On Elements and Circumstances

An HB Classic

The Reformed confessions distinguish between the elements of worship and the circumstances of worship. In Westminster Confession 21 we say, “…the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped 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.” The confession mentions two elements prayer (21.3) and the Word read, preached, and made visible in the sacraments (21.5). Those are the two elements of public worship. Circumstances are those things determined by nature (21.7), e.g., “a due proportion of time” or place or the language used. The failure to make this distinction either by ignoring it altogether or by confusing circumstances and elements has resulted in great mischief in Reformed congregations.

Another thing with which I’ve been impressed in recent years and which one notices in Ursinus’ definitions, is how narrowly “circumstances” is to be defined. It is not to be used to smuggle into worship the stuff that we want to do (will worship).

Ursinus gives this list of examples: 

of which kind are the time, the place, the form and order of sermons, prayers, reading in the church, fasts, the manner of proceeding in the election of ministers, in collecting and distributing alms, and things of a similar nature

None of the things Ursinus listed are actually religious in nature. In their nature circumstances do not involve our approach to God or our response to his Word. Those things are elements (word, sacrament, prayer). Circumstances are the times and places at which, and the languages with which we worship, but the way we respond to or approach God are regulated strictly by God’s Word. This is how the Reformed understood the function of the formal principle of the Reformation (sola Scripture) in worship.

In the middle of the 17th century John Owen said essentially the same thing:

Whatever is of circumstance in the manner of its performance, not capable of especial determination, as emerging or arising only occasionally, upon the doing of that which is appointed at this or that time, in this or that place, and the like, is left unto the rule of moral prudence, in whose observation their order doth consist. But the superaddition of ceremonies necessarily belonging neither to the institutions of worship nor unto those circumstances whose disposal falls under the rule of moral prudence, neither doth nor can add any thing unto the due order of gospel worship; so that they are altogether needless and useless in the worship of God.

An element is not morally indifferent. An element is morally and religiously obligated upon the Christian by God. A circumstance is morally indifferent. It may be done or omitted. As Bishop John Hooper argued in the 16th century, a circumstance neither adds anything to worship by its use or removes anything by its omission. Judging by some of the responses (private and public) to my criticisms of instruments it’s evident to me that many who defend uninspired songs and musical instruments as mere circumstances don’t really regard them as circumstances. As I keep saying, if I proposed moving the the 11AM service to 10AM, I doubt that people would be so passionate and even heated.

Praying at 10AM or 11AM neither adds anything to worship nor takes anything away. We can’t say the same thing about the use of uninspired songs and musical instruments. We can’t say the same thing about re-instating ceremonies or aspects of the Mosaic cultus (worship). Christian worship is semi-eschatological. It is  an act by those who have been united to Christ, the fulfillment of all the types and shadows. Why then would we want to re-introduce aspects of ceremonial, typological worship (e.g. musical instruments or animal sacrifices) into the worship of those who have been freed from the typologies?

Another way to sort out this question is to ask what “circumstances” and “elements” meant to those who gave us this distinction. Calvin, Ursinus, Ames, and Owen did not use uninspired songs and musical instruments in worship. When our catechisms and confessions were composed and adopted the intent was that Reformed congregations should sing God’s Word without instruments.

When instruments were first re-introduced into Reformed worship, after the Reformation, they were not re-introduced as circumstances but rather for pragmatic reasons. The defense of musical instruments and uninspired songs as “circumstances” was created after the fact (ex post facto) in order to rationalize our departure from the original Reformed understanding of the second commandment.

[This post appeared first on the HB in 2008]

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Dear Dr Clark,

    Thanks for the heads up on Ursinus. It’s fascinating indeed. Jeremiah Burrough’s Irenicum has an interesting discussion about “circumstances” that is nuanced slightly differently to Owen et. al.

    To speak frankly: I agree with the spirit of the RPW in that the Bible must dictate how we worship, however I have two problems with the classic developed view of the RPW a la the WCF:

    [1] I can’t find the distinction between elements and circumstances taught in Scripture (i.e. the categories I can’t find naturally arising from the text).

    [2] The category of “worship” for the new covenant gathering is tricky; nowhere does the NT ever say that the purpose of gathering is for “worship”. OT temple worship has been transformed by Christ to be now the worship of our whole lives (Rom. 12:1-2). Worship happens with all of life, because haveing been united to Christ we are the temple 24/7. The ostensible purpose of the NT gathering is edification / encouragement (1 Cor. 14:26; Heb. 10:24-25). Shoudn’t we rather speak of a RP Edification rather than RPW?

    I’m looking forward to your book later this year!

    God bless you.


  2. I’ve defended the use of a piano or acoustic guitar “to keep the congregation together and assist singing on key”, but I found that it was a constant battle to limit their use to that. Even from some of the most “truly reformed” I would hear arguments for what was basically mood music during parts of the service, or arguments that the number of instruments and quantity of instrumentation could be expanded as long as “it was quality.” I don’t agree with you that instruments can’t be used as a circumstance of worship–but I would say from experience that they tend toward becoming much more than an indifferent method of obeying God’s commands and end up becoming part of the piety itself. Buildings do the same thing also . Christmas and Easter and the like are the worst offenders… in my view.

