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Calvin on Posture in Worship

Sitting on the Promises?

Two of the more common gestural accompaniments of prayer and worship in Scripture are kneeling and the lifting of one’s hands.

In several places in the Institutes and his commentaries, John Calvin reflects on the usefulness of such practices for Christian prayer and sketches an outline of what it is that God intends them to do; or, rather, what God intends to do by them (and the notion of instrumentality will emerge as clearly having been of great significance for Calvin).

We tend, I think, in the Reformed world particularly, to assume that posture has very little to do with prayer, for a variety of reasons (e.g., an allergy to certain traditions with which we’d rather not be associated; an intellectualizing and cerebral impulse in worship that has as a frequent corollary, though not as a necessary consequence, a perhaps too easy alliance with forms that fall within our collective comfort zones;1 etc.). Others perhaps move in the opposition direction, believing that certain actions must be done at certain times, and that a failure to perform these actions makes prayer less, well, prayerful.

For Calvin, both positions are errors because both misjudge the nature of externals and their relation to the worship of the heart–the former too easily dispensing with them and therefore too quickly leaving them to one side, the latter giving them more weight than is due to them. Worship of God without the heart is useless; but, at the same time, what we do with our bodies is closely bound up with what we do with our hearts, and not in a symbolic way merely. The posture of the body ought to be emblematic of the posture of the heart, yes. But, ideally, the posture of the body serves to form the posture of the heart as well: posture, that is, has what we might call, in syntactical terms, both an indicative and a hortatory function. Kneeling is not just a sign of submission; kneeling aids in producing submission.

To approach more closely to what should be involved in thinking about this issue, let us look at some excerpts from Calvin, beginning with the Institutes.

Institutes 3 and the Uses of “Ceremony”

First, a passage from Institutes 3.20 in which Calvin is discussing prayer:

One of the natural feelings which God has imprinted on our mind is, that prayer is not genuine unless the thoughts are turned upward. Hence the ceremony of raising the hands, to which we have adverted, a ceremony known to all ages and nations, and still in common use. But who, in lifting up his hands, is not conscious of sluggishness, the heart cleaving to the earth? In regard to the petition for remission of sins (sec. 8), though no believer omits it, yet all who are truly exercised in prayer feel that they bring scarcely a tenth of the sacrifice of which David speaks, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise,” (Ps. 51:17). Thus a twofold pardon is always to be asked; first, because they are conscious of many faults the sense of which, however, does not touch them so as to make them feel dissatisfied with themselves as they ought; and, secondly, in so far as they have been enabled to profit in repentance and the fear of God, they are humbled with just sorrow for their offenses, and pray for the remission of punishment by the judge.  (3.20.16)

A couple of things are worthy of note: first, the raising of hands is a “ceremony,” one of a number of external actions that are indifferent in and of themselves. Second, this ceremony is universal. Third, people were still generally making use of it in Calvin’s day. Fourth, and perhaps most important, is its function: to raise the heart from earth to heaven. The raising of hands in prayer is not just a “sign” of lifting one’s heart to heaven; it is a means by which to accomplish that very thing. By raising our hands, we are reminded of the “sluggishness” of our hearts, and spurred on to greater desire to have them lifted up. Ceremonies–good ones, at least–serve the religion of the heart.

We find a similar point of view not long afterwards in Institutes 3 (Calvin is still discussing prayer):

Lastly, the tongue is not even necessary to private prayer, unless in so far as the internal feeling is insufficient for incitement, or the vehemence of the incitement carries the utterance of the tongue along with it. For although the best prayers are sometimes without utterance, yet when the feeling of the mind is overpowering, the tongue spontaneously breaks forth into utterance, and our other members into gesture. Hence that dubious muttering of Hannah (1 Sam. 1:13), something similar to which is experienced by all the saints when concise and abrupt expressions escape from them. The bodily gestures usually observed in prayer, such as kneeling and uncovering of the head (Calv. in Acts 20:36), are exercises by which we attempt to rise to higher veneration of God.  (3.20.33)

The “ceremonies” to which Calvin referred above can also be called “exercises.” Again, they are not just signs of something else nor, on the other hand, magical ex opere operato motions that automatically give what is asked of them. They are not the term or focus of piety, but pious means to an end. That is why Calvin calls them good ceremonies exercises, because they do what exercises do: they train us and aid us in increasing our “veneration of God.”

