New Calvinism, Trinitarian Worship, & American Flags
June 16, 2015
One area where I think the so-called "new Calvinists" (and some PCA churches) need to perhaps give some more careful attention to in their retrieval of Reformed theology is in the area of worship, especially if they want to be taken seriously as "Calvinists". For all the positive developments in terms of recapturing a biblical view of grace, justification, salvation, etc., I worry about the worship in many "new Calvinist" churches. On occasion, in some of these churches, I have feared that a massive hole was going to consume us all. The lyrics to "Amazed" by Jared Anderson are an example of my concern.
I'm not talking only about the worship songs that sometimes have more in common with Air Supply than the Psalms, but even the basic structure of the worship service or the common understanding among the parishioners of what happens when worship takes place. How many Christians worship as functional Unitarians?
In Christian worship, God the Father calls us into his presence. By the gift of the Holy Spirit, who binds us to Jesus, the Father brings us into heaven itself. This is why having an American flag in church is so utterly ridiculous: true, biblical worship is heavenly worship. An American flag in a church basically says: we don't ascend any higher than the land upon which this building stands.
In Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we stand before the God who has made all things, and has redeemed us from our sin. And through the Holy Spirit, the Father renews us in Christ, so that we might be increasingly conformed into his image. In other words, Christian worship begins with a "downward" motion, with God reaching out to us in love to grant us the gift of life. This "downward" motion is Trinitarian.
A good question to ask someone who holds to the "doctrines of grace" is how he or she understands worship to be Trinitarian. It seems as though there is today very little awareness of how the Trinity affects our view of worship.
Each of the three persons of the Trinity is intimately involved. But the work of God is not the fullness of worship. Worship is made complete when we respond to God's grace with joyful thanksgiving. But even here, we need to be aware of the Trinitarian activity in our response. By the gift of the Holy Spirit, we respond with faith, hope and love to the Father's call, in union with Christ. Because we belong to Christ, and are hid in him, our response is indeed the faithful response of the divine Son to his heavenly Father. So even our response is, in a very real sense, God's work and activity.
Christian worship, then, is the joyous fellowship and communion that occurs when the Father summons his people, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit, to gather together in his special presence. What does the Father do to us in this gathering? He refreshes, renews and nourishes us in Christ through the Holy Spirit. And in response to God's gracious work, we, by the enabling of the Spirit who is given to us in Christ, give thanks to the Father for so rich a salvation. In short, worship is simply the Father remaking us in Christ through the Spirit so that we might respond with thanksgiving to the Father in Christ through the Spirit.
Yet, we must also remember that as we are conformed to Christ, we must have the mind of Christ. Few Christians truly understand the emotional life of Jesus on earth. I think the best way to understand Christ's emotional life is to immerse ourselves in the Psalter.
I am not convinced of exclusive psalmody - though some worship services have caused me to briefly reconsider my view - but the psalter gives the church easy access, in one sense, into the emotional life of Christ. It amazes me that "Above All" is more likely to be sung than Psalm 22 or 88 or 45 in churches that would identify with the New Calvinism that is so popular today.
The problem with contemporary worship today is not that it is too emotional. No. The problem with contemporary worship is that it is not emotional enough. Our emotional life, because of our union with Christ, should reflect the full range of emotions found in the Psalter, which was Christ's hymnal and balm to his suffering soul on earth.
All of this is to suggest that true worship is both Trinitarian and Christocentric. Why? Because true theology is both Trinitarian and Christocentric. Throw in the Reformed doctrine of the covenant and you have all that you need for a robust doctrine of worship.
But what role does the Trinity or the covenant or the emotional life of Christ play in contemporary worship today? Instead we have "worship leaders" saying the word "just" more times in their (pastoral?) prayer than actual words that come from the Scriptures.
So, yes, I agree with John Owen that we need to allow and accept that there will be some differences in the precise way we worship God, and that we should not be too judgmental towards others who may differ from us a little. But these differences should never come at the expense of what it means, fundamentally, to be a Christian. We live Trinitarian, Christ-centered lives, in the context of the covenant, and so our worship ought to reflect those realities in a meaningful way.
*edit: I originally, by accident, used "neo-Calvinist" when I meant "new Calvinist". My apologies.