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The Genevan Book of Order

The Form of Prayers and
Ministration of the Sacraments, etc.
Used in the English Congregation
at Geneva (1556)

Publisher's Introduction

The Genevan Book of Order grew out of early efforts by the Protestant Reformers to purify the worship of the church. These efforts found local expression in the English congregation of Geneva, and they formed the basis for Scottish Presbyterianism.

During the early days of the Reformation, the Anglican church was only partially cleansed of Romish rituals. After Mary Tudor began her bloody reign, many English Protestants fled from their homeland, seeking refuge on the Continent; they formed Englishspeaking congregations in several cities.

In the summer of 1554, English refugees in Frankfurt formed a church, and issued an invitation to other Englishmen living in Europe to join them. This congregation called John Knox to be one of their pastors, and he arrived to begin his ministry in the autumn of 1554.

A dispute soon arose, when a faction within the church insisted upon using the Anglican liturgy. Knox took his stand, saying he would not administer the communion service according to the Anglican manner. "There were things in it placed," he said, "only by warrant of man's authority, and no ground in God's word for the same, and had also a long time very superstitiously in the Mass been wickedly abused."[1]

In the midst of this conflict, Knox, William Whittingham and others sent a letter to John Calvin; the epistle included a summary of the Anglican liturgy, requesting Calvin's judgment of the English service. The letter contains a tame description of various elements of the liturgy, and from this correspondence we may gather what things were the basis of the dispute in Frankfurt: the minister's surplice, appointed lessons, prescribed prayers and fasts, high feasts and holidays, receiving the communion in a kneeling posture, allowing private administration of the Lord's Supper, the use of the sign of the cross in baptism, godfathers making vows in the name of the child at the time of baptism, and the purification of women after childbirth.

Seeking to resolve the dispute over worship, the congregation appointed Knox, Whittingham, Anthony Gilby, John Foxe, and Thomas Cole to draft an order of worship. When this service was presented to the congregation it was wellreceived, except by the party bent on the Anglican liturgy.

In order to promote concord, another committee was organized; this time it was composed of Knox, Whittingham, Thomas Parry and the other pastor of the congregation, Thomas Lever. A compromise was reached, by which some portions of the English book were allowed, but other matters were arranged according to the present state of the church. The congregation further agreed that the compromise settlement would be followed until the month of April, subject to review at that time.

Peace lasted during February and into midMarch. At that time, a new contingent of English exiles reached Frankfurt. Led by Richard Cox, the new company disrupted the church by reading the Anglican litany during a worship service, without prior consent of the congregation.

Knox chided the disrupters, saying, "By the word of God we must seek our warrant for the establishing of religion, and without that to thrust nothing into any Christian congregation."

Cox and his faction contended "their church should have an English face." Knox's response was, "The Lord grant it to have the face of Christ's church, which is the only matter I sought, God is my record; and therefore I would have had it agreeable in outward rites and ceremonies with Christian churches reformed."

In order to get rid of Knox, Cox and his company stooped to base political maneuvers. They accused Knox of treason before the civil authorities, citing portions of his Faithful Admonition to the Professors of God's Truth in England (1554). Knox was forced to leave Frankfurt, and so he returned to Geneva in 1555.

Even after Knox's departure, the Frankfurt congregation could not achieve harmony. The struggle continued between two parties holding distinct positions concerning worship. The liturgical party, as always, maintained the right of the church to institute new ceremonies and means of worship. The advocates of the simpler form of worship stood by the word of God as the sufficient and sole guide to provide the divine pattern of worship.

In October of 1555, at least fifteen families of the English exiles (formerly residing in Frankfurt) relocated to Geneva. Knox had recently departed from the city, to make a visit to Scotland. When the Englishmen formed their congregation, they called Christopher Goodman and Anthony Gilby to preach and administer the sacraments, "in the absence of John Knox." Knox returned to Geneva the following September, and he resumed up his ministry among them. Christopher Goodman continued as copastor with Knox.

