Leading in Worship, by Terry Johnson. Oak Ridge, TN: Covenant Foundation, 1996. 185 pp. hbk $17.95. Reviewed by TE Iain Wright, Second Presbyterian Church, Yazoo City, MS.
Dealing with a subject in print is often dangerous! Words, once committed to the page, take on a life of their own and can assume a sharpness that was never in the pen. For that reason I am most reluctant to challenge the work of Mr. Johnson in Leading in Worship. I am sure that which unites us far outweighs that which may divide. I join him in lamenting the wide diversity of what passes as "reformed worship" in our generation and with him yearn to see a greater homogeneity.
Now while it is clearly not Mr. Johnson's purpose to argue for, or debate, particular applications of the regulative principle, such basic questions cannot be avoided. Questions such as exclusive Psalmody, although mentioned, are left unanswered and arguably in the context of the work rightly so. Nevertheless, given that he is seeking to unite reformed men in their practice these fundamental building blocks do need to be addressed. That notwithstanding he cannot escape the consequences of applying his own understanding and finally that is not mine. Mr. Johnson is obviously aware that there is something of a tension between "continental" and "British" interpretations of the Regulative principle, but equally obviously consistently favours the former.
His stated desire is to provide guidance to Reformed and Presbyterian worship to end the present anarchy. As such he is to be lauded, but our roots do not, I suggest, lie in continental Europe but in the Assembly of the Divines at Westminster. I do not doubt that Mr. Johnson, can, and indeed does, offer evidence in support of a particular tradition, but I personally would have difficulty in the weekly recitation of the Lord's Prayer. My understanding of the original context is that the disciples were deeply impressed by Christ's intimacy with the Father in prayer. Their response: "I wish I could pray like that! Teach me how!" In reply Jesus gives them the outline of prayer to guide the direction. To take that outline and then repeat it every Lord's Day would seem to me a hindrance rather than a help to realising the goal of heart felt and heart moving prayer. That may not be so for others and if Mr. Johnson is otherwise minded then I would certainly not oppose him.
If I hesitate at the use of the Lord's prayer then you will understand my reluctance to introduce the Apostles Creed. Way beyond this is the observation of the five "evangelical holy days". To be honest I really struggle to see how one can maintain the regulative principle and then furnish an order of service for nine lessons and carols. At its most basic the principle is, if I understand it aright: If it ain't in Scripture it ain't in worship. Where, then, are we told to celebrate the birth of Christ? If we are not told to do it we shouldn't be doing it. That pretty well rules out the five festivals for me. I'm not an American so I don't have the same attachment to "Thanksgiving" but the same principle holds true. If I don't want to establish a liturgical calendar based on Scripture events, I sure don't want to look for them in society, however pious it might seem.
Regarding the frequency of Communion, John Knox's First Book of Discipline says, "Foure times in the yeare we think sufficient to the administration of the Lord's Table". This was amended two years later by the Church of Scotland General Assembly to be four times in town and twice a year in the country ("that communion be "ministrat four tymes in the yeir within burrowes and twyse in the yeir to landwert"). In 1643 Gillespie, one of the Scottish commissioners to Westminster, objected when English brethren wanted to insert four times a year for the sacrament as Scripture did not require it nor would it be in harmony in with the practice in Scotland where it was not kept so frequently.
Those who are supportive of frequent communion often refer to Calvin's "very often and at least once a week". In practice when the Ordonnances of 1541 were published Calvin failed to have even monthly communion agreed settling as it did for quarterly. Twenty years later when the Ordonnances were revised they still maintained quarterly communion. In practice Geneva and Scotland were identical with infrequent communions. Only Basel allowed for weekly communion. The norm in German-speaking congregations was only three times a year.
Again the question is where do our roots lie. I suspect that most Presbyterians in North America would trace the line back through Westminster to Scotland rather than to continental Europe, or am I wrong? That is not to say that our forefathers may not have been mistaken. They themselves, as Knox was the first to admit in the Scots Confession, were capable of error promising "satisfactioun fra the mouth of God, that is fra his haly scriptures, or else reformation of that quhilk he sal prove to be amisse". BUT then Mr. Johnson's task becomes two-fold: to convince us that our heritage is in error; and then to convince us that his proposal is warranted by Scripture.
I cannot say that he has succeeded on either count. I notice also that in the Communion service the traditional words of "which is broken for you" are changed to "which is given for you". I am aware of something of the debate concerning which it should be and the absence of klwmenon is some texts. Mr. Johnson may be right, but Calvin (I'm really quite happy to quote him when it suits me!) comments on "broken" without demurring and the liturgies which elsewhere are brought out in support do not help him at this point. Knox's liturgy is against him. The WCF is against him. The Directory for public worship is against him. He's quite entitled to tell it like he sees it but when he has been so thorough in providing footnotes everywhere else I would have looked for some explanation as to the change.
Mr. Johnson has a fine reputation and I trust that the Lord will continue to sustain him in his calling. I know that the writer has a strong desire to see expository preaching strengthened in our pulpits; a return to reverent prayer; praises impressed with the grandeur of God; and a drawing of the people into the presence of the Almighty. In his efforts to further these great aims I applaud him and am grateful to him for devoting time and energy to the subject of worship from a Reformed perspective. I join with him in desiring to see a standard which would hold in check some of the more bizarre aspects of worship current today. I deeply regret that I am not able to say, "This is it!"