Caution: imagination at work

Calvin sought to revitalize worship, John Witvliet tells Calvin Jubilee

July 16, 2009

John Witvliet

John Witvliet —Bethany Furkin

Montreat, N.C.

For Reformed leader John Calvin, theological worship has three crucial elements — the trinity, the engagement of worshippers and the indispensible role of tangible signs — said John Witvliet in his July 10 lecture at the July 8-11 Calvin Jubilee conference here, the celebration of Calvin’s 500th birthday.

In his speech, “Lift Up Your Hearts: John Calvin, Theological Imagination, and the Practice of Corporate Worship,” Witvliet — director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and teacher of worship, theology and music at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary — outlined the three elements of worship valued by Calvin and the metaphors he used to describe them: a ladder, a fruit tree, a mirror, a feast, a conversation, a sacrifice and a school.

“We get the sense of a vivid, rhetorical imagination at work,” Witvliet said of Calvin.

Calvin’s views of participation reflect the idea that God’s children share in the activity of worship. This sense of energetic vitality is seen in many modern works, Witvliet said.

But there are some contradictions in Calvin’s view of a lively worship theology, Witvliet said. For example, Calvin did not support using instrumental music in worship.

In his ideas of using elements of ordinary life and a “luminous theological vision” in worship, Calvin encounters a gap, which some question what Calvin did to narrow.

“He was doing a lot,” Witvliet said, listing eight examples:

  • Geneva citizens were required to memorize the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles Creed and the 10 Commandments. These texts were used in public worship, and Calvin wanted to make sure that all could participate.
  • Calvin encouraged a culture of singing church songs outside of worship, a resistance of Roman Catholic tradition.
  • Calvin preached and taught about liturgical participation.
  • The Sabbath was observed not only with the purpose of abstaining from work, but for setting aside time for contemplation.
  • During baptismal services, Calvin added a vow for parents to promise to teach their children about the church at home.
  • Calvin conducted a program of public lectures.
  • Calvin conducted a program in which children recited catechisms in public.
  • Calvin developed liturgy designed to coach participation in worship.

In contemporary times, liturgical renewal often focuses on changing what happens at the front of the sanctuary, Witvliet said. Churches revitalize their music programs, pastors preach with more clarity, Christian education at a church gets an overhaul.

But Calvin was concerned with engaging the ordinary people, the people in the pews, Witvliet said.

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