Institutes 4 and the Criterion of Good Exercise

There is, however, no intrinsic connection between any and every “ceremony” and proper Christian “exercise.” There are many ceremonies, and not all of them do what they are supposed to do.

Hence Calvin, in a passage in Institutes 4.10.29 in which he is discussing ecclesiastical constitutions, gives the criterion by which a “ceremony” can become an “exercise of piety.”

Moreover, ceremonies, in order to be exercises of piety, must lead us directly to Christ. In like manner, we shall not make order consist in that nugatory pomp which gives nothing but evanescent splendour, but in that arrangement which removes all confusion, barbarism, contumacy, all turbulence and dissension. Of the former class2 we have examples (1 Cor. 11:5, 21), where Paul says, that profane entertainments must not be intermingled with the sacred Supper of the Lord; that women must not appear in public uncovered. And there are many other things which we have in daily practice, such as praying on our knees, and with our head uncovered, administering the sacraments of the Lord, not sordidly, but with some degree of dignity; employing some degree of solemnity in the burial of our dead, and so forth. In the other class3 are the hours set apart for public prayer, sermon, and solemn services; during sermon, quiet and silence, fixed places, singing of hymns, days set apart for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the prohibition of Paul against women teaching in the Church, and such like. To the same list especially may be referred those things which preserve discipline, as catechising, ecclesiastical censures, excommunication, fastings, &c. Thus all ecclesiastical constitutions, which we admit to be sacred and salutary, may be reduced to two heads, the one relating to rites and ceremonies, the other to discipline and peace.  (4.10.29)

Ceremonies that are truly pious are those that will lead those who use them aright “directly to Christ” by not obscuring him with what he calls, earlier in the paragraph, “theatrical display.” There is no place for vain and empty pomp.4 He then lists some of those practices that are conducive to bearing the desired fruit of worship: kneeling and uncovering the head for prayer; a dignified administration of the sacraments; solemn burial of the dead.

Calvin continues his discussion of pious ceremonies in the following paragraph, Institutes 4.10.30, where he places actions such as kneeling or the raising of the hands in a category that is at once both human and divine. Such actions are “divine” because they are found generally recommended by divine authority. But they are not commanded for any particular time and place–this is left to human prudence and charity. The reason for this is that they all belong to “external discipline and ceremonies,” in contrast to “the whole sum of righteousness” and “all the parts of divine worship,” which depend upon the “sacred oracles” alone.5

It is clear from his discussion that the latter are connected with “things necessary to salvation” (he states this twice), while ceremonies are not. God has not given explicit and particular prescriptions on such matters; they are to be governed by the general principles of Scripture, care for the edification of the Church, and charity, and thus are subject to change due to the “varying circumstances of each age and nation.” Calvin writes:

But as there is here a danger, on the one hand, lest false bishops should thence derive a pretext for their impious and tyrannical laws, and, on the other, lest some, too apt to take alarm, should, from fear of the above evils, leave no place for laws, however holy, it may here be proper to declare, that I approve of those human constitutions only which are founded on the authority of God, and derived from Scripture, and are therefore altogether divine. Let us take, for example, the bending of the knee which is made in public prayer. It is asked, whether this is a human tradition, which any one is at liberty to repudiate or neglect? I say, that it is human, and that at the same time it is divine. It is of God, inasmuch as it is a part of that decency, the care and observance of which is recommended by the apostle; and it is of men, inasmuch as it specially determines what was indicated in general, rather than expounded. From this one example, we may judge what is to be thought of the whole class—viz. that the whole sum of righteousness, and all the parts of divine worship,6  and everything necessary to salvation, the Lord has faithfully comprehended, and clearly unfolded, in his sacred oracles, so that in them he alone is the only Master to be heard. But as in external discipline and ceremonies, he has not been pleased to prescribe every particular that we ought to observe (he foresaw that this depended on the nature of the times, and that one form would not suit all ages), in them we must have recourse to the general rules which he has given, employing them to test whatever the necessity of the Church may require to be enjoined for order and decency. Lastly, as he has not delivered any express command, because things of this nature are not necessary to salvation, and, for the edification of the Church, should be accommodated to the varying circumstances of each age and nation, it will be proper, as the interest of the Church may require, to change and abrogate the old, as well as to introduce new forms. I confess, indeed, that we are not to innovate rashly or incessantly, or for trivial causes. Charity is the best judge of what tends to hurt or to edify: if we allow her to be guide, all things will be safe.  (4.10.30)

