John Calvin on Theatrical Trifles in Worship

Jesus Christ comes to us in a realized eschatology of invisibility. When he comes to us, he lights flames that remain invisible to us, both saints and sinners.

The late Middle Ages held a raging ferment of opinion concerning one’s search for the knowledge of God, the means of grace, and the experience of the holy.

There were, moreover, woven within these general topics, questions concerning the precise understanding of some of the most sublime issues: the role of Jesus Christ, the meaning of ecclesiastical authority, the capacity of the human will, the meaning of salvation, and many others. The focal point of the whole flow of the debates was, of course, the power of worship.

It was all quite complex. The movement which is generally referred to as the Renaissance had many wonderful currents: the recovery, editing, and translation of both classical and monastic documents; the discovery of earlier patterns of legal procedures; and a revival of concern about one’s internal spiritual experience. And the promise that seemed to energize so much was the realization that both the doctrinal heritage of the church and the opening of the Scriptures, freshly acquired and read, could dynamite the blockage that seemed to so many to be locked in place by the Roman curia.

The amount of devotional literature that began to appear all over Europe is itself a remarkable phenomenon. Bernard of Clairvaux’s twelfth century homilies on The Song of Songs, Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, Catherine of Siena’s The Dialogue, Walter Hilton’s The Stairway of Perfection, Teresa of Avila’s autobiography and The Way of Perfection, Richard Rolle’s The Fire of Love, and, anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing, were among the most widely read. And if you were to pause, look to the Orthodox communities, and begin to follow the books that were becoming available from the East to the West you would soon discover an additional pattern to Christian spirituality.

Most of this, of course, antedated the life of John Calvin. Nevertheless, these books soon began to leave their mark in the quest for forms of church order and worship that would be more directly rooted in the practices of the early church. There was certainly no way that they could be easily ignored. And they contributed to the process in which Calvin began to look, as if for the first time, at the liturgical components of church services with new eyes.

The criterion by which he began to evaluate the practices of worship soon became a clear exegesis of Scripture-based on Greek and Hebrew texts and his understanding of the core of the doctrinal heritage of the church. The number of books that have been published since Lucien Richard’s fresh study of the spiritual background of the Reformers in 1974 has only increased.1

John Calvin was not the first to turn away from the liturgical practices of medieval Europe, as the flood of these volumes illustrates. However, what is notable is the way in which Calvin cites authors who led him more clearly into the Christological center of worship. Calvin’s emphasis on the power of God’s salvation through the presence of Christ within the true preaching of the Word became definitive in the Reformed churches. It may be a little difficult for us to appreciate today the uniqueness in Calvin’s adherence to the movement which stripped away five of the seven sacraments.

Calvin’s Reform of Worship

When Calvin published the first edition of the Institutes in 1536, he devoted eighty-seven of its 226 pages to an exposition of what he had come to see as the true sacraments. It could hardly be a surprise to those who knew his thinking that it included a screamingly adverse critique of the remaining “false statements.” Over one third of his book is thus devoted to an analysis of the sacraments. And what this can suggest to us is that, rightly administered, they could become a Christ-centered means of grace.

The painful urgency in his concern lay in his conviction that the use of rituals, practices, and preaching that had no specific direction from God in his Word carried within it the curse of idolatry. Randall Zachman quotes Calvin’s fourteenth sermon on the Epistle to the Ephesians where he criticizes those who “take a sprinkling of holy water, cross themselves endlessly … keep this and that vigil … gad about on pilgrimage … babble so many paternosters … say so many mea culpas.”2 What would Calvin think, one might ask today, if he could see the flood of newly adopted rituals, decorative fabrics, and, perhaps above all, the sermons which have hardly any recognizable foundation in a doctrinally sound exegesis of Scripture?

The issues in contemporary Protestant church life have frequently superseded those that aroused Calvin’s anger in his day. Nevertheless, the question of somewhat parallel problems may continue to diminish the recognition of authority in Christian worship. One could argue that the texts for the Pentecost passages are deeply commanding about the power of the Triune God in the life of the church. If that is so, why do some congregations seem to become fascinated with the color red itself? Even the wearing of red trousers is occasionally encouraged. Yet the purpose of these texts is not really about the symbolism of a color.

