Renewed And Improved: Gillespie Against The Normative Principle Of Worship

gillespie-english-popish-ceremoniesWhen I first came into contact with the Reformed faith about 33 years ago, there were two things that Reformed folk had to believe: divine sovereignty and the inerrancy of Scripture. It’s not that we actively disbelieved the other elements of the Reformed confession as much as they weren’t discussed or always practiced. Today, when evangelicals say, “She’s Reformed” what they mean is, “She believes in divine sovereignty in salvation.” If anything, the minimalist definition seems even more deeply entrenched than it was 33 years ago. Nevertheless, it’s a woefully incomplete definition. Yes, Reformed folk do certainly believe in divine sovereignty and in the inerrancy of Scripture but we also confess much more than those two things.

If we think of the Reformed faith as a train, near the way car (the caboose, i.e., eschatology) would be the doctrine of the church and within that car would the theology, piety, and practice of worship. To continue the metaphor, where we have formally retained most of the other cars in the Reformed train, it is evident that, in many places, the church and worship car has been set aside.

Question: has our principle of worship changed since the Reformation? Answer: No. How do I know that? From the Reformed confessions. We have not revised our confessions on the theology, piety, and practice of public worship. We still confess, Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 96, Belgic Confession Articles 7, and 32, and Westminster Confession chapter 21. If that is so it would seem that our practice of worship should be virtually identical to that of the Reformation (and post-Reformation) Reformed churches. It is not. There were no praise teams/bands, organs, solos, or choirs in the classic Reformed period. This fact should produce in us what scholars call “cognitive dissonance,” i.e., “the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, esp. as relating to behavioral decisions andattitude change.” If we still confess the same principles we did in the classic period why is our practice so radically different?

Most often, I suspect, our practice has gradually been conformed to the prevailing pattern around us because 1)  we no longer know what we confess; 2) because we don’t know how what we confess was originally understood.

The first part of the remedy is quite simple. We can easily remedy ignorance by learning. This volume by George Gillespie, English Popish Ceremonies is a great place to start. This volume, along with William Ames’ Fresh Suit Against Human Ceremonies, is one of the foundational texts of the Reformed tradition on worship.

My friend and colleague Bob Godfrey writes about this volume,

Gillespie’s famous book is a vitally important work in the history of the Scottish Reformation, but it is much more than simply that. It has abiding and profound value for all who are committed to knowing, applying, and following the Word of God on the proper worship of the church. With great insight and passion Gillespie pursues the freedom of the church from political interference and from ecclesiastical tyranny as well as the freedom of the individual Christian conscience from the burden of tradition. He rejoiced that the Church of Scotland had gotten “rid of all such rotten relics, riven [torn] rags, and rotten remainders of Popery” and feared that they were now returning by political fiat. He warned, “there is not a more deceitful and dangerous temptation than in yielding to the beginnings of evil.” This splendid edition makes Gillespie’s demanding work more accessible to the modern reader and encourages careful reading of this vastly rewarding study.

Chris Coldwell, the publisher, writes that this new edition marks the 400th anniversary of Gillespie’s birth. The work contains over 1000 citations from “nearly 200 authors and 300 works” and all these references have been “carefully traced and confirmed for this new edition, greatly expanding the footnotes over those in the 1993 edition.” Once you’ve read this volume, you’ll appreciate why this “24 year old astounded his contemporaries…and why the Dispute merited a place for Gillespie at the Westminster Assembly of Divines, where he helped shape Presbyterian doctrine for centuries to come.”

The second part of the remedy for our present situation, of course, will be much more difficult and painful. Having learned how our confession and principles were originally understood and intended we shall have to make some difficult decisions but first things first. Naphtali Press is offering English Popish Ceremonies at a pre-publication price of $19.95. Chris does a brilliant job with his books.  This is a great price for a valuable work.

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  1. Thanks for the post, Dr. Clark.

    Yet with all due respect, more to the point the reformed church does NOT know why or what it means to be reformed because for all practical purposes she has forgotten that at the Reformation, the reformed churches of Christ reformed their doctrine, worship and government on the basis of Scripture alone, thereby seceding at the same time from the deformed Roman church in both principle and practice.

    IOW while all protestant churches adhere to Sola Scriptura, only the P&R went on to apply SS to worship – in what is called the Regulative Principle – and to church government – in what is called Jus Divinum/Divine Rule. Or if you will, the sovereignty of God manifests itself not only in SS, but also RPW and JD.

    After all, Christ is not only the great prophet, but also the great high priest and king of his church. Therefore not only what is taught, but how his church worships and is governed are questions of moment, rather than mere items of indifference/adiaphora.

    Further, along with Naphtali’s reprint of Gillespie, Puritan Reprints has (what else?) reprinted William Ames’s Fresh Suit Against Human Ceremonies in 2 h.b. facsimile volumes. They are well worth it at $20 a piece for students of the history and question of reformed worship.

    Thanks again for the post.

  2. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. As a second to your motion, I’m going to paste in here a recommendation I sent to some of the brethren at our local church:

    “I try not to inundate my friends with recommendations for reading material. I usually have too long a list of my own choosing to take such recommendations very seriously myself, but because of its great value, I wanted to bring a recent reprint of George Gillespie’s Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies to your attention.

    This book is not easy to read, and you might have difficulty opening it and quickly finding the answer to a specific question you may have formed. The great value of the book is that, in the same way Calvin’s Institutes does with respect to the Reformed faith in general, it conveys the “culture” of what the Reformed faith is in regard to worship. Culture, I think, can be summarized as a set of presuppositions that provide the context for our thinking and beliefs. It’s my observation, having been in discussion with fellow believers over the past 25 years on the subject of Reformed worship, that the lack of a common culture (or rather, a lack of a part of that culture, since much of our culture in general is, in fact, shared with fellow Reformed believers) is what makes it so difficult for people to communicate on issues like this one.

    The reason Gillespie is so good at imparting culture is because of the manner in which he leads the reader through a series of answers to objections to the Reformed doctrine of worship, and in the variety of directions from which he launches attacks and destroys them. Many of these objections, coming from Roman Catholic and Anglican thought, sound plausible on the face of them, but when Gillespie is finished, his case is entirely convincing. In that fashion, he undermines one’s confidence in one’s own instinctive patterns of thought, which unfortunately, is the place most of us stop when confronted with new ideas, and opens the way for the reception of the biblical view.

    Modern books on worship, even good ones, do not lead you through the extensive thinking exercises that Gillespie’s book does. They follow more the course of historical survey and brief proof texting, which is valuable in its own way, but it’s not quite the same as what you get from Gillespie.”

  3. Not Al, but George Gillespie painted with long hair (because the reformers of his day grew their hair out in protest to an imposed hair cut style by the bishops if I recall rightly. As to the difficulty of the book, I’ve done everything I can to make it less so. What would be mysterious references to most, all the citations have been traced and you can check all the sources he cites pro and contra (even if you hate Gillespie as I’m told certain modern AnglicCatholics do, you’ll find the source of all the Catholic and Episcopal argumentation). There is also a summary overview and analysis that should help ease into the work, and there will be an even longer “CliffNotes” version appearing in the forthcoming issue of The Confessional Presbyterian that descends to the chapter level and ended up being much too long to run in the book (would have added a 100 pages to the book). See The prepub offer is good for another two weeks or so; once I get a confirmed ship date I’ll raise prices; offer has been extended to Canada and International locations as well.

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