Friday, June 20, 2014

Book Review: Worshipping with Calvin

Worshipping with Calvin: Recovering the Historic Ministry and Worship of Reformed Protestantism by Terry L. Johnson. EP Books (2014), 460 pp.
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Contrary to what you might guess about me, I didn't research my way into Reformed theology, but was wooed by its worship. What attracted me? To name a few things, its undistracted simplicity of style, its sacramental piety (especially the focus on the Lord's Supper), and the emphasis on the Holy Spirit in applying the means of grace to believers. Once I began to taste these riches as a fledgling Presbyterian, I did begin to study more, and was delighted anew by the beautiful depths to be found in this tradition.

The above three themes are among those that Terry Johnson emphasizes in Worshipping with Calvin. For the most part, I really enjoyed reading this book. I especially appreciated the prominent influence of Hughes Oliphant Old, whose works on preaching have figured in my dissertation research. It was also incredibly refreshing to read a positive and comprehensive account of the Reformed Protestant approach to worship. I agree with Johnson that it behooves "new" Calvinists to become familiar with the liturgical reforms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Reformed faith isn't only about a few key doctrines; its theological reforms are inseparably bound up with the shape and substance of its worship, a point that seems to be neglected today.

Having read some pervasively cranky books on Reformed worship in the past few years, I feared this book would be another whose tone would be alienating for those readers who would most benefit from the information. While there were some moments that made me uneasy (such as an over-the-top reference to "the ovens of Molech and the temple prostitutes of Baal" on p. 16), I don't think it ultimately crossed the crankiness threshold. Rather, I wasn't always sure who the intended audience was -- if Johnson was primarily addressing fellow pastors who wish to implement historic Reformed worship in their congregations, or if he meant to win over skeptics as well. Especially if the latter was his goal, some of his assessment of contemporary worship practices felt a bit dated. For instance, most of the very hymns that the Spirit used to draw me to the Reformed faith were a fusion of traditional texts with newer music, but Johnson doesn't mention such trends in contemporary hymnody, focusing instead on the deficiencies of megachurch and emergent practices that have long lost their appeal among my peers (at least from my limited observations).

However, most of the contents were a joy to read. Johnson offers a strong historical case for the way that the five Reformation solas were reflected in the accompanying liturgical reforms. Also helpful were chapters 5 and 6, which focus on Reformed worship as Bible-filled, not only in the reading and exposition of Scripture, but in prayer, singing, and the observance of the sacraments, the "visible words." As Johnson argues with regard to the latter, "There is a proper Reformed sacramental piety which places the sacraments at the center of the Christian life and the life of the church without supplanting the ministry of the Word." (150) Amen! He also walks through the "gospel structure" of the liturgy, and argues for the appropriateness of emotional restraint in the worship service.

I fully expect to reference Worshipping with Calvin again. It gave me a deeper appreciation for the theological and historical richness of the tradition in which the Lord has planted me. While it strikes me as a preaching-to-the-choir book more than an effective apologetic, that isn't in itself a bad thing. As Johnson often points out, even within Reformed circles it can be difficult to find solid, historically aware resources for worship. This book certainly goes a long way toward filling that gap, and hopefully equipping us to invite others into this gospel-shaped worship.

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book, and I was under no obligation to give a favorable review.

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