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Worship Reformed According to Scripture

Hughes Oliphant Old in Retrospect

On Tuesday, May 24, 2016, Hughes Oliphant Old died in his home in White River Junction, Vermont. Known to his friends as “Scoti” (from a nickname he earned at Centre College as an undergraduate), Old had suffered declining health in recent years. He was 83 years old.

Yet, Hughes Old has left us with a great body of work to aid in the renewal (and revival) of worship among Presbyterian and Reformed churches. Seen by many as the foremost American liturgical scholar of the Reformed tradition, Old was one of the few Presbyterian scholars who by his work had access into the various and divided denominations of American Presbyterianism. Old taught courses and was a guest speaker at various Presbyterian seminaries: Princeton Theological Seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary, The University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, Erskine Theological Seminary, and others. That the same individual could be received and respected at such vastly different schools over the past several decades is in itself a notable achievement. In addition, Old had also been invited to lecture at educational institutions overseas.

Old’s exploration into the history, theology, and practice of Reformed worship began as a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity in 1958. Toward the end of his time at Princeton, Old observed that while his theological education there had included biblical studies, pastoral care, preaching, and the other areas of theological education, worship had not been a major subject. When he brought this to the attention of his preaching professor, Donald Macleod, Macleod’s advice to Old was that he needed to acquire a copy of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Already then, Old was struck by the thought that surely the Reformed tradition had something to teach ministers about the nature and practice of worship without simply borrowing the worship habits of the Anglicans.

After a year of traveling following his graduation from Princeton, Old became pastor of the Penningtonville Presbyterian Church in Atglen, Pennsylvania. In the regular pastoral work of organizing and leading worship, Old’s interest in the study of worship developed further:

It was in trying to fulfill my responsibilities as a pastor of a Presbyterian Church in the farming country of Pennsylvania that I first became interested in the question of what worship according to the Reformed tradition should be. As I tried to search out the meaning of Reformed worship, I became more and more convinced that I must travel to those lands in
which the Reformation had taken place, learn the languages the reformers spoke and search the documents they left behind. So it was that I found myself living as a foreigner in Europe for almost seven years. 1

Thus, after five years in Atglen, Old traveled to Europe, where he completed his doctoral studies at the University of Neuchâtel in 1971. In his dissertation, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship, Old demonstrated that contrary to the assumptions of many, the reform of worship led by the “Reformed” in the sixteenth century was not a rejection of everything that had happened in the past, but was a well-considered program based not only on the Bible but also on insights gained through the study of the church fathers. Thus, Calvin’s claim that the reformed worship of Geneva was “according to the custom of the ancient Church” was not merely bravado, but stemmed from serious study of the church father carried out by the reformers. Old’s dissertation uncovers the familiarity with the theologians of the ancient church demonstrated by Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, and others. Also, Old discusses worship as it was carried out in the earliest Reformed cities, centering on the regular Lord’s Day worship and the Lord’s Supper. In addition, he gives great attention to the practice of preaching among the Reformed, especially their endorsement of lectio continua preaching (that is, preaching through whole books of Scripture, rather than according to a lectionary based upon the church calendar), which we will explore further later in this piece. In the contents of Old’s dissertation, one can already anticipate the direction that his study of Reformed worship would take.

The next major work that Old produced was Worship That Is Reformed According to Scripture.2 First published in 1984, as a part of the Guides to the Reformed Tradition series (published under the editorship of John H. Leith and John W. Kuykendall), Worship remains perhaps the best single volume introduction to the study of Reformed/Presbyterian worship. A revised and expanded edition of this work was published in 2002, given its continued popularity. In it, Old presents a historical survey of Reformed worship, covering all the major elements of regular Sunday worship, preaching, and the administration of the sacraments. In many ways, this single volume is a survey of the overall work of Old.

One of the important contributions that Old made to the study of Reformed worship was his understanding of what worship “Reformed according to Scripture” means. In Worship Reformed According to Scripture, Old put it this way: “The Reformers did not mean by this a sort of Bible-pounding literalism—although they have often been accused of this. Much more they had in mind that Christian worship should be in obedience to God’s Word as it is revealed in Holy Scripture” (3).

