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The Reformed Tradition - William Dyrness

Contemplation for Protestants: Where the Reformed Tradition Went Wrong

by William Dyrness
Image Issue 49, Spring 2006
In his instructions on church order, John Calvin includes a detail that is often overlooked: he insists that outside of regular worship hours, the church building should be locked. I find that besides explaining why Protestant sanctuaries always seem closed during the week, this detail illuminates much of my Protestant tradition, and I want to take it as a kind of central metaphor here. Calvin gave these instructions so that “no one outside the hours may enter for superstitious reasons.” He went on, “If anyone be found making any particular devotion inside or nearby, he is to be admonished; if it appears to be a superstition which he will not amend he is to be chastised.” Both sides of Calvin’s theological program are implied in these instructions. On the one hand Calvin was convinced that too much of what went on inside the church—the novenas, the penances, the paternosters—since it was not founded on genuine faith, was not conducive to true spirituality. He wanted to clear out this thicket of superstition so that nothing would distract worshipers from the preaching of the word—he wanted to empty this space so it could be filled with God’s word. On the other hand, he was deeply concerned about what went on outside the church; he believed that worship need not be confined to church buildings, but that the believer could pray at home, at work, or while lying in bed. Indeed for Calvin, the focus of Christian worship and discipleship was not on the space of the church but on life in the world, what he called a theater for the glory of God.