Reformed Theology Tradition vs. Confession: Reformed worship in Geneva  Calvinism

Tradition vs. Confession: Reformed worship in Geneva

Reformed Theology Tradition vs. Confession: Reformed worship in Geneva  Calvinism
Tradition vs. Confession: Reformed worship in Geneva

Worship in Calvin’s Geneva was oriented around the Word and Sacraments. Reformed worship followed the Regulative Principle of Worship (the “RPW”) – that we must worship God only in the manner in which we have been commanded to worship Him. Thus, in Calvin’s Geneva the people sang Scripture: the Psalms, some of the New Testament songs, and perhaps the Apostles Creed (as a summary of what scripture teaches). The singing was unaccompanied by musical instruments—a cappella, also according to the RPW.

After Calvin’s death, the Reformed manner of worship in Geneva gradually eroded. The organ in St. Peter’s was finally repaired and used in worship. By the latter half of the 17th Century, the conservative Benedict Pictet and the liberal Jean-Alphonse Turretin collaborated on a hymnbook for use during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The book included the “opinion of Erasmus on the importance of such music for proper worship.”[1]

How did Reformed worship go from the unaccompanied singing of Scripture, to musical instruments and hymns?

The answer, I believe, lies in Geneva’s confessions. From Calvin’s death to the early 18th Century, Geneva had three confessional documents: Canons of the Synod of Dort (confession from 1620-1725), Second Helvetic Confession (1566), Calvin’s Catechism (1538).

Calvin’s Catechism is a very simple and short catechism, not at all like the Westminster Larger Catechism or the Heidelberg Catechism. The Canons of the Synod of Dort are somewhat limited in scope – it is responding to the Remonstrants. Finally, the Second Helvetic Confession is an early consensus document, designed to promote unity among the various Reformed factions in Switzerland at the time (1566). As such, the Second Helvetic Confession seems less rigorously Reformed when compared to the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity.

Therefore, Reformed worship in Geneva was done not as a matter of confession, but rather as a matter of tradition. None of Geneva’s confessions prohibited the use of instruments or hymns; none of Geneva’s confessions explicitly taught the RPW.

In conclusion, a possible application from this brief historical overview is that, humanly speaking, Reformed orthodoxy depends upon two factors: 1) The rigorousness of a church’s confessionalism and 2) the quality of the church’s confessions.

For this reason, among others, I believe it is wise for Reformed churches to periodically consider adding to, revising, subtracting, or otherwise modifying their confessional documents. If a church does not codify its beliefs and practices, it may come to rely upon tradition, which has the tendency to undermine confessionalism and to make the confessions seem out of date or less important to that church.

[1] Martin I. Klauber “Family Loyalty and Theological Transition in Post-Reformation Geneva: The Case of Benedict Pictet (1655-1724)” in Fides et Historia. XXIV no 1. Winter/Spring 1992. 63.

Worship in Calvin’s Geneva was oriented around the Word and Sacraments. Reformed worship followed the Regulative Principle of Worship (the “RPW”) – that we must worship God only in the manner in which we have been commanded to worship Him. Thus, in Calvin’s Geneva the people sang Scripture: the Psalms, some of the New Testament songs, and perhaps the Apostles Creed (as a summary of what scripture teaches). The singing was unaccompanied by musical instruments—a cappella, also according to the RPW.

After Calvin’s death, the Reformed manner of worship in Geneva gradually eroded. The organ in St. Peter’s was finally repaired and used in worship. By the latter half of the 17th Century, the conservative Benedict Pictet and the liberal Jean-Alphonse Turretin collaborated on a hymnbook for use during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The book included the “opinion of Erasmus on the importance of such music for proper worship.”[1]

How did Reformed worship go from the unaccompanied singing of Scripture, to musical instruments and hymns?

The answer, I believe, lies in Geneva’s confessions. From Calvin’s death to the early 18th Century, Geneva had three confessional documents: Canons of the Synod of Dort (confession from 1620-1725), Second Helvetic Confession (1566), Calvin’s Catechism (1538).

Calvin’s Catechism is a very simple and short catechism, not at all like the Westminster Larger Catechism or the Heidelberg Catechism. The Canons of the Synod of Dort are somewhat limited in scope – it is responding to the Remonstrants. Finally, the Second Helvetic Confession is an early consensus document, designed to promote unity among the various Reformed factions in Switzerland at the time (1566). As such, the Second Helvetic Confession seems less rigorously Reformed when compared to the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity.

Therefore, Reformed worship in Geneva was done not as a matter of confession, but rather as a matter of tradition. None of Geneva’s confessions prohibited the use of instruments or hymns; none of Geneva’s confessions explicitly taught the RPW.

In conclusion, a possible application from this brief historical overview is that, humanly speaking, Reformed orthodoxy depends upon two factors: 1) The rigorousness of a church’s confessionalism and 2) the quality of the church’s confessions.

For this reason, among others, I believe it is wise for Reformed churches to periodically consider adding to, revising, subtracting, or otherwise modifying their confessional documents. If a church does not codify its beliefs and practices, it may come to rely upon tradition, which has the tendency to undermine confessionalism and to make the confessions seem out of date or less important to that church.

[1] Martin I. Klauber “Family Loyalty and Theological Transition in Post-Reformation Geneva: The Case of Benedict Pictet (1655-1724)” in Fides et Historia. XXIV no 1. Winter/Spring 1992. 63.

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Submitted March 11, 2017 at 11:43AM by The_Mad_Hungarian