This does not mean that one is free to worship God however he or she desires, “as though the object of worship were to entertain God with elaborate liturgical pageants and dramas.” Commenting on how this understanding of worship was borne out in the work of the Basel Reformer Oecolampadius, Old points out:

As Oecolampadius well understood, the Bible does not provide us with any ready-made liturgies or services of worship. Nevertheless the church should develop services of worship in accordance with whatever specific directions and examples are found in Scripture. When Scripture does not give specific directions, then we should be guided by scriptural principles. For instance, Oecolampadius taught that Christian worship should be simple and without pompous ritual and sumptuous ceremony, because the manner of life Jesus taught was simple and without pretense (3).

Perhaps the work in which Old gives the most attention to this understanding of “worship Reformed according to Scripture” is his major work on baptism: The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century.3 This work is a tour de force of liturgical archaeology, in which Old lays out the late medieval context for baptismal liturgies before examining, in detail, how the Reformed baptismal service took shape among the reformers. He also deals at length with the Reformed defense of infant baptism in the face of the Anabaptist challenge. This led Old to conclude:

It was in regard to their practice of baptism that the Reformers were forced to think out more exactly what they meant by ordering worship according to Scripture. The phrase “according to Scripture” had a very specific meaning to them. They did not have in mind a biblicistic literalism, as many have so often imagined. They neither accepted the principle that what is not forbidden is allowed, nor the position that what is not commanded is forbidden (ix).

This understanding of “according to Scripture” takes shape in the understanding of the reformers as they battled with the Anabaptists, who argued that baptismal practice must be determined by the specific examples mentioned in Scripture. While these specific examples were important for the Reformed, they went further and asked the theological question of whether infant baptism was “a practice consistent with the teaching of Scripture” (120).

The insights of Old on the reformers’ understanding that worship must be according to Scripture remains relevant to ongoing discussions today regarding the different approaches to worship taken by, on the one hand, those who are committed to a Reformed understanding of worship, and, on the other hand, those who often appeal to a notion of Christian freedom in ordering the corporate worship life of the church. One does not have to look long and hard to find the assertion that the Reformed approach to worship is that only that which is commanded is allowed, while Lutherans and Anglicans are committed to a notion that whatever is not forbidden is allowed. Old challenges this simple dichotomy, pointing out that it does not reflect what the earliest reformers meant. In many conservative Reformed camps today, this more restrictive notion is often termed “The Regulative Principle of Worship,” though one does not find this term used until the twentieth century.

But in his work on baptism Old demonstrates that this more restrictive approach represents more the view taken by the Anabaptists than the Reformed. The real question involved is how the reformers understood the Bible as being the authority for liturgical reform. Oecolampadius discussed the hermeneutical principle advanced by the Anabaptists. They had appealed to the principle that what is not commanded by Scripture is forbidden by Scripture. The reformers, on the other hand, had appealed to the principle that worship must be “in accordance with Scripture”…

Oecolampadius and his colleagues were trying to find a middle ground between the approaches to liturgical reform. The one was that what is not forbidden is therefore permitted, and the other was that what is not commanded is therefore forbidden. Obviously, many liturgical practices fall in between the two. They are neither forbidden nor commanded. These things, Luther taught, were indifferent, adiaphora (119).

Many things about worship did not fall so easily into the category of “commanded” or “forbidden,” and yet these things should also be decided on the basis of something other than simply than the category of adiaphora. Again, Old states:

This principle was summed up in the phrase, “in accordance with Scripture.” The High Rhenish Reformers believed that the question of whether children should be baptized or not needed to be decided according to Scripture. In other words, the question ought to be, Was it a practice consistent with the teaching of Scripture? Unlike the Anabaptists, who had to find a specific proof text in Scripture, the High Rhenish Reformers recognized the importance of theological analysis. The weighing of ideas and the analogy between ideas becomes important to Reformed theology as well as the searching out of the specific commands and examples of Christ and the apostles (119–120).

Thus, in his demonstration of how the reformers defended the practice of infant baptism on the basis of Scripture (by use of such categories as typology, analogy, and the larger category of covenant theology, as well as appealing to the literary devices used in Scripture, like synecdoche), Old shows how “according to Scripture” represents something far more complex than simply the piling up of proof texts. It has to do with the appropriate theological analysis of the text.

