Here are some schematic equations representing Calvin’s thought on worship, according to some people: “Old Testament Worship $\overset{?}{=}$ Sacrificial Ceremonies in the Temple” and “Worship $\overset{?}{=}$ Reading of Scripture + Prayer + Sacraments” but “Worship $\neq$ Reading of Scripture + Prayer + Sacraments + Dancing”.

According to my reading of Calvin, however, he says that ‘None of the above is right.‘ His view on worship is carefully written in his letter The Necessity of Reforming the Church. And I shall quote Calvin from that letter throughout this post. In essence, what Calvin says there is that worship cannot be defined in terms of external forms; and that the only method of worship God commands us is “bowing down” in spirit and in truth. (“Bow” is the literal translation of the Hebrew word ‘schacah’ which is often translated as “worship”.)

Calvin writes,

God requires us to worship Him in a spiritual manner,

To emphasize that biblical worship is a “spiritual bow”, not a physical activity, he again writes (words in brackets added for clarity),

[The] ceremonies are subservient, as helps or instruments, in order that, in the performance of divine worship, the body may be exercised at the same time with the soul.”

He also writes (words in brackets added for clarity),

[In these spiritual bow] consists the true and sincere worship which alone God approves, and in which alone He delights, is both taught by the Holy Spirit throughout the Scriptures and is also, antecedent to discussion, the obvious dictate of piety. Nor from the beginning was there any other method of worshipping God, the only difference being, that this spiritual truth, which with us is naked and simple, was under the former dispensation wrapt up in figures. And this is the meaning of our Savior’s words, “The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth,” (John 4:23.) For by these words he meant not to declare that God was not worshipped by the fathers in this spiritual manner, but only to point out a distinction in the external form, viz., That while they had the Spirit shadowed forth by many figures, we have it in simplicity. But it has always been an acknowledged point, that God, who is a Spirit, must be worshipped in spirit and in truth.

Notice that by “wrapt up in figure” he means that “this spiritual truth” was so; not the definition of worship1. Worship always had a clear meaning of “bowing down” in Hebrew. Calvin is pointing out that such bow was to be done in spirit and in truth regardless of ages. In the same letter he writes, (again, words in brackets added for clarity)

For, next to idolatry, there is nothing for which they [the prophets] rebuke the people more sharply than for falsely imagining that the worship of God consisted in external show.

Nowhere in the letter Calvin mentions any physical activity to describe the biblical worship. To Calvin, reading of scripture or prayer is to aid our worship, that is, our spiritual bowing down; they are not what establish a worship. In the same letter, Calvin sees prayer and praise as an inevitable response of a worshiper as he/she kneels down before God; they are consequences of spiritual worship (bow), not actions that build up a worship:

Let us now see what is meant by the due worship of God. Its chief foundation is to acknowledge Him to be, as He is, the only source of all virtue, justice, holiness, wisdom, truth, power, goodness, mercy, life, and salvation; in accordance with this, to ascribe and render to Him the glory of all that is good, to seek all things in Him alone, and in every want have recourse to Him alone. Hence arises prayer, hence praise and thanksgiving — these being attestations to the glory which we attribute to Him. This is that genuine sanctification of His name which He requires of us above all things.

Calvin clearly distinguishes the worship itself from the worship ceremonies. The closer the worship ceremonies represent the spiritual characteristic of worship, the better. This is why Calvin wanted to make worship services or ceremonies as simple as possible; for instance, he didn’t want to use musical instruments when trying to ‘schacah’; not that it somehow corrupts the worship itself, but because it can obscure the true meaning of worship, which is, ‘schacah’ in spirit and in truth.2

More discussion on this crucial matter of the definition of worship can be found in Worship Trouble: What is Worship?

1. Some writers, however, make the mistake of understanding as if Calvin is saying that the definition of worship was wrapped up. But Calvin is correct in saying that—not the definition of worship but—the ‘spiritual truth’ that worship is to be done spiritually was wrapt up in figures. And that is true for various other truths, for instance, the gospel. Indeed, we see the Scripture clearly distinguishing Sacrifice, Praise, and Worship, for instance, in 2 Chr 29:28–30 which records “When the offering was finished, the king and all who were present with him bowed themselves and worshiped. And Hezekiah the king and the officials commanded the Levites to sing praises to the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed down and worshiped.” Notice here that the old testament people worshiped 2 times after the Sacrifice was finished. The Hebrew word ‘shachah’ always has the meaning of bowing-down.

2. Some writers seriously distort the intention of Calvin and claim that he said using instruments is a “stupid imitation”. (The root of such error is that they use an obscure definition of worship. More on this, see Worship Trouble: What is Worship?.) Calvin merely states that we shouldn’t imitate anything without giving a careful thought over it. That’s all he said, nothing more, nothing less. What these authors miss is that Calvin clearly distinguished worship from worship ceremonies.