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Presbyterian Worship by Robert Johnston

Chapter I. The Law and the Liberty of Presbyterian Worship.

|While it is admitted that there is a form of government prescribed or instituted in the New Testament, so far as its general principles or features are concerned, there is a wide discretion allowed us by God in matters of detail, which no man or set of men, which neither civil magistrates nor ecclesiastical rulers can take from us.| -- HODGE.

|The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him.| -- WESTMINSTER CATECHISM.

The Church of Christ, as a divine communion, exists in the world for a definite and appointed purpose. This purpose may be declared to be twofold, and may be described by the terms |Witness| and |Worship.|

It is the evident design of God that the visible Church should bear witness to His existence and character, to His revelation and providence, and to His grace towards mankind, manifested in His Son, Jesus Christ. To Israel God said, |Ye are my witnesses,| and to His disciples forming the nucleus of the New Testament Church, the risen Saviour said, |Ye shall be witnesses unto Me.|

Side by side with this evident end of the Church's existence is the other one of Worship. Not only from the individual heart does God require ascriptions of praise and expressions of confidence, but from the organized congregation of His people, He desires to hear the voice of adoration, contrition, and supplication. The cultivation of such worship, and the offering of it in a manner acceptable to God, is a work worthy of the Church's most earnest care.

It is to be expected, therefore, that in the Word of God there shall be found the principles of a cultus which, possessing Divine authority, shall carry with it the assurance of its sufficiency for the ends aimed at, and of its suitability to the requirements of the Church in every age. That the word of God contains such principles clearly indicated, the Presbyterian Church has always maintained, teaching uniformly and emphatically that Holy Scripture contains all that is necessary for the guidance of the Church, as well in matters of Polity and Worship, as in those of Doctrine. Divine worship, therefore, neither in its constant elements nor in its methods, is a matter of mere human device, nor is the Church at liberty to devise or to adopt aught that is not explicitly stated or implicitly contained in the Word of God for her guidance.

The essential parts of worship we are at no loss to discover, clearly indicated as they are in the history of the Apostolic Church. Praise and Prayer, with the reading and exposition of Scripture, together with the celebration of the Sacraments, are repeatedly referred to as those exercises in which the early Christians engaged. With such worship, though in more elaborate form, the Church had always been familiar, for as Christianity itself was in so many respects the fruit and outcome of Judaism, the expansion, into principles of world-wide and perpetual application, of truths that had hitherto been national and local, so its worship and organization were, in large measure, the adaptation of familiar forms to those simpler and more comprehensive ones of the New Testament Church. Throughout the successive periods of Israel's history, marked by patriarch, psalmist, and prophet, Divine worship had grown from simple sacrifice at a family altar to an elaborate temple-ritual, in which praise and prayer and the reading of the Law occupied a prominent place; to this were added in later times the exposition of the Law and the reading of the Prophets. This service, elaborate with magnificent and imposing forms, continued in connection with the Temple worship down to the time of our Saviour, while in the Synagogue a simpler service, combining all the essential parts of the former with the exception of sacrifice, was developed during the period subsequent to the Babylonian captivity, when, as is generally conceded, the Synagogue with its service had its origin. Apart then from the ritual connected with sacrifice, which was wholly typical, the temple service and the simpler worship of the Synagogue were identical in their different parts, although differing widely in form.

Now, just as Christianity was itself not a substitute for the Jewish religion but a development and enlargement of it, so Christian worship was an outgrowth, with larger meaning and broader application, of the worship of God which for centuries had been conducted among the Jews. It continued to comprise the essential elements of prayer and praise, together with the reading and exposition of the Divine message, a message which was enlarged in Apostolic times by the record concerning the Christ who had come, and by the inspired writings of the Apostles of our Lord to the Church which they had been commissioned to plant and foster, while associated with these was the administration of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper. It has always been maintained by the Presbyterian Church, that of these different elements of worship, none should be neglected, inasmuch as all of them have Divine sanction, and that to these nothing should be added, inasmuch as any addition made, could possess human sanction only, and would be a transgression of the principle that Scripture and Scripture alone contains authority for the government and practice of the Church of Jesus Christ.

It follows that in the arrangement and adjustment of each of these various parts of worship, in their due relation to each other, and in the determination of the methods that shall prevail in their performance, the Church must be governed by an appreciation of the purpose for which they have been established, and of the ends which they are expected to serve. The object of public worship must ever be kept in view, and no forms, however attractive, are to be admitted by which that object may be hidden or obscured: on the other hand, order and seemliness demand a due attention, and it is an error, only less mischievous than the former, to have regard to the spirit of worship alone, and thus to neglect whatever suitable forms and methods may best secure the orderly and appropriate performance of its every part.

The most commonly recognized purpose of public worship is the cultivation of the spiritual life of the worshipper, and this is attained by the employment of means intended to bring the soul into an attitude of response to its Lord. It follows then that matters of form, attitude, and order in worship, should be so arranged and regulated that they may serve as aids to the securing of this end, and that nothing should be permitted which may in any way interfere with the development of this spirit of response on the part of those so engaged. And when it is remembered how small a matter may interfere with the worship of a congregation, and how easily disturbed and distracted the hearts of men are by untoward circumstances or conditions, it will be seen that not only the forms of worship demand attention, but that the order of its different parts, the attitude of the worshippers, and all matters of detail are worthy of careful thought and of earnest consideration. But Christian worship has an altruistic aim also, and is intended to serve as a witness before the world to those fundamental truths professed by the Christian Church. With this end in view, it is evident that its forms should be such as shall most clearly and effectively set forth before the eyes of beholders, those truths and principles which the Church holds as essential to Christian faith and practice. To obscure such a public declaration of Christian belief, by hiding these truths beneath an elaborate adornment that disguises or completely conceals them, is to be faithless to the commission of Jesus Christ to be a witness unto Him before the world; to neglect such witness-bearing, or by carelessness or inattention to detail, to render it in a manner so ineffective as to disparage the truth in the eyes of beholders, is to be none the less unfaithful to that great commission.

