This year I’ve read over 30 books, mostly non-fiction, mostly theological. My top pick for the whole year is Albert Mohler’s The Gathering Storm. You can read my review here. This book provides important analysis about the cultural situation in which we find ourselves. It’s concise (223 pages), but yet incisive.
A runner-up is in the same vein of Christian cultural analysis: Lyle Shelton’s I Kid You Not. This one is more geared to Aussie readers, but it could profit readers in other countries too. It’s largely a memoir of battles fought by one of Australia’s leading social conservatives. My review is here.
I don’t usually set out to read stinkers. Most of the time I’m asked to read and review them. In 2020, there were a few. Some I haven’t reviewed, but some are important enough and influential enough that they need a critical look. Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins is one such book. It’s essentially an extended argument for theistic evolution. It’s riddled with theological problems, including some that border on heresy. I spent a lot of time on this one so you won’t have to. My review was published in several parts at Creation Without Compromise.
The following is an excerpt from chapter 17 of Aiming to Please: A Guide to Reformed Worship (available from Amazon and other retailers). The chapter begins with a consideration of the so-called Days of Commemoration (Christmas, Easter, etc.). I argue that there is liberty for Reformed churches to worship on these days.
What About Advent and Lent?
Some churches follow not only the practice of commemorating occasions like Christmas and Easter, but also the special seasons of Advent and Lent. Advent is the four weeks leading up to December 25. Lent consists of the forty days leading up to Easter – it includes Palm Sunday, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday. This liturgical calendar (which includes far more dates and seasons) is observed in Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism, but has also made some inroads into Reformed churches as well.
We noted above that John Calvin did not practice Advent or Lent. There were services every day in Geneva and, in the week leading up to Easter, Calvin did preach on the suffering of Christ. However, that is not at all the same as forty days of Lent observance or four weeks of Advent.
By the time of Abraham Kuyper, there was a diversity of practice in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands. Kuyper noted that quite a few ministers in his time did follow the liturgical calendar, including Advent and Lent. He was opposed to prescribing anything on this score, and himself expressed some reservations about it.
There are a few objections one could bring to following the liturgical calendar more broadly. To start, I appreciate what Hughes Oliphant Old wrote about this:
The recent effort to bring back the celebration of the old liturgical calendar has suspicious similarities to a revival of the nature religions, natural theology, a cyclical interpretation of life, and the resurgence of the religions of fortune and fertility. One does penance in Advent, when winter sets in, and then one rejoices at Easter, when the flowers reappear in the spring. It is all quite natural, but this fascination with liturgical seasons sometimes seems not much more than a revival of Canaanitism. The primary emphasis of any Reformed liturgical calendar should be the weekly observance of the Lord’s Day.
Moreover, the observance of these seasons gives the impression that we are somehow reliving all these events in redemptive history. It is as if we are spending four weeks waiting for Jesus to be born – when he was already born 2000 years ago. Or, with Lent, it seems that we are spending forty days preparing ourselves for the crucifixion on Good Friday. These events have happened and it is one thing to commemorate them, it is quite another to spend several weeks almost pretending we are waiting for them.
Related to this are the practices which usually accompany these seasons and especially Lent. I am thinking especially of the practice of fasting for Lent. This is done not only by Roman Catholics, but also by Lutherans and growing numbers of evangelical Christians. Now there is definitely much to commend fasting from a biblical perspective. The problem is not with fasting as such. The problem is connecting fasting to a man-made liturgical season. Biblical fasting is voluntary and secret. Lenten fasting is sometimes mandated (as with the Roman Catholic Church) and sometimes merely encouraged. But it is always with the idea that this fasting is a preparation for observing Christ’s suffering – something he has already endured in our place. By adopting the practice of observing Lent in our churches, we could be giving the impression that the practices associated with Lent are commended for our use as well.
There is also another objection – one to which I have alluded several times already. We have agreed to go each year through the 52 Lord’s Days of the Heidelberg Catechism. As we do that, we are already covering the important events of redemptive history. If we follow the season of Advent, we spend one Sunday on Lord’s Day 14, one Christmas sermon, plus four more Advent sermons. Each year, believers in such a church would hear six sermons on Christ’s incarnation. The situation is similar with Christ’s suffering: two Lord’s Days (15 and 16) on his suffering, plus a Good Friday sermon, and then six Sundays of Lenten preaching. Is it necessary or helpful to dedicate this much of the preaching schedule to these topics? Moreover, if a preacher wishes to follow the model of serial expository preaching, these seasons of Lent and Advent are not going to allow him to make much progress through a book. After all, 10 of 52 Sundays are dealing with Christ’s incarnation and suffering.
All things considered, a good case can be made for observing the days of commemoration. But seasons of Lent and Advent are better left to the side. I will certainly respect the liberty of the church or the colleague who follows this, but it should also work the other way around. If a minister is not comfortable with the practice, no church ought to force him. When it comes to Lent and Advent, Kuyper was right: there should be no prescription. As the Belgic Confession puts it in article 32, let us be careful about having “laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.”
 Elsie Anne McKee, “Reformed Worship in the Sixteenth Century,” 17-18.
I’ve been reading Carlos Eire’s Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650. It’s an enjoyable survey of this time period, though approached from the angle of a historian who presents himself as having no dog in any of the theological fights described. Chapter 12 is on “Calvin and Calvinism” and I thought this excerpt was particularly thought-provoking and worth sharing here:
One of the first reforms instituted by Calvin upon his return to Geneva in 1542 was the creation of a Psalter, a hymnal composed entirely of psalms from the Bible. Subsequent editions added more psalms to the original Geneva version, culminating with the 1562 edition, which contained all 150 psalms in French, the language of the people, set to simple, singer-friendly tunes in poetic meter. The Genevan Psalter was a collaborative effort, but chiefly the work of the musician Louis Bourgeois, the poet Clement Marot, and the churchman Theodore de Beze. Eventually reprinted hundreds of times and translated into many other languages, the Geneva Psalter would come to have an enormous influence on Calvinists everywhere, as the psalms became both a way to pray to God and a way to listen to God. It helps to keep in mind, however, that while the psalter sought to make a biblical text the heart and soul of the liturgy — to ritualize the sola scriptura principle — it was not at all a Protestant invention, but rather a continuation of monastic piety.
