Liturgical Change in the Christian Reformed Church (1964-1985) — Part 4

Synod 1968 — A Major Development

At Synod 1968 we find a report from the Liturgical Committee which sets the course for at least the next three decades.  Since this report is quite lengthy, the most we can do here is summarize its highlights.  The report was written because the Committee felt that their mandate could be accomplished only by means of a thorough study.  The primary drafter of the report appears to have been Dr. Lewis B. Smedes, a figure known to push the boundaries of Reformed orthodoxy.

The report was meant to function as  a study primarily of the morning worship service, although much of what was written was recognized as applying equally to the second service.  The report began with some general comments about liturgy and its origin.  The report then moved into a focused discussion on the character of worship.  This was done through surveys of both the Old and New Testaments.  This is where we discover the guiding principle which determined CRC discussions on worship from this moment forward:  “Worship for the people of God has always been a dialogue.”  Dialogue was further said to be “the inherent structure of worship.  The question of liturgy is the question of how the dialogue is appropriately and effectively articulated.”

The report proceeded to speak about “The Enduring Structure of Liturgy.”  It asserted that precise rules are not to be found in the New Testament itself, although several elements may be detected:  prayers, confession of faith, reading, preaching, greetings and blessings, offerings, and the sacraments.  There was great freedom in the liturgy of the apostolic church, but the substance was always about maintaining the dialogical principle.  Much the same is witnessed in the first five centuries of the church.  Even with the Roman mass and all that was tragic about it, the basic dialogical structure was maintained:  “Hid beneath clerical domination and liturgical embroidery is the structure, at least, of the ancient dialogue…while the instrumentation was badly fouled, the symphonic structure was the same.”  Calvin, following Bucer, maintained and even strengthened this dialogical structure.  With respect to the Dutch liturgy of Peter Dathenus, the basic structure was followed again, but with more emphasis being given to the Word.  This was not seen by the report as a positive development.  The conclusion of the report at this point was to ask the question “whether we can truly recapture the enduring structure of the liturgy of the Christian church, and thus become more Calvinistic and more catholic at the same time.”

Four motifs were brought forward to function as criteria for evaluating the liturgy.  The first is the biblical motif.  Here we find a surprising statement:  “The Bible does not prescribe an order of worship; hence we do not contend that the church must do only those things expressly commanded for worship.  But the Bible is our basic orientation.”  Already here we need to stop, analyze, and evaluate this statement.  The reasoning was not cogent.

First, we find the fact that the Bible does not stipulate an order in which worship must be conducted.  Then the conclusion is that we may not argue that worship must contain only those elements which are expressly commanded in Scripture.  This is a non sequitur.  The conclusion does not follow from the premise.  The premise speaks of structure and order; the conclusion speaks of elements.  They’re apples and oranges.

Second, speaking historically, this is not a Reformed conclusion.  This is not the view found in the Three Forms of Unity, for instance in Lord’s Day 35 or Belgic Confession article 7.  The position taken in this report abandoned a basic Reformed principle of worship.  Not only that, but it also represented that confessional position prejudicially.  The addition of the word “expressly” deliberately overstated matters.  Historically, it has been recognized by Reformed churches that God’s Word regulates the elements of our worship in a variety of manners, and not always with “express” commands.

The committee went on to deal with the second motif, the catholic.  This demands “that Christians of any time or place in the past or present ought to be able to recognize our worship as Christian worship.”  The confessional motif was the third one and this served as a counter-balance to the catholic motif.  Here worship is more defined:  “…the church at worship is limited by its confessions; worship ought to be consistent with them at the least and embody them at the most.”  The irony of this statement was that there was not a single place in the report where the confessional data that deals with worship was acknowledged, much less engaged with.  The Reformed confessions were ignored and this results in a lamentable one-sidedness, as we shall see further.

Finally, the report also spoke of a pastoral motif.  Referring here to John Calvin, the report insisted that love must be our guide.  The liturgy and whatever changes are made to it must have edification as its end:  “The liturgy must serve to edify; and what is useful for edification in Manhattan, New York, may be harmful in Manhattan, Montana.”  Thus the committee refrained from looking to synodical regulation concerning liturgical details in the CRC.

From here the report went on to discuss the components of liturgy.  Much of what was presented there is familiar.  The components mentioned were the same elements that one would generally find in any given Canadian Reformed church today.  Even in the section on preaching, there is a traditional, conservative approach.  There were no innovations in this section of the report.

The report concluded with three model services proposed by the committee for experimentation purposes in local CRC congregations.  Notable in these models was the use of abundant vocal response on the part of the congregation.  That would seem to have fit with the strong emphasis on dialogical structure in the report.

Synod 1968 commended “this report to the churches for their study and consideration.”  There does not appear to have been any controversy surrounding the report.  As we conclude this section, I would ask you again to note these two key features:  1) the heavy stress on the dialogical structure of Christian worship; 2) the lack of attention given to what is confessed about worship in the Three Forms of Unity.  These two points will return as we continue our survey.

Next time:  Synod 1973 — Pushing the Boundaries

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

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