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All I Really Need to Know About Worship... I Don't Learn from the Regulative Principle (Part XI)

By Steve M. Schlissel
July 01, 2000

When History Won't Do, Redo
Speaking of history, let's move on to it. For the regulativist has imposed his RPW assumption not only on the Bible's history, not only on the Westminster Assembly's actual teaching, not only. on the Second Commandment, but he's also sought to impose it on Continental Reformed churches. We now hear the rather audacious assertion that no one can honestly call himself Reformed unless he subscribes to the RPW. With the stroke of a pen, a vast segment of the Reformed world is simply removed from the roster. It seems that some regulativists not only cannot abide Scripture's testimony against their tradition; they feel compelled to revise history too.

Now before we proceed with a discussion of this point, let us reiterate that we do not wish to dispute that this or that Reformer, or even a majority, may have personally adhered to the RPW like wet on water. (We do not regard as blasphemy the proposition that Calvin or others were wrong on points.) So let us grant for the sake of argument that the hymn-writing Calvin was really a regulativist. Fine. What we do dispute is the assumption that all ministers and churches in the Reformed tradition have regarded the RPW as an essential component of our Reformed confession.

For we have recently heard the charge that a minister who signs a subscription to the Three Forms of Unity (the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt) cannot retain his integrity as an oath-keeper if he rejects the Regulative Principle of Worship. Such a charge that one cannot legitimately claim to be Reformed unless one holds to the RPW viewed against Continental (and other) Reformed history, leaves one breathless. We are led to wonder if the advocates of the RPW can honor any limits in controlling their urge to assume what they ought to prove.

In an effort to keep this brief (Heidelberg #96 has already been discussed), I will hunt and peck for evidence to demonstrate that the above allegation is not merely untrue, it is unbecoming. Let's begin with the man who supervised the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism. Frederick III was to the end of his life, the great supporter by both troops and money of the Reformed church in both France and the Netherlands.1 But was he a regulativist?

Not according to the yardstick employed by some sons of Westminster. Rev. Robert Davis, a Reformed (RCUS) minister, has shown that when Frederick III came to power the need for a German Reformed Hymnal was a high priority after the Catechism and Directory of Worship was printed in 1563. Work on the hymnal was begun in 1565 and by 1567 the first Palatinate hymnal was in circulation.The musical section of the hymnal is separated into three divisions: Psalter, Canticles, and Hymns. This German Reformed Hymnal had 44 Psalms and 66 Hymns. The sources for the canticle and hymnal sections are as follows: 21 are from Martin Luther, 21 are from other Lutheran authors, 11 stem from Reformed circles, 6 from the Bohemian Brethren, 3 from Bonn, 2 are pre-reformation and 2 unique to the Palatinate itself.

So much for exclusive Psalmody being a condition of Reformed-ness. As van Popta has written, A careful reading of [the] data demonstrates that throughout history the Reformed Churches had a thread that allowed for hymns. One might dispute the validity of hymn singing, but one cannot dispute that the Reformed churches have sung hymns in church for centuries.

Oh, Henry!
But there is much more. The Second Helvetic Confession was adopted, or at least highly approved, by nearly all the Reformed Churches on the Continent and in England and Scotland.2 Its author, the esteemed Henry Bullinger, exerted a commanding influence throughout the Reformed Church, second only to Calvin. He was in friendly correspondence with Calvin, Bucer, Melanchton, Laski, Beza, Cranmer, Hooper, Lady Jane Grey, and the leading Protestant divines and dignitaries of England.

As to theological merit, [the Second Helvetic] occupies the first rank among the Reformed Confessions.

Have you ever read it? It's marvelous! Here is an excerpt from Chapter XXIV. Reading it will make it plain that the Reformers were by no means of one mind concerning special days and, hence, they were not of one mind concerning the RPW. Thus it is spurious to make the RPW a determinative factor in deciding who may be called Reformed. Listen to how balanced the Reformed faith is:

If in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord's nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly. But we do not approve of feasts instituted for men and for saints. Holy days have to do with the first Table of the Law and belong to God alone. Finally, holy days which have been instituted for the saints and which we have abolished, have much that is absurd and useless, and are not to be tolerated. In the meantime, we confess that the remembrance of saints, at a suitable time and place, is to be profitably commended to the people in sermons, and the holy examples of the saints set forth to be imitated by all.

No man in his right mind could have written this while believing, If it is not commanded, it is forbidden. Yet, next to the Heidelberg, the Helvetic is the most widely adopted, and hence the most authoritative of all the Continental Reformed symbols (Schaff; italics added). It is most interesting that the religious celebration of Christmas, etc., is justified with an appeal to the First Table, home of the Second Commandment! Moreover, the church is seen as exercising its Christian liberty in choosing to celebrate such events, whereas regulativists claim they are guarding Christian liberty by forbidding such celebrations. Hmmm.

