Remembering the Contributions of Hughes Oliphant Old
“Wonder is a deep, profound experience. The typical secular education of our day makes us suspicious or callous to wonder. It seems so unscientific, so unsophisticated, and ultimately, so seemingly unnecessary. So they say. But to lose the sense of wonder is to lose one of the great beauties of life. Worship, on the other hand, exercises our sense of wonder. It helps us see things and hear things and feel things, that not everyone recognizes. Worship, in essence, is wonderful.”
- Hughes Oliphant Old, in "Enter into His Courts with Praise: Worship Fills Us with Wonder," Worship Leader Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 4, July/August 1999.
“Hymnody needs to be popular. It is more closely related to folk song than to art song… It is because hymnody is, in its very essence, a kind of folk song that we must never close the door to new hymns written in the idiom of our day… Time has a way of selecting the classics. We do not have to worry about that. What is important is that we give each generation its turn at expressing its devotion in the idiom of its day. Christian hymnody is like a great art museum. It has treasures from a great variety of ages and cultures, but it always seems to have room to show the best of contemporary works as well.”
— Hughes Oliphant Old, from Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Worship, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995. p. 339.
On May 24, 2016, one of the great Reformation scholars of the 20th century passed into glory. Hughes Oliphant Old (April 13, 1933 – May 24, 2016), with the publication of his dissertation “The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship" (Neuchâtel, 1975), became the leading American voice towards a ressourcement of the theology and practice of reformed worship in the past thirty years. To list the numbers of pastors, scholars, and worship leaders that he influenced would fill a sports arena. From his tenures at Princeton Seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS), and Erskine Seminary, to his monthly column at Worship Leader Magazine and his prolific pen, he was the wise old grandfather who spoke across denominational and theological spectrums and was the “voice in the wilderness” to a number of seemingly disparate groups within the broader reformed community. But above all, he was the quintessential pastor-scholar who deeply loved Scripture, the Church, and communities seeking to worship in Spirit and truth.
I was introduced to Scoti during the spring semester of my first year of seminary when I found myself at dinner with a small group of RTS students, faculty, and two visiting professors: Hughes Oliphant Old and Robert Webber. I didn’t know who either of them was yet, but from the bits of conversation I caught on the way to the restaurant this was an auspicious duo! I spent the rest of the week driving Dr. Old around during his visit as he gave a series of lectures on the Lord’s Supper. Those few providential days built an ebenezer that orients my path to this day.
Later that week when I picked him up from his lecture, Scoti (as he was known by his close friends and associates) directed me to drive to the nearest Italian restaurant for dinner. He ordered us both Italian cocktails (Campari) and a bottle of Chianti. He said this was paramount for a civilized meal. Over dinner he recounted his life story, how he had grown up in Southern California and eventually found his way east to Centre College and Princeton Seminary. After a brief pastorate in Pennsylvania (where he recounted his attempt to bring a preaching series through the Psalms of Ascent to life through paintings) he embarked for Europe where he spent seven years studying the patristic roots of reformed worship. Through the tutelage of theological giants such as Jean-Jacques Von Allmen he reintroduced to the American context the rich matrix of biblical and historical work that took place during the Reformation.
After he finished his dissertation in Europe he returned to America in search of a pastoral post. He considered himself a pastor first and foremost. He recounted with a chuckle how the Presbyterian Church didn’t know what to do with him and sent him to a small failing church outside of West Lafayette, Indiana: Faith Presbyterian Church. Over the years he says by the faithful practice of the means of grace the church grew to the point that during the early 1980’s he was invited to share at a church growth conference (another chuckle). The event planners pressed him to discover what exciting programs were key to his congregation’s success.
“Oh,” he said, “Well, I preach the word, I pray, and I administrate the sacraments.”
“Oh, well O.K., but what else do you do?”
“That’s actually quite a lot!”
And while he did not speak at the conference, he soon became a mentor to Chuck Fromm at Worship Leader Magazine and a host of others in the Charismatic movement looking for connections to the ancient church. Scoti always felt like a bit of an outsider no matter what group he was a part of. He told me on numerous occasions that he was too evangelical for the PCUSA, too progressive for the southern Presbyterians, and too boring for the charismatics… yet they have all called him their own at various points! He assumed this is what you get when you combine southern California upbringing with Princeton Seminary education. In truth, he was just deeply committed to a catholic vision of the church.
Scoti taught us so much, but three things left an indelible mark on my philosophy of ministry. One was the communal nature of reformation and renewal. Dr. Old was full of a hundred different stories about a hundred different pastors of the Reformation who experimented with liturgy, music, and prayers in an attempt to bring the Word of God alive in their local congregations – and while a few pastors such as Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli were stalwarts in the work, it will always require the contributions of the collective church to maintain the spirit of semper reformanda.
The second thing Scoti taught me was that in an age of endless innovation, a pastor should rest in the faithful administration of the means of grace. Lead prayer by being immersed in the prayers of Scripture. Preach the word expositionally, and bring your people to the Table as often as possible!
A third lesson was that a Christian must be one who relishes the creation and graces of God. Scoti would often in the same breath expound the joys of a good wine, the beauty of classic architecture, the importance of physical exercise, and the necessity of studying Calvin’s sermons on the Psalms. There were few parts of God’s world that did not fill him with wonder, love, and praise. Dr. Old always amazed me with his gracious spirit that served the church as both an exceptional scholar and a joyful child of God.
When he preached at my wedding, and my friends poke fun to this day, he invited my wife and I into the never-ending musterion of God (Ephesians 5:32). Hughes Oliphant Old loved Christ and the church and he never lost the wonder that this mystery invoked. What a glory that now he sees his Savior unveiled!
Where to Start
Worship, Revised and Expanded Edition: Reformed According to Scripture (2002)
Themes and Variations for a Christian Doxology (1992)
Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Worship (1995)
Praying with the Bible: Geneva Press (1985)
"7 Greatest Worship Texts: What Scripture Says About Leading Worship, Preaching, & The Ministry of Prayer" (Worship Leader Magazine e-book)
Bruce Benedict is the Chaplain of Worship Arts at Hope College and the director of Cardiphonia Music, a fellowship of songwriters that crowd source worship music for the joy and benefit of the church.