In 1975, Hughes Oliphant Old published his dissertation entitled The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship. Old persuasively argues that we have every reason to take Calvin and his colleagues seriously when they claim patristic support for their liturgical ideas.
The Reformers deliberately developed their approach to worship by returning, first and foremost, to the scriptures but also to the fathers of the church, whom they regarded as fallible, though generally reliable, interpreters of the bible.
Unfortunately, the Reformers did not have at their disposal one of the earliest Christian documents that describes various liturgical customs in the ancient church, namely, the Didache.
With the fortuitous rediscovery of the Didache at the end of the 19th century, we have access to a critical resource for doing precisely what the Reformers aspired to do, namely, to reform the church’s worship in light of holy scripture and the customs of the ancient church.
My dissertation entitled The Eucharist in the Didache, which you can read here, is a modest attempt at continuing the important work of reforming the church’s worship in light of patristic customs.
Hughes Oliphant Old has been publishing articles and books on the subject of worship since the 1970s. [See select bibliography below.]
His book entitled Worship Reformed According to Scripture is hands down the best volume on Reformed worship in print.
His magnum opus is his seven-volume series on The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church. This is the most comprehensive study of the history of preaching ever produced in the English language.
In September of 2014, I had the enormous privilege of hearing Hughes Oliphant Old give his last public address. I was brought to tears when he called it his “swan song.”
Even though his body was frail and he had a difficult time recalling his lecture points, his passion for the glory and worship of God clearly came through.
In this talk, Hughes Oliphant Old summarizes his life’s work in five main points.
The funny story he tells at the end of the lecture underscores his total commitment to the ministry of Word, sacraments, and prayer.
The Odes of Solomon is the only sizable collection of Christian hymns which has come down to us from the earliest centuries of the church. They seem to have been composed at the close of the first Christian century. Originally they were composed in Syriac. They are the praises, not of the Western church, but the Eastern church, a church still very close to the Semitic roots of Christianity.
The Odes of Solomon are Christian psalms in a way very similar to the canticles in the Gospel of Luke. That, of course, is implied by the title of the work. Just as Solomon, the son of David, continued the doxological service of his father by writing the Song of Solomon, so Christians continue the doxological service of the Son of David, anointed by the Spirit, by singing Christian psalms. The title is a sort of apologetic for Christian hymnody.
There are more than forty of these odes, each a Christian elaboration of one of the canonical psalms. Although sometimes the imagery is a bit strange to our modern Western ears, these ancient hymns are great Christian poetry. It probably gives us about as clear a picture of the worship of the early church as any document that has come down to us.
The spirit of New Testament worship is found in these hymns with an amazing freshness and vitality. And even if their language comes from the ancient Orient, they seem to have a classic evangelical quality about them. They are as eloquent about Christian love as ever the Franciscans, about grace as the Calvinists, about holiness as the Wesleyans, and they are as filled with the Spirit as ever any charismatic could wish.
I visited Hughes Oliphant Old the day after the following interview was recorded. He told me, “Someone dropped by yesterday to ask me about the Odes of Solomon.”
Here’s a clip from the interview in which he describes the Odes of Solomon and explains their original purpose. Speaking purely off the cuff…
The Odes cast a spell. Something beautiful is happening here.
It has a literary integrity I think that’s very important.
The Odes are very unusual in the different imagery that they come up with. But that imagery is used again and again.
One place where the Odes seem to have mined this imagery is the Book of Psalms.
And Rendel Harris, the great scholar who really brought the Odes to the attention of the modern world, refers to these Odes as Psalm pendants.
It’s as though the congregation might have sung a particular Psalm, and then, the Odes would’ve been sung as a response to it.
And so many of the Odes when one reads through them one realizes that the imagery of Psalm 45 is being used or Psalm 63 is being used.
And that’s one of the beautiful things about these Odes is that they’re so close to scripture.
For more on the Odes of Solomon, see Michael Lattke’s commentary in the Hermeneia series.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my teacher Dr. Hughes Oliphant Old and reflecting on his insights into Reformed worship.
Here are some of my favorite quotes from his writings.
What is worship?
We worship God because God created us to worship him. Worship is at the center of our existence, at the heart of our reason for being…. When the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches us, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever,” it gives witness to the same basic principle; God created us to worship him. Surely it is here that we must begin when as Reformed theologians we ask what worship is. Worship must above all serve the glory of God (Worship Reformed According to Scripture).
Why study the Reformers?
One often asks why today we should study the Reformers. We study the Reformers for the same reason the Reformers studied the church fathers. They are witnesses to the authority of Scripture. The Reformers studied the patristic commentaries on Scripture because they enriched their own understanding of Scripture. Today we study the Reformers because they throw so much light on the pages of the Bible. They were passionately concerned to worship God truly, and they searched the Scriptures to learn how. We study the Reformers because their understanding of Scripture is so profound (Worship Reformed According to Scripture).
Worship and the Holy Spirit?
If there is one doctrine which is at the heart of Reformed worship it is the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. It is the belief that the Holy Spirit brings the Church into being, that the Holy Spirit dwells in the Church and sanctifies the Church. Worship is the manifestation of the creative and sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit. If we are to understand the worship of the early Reformed Church we must recognize that they went to worship not to do something for God, nor even so much to get something from God, but far more to be something with God (The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship).