Holy Week, Ceremonies, Rituals, and Reformed Churches (Miller)

This time of year it’s hard to miss the emphasis on Lent, Ash Wednesday, Holy Thursday, and so on. Many churches celebrate these rituals and ceremonies – even churches that are not in the Roman Catholic family. Speaking of, for Rome, this time of year means a full assortment of rituals, ceremonies, feasts, fasts, vigils, and so on. Rome’s ceremonies include Ash Wednesday, Lent, the Sundays of Lent, the blessing of the palm branches, Fat Tuesday, Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration, Penitential Liturgies, Shrove Tuesday, Holy Thursday, Chrism Mass, Evening Mass, Easter Vigil, Holy Saturday, the Stations of the Cross, and so on.

The question comes: Why haven’t confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches historically promoted all these ceremonies and rituals? This is a good question that has been answered well by more than a few Reformed/Presbyterian theologians and pastors. One good answer comes from Samuel Miller. Miller was a 19th century Presbyterian pastor and later professor of church history and government at Princeton. Here are two paragraphs by Miller on this topic:

A fundamental principle of the Presbyterian Church, in forming her “Directory for the Worship of God,” is, that here, as in every thing else, Holy Scripture is the only safe guide. One of the earliest practical errors which gained ground in the Christian community, was the adoption of the principle that the ministers of religion might lawfully add, at their pleasure, to the rites and ceremonies of the Church. In consequence of the admission of this error, Augustine complained, as early as the beginning of the fifth century, that for one appointment of God’s ten of man’s had crept into the Church, and formed a burden greater, in some respects, than was the ceremonial economy of the Jews. The fact is, for the sake of drawing both Jews and Pagans in to the Church, many rites and ceremonies were adopted from both, that they might feel more at home in the Christian assemblies. This evil increased, until, before the Reformation, it had reached that revolting amount of superstition which now distinguishes the Church of Rome.

It was in reference to this point, that our Fathers, both in Scotland and England, had many conflicts, when their respective Churches, in those countries were organized and settled in the sixteenth century. On the one hand, the Prelates, and the other court clergy were in favour of a splendid ritual, and were disposed to retain a large number of the ceremonies which had been so long in use in the Church of Rome. On the other, the Puritans in England, and the corresponding body in Scotland, contended that the Scriptures being the only infallible rule of faith and practice, no rite or ceremony ought to have a place in the public worship of God, which is not warranted in Scripture, either by direct precept or example, or by good and sufficient inference….

Again, more can be said. It’s a longer discussion for sure. I appreciate Miller’s emphasis on Holy Scripture being the only safe guide and infallible rule of faith and practice for us when it comes to worshiping and serving God. This is a major reason why Reformed/Presbyterian churches have historically not promoted feasts, fasts, vigils, masses, ceremonies, and liturgies that you find in Rome.

The above quote is found in Samuel Miller, Presbyterianism the Truly Primitive and Apostoloical Constitution of the Church of Christ, p. 64. (Also called “Presbyterianism: Its History, Doctrine, Government, and Worship”.)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015