Review: Worshiping with the Reformers

Worshiping with the Reformers, Karin Maag. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A survey of the various worship practices of Reformed church bodies, revealing the diversity of practices and the reasons for those differences.

The Reformation led to many changes in the church. Among these were changes in various worship practices that reflected the changes in thinking about the worship of God by church leaders. Not all those changes were in the same direction. This book, a companion to IVP Academic’s Reformation Commentary Series, surveys these practices and the reasons behind them.

The book examines eight aspects of the church’s worship beginning with the matter of when people went to church. In many settings, attendance was more or less an expected duty, with the key driving factor of observance of the sabbath. Businesses were closed and activities banned that could distract from Sabbath attendance. At the same time, feast days were pared down, and many considered superstitious. What they did in worship is the second topic. I learned that seating was often arranged in a circle around a central pulpit, emphasizing the priority of preaching. A real challenge was attention, including the dealing with the problem of fights breaking out! Weddings in many settings occurred during worship, with the whole church witnessing vows. So did not only funerals but burials, a carryover of medieval practice that where the living literally worshipped atop their dead kin, buried under the floor!

As already mentioned, preaching took on a central role in Reformed churches. Calvinist and Lutheran groups tended toward more doctrinally oriented preaching while Anabaptist focused more on moral exhortation. Adherence to scripture was emphasized throughout and the training of pastors took on a greater priority. Regarding prayer, churches varied, though for all prayer in the context of worship was considered vital. Some focused more on the use of scriptures, particularly the Psalms and the Lord’s prayer, others on liturgy, which had a strongly participatory element. While the content shifted, prayer books continued to be important in teaching people to pray. Posture was debated–standing, seated, kneeling. This chapter includes a wonderful historic rationale for set prayers, over against extemporaneous prayer.

As is well known, baptism and communion were widely debated–their meaning, administration, their timing. Maag covers all of this without arguing a particular conclusion. She offers a fascinating discussion of the visual arts in worship and the tension between instruction and idolatry. She also explores music, the preference for simpler tunes for congregational singing, psalms versus, hymns, and the controversies around instruments, including organs. While some preferred a capella singing, the importance of instruments was to keep the singing from dragging, which tends to happen with unaccompanied singing. These were not simply matters of taste but of theology. Finally, Maag considers worship outside the church including the practices of pilgrimage, the care for the sick and dying, and household worship.

This is a highly readable survey rather than a granular treatment. We are introduced to dominant characteristics of worship in Reformed settings, and offered helpful bibliographies for more specialized study. Maag articulates that one of her hopes is that understanding the decisions, sometimes different, that the Reformers made will help Christians be more thoughtful of the Triune God they worship and how they give expression to that worship. It also strikes me that there is history from which we may learn without repeating the same contentions. Most of all, we learn that many things were done for theological reasons, rather than contemporary taste. Of course the spirit and manner in which this is done, with devotion and warmth and love for God rather than a judgmental sterility seems vitally important. Soli Deo Gloria!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

One thought on “Review: Worshiping with the Reformers

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: October 2021 | Bob on Books

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