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Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Examining the Regulative Principle

The "regulative principle" [RP] is most often heard in regard to worship in the "church." So, we will be focusing much on that application. However, there is a larger definition at work, but we will start with the idea of the "regulative principle of worship" to give us some context.

the regulative principle states that “the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself and so limited by his own revealed will” (WCF [Westminster Confession of Faith] 21.1). In other words, corporate worship should be comprised of those elements we can show to be appropriate from the Bible. The regulative principles says, “Let’s worship God as he wants to be worshiped.”

-The Gospel Coalition ("a fellowship of evangelical churches in the Reformed tradition")

I'd first like to note (as an aside, but I think relevant) is the reliance on the Westminster Confession of Faith. Reformed theologians reference it almost as though it were scripture; as though you can't question it. I'm sure they would bristle at that statement, but ask any of them if they feel free to depart from its wording. 

The opposite of the "regulative principle" of worship is the "normative principle" [NP] of worship. That is, whatever is not expressly prohibited in scripture is permitted. This principle is practiced by just about every believer on a variety of subjects. Many Reformed believers, in my experience, have never heard the phrase. It's very seminary. Note what Kevin DeYoung at TGC says about it:

Even though I grew up in a Reformed church, until seminary I was one of the multitude of Christians who had never heard of the regulative principle.

So, in regard to worship, they believe that only worship specifically outlined in scripture is acceptable. This obviously exonerates the very biblical pipe organs, choir robes, neckties, and 18th and 19th century hymns. Yes, I'm kidding, but you see the point (small as it may be). None of these are "limited by his own revealed will." Along these lines, how do we determine "hymns are good" and "contemporary is bad" apart from how we differentiate is anything is good or bad? That depends on how we interpret "limited by his own revealed will." In my world, that would mean "doctrinally."

Pipe organs, choir robes, neck ties, etc. are neither doctrinal nor biblical. Yet we have no compliant as they are neutral. They are neither expressly commanded nor forbidden. We can, and should, apply this to all things used in our worship. Doctrines should be judged, and that which is not clearly unbliblical should be treated as liberty. You don't have to like it, but that's another matter.

While worship is an area about which much of the RP is aimed and applied, the general idea of RP is broader.

A broader sense of the term "regulative principle" is occasionally cited on matters other than worship, for example, to constrain designs of church government to scriptural elements. [Wikipedia]
It’s not been at the core of my identity. But over the years I’ve come to appreciate the regulative principle more and more. [Kevin DeYoung]

We want to be clear that RP is not exactly Sola Scriptura (which we wholeheartedly support). Sola Scripture (the Scriptures alone) is the doctrine that the scriptures are the only infallible source of truth. RP teaches that things such as worship must reflect perfectly what is in scripture. It may not be a clear distinction, but there is a chasm between the two.

Let's turn back to Kevin DeYoung and TGC.

“What do we know they did in their Christian worship services in the Bible? We know they sang the Bible. We know that preached the Bible. We know they prayed the Bible. We know they read the Bible. We know they saw the Bible in the sacraments. We don’t see dramas or pet blessings or liturgical dance numbers. So why wouldn’t we want to focus on everything we know they did in their services? Why try to improve on the elements we know were pleasing to God and practiced in the early church?”

There are legitimate concerns here. But let's dig a little deeper. Am I opposed to "pet blessings" because it's not in the Bible or because it's biblically stupid? The greater question is "what is the blessing supposed to be for?" "How are the animals to be 'blessed'?" Let me take that back, I'm not really "opposed" to pet blessings, I just don't get it. It doesn't hurt anything, but I do think it's worth a discussion.

So, the core of my argument is that it serves no purpose and is connected to nothing in scripture. "Blessing" is a wide term. In liturgical settings, it often requires a "clergy." Is the idea of the "clergy" "his own revealed will?" Well, Israel had a priesthood. It's in the Bible. It's in the Old Testament like the Psalms. But is it for our day? 

I am not opposed to a "teacher" or a "pastor," but such things have no resemblance to the priests of the Temple. So, even if we limit ourselves to "his own revealed will," we still must "rightly divide the Word of Truth."

"Liturgical dance numbers" is a little different. I don't care for them much either. But the reason for that is that I don't care much for "liturgy" as it's commonly practiced. I'm not against "public worship," but "liturgy" lends itself a to "clergy/laity" distinction and leans towards ritualism. But I would fall short of calling any of it "Satanic." They may not like the use of "Satanic," but what else are we to say if what the (assumed) adherents to RP reason is true? Pushed, I believe they'd happily adopt the adjective.  

This last point is really the distinction between RP and NP understanding. If something isn't expressly practiced in scripture, is its practice therefore necessarily "anti-God?" The NP position is that it stands on its own. 

We can examine the elements of anything against Sola Scriptura (not against the Westminster Confession of Faith, FTR). Do the words of a hymn or a worship song exalt scriptural truth without necessarily being exactly expressed the same way in scripture? The NP position leans (or should lean) on Sola Scripture and not on RP. 

The RP view, theoretically, should dismiss all hymns with either words or music or instruments or structure not expressly stated in scripture. If that were applied uniformly, we'd have to mark the hymns as Satanic. The immediate objection to my conclusion is that RP would endorse hymns if they reflected direct biblical truth. We are now back to doctrine. We are now back to scripture. 

This is how ALL music should be discerned. Too often we have this general concept:

  • Hymns Good
  • Contemporary Bad

Again, there would objections to the simplicity of this dichotomy, but that is almost universally how I have experienced the argument. Yes, that's subjective, but essentially true in my over 30 years discussing the topic of Christian music.

