Not my title. I stole it from the title of a video conversation between Len Vander Zee and Paul VanderKlay – both ministers in the Christian Reformed Church of North America. In other words, this isn’t a review of Catholic or Orthodox mudslinging against the Reformation (I really dislike that kind of stuff – from any of these against any of these). It is a form of self-reflection on the part of the two participants in the Dutch Reformed Church.
As background for this conversation, Len Vander Zee is writing a book to address the crisis of worship that he sees in Protestant churches. Many Protestant churches have dumbed down the worship in order to “meet the people where they are at.”
Len: There is a crisis happening in Protestant worship of all stripes.
He describes his early life in the CRC, when there was a standard of worship.
Len: the minister would always begin: “The Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him.”
The only “participation” was singing. The basic structure of the worship service goes all the way back to the Synod of Dort. For background, this synod, held by the Dutch Reformed Church, was called to settle the debates regarding Arminianism. Delegates came from across Europe. The synod also…
…set forth the Reformed doctrine on each point, namely: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement (arguing that Christ's atoning work was intended only for the elect and not for the rest of the world), irresistible (or irrevocable) grace, and the perseverance of the saints. These are sometimes referred to as the Five points of Calvinism.
An official Bible translation was also initiated.
Returning to the discussion….
Len: In the late 1960s, the Reformed Church produced a revision to the service that was quite similar to the Catholic Mass. It ended up in the dust heap – hardly anyone used it. It came at exactly the wrong time, when the culture was falling apart.
Paul: It sounded like they were sixty years ahead of their time.
Why does Paul say this? What we find today is a move toward the traditional – toward the Orthodox Church, toward the Latin Mass in the Catholic Church, toward the more culturally conservative Protestant denominations. As the West has suffered its meaning crisis, many are finding hope in the more traditional.
Len told a very funny story. When he was younger, he taught a catechism class at his church. He was going through the various flavors of Christianity, so he took his dozen or so students to a Catholic Church nearby, a “beautiful, big basilica.” This was post Vatican II.
Len: We got there and sat in the back row, so we wouldn’t be too disruptive. The church started with the procession, and the first hymn of the procession was, “believe it or not,” …
[And certain Catholic readers of this blog should cover their eyes]
… “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”
So, we automatically broke into song. Nobody else sang. Everyone turned around looking for the choir.
Paul (who couldn’t stop laughing for about ten seconds): For those who aren’t aware of it, that’s a song reliably sung on Reformation Sunday as a rebel cry of rebellion against the Papists!
And, not mentioned, it was authored by (again, Catholic readers, cover your eyes) …Martin Luther.
There was a time, when Len was a pastor, that he tried to go to weekly communion with his congregation. He could never convince the congregation to go along.
As my aside…there is something symbolically valuable about going to the priest for the bread and wine – and doing this every Sunday – that is sorely lacking in the Protestant churches that I have attended. These have the trays, passed around by an usher through the rows of congregants. And this is to say nothing of what, exactly, is happening at the time and what, exactly, is going down my throat.
Len describes what he sees in many Protestant churches. Much of the mainline wants to teach people how to be good democrats – use the state to achieve what they see as God’s purpose. He sees many Evangelical churches adapting the culture of larger society, clearly not doing it as well. The central focal point for many of these is the sermon, usually a very long sermon. But ultimately, this isn’t worship.
And this is what he wants to address via his book.
Len (looking to the Old Testament): Worship is a covenant meeting between God and His people. There are always ritual actions that are included in this worship.
My thoughts: Protestants emphasize the early, post-Pentecost examples of church, described well in the Book of Acts and written to by the Apostle Paul in many of his letters. But there was also the temple. Which example is proper for Christians? Either? Neither? Some aspects of both?
After describing some aspects of the Old Testament worship, he offers: “that’s precisely what we are NOT doing in many Protestant Churches.” He then describes what I have personally witnessed, lived through, experienced: the Orthodox Church:
Len: Worship: we enter the kingdom. If you can envision a typical Orthodox Church, with all of its icons, and that great central icon of Christ Pantocrator, Christ, the ruler of all, you are entering into another sphere, into the kingdom. As Christians, we need that experience of entering into to kingdom, week by week.
