Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Posture, Again

A little less than a year ago, I wrote a post on John Calvin’s views on posture in worship. The below is something of an addendum, a gloss from–wait for it–Niels Hemmingsen.


The fourth external circumstance of prayer is the posture of the body, which, although it is bound by no rules, should nevertheless be honorable. The best posture for one who is praying–and one that is absolutely necessary–is to bend the knees of the heart, as Manasseh did. But here I am treating of the posture of the body, which is spoken of variously in Scripture. Moses lifts his hands to heaven, and Paul advises that pure hands should be lifted up. This, indeed, is the posture of children who stretch out their hands to their parents when they wish to obtain something and are so certain that they will immediately receive the things they have sought. And, too, [people in Scripture ] fall down on their knees; humble subjection is signified by this posture. The Publican was beating his breast, a thing that serves the faith and desire of those who are praying. Paul commands that a man pray with unveiled head, a woman with veiled face. These postures of the body, although they are free as external circumstances, are nevertheless not to be scorned, but are to be applied in keeping with the nature of time and place. For they serve for duly forming and arousing the affections.1 (Enchiridion theologicumClassis III, Caput IIII: Oratio)


If one reads closely, he can learn something important about (1) adiaphora, (2) the classical two-kingdoms distinction, and (3) the importance of habit.

With respect to the first and second, it is worth noting that posture is an external matter, and therefore properly speaking is indifferent. What makes the difference is, as always, faith: “The best posture for one who is praying–and one that is absolutely necessary–is to bend the knees of the heart.” External matters, on the other hand, are–again, properly speaking, free. They may be used or not used, depending upon circumstances.

“Indifferent,” however, does not mean unimportant, and here we come to (3). It is somewhat trendy to talk about “formation” and the power of habit, sometimes even extending the category of “liturgy” to include all manner of ordinary activities. But the point is one of common sense, and therefore is an old one. Thus Hemmingsen notes that particular postures “form” and “arouse the affections,” directing our desires toward the right end in the right way. For that reason, he says that, though posture is a matter of freedom, the postures exemplified in Scripture ought not to be dismissed, but should be “applied in keeping with the nature of time and place,” and lists several of those: the raising of the hands; kneeling; the beating of the breast; and the practice of praying with (for women) and without (for men) a veil. For Hemmingsen, the examples of posture in Scripture ought to be didactic for Christians in general.


  1. The translation is my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

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