For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among all nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. — Malachi 1:11

Since the Reformation, using incense in church has become a true badge of Catholicism in the West, even though its use is not discussed widely by the Reformers. Eastern Orthodox Christians simply take it for granted. John Calvin lumped it in with all kinds of other vain ceremonial trappings including “holy garments” and even “an altar” in his commentary on the Gospel of John. To Calvin, the worship “in spirit and in truth” that Jesus describes to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:23 has been completely obscured by popery, whose “shadows are not less thick than they formerly were under the Jewish religion.” To Calvin, religion is not about stuff.

Calvin is wrong. As Thomas Aquinas’s hymn Pange Lingua reminds us, “Types and shadows have their ending, for the newer rite is here.” The new perfects the old, and worship in spirit and in truth is absolutely about stuff (old and new). It is not a break with Jewish ritual, but its fulfillment. We read in Exodus 30:7-8:

Aaron shall burn fragrant incense …. every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations.


But you might object: Surely Hebrews 9 reminds us that Jesus’s perfect sacrifice lacked all of the earth-bound trappings of the traditional cult. Jesus did not go to the cross with Aaron’s rod or a golden urn. True, but neither does our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving kill Christ on the tree of Calvary. We re-enact the “one oblation of himself once offered,” and not (just) in our minds. We know that God is doing all the work of saving us, even as we ritualize his saving work with every glorious element of religion we can get our hands on. Jesus fills the sacramental universe. He does not destroy it.

Orthodoxy is not an idea, but a way of life, whose culmination on this side of the eschaton is the Holy Eucharist. God used stuff to communicate to Israel, and he uses stuff to communicate to the new Israel, which is the Church at worship. By biblical warrant, certain stuff cannot be traded out or omitted. Baptism has to happen in water and not sand. (The Didache, an ancient manual of Christian practice, suggests running water over stagnant water. And cold water is preferable to warm. Again…stuff matters!)[1] The Lord’s body has to be bread and not a chicken drumstick. “Pizza and beer, the Lord is here” has no basis in the Bible or Christian tradition. He may be there, but we don’t know. At any rate, that is not how he set up the means of his perpetual memory at the Last Supper.

But incense is a little different. It remains a fringe element, relegated in practice to the lowest circle of the liturgical purgatory called adiaphora. It can be messy and makes people cough, and so it is easily dispensed with. It seems like a bridge too far, and herein lies a big mistake. If it is a bridge too far, it is the bridge that carries worship right over from earth into the heavenly realm. Sweet smelling smoke is a near guarantee that the worship space is set totally apart from any other place you go in your life. And if we admit, to Calvin’s dismay, that Christian worship is not at all a radical disconnect from ancient Jewish ritual but a continuation of it, then why of all things would we omit incense, even if we are not commanded to keep it? The book of Revelation (5:8 and 8:4) includes it in our eternal life: the “prayers of the saints.” Incense has a special place both in our spiritual ancestry and our spiritual destiny. We should have it in our spiritual present.

It is time to take it back, translating it from a defiant mark of preciosity to a ubiquitous and indispensable element of Christian living. Clergy who long to use it simply need to insist upon it even in small doses, building towards use each Sunday (with loving teaching preparing the way, of course). Almost all of our churches offer a variety of Sunday liturgies anyway — keeping a “smoke-free” service or two may help keep the peace in the parish. And seminarians and clergy who have never held a thurible need to seek out a mentor who can help them along. There may be no bigger obstacle to regular use of incense in the parish than clergy who use it clumsily.

Incense may not be a hill worth dying on, but it is at least a hill worth strategizing for. It is a shot to the gut of comfortable, consumer-friendly religion, and it may be just the tool God has provided to make his name great among the nations in our present age.

Turn and burn, brethren.

Andrew Petiprin’s other posts may be found here. The featured stained glass of a thurible is in St Ignatius Church, Chestnut Hill, MA. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


[1] Early Christian Fathers. Ed Cyril C. Richardson. (New York: Touchstone, 1996), p. 174.

About The Author

Andrew Petiprin is Assistant Director in the Office of Faith Formation at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nashville. He is the author of Truth Matters: Knowing God and Yourself

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5 Responses

  1. John A. Thorpe

    I’m a lifelong lover of incense, and high church in my liturgical sympathies, but I’m also a big fan of Calvin, so I feel the need to stick up for him. He is occasionally wrong, but not here, I think. I don’t have my Institutes in front of me but I will do the best I can from recollection.

    Calvin’s ideas are unintentionally misrepresented here (nothing new in that – most Calvinists themselves are ill informed). He does not argue that Christianity is a wholly new form of worship, nor that it does away with the old forms. Generally he asserts that worship is a thing beyond human reach; that is, we do not get to choose how to worship God: God Himself chooses the modes and forms of liturgy. The story of Cain and Abel is emblematic of this point. In the Old Testament, God chose animal sacrifice along with all the trappings described in Leviticus. The only change made by God to His chosen liturgical forms is the advent and saving work of Jesus Christ, which, as Hebrews asserts, necessitates some significant changes and leads to New Testament worship.

