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Calvin’s Geneva – Calvin’s Liturgy

calvinI have written in the previous two posts about the progression in Geneva in the formulation of their worship. In this post I want to provide the basic outline of Calvin’s Liturgy in Geneva according to Eutaxia; Or the Presbyterian Liturgies Charles Washington Baird then add commentary.

Prior to Calvin, Farel came through and purged all forms of suspicious worship. Calvin initially planned on staying only one night. However, he was talked into staying by Farel to assist in reforming the church in Geneva. “It was his duty before God” according to Farel. If it was up to Calvin, he would have studied somewhere in some obscure location in privacy. Calvin portrays Farel’s most convincing words when he writes:

Then Farel, who was working with incredible zeal to promote the gospel, bent all his efforts to keep me in the city. And when he realized that I was determined to study in privacy in some obscure place, and saw that he gained nothing by entreaty, he descended to cursing, and said that God would surely curse my peace if I held back from giving help at a time of such great need. Terrified by his words, and conscious of my own timidity and cowardice, I gave up my journey and attempted to apply whatever gift I had in defense of my faith. (Church History One Hundred One, William M. Ramsay, 2006, Westminster John Knox Press, p. 57)

Calvin would begin to work on the liturgy and Order of Worship for Geneva. He would have a worship characterized by a plain and logical structure based on two sources 1) the doctrines of revelation and 2) the worship of the primitive church. Worship should take us somewhere. It has preparatory elements initially and culminates in elements and forms that are the highest exercise of adoration and faith.

Calvin’s morning service on the Lord’s Day:

The service would begin with a Reading of Scripture. This reading would include a portion of Scripture and the 10 Commandments to serve as an introduction to prayers. The Clerk would do this part of the service and after he was finished the minister would enter the “Desk”. The minister would begin his portion of the service from the desk with a statement of Invocation.

After the Invocation and prayer the congregation would go through a corporate Confession of Sin. In this portion the minister would pray for the sins of the church and ask for God’s grace on the church and her members. When he was finished he would present an absolution or Declaration of Pardon. This is seen in the Anglican ritual as well, and it is possible that they inherited this from the liturgy Calvin used while in Strasburg. The liturgy in Geneva differs in this part from that of Strasburg. The problem was when Calvin would begin to announce an absolution that the people would rise up before he was done in protest. In light of the timing and the conscience of the congregation Calvin did not force this on his people. Calvin writes:

“There is none of us, but must acknowledge it to be very useful that, after the general confession, some striking promise of Scripture should follow, whereby sinners might be raised to the hopes of pardon and reconciliation. And I would have introduced this custom from the beginning, but some fearing that the novelty of it would give offense, I was over easy in yielding to them, so the thing was omitted, and now it would not be seasonable to make any change; because the greatest part of our people begin to rise up before we come to the end of the confession.”

However,  Calvin writes to those who have the power and influence to do so, to accustom their people to an absolution, as well as a confession. (Bingham, Works, II., 762). This apparently influenced the churches throughout France. At the General Synod in Paris, 1565 they concluded:

“That such churches as were accustomed upon sacrament days, or other Sabbaths, after the confession of sins, to pronounce a general absolution, may, if they please, continue in it: but were this custom is not introduced, the Synod adviseth the churches not to admit it, because of the dangerous consequences which may ensue.” Quick’s Synodicon: London, 1692: Can 4.

After absolution/confession the congregation unites in praise singing one of the Psalms of David. It is also observed that the congregation would rise after the confession of sin. Most likely their posture during the confession was kneeling rather than seated.

The sermon would be preceded by prayer. This was the part of the liturgy that Calvin allowed to be extemporaneous by the minister. Otherwise, Calvin wanted ministers to stay true to the form of the liturgy and Order of Worship. This was in place to help the “simplicity and unskillfulness” of some of the ministers, to provide consistency and an appearance of harmony among the churches and of course to prevent innovations in worship by the minister. After the sermon, the minister would follow with a prayer of intercession, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed and conclude with the Benediction. Interesting point is that there wasn’t a portion of the service for taking of tithes and offerings. Instead in the Benediction the minister would remind them to be mindful of the poor. On their way out of the church they would deposit their offerings in boxes in the back.


2 Comments

  1. katherine says:

    When was communion? Interesting about the tithe howbit wasn’t part of the worship service..wonder what the rational was?

  2. Pooka says:

    I do like the last bit about collections. I wonder what brought about the change to passing the plate in the service. Maybe a reaction to indulgences?

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