What’s Wrong with the Regulative Principle?

“In its worship, the church is to be so guided by Scripture that it must include only those elements for which there is a Scriptural basis, whether it be by way of command or example.”

There are of course looser and stricter applications of this rule, and many of the stricter ones seem to reach bizarrely unbiblical conclusions, such as excluding all musical instruments (um, ever read the Psalms, fellas?).  In principle, though, regulativists agree in denying the so-called “normative principle,” viz., that the Church may worship in any way that is not forbidden by Scripture.  

 

After two weeks of hibernation (well, excluding the comments thread on the most recent post), the lights will be slowly flickering back on here.  And where better to re-start than with S&P’s patron saint, Richard Hooker?  In this post, I want to look squarely at a question that has been dancing around in the background of many of my Hooker and Puritanism posts, and much of my research on those topics: What did Hooker think about the so-called “regulative principle of worship”?  

The RPW, as any self-respecting Presbyterian knows, runs something like this: “In its worship, the church is to be so guided by Scripture that it must include only those elements for which there is a Scriptural basis, whether it be by way of command or example.”  There are of course looser and stricter applications of this rule, and many of the stricter ones seem to reach bizarrely unbiblical conclusions, such as excluding all musical instruments (um, ever read the Psalms, fellas?).  In principle, though, regulativists agree in denying the so-called “normative principle,” viz., that the Church may worship in any way that is not forbidden by Scripture.  

In reality, of course, the practical difference between the two parties—at any rate with mature, intelligent, and theologically sensitive representatives of them—turns out to be rather less than that bald opposition implies.  For both sides can usually recognize that Scripture offers much more than merely commands and prohibitions; for the most part, it offers principles and historical examples that can and should inform our worship, but in indirect ways that do not necessarily admit of one-to-one application.  Both sides usually draw upon historical precedents as well in forming their liturgies.  The difference then often reduces to one of emphasis, so that regulativists say, “We need to let our worship be always guided by Scripture, always mindful of course of history and common sense” and normativists say “We need to let our worship be guided by history and common sense, always mindful of course of Scripture.”

In particular, the differences are blurred by a key qualification that advocates of the regulative principle have, since their earliest days, had to make: we must distinguish, they say, between “elements” and “circumstances” of worship.  The former are perpetual, essential, commanded by God in Scripture, and must be justified out of it; so we cannot add any additional elements not given in Scripture.  The latter are variable, accidental, not necessarily given in Scripture, and open to improvisation within the general rules of Scripture.  The first consist of the basic building blocks of worship, the latter of the particular ways in which they are manifested in a particular congregation.  It is not hard to see how such a distinction could admit of enormous elasticity.  So, for instance, a loose regulativist might well say merely that “songs of praise” are an “element” whereas the selection of what to sing, how to sing it, and how to accompany it, are “circumstances” that may vary a great deal, and for which we need not seek detailed Scriptural justification.  Stricter regulativists, however, might well contend that the use of musical instruments constitutes an “element,” not a “circumstance,” or that, if singing is an “element,” only Scriptural words must be sung.  A thoughtful non-regulativist, on the other hand, if pressed, could justify many liturgical practices, whether traditional (e.g., a liturgical procession) or contemporary (e.g., a skit) as a “circumstance” or a form of embodying one of the basic elements—prayer, praise, proclamation, offerings, and sacraments.

Moreover, not only must it be conceded that some things may clearly be done in worship that are not prescribed in Scripture, but it also seems clear that not all things prescribed in Scripture for worship must be done in our worship.  Most regulativists today tend to also be cessationists, maintaining that the gift of tongues has ceased and therefore was not intended as a permanent fixture of Christian worship.  

On these basis, some critics have suggested that the terminology of the regulative principle vs. the normative principle isn’t all that useful.  

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