Bullinger picks up the theme of liberty again in Chapter XXVII: If different rites are found in churches, no one should think for this reason the churches disagree. Socrates (not the Greek philosopher; the church historian, surnamed Scholasticus, 380-405) says: It would be impossible to put together in writing all the rites of churches throughout cities and countries. No religion observes the same rites, even though it embraces the same doctrine concerning them. For those who are of the same faith disagree among themselves about rites (Hist. ecclesiast. V.22, 30, 62). This much says Socrates. And we, today, having in our churches different rites in the celebration of the Lord's Supper and in some other things, nevertheless do not disagree in doctrine and faith; nor is the unity and fellowship of our churches thereby rent asunder. For the churches have always used their liberty in such rites, as being things indifferent. We also do the same thing today.

Well, not all of us. Please pay careful attention. Chris Coldwell brings to our attention a very different spirit which emerged 80 years later and continues to today. The appendix to the [Westminster] Directory [of Publick Worship] is entitled, An Appendix, Touching Days and Places for Publick Worship.' The key clause of interest to this study is, Festival days, vulgarly [commonly] called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.' The Directory is explicitly against the observance of set holy days,' and in light of the wide adoption of the document noted above, it is clear that this rejection was endorsed by the governments and churches of England and Scotland.

It seems fair to conclude that some sons of Westminster began to use the RPW like a blanket. They smothered the spirit of liberty which had characterized the earlier Reformed faith, the very liberty articulated by Bullinger and widely embraced in subscription to the most authoritative of the Continental Reformed creeds. Their blanket woven from unproved assumptions is now routinely tossed by regulativists upon everything that stands against their theory, from the Bible to history. It's time to pull the covers. Rev. John Barach (United Reformed Churches of North America) is among several of my friends who has called my attention to significant insights from church historian, Hughes Oliphant Old. The following is especially pertinent, demonstrating as it does that the RPW was by no means uniformly held by Reformers:

We take it as a basic principle of our inquiry, then, that it is to Scripture, first of all, that we must go when we would try to find an answer to our questions about the meaning of worship. That our worship should be according to Scripture is obviously one of the principles that we have inherited from the Protestant Reformation. Early in the Reformation it was expressed by Martin Bucer in his Grund und Ursach. It was developed with particular clarity by John Oecolampadius, who distinguished the principle from a naive biblicism. There had been those who felt that worship was biblical as long as nothing was done that was expressly forbidden in Scripture. On the other hand, there were those who insisted that for worship to be biblical, only that could be done which was commanded in Scripture. As Oecolampadius saw it, neither of these approaches is satisfactory. He developed the principle that our worship should be according to Scripture. To be sure, we do not find a ready-made liturgy in the Bible, but we do find many teachings about worship. In the sacred pages we find all kinds of examples of worship that was genuine, true, and spiritual. We discover general principles for doing things decently and in order that we should follow in our worship. That our worship should be according to Scripture is a sound principle.3

So much for the notion that the Informed Principle of Worship is a novelty emanating from some Jewish fiction writer in Brooklyn. This is an approach that goes right back to the center of the Reformation, and I mean the center: It rejects both extremes.

It is an indisputable fact of history: the churches which have employed the Three Forms of Unity as summary statements of their Biblical convictions have not heard them say what regulativists force them to say. The books in which the Three Forms of Unity were bound were Psalter-Hymnals. The Church Order to which subscribers were bound included the requirement that Worship services shall be held in observance of Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost, and ordinarily on Old and New Year's Day. The men who adopted these Confessional statements and the church order were not schizophrenic, and neither are their sons. They knew very well that there are no commands to worship on the days indicated. Nor is there a command to worship twice on the Lord's Day. Yet they felt, and continue to feel, no contradiction between these practices and sincere subscription to the Three Forms.

When the Whip Comes Down
The problem is not a Reformed one. To be perfectly frank, it is a Presbyterian one. Not all Presbyterians are guilty, to be sure, just as not all Reformed are innocent. But the RPW is held as a given far more commonly among Presbyterians. And it is often joined to the conviction that all the wide world must be compelled to conform to this odd and extra-Biblical principle. It stands against Christian liberty just as other oddities of a like fundamentalism do: no long hair for men, no short hair for women, no pants for women, no kilts for men, no smoking, no drinking, no movies, and so on. I've already written that there are many good reasons that will lead sincere worshippers toward a worship style that very much resembles regulative worship. But these reasons must be advanced along a path paved with wisdom. Wisdom has fallen on hard times. Like Dylan said, We live in a political world. Wisdom is thrown into jail. It rots in a cell, discarded as hell, leavin' no one to pick up the trail. We should be able to commend Reformed worship to people without relying upon unproved assumptions, legalisms, and impositions. A colleague in Virginia characterized the RPW as Presbytyranny. Too often this is true. For regulativists sometimes blithely eschew the sound reasoning that might persuade people of whatever wisdom there may be in the practices or convictions they advocate. Instead they try to impose them upon God's people.

Some have objected to this characterization. One friend from the OPC has recorded, I am constrained to point out that this is a serious misrepresentation! I do not know, and I have not even heard, of anyone who has ever been forced' to accept the RPW. Allow me to enlighten my brother. Space limits me to two examples.4 We could start a Recovering Regulativists Anonymous movement.

