Worship Calvinist Style: a book review

I am not a Calvinist by conviction or by my ecclessial membership. The church I attend, the Evangelical Covenant Church, is self consciously rooted in the Lutheran Pietist tradition. Yet, John Calvin remains one of my favorite theologians. I remember reading on my first trek through the Institutes these words, though the translation I first read it in, varied in wording:

My meaning is: we must be persuaded not only that as he once formed the world, so he sustains it by his boundless power, governs it by his wisdom, preserves it by his goodness, in particular, rules the human race with justice and judgment, bears with them in mercy, shields them by his protection; but also that not a particle of light, or wisdom, or justice, or power, or rectitude, or genuine truth, will anywhere be found, which does not flow from him, and of which he is not the cause; in this way we must learn to expect and ask all things from him, and thankfully ascribe to him whatever we receive. (I, ii, 1, Beveridge translation).

When I read these words, I see Calvin’s peculiar understanding of God’s providence as based in worship.  He did not want to take credit for, or give glory to human agency, when all glory and honor are due the Sovereign God. Calvin sings praise to the glory and grandness of God.

So when I had an opportunity to review a book entitled Worshiping With CalvinI was excited to dip back into a theologian who has helped me enlarge my vision of God. The subtitle of the book, Recovering the Historic Ministry and Worshop of Reformed Protestantism also intrigued me. My mother is an organist and choirmaster with a masters in church music. She has bemoaned the poor theology and shallowness of contemporary Evangelical worship since the 1980’s ‘worship wars.’  She has since taken cover in the Episcopal church (a denomination that still uses organs); though she bucks against the goads of the denomination’s theological liberalism, she has an enduring appreciation for the liturgy. Like my mom, I also want to recover ‘the good’ in traditional practice and I wonder how well contemporary songs and liturgical formats have served us.

Terry Johnson, is a minister in an Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia. He wrote Worshiping with Calvin to help his fellow Calvinists recover some of the gifts of the Reformed understanding of worship. As such, he wrote this book examining the broad ‘Reformed tradition’ but does not engage with the theology of Calvin in a focused manner. He does however have an interest in helping us recover some of the gifts that the Reformation gave us for our understanding and practice of public worship.

Johnson has three sections to his book. Part one discusses the contemporary worship scene and historic practice. Part two examines the importance of reformed worship through the lens of the historic and exegetical lens, and the theological lens. The Reformation was a recovery movement which called Christians to return to ‘the source’ (ad fontes) by examining the Bible and patristic practice. It also precipitated a theological and liturgical revolution which reshaped medieval worship practices. This is fleshed out in part three which explores how Reformed worship was God-centered, Bible filled, gospel structured, church-aware, and Spirit dependent.

As my mother’s son, I appreciate how paltry contemporary worship can be and I like how Johnson calls us to return to worship which is theologically and biblically rooted. I did wish for more theological engagement with Calvinism’s principle theologian (Calvin). However Johnson’s eye’s were trained on the way the Reformed tradition practices its liturgical theology. He seems only incidentally interested in the theology itself. Calvin is evoked and pointed at (as are Zwingli and other reformers, Puritans and Calvinists), but his sacramental and  liturgical theology is never unpacked. For a book that argues for ‘a recovery’ I wished that this book was more Calvin than Calvinist. Still Johnson had many cogent and helpful things to say about keeping worship centered on God, rooted in the Bible and Christ’s work and dependent on the work of the Spirit. In the end, I found this book challenging, even if it was not exactly what I had hoped for. I give it 3.5 stars.

Thank you to Evangelical Press and Cross Focused Reviews for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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