What is one to make of the way in which services for the end of a person’s earthly life have let slip the New Testament’s awareness of the risen Christ as the Victor over such grim opponents as sin, death, and the devil? In contrast to the Reformed concern to point the bereaved beyond medieval preoccupations, many congregations today are led to focus on them. Though the service is now almost universally depicted as a “witness,” it begs the question: A witness to what or to whom? Rather than pointing to or focusing on Christ, it typically becomes a mostly anthropocentric “celebration of life.” Is there not more focus today on the natural traits, attributes, abilities, characteristics, or personality of the deceased than on Christ? When the unique power of the risen Christ throughout the life of his church becomes diminished the role of a humanistic vitalism, in all of its personal manifestations, offers itself as a substitute.

The heart of the sacramental controversy which leads to Calvin’s denunciation of “theatrical trifles” is the question of God’s instruction to his people (see Institutes 4.17.43). As Calvin understood it, these instructions are limited in detail, but they are remarkably direct. Though there is much that falls within the realm of that which may be considered adiaphora or matters of indifference, what is adiaphora is hardly determined by aesthetic appeal. It is to be strictly guided by that which leads the believer to Christ and thereby builds up the church.

When it comes to a sacrament, Calvin’s concern came to settle on that which, in keeping with the Word of God, is appropriate for its witness to Christ in its particular time and place. Other ceremonies and activities are to meet the same criterion.3 However, James H. Nichols points out that Calvin could also advise patience and adaptability concerning certain local situations, particularly for Reformed congregations which were located in largely Lutheran communities.4 In holding a foundational principle for worship, Calvin’s well known admonition is that it is the Word of God which must precede to “make a sacrament” (Institutes 4.9.2).

Heinrich Bullinger, in the Second Helvetic Confession, propounded this same Christological intent when he said that “the principal thing which God promises in all sacraments … is Christ the Savior––that only sacrifice and that Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world” (Chapter XIX). The trinitarian implications of this with regard to the Patristic insights concerning the eternal Fatherhood and the eternal Sonship of Christ are thus very far reaching and should certainly have a forceful impact within the contemporary discussion of the appropriate language in worship.

The Geneva Confession, which reflects something of an early Reformed consensus, and which was presented to the magistracy on November 10, 1536, frames the structure of Calvin’s thinking within a single sentence when it declares that Christ and our redemption through him is the crucial issue. The sufficiency of Christ is the key to this understanding, and the implication from this is that we do not need anything else in worship but that which leads us to him.

This is the course of his thinking that influenced the production of the Articles Concerning the Organization of the Church and Worship in 1537. Calvin, Elie Corauld, and Guillaume Farel presented these articles to the Council of Ministers. It is interesting to consider the four issues they urged to be followed in the development of the church. They did not, of course, include some of the things that might be considered crucial today. Instead they were frequent celebrations of the Lord’s Supper, the singing of psalms, the instruction of youth, and the establishment of marriage laws.5 As was consistently the case, it is noted that these were to be followed because they were according to the Word of God. What is also to be understood is that by communion we are to be made participants in the body and blood of Jesus.

How We Come to Know

What is also important to grasp is that this involves a very unique epistemology. It moves beyond the categories in which the Eucharistic debates of the Middle Ages were argued. It takes the discussion beyond the specific debates, for example, by Radbertus and Ratramnus at the monastery at Corbie in Picardy, France. The argument assumes a different kind of realism than even that which was understood by Martin Luther. It is also very significant that Enlightenment philosophical theories of knowledge which were soon to manage the empirical debates in Europe, such as John Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding, had no room for this Christological realism.

This observation is relevant for a critique of the theatrical trifles in any age because it involves a theology that goes deeper than sheer human subjectivity, emotional gratification, or even the psychology of learning theories. To know, in this case, involves a metaphysics of participation which differs from that of the Aristotelian transformation of substance on which the explication of medieval worship depended. It is also a metaphysics that defeats the extremes of both the Anabaptists and the Libertines. It is a Christological, spiritual discernment which rests upon God’s Word and is wholly lost to us until we are regenerated (Institutes 2.2.18).

Carlos M.N. Eire takes this argument a little further when he observes that Calvin forged a new form of theologically based metaphysics in which the lines between the material and spiritual were sharply demarcated and the idea of a transcendent spiritual reality became the cutting edge.6 It was undoubtedly this renewed interest in the transcendence of God that gave Calvin the high ground from which to attack not only the more blatant idols, but anything that he saw as a theological trifle in the service of worship.

