The Black Rubric And The Creator-Creature Distinction

The “Black Rubric” was so-called because it was set in black print in the 1661–1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer. It was first inserted into the Second Edwardian Prayer Book in 1552. It was intended to explain that when communicants received the elements of holy communion they were not by the act of kneeling adoring the elements. This was a concern because it had been many years prior that, when communicants knelt to receive the supper it was reckoned to be the transubstantiated (essentially transformed from bread into the body and blood of Christ) and therefore the proper object of veneration. Transferring the glory of God to any created thing was utterly rejected by the Reformed reformation as a species of idolatry and contrary to God’s holy law. It reads:

WHEREAS it is ordained in this Office for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, that the Communicants should receive the same kneeling; (which order is well meant, for a signification of our humble and grateful acknowledgment of the benefits of Christ therein given to all worthy Receivers, and for the avoiding of such profanation and disorder in the holy Communion, as might otherwise ensue;) yet, lest the same kneeling should by any persons, either out of ignorance and infirmity, or out of malice and obstinacy, be misconstrued and depraved: It is hereby declared, That thereby no adoration is intended, or ought to be done, either unto the Sacramental Bread or Wine there bodily received, or unto any Corporal Presence of Christ’s natural Flesh and Blood. For the Sacramental Bread and Wine remain still in their very natural substances, and therefore may not be adored; (for that were Idolatry, to be abhorred of all faithful Christians;) and the natural Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ are in Heaven, and not here; it being against the truth of Christ’s natural Body to be at one time in more places than one.

The Black Rubric is also a good illustration of the way the distinction between elements and circumstances functioned in the Reformed reformation of worship. An element of worship is that without which there is no worship. An element of worship is divinely instituted and irrevocable. The two basic elements are Word (whether read, preached, or administered in the sacraments) and prayer (whether spoken or sung). By contrast, the posture we assume when receiving communion is only a circumstance. It may be changed without changing the essence of worship. By the Reformed reckoning there were only a few circumstances: time of service, place, language, dress, and posture. Thus whether one received communion standing or sitting or kneeling is a mere circumstance or adiaphora (morally indifferent)—unless of course civil or ecclesiastical authorities seek to mandate it as a matter of faith or as a condition of salvation. In which case it is, by definition, no longer adiaophra and the Reformed would be in a status confessionis (state of confession)—what is not adiaphora, however, is the nature of the Supper. It cannot be adiaphora because it is essential to worship. If Christ’s humanity is locally present in the element (in, with, under; the confessional Lutheran view) or if the element is said to have become substantially the humanity of Christ (transubstantiation) then it has one character. If, however, his humanity is locally present in heaven, at the right hand of the Father (as we confess) then it has another character. If the union between the sign and the thing signified is sacramental and not literal then we have a sign and a seal, a visible, gospel Word from God. If the union becomes identity then we no longer have a sacrament at all.

It is bracing and encouraging to be reminded of the force with which the Reformed reformation, even in its episcopal manifestation (the Presbyterians and Congregationalists regarded the episcopal Anglican Church as “but halfly Reformed”) abhorred idolatry and sought to root it out wherever it might appear, even in the administration of holy communion. Behind the Black Rubric and the horror of idolatry was the deep-seated Protestant conviction that gradually the medieval church had confused the Creator with the creature. It has conferred upon the creature glory and status that belonged only to the Triune God. It is widely recognized that the material principle of the Reformation was sola gratia et sola fide and the formal principle was sola Scriptura but it is less often recognized that the Creator/creature distinction was just as important to the Protestant Reformation. It lay behind Luther’s polemic against Eramus in his De Servo Arbitrio (1525; Concerning the Enslaved Will) and behind Luther’s basic distinction between theologia gloria et theologia crucis (theology of glory and the theology of the cross). When Luther made that distinction he was laying the axe to all forms of moralism (attempts by a sinner to present himself to God on the basis of sanctity or obedience or cooperation with grace) and rationalism (identity of the human intellect with the divine or any attempt to place reason anywhere but in submission to Scripture).

Calvin and his orthodox Reformed successors never wavered on this basic point and it animated all the Reformed confessions as they articulated their Christology, the doctrine of grace, and their principle of worship.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. I used to be part of this Roman Catholic group for high school students, which was sort of like a fraternity, back when I was in high school run by Jesuit priests. In our retreats, we had a special room that was set apart for prayer. There was an altar there that had a communion cross on top of it. The communion crass had a glass casing in the center which held the “host” (the bread or wafer). I remember that we worshiped that wafer. We knelt down in front of it and prayed to it. It was really idolatry. So, when I became a Reformed believer, I wasn’t surprised later on when I found out that that many Protestants during the Reformation really wanted to get rid of the Mass. In fact, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs says that so many died because they simply wouldn’t recant that the mass is idolatry.

  2. Thanks the article on the Black Rubric. Although this is well known with Evangelical Anglicans many others in the Reformed camp don’t know much about it. Unfortunately modern Anglo-Catholics have refused to acknowledge the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the Black Rubric or the 39 Articles of Religion as a statement of the Reformed faith of the Church of England and the English Reformation.


