Reformed worship (II): Covenant Renewal Worship's sine qua non...

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(NOTE: This is the second post in a series on Reformed worship. Here are the firstthirdfourthfifth, and sixth.)

We have seen that in the services of Reformation Geneva presided over by John Calvin and his fellow reformers, there was never a service without preaching, whereas the administration of the Lord’s Supper was rare. Now at this point, Reformed men committed to what Jeff Meyers promotes as "Covenant Renewal Worship" would lodge a strong protest. Since Covenant Renewal's innovations are primarily sacerdotal in emphasis, drawing their inspiration from Old Testament sacrificial worship, they would claim preaching merely sets the Table, with the real meal being the Lord's Supper.

If those still committed to historic Reformed liturgy were to respond noting that Geneva's worship didn't have weekly Communion, Covenant Renewal men would be quick to point out Calvin himself preferred the weekly celebration of the Lord's Supper. "Covenant Renewal Worship is merely Genevan worship as Calvin himself would have ordered it had he been able to do so," they would say.

This argument is reminiscent of feminists who assure us Jesus would have had women among His Twelve if the culture of His time had been as progressive as ours. "Alas, people back then hadn't evolved as much as we have, so Jesus had to tread lightly," they tell us.

To which we would respond, "Are you serious? All through His life Jesus took on every evil. He was no respecter of persons. He died at the hands of the rich and powerful, but now you're telling me He didn't have the faith or courage to oppose the oppression of women, and that's the reason He chose men for His inner circle of Twelve?"

Concerning the order and priorities of Reformed worship, it's less important to consider what Calvin preferred than what he was willing to live without. The news isn't that Calvin would have preferred weekly Communion—everyone knows that. The real news is that when Calvin presided over services in Geneva...

he always preached but only rarely administered the Lord's Supper.

Now, though, Reformed pastors falling in with Jeff Meyers and his Trinity House fellows are reordering Reformed worship, returning the Lord's Supper to the pride of position it had in the worship of medieval Rome. Even a cursory examination of their worship liturgies is sufficient to demonstrate that the New Testament priorities and simplicity which have been the foundation of Reformed worship these past five centuries are being abandoned for complicated liturgies and changed priorities resembling those normally reserved for Anglicans, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics.

So why should we leave behind the order and priorities of historic Reformed worship?

Chesterton warns of the difference between reformation and deformation, saying no man should be allowed to tear down a fence until he can tell us why the fence was put there in the first place. This is the thing I keep turning over in my mind as I watch pastors implementing Covenant Renewal Worship's innovations. What are they leaving behind and why was it put there in the first place?

Calvin had grown up inside the Roman Catholic church where the heart of worship was sacramentalism. Thus, for the reformers, simply reducing the number of sacraments from seven to two was three-quarters of the battle. And yet the Mass was ground zero of the evil and in his preaching and writing Calvin never stopped attacking this idolatry. Read Calvin's sermons, letters, and theological works, and you'll understand why Jeff Meyers’s Trinity House fellow, Peter Leithart, oozes condescension toward Calvin's views on the sacraments. He can't stop arguing with Calvin.

John Calvin is the inveterate enemy of sacramentalists and they know it. Men such as Meyers and Leithart grew up Lutheran. Much of their leadership becomes intelligible only when viewed as recrudescent Lutheranism, as I’ve pointed out before. So why do these Federal Vision men committed to Lutheran soteriology, sacramentology, and liturgy fight to remain Presbyterian rather than returning to Lutheranism, Anglo-Catholicism, or pure Roman Catholicism?

They may want Presbyterian polity. They may dislike the papal promotion of Mary as mediatrix. They may feel slightly nauseous about the treasury of merit, plenary indulgences, and works of supererogation. They may believe Rome's doctrine and practice display a rather unfortunate logic consistently tending towards mercantilism. They may live in perpetual mourning over Rome's inability to extricate herself from the declarations of her ecumenical synods—particularly her damning of those who hold to justification by faith alone issued by her Ecumenical Council of Trent. Their skin may crawl over the syncretism-bordering-on-paganism that is Roman Catholicism everywhere in the world other than Western Europe and North America.

And yet, the sacraments—always the sacraments for these men. And if you are confused about the division among Federal Vision men between pale ales and oatmeal stouts, keep your eye on the sacraments. Oatmeal stouts (the Lutheran side) subordinate preaching to the sacraments while pale ales (the Puritan side) subordinate the sacraments to preaching. Thus, in his response to Cardinal Sodoleto’s attempt to seduce the souls of Geneva to return to Rome’s idolatry, Calvin writes:

We accuse you of overthrowing the ministry, of which the empty name remains with you, without the reality. As far as the office of feeding the people is concerned, the very children perceive that Bishops and Presbyters are dumb statues. ...We are indignant, that in the room of the sacred Supper has been substituted a sacrifice, by which the death of Christ is emptied of its virtues. We exclaim against the execrable traffic in masses, and we complain, that the Supper of the Lord, as to one of its halves, has been stolen from the Christian people. ...We show that the sacraments are vitiated by many profane notions.

Note Calvin’s declaration that “the reality” of “the ministry” depends upon “feeding the people.” He writes that Rome’s bishops and priests have “overthrown” the ministry, leaving it an “empty name” by placing in its ranks only “dumb statues.” In other words, prior to all their other errors such as denying the people the cup, transubstantiation, and the perpetual sacrifice of the body and blood of our Lord, Rome had vitiated the sacraments rendering them execrable by turning her pastors into priests whose job was entirely sacerdotal. They didn’t explain the sacraments. They didn’t preach.

