If you have been in our church for any length of time, you should have received a copy of Forms & Prayers. Not only does it contain our denomination’s Liturgical Forms and Liturgical Prayers, which we make use of on Sundays, on Wednesdays, and at special services, but it also contains prayers for home use, the Ecumenical Creeds, and our Reformed Confessions.
Perhaps the most curious thing within Forms & Prayers is the collection of Liturgical Forms. Among younger American Christians, there is a resurgence of interest in the use of such forms, but a majority of non-Roman Catholics around Cincinnati would view them with suspicion. So, what gives?!
From an historical perspective, we should note that liturgical forms have been standard practice within the Continental Reformed tradition since the Reformation in the 16th century, whether you think of Calvin’s Geneva and the Swiss Reformed, the Dutch Reformed, Heidelberg and Strasbourg (German Reformed), or the French Reformed. This has been similar to the practice of the Lutherans and Anglicans. In other words, the original Protestants did not believe that Rome’s problem was the use of forms but that their forms were unbiblical, not to mention they turned ecclesiastical rites (e.g., ordination, marriage, profession of faith) into sacraments. A large volume, Reformation Worship, was recently published that demonstrates that the Reformers did not get rid of form/order and the reading of liturgical forms, but they took the Medieval Church’s ‘forms’ of worship and ‘re-formed’ them according to Scripture. So what are some reasons we think that it is wise to continue this practice, using both liturgical forms and liturgical prayers?
We should, first, note that there is much biblical precedent for the use of forms in worship. Under the Old Covenant, the worship of God was full of repetition and ritual. There were ceremonies, pronouncements, even responsive readings. Psalm 118 is a clear example of a responsive reading, and Psalm 24 is almost certainly another. It is likely that many of the Psalms functioned as liturgical forms, where the worshiper(s) would recite a portion of a psalm and, then, pause for a priestly ritual before finishing the recitation of the psalm. Some scholars contend that the Prophecy of Joel is itself a liturgical form that was used for corporate repentance in Israel. In the New Testament, we should note that the Lord’s Prayer is a liturgical prayer given to us. We also note that Christ gave words of institution for both sacraments. In summary, the Bible demonstrates that God approves of recitation, which implies that this is good for the People of God. (Of course, no one is claiming that a dead formalism is good. Forms are not the same thing as formalism, where people rely solely upon mechanics.)
We readily admit that our liturgical forms were not engraved by the finger of God, and they are not inspired like the Psalms. So why do we side with the Lutherans, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox and believe that there is a helpful (as opposed to necessary) place for them? Here are a few thoughts:
- Sacraments and ecclesiastical rites depend on the spoken word for spiritual benefit. Forms function like a mini-sermon, condensing the Bible’s teaching. They don’t waste words but quote an incredible amount of Scripture in a short span of time.
- When the sacraments are left to the whim of a pastor, you will often find that the instruction lacks richness, depth, and comprehensiveness. Further, he will often repeat certain phrases and descriptions week after week. In other words, the individual pastor will often sound like a liturgical form, but a bad one.
- Forms protect congregations from pastors that may introduce errors, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
- Creeds and Confessions only take you so far, whereas liturgical forms bring that doctrine into the embodied life of the church’s worship.
- Forms are approved by the entire Synod. Thus, their words carry the weight and authority of the entire Church, not merely that of one minister. To quote Abraham Kuyper, “It is the church that speaks in the form, and the minister is only its medium.”
- Forms connect us practically and liturgically to Christians around the world, because there are many using the same or similar forms each Lord’s Day.
- Forms connect us to our forefathers. Not only have God’s People used forms for millennia, but they are often crafted by modifying forms that already exist. Almost all of our forms and prayers come from Reformed, Anglican, or Lutheran sources, which were themselves rooted in more ancient documents. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before.
Far from a dead formalism, our liturgical forms and prayers add layer upon layer of beauty and depth to our enactment of divinely-appointed sacraments and rites.