It's simply lazy. Many hymns are lightweight or simply heretical. Not every contemporary song is Satanic. Pianos and acoustic guitars are no more biblically sound than keyboards or electric guitars.  

Applying these different arguments to scripture, was Paul "Satanic" when he quoted pagan poets to the Greeks in Acts 17 to make his point about the true God? Note that Paul does not refer directly to scripture in that passage.

God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: for in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.

-Acts 17:24-29

Paul not only quotes the pagan poets in Acts 17, he uses their quote to make his point about the true God. He is not claiming their poets to be inspired of God. I agree that scripture should be part of all we express, but just as Paul has done here, we can appeal to different things in our quest to relate scripture (as long as the thing does not expressly oppose scripture). If a local assembly puts on a drama which speaks biblical truth, how is that forbidden?

Surely, we must get to scripture and to truth, but how can we conclude that hymns always do this and all contemporary music does not. Again, this is just lazy.

If I did an "interpretive dance" of the Book of John and quoted the many invitations to Christ in its pages, what difference does it make? Again, we see unfair examples used to make their point. Sure, an interpretive dance with no message adds up to nothing, but that's cherry-picking. What if a world class dancer offered a dance along with a reading of the Book of Ephesians? Not my kind of thing, but how is that "forbidden" or "Satanic?"   

The great error of the "regulative principle" (like its Romanist predecessor "ius divinum"), the "acceptable way of worshiping the true God," is the failure to "rightly divide the Word of Truth." As with all systems which do this, it tends to pick and choose what it believes is "biblical," "commanded," or "prohibited" and it chooses individuals in "authority" as arbiters of what is truly biblical. 

Look again at part of Kevin DeYoung's call for "true" worship, "We know they saw the Bible in the sacraments." But when we rightly divide the Word of Truth, we realize the sacraments are not for this current age. We also note that the Reformed feel free to refer to Old Testament practices and texts (such as the hymns) when convenient, but solely to Acts Age when convenient. By doing so, they unwittingly acknowledge that just because something is "in the Bible" does not make it for all people of all ages.

The following is part of DeYoung's argument under his point "Freedom of Conscience."

Reformed Christians said in effect, “We don’t want to ask our church members to do anything that would violate their consciences.” Maybe bowing here or a kiss there could be justified by some in their hearts, but what about those who found it idolatrous? Should they be asked to do something as an act of worship that Scripture never commands and their consciences won’t allow? This doesn’t mean Christians will like every song or appreciate every musical choice. But at least with the regulative principle we can come to worship knowing that nothing will be asked of us except that which can be shown to be true according to the Word of God.

As an ex-Catholic, I am in agreement, in part. That is, anything that is not expressly biblical should be optional. But being optional is not the same as being forbidden. 

I attended a service at Tenth Presbyterian Church while I was working in Philadelphia. James Montgomery Boice in the pulpit. Can't get much more Reformed than that! But the service was replete with Catholic leftovers. The processional, the robes, the reciting of "The Lord's Prayer" (not for today), and even statues. And they practice such things as infant baptism. They infer this scripture 

We must also take a quick look at what is called "The Lord's Supper." In the Catholic faith, it is salvific. The host is the actual, physical body of Christ. They teach that non-Catholics who partake are eating damnation unto themselves (attend a RC wedding or funeral mass and they'll ask non-Catholics to abstain). Of course such a doctrine is to be rejected. But I reject ALL uses of the The Lord's Supper today as it is part of the covenant with Israel. We've covered that elsewhere, but suffice it to say, just because something is "scriptural" does not necessarily mean it is "applicable" in this age.

The same Reformed teacher who limits himself to the Psalms (for instance) will not bind himself by all of the Book of Leviticus. They pick and choose what is in the gospel accounts and what is in the Book of Acts. So, this pretense to the idea of "bound to scripture" is really just being bound to (ironically) "The Westminster Confession of Faith." Sola Scriptura becomes the oxymoron Sola WCF and Catechisms which they give us to tell us what is Biblical. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura itself recognizes different ages and dispensations. It is our duty to study to discern these differences not to simply bow will and intellect to a system, a catechism, a board, etc.

Let us recall what The Gospel Coalition argues, “Let’s worship God as he wants to be worshiped.” That sounds good, but it fails to recognize God's dispensations. To worship God is to do his will. For Noah, that was building an ark. For Abraham, that was taking Isaac to Mount Moriah. For Moses, that was crossing the Red Sea. For the Hebrew priesthood, that was wearing certain items of clothing and sacrificing certain animals on certain days.  

We don't look to these for our practice in this age. The Reformed teacher picks and chooses what practices from the Bible he likes. He takes the hymns for Israel and gladly applies them to himself. I would suggest that applying scripture incorrectly is worse than practicing things not expressly forbidden in scripture.

If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his home town. And they shall say to the elders of his city, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear of it and fear.

-Deuteronomy 21:18-21

Do we do this with a rebellious child in this current age? If not, why not? Easy question for me to answer, we're not Israel, we're not coming into an inheritance, we don't have city elders. etc. There may be a principle here about discipline, but who is applying the specifics in his Reformed church today?

The Reformed tradition has many unbiblical practices based on a failure to rightly divide the Word of Truth. They fail to compare things that differ. And that is the irony here. A smarmy take on contemporary music as they hide behind some perceived notion that hymns are somehow what God has ordained all the while adopting a form of leftover Catholicism and an allegiance to catechism, confessions, church history, church fathers, and creeds.

I realize that this particular post is subjective and anecdotal, but it is a response to very a generic rejection of rejection (and condemnation) of all modern worship in way that I would argue is not only self-serving, but blinding.