With the twofold purpose of worship clearly kept in view as the foundation for any discussion of this subject, it is also to be remembered that the Church of Christ is left free by her Divine King and Head, so to order matters of detail, under the guidance of the Spirit of Truth, and in harmony with the principles laid down in Scripture, as may in accordance with varying ages and circumstances seem best for the attainment of the ends desired. While Christian worship in its essential parts is prescribed by Scripture, the Church is free to amplify or develop these general outlines, provided only that all be in harmony with the spirit of Revelation. It is very evident that new conditions of a progressive civilization, the spirit of the times, or the particular circumstances of a community, may make desirable a modification of a particular method of worship long practised; it is for the Church, relying ever on the guidance of the Spirit of Truth, to determine how such modification may, without violation to the spirit of Scripture, be made. For this reason it can never be binding upon the Church to accept as final, the particular methods of worship used and found suitable by men of another age or another land; while such may be accepted as valuable for suggestions contained, and as indicating the spirit that controlled good and great men of another time, yet the Church can only accept them (in loyalty to the Spirit Who abides in her, and Who is hers in every age) in so far as they prove themselves suitable to present times and conditions. The present possession by the Church, of the Holy Spirit as a guide into all truth, according to the promise of Christ to His disciples, is a doctrine that no branch of the Church would readily surrender, and her right, under that guidance, to seek the good of the body of Christ on lines which, while consistent with the principles of Scripture, commend themselves to her as more suitable to present conditions than former methods, this right is one which she can part with only at the risk of endangering her usefulness to her own age.

To Presbyterians, therefore, thankful as they are for an historic past that has in it so much to arouse gratitude to God and loyalty to the Church they love, the citing of the practice of their forefathers in Reformation times, or even that of the early fathers of the Church, can never be a final argument for the acceptance of any particular method in worship. Believing in a Church in which the Spirit of God as truly governs and guides to-day as He did in Reformation or post-Apostolic times, and in a Christian liberty of which neither the practice nor legislation of holy men of the past can deprive them, they rightly refuse to surrender their liberty or to retire from their responsibility.

In the best and truest sense the Presbyterian Church is Apostolic, and her spiritual succession from the Apostles she cherishes with an unfaltering confidence. While rejecting the ritual theory of the Church, she has never been careless of the true succession of faith and doctrine and practice from the time of the Apostles to the present day, a succession to which she lays a not unworthy claim; and, claiming loyalty to Apostolic doctrine, polity and practice, she has ever been jealous in asserting her Divine right, as an Apostolic Church, to the controlling presence and guiding wisdom of the Holy Spirit of God. Under the guidance of that Spirit she has ever claimed, and still claims, the right of administering the government and directing the worship which, in their essential principles, are set forth in Scripture, neither superciliously regarding herself in any age as independent of those who have gone before, and so disregarding the legislation and practice of the fathers, nor, on the other hand, slavishly accepting such legislation and practice as binding upon the Church for all time, and as excluding for ever any progress or change. That spirit, at once of independence as regards man, and of dependence as regards God, has characterized Presbyterianism in its most vigorous and progressive periods; by that spirit must it still be characterized if, in succeeding ages, the work allotted to it is to be faithfully and well performed.

If then the Church of one age is so independent of those who in other times have served her, it may be asked of what interest is her past history to us of to-day, and of what benefit to us is a knowledge of the legislation and practice of the Church in other periods of her progress? Of much value in every way is such knowledge. Those periods in particular, in which the Church has made notable progress, and in which her life has evidently been characterized by much of the Holy Spirit's presence and power, may well be studied, as times when those in authority were, indeed, led to wise measures, and guided to those methods of administration and practice, which by their success approved themselves as enjoying the Divine favor; the lamp of experience is one which wise men will never treat with indifference. In studying the Reformation period, therefore, a period marked by special activity and progress within the Presbyterian Church, we do so, not so much to discover forms which we may adopt and imitate, as to discover the spirit which moved the leaders in the Church of that day, and the principles which governed them in formulating those regulations, and in adopting those practices, which proved suitable and successful in their own age. To emulate the spirit of brave and wise men of the past is the part of wisdom, to imitate their methods may be the extreme of folly.

Another result, and one equally desirable, will be attained by a study of Presbyterian practice from Reformation times onward. It will transpire, as we follow the history of public worship, by what paths we have arrived at our present position, and we shall discover whether that position is the result of diligent and careful search after those methods most in accord with Scripture principles, and so best suited to the different periods through which in her progress the Church has passed, or whether it is due to a temporary neglect of such principles, and a disregard of the changing necessities of different ages. We shall discover, in a word, whether we have advanced, in dependence upon the Spirit of God and in recognition of our responsibilities, or whether we have retrograded through self-trust and indifference.

The Age of Knox: the Formative Period of Presbyterian Worship.

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