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Lecture XVIII: The Church Service as Human Action

(Art. 22–23)

That Sacramentis be richtlie ministrat, we judge twa things requisite: The ane, that they be ministrat be lauchful Ministers, whom we affirme to be only they that ar appoynted to the preaching of the word, into quhais mouthes God hes put sum Sermon of exhortation, they being men lauchfullie chosen thereto be sum Kirk. The uther, that they be ministrat in sik elements, and in sik sort, as God hes appointed; else, we affirme, that they cease to be the richt Sacraments of Christ Jesus. And therefore it is that we flee the doctrine of the Papistical Kirk, in participatioun of their sacraments; first, because their Ministers are na Ministers of Christ Jesus; zea (quhilk is mair horrible) they suffer wemen, whome the haly Ghaist will not suffer to tcache in the Congregatioun, to baptize: And secundly, because they have so adulterate both the one Sacrament and the uther with their awin inventions, that no part of Christs action abydes in the originall puritie: For Oyle, Salt, Spittill, and sik lyke in Baptisme, ar bot mennis inventiounis. Adoration, Veneration, bearing throw streitis and townes, and keiping of bread in boxis or buistis, ar prophanatioun of Christs Sacramentis, and na use of the same: For Christ Jesus saide, Take, eat, &c., do ze this in remembrance of me. Be quhilk words and charge he sanctifyed bread and wine, to the Sacrament of his halie bodie and blude, to the end that the ane suld be eaten, and that all suld drinke of the uther, and not that thay suld be keiped to be worshipped and honoured as God, as the Papistes have done heirtofore. Who also committed Sacrilege, steilling from the people the ane parte of the Sacrament, to wit, the blessed coupe. Moreover, that the Sacramentis be richtly used, it is required, that the end and cause why the Sacramentis were institute, be understanded and observed, asweil of the minister as of the receiveris: For gif the opinion be changed in the receiver, the richt use ceassis; quhilk is maist evident be the rejection of the sacrifices: As also gif the teacher planely teache fals doctrine, quhilk were odious and abhominable before God (albeit they were his awin ordinance) because that wicked men use them to an uther end than God hes ordaned. The same affirme we of the Sacraments in the Papistical kirk; in quhilk, we affirme, the haill action of the Lord Jesus to be adulterated, asweill in the external forme, as in the end and opinion. Quhat Christ Jesus did, and commanded to be done, is evident be the Evangelistes and be Saint Paull: quhat the Preist dois at his altar we neid not to rehearse. The end and cause of Christs institution, and why the selfsame suld be used, is expressed in thir words, Doe ze this in remembrance of me, als oft as ze sall eit of this bread, and drinke of this coupe, ze sall shaw furth, that is, extoll, preach, magnifie and praise the Lords death, till he cum. Bot to quhat end, and in what opinioun the Preists say their Messe, let the wordes of the same, their awin Doctouris and wrytings witnes: To wit, that they, as Mediatoris betwix Christ and his Kirk, do offer unto God the Father, a Sacrifice propitiatorie for the sinnes of the quick and the dead. Quhilk doctrine, as blasphemous to Christ Jesus, and making derogation to the sufficiencie of his only Sacrifice, once offered for purgatioun of all they that sall be sanctifyed, we utterly abhorre, detest and renounce.

art. xxiii
to whome sacramentis apperteine

We confesse & acknawledge that Baptisme apperteinis asweil to the infants of the faithfull, as unto them that be of age and discretion: And so we damne the error of the Anabaptists, who denies baptisme to apperteine to Children, before that they have faith and understanding. Bot the Supper of the Lord, we confesse to appertaine to sik onely as be of the houshald of Faith, and can trie and examine themselves, asweil in their faith, as in their dewtie towards their Nichtbouris; sik as eite and drink at that haly Table without faith, or being at dissension and division with their brethren, do eat unworthelie: And therefore it is, that in our Kirk our Ministers tak publick & particular examination, of the knawledge and conversation of sik as are to be admitted to the Table of the Lord Jesus.