If we pose this position against the efforts to construct models of process theology in the twentieth century, which applied the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, and others to formulate a unified structure of the divine and the physical, Calvin’s words, blunt or soft, become a withering point of criticism. His recognition of the importance of transcendence was the prerequisite of his theology. The thrust of all of this is that if we attempt to supplement the preaching of God’s Word and the proper celebration of the sacraments by other ceremonies we are not just adding persuasive techniques but also approaching the problem of idolatry.

In The Catechism of the Church of Geneva That is a Plan for Instructing Christians in the Doctrine of Christ published in Latin in 1545, Calvin cites Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 as crucial texts for dealing with the problem of idolatry which he believes to have become embedded in the life of the church. Calvin explains it this way: “For to move and affect the heart, to illumine the mind and to render the conscience sure and tranquil is the business of the Spirit alone, so that it ought to be considered wholly his work and be ascribed to him, lest his praise be transferred to another.” That is remarkably blunt. Elsewhere Calvin states, “We are not to cling to the visible signs and there seek our salvation, or imagine the virtue of conferring grace to be fixed and confined in them. Rather we are to regard the sign in light of an aid, by which we may be directed straight to Christ and from him seek salvation and real felicity.”7

If one is to grasp Calvin’s perspective in a more sustained way, it is necessary to recognize that his understanding of prayer was integrally woven into his view of the Christian’s union with Christ. In Book 3, Chapter 20 of the Institutes, Calvin began a seventy-page description of prayer as the “chief exercise of faith.” Since God has placed all that we need for salvation in Christ we must “dig up by prayer” the bounties that await us there. Calvin thus regarded prayer as a diligent, intentional pursuit, in which we use our intelligence as well as our hearts. It is highly dynamic for it is rooted in the intercession of Christ himself which, without a doubt, suggests that for the devout Christian prayer becomes an encounter with the Holy Trinity.

In the Catechism of 1545, Calvin goes even further concerning the participation of God in our prayers and the way in which this distinguishes Christian prayer from any other kind. He kindles within us the longing to pray, arouses within us the “groanings that cannot be uttered and shapes our minds to those desires that are required in prayer.” People should thus be wary of coming to God in a passive way or attempting to create within themselves a centering, calming state of mind that is sometimes suggested by “spiritual” directors today.

They should rather, as Calvin puts it in no uncertain terms, “Forthwith flee to God and demand that they be inflamed with the fiery darts of his spirit, so as to be rendered fit for prayer.” Furthermore, when our prayers are directed in this way to God’s honor, we are praying that he push back the sin and darkness that comes from Satan by his very own righteousness. When this truly occurs, the Spirit imbues us with the love of righteousness and the hatred for sin. There seems to be little place for theatrical trifles in this outlook.

Theatrical Trifles Today

Is there any doubt that in the last few decades Reformed worship has been pushed in a broadly different direction? The shift was not to be simply suggested in an off–hand way. It was not to be heralded as adiaphora. It was declared to be the only way. This turn became apparent some years ago when the Office of Theology and Worship for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) produced a document entitled “Holy Baptism and Services for the Renewal of Baptism, Supplemental Liturgical Resources 2 (1985.)

One might pause and look again at the phrase, “the renewal of baptism,” which alone could raise considerable perplexity among the Reformers of the sixteenth century. The publication proceeds to speak of receiving “the gift of the Kingdom” with baptism. But what is this “gift of the Kingdom”? This could become an undefined gift, one that seems hard to correlate with the death and resurrection of Christ, and also one with no significant admonitions. What is missing in such generalizations is the cutting edge, the character of prayer in which one’s mortification and regeneration in Christ goes to deep places, perhaps involving as much pain and remorse as gratitude. What has occurred in many circles is a very quick sense of transition into a forgiven state. Was this approach to be appreciated as a softer, more likable notion of worship?

At the same time, there was a similarly persuasive approach to the sacrament of baptism. The “Order for Holy Baptism” provides a flurry of gracious phrases which are intended to suggest the beneficial significance of the service. Is there, we might ask, enough emphasis placed on the gravity of the sacrament? What we are given in this description is a very familiar moralistic tone, which is described as “Christ’s ministry of love, peace, and justice.” And in the discussion of the prayer which follows the pouring of the water, nearly twice as much attention is giving to the pouring of water per se than to the significance of Christ himself. The minister is then to request that God “bless the water.” The water? As interesting as it may be, the water––notwithstanding its micro-organic content––is an inanimate object! Nevertheless, the following explanation follows:

Water is the primary and essential [sic] symbol in baptism. In early civilization, water was regarded as one of the four basic elements of the universe … the power of the symbolism of water is particularly dramatic where there is a baptismal pool or font which is kept full of flowing water … but in our day fonts have become so small they are no longer able to hold enough water to symbolize its meaning and power … Water may be poured into the font from an ewer or a large pitcher, held high enough above the font so that the falling water may be seen by all and the sounds of its splashing may be heard … we lose impact when minimalism shapes the liturgy. It is crucial [sic] to the integrity of baptism that water once again be used visibly and generously” [53, 55].

