“Plain Water” — The Reformation and Worship
The Reformation wasn’t only about theology. It was also, and perhaps most centrally, about doxology. It was about the right giving of glory, about worship. That was the central thesis of Carlos Eire’s 1986 book, War Against the Idols: the Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin. It’s essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what really drove the Reformation in the sixteenth century.
At the heart of the Reformed drive to purify Christian worship was a principle. That principle was sola Scriptura — by the Bible alone. Our worship is to be governed only according to the Word of God. God alone has the prerogative to determine how we are to worship him and his prerogatives are expressed in the Scriptures.
That key principle found expression in the Reformed confessions. For instance, article 7 of the Belgic Confession says that Scripture is sufficient for our faith and practice. Then it adds, “The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length.” Later, in article 32, the Confession insists:
We believe that, although it is useful and good for those who govern the church to establish a certain order to maintain the body of the church, they must at all times watch that they do not deviate from what Christ, our only Master, has commanded. Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the conscience in any way.
Or as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it in QA 96, “We are not to worship him [God] in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.” That is the most succinct expression of the Reformed principle of worship. In more recent times, it’s been called the regulative principle of worship. It’s simply the application of sola Scriptura to worship.
Naturally, there is a background to this in the pre-Reformation church. In the medieval church, things had been added and subtracted from Christian worship. This had been done on human authority, without any divine approbation from the Scriptures. When the Reformation arrived, people again became attuned to the Scriptures and they realized that the church’s worship had become idolatrous. Worship was in need of renewal according to the Bible.
A noteworthy example of this is found in article 34 of the Belgic Confession. This article first speaks in general terms about the meaning of Christian baptism. Baptism has replaced circumcision. Baptism is the means by which we are “received into the church of God.” Through baptism we are set apart from the world. Then the Reformed churches confess this:
For that reason he has commanded all those who are his to be baptized with plain water into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19).
Notice especially the mention of “plain water.” Those two words are pregnant with meaning.
“Plain water” is directed at the ways in which Rome had added to baptism. In his book Flesh and Spirit, Steven Ozment describes how baptism was administered by Rome around the time of the Reformation:
The traditional service of baptism began with the priest blowing gently under the eyes of the newborn and commanding the devil, “Flee from this child, unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit.” The child then received the mark of the cross on its forehead and chest and a pinch of consecrated salt in its mouth, this time accompanied by the words, “Take the salt of [divine] wisdom, and may it atone for you in eternity.” Thereafter, the priest imitated Christ’s healing of a deaf-mute (Mark 7:33-34) and a blind man (John 9:6) by dabbing a mixture of his own sputum and dirt in the child’s nose and ears, while pronouncing a double command, the first for the child, the second for the devil: “[Dear child] receive the sweetness [of God]…devil, flee, for the judgment of God is near.” The priest then anointed the child’s chest and shoulders with olive oil and placed a consecrated mixture of olive oil and balsam — the holy chrism — on the crown of its head. The final acts of the service belonged to the godparent, who took the naked, baptized child from the priest and clothed it in the traditional white shirt or gown (the Wester, Alba, or Westerhemd) — symbols of purity and acceptance into the body Christian– which the godparent provided for the occasion. The godparent then named the child, often after the godparent. The service concluded with the placement of a candle in the combined hands of the child and parent(s), who were exhorted to “receive the ardent and blameless Light [of God].” (page 78)
That was a long, complicated description, wasn’t it? And how much of it is commanded in Scripture? You can see why the Belgic Confession says so much with two words about baptism: “plain water.” That’s how Christ commanded baptism to be done, so that’s how we do baptism. It’s simple and biblical.
With over 500 years since the Reformation, is this Reformed principle of worship still relevant? Look around. You’ll see Protestant churches that add and take away from Christ’s commands for worship here, there, and everywhere. Sadly, there are churches where there is no biblical preaching to speak of. There are churches which neglect the sacraments. There are churches which substitute dramatic productions (on the stage or on the screen) for preaching. In some “Presbyterian” churches, they’ve at times added liturgical dancing. There have even been “Reformed” churches where they decided to preach on The Simpsons rather than the Word of God. It’s almost as if the Reformation never happened! For this reason, we need to learn again from the Reformation about worship. We need to go back to the faithful summary of Scripture in our Reformed confessions. When we do that, we will worship God only as he commands in his Word — no additions or subtractions.