This liturgical insight has ongoing significance for Presbyterian worship. In an age when more and more Baptists are recovering their own Reformed roots, it provides a theological foundation for discussion with Reformed Baptists on a Reformed reading of Scripture about baptism. In such a dialogue, Presbyterians need something firmer than simply the appeal to a “Regulative Principle,” given that so often the working out of such a principle looks more Anabaptist than Reformed. It also roots a Presbyterian understanding of worship in an older Reformed understanding rather than a later “Puritan” understanding of worship, which was a somewhat flatter approach than one finds in Calvin, Bucer, Oecolampadius, et al.

After completing his doctoral studies in Europe, Old accepted a call as pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in West Lafayette, Indiana. Here, he was able to put all that he had learned to work in the weekly task of leading worship and preaching to a living congregation. Given that Old was serving a congregation in the midst of a university community, the thoughtfulness with which he approached his pastoral work was not simply tolerated, but appreciated and encouraged.

One of the discoveries that Old made in the course of his studies that became a characteristic of his work was that part and parcel with the reform of worship in the Reformation was the reform of preaching. At the heart of this reform was lectio continua preaching. The main leaders in the Reformed wing of the Reformation were all agreed that the ancient patristic practice of lectio continua preaching needed to be restored to the worship of the church. Of course, this change in the schedule of preaching had far-reaching implications for worship.

This return to lectio continua meant that the focus of worship itself would change for the Reformed churches. No longer would the flow and theme of worship be determined by a lectionary, based as it was on the various days and seasons of the liturgical year, but by the order and rationale of Scripture itself. Old stated the issue well in his dissertation, when he stated that the point of this method of preaching is: “to respect the Biblical order and context of a given passage rather than trying to fit smaller units of Scripture into a preestablished theological system set by the church year.”4 Old saw how the reform of worship and the reform of preaching were cut from the same cloth, that the one must go with the other. Therefore, what one does with worship affects preaching, and what one does with preaching affects worship. One cannot separate the two. Preaching is itself an act of worship.

This insight would place Old on a collision course with developments within his own mainline Presbyterian denomination, as well as within mainline Protestantism in the United States in general. Old returned to the United States just as the so-called “liturgical renewal movement” was taking hold among many Protestants. Many Protestant churches began to embrace the observance of the church calendar, including the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, in ways that would have caused previous generations absolute shock. With the importation of the church calendar (deeply influenced by Roman Catholic liturgical reforms in the wake of the Second Vatican Council), mainline Protestant preachers began to orient their preaching around the very “preestablished theological system set by the Christian year” that the reformers had rejected. Old saw this development as a serious departure from the insights gained in the Reformation. When the subject of preaching is increasingly determined by the seasons of the liturgical year, the interpretation of the passage preached cannot but be affected. Old saw this happening in Protestant preaching. The liturgical renewal movement may well have made Presbyterian worship look more like that of the Episcopalians, but it did not contribute to a renewal of preaching.

Old took issue head on with the liturgical renewal movement. His most trenchant criticism appears in his primer on Worship, where he states:

The recent effort to bring back the celebration of the old liturgical calendar has suspicious similarities to a revival of the nature religions, natural theology, a cyclical interpretation of life, and the resurgence of the religions of fortune and fertility. One does penance in Advent, when winter sets in, and then one rejoices at Easter, when the flowers reappear in the spring. It is all quite natural, but this fascination with liturgical seasons sometimes seems not much more than a revival of Canaanitism. The primary emphasis of any Reformed liturgical calendar should be the weekly observance of the Lord’s Day. Very significantly, the seven-day cycle of the biblical week is not related to any of the nature cycles! The celebration of the resurrection is primarily the weekly celebration of the
Lord’s Day, not the year celebration, which in certain parts of the world is connected with spring. To drape the worship of any Sunday in penitential purple is contrary to the best our tradition teaches us.5

Old saw, and rightly so, that in the adoption of the liturgical seasons, especially the two penitential seasons in a cycle that leads to the feasts of Christmas and Easter, a resurgence of a work-righteousness mentality that is inimical to the Reformed faith. In such a cycle, one engages in acts of penitence and self-abnegation in order to get the reward of celebrating the feast. It is not a system based on a gracious understanding of the Gospel. Furthermore, he remained convinced that with more and more attention given to such “seasonal” observances, the weekly Lord’s Day itself was and would continue to be shortchanged. Reformed piety is one that is centered on Lord’s Day worship, and not on the feasts and fasts, and highs and lows, of the church calendar. With the shortchanging of a piety rooted in the Lord’s Day, it was inevitable that serious proclamation of the word of God as a central act of worship would also suffer demise.