Human traditions in external discipline and ceremonies, provided that they can be justified in such a way as outlined above, need not trouble the conscience and do not put unnecessary fetters upon it. In fact, observance of them can even be called, perhaps surprisingly, a “duty.” Thus Calvin continues:

Things which have been appointed according to this rule, it is the duty of the Christian people to observe with a free conscience indeed, and without superstition, but also with a pious and ready inclination to obey. They are not to hold them in contempt, nor pass them by with careless indifference, far less openly to violate them in pride and contumacy. (4.10.31)

Calvin next anticipates the objection that he has just entirely vitiated the concept of liberty of conscience. But, in his view, the conscience is not bound by such observations even while participating in them, because the Christian knows that they are “external rudiments for human infirmity.” Again, the practices discussed above are not religion itself7, but are helps along the way that can be used with flexibility and that are “proper” for “common order”:

You will ask, What liberty of conscience will there be in such cautious observances? Nay, this liberty will admirably appear when we shall hold that these are not fixed and perpetual obligations to which we are astricted, but external rudiments for human infirmity, which, though we do not all need, we, however, all use, because we are bound to cherish mutual charity towards each other. This we may recognise in the examples given above. What? Is religion placed in a woman’s bonnet, so that it is unlawful for her to go out with her head uncovered? Is her silence fixed by a decree which cannot be violated without the greatest wickedness? Is there any mystery in bending the knee, or in burying a dead body, which cannot be omitted without a crime? By no means. For should a woman require to make such haste in assisting a neighbour that she has not time to cover her head, she sins not in running out with her head uncovered. And there are some occasions on which it is not less seasonable for her to speak than on others to be silent. Nothing, moreover, forbids him who, from disease, cannot bend his knees, to pray standing. In fine, it is better to bury a dead man quickly, than from want of grave-clothes, or the absence of those who should attend the funeral, to wait till it rot away unburied. Nevertheless, in those matters the custom and institutions of the country, in short, humanity and the rules of modesty itself, declare what is to be done or avoided. Here, if any error is committed through imprudence or forgetfulness, no crime is perpetrated; but if this is done from contempt, such contumacy must be disapproved. In like manner, it is of no consequence what the days and hours are, what the nature of the edifices, and what psalms are sung on each day. But it is proper that there should be certain days and stated hours, and a place fit for receiving all, if any regard is had to the preservation of peace. For what a seed-bed of quarrels will confusion in such matters be, if every one is allowed at pleasure to alter what pertains to common order? All will not be satisfied with the same course if matters, placed as it were on debateable ground, are left to the determination of individuals. But if any one here becomes clamorous, and would be wiser than he ought, let him consider how he will approve his moroseness to the Lord. Paul’s answer ought to satisfy us, “If any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.”  (4.10.31)

When we turn to the commentaries, we find further remarks along the same lines as those included above. There are many places in Scripture that refer to the raising of hands and to kneeling. I may return to more of them in the future, but, for the moment, here is a selection from his commentaries on Acts and the Psalms.

Commentaries on Acts and the Psalms

We begin with Acts 20:36 (“And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all”), because it was already referred to above in the citation of Institutes 3.20.33.