    This leads the most enthusiastic Calvnists to the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), which may be stated in several ways, the harshest of which is that nothing may be done in Christian worship which is not specifically commanded in the New Testament. This is why some ultra-conservative reformed churches forbid the use of musical instruments. But there is a spectrum of adherence to the RPW, and the more liberal end asserts that nothing may be done in worship which is strictly prohibited by the bible, and all things must be done which are specifically commanded, but a great many liturgical practices and preferences fall between these two extremes, all of which are adiaphora and the church must use its best judgment. Anglicans will recognize the latter sentiment from Cranmer’s original preface to the BCP – a book which Calvin helped to edit as it assumed its more Protestant 1552 form.

    All this puts Calvin in quite the same camp as the Orthodox. Thomas Hopko, of blessed memory, described a similar conception in his lecture to Wheaton college on biblical worship. I will post a link when I can. Both assert not that NT worship has superseded OT worship, but rather that it is numerically and historically the same worship, adapted as it must be for the advent of Christ.

    So the question for Calvin about incense asks first whether it is specifically prohibited or specifically commanded in the NT. One finds it in neither camp. Those Calvinists who admit the category of adiaphora, then, would locate incense in that category. Then the question becomes whether the person and work of Christ make incense obsolete or redundant. There may be some argument for this in the intercessory work of the ascended Christ, but I feel that is inconclusive. The next question is whether, as a thing adiaphora, incense is an effective symbol for some other aspect of worship that does find a home under the RPW. This is where I locate incense as a symbol of prayer.

    But this is also where Calvin’s historical context gets in the way of objective judgment. In his day, incense was precisely a sign of the ill-intentioned corruption of worship by the medieval Catholic Church. In the quote above, it is not the essence of incense that Calvin objects to, but rather its close association with popery. Incense smells like irreverence to him, godlessness, and a heedless attitude toward holy Scripture. Given this association, was he wrong to prohibit its use?

    Calvinists today might find no such objection, and might be able to reclaim incense in their worship as a powerful symbol of prayer and still conform to the RPW. But they won’t.

    Of course, the sacramental aspect of incense and its use as a vehicle to convey holiness would drive Calvin nuts. There I think he’s wrong and you’re right, Andrew, about the embodied nature of sacramentality. And that’s why I remain a Calvin-friendly Anglo-Catholic.

  2. John A. Thorpe

    Here’s the Hopko lecture:

    It’s well worth the hour+ time it takes to listen to the whole thing.

    I should have added above that Calvin would have found the complete lack of evidence of the use of incense in the early church’s worship to be a significant hurdle to its use, as well.

  3. Neil Dhingra

    Thanks for the interesting post, which reminds us of the power of incense and a real problem with most strict anti-incense positions–the need to presuppose “a radical disconnect from ancient Jewish ritual.”

    The historian Jacob Baum has written of Luther’s opposition of true prayer to the mere outward ceremony of incense. To Luther, caught in this binary, incense was associated with the superseded Jews and then idolatry. He wrote that incense and the sacrifice of food were “the highest form of idol worship in all the valleys and under all the trees,” effectively linking Jews with “Turks” and “papists.”

    Ironically, in the medieval period, as Baum writes, incense connected inner piety with outwards signs, but this still excluded Jews. While the holy were imagined to smell good–Durandus even counseled bishops to douse themselves in myrrh (the “aroma of good report”) before their congregations, the excluded, including Jews, were imagined to give off bad odors.

    I wonder if a non-problematic recovery of incense and the discernment of the theological profundity of Judaism will go hand-in-hand.

  4. Andrew Petiprin

    John, I am very grateful for your comment. When I typed “Calvin is wrong” I must admit I had a been of a naughty grin on my face; but I was also more than a little worried that I was too poorly informed of the intricacies of Calvin’s perspectives to represent him accurately. I did not explore the Institutes at all here – just the (I think) very revealing commentary on John’s Gospel. Thanks too for the link to Fr. Hopko’s talk. I had heard it before and I read through the transcript again now. And having done so, I think Hopko (and I too!) can find a lot of common ground with Reformed thinking on worship, inasmuch as it seeks to re-prioritize the transformation of the community over the transformation of elements, re-set the vocabulary of “corpus mysticum” and “corpus verum,” and re-discovering the biblical roots of the actual practices of the Church at prayer. But Hopko is also keenly aware that for Calvin (and, alas, perhaps ultimately Cranmer too) this project goes too far, circling back around to an un-biblical rejection of material goodness – i.e. the Reformers who reject transubstantiation also reject icons. The Church that rejects animal sacrifice then also rejects incense. And on this note, I loved your last two paragraphs. Thank you for your wisdom here.

  5. Andrew Petiprin

    Neil, what an intriguing thought this is: “I wonder if a non-problematic recovery of incense and the discernment of the theological profundity of Judaism will go hand-in-hand.” Amen!


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