Travis Fentiman, MDiv.
The Sursum Corda in Church History
The Biblical Argument
In the rising tide of trying to make Christian worship more liturgical, many reformed churches are beginning to use the Sursum Corda in their services. Sursum Corda in Latin means ‘Lift up your hearts’ and refers to a certain responsive interchange in worship between the minister and the congregation, which, while having many variations, usually goes something to the effect of:
Minister: The Lord be with you.
Congregation: And also with you.
Minister: Lift up your hearts.
Congregation: We lift them up to the Lord.
Minister: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
Congregation: It is right to give Him thanks and praise.
Rev. Jeffrey B. Wilson, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, has written an article, pt. 1, 2, 3 (2014) in the official Orthodox Presbyterian Church magazine for church officers promoting and defending the use of the Sursum Corda in reformed worship. The article on this webpage will show in greater clarity that the Sursum Corda, as a congregational response, was not used by the early reformers in their liturgies, in accordance with the principles of Biblical worship. As the congregationally responsive Sursum Corda is not in most, if any, later reformed liturgies, it must be considered to be a worship practice that is not historically reformed.
(The extensive argument that responsive Scripture readings in worship, and responsive readings in general, are unBiblical and contrary to the nearly universal practice of the Reformation and puritan eras, has already been made and documented. See Travis Fentiman’s article, ‘Responsive Readings’. The Sursum Corda will be shown to be no exception to this.)
The Sursum Corda in Church History
Rev. Wilson rightly notes that ‘as far as scholars can discern, there were no fixed written prayers for the communion service in the first two hundred years of Christianity.’ ‘The Apostolic Tradition’ (section 4) of Hyppolytus (approximately A.D. 215) appears to be the first documented time that the Sursum Corda was used in Christian worship.
(Skim the whole document and you will quickly see why our worship should be regulated by God’s Word and not the traditions of men, even those of the Early Church.)
Rev. Wilson surveys well the use of the Sursum Corda through some of the later Greek and Latin liturgies up through the Roman Mass until the onset of the Reformation in the 1500’s.
Rev. Wilson accurately relates that:
“The Reformed liturgies of Bucer, Calvin and Knox also retained the first line of the sursum corda [the minister saying, ‘Lift up your hearts’]. Bucer’s Strasbourg liturgy used it in one of his prayers in his suggested forms for the communion liturgy… ‘To the end that, by all means, we as thine obedient children may ever lift our hearts and souls unto thee in true childlike trust.’
Calvin also used the first line of the sursum corda… in his exhortation to the congregation, focused on the words of institution in the communion service. After commenting on Jesus’s institution of the meal, the Genevan order says,
“Therefore, lift up your hearts on high, seeking the heavenly things in heaven, where Jesus Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father; and do not fix your eyes on the visible signs which are corrupted through usage.”
…Calvin’s influence can be seen in John Knox’s The Forme of Prayers, published in 1556. Knox follows Calvin in using the [first line of the] sursum corda [by the minister] to orient the congregation’s faith from the earthly elements to Christ himself, whose body is seated at the right hand of God. The Forme of Prayers says,
“Lift up our minds by faith above all things worldly and sensible, and thereby to enter into heaven, that we may find, and receive Christ.”
…Along the same lines, in 1586, some of the English Puritans produced the Middleburg Liturgy, which was similar to John Knox’s The Forme of Prayers, making use of the [first line of the] sursum corda [by the minister] in the same way.”
Rev. Wilson also quotes Peter Martyr Vermigli as approving the Sursum Corda to be used to exhort the congregation before the Lord’s Supper (though without evidence of response by the congregation):
“Wherefore in the church it is not by chance that rule obtains, before we come to the mystery, of calling out sursum corda, that is as if to say, ‘Let your souls cling not to these things that are seen, but to those which are promised.’”
“For there [at the Lord’s Supper] you must not think either of the bread or of the wine—your mind and sense must cleave only to the things represented unto you. Therefore it is said “Lift up your hearts,” when you lift up your mind from the signs to the invisible things offered you.”
To summarize, the liturgies of Bucer, Calvin, Knox, the English Puritans (of the Middleburg Liturgy) and that of Vermigli used naturally adapted variations of the language of the first line of the Sursum Corda (not all of it), as part of the minister’s prayer (speaking on behalf of the congregation with the first person plural) before the Lord’s Supper, or as an exhortation to the congregation before the Lord’s Supper.
Hence, these reformers took out the congregationally responsive Sursum Corda from the worship service as a distinct element and incorporated its language, or that of the Biblical imagery behind it (see below), into the prayers and exhortations before the Lord’s Supper.
While Rev. Wilson does acknowledge later in his article that Calvin’s self-conscious use of the Sursum Corda did not involve congregational response, yet the tenor of the article is to set forth the use of the Sursum Corda (unqualified) as something that is reformed:
“During the Reformation, concern for how the church understood its worship also created variety in how the sursum corda was used. However, even when there was conscientious reform in the church, the sursum corda was retained.”
