Semper Reformanda: John Calvin, Worship, and Reformed Traditions

A recent volume, sent for review by the good folk at V&R, offers readers a glimpse into the afterlife of Calvin’s ecclesial reforms.

The chapters in this volume contribute to recent scholarship exploring the reform of worship as a central feature of Protestant communities at their inception and through the ages. Case studies ranging from sixteenth-century Geneva and its environs to the early modern Netherlands and South Asia to nineteenth-century America provide a corrective to traditional depictions of Reformed worship as a static, sober, interior, and largely individual experience focused on the sermon. The key moments in the broad stream of Reformed worship traditions analysed by an international team of experts yield collectively an image of the adaptive and negotiated character of worship attitudes and practices over time and in varied cultural settings. The contributions examine the phenomenon of worship in broadly construed ways and from angles ranging from ritual studies, liturgical innovation, material culture, and social impact. A second ‘red thread’ running through the volume concerns the material, sensory, emotional, and experiential dimensions of Reformed religious culture. Worship emerges as both a site of conflict and renewal in Reformed traditions, inspiring not only confrontations and debates but also fruitful engagements that stimulated and continue to invite reflection on this critical category of Reformed faith traditions, self-understandings, and cultural impact.

The link above takes potential readers to a pdf of the front matter, table of contents, and sample chapter of the volume, so those materials won’t be repeated here.

John Calvin was the most influential theologian ever to inhabit the city of Geneva.  And his influence out lived him by over five centuries and counting.  Why is that?  Is that so at all?

The essays in this collection offer answers to that question.  So, for example, Maag justifies her contribution to the volume by writing

This contribution will build on this recent scholarship challenging the received notion of Geneva as a Protestant citadel where everyone lived and worshipped as Reformed Christians, providing evidence from a range of primary sources that shows that Genevans, their extended families, and visitors had a much more flexible attitude towards acceptable expressions of worship and devotion.

So, by working through a series of case studies, Maag is able to show that

These cases and others highlight the persistent power of Catholic worship practices and rituals in the minds and hearts of Genevans, especially given the close ties between these practices and their sense of family loyalty and tradition.

The notion, then, that Calvin was able to mold Geneva into his image is just simply wrong.  Similarly, the other essays in the work show readers that preconceptions about Calvin’s influence need to be re-thought.

When it comes to the quality of the essays, they are uniformly helpful.  But the best of the lot is Andrew Spicer’s The Material Culture of the Lord’s Supper: Adiaphora, Beakers, and Communion Plate in the Dutch Republic.  It is so well written and so wonderfully illustrated that readers will wish the title had been as lively as the content.

While there was no restriction on attendance at sermons and the ministers were expected to baptize any infant that was brought to them, the Reformed Church closely controlled access to the Lord’s Supper. Only those who were regarded as worthy by the ministers and ecclesiastical authorities were allowed to participate. This meant submitting to the oversight and consistorial discipline of the Church, to preserve the sanctity of the rite. Relatively few members of the community were prepared to submit themselves to this level of intrusive scrutiny and examination; it was estimated in 1587 that only one in ten people in Holland were full members of the Reformed Church.

The things one learns here.  Amazing.  This volume is worthy of the attention of all who are interested in the outworking of Calvin’s reform.

The volume includes very helpful bibliographies along with each essay so that readers are armed for further research.  I recommend it.

UPDATE:  It’s also now (September, 2018) been reviewed by Reading Religion.