And kneeling down. The inward affection is indeed the chiefest thing in prayer; yet the external signs, as kneeling, uncovering of the head, lifting up of the hands, have a double use; the first is, that we exercise all our members to the glory and worship of God; secondly, that by this exercise our sluggishness may be awakened, as it were. There is also a third use in solemn and public prayer, because the children of God do by this means make profession of their godliness, and one of them doth provoke another unto the reverence of God. And, as the lifting up of the hands is a token of boldness 451 and of an earnest desire, so, to testify our humility, we fall down upon our knees. But he sealeth up and concludeth that sermon which he made before with prayer; because we can hope for no profit of our doctrine, save only from the blessing of God. Wherefore, if we be desirous to do any good by teaching, admonishing, and exhorting, let us always end after this sort; to wit, with prayer.

Calvin here outlines three uses of such ceremonies as those we have been discussing, which he calls “external signs”: (1) to worship and glorify God with our whole selves, body as well as mind; (2) to rouse ourselves from our sinful sloth in praising him; and (3) to make a kind of bodily profession of faith to those who are around us. That is, there is (1) a use that pertains to God, (2) a use that pertains to ourselves, and (3) a use that pertains to our neighbor. I think it is perhaps not a stretch to see these as corresponding to (1) faith, (2) hope, and (3) charity. What we have here, I believe, is a useful schema for Calvin’s thinking on this subject, and so I will apply it to the passages that follow.

On Acts 9:40 (“But Peter put them all outside, and knelt down and prayed”), Calvin explicates the benefit of kneeling in terms that correspond to (1) and (2) above. One must only remember that such actions are not a substitute for inward worship: it is indeed possible just to go through the motions. One must rather cultivate the proper correspondence between the outward and the inward, the submission of the body and the submission of the mind, or else all is in vain:

Kneeling in time of prayer is a token of humility, which hath a double profit, that all our members may be applied unto the worship of God, and that the external exercise of the body may help the weakness of the mind; but we must take heed so often as we kneel down, that the inward submission of the heart be answerable to the ceremony, that it be not vain and false.

Let us turn now to a couple of passages from his Psalms commentary.

In his comments on Psalm 95:6 (“Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!”), Calvin focuses on what I designated (1) in the discussion of Acts 20:36: an outward profession of godliness that is (or is a token of) the Christian’s public sacrifice of himself to God.

The worship of God, which the Psalmist here speaks of, is assuredly a matter of such importance as to demand our whole strength; but we are to notice, that he particularly condescends upon one point, the paternal favor of God, evidenced in his exclusive adoption of the posterity of Abraham unto the hope of eternal life. We are also to observe, that mention is made not only of inward gratitude, but the necessity of an outward profession of godliness. The three words which are used imply that, to discharge their duty properly, the Lord’s people must present themselves a sacrifice to him publicly, with kneeling, and other marks of devotion. The face of the Lord is an expression to be understood in the sense I referred to above, — that the people should prostrate themselves before the Ark of the Covenant, for the reference is to the mode of worship under the Law. This remark, however, must be taken with one reservation, that the worshippers were to lift their eyes to heaven, and serve God in a spiritual manner. 47

His comments on Psalm 28:2 (“Here the voice of my pleas for mercy, when I cry to you for help, when I lift up my hands toward your most holy sanctuary”) are again consistent with what we saw in the Institutes and the other commentary excerpts already cited. The lifting of the hands is natural. It is, however (or “therefore”?), also useful for Christians–provided, as was already noted, that it not be merely ceremonial. We must not stop at outward signs, but press on to the reality there signified.

In the second clause of the verse, by synecdoche, the thing signified is indicated by the sign. It has been a common practice in all ages for men to lift up their hands in prayer. Nature has extorted this gesture even from heathen idolaters, to show by a visible sign that their minds were directed to God alone. The greater part, it is true, contented with this ceremony, busy themselves to no effect with their own inventions; but the very lifting up of the hands, when there is no hypocrisy and deceit, is a help to devout and zealous prayer.

