Hughes Oliphant Old: A Personal Remembrance

A prince in Israel has died, leaving behind mourners who will miss both his genteel Christian piety and the vast body of knowledge that he will take with him to the grave.

“There is a true sense in which the ministers of my generation know all that we know about the public worship and ministry of the church generally, and the Reformed church specifically, from the writings and lectures of Hughes ‘Scoti’ Old.”

 

Tomorrow the remains of Hughes Oliphant Old (April 13, 1933 – May 24, 2016) will be interred at the Christian Street Cemetery in White River Junction, Vermont. A prince in Israel has died, leaving behind mourners who will miss both his genteel Christian piety and the vast body of knowledge that he will take with him to the grave. The reward in heaven for this humble servant of Christ will be great.

The dedication page of my doctoral thesis reads as follows:

“To Hughes Oliphant Old,
the dean of Reformed liturgical scholars,
a voice crying in the wilderness,
calling the church ad fontes,
to the sources of Reformed worship in Scripture,
the Fathers, and the Reformers,
that the heirs of the Apostles, Augustine
and Calvin might worship
“according to Scripture.”

There is a true sense in which the ministers of my generation know all that we know about the public worship and ministry of the church generally, and the Reformed church specifically, from the writings and lectures of Hughes “Scoti” Old. My own pilgrimage with the great man may prove instructive.

My introduction to Dr. Old (I could never bring myself to call him by any name less formal) began soon after my arrival in Savannah to pastor the Independent Presbyterian Church in January 1987. A seminary friend of mine sent me a copy of Old’s book, Worship that is Reformed According to Scripture.  Up to that point I had developed certain instincts about public worship after two years of daily chapel at the Trinity College in Bristol, England, an Anglican theological college. All my previous experience in public worship had been comparatively shallow. I was beginning to conclude that when the church gathers, more Scripture should be read, Psalms should be sung, prayer should be more substantial, and communion should be served more frequently that once a quarter. Yet I also was convinced that the read prayers of the Book of Common Prayer were not the answer. The “free” prayers of the Reformed church should not be surrendered easily, nor the commitment to lectio continua reading and preaching of Scripture.

Old’s Worship that is Reformed opened up a whole new world for me. A chapter was devoted to a discussion of each element of worship, beginning with its roots in Scripture, followed by surveys of its practice in the early church, its modification (and at times corruption) in the Middle Ages, its restoration during the Reformation, and its continuation by the Reformed church since. Again, for ministers of my generation, there was simply nothing like it to be found. Here was the objective answer to our subjective instincts. Here was the antidote to the seductions on the one hand, of the trivialities of the budding contemporary worship movement of the 1990’s, and on the other hand of the ritualization and liturgical formality of Anglicanism. Reading it was, well, thrilling. It was an oasis of sanity, an island of edifying order in a church world spinning out of control.

In 1992 Dr. Old published The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth
Century (not a title calculated to produce a best seller). While absorbing its extraordinary scholarship on vacation in Hound Ears, North Carolina, I wondered, is he still alive? Might I talk to him? So I called information for the phone number of a Hughes Old in Trenton, N.J. It was listed! I called. His wife Mary answered. She said he was out working in the garden. I begged her to let him be, but she insisted, no, he’ll want to talk to you. So we talked. About an hour. He was endlessly fascinating and a goldmine of information. I called repeatedly as I prepared Leading in Worship for publication, even sending him the manuscript. Likewise, I called as I prepared Reformed Worship and other projects.  Always he was generous with his time and counsel.

At some point I learned that behind his publications was his doctoral thesis, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship,  a rare but groundbreaking book that vindicates Calvin’s claim that the reforms of worship in Geneva were “According to the Custom of the Ancient Church.” The reforms of Reformed Protestantism, Old demonstrated, were rooted in the Patristics (the church fathers), such as Augustine, Chrysostom, Tertullian, and Origen, among many others. Patristic Roots is a comprehensive rebuttal of high church claims of the antiquity of their worship and a vigorous defense of the Reformers and historic Reformed practice.

Dr. Old kept churning out the books. Themes and Variations for a Christian Doxology is a brilliant but under-appreciated work that shows how Reformed worship honors various scriptural genres: the prophets critique of Israel’s formalism, the poets’ love of sung praise, the wisdom tradition’s bookish piety (“O how I love your law”), and so on. The Reformed church doesn’t rely on a text here and there to justify its practices, Old demonstrated. Whole biblical genres may be invoked to support its ministry.

I read Old’s Leading in Prayer  on the way to Scotland for a ministerial conference. Dr. Old, for whom Matthew Henry (1602-1714) is a heroic figure, sought with its publication to revive free prayer in the tradition of Henry’s Method of Prayer,  the deterioration of which had become, in his words, “an embarrassment to the tradition.” He urges a “full-diet” of biblical prayer, providing practical helps for those leading in public prayer: prayers of praise, confession of sin, thanksgiving, intercession (including the five-fold petitions for the sanctification of the saints, the church, the sick, the civil government, and Christian mission), illumination, and benediction.

Beginning in 1998, Dr. Old began to publish his seven volume History of the Reading and Preaching of Scripture in the Christian Church, a landmark in liturgical scholarship and a monumental defense of lectio continua reading and preaching as acts of worship, indeed, worship at its apex. Finally, he published in Holy Communion in the Piety of the Reformed Church, a massive articulation and defense of the communion practices of the Reformed church and the role of the eucharist in nurturing piety.

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