In keeping with what we have read, if Calvin had any fears of minimalism it hardly concerned the amount of water distributed. It would rather, I suspect, pointedly concern the reduction of emphasis on Christ.

Reflecting this same point of view, “The service for the Lord’s Day: Supplemental Liturgical Resources 1” declares about the Lord’s Supper, “When accompanying the manual acts, the words should be spoken slowly and in careful rhythm with the gestures. Gestures need to be expansive and smoothly paced … the loaf should not be precut but actually broken …” To the contrary, the Second Helvetic Confession expresses not only the critique of Calvin and Bullinger but all of their colleagues when it urges that “our hearts are to be lifted up and not fixed on the bread” (Chapter 21).

Perhaps the shift toward a more emotionally expansive experience was sensed to be heading in this direction when James H. Nichols wrote in 1954, “The dignity and objective character of Reformed worship was corroded by the effort to be emotionally stimulating.”8 It was intended as a reference to the movement of revivalist evangelism but perhaps it is as relevant to our situation today. Significantly, the momentum in the publications and practices of many Reformed denominations in America today continues in this direction.

We might note the elaborate discussion of the primacy of water, including a concept of power which is not associated with the Holy Spirit or with the underlying word of promise, as Calvin would put it, but with the values inherent in the natural symbol. The phrases “particularly dramatic” and the “centrality of water” certainly draw special attention. Is it significant that the authors instruct us to lift up the pitcher so that “the falling water” may be seen and the “sounds of its splashing may be heard”?

In the 1536 edition of the Institutes, Calvin writes with remarkable penetration that in baptism “we are once for all washed and purged for our whole life … for Christ’s purity has been offered us in it: His purity ever flourishes.”9 The phrase “his purity ever flourishes” is particularly apt. It is vital, dramatic, and powerful. It is decidedly not theatrical. Nor is it oriented toward natural processes. The activity of the Holy Spirit moving within our hearts secures us within the very flourishing of Christ himself. Calvin had no objection to dramatic imagery. He is concerned, however, lest our natural attraction to that imagery draw us into the imagery itself. Janos Paztor quotes Calvin as saying “let us remember how far the secret power of the Holy Spirit towers above our senses.” Calvin continues, “How much better it would be to omit from baptism all theatrical pomp which dazzles the eyes of the simple and deadens their minds … There is nothing holier or better or safer than to be content with the authority of Christ alone.” If we adhere to this practice, Calvin writes, baptism “would shine in its full brightness.” 10

Should we wish to defend this approach in secular academic circles, we could try a model that would be formed on the basis of the technical terminology of Kantian philosophy. We could, again, describe Calvin’s approach as having a distinctive spiritual epistemology. Our faith, from this perspective, would certainly be influenced by but not limited to the structures of ordinary knowing. It would be in Immanuel Kant’s terms a kind of transcendental a priori understanding which is entirely unique. It is radically different because it is a creative gift by the holy will of the transcendent living Lord. Without a doubt this perspective would in some places be characterized as “obscurantist.”

I cannot imagine, however, that Calvin would accept that critique lightly. For Calvin, the Christian faith, in this context, would not likely become more convincing by an appeal to attractive processes of nature. He does write with great persuasion concerning our awareness of the glory of God in the natural world but we must continue to recall that for Calvin the central role of Jesus Christ and the God given “spectacles” of scripture provide our perspective from which we can see the world around us. In the Institutes 3.2.34, Calvin writes: Therefore, we cannot come to Christ unless we be drawn by the spirit of God, so when we are drawn we are lifted up in mind and heart above our understanding. For the soul illuminated by him takes on a new keenness as it were to contemplate the heavenly mysteries, whose splendors had previously blinded it. And man’s understanding, thus beamed by the light of the Holy Spirit, then at last truly begins to taste those things which belong to the kingdom of God.

