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Religion Library: Presbyterian and Reformed

Worship and Devotion in Daily Life

Written by: Ted Vial

Reformed Christianity ushered in significant changes in the everyday lives of the citizens in its regions.  Backlash against these changes is perhaps one reason that Calvin and Farel  were exiled from Geneva for a time. There are three main reasons for this.  One is the idea of a vocation, formulated by Luther but worked out more fully by Calvin.  The second is an interest in more oversight over the personal details of individuals' lives.  Third, the emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, and Calvin's heightened stress on the intellectual component of faith, led to increased demands for education, Bible study, and church attendance.

Protestants by and large reject the idea of a priest as an intermediary standing between God and humans, and advocating on behalf of the latter.  For Protestants, the Holy Spirit brings humans to respond positively to the offer of grace revealed in scripture.  Ministers can present this offer in the form of sermons, but everyone stands alone directly before God.  This means that the priestly vocation, or "calling," does not have special status.  Everyone's job is equally a calling.  God needs bakers and shoe makers to serve the body of Christ (the Church) as much as God needs preachers. 

Calvin works this doctrine out with characteristic thoroughness.  The German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) argued, in a thesis that is still controversial, that the sense that each job was a calling from God led to a seriousness of work that was new.  Combined with the nervous search for signs of God's favor that might indicate that one was one of the elect, the result was what Weber called the "Protestant work ethic" that lies at the foundations of capitalism (which tends to develop earliest in Calvinist regions like Switzerland, parts of England, and North America).

Reformed leaders also took very seriously their responsibilities to monitor the personal lives of parishioners, creating institutional structures to check in with and encourage people to live in as godly a way as possible in all aspects of their lives.  Practices associated with Catholicism that seemed to lean toward a trust in images or in works of righteousness were actively discouraged.  Local consistories kept track of marital fidelity and church attendance. The seriousness with which Reformed Christians tried to keep the Sabbath has often been commented upon.  Regional synods sent out visitation teams to interview parishioners and ministers to keep track of people's state of doctrinal knowledge and ethical behavior.

The key tenets of Reformed theology have led to some of the distinctive practices in contemporary Reformed Protestantism.  The belief that salvation came by trusting the promises offered in scripture placed a very high value on every Christian being able to read scripture for him- or herself.  The places where Calvinism has been influential have been among the earliest places to promote universal literacy and to require mandatory school attendance (Switzerland, England and Scotland, America, parts of Germany).  Presbyterians require advanced degrees from their ordained ministers, and one required component of their training is biblical Hebrew and Greek.  The belief that the Holy Spirit will lead the elect to a correct interpretation of scripture has resulted both in a practice of daily or weekly Bible reading at home, but also the practice of group Bible study (so that the Spirit, working through fellow Christians, can curb quirky or dangerous misinterpretations).


Study Questions:
     1.    Why do Protestants reject the priests as intermediaries?
     2.    Describe Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic. Was this at work in the colonization of North America? Explain.
     3.    Why was literacy bound to the daily life of a Reformed Protestant?

 

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