In July, 2013 Trip Lee published a provocative essay, to which I was just pointed via Twitter. The original piece has been removed but a remnant remains at the Aquila Report. My intent here is not to engage the piece at length because I think I share some of Lee’s concerns. It will probably be more helpful for me to try to show that, in fact, though the regulative principle of worship does lead us to a certain unity, it does not result in uniformity. There is diversity within unity and unity within diversity.
Let’s define our terms. Lee mentions the “regulative principle of worship” (hereafter RPW). This is shorthand for what all Presbyterian and Reformed churches confess in the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Standards about how we understand the sole, unique authority of Scripture relative to public worship. When we speak of the RPW, we’re speaking about the principle by which our public worship services are governed.
Belgic Confession (1561), art. 7 says, in part:
We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures….
Therefore we reject all human innovations and all laws imposed on us, in our worship of God, which bind and force our consciences in any way (art. 32).
The Heidelberg Catechism (1563)
96. What does God require in the second Commandment?
That we in no wise make any image of God,1 nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (1648), ch. 21 says, in part:
But 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 churches that confess the RPW distinguish between the elements and circumstances of worship. Elements are those without which there is no proper worship. Those lists of elements vary, fundamentally, there are two: Word and prayer. The Word is read, preached, and made visible in the sacraments. Prayer is our response to God’s Word. Circumstances are those few things, as we say in WCF 21, that are determined by the light of nature. Now, the tendency in the modern period, has been to elaborate the list of circumstances but when the divines spoke about the “light of nature” they were thinking of those things that are unavoidable. E.g., A service must be held at some time of day. When is determined by the light of nature. It must be held in some language (i.e., the predominant language of the congregation). That is determined by the light of nature. Certainly not everything we might like to do may be described as a circumstance and thereby justified. For more on this listen to the most recent Heidelcast on the second commandment. You can read about the history of Christian worship and the its reformation in Recovering the Reformed Confession.
The RPW thus wants us to ask one question when organizing a worship service: what has God commanded or what must we do? Other Christian traditions, which follow a different principle (sometimes called the normative principle of worship) ask a different question: what may we do? In those traditions the confession is that we do in public worship whatever is not forbidden.
As the Reformed churches reformed their worship according to the RPW in the 16th and 17th centuries there was some variety or diversity within their unity. Calvin counseled patience to those in Frankfurt who were unhappy with the pace of Reformation as he counseled Anglicans to stop doing silly things like making communion bread in figures. He never wavered in his articulation of the RPW, however.1 So, some churches observed some of the “evangelical” days of the old church calendar (e.g., Christmas, Easter, Pentecost) while others rejected all days but the Christian Sabbath.2 The Reformed and Presbyterian services were fundamentally united not only by the RPW but by a dialogical understanding of worship, that God speaks to us in his Word and we respond with his Word. In Geneva, however, the congregation sang the Apostles’ Creed as a summary of the Word and responded to the Word with canonical songs beyond the Psalter. Other parts of the tradition responded only with the Psalms. It is frequently assumed and it has been argued that the churches sang more than canonical songs. Certainly it is true that the Dutch Reformed Churches struggled to persuade the people to sing only God’s Word (and to attend the second service). It may be that Presbyterian churches in the British Isles, prior to the Westminster Assembly (1640s) sang non-canonical hymns but it seems clear that the intent of the divines was to sing canonical psalms in public worship.3
There is also unity in diversity. There was widespread agreement by the churches that use of musical instruments in public worship belonged to the typological (Old Testament) period of redemptive history that has been fulfilled by Christ. Thus, in Geneva, Zürich, London, Heidelberg, the Netherlands, France, and elsewhere the Reformed and Presbyterian churches did not use musical instruments in public worship. In so doing they believed that not only were they following God’s Word but also recapturing the earliest Christian practice.
It is true, as in this post, that most of the time when the RPW is discussed, it is done in the context of European history. Does that mean that all RPW churches must use European tunes and customs? Not at all. Remember, the first Christians to practice the RPW were neither sixteenth-century Europeans or nor sixteenth-century British Christians. They were Jewish and Gentile Christians in Palestine and the ancient Greco-Roman world. They were Greeks, Africans, and Romans. They were from what we today know as central Turkey (Asia Minor). In other words people came to faith from a variety of cultural-linguistic backgrounds. Remember that the one of the greatest questions of the Apostolic period was what to do with Gentile converts. The church (Acts 15) ruled that Gentiles need not keep the Mosaic ceremonial laws. They were only to refrain from a couple of things. Gentiles need not become Jews in order to become Christians.
The early post-apostolic church became predominantly Gentile but it was still culturally diverse. Still, they agreed about not using instruments in public worship, not for cultural reasons but because of a shared reading of redemptive history. They sang God’s Word together because it unites God’s people across all cultures. Whatever our cultural background, the story of redemption belongs to all of us.
Today there are RPW observing churches across the globe, in many different cultural-linguistic settings. There’s nothing about the RPW that requires us to use Genevan tunes to sing God’s Word. Those tunes were adapted from their setting. Any tune that is appropriate for public worship may be used. Tunes are circumstances, i.e., determined by the light of nature. The same is true of rhythm and meter. So, while we should all be administering God’s Word and responding to that Word with his Word, that response will likely sound different from place to place. We should expect songs in Kobe, Japan and the Democratic Republic of Congo are bound to sound different from the worship of Reformed and Presbyterian churches in the USA and the UK. That’s as it should be.
The RPW is not a vehicle for covert cultural imperialism or snobbery. There is genuine diversity, according to the light of nature, but when it comes to the elements, to the ministry of the Word and the congregation’s response, we should be unified by our common commitment to that Scriptures as that which regulates all that we do, which protects our Christian liberty, and which binds us all together in Christ across time, place, and language. Christ is gathering a people for himself from “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9) to praise of his glorious grace.
1. See “Calvin’s Principle of Worship,” in ed. David Hall, Tributes to John Calvin: A Celebration of his Quincentenary (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2010), 247–69.
2. The Church Order of the Synod of Dort (1619), says:
63. The Lord’s Supper shall be administered once every two months, as much as possible. It is also edifying, wherever the circumstances of the churches allow, that the same be done on Easter, Pentecost and Christmas. But in places where as yet there is no organized congregation, elders and deacons shall first be provisionally installed.
3. For more on this see these posts
- Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs in the LXX
- Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs in the Latin Bibles
- Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs in the Latin Bibles (2)
- What Did the Divines Mean By Psalms?