The operative and all–important phrase that leaps out at us is “above our understanding.” Even though this phrase remains mysterious for us, it provides the lynchpin for a daring attack upon all worship that indulges a humanistic approach and, in the process, unwittingly perhaps, trivializes it. In his sermon entitled “The Nativity of Jesus Christ,” Calvin makes the point that in the Lord’s Supper the symbolism of bread and wine in themselves assure us of nothing. On the contrary, we must draw near to Christ himself. 11

Regaining Our Focus

One difficulty in this modest reflection on Calvin’s disturbance about “theatrical trifles in worship” is that it remains challenging to move from the issues of the sixteenth century to those of the twenty-first century. We may understand the words that are used but it is not so simple to place them within their cultural context. We have attempted to use his phrase as a way of regarding the current practices in many of the Reformed churches. It has provided a sort of lens. But, even so, a lens may become cloudy, and circumstances may move out of focus. What does strike me as interesting, however, is the way in which this phrase might help to illumine the diminishment of Christological and theological focus in our services. There do seem to be many instances in which such subjects have become less prominent and seem simply to slip into the services almost as cameo appearances in a movie. References to the Trinity and to the significance of Christ then become somewhat formulistic and ornamental. The references to power gravitate in other directions.

We find within Calvin’s writings reference after reference to the transcendent power and authority of Jesus Christ. And it is his mission to say to his readers that we could discover there more of that power and authority than we have ever dreamed. It is Christ who is made known to us in surprising ways when the scripture is read and the Word of God is truly preached. Calvin’s views were transmuted into those of the English Puritans in time, and it is worth recalling that the simplicity if not the austerity in their worship lay in an attempt to protect their minds and hearts from all that would distract them from hearing the Word of God. We have no right to trifles, however persuasively they may be presented. Could it really be true, we must ask ourselves from time to time, that Jesus Christ himself actually comes to us in worship and completely mystifies us?

What Calvin suggests, by several approaches, is that Jesus Christ comes to us in a realized eschatology of invisibility. When he comes to us, he lights flames that remain invisible to us, both saints and sinners. What we should also remember is that he has rarely come to us as the Northern Lights. Nor are we ever to consider that we are in competition with the best that Hollywood has to offer. Worship is not really marketing. And Holy Communion is not really the joyful feast that we so frequently hear mentioned. It is the holy feast and therefore open to unseen mysteries of judgment and restoration. Largely unpredictable, we can only take our guidance from the Word that is read and preached and the hymns that carry a message of the grace of God.

Thus, no matter what such publications may say about it, Communion is not comfort food. Quite the opposite, it might well sometimes usher us into remorse more profound than we have ever known before. The Word is, after all, sharper than a two-edged sword, sometimes a scalpel before it supplies a poultice. The tarnished and tangled layers of our minds do call for help beyond that expressed in the particular forms of bread and the abundant embellishments of water. What is crucial for us in worship is only the way in which Christ comes mysteriously and magnificently into our lives. We have been alerted, we might want to remember, by Calvin to the likelihood that many times we have allowed our lust for trifles to break into our minds. The glory of God the Father in Christ, Calvin would say, is far too great and abundant for that.


The Reverend Richard A. Ray, Ph.D. (St. Andrews University), has been a pastor, professor, publisher, college president and is now chairman of the Board of the Presbyterian Heritage Center, Montreat, North Carolina


1 Lucien J. Richard, The Spirituality of John Calvin (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1974).

2 Randall C. Zachman, John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor, and Theologian (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 167f.

3 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 4.19.2. See Thomas Watson Street’s “John Calvin on Adiaphora: An Exposition and Appraisal of His Theology and Practice.” Unpublished Th.D. dissertation. Union Theological Seminary, New York, 1954.

4 James H. Nichols, “The Liturgical Tradition of the Reformed Churches,” Theology Today, 11 (July 1954), 212.

5 See Wulfert de Greff, The Writings of John Calvin. Expanded Edition. Trans. Lyle D. Bierma (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 106ff.

6 Carlos M.N. Eire, War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 196.

7 Calvin’s Theological Treatises. Ed. J.K.S. Reid (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), 131-132.

8 Nichols, “The Liturgical Tradition of the Reformed Churches,” 212.

9 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1536 Edition, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 96.

10 Janos Paztor, “Calvin and the Renewal of the Worship of the Church” Reformed Worship, 40/2, June 1988, 914.

11 See Leroy Nixon’ s translation of Calvin’s Sermons on the Saving Work of Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 139.

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Richard A. Ray
The Reverend Richard A. Ray, Ph.D. (St. Andrews University), has been a pastor, professor, publisher, college president and is now chairman of the Board of the Presbyterian Heritage Center, Montreat, North Carolina

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