Calvin goes on to show how central preaching must be for the proper administration of the Lord’s Supper:

We loudly proclaim the communion of flesh and blood, which is exhibited to believers in the Supper; and we distinctly show that that flesh is truly meat, and that blood truly drink -- that the soul, not contented with an imaginary conception, enjoys them in very truth. That presence of Christ, by which we are ingrafted in him, we by no means exclude from the Supper, nor shroud in darkness, though we hold that there must be no local limitation, that the glorious body of Christ must not be degraded to earthly elements; that there must be no fiction of transubstantiating the bread into Christ, and afterwards worshipping it as Christ. We explain the dignity and end of this solemn rite in the loftiest terms which we can employ, and then declare how great the advantages which we derive from it. Almost all these things are neglected by you. For, overlooking the divine beneficence which is here bestowed upon us, overlooking the legitimate use of so great a benefit, (the topics on which it were becoming most especially to dwell,) you count it enough that the people gaze stupidly at the visible sign, without any understanding of the spiritual mystery.

Calvin shows the work of Reformed pastors to be radically different from Rome’s priests who were mute or “dumb statues.” Calvin and his fellow ministers “loudly proclaim,” “distinctly show,” “explain the dignity and end of this solemn rite in the loftiest terms which we can employ, and then declare how great the advantages which we derive from it.” Meanwhile, under Rome, “the people (are left to) gaze stupidly at the visible sign, without any understanding.”

Now, at this point, some readers will respond that Covenant Renewal Worship is not opposed to preaching, but is committed to giving the very explanations of the sacraments recommended above by John Calvin. They would say Covenant Renewal Worship is no attempt to diminish the importance of preaching, explaining, and commending the sacraments, or fencing the Table, but rather a commitment to return the sacraments to the place of prominence they had in Reformed worship five centuries ago.

Not so.

First, the weekly administration of the Lord’s Supper is the sine qua non of Covenant Renewal Worship. Without it Covenant Renewal Worship is not Covenant Renewal Worship. Yet the Reformers in Geneva worshipped each week, most times without the observance of the Lord’s Supper. In other words, again, Calvin and his fellow reformers of Geneva did not practice Covenant Renewal Worship. Rather, they reformed their worship back to the model the first church in Jerusalem observed, in which the first priority was preaching.

Second, across the five centuries since the Reformation, the practice of weekly administration of the Lord’s Supper has been among Anglicans, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Anglo-Catholics—never Baptists or Presbyterians. And while it’s true that many Baptists and Presbyterians moved into a faulty view of the Lord’s Supper, at times rendering the sacrament an exotic thing by virtue of the infrequency of its observance, at least among Presbyterians, the norm has been observance as frequently as in Calvin’s Geneva. Our own congregation, for instance, has always observed the Lord’s Supper every other week, and we’re content with this frequency.

Third, several friends in the ministry who in past years have been closely associated with Federal Vision men have told me of listening to F-V men speak with one another about how they’ve moved from sermons to “homilies;” that their sermons are getting shorter and shorter, often “twenty minutes” or less. Clearly, the reason oatmeal stout, Covenant Renewal F-V pastors brag about their sermons getting shorter is that there is no clearer way of proving their commitment to liturgism and sacramentalism than the diminished time they give to God’s Word read and proclaimed.

Fourth, some time ago a reader of this blog who is well-known for being committed to Federal Vision theology saw a copy of our congregation’s Lord’s Supper liturgy and aggressively condemned it. The liturgy was a “guilt trip” and should never be used by a pastor administering the sacrament. This first exchange was online, but later we met in person. Then I tried to defend the liturgy on the basis of 1 Corinthians 11, for instance:

Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world. (1 Corinthians 11:27-32)

It was a no-go, and the reasoning was not simply Federal Vision Theology sacramentalism. It was also Covenant Renewal Worship's this-here-and-this-there-but never-that-at-the-end-or-this-at-the-beginning. Listening to the rules of Covenant Renewal Worship our liturgy was breaking reminded me of Bill Gothard’s flow charts for childrearing, which I’ve always called “parenting for engineers.” Listening to all the rules we were breaking, I concluded that Covenant Renewal Worship is liturgy for engineers. Mechanical engineers. Very mechanical engineers. Part of our failure, I was told, was that we called the congregation to confess sin as a part of the Lord’s Supper, but confession of sin should be done at the beginning of the service, only. Stuff like that.

Despairing of my ability to speak reasonably with my critic, I opened my laptop and read the liturgy from start to finish, this time with the archaic language intact. When I was finished, I asked if this was guilty of the same errors our own Clearnote liturgy was guilty of?

Sadly, the answer was yes—it was every bit as bad as ours.

Pulling out the trump card, I explained that I had just read an exact transcript of the Lord’s Supper liturgy of John Calvin. Did this cause my critic any doubts, I asked?

Incredibly, no doubts at all. John Calvin was wrong, wrong, wrong.

So again, in Calvin’s Geneva the weekly celebration of the Lord's Supper was not practiced. And yet, fencing the Table and barring men from communing most certainly was. Preaching and fencing the Table were what Calvin's sacramentology could not live without.

Yet weekly communion is what oatmeal stout Federal Vision Covenant Renewal Worship men cannot live without.

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!