The New Testament as our authority for worship: Destroying the worship wars

Here’s my response to a request for evidence in my claim regarding Calvin and the New Testament as the authority for our worship:

In his criticism of Roman worship, with all of its pomp and ceremony, Calvin writes in the Institutesas follows:

For they have partly taken their patterns from the ravings of the Gentiles, partly, like apes, have rashly imitated the ancient rites of the Mosaic law, which apply to us no more than do animal sacrifices and other like things.” (Institutes 4.10.12)

This is a striking sentence. When he accuses them of rashly imitating the ancient Mosaic Laws, he is not talking about the sacrificial system, which all Christians agree is abrogated. He is talking about the rites in addition to that system (“which apply to us no more than do animal sacrifices), including “other like things.” For Calvin, I it is quite clear, that included things like vestments, instruments, etc.

He goes on to say that these things serve “benumb the people rather than to teach them.” In their place Calvin emphasized preaching and the sacraments, because these are God’s divinely appointed means of teaching. Note that when Calvin discusses “ceremonies” or “constitutions” in this part of the Institutes he is referring essentially to liturgy and worship practices. Calvin does not want us to return to “ceremonies which, with Christ half buried, cause us to return to Jewish symbols.” (4.10.14)

He then points out that his Roman Catholic opponents are defending their practices based on the Old Testament model: “They say that among us are very many as untutored as there were among the people of Israel; that for the sake of these this sort of elementary discipline was provided …” Then he goes on, “It was not in vain that God set this difference between us and the ancient folk, that he willed to teach them as children by signs and figures, but to teach us more simply, without such outward trappings.”(4.10.14)

And later, commenting on John 4:23, “But the new worshipers differ from the old in that under Moses the spiritual worship of God was figured, and so to speak, enwrapped in many ceremonies; but now that these are abolished, he is worshiped more simply. Accordingly, he who confuses this difference is overturning an order instituted by Christ.” Read the whole section in the Institutes; this is just a selection of quotes to give you the thrust of argument. (4.10.14)

Evidence that I am interpreting Calvin right here, and that he extended this argument beyond just the Torah and to the whole system of Temple worship as found in the psalms and elsewhere, comes from the way he discusses instruments:

To sing the praises of God upon the harp and psaltery unquestionably formed a part of the training of the law and of the service of God under that dispensation of shadows and figures, but they are not now to be used in public thanksgiving. We are not, indeed, forbidden to use, in private, musical instruments, but they are banished out of the churches by the plain command of the Holy Spirit, when Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14:13, lays it down as an invariable rule, that we must praise God, and pray to him only in a known tongue (commentary on Psalm 71:22).

What would that approach do to the contemporary worship wars! But here’s more:

With respect to the tabret, harp, and psaltery, we have formerly observed, and will find it necessary afterwards to repeat the same remark, that the Levites, under the law, were justified in making use of instrumental music in the worship of God; it having been his will to train his people, while they were yet tender and like children, by such rudiments until the coming of Christ. But now, when the clear light of the gospel has dissipated the shadows of the law and taught us that God is to be served in a simpler form, it would be to act a foolish and mistaken part to imitate that which the prophet enjoined only upon those of his own time. (commentary on Psalm 81:3).

Notice here the contrast between the time of the law and the time of the coming of Christ. This clearly explains Calvin’s comments in the Instruments. The New Testament is the authority for worship. Finally, one more:

We are to remember that the worship of God was never understood to consist in such outward services, which were only necessary to help forward a people as yet weak and rude in knowledge in the spiritual worship of God. A difference is to be observed in this respect between his people under the Old and under the New Testament; for now that Christ has appeared, and the church has reached full age, it were only to bury the light of the gospel should we introduce the shadows of a departed dispensation. From this it appears that the Papists, as I shall have occasion to show elsewhere, in employing instrumental music cannot be said so much to imitate the practice of God’s ancient people as to ape it in a senseless and absurd manner, exhibiting a silly delight in that worship of the Old Testament which was figurative and terminated with the gospel (commentary on Psalm 92:1-4).

Here he is explicit: the New Testament alone is the authority for our worship.

About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on May 2, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The New Testament as our authority for worship: Destroying the worship wars.

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