The English congregation at Geneva adopted the Book of Order originally written in Frankfurt by Knox, Whittingham, Gilby, Foxe, and Cole. The Book was published in English under the title of The Form of Prayers and Ministration of the Sacraments, etc. used in the English Congregation at Geneva: and approved by the famous and godly learned man, John Calvin. The volume included a metrical version of the psalms, and Calvin's catechism. The psalter and the catechism preceded the Form of Prayers in the 1556 edition. A Latin translation of the book was also issued.

Upon the death of Mary, most of the English refugees went quickly home. Knox returned to Scotland to lead in efforts to reform his native land.

The amazing success of the Scottish Reformation created some immediate difficulties. The church was without a full ministry, regular church courts, or an established order. The Scottish Confession of 1560 was composed to provide the doctrinal testimony of the church. Calvin's catechism was immediately employed for instruction of the youth and the unlearned. The authors of the Scottish Confession also drafted the First Book of Discipline, which was designed to provide a blueprint for social, educational, and ecclesiastical institutions.

During this era, the Scottish church was forced to rely upon several stopgap measures, such as the use of superintendents, readers, and exhorters. The need for a guide to worship was immediately apparent. While the First Book of Discipline contained the broad outlines of church polity, a more specific order of worship was desired.

The Genevan Book of Order was the natural choice for the Scottish church, except that the scope of the Genevan Book was greatly localized in nature, since it was originally prepared for the needs of a single congregation. Thus, in 1564, the Scottish General Assembly adopted the Geneva Book, enlarging it with some additional prayers and forms suited to the expanding needs of the church of Scotland. Thereafter the Scottish form of the document became known as "The Book of Common Order."[2]

It should be noted that it is entirely inappropriate to refer to the Book of Order as a liturgy. The term liturgy was never applied to the document by its authors or proponents, whether in Frankfurt, Geneva, or Scotland. The historian C.G. M'Crie writes:

The expression "Liturgy" applied to the Form of Prayers was both unfortunate and infelicitous. For whether the term be taken in the more restricted technical sense in which it is applied to the Communion service at the altar, or in the wider and more popular acceptation according to which it describes prescribed and obligatory forms or offices of
worship, it is altogether inapplicable to any Presbyterian servicebook, which never aims at being more than a directory, with forms for optional use.[3]

William Whittingham is generally credited with writing The Preface to the Book of Order. The Preface states that the regulative principle of worship is foundational to the entire Book:

We...present unto you which desire the increase of God's glory, and the pure simplicity of his word, a form and order of a reformed church, limited within the compass of God's word, which our Saviour has left unto us as only [alone] sufficient to govern all our actions by; so that whatsoever is added to this word by man's device, seem it never so good, holy, or beautiful, yet before our God, who is jealous and cannot admit any companion or counsellor, it is evil, wicked, and abominable.

For as ceremonies grounded upon God's word, and approved in the New Testament, are commendable (as the circumstance thereof does support), so those that man has invented (though he had never so good occasion thereunto), if they are once abused, import a necessity, hinder God's word, or be drawn into a superstition, without respect ought to be abolished.

The Genevan Book begins with a Confession of Faith which uses the Apostles' Creed as a general outline. Yet, the Confession provides an expanded statement of the principal doctrines of the Christian faith. It stresses the sovereignty of God in the salvation of men, and it explains the person and work of Christ in a warmly devotional manner. The Confession also gives an enlarged exposition of the doctrine of the church, treating the marks by which the true visible church is discerned. Since the Confession of the English Congregation at Geneva was approved by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, it forms part of the confessional testimony of Scottish Presbyterianism.

Following the Confession, the Book of Order covers some preliminary matters of church organization, notably the duties and election of office-bearers.