  3. Dr. Clark,

    I appreciate your comment here and in your book “Recovering the Reformed Confessions” regarding RPW and it’s definition of elements and circumstances. What are your thought on the concept of forms and if and how it is addressed by the RPW? I’ve noticed that several Reformed theologians, including John Frame, Darryl Hart, John Muether, T. David Gordon, and others have made use of this category, often as a justification for the use of musical instruments and/or drama in worship

    • Hi Kenneth,

      I think the appeal to “forms” is another way to expand the category of “circumstances.” If not I don’t see how it functions. We don’t need another category and we don’t need to expand circumstances to include typological elements. As I tell anyone who will listen, “You can have your piano (or whatever) if I get to kill lambs. What a little circumstantial blood between friends? You have your favorite Mosaic circumstance and I have mine.”

  4. Good to see the Black Rubric addressed. I would be curious to know if any URC Churches administer the Sacrament kneeling, with a common cup.

  5. Is there not a scribal error of the spell-checker in paragraph 4, line 8 (“confused the Creator with the creator”)? Should it not be “confused the Creator with the creature”?

    • Not necessarily. That’s the point of the Black Rubric and you’ll say, “So, icons are okay”? and I’ll reply, “No, because the sacraments are divinely authorized and icons are not.”

      Is it a good idea, pastorally? Probably not. Hence the rubric.

      • Hi RSC,

        If I may interject 🙂 We kneel for Holy Communion and St. John’s at the 8am BCP service but it certainly is not a sign of veneration of the elements but of God; it’s a sign of humble dependence upon God. We kneel before his minister to receive Christ and all his benefits. Is it a good idea? That depends of course on how the congregation understand it, I think it is. If the congregation mis-understand the kneeling that is an issue for teaching and instruction. Just as if someone walked into a Reformed Church and mistook the Geneva gown for sacrificial vestments. Would I impose kneeling upon others, of course not.

        God bless!

      • That reply will work for the Reformed Confessions and those bodies that adhere to the regulative principle. But the CofE does not adhere to the regulative principle. Rites and practices decreed by the church, if they are deemed not contrary to Scripture by said church are permissable and no one out of their private judgment is permitted to disturb them. (Article 34)

  6. To clarify, what was the act of kneeling relative to the sign? Granted per the rubric it isn’t adoration, but what is it? Looks like veneration of a sign.

    The irony is that the East received the eucharist standing up and maintain that the elements remain in their essences while maintaining the real presence of Christ’s humanity in the elements.

    • Perry,

      Kneeling was an act of submission and humility and a way of receiving the element not a way of venerating the element or of worshiping God through the element.

      That’s why we distinguish between elements and circumstances. Kneeling (posture) is a circumstance. It’s adiaphora. If someone seeks to make it mandatory, then it’s not adiaphora and it should be resisted. If someone seeks to adore God through venerating the element, then that one has made an idol of the element!

      • Re: kneeling. Elemental, my dear Watson.

        Sane and sensible comments, Dr. Clark.

        Precisely my Churchmanship, although we’ve chosen to do it, it is never enforced. We have some who stand at the rail.

        The “Black Rubric” needs to be maintained. It is Reformed, if I can “get away with that” here. It’s not Romanist nor Lutheran.


  7. I understand the principled distinction you are drawing, but as far as outward acts go, it is no different than acts of veneration in other traditions or acts of adoration in other religions.

    Strictly speaking, posture, (bowing, kneeling, etc.) is also part of veneration in those traditions that give veneration to images or signs and such. So in principle posture or circumstance doesn”t imply that the act isn’t one of veneration. The intention it seems is taken to be the basis for the denial.

      • Been there, done that. Is kneeling or bowing before a sign in line with the 2nd commandment? Calvin if memory serves thinks not.

        2nd, is the eucharist an act of worship? Is the kneeling or bowing in the context of worship?

        • Perry,

          I understand this may not satisfy your thought that kneelinbg is veneration (some seem to have the same problem distinguishing between obeying the magistrate and worshipping him). But in addition to the point that posture is adiaphora/circumstance, this might also turn on the distinction of good and decent order/disorder in worship. If so, it is like raising hands in worship: there’s nothing wrong with it in principle, but there is a practical problem when some are and some aren’t. If there is to be bended knees or raised hands it should be done in unison and not individually and/or extemporaneously. To my mind, the problem isn’t really so much one of veneration/reverence as it is order/disorder.

          • Zrim,

            Since I am not Anglican nor Reformed I don’t have a dog in this fight. That said, widespread Reformed objections to iconic veneration includes the train of thought that there is no way to maintain outward service (bowing, kneeling before, etc.) without implying worship, given that veneration and worship cannot be distinguished.

            If that is so, then this rubirc on its own is not compatible with that line of reasoning since one is kneeling before a sign, and so one’s intention is irrelevant to the outward service or gesture.

            Third, kneeling was imposed and so much so that the Puritanical party refused to “conform” to it and threatened revolt. It wasn’t a practical matter. They conformed after the Black Rubric was introduced.