Rev. Wilson then goes on to place the responsibility for the non-use of the Sursum Corda, in part, at the hands of the puritans:
“Only later, with the rise of new movements in the Protestant churches (namely Puritan, Nonconformist, and revivalistic) would the sursum corda begin to disappear from the church’s liturgy.”
“Over time the effect of the popular dissention from the established church was to erase responses and dialogues from the worship of many Protestant churches, including Presbyterian ones.”
While it is true that the English puritans removed the Anglican responsive readings and prayers from their services (as did the later Westminster Directory of Public Worship of the 1640’s), and that there were reforming movements in reformed churches in other nations to the like effect, it is not the case that this (outside of the Anglican Church) ever included the removal of the responsive Sursum Corda, because the responsive Sursum Corda was never in the reformed churches to begin with.
Whether, or how far, the imagery of using the language of lifting our hearts to the Lord in the minister’s prayer (though perhaps a good practice) disappeared from later reformed worship is immaterial, as it is not a Biblical requirement to use such language and there is much other Biblically saturated language and imagery to use in prayer.
In a conclusion statement in Rev. Wilson’s article, he says:
“It is the argument of this essay that the sursum corda should be included in our liturgies because it contributes to a richer theology of the Lord’s Supper and promotes the active participation of the congregation in corporate worship.”
This promotion of the Sursum Corda as a congregational response by Rev. Wilson, though, was contrary to the self-conscious practice of the early reformers, who, knowing the practice of the Church in the centuries before them, deliberately changed the responsive use of the Sursum Corda to a non-responsive use by the minister. The reformers did not seek the active participation of the congregation through such responsive readings.
“The Calvinistic liturgies differed from the Lutheran in two important respects: ‘the absence of responsive portions and the discretion conferred upon the officiator in the performance of public worship.’”
The historian of reformed worship, Dr. Charles Baird, gives a bit more nuance to the character of Calvin and Knox’s liturgies. He rightly relates that their liturgies were responsive in a certain respect. The people’s response in worship was not responsive readings or prayers, but their singing of psalms (Eutaxia, 1855, pp. 26-7):
“The Reformers of Switzerland and Scotland did not, as we often hear, deprive their ritual of a responsive and popular character. They did no more than separate the functions of minister and people into the distinct duties of reading and singing.
The [singing of] Psalms [by the congregation] are the responsive part of Calvin’s Liturgy [which were absent under Romanism]. These choral services [of the congregation] embodied the acts of adoration, praise, and thanksgiving, which are scarcely noticed in the forms of prayer; while in the latter, the offices of intercession, supplication, and teaching were assigned to the minister alone.”
The Biblical Argument
Rev. Wilson rightly states that “the Reformed tradition has insisted that there must be a biblical warrant for what we do in worship. Therefore, the question arises: is the use of the sursum corda in worship according to Scripture…”
The practice of the reformers meets this standard. It is perfectly acceptable and warranted in Scripture for: the minister to use such phraseology of lifting up one’s heart in prayer (Mt. 21:22; Acts 4:24, etc.) or for the minister to exhort the congregation therewith (2 Tim. 4:2; 1 Tim. 4:13, etc.). The phrases ‘I lift up my soul’ and ‘Let us lift up our heart with our hands unto God’ are even used in Scripture several times in the singing of psalms and in prayer (Ps. 25:1; 86:4; 143:8; Lam. 3:41). Hence, the early historic Reformed use of the imagery of lifting up our hearts in prayer, and being exhorted therein by the minister, is fully in line with Scriptural worship.
However, what Rev. Wilson does not show in the section of his article on Biblical warrant, is where a congregational, responsive reading or prayer is warranted in Scripture. This omission is telling, as there are no responsive, congregational readings or prayers (besides saying ‘Amen’) in Scripture in the regular worship of the people of God.
(To see this demonstrated in detail and that the possible examples in Revelation of responsive prayers do not serve as warrant for the regular worship of the historical Church, see the extensive analysis and arguments for this Reformation viewpoint in Fentiman’s article: ‘Responsive Readings’).
As God does not direct the Church through Scripture to worship Him according to his will through such congregational responsive prayers or readings, as God’s Word does not evidence it or teach it, according to the reformed and Biblical Regulative Principle of Worship all such congregational, responsive prayers and readings are not acceptable to God in his worship.
The extensive argument from Scripture that responsive Scripture readings in worship (and responsive readings in general) are unBiblical has already been made, as well as that this viewpoint was the nearly universal reformed practice of the Reformation and puritan eras (see Travis Fentiman’s ‘Responsive Readings’).
The early reformers of the reformed wing of the Reformation consciously decided against using the Sursum Corda as a congregational response in Christian worship. As most, or possibly all later reformed worship services did not include the responsive Sursum Corda, until any further evidence may be turned up for it, the contemporary, congregational responsive practice of the Sursum Corda is lacking Biblical warrant for its use in worship and it cannot be considered to be historically reformed.