The order of worship for the weekly service on the Lord's day is composed of the following items: (1.) a congregational prayer for confession of sin; (2.) congregational singing of a psalm, followed by (3.) a prayer before the sermon; (4.) the sermon (coupled with the reading of scripture); after the sermon, (5.) a prayer for the whole estate of Christ's Church; (6.) congregational singing of another psalm; (7.) the minister pronouncing a blessing (taken from scripture) upon the congregation.

Forms are also provided for the more occasional aspects of public service: the order of baptism, the administration of the Lord's supper and a marriage service, along with directions for visitation of the sick and burying the dead.

Next follows a chapter on church discipline. This chapter establishes the warrant and general precepts pertaining to ecclesiastical discipline. In Church of Scotland, this chapter was later supplemented by the Order of Excommunication and Public Repentance (1569), authored by Knox and several other ministers at the request of the General Assembly.

The Genevan Book provides several household prayers, and concludes with a prayer made when the congregation first assembled to approve the Confession of Faith and Book of Order.

A word should be said about the side notes appearing in the text. These notes appeared in the original edition, functioning as footnotes do today. Obviously, references to classical authors or apocryphal books did not carry equal authority with proof texts from the scriptures, even though all items were placed as marginal notations. This was simply a routine publishing format of the sixteenth century. Moreover, in some cases, the biblical references do not function as "proof texts" at all. Rather, they seem to be furnished to direct the reader to related passages in the Bible, for further meditation upon the general doctrine under consideration at that point in the text ­ more of a topical reference than a proof text.

The scripture references proved to be the most formidable challenge for the publisher, in preparing the present edition. When the Genevan Order was first issued, scripture texts were referenced by book and chapter numbers; the biblical chapters were then subdivided into sections, labeled by letters of the alphabet, such as "Matthew 7a," or "Luke 2d." Since our current system of versification was not yet in use, a problem develops in seeking to identify precise verse numbers for the scripture references given in the Genevan Order. This difficulty is further compounded by obvious cases of typographical errors, and scattered discrepancies between different versions of the Book of Order.

The editor makes no claim of producing a definitive or critical edition of the scripture references for the Genevan Order. He consulted additional sources, such as Tyndale's New Testament and Dunlops's edition of the Book of Common Order,[4] seeking to clear up some of the difficulties. Nevertheless, students desiring a detailed study of the marginal references to the Genevan Order should consult original editions of the text.

The Genevan Book is as remarkable for its brevity as it is in its scope. It covers preeminent matters of worship and church government quite succinctly, resting the particulars (as well as the whole) upon the holy scriptures. Readers need only a cursory glance at contemporary Presbyterian books of order to see how far these modern manuals of polity have degenerated from their venerable Genevan predecessor.

May the day soon dawn when Presbyterian churches return to the landmarks of the Protestant Reformation, becoming Reformed in both doctrine and manners.

The Publisher

Notes for Publisher's Introduction

1. Historical details pertaining to the Book of Order may be verified in the following sources: A Narrative of the Proceedings and Troubles of the English Congregation at Frankfurt on the Maine in The Works of John Knox (ed. by David Laing; Edinburgh: James Thin, 1894), Vol. iv, pp. 168; The Form of Prayers and Ministration of the Sacraments, etc., Used in the English Congregation at Geneva, in Knox's Works, Vol. iv, pp. 143-48; C.G. M'Crie, The Public Worship of Presbyterian Scotland (Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1892), pp. 78-122; W. Stanford Reid, Trumpeter of God: A Biography of John Knox (1974; rpt. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), pp. 105-29.

2. The Book of Common Order, in its expanded form, may be found in Knox's Works, Vol. vi pp. 275-380. The present reprint follows the original Geneva Book of
Order (1556).

3. C.G. M'Crie, The Public Worship of Presbyterian Scotland (Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1892), p. 106.

4. William Dunlop, ed., A Collection of Confessions of Faith, Catechisms, Directories, Books of Discipline, etc. of Public Authority in the Church of Scotland (Edinburgh: James Watson, 1722), vol. 2.

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Go to Preface.

Copyright ©1993 by Presbyterian Heritage Publications


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