Finally, on Psalm 134:2 (“Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the Lord!”), Calvin yet once more refers to the true spiritual service of God to which outward ceremonies point and for which they are an aid and, indeed, of which they are a part ((1) above8); the duty of worship God “before all the people” ((3) above); and the raising of our hearts to God ((2) above).

We are to notice the Psalmist’s design in urging the duty of praise so earnestly upon them. Many of the Levites, through the tendency which there is in all men to abuse ceremonies, considered that nothing more was necessary than standing idly in the Temple, and thus overlooked the principal part of their duty. The Psalmist would show that merely to keep nightly watch over the Temple, kindle the lamps, and superintend the sacrifices, was of no importance, unless they served God spiritually, and referred all outward ceremonies to that which must be considered the main sacrifice:  the celebration of God’s praises. You may think it a very laborious service, as if he had said, to stand at watch in the Temple, while others sleep in their own houses; but the worship which God requires is something more excellent than this, and demands of you to sing his praises before all the people. In the second verse he reminds them in addition, of the form observed in calling upon the name of the Lord. For why do men lift their hands when they pray? Is it not that their hearts may be raised at the same time to God? 152 It is thus that the Psalmist takes occasion to reprehend their carelessness in either standing idle in the Temple, or trifling and indulging in vain conversation, and thus failing to worship God in a proper manner.


What to make of this? It seems evident that Calvin finds great use for ceremonies–but only of certain kinds, and only within certain limitations that are, ultimately, governed by the divine authority of Scripture and natural prudence. Pretending that we do not have bodies in worship is, for Calvin, no good at all–and this perhaps comes as a surprise in a theologian so often caricatured as harshly cerebral and unfeeling. But, on the other hand, the use of the body without the participation of the heart is worthless and, more than being worthless, it is pernicious. All true religion is aimed at the communion of one’s heart–that is, the center and principle of the person–with the God who made him and remade him. Without it, we have vain superstition dressed up as true religion in a theater of the absurd and vicious. To facilitate this worship, and as a testimony to our neighbors, certain actions, when used fittingly,9 are appropriate and comely, and can train the heart in its ascent to the God whom it beholds in beatitude–now by faith, later by sight.10


  1. It is interesting to note in this respect that the posture that seems to be most preferred (or at least one of the two most preferred) for public prayer in evangelical circles–sitting–finds in the Church no widespread use or approval of which I am aware until very recently in history.
  2. That is, things that are concerned with worship being conducted “decently.”
  3. That is, things that are concerned with worship being done “in order.”
  4. Furthermore, even if a ceremony is not “a fit exercise for piety,” it should at least offer “an ornament adapted to the action” (4.10.29).
  5. The contrast in the paragraph below, though perhaps confusing at first glance, seems to be as follows. The practices he is discussing do indeed depend on the “sacred oracles” in general; but since they are not commanded to be observed at all times and in all places and by everyone in the same external form, but rather can be accommodated to varying circumstances, they form no part of the essence of worship–of what absolutely must be done in order to say that “worship of God” has occurred.
  6. omnes cultus numinis sui partes.
  7. Cf. these posts on hours of prayer in Calvin.
  8. At least in a way; but this must be read consonantly with his contrast above between “external discipline and ceremonies” and “the whole sum of righteousness”/”all the parts of the divine worship” discussed Institutes 4.10.30.
  9. That is, in keeping with their design and end.
  10. Which means, of course, beholding Christ.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

2 replies on “Calvin on Posture in Worship”

How about this from Calvin on worship, “Yet when we move backwards and abolish a thing which is good and proper for the common benefit of the Church, where does that lead except to this: we show that the Church of God is just a game to us, rather than showing the decency with which it should be treated.” He is addressing women wearing a simple hat in worship. So are we just playing games according to Calvin? The practice of a woman wearing the priestly vestment of a simple hat in worship has been abandoned by every denomination. The ramifications simply are, that our society now reflects the sanctuary. Same sex sanctuary, same sex society. The church no longer obeys the simplest and yet theologically deep tradition followed for 1900 years of acknowledging God’s creative sexuality, and yet believes itself to be more mature. It sits back now and say’s “did God really say”?

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