  3. I agree (with an earlier post/comment) that our standards for singing are a little skewed. There’s no reason we can’t sing with understanding, reverence and awe, decency and order, etc. with just a melody line for example. Also, as a diverse pilgrim people I think we should expect and even be satisfied with a folksy kind of singing, which might mean weak intonation, less than perfect rhythm, but a whole lot o’ heart.

    Nevertheless, I think that some songs begin to lose their meaning and are distractingly difficult to sing if there is not someone leading the singing in a way that keeps a general sense of pitch and rhythm. Now, when I say “lose their meaning” I don’t intend to say “lose their emotional significance to me.” I’m talking about such a weak form being used that the content conveyed is negatively effected. Marshall McLuhan sort of stuff.

    So what if you had no such person to lead singing in your congregation? Perhaps rare, but certainly possible. Wouldn’t it be appropriate in such an instance to allow a single instrument to fill this need temporarily? I think so. Here the instrument is being used purely as a circumstance. . .

    Instruments are part of the civil kingdom, non-religious, and morally indifferent in their nature. But, I do recognize though that things morally indifferent, like bread and wine, can become elements. The same is true of instruments as you have shown in this and the other post.

    But, in this case the instrument has not become (or snuck in as) an element–thus losing its moral indifferent-ness as it did in the temple–by keeping it restricted to a limited and necessary function of aiding in the performance of an element, without which the element could not be done.

  4. Marty,

    You’re really questioning the validity of the RPW altogether aren’t you? By attempting to apply it to everything, ultimately, it applies to nothing. I tried to deal with this problem earlier. Even more fundamentally you’re ignoring the distinction between the cultic and non-cultic or sacred and secular or between the Kingdom of God (the church) and the Civil Kingdom (everything else) aren’t you?

    If so, given those premises, the RPW is doomed.

  5. Christopher,

    Let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that the 16th- and 17th-century Reformed were right about this and we’re wrong. How do you answer the criticism that what you’re really arguing is that “just a little, measured, violation of the law of God is useful to attaining a good end”?

    Second, doesn’t the history of modern worship scream to us that what you want can’t be done for more than a generation? What you’re proposing is that we be “conservative” rather than radical. Doctors don’t “conserve” cancer (if the earlier Reformed churches were correct), they cut it out. If you attempt to control cancer, it spreads, doesn’t it?

  6. Dr. Clark,

    I think there are two arguments here: first, one based an understanding of God’s law, and second one based on wisdom.

    First, I agree that we should not violate God’s law to try and attain good ends. However, if instruments are being used as purely circumstances, morally indifferent things being used only the for the necessity of doing an element, then we are not breaking God’s law. Just as we don’t break God’s law by meeting at 10 instead of 11.

    Second, on a wisdom level I totally agree with you. Shane’s point above is more proof of this. And if a session were to deciding whether to use an instrument in the circumstantial-very-limited-non-law-breaking-manner I proposed above, they should be aware of the tendencies of our culture and times and let those being an extra warning, that they should certainly not bring in an instrument unless they must.

    One other thing, you are, of course, right about the history modern worship. But, I don’t think that what I’m proposing would even need to be done for a generation. A person could be trained to sing over a few months.

    But, of course, the wisdom argument is irrelevant if it can be shown that using instruments always violates God’s law, that they are purely religious in nature and to use them would always mean adding another element. I don’t they are this though. So that would mean they are allowable, but only as true circumstances.

  7. Dear Dr Clark,

    Thanks for your reply. No, I’m certainly not denying the distinction between the Kingdom of God and secular govt. However, in the Christian life I don’t see a distinction between the sacred and the secular; everything we do is spiritual worship (“offer your body as a living sacrifice, this is your true spiritual worship”, Rom. 12:1). What I’m attempting to do is understand how the Bible speaks of “worship” (something a non-Christian cannot do given their outside of Christ) and how this relates to the new covenant gathering.

    Can I recommend a book that explains what I’m advocating in greater detail: David Peterson, “Engaging with God”. It’s a meticulous biblical study of (i) worship terminology in OT and NT, and (ii) the purpose of the new covenant gathering.

    Every blessing in Christ.

  8. Glad to see these issues being dealt with, Dr. Clark.

    If I may add further, musical instruments were
    1. the commanded accompaniment to the animal sacrifices in the temple.
    2. Like dancing and clapping, instruments signified the joy of the Holy Spirit in the Psalms.
    With Calvary and Pentecost, those types and shadows have been categorically fulfilled. Consequently the reformed have not historically believed that the church had liberty to bring these weak and beggarly elements back in to the worship, even on a purely “pragmatic” basis.