This is not to say that Old was opposed to any Christian feast day. For all his love of the Puritans, Hughes Oliphant Old was not himself a Puritan. Old advocated for a return to the way these matters were handled by the continental Reformed, in the celebration of the “the five evangelical feast days: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost” (164). Old understood the logic of the earliest reformers who maintained these days even as they dispensed with the liturgical calendar. These days were rooted in specific acts of the Gospel, celebrated the redemption brought about by Christ, and thus passed the test of being “according to Scripture,” not by way of a specific command, but in that they commemorated the acts of our salvation in Jesus Christ. They were rooted in the celebrations of the ancient church, before the accretion of tradition that turned them into part of a larger penitential cycle.

Of course, this approach to Reformed worship could not have been more at odds with liturgical developments within Old’s denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA). This in itself may account for the fact that most in the official liturgical circles of the denomination never were truly open to the insights one finds in the work of Old.

When Old completed his ministry at Faith Presbyterian Church, he began a project that the English liturgical scholar Horton Davies himself described as nothing less than “audacious.”6 Old embarked on his project of writing a narrative account of the history of preaching, from biblical times to the present. Given his commitment to the understanding that preaching itself is a central action of Christian worship, Old wanted to explore how preaching has taken root throughout the history of God’s people. He did so in no less than seven volumes, comprising more than 4000 pages! Old followed, historically, the practices of preaching and preachers, beginning with the sermons of Moses in the Old Testament, and following the various movements of preaching to recent times. In many cases, Old makes available to the English reader the story and work of preachers whose works are not otherwise accessible. Old gives expression to the preaching traditions of the medieval church, showing that they are much richer and more developed than Protestants typically assume. Likewise, he deals with the preaching traditions among the Orthodox churches of the East. Old demonstrates a truly “catholic” spirit in this, demonstrating what is evident throughout his work, that the Reformed tradition is truly a movement that is in and a part of the “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”

Committed as he was to the renewal of preaching in the worship of the church today, Old encouraged preachers of today to embrace the ancient practice of lectio continua preaching, a preaching that is fundamentally expository. Commenting on the need for expository preaching today, Old stated:

This has always been the glory of Protestant worship. At present it seems to have fallen on hard days, but it needs to be revived. The fifteen- and twenty-minute homilies that have become the regular practice on most American Protestant churches today amount to not much more than a surrender of the tradition. Unfortunately, far too few ministers are equipped to do expository preaching. Even worse, few congregations are willing to give their ministers the time to do expository preaching. 7

Likewise, and not surprisingly, Old also advocated a return to the practice of lectio continua preaching:

This was one of the most significant reforms of the sixteenth century, resting solidly on the practice of both the synagogue and the early church. Nothing could have a more salutary effect on preaching than the regular, systematic preaching through one book of the Bible after another. It gives a great opportunity for both the preacher and the congregation to study the Scriptures. In time, many in the congregations will develop the habit of reading along with the preacher and will arrive for worship having studied the passage on which the sermon is to be preached. This kind of preaching needs to be done in a sensitive way, with recognition of the capacity of the congregation. It also needs to be supported by good Bible study in Sunday school for both children and for adults. After several years of using the lectio continua, the congregation will discover itself to have learned an amazing amount of Scripture. 8

In classes that Old taught, he showed great sensitivity to the issues he raises here. In those settings he dealt at length with questions on the practicality of this way of preaching, fully recognizing that one cannot do this in precisely the same way that others have in the past. The preacher must take seriously the capacity of his or her congregation, the fact that we do not have as many occasions in the week to preach before the congregation as Calvin and the other reformers did, as well as the challenges we face today in the culture that surrounds us. Yet, that is ever the challenge of ministry when it comes to enculturating the Gospel in the lives of the people of God.