Articles 22–23 of our Confession deal with the right administration of the sacraments in the church, or in the general application of this term they deal with what is expected and required of men in the church in regard to the service. In the nature of the case the picture is dominated here more than elsewhere by the historical circumstances in which the Confession had its origin, i.e. the fight against the church of the popes along the main lines of attack then necessary. At that time, when the contrast between mediæval catholicism and the regenerated church became clear, even the most backward man among the people had to take part in the very questions touched on here about how the service ought to be conceived and fashioned by men. For this reason all sorts of details are discussed here, e.g. baptism by a midwife in periculo mortis, the withholding of the cup, the adoration of the host and the mass on the one hand, and on the other the free choice of preachers, the cup for the laity and discipline. Because therefore there are so many details, it is not altogether easy to penetrate to the essential content of what is presented here by the Scottish Church as Reformed doctrine. None the less certain main lines of thought which run through all the details can be established here and when treated freely admit of elucidation with a view to application to the present situation. This we shall try to do now.

Once again we begin by asking after the ground—this time after the secondary ground of the church service, and in accordance with what has been established in our last lecture the answer which we constantly receive from our text is that man's part in this matter consists in simple obedience. From this point of view the Confession defends the church service against its mediæval deterioration. If we had to model the service by the standards of our religious need and capacity, it would have to have a form quite different from the Reformed one—perhaps the very form of the Roman Catholic mass. And any one with sufficient genius and depth of thought, who uses this latter standard of what is suitable for our religious needs and capabilities to decide what is the right service, will find that whatever he may think at that time will lead him sooner or later back to something not far removed from the Roman mass. The mass in its conception, content and construction is a religious masterpiece. It is the highwater mark in the development of the history of religion and admits of no rival. This achievement should be respected as such. But note that this is the very thing for which the Reformed Confession blames it. Religion with its masterpieces is one thing, Christian faith with its obedience another. Between the two there is the following important difference, Christian faith is obedience and so its service can only be obedience and not an invention, not even an invention based on profound thought and genius and formed and hallowed by the co-operation of centuries or milleniums. The question we have to answer is not how the service may best correspond to our conceptions of solemnity, beauty, the drama, education, psychology, mystery, etc., or how these points of view are to determine it. Clearly all this was sought for centuries and milleniums in the forming of the Roman Catholic mass—but after all these things do the Gentiles seek. On the contrary, the question we have to answer is how it might best correspond to its primary ground, the gracious will of Jesus Christ present and active in the midst of the Church. Hence we are asked about our obedience, not about our needs and possibilities. It is perfectly in order that the question about the right form of service should never cease to agitate the evangelical churches. It is not true that the right form of service was finally discovered and introduced in the sixteenth century. It is quite in place to ask, whether what is known to us to-day in the Reformed church as the service is really founded on obedience to the Lord of the church, or whether it ought not to have its form changed by the asking of the question as to this its primary ground. But it is by this question alone that one should desire to reform the service. All other standards could lead only to deformation, not reformation, and that is precisely what must not be allowed to occur. The application of such alien standards to bring about reformation always leads to the formation of the false church. Let no man say that it is consideration for the world which surrounds the church, which in the nature of the case calls for the application of such foreign standards. This very consideration requires the opposite. The church would be a bad servant of the world—of the task she has to perform in relation to the world—if out of consideration for the real or assumed desires of the world and its demand for drama, psychology, etc., she desired in her service to be anything but obedient. What the church does owe the world is not her own cleverness or adaptability or the attempt made in all lands at all times to suit the people's wishes, but the gospel of Jesus Christ. And if she considered it more important to be clever than obedient, how could she proclaim the gospel or how would she do it? How could a disobedient church have even the slightest significance for the world? She is a light in the world, the light which according to the promise of her Lord she is to be if she is brave enough to be wiser than the wise and so to hold fast to the Word of her Lord without consideration of the world.


