Monday, July 03, 2006

Regulative Principle - Unprincipled Regulation?

I've been unconvinced by this for a while, and am only just beginning to get my head around why. But, before I get to that, a bit of background...

What is the regulative Principle?
Chapter 21.1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith holds that:
The light of nature shows that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture. [Rom. i. 20; Acts xvii. 24; Ps. cxix. 68; Jer. x. 7; Ps. xxxi. 23; Ps. xviii. 3; Rom. x. 12; Ps. Ixii. 8; Josh. xxiv. 14; Mark xii. 33; Deut. xii. 32; Matt. xv. 9; Acts xvii. 25; Matt. iv. 9, 10; Deut. iv. 15 to 20; Exod. xx. 4, 5, 6; Col. ii. 23.]
Why Does this Matter?
Because it was written by a load of very wise and godly men, and so should be taken seriously. Richard Baxter held that 'the Christian world, since the days of the Apostles, had never a Synod of more excellent Divines (taking one thing with another) than this Synod and the Synod of Dort were.' If there is such a thing as a summary of Puritan thought, this is it. John Murray called it 'mature fruit of the whole movement of creed formation ... the crown of the greatest age of confessional exposition, the Protestant Reformation.' (HT David Field for these quotes - during his Puritan course last term - truly a highlight of life at Oak Hill!)
It matters not only because wise godly people said it ages ago, but also because many such hace followed it throughout the intervening years (e.g. Spurgeon) and still do today, particularly within Presbyterianism.

What does it Mean?
It has been generally understood to mean that nothing may be done in formal gathered worship other than what is commanded by Scripture. This seems to be fair to what the WCF writers wrote, taught elsewhere, and practiced.

What do I Think?
I think it is flawed, within its own terms.
For example, I can see no place in the Bible where exposition is commanded during formal gathered worship. Of course (1Tim 4:13) it is commanded that Timothy devote himself to it, but the gathering is not specified - and such examples could be multiplied...
But the particular revelation I experienced last term was that the WCF drafters themselves did not fully submit to it: the gathering was commanded to be on the Sabbath morning - which command cannot be found in the Bible.
This is not to deny that WCF's point that we can't just invent our worship - Nadab & Abihu proved that! But nor can we maintain only those things prescribed in Scripture.

What Should we Do?
My recent revelation on this was in reading John Frame's Worship in Spirit and Truth (P&R) where he expounds the Regulative Principle as a whole-life hermeneutic (the whole of life is, after all, worship). He affirms that the Bible is 'sufficient for our worship, as for all of our life. We must not add to it, and we dare not subtract from it.' (p. 39) He then distinguishes between situations and applications, and argues that the background to the said principle was enforced prescription of public gatherings for formal worship. He goes on to argue that such submission to Scripture must mark all that we do, so that 'we are free from anything "beside" the word, not only in "matters of faith or worship" but in all other areas of life as well... The job of human wisdom is to apply those commands [contained in Scripture] to specific situations.' (p. 43) He thus rejects the Regulative Principle's application only to official worship services, saying that it must govern all worship (pp. 44-5). Thus 'the regulative principle 'limits what we may do in worship, but it also alows different sorts of applications, and therefore a significant area of liberty.' (p. 45)

I like this; it sounds right. OK, it got JF into a whole heap of trouble with the Presbyterians over in the US, but I can live with that. As to whether or not this was the original intention of the Westminster Divines, I'm not convinced. But none of them thought they were writing unalterable perfection, and would be happy that reformata et semper reformanda be applied to their work.

So: I think I agree with JF, and am not entirely clear whether that means I agree with the WCF - but am not too bothered about that, having taken it seriously, and taken it to the bar of Scripture.


Blogger Marc Lloyd said...

Yes, though I think you are right to hold out the possibility of John Frame and our agreeing with the Westminster Confession and the regulative principle properly understood, if not as sometimes (often or even usually) understood.

After all, one thing that Frame is arguing is that we mustn't forget the true and necessary consequences of Scripture (as the WCF reminds us) and just depend on narrow proof texts for what we do in gathered worship.

All this is useful for us as Anglicans, of course, as its usually thought the we hold to "that which is not forbidden is permitted" but Frame changes the shape of the landscape somewhat.

Its interesting to read the Jordan et al take on the RP: they reckon we can tell that NT minister's stoles should be blue or green by reading the OT regulations for the priest. That fits the shape of Frame's arguments even if he wouldnt agree with them

6:56 pm, July 17, 2006  

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