  9. Dr. Clark,
    Great Post! As you point out, instruments were brought in through the side door for pragmatic reasons, for example, ‘the organ will aid the congregation in lifting their praises to God’. But, according to the definition of a circumstance of worship, if your pragmatic addition to an element of worship is adding to the essence of that element you are in a sense adding strange fire, are you not?
    May the Lord bring an awakening to his church, beginning with those in leadership. That they would put off carnal arguments about how people might feel about this or that. That the Lord would bring about a fear and trembling with respect to His desires as opposed to fearing the face of man and the consequences of human actions.
    Be not deceived, God is not mocked, whatsoever a man sows that shall he also reap.

  10. Can you explain what you mean by claiming that only “inspired songs” are to be included in the corporate worship setting. I hear this a lot, and just can’t see the logic in equivocating between metrical versions of Scripture and the inspired autographs themselves. According to this logic, shouldn’t we attempt to dig up the original autographs, and sing them word for word? Even chanting English translations of the Scripture wouldn’t be the same as singing “inspired Scripture” since they are translations, not original copies. Wouldn’t a better line of argument run: “the regulative principle demands that Scripture alone be sung in the corporate worship setting”? I think this achieves the same goal as the “inspired Scripture argument” while being a little bit more reasonable in its assumptions.

  11. Thanks Dr. Clark. Ever since reading John Murray’s essays on exclusive Psalmody I’ve been curious about that particular line of argumentation.

  12. Jordan,
    have you had a chance to read Michael Bushell’s Songs of Zion published by the RPCNA’s C&C? He is an OPC ruling elder I believe. IMO it is the unanswered and unanswerable contemporary classic on psalmody. He also talks about the RPW in general and circumstances. Very rarely, if at all do I see it quoted in the literature opposing the position.

  13. Jordan & Dr. Clark,

    I agree that the RPW demands that we ought to sing Scripture however it would be wrong, I believe, to argue that we should therefore sing all of Scripture, or indeed that we should sing all of Scripture. I can’t imagine you are advocating singing 1 Chronicles 1-9 for instance!!

    We are to sing songs, and the RPW commands us to sing inspired songs. So we are to limit our singing to Scripture but only that Scripture that is to be sung (if that makes any sense!). The statement “we ought to sing Scripture” is to broad, for whilst all inspired songs are Scripture, not all Scripture are inspired songs. Therefore our position ought be to say that the RPW demands we sing inspired songs only.

    What then are inspired songs? Well we have OT songs including Exodus 15 and Judges 5. Also the Psalms. Are there any NT songs? I see no biblical evidence of NT songs: “And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,” (Luke 1:46); “And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying,” (Luke 1:67); and, “Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,” (Luke 2:28). These then were said, not sung.

    The question then is, does God want us to sing all inspired songs? The answer is a fairly simple no. It is highly doubtful that the songs in the OT were ever sung more than once (there are one or two exceptions but then these are commanded to be sung from generation to generation). However the Spirit has composed a Book of Praises or Book of Hymns or Book of Psalms that is made up of psalms, hymns and songs. We have then been told to sing “psalms”, “hymns” and “songs”. Hence I would argue that the exclusive use of the psalter is biblical. 🙂

  14. Interesting reposts from ’08, Dr. Clark. I too have thought of the “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” from Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 if I recall correctly. Can you help me to understand and distinguish between these from a biblical and historical perspective?

    In the “worship wars” I hear arguments back and forth about what we should sing, what makes a song fit or unfit for worship, etc. But these two similar passages stand out to me as representing at least part of an NT model for worship in musical form. Thank you!

  15. Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs is the trifold designation of the Psalter, just like the Law, the Prophets and the Writings are the designation of the Scriptures of the Old Testament.

    Spiritual songs must be those inspired by the Holy Spirit, not those counterfeits that seek to evoke a “spiritual feeling” in the singer or hearer. It was that seeking of a “spiritual feeling” that’s the subjectivism that lead to much of the trouble we see in the reformed churches today.

    Jesus Christ in his office of Prophet, by the agency of His Holy Spirit gave the church 150 perfect, inerrant and infallible songs collected for the worship of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, they all uniquely speak of Christ exactly as He wants us to think about Him (and His work) as we sing His praise. These 150 perfect songs as a collection is what He revealed to us for His worship in song.

    Who is man to lay aside the Word of God in favor of his own devices? Who is man to put his own word on par with God’s word, in mixing his own songs with the Psalter? Is worship about the creature or the Creator, can man praise God by his own uninspired (and therefore necessarily by definition non-Spiritual) songs?

  16. As an old-fashioned Reformed and Presbyterian Scot I feel it necessary to point out that WCF 21.5 also includes “singing of Psalms with grace in the heart” between the clauses on Word and sacraments as parts of the ordinary religious worship of God. Acapella from the 150 canonical Psalms. God’s own Word sung with the only accompaniment that is sweet to God’s ears, a heart full of love. There is a sense in which God isn’t interested in the noise we make, only our grace-notes.

Comments are closed.