Having completed his seven-volume magnum opus, Old did not fully retire from his active work of teaching. He joined the faculty of Erskine Theological Seminary in 2004. At Erskine, Old taught primarily students in the Doctor of Ministry program whose focus was in the area of Reformed worship. In the meantime, he was also busy working on his last published work, his study on the Lord’s Supper in the Reformed tradition, Holy Communion in the Piety of the Reformed Church.9 In Holy Communion, Old provides the reader with a survey study of sorts beginning with John Calvin (to whom Old gives just over 150 pages) and ending with the twentieth century Swiss Reformed liturgical scholar, Jean-Jacques von Allmen, who was Old’s dissertation supervisor. In just over 900 pages, Old not only deals with Calvin and Knox (as one would expect), but also includes a chapter on the influence of Reformed thought and practice on the Church of England during the Reformation. Old traces developments in Reformed thought and practice from the time of the Reformation, through Protestant Scholasticism and Pietism, into revivalism, discussing both the Old and New School Presbyterians, Romanticism, and the Victorians, before dealing lastly with early twentieth century developments, including Henry Van Dyke and the first editions of the Book of Common Worship for American Presbyterians. Old concludes his work with his own reflections on the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in Reformed life, offering up his own suggestions for a service of Holy Communion.

Though he died a minister-member of the PC (USA), many of Old’s former students are found throughout the “alphabet soup” of Presbyterian denominations: ARP, EPC, OPC, PCA, PC (USA), and ECO, among others. While he did not identify himself, typically, as being an “evangelical,” he maintained an interesting relationship with the publishers of Maranatha! Music, and theologically shared with Evangelicals their concern for the centrality of the Lordship of Jesus Christ, especially in a day when this central Christian confession has been increasingly downplayed among mainline Protestants. In the “official” circles of his own denomination, Old’s work was ignored. The 1993 Book of Common Worship of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) represents an approach in which that which is Reformed is routinely sacrificed on the altar of “ecumenicity,” and represents a complete victory for the “liturgical renewal movement” in official denominational circles.

Yet, what Old offered to his students was an understanding of Reformed worship that not only took the tradition seriously, drawing deeply from the wells of the reformers, but also took seriously the life of the living congregation. Old’s study of worship was not limited to the archives and libraries of Europe, but was also rooted in the worship life of a congregation. He understood better than most seminary professors today the demands of local parish ministry. He knew the pressures of preaching weekly and leading worship rooted in the apostolic faith and practices of the Reformed tradition, yet also connected to the realities of modern life. More than once Old described himself as an “Old School Presbyterian.”

In the last volume of his narrative account of the history of preaching, Old places himself among those whom he describes as a rising school of preaching in Presbyterian circles, a “new breed” of Presbyterians. However, he makes it clear that this “New Breed” is not “new” because they have forgotten their heritage. Rather, they are new in the landscape of American Presbyterians because they have remembered their heritage, ans are actively incorporating it in their own preaching and teaching. Old states:

If in the last half of the twentieth century liberal Protestantism lost the ears of the nation, there were nevertheless at the same time some stirrings of life in the American pulpit. One of these was the appearance of a “new breed” of Presbyterians… I supposed at this point I have to admit that this is where I see myself. This is, at least, the company of preachers with whom I would like to take my stand. One of the most important characteristics of this breed is its devotion to the classics of both the Protestant Reformation and the ancient church. Even more, the new breed is a “back-to-the-Bible” breed. For the most sophisticated it is an ad fontes movement. We really like Dale Bruner’s commentary on Matthew and Brevard Child’s work on the Christian interpretation of Exodus. … Here is a breed that is rediscovering its heritage… It is a breed that has rediscovered its progenitors. 10

Even as Old has now gone from the ranks of the church militant to the church triumphant, he has left behind rich resources for those who would make use of them. Though American Presbyterianism finds itself fragmented not only theologically, denominationally, and in the ways in which it worships, for those who, like Isaac, seek to dig again the wells of their fathers, will find in the legacy of Old’s work tools ready for use.


The Reverend Walter L. Taylor, D.Min., is pastor of the Oak Island Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Oak Island, North Carolina.


1 Hughes Oliphant Old, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship, American Edition (Black Mountain: Worship Press, 2004), xi.

2 Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship Reformed according to Scripture, Revised and Expanded Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).

3 Hughes Oliphant Old, The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992).

4 Old, Patristic Roots, p. 194, note 2.

5 Old, Worship Reformed According to Scripture, 164.

6 Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 1: “The Biblical Period” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 2.

7 Old, Worship Reformed According to Scripture, 172.

8 Old, Worship Reformed According to Scripture, 172.

9 Hughes Oliphant Old, Holy Communion in the Piety of the Reformed Church (Powder Springs, GA: Tolle Lege Press), 2013.

10Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 7: “Our Own Time” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 87–89.

Walter L. Taylor
Walter L. Taylor
The Rev. Dr. Walter L. Taylor is Pastor of the Oak Island Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Oak Island, North Carolina.


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