For the second time the object of our enquiry is the content of the church service; this time we are concerned with its secondary content. The divine action in this matter consists of revelation and faith. We are now enquiring about the corresponding human action. It is indeed not unnecessary to stress the fact that the church service is an action, an act, an act of service to the opus Dei, but an act which in itself requires to be performed in the way proper to its subject, just as much as, e.g. a technical, military or political action must be performed in the way proper to its subject. Without any doubt this fact was far clearer to our fathers than it is to us. And because the church cannot die it will have to become clearer to us again also. We spoke in our previous lecture of the fact that it is a matter of the church existing through revelation and continuing through faith. But this existence and continuance of the church means that what takes place in her is action and not resting or waiting or dreaming or sleep. It is to be noted certainly that this action takes place as an action of the church, and consequently in the way proper and peculiar to such action. Some form of activity or other is not enough, not even though it be very well meant and in other connections doubtless thoroughly useful and laudable. The church is neither a charitable institution, nor an institution for the general betterment of the world and man. She is not an institution for the cultivation of fellowship, nor is she a place of intellectual entertainment. The church in modern times has frequently overlooked that and let herself be driven into activity in all these directions, and owing to this she has forgotten and neglected her own proper activity and the reason why she allowed this to happen is simply that she had already forgotten and neglected her own proper action, and wanted, by busily wasting her time, to preserve at least the appearance of active existence in these other activities—a hopeless undertaking. By this means it is indeed not possible to preserve more than the appearance. The content of the church service corresponds to revelation and faith and does not consist in a busy waste of time. In the church to act means to hear, i.e. to hear the Word of God, and through the Word of God revelation and faith. It may be objected that this is too small a task and one that is not active enough. But in the whole world there exists no more intense, strenuous or animated action than that which consists in hearing the Word of God—hearing it, as is its due, ever afresh, better, more loyally and efficaciously. Everything beside this is waste of time here. It is in this act that the content of the church service consists. It is because the church hears the Word of God and must hear it again that she preaches, baptises, observes the Lord's Supper and offers thanks. It is as the assembly of those who have heard God's Word and must hear it again that she meets. It is by listening to God that she serves Him. And it is by listening together to God that her members serve one another, as of course they must do. It is by hearing God that the church is built up, lives, grows, works and glorifies God's name in her own midst and in the world. She is the true church in proportion as she is the listening church. Any other goal which she may set herself in general or in detail may bear another name, but can only mean ultimately that the Word of God must be heard. Whatever goes beyond this hearing of God's Word, rests in God's good hands and is His work, not ours. But we have this piece of work to do—this is the thing which must be worked for and worked at in the church—the hearing of God's Word. The question asked of the church service is whether its content consists in this work, whether what happens when her members are assembled together is the hearing of God's Word.

Permit me at this point to make a digression of a practical kind. What we know to-day as the church service both in Roman Catholicism and in Protestantism is a torso. The Roman Catholic church has a sacramental service without preaching. But I wish to speak at the moment not for or against her, but about our own Protestant church. We have a service with a sermon but without sacraments. Both types of service are impossible. We saw that Baptism and the Lord's Supper form what we may call the natural bounds of the church service. But these have as a rule disappeared from view in our Protestant service. We do not any longer even realise that a service without sacraments is one which is outwardly incomplete. As a rule we hold such outwardly incomplete services as if it were perfectly natural to do so. What right have we to do that? We may ask the Roman Catholic church why she celebrates mass without preaching or without proper preaching, but we are asked ourselves what right we have to do what we do. Is there not a pressing danger that by omitting the natural beginning and end of a true service the services we hold are incomplete inwardly and in essence as well? Would the sermon not be delivered and listened to quite differently and would we not offer thanks during the service quite differently, if everything outwardly and visibly began with baptism and moved towards the Lord's Supper? Why do the numerous movements and attempts to bring the liturgy of the Reformed church up to date—attempts and movements much spoken about all over the world to-day—prove without exception so unfruitful? Is it not just because they do not fix their attention on this fundamental defect, the incompleteness of our usual service, i.e. its lack of sacraments?1 In these circumstances what force can our criticism of the opposite defect in the Roman Catholic service have? I mention this in this context for the following reasons. The hearing of the Word of God forms the real action of the church and in the last resort everything depends on its taking place around the centre characterised by the two sacraments. When we hear that everything has been accomplished for us in Jesus Christ and that we have everything to expect from Him, we are hearing the Word of God then and are consequently good labourers in God's vineyard. But do we hear that all this is true? And if for a long time we have not been hearing it in our Protestant churches either as we should and ought to have heard it, if to a great extent the sermon has not been delivered and heard as it should be and men have not given thanks in the way they should, is not all this bound up perhaps with the fundamental defect of our service, that the almost complete disappearance of the sacraments has left the service a torso?