Len (after describing how the incarnate Christ fulfills the Old Testament rituals): the Eucharist is THE culmination of worship. That without the Eucharist, worship is truncated; it has no logical place to go. We come before God; we are renewing the covenant in Christ; we confess our sins; we hear the Word; we pray. But in the culmination, we participate in Christ Himself; we participate in His sacrifice; we are renewed in our life through the power of the Holy Spirit Who unites us to Christ.
And that requires, just like it did in the Old Testament, ritualized action. Because we are human: stuff matters. As someone once said: without it, the worship service ends in a colon, not a period. Something is missing.
Paul asks why Len thinks, in the Protestant churches, the Eucharist was replaced, in many ways, with the sermon.
Len: Calvin understood sacraments well, but he couldn’t convince the people in Geneva. We have to remember that medieval people did the Eucharist once a year. Protestants also emphasized the Word – just what the Catholic Church wasn’t doing. We have the Word; what do we need the sacraments for?
The second part was Zwingli’s influence, who said that the spiritual couldn’t be communicated by the material. Therefore, the material used in the worship was merely show and tell. A way of doing something rather than participating in something. This was something different between Calvin and Luther on one side, and Zwingli on the other.
But, Protestant churches – even Reformed churches – became Zwinglian.
Which brings me back to the book Transubstantiation, by Brett Salkeld (I have written several posts on this book, to be found here). To make a long story short, Luther and Calvin had much more in common with Aquinas on this subject than the two of them understood, and certainly more than Protestants understand today. The Zwinglian view has held sway.
Returning to the subject conversation: Paul asked about any connection between the loss of the sacrament of confession and the frequency of communion. Paul offers that it might be because the Reformed Church never really confronted this idea of removal of sin before taking part in the Eucharist (hence, taking it in an unworthy manner), that the sacrament is held infrequently.
Len offers that it might be driven by the Protestant (and Catholic, if you take John Strickland’s views, which I have covered extensively) focus on Christ’s sacrifice, and not as much on the entirety of the Kingdom of God (and I think back to my experience in Orthodox churches, and as also described by Len).
Len: What happens in most evangelical worship services? “Welcome everyone. We are glad you are here. Thank you for coming.”
Thank you for coming? What is this? So, it’s not about God; it’s about you.
He then cites favorably from the Book of Common prayer, (primarily used in Anglican Churches), asking “How does the worship service begin?”: “Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” and the people respond “And blessed be God’s Kingdom now and forever.”
Len comments on Justin Martyr: When we come together, we read the word and take the bread and wine, which is not ordinary food. Len then asks: how do we just throw that away? It’s always the Eucharist that’s there.
Paul (speaking to the Protestants): The protest needs to end at some point.
Len: one of the places the Church can come together is the Eucharist. Can we gather around the table, instead of focusing on the doctrinal divisions?
My comment at the site:
Len: I would love people to relate their own experiences….
Sorry for coming late to the party. I have had the exact experience Len described. I was raised in a Protestant church, sound teaching, great Sunday schools, etc. As an adult, I have attended an Oriental Orthodox church for many years – let’s just say the first Protestants. More recently, I have been attending a very Scripture-focused Protestant church – let’s just say that the only churches one could find open with minimal or no restrictions over the last two years were those not under an institutional hierarchy.
But…back to the common experience. Recently, I was out of town over a weekend. Where to attend church on Sunday? A Protestant church? Nope. Rolling the dice on walking into a circus. A Catholic Church? Not much better odds. I attended an Eastern Orthodox Church. Christ Pantocrator on the ceiling of the dome, perhaps a hundred beautiful icons, and at least a couple hundred in attendance. I said “this is the Kingdom of God.” It is vertical, through time; it isn’t horizontal, all in this time.
Matthew 16:28 only works in the vision of this Kingdom as I experienced it in this Orthodox church.
My Oriental Orthodox church didn’t offer such an experience – too small a community, perhaps, for such a structure. As to Protestant churches? Neither the Catholic Church nor the Orthodox Church teach the Bible as well. But sometimes I feel as if I am in a university classroom, not a service to worship God. Maybe Protestant pastors will be the Sunday school teachers of the one-day, to-be-unified under Christ, Church.