During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, one of the doctrines in which the Reformers saw a particular need for reforming was the doctrine of worship. In his 1543 treatise The Necessity of Reforming the Church, John Calvin (1509–64) wrote, “All our controversies concerning doctrine relate either to the legitimate worship of God, or to the ground of salvation.”1 It may come as a surprise to many in Reformed churches today that worship was so highly regarded by the Reformers that Calvin would list it along with, and even prior to, the doctrine of salvation. The Reformers knew that the doctrine of the legitimate worship of God was a teaching they had to expound upon and protect from the idolatrous hearts and minds of their day. Likewise in our day, the issue of Reformed worship needs clarity and a good defense, which we will explore in this two-part series.
The Regulative Principle, or the Rule of Worship
The doctrine of the legitimate worship of God, which the Reformers often called the Rule of Worship, and which is commonly referred to today as the Regulative Principle of Worship (hereafter RPW), is one that is laid out plainly in nearly all Reformed confessions and catechisms. Not only does its codification in Reformed documents highlight its significance, but these are documents that most Reformed ministers, elders, deacons, and even many church members have publicly subscribed to (be it fully, mostly, or as in many cases, nominally). The RPW ought to therefore be carefully considered, rightly understood, accurately taught and defended by ministers, sessions, and teachers in our context today.
Regarding its presence in Reformed documents, the RPW appears in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), which exposits the second commandment in this way,
96. What does God require in the second Commandment?
That we in no way make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.2
The principle is clear. Not only does the second commandment prevent the people of God from imaging him, but more than that, it is God who decides how we are to worship him, and he does so in his revealed will, the Bible. This means that when it comes to the worship of God, the question that we ask is not, “How do I want to worship?” but rather, “How does God command us to worship?”
The Heidelberg Catechism’s author, Zacharius Ursinus (1534–83), commented on its exposition of the second commandment thus,
The true worship of God is, therefore, here enjoyed, and a rule at the same time given, that we sacredly and conscientiously keep ourselves within the bounds which God has prescribed, and that we do not add anything to that worship which by God has been divinely instituted.3
The RPW is therefore not about our feelings, or doing what makes us happy, or getting in the right mood to worship, but considering and heeding what God has prescribed in his Word and thus doing it.
Another Reformed document, the Belgic Confession (1561) put it this way in its 7th Article, “The Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures to be the Only Rule of Faith,”
We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that 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 that we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures.4
The principle is clear: God lays out his only rule for worship in the Holy Scriptures.
Careful attention must also be paid to the difference between the worship of the Old or Mosaic Covenant and that of the New Covenant made in the blood of Christ. As the Belgic Confession stated in its 25th Article, “The Abolishing of the Ceremonial Law,”
We believe that the ceremonies and symbols of the law ceased at the coming of Christ, and that all the shadows are accomplished; so that the use of them must be abolished among Christians; yet the truth and substance of them remain with us in Jesus Christ, in whom they have their completion.5
So, what ought New Covenant believers be doing with respect to the worship of God? That which is prescribed in the New Testament for Christians. As chapter 21, paragraph 1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) stated:
[T]he acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited to his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.6
And specifically, in 21.5,
The reading of Scriptures with godly fear; the sound preaching; and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God with understanding, faith, and reverence; singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ; are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God.7
It can be said then, that regardless of the century or geographical location, the Reformed viewed this rule in a similar way. That is, God is the one who decides how he is to be worshiped and he does this clearly, in his Word.
An additional aspect of the RPW is its connection with the doctrine of liberty of conscience. As the Westminster Confession has described it,
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience.8
Applied to worship, this doctrine means that one does not have to participate in worship practices that have not been warranted by Scripture, and to do so would be to betray the liberty of conscience which Christ has purchased in his death.
In addition to the Reformed confessions and catechisms, during the time of the Reformation, there were several treatises and headings written on the topic of worship. One example is George Gillespie’s Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies Obtruded on the Church of Scotland (hereafter EPC).
Gillespie (1613–48), a Scottish Reformed theologian and minister, was the youngest of six Scottish ministers sent as commissioners to the Westminster Assembly. His argument in EPC clearly, fiercely, and thoroughly decimated the reasoning behind the English Church’s idolatrous worship practices, which by his time were being forced upon the ministers and people of the Reformed churches of Scotland (Presbyterians) with the threat of punishments such as fines, censure, imprisonment, and banishment.
The context of Gillespie’s treatise was quite different from that of the First Reformation in Scotland during the time of John Knox. After the death of Knox in 1572 and the uniting of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England under one crown in 1603 (James VI of Scotland, I of England), the Reformed Church of Scotland suffered under the ceremonies and punishments imposed by the English. The Articles of Perth (1618) were one example of these impositions. These articles compelled the Scots to kneel at communion, observe holy days beside the Lord’s Day, and required ministers to receive episcopal ordination and administer the sacraments privately.9 The Scots saw these ceremonies as commensurate to popery.
The burden upon the Scottish churches culminated in 1637 with the reading of Archbishop William Laud’s prayer book in the Scots’ worship services. The famous Jenney Geddes chair-throwing incident ensued. Shortly thereafter, Gillespie’s treatise was published anonymously. He was 24 years old at the time of publication. Rather than respond to its arguments, the English had the book burned. It was too late, however, as the flames of reform had already spread throughout Scotland.
In the opening of his discourse, Gillespie called on his countrymen to “turn from the rotten dregs of popery, which were never purged away from England, Ireland, and having once been spewed out with detestation, are licked up again in Scotland.”10 He also warned his Reformed brethren,
If you misregard11 these things whereof, in the name of God, I have admonished you, and draw back your helping hands from the reproached and afflicted cause of Christ, for which we plead, then do not put evil far from you, for wrath is determined against you…O Scotland! Understand and turn again, or else, as God lives, most terrible judgments are abiding you.12
What follows in part two of this essay is a survey of his treatise and the arguments contained therein with the purpose of exposing present day Christians to a 17th-century defense of the RPW and encouraging those who identify as Reformed to not only read the EPC in its entirety, but also to learn, defend, and practice the RPW in their own churches, presbyteries, and classes.
©Scott McDermand II. All Rights Reserved.
Part Two. (To be published March 16, 2023)
1. John Calvin, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church,” in Calvin: Theological Treatises, ed. and transl., J. K. S. Reid (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1954, 2006), 187.
2. From James T. Dennison, ed. Reformed Confessions of the 16th 17th Centuries in English Translation 4 Vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 2.792.
3. Zacharius Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharius Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, transl. G. W. Willard (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1852), 517.
4. Reformed Confessions, 2.427.
5. Ibid, 2.439.
6. The Westminster Confession of Faith (London, 1646), 34.
8. Ibid, 33.
9. Roy Middleton, “Historical Introduction,” in George Gillespie, A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies, ed. Chris Coldwell (Dallas: Naphtali Press, 2013), xxii–xxiv.
10. Gillespie, EPC, 5.
11. To despise, or disregard.
12. Gillespie, EPC, 19.
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