We shall close our section on the content of the church service by showing that the promise and the responsibility attaching to the action, to which the congregation is called, concerns both the holders of ecclesiastical office and the remaining members of the congregation equally seriously and ultimately in common. No one is released from the task of hearing the Word of God, and in that task no one has a less important part than the others. All are hearers of the Divine Word, and for that very reason all are also priests. In the church there are no clergy and no laymen. The distinction between the holders of a special office and the remaining members of the congregation, between the teaching church and the hearing church—the ecclesia docens and the ecclesia audiens—can be only a technical distinction and not one of principle. For the words uttered by certain members are simply the transition from hearing to further hearing of God's Word, and the speakers, because they, too, are listening, effect this transition in common with those who are primarily only hearers. Only primarily, however. In the service the speaking as such is the concern of some and not of others, and this is a parable which may not be set aside—a parable of the fact that God speaks but it is man's task to listen. Yet the singing with which the other members of the congregation respond is equally a parable of the fact that the voice of thanksgiving for God's revelation must be the voice of the whole church, and the sermon, too, is a part of such thanksgiving. And in a living church the whole congregation must have a share in one way or another, directly or indirectly, in the special promise and responsibility attaching to teaching, which is itself simply one function in the common task of hearing God's Word.


If the content of the church service is the hearing of the Word of God, then the last question to which we now come has also already been settled. The question runs, what is the secondary form of the church service? What can and should take place on man's side in consequence of God on His side having given man the definite media, signs and testimonies already mentioned, through the use of which man is to become and be and become again and again an obedient hearer of the Word of God? We have seen that in connection with the form of the church service also we are not left to ourselves, our own imagination and arbitrary choice, but are shown definite paths to take. And we must take these paths. The water of baptism, the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper and the words of Scripture are to be received not as ordinary water, ordinary nourishment and ordinary words, but as water, nourishment and words which bear a testimony.

Thus on man's side what must be done is to enquire after the institution of the church as established by Jesus Christ, and this enquiry must be continuous, scrutinising and discriminating. This institution is certainly given us by Him, but it is to be recognised and acknowledged by us ourselves. Hence the hearing of the Word of God which is mediated to us through that institution and the action of the church which takes place on the basis of the institution cannot consist in an opus operatum but in a proclamation and perception of God's Word, which is qualified not unqualified. It must be done with sincerity and with humility; with sincerity because it must be open to the truth of God's Word and with humility because it must be ready to bow in the presence of the superiority of that Word. Otherwise, if we are not sincere and humble, we are not taking the way, though it has been shown us and prescribed for us. Otherwise all proclamation and perception is in vain and otherwise we do not really hear. We are not hearers of God's Word as a matter of course, nor are we sincere and humble as a matter of course. This necessary secondary form of the church service is given us rather as a task, a task which consists in an effort of a critical nature which we may neither evade nor allow to lapse. In this connection the Scottish Confession imposed strict requirements both on the preachers and the remaining members of the church. If this effort does not take place, we would be receiving only ordinary water, nourishment and words, not the water, nourishment and words which bear a testimony. It is certainly primarily the work of the Holy Spirit, which enables us to receive the latter. But His work does not come about without the corresponding critical effort on our side. We may observe now that this effort of criticism, scrutiny and discrimination, all things considered, is nothing else than theology. What theology does is to ask questions, and without this the church would get no answers. It is only on the human side that theology has this significance. Hence it can neither take the place of, nor supplement the work of the Holy Spirit. And even on the human side it has only this formal significance. It can neither take the place of nor supplement the church's hearing of the Word of God, as the real human act in the church service. It has a very modest significance, but it has this significance, and therefore it causes unrest and often for this reason the church shuts its ears to theology. It enquires if our hearing of God's Word is being duly qualified and it enquires about the adequacy of our proclamation and perception in relation to the institution of the church as established by Jesus Christ. It asks the church about her sincerity and humility. To this extent theology, too, belongs to the church service and is itself a leaven for the church's liturgy. And to this extent it must be admitted, too, that the church service is necessarily a theological act. May we be able to say of it that it is the act of a good and true theology! But what is a good or a true theology? Are we to follow the teaching of one professor or another here? In a word, every theology is good and true when it is critical, i.e. when it gives expression to the criticism passed by the Lord of the church and hence by Scripture, because it itself is sincerely and humbly subject to the criticism passed by the Lord of the church and hence by Scripture. A bad theology would be one which in this respect was uncritical.

Proposals for the playing of a violin or for the singing of solos, or for all repeating prayers together are very nice, but they do not really help here.