            That said, the BR has a complicated and intricate history. To deploy it in the way above while leaving out that relevant information seems to leave readers in the dark. The fact that a good number of high church Anglo-Catholics didn’t have a problem with it and affirmed it along with affirming a real presence of Christ’s humanity in the elements allby itself should give readers pause that it doesn’t necessarily bear the meaning being put on it here.

          • Addendum

            Since this is a context of worship and not civil rule, I can’t see how that line of reasoning will help. I do not grant the distinction myself since David nor any OT king or really anyking in europe was a “secular” king, but Reformed folk seem to me to argue that there is such a distinction to be had. If there is, then the fact of veneration of kings is irrelevant since the eucharist is an act of or act within the context of worship.

  8. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul seems to be concerned not only with the actor but also with the auditor. While bowing or kneeling may not be intended as an act of worship but as a demonstration of humility, how is the observer to know.

    If the warning trumpet is sounded, the auditors conclude that a sign of warning has been delivered regardless of the trumpet players intention. (cp 1 Cor. 14:8) If the player intends something else, the auditors still prepare for battle.

    Doesn’t kneeling or bowing therefore communicate the wrong sign regardless of the actor’s intention?

  9. Here are some things to consider when thinking about the Black Rubric.

    While the BR was inserted first into the BCP in the 2nd Prayer Book of Edward 6th, it was done so without any authorization from Parliament or any ecclesiastical body. It was politically enforced but lacked ecclesial sanction. (Likewise with respect to the 42 Articles.)

    It was removed during the reign of Mary and Elizabeth and so did not appear in the Third BCP, which required kneeling, though it did so on grounds other than Eucharistic adoration.

    While Article 28 precludes Eucharistic adoration, that of itself doesn’t preclude the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ’s humanity in the elements. The Orthodox for example have no rite or practice of Eucharistic adoration as Rome does nor reservation beyond that made over a few days for those who are sick. The reason given in Article 28 against Eucahristic adoration is not that Christ is not present in the elements, but that Eucharistic adoration is not of Christ’s institution. Article 34 indicates that rites and ceremonies not of divine institution that aren’t contrary to Scripture, as the church which has authority to judge in controversies (article 20) are not obligatory but neither are they to be dispensed with necessarily or freely. The sign of the cross imposed in the rite of baptism is not of divine institution for example, but not adiaphora.

    The Ornaments Rubric must be seen to be compatible with the BR and that made such priestly and sacerdotal vestments as a chausible mandatory, not to mention the Manual Acts which required the priest to consume all of the remaining elements as well as requiring a repeating of the act of consecration should the elements be exhausted and more required. While Elizabeth tolerated Protestant nullification to some degree the Ornaments Rubric was never revised.

    The BR doesn’t of itself preclude a Receptionist view of the Eucharist and is quite compatible with it, which not a few Anglican divines have argued for. To my knowledge though, the Reformed do not advocate or provide the logical space for a receptionist view of the Eucharist. So even if the BR precluded the doctrine of the real presence, it doesn’t indicate adherence to a Reformed Eucharistic theology either.

    The Rubric as it appears in the 1662 BCP is not identical to that which was present in the Edwardine BCP. The phrase “unto any real and essential presence there being of Christ’s natural flesh…” was altered to “any corporeal presence there being.” In fact though, neither reading is incompatible with either the wider doctrine of the real presence or the more narrow gloss of that doctrine, transubstantiation. (It is possible to advocate the former and not the latter.) On the first reading, maintainers of the doctrine of the real presence do not think that Christ’s humanity is present naturally. In its natural mode of presence, it is limited to heaven. This is why in the previous century Bp. Gardiner, a clearly Catholic minded bishop rejected the BR carrying one sense of denying the real presence, but affirmed it in that it denied a natural mode of presence.

    Take for example, Aquinas denies that Christ’s humanity is present after a natural mode of presence, that is, a local mode.

    “Reply to Objection 3. Christ’s body is not in this sacrament in the same way as a body is in a place, which by its dimensions is commensurate with the place; but in a special manner which is proper to this sacrament. Hence we say that Christ’s body is upon many altars, not as in different places, but “sacramentally”” ST Tertia pars, 75, 1 ad 3.

    He also explicitly affirms that it is present locally in heaven only. (Sent. 4, dist. 10, ques. 1, art. 1, sol. ad 5) In fact, Aquinas argues that it is impossible for God to make it bi-local. (Quodlibet 3, 1.2, resp.) Much the same can be found across a good number of pre-Reformation scholastics. (Lombard, Scotus, etc.) There is no bi-location. On the 1662 reading, this is even more the case since it denies a corporeal presence. The text itself doesn’t preclude the doctrine of the real presence.

    The historical facts make it far more probable that the above arguments are correct. The Puritans wished to see the BR restored to the BCP, but the bishops refused. Their agreement was secured when two bishops and a layman altered the text. The Puritans took it as acceptable. But what is significant is that we know the Bp. of Ely and Dr. Gunning who altered the text and accepted it were strong advocates for the doctrine of the real presence in the elements.

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