is any indication, the traditional elements and rites of historic Reformed liturgy are firmly in place. But in the ‘conservative’ PCA, using Frame as a guide, the conventional pieces of Reformed worship are in flux.” A bit later, Hart contends, “If sideline Presbyterian denominations such as the PCA and the OPC were as conservative about the Reformed tradition as they regard themselves, then we would expect Old’s book to have come from a PCA or an OPC minister and to have been published by a conservative Presbyterian press. Moreover, if the mainline Presbyterian denomination was as liberal as its conservative detractors insist, then it would make more sense for Frame’s book to have come from a PCUSA officer and publishing house. Yet the opposite is the case. The conservatives have turned modernist, if by modernism we mean the self-conscious adaptation of the faith to modern times. Just as unlikely, the modernists have become the chief defenders of the historic Reformed faith, at least in its liturgical aspects, against efforts to preserve the kernel while refashioning a modern husk.”
Evans explanation for the difference between the “conservative” Frame and the “liberal” Old differs from mine. I had written that evangelical Presbyterians like Frame, motivated by evangelism and biblicism, could turn a blind eye to formal considerations in worship, such as the fitting modes of expressing praise, gratitude, Christian truth, etc. Evans counters that a better account may be aesthetics – in mainline churches where upper-class Protestants worship, choirs and organs are more acceptable than in evangelical churches. But because evangelicals hold on to the importance of evangelism and the authority of Scripture, Evans is willing to put up with the tackiness that sometimes comes with evangelical worship.
In short, is the real problem for some conservative Reformed champions of “traditional worship” that a lot of evangelical worship is, by upper-middle-class standards, a bit tacky? Given an unhappy choice between holding on to the gospel and the authority of Scripture on the one hand and aesthetically pleasing traditional Reformed worship on the other, the issue for me is clear. Why strain a liturgical gnat and swallow a theological camel? Fortunately, that is a false dichotomy, a choice that need not be made.
I don’t know if Evans thinks I favor traditional worship because it is not tacky. Since he uses me to make his point he may think so. So let me be clear. Organs are no more acceptable in worship than guitars. Worship should not follow the ethos of the concert hall any more than it should conform to the feel of a rock concert or television show. In fact, Reformed worship of the Genevan and Scottish kind, when the only music was unaccompanied psalm-singing, avoided the elite idiom of chamber music and would have no trouble rejecting the I-love-Jesus ballads of P&W. Reformed worship actually attempted a cultural idiom that was unique to the task of worshiping God. It was a form of expression set apart for the people of God. This worship could still be beautiful even if austerely simple. According to Evelyn Underhill, for Calvin the abiding reality of worship was “God’s unspeakable Majesty and Otherness, and the nothingness and simplicity of man.” For this reason, “No ceremonial acts or gestures were permitted. No hymns were sung but those derived from a Biblical source. The bleak stripped interior of the real Calvinist church is itself sacramental; a witness to the inadequacy of the human over against the divine.”
The theological rationale for this simplicity came at least with the reasoning of the Westminster Divines when they wrote:
Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the new testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations. (7.6)
In which case, pipe organs are no more beautiful than guitars, and upper-, middle-, and lower-class aesthetics have no standing in “traditional” Reformed worship. The reason has everything to do with the theology of the Lord’s Day, when Christians assemble with all the angels and heavenly hosts at Mount Zion in the presence of Christ and offer up their petitions and praise and hear their Lord speak in the word read and preached. Worship is not about earthly but heavenly aesthetics.
And that has a lot to do with why Oliphant is a better guide to Reformed worship than Frame. If worship is a meeting between the king of the universe and his subjects, then would that encounter be reverent and serious or would it be casual and folksy – even humorous? That seems like a perfectly obvious question. But because the Bible does not apparently address questions of style, but is only concerned about the content of worship, for evangelicals as long as a service has correct doctrine its tone can assume a variety of cultural idioms, hip-hop, exclusive psalmody, 1950s, or P&W – they are all the same. (Which is a pretty remarkable argument coming from some who think the Bible teaches how we are going to transform the secular culture. We can be certain of cultural standards for pagans and Christians in New York City but be cultural relativists for Presbyterians and Baptists in worship? Oy vey!)
Forms matter. Forms should, as Paul taught in Titus 2, fit sound doctrine. How informality, breeziness, or vulgarity befit sound doctrine, I’ll never know. But if someone has a clue about civility and manners, and why talking on a cell phone loudly in a public place is inappropriate (but maybe not a sin), he or she may have a pretty good sense why worship that does not reinforce the holiness and transcendence and authority of the God they serve is not becoming to Reformed Protestantism.