In many ways, Genevans lived up to the imperative ideal of St. Benedict’s monastic rule: ora et labora (Pray and work)! Ironically, Calvinists ended up worshiping in a way similar to that of the medieval monks they so despised, singing the Psalter on a regular basis as a community. They also sanctified work itself, as a holy calling, and the practiced discipline and exclusion. Geneva, like a well-run monastery, was no welcoming refuge for sinners or slackers. But the parallels end there. Calvinists were committed to transforming the world by living in it, not by setting themselves apart, and there is a world of difference between these two ways of life. Calvinists saw themselves as a continuation not of monasticism, but rather of Israel, as God’s chosen people. And within this self-conception one very important difference distinguished Calvinists from the ancient Israelites: the Promised Land of the Calvinists was the whole world, not just some tiny patch of arid land wedged between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
Carlos Eire, Reformations, p.316
Some of my own thoughts:
The idea of a continuation of monastic piety is interesting, but I doubt it would have resonated with Calvin or other Genevan clerics. They would probably have argued that psalm-singing is part of the church’s patristic, rather than monastic, heritage. In other words, it goes back to the early church and the Reformation was recovering early-church practice.
Second, the expression ora et labora certainly has had currency in Reformed churches. In Canada I remember a Bible study group for young people which bore that name — one which is indeed derived from Benedictine monasticism.
Finally, I appreciate Eire’s contrast between Calvinism and monasticism in terms of how to regard life in this world. The idea of cutting yourself off from the world (or world-flight) is indeed not historically Calvinistic. In this regard, some streams of Anabaptism are more in line with monastic ideals.
The following is an excerpt from Aiming to Please, chapter 16. Aiming to Please: A Guide to Reformed Worship can be purchased from Amazon and many other online retailers around the world.
The Accompanist as Prophet?
If we have accompaniment, the accompanist has an important role in our worship service. As just intimated, poor accompaniment is worse than no accompaniment. We want our accompanists to aim to please the LORD along with the entire congregation. There has to be a pursuit of excellence in the craft of accompaniment. When this is done, we should be thankful and encourage our accompanists.
Regrettably, in our tradition there has sometimes been inordinate language when it comes to accompanists, and especially organists. Sometimes the organist has been described as a “prophet” and his playing as “prophesying from the organ bench.” It seems that this rhetoric traces back to the famous Dutch organist Jan Zwart. According to Deddens, Zwart spoke of “prophesying during the worship service, before and after the sermon, in a language the people can understand.” Reformed theologian Klaas Schilder took over this language in describing Zwart posthumously: “His life’s work was to prophesy from the organ bench, and when we say that we give true expression to what motivated this man.” Deddens appreciated this rhetoric and took it over as well.
The major problem with this description of the accompanist is that it does not stand up to biblical scrutiny. In the Bible, prophecy is almost always about words. A prophet without words is unheard of. There are instances where prophets performed prophetic acts, but these were exceptional, and even these acts never occurred in isolation from their words. Both in the Old Testament and the New Testament, prophecy is verbal. When Lord’s Day 12 of the Catechism says we are anointed to be prophets who confess the name of Christ, it is referring to a verbal activity. During and after the Reformation, preaching was sometimes called “prophesying” – because it had to do with words. The idea of a musical instrument being a means of prophecy is unheard of, biblically and historically.
While certainly appreciating the work of accompanists (more on that in a moment), let us also be modest about what they are doing. If one wants to employ the language of the three-fold office of all believers to describe accompanists, then it would be better to refer to them in priestly terms. With their accompaniment, they are offering a sacrifice of thanksgiving with the rest of the congregation. That is something which can be done both with and without words.
Proper Honour for Accompanists
If an accompanist takes his or her work seriously, there can be quite a bit of preparation involved with each service. Moreover, a serious accompanist might even be a professional musician with years of training. A lot of time and money may have been invested in honing their musical craft. This ought to be honoured and recognized.
That can be done in different ways, of course. One way would be for the pastor regularly to pray for the accompanist(s) in his congregation. Another would be for there to be occasional acknowledgement of the accompanist in the church bulletin or perhaps at a congregational meeting. Still another way would be to ask the accompanist to help the congregation in understanding music in worship. Accompanists have the musical understanding and skills that many of us do not, and asking them to share their insights also shows respect for them and their craft. Let them teach us.
It is also appropriate to show our gratitude to our accompanists with an honorarium. This recognizes the time, energy, and financial commitment they have made to pursue excellence in accompanying our singing. Churches that do not offer an honorarium to their accompanists can sometimes struggle to find accompaniment, especially if there are other churches nearby which do offer honorariums.
Now someone might object and say, “A lot of us do volunteer work in the church and we don’t get paid for it. So why should the accompanist get paid?” There are two things to say in response. First, the accompanist is not being “paid” for their labours. He or she is not an employee of the church, at least not typically. The accompanist is a volunteer, offering his or her services for the glory of God. Second, unlike most other volunteer work in the church, the accompanist has spent a lot of his or her time, energy, and money on learning to play well. Continuing to play well also requires investments, including the purchase of sheet music. Accompaniment is different than the other volunteer work done in the church. A modest honorarium recognizes this.