Dear Rev. Schlissel, I am writing to tell you how much I have been blessed and helped by your series on worship. Three years ago our new, struggling, [denomination- named-here] church plant was literally torn in two by the first pastor we called. A few months into the call it became evident that he was a minimalist. He became very contentious over things such as offertory music and preludes as we gathered for worship. Finally he revealed that he was an exclusive Psalmist. That was pretty unheard of around these parts. Needless-to-say, we got a crash course in Reformed worship. He became an authority on the evil motives of anyone's worship that did not agree with his. It was a horrible ordeal that scattered the small flock we had labored for 2 years to gather.

Notwithstanding the dreadful introduction the above-quoted correspondent had to RPW-style worship, this child of God could still write to me: In spite of that experience I am very convicted that I need to learn to sing the Psalms. Which Psalter would you recommend for a neophyte like myself? Are there any good tapes to help one learn to sing the Psalms? This person became convicted of the need to sing Psalms from hearing a series on the Informed Principle of Worship.

In another incident, in another state, a recovering regulativist could write to a colleague:

Dear Pastor, Thank you for forwarding the email on the RPW. It is more familiar than you know. We were just talking about this last night. The three of us and one of [Name's] friends were singing some chorus songs and reflected on it afterwards. We found that there was still a feeling of guilt; a sense that we could not sing some of these songs from the heart or with a pure conscience. Things such as private and public worship regulations were swimming around in our heads. Old sermons preached on the importance of exclusive psalmody in the worship service popped back into our memory. One of us said [unnamed pastor] was so intelligent I couldn't even question him. We couldn't even question his conclusions. He used Scripture like the good exegete that he was! It was so difficult to fight back even though deep down I knew there was something wrong.

Good friends around me began to embrace this doctrine; they were dropping like flies. I also had my moment of embrace but I soon saw the fruit of this doctrine. My questions and rebuttals would be thrust back into my face with the arrogant comments, Don't you see?! You are in direct rebellion against the teaching of the Bible. This was a painful arrow that was thrust through my chest into the fabric of my being. The worst part of it was that this arrow was shot at me from someone on the same side of the battlefield as me, a friend. I was then shot through the back with an arrow named heretic and left for dead.

It still affects us today even after we left that church. The archers behind the arrows have been forgiven and we strive for relative peace, but our hearts have been bruised and our worship has become sour. [Name, Name] and I have difficulty gathering as believers to sing praise songs to God in fear of His displeasure. We are in a period of recovery now, and we must seek the Lord for our repair. Despite all of this, glory to God for His continual loving kindness. He sheds His mercy upon us always through these difficult times. Glory to God in the highest for His hand of salvation has rescued us from death and given us life. We now forge forward with scars that will remind us of the past; but our future is bright as we wait upon the Lord and His coming glory.

Honey, I Shrunk the Covenant
There is a very big difference between the regulativists and the Continental Reformed in their respective approaches to many things, worship being just one. It is the covenantal character of the Continental Reformed that Presbyterians have sometimes been unable to understand and rarely have been able to emulate. (Speaking as a re-engrafted son, it's hard enough keeping it alive among ourselves!) This difference in approach is discovered in the character of the Westminster Shorter Catechism compared to the Heidelberg. We might put it this way: In the Shorter Catechism we hear someone tell us what a Christian ought to believe. In the Heidelberg we hear the Christian who believes it. In the Shorter, the Word comes from outside. In the Heidelberg, it only comes to us after it has been absorbed by a transformed child of God. As such, our catechism is militantly anti-abstractionist whereas the Westminster Standards, for all their magnificence, have come to us in a form which allows, invites, or even encourages abstractionist theology.

This is a difference of note (and I'll expound on it in the future if you ask me to). It helps explain why it is difficult for a Regulated Presbyterian to hear what is being said on this issue. It helps explain why our Confessions (particularly our catechism), while expressing the same truths as Westminster, express them in such a vitally different manner.

The Regulative Principle of Worship and I refer to it here as it is understood and pressed by its strict adherents is expressive of what might be a fundamentally different way of looking at the law, the Bible, the Confessions and, in a very real way, expressive of a different way of looking at God. When the RPW (in the strict sense) becomes a core holding, a different character comes to inhabit the church. And that character is not compatible with the rich covenantal legacy as it has come down to us and as is presently enjoyed in some of our Reformed churches.

I may be wrong in this view, but I am not alone in it. One correspondent from the Protestant Reformed Churches wrote to me: Your observation about the Continental vs. Presbyterian view of things struck a deep chord in me. I have recently come to the conviction that there is a barrier between the two views. The Presbyterians view things more in a legalistic construct, whereas the Continental (Reformed) have greater liberty: not contrary to the law, but within the framework of the law. I think what you said about covenant' is absolutely right, except I think when a Presbyterian thinks of that word he thinks about contracts with stipulations, etc. I do not believe that the Westminster Assembly represents the high water mark' of the Reformed Faith.

Neither do I.

Let me review what I've tried to prove: 1) The regulativists never establish from Scripture because they cannot that their principle is taught therein. Instead, they assume it and bring it to the Bible. 2) They've been so busy assuming the RPW that they failed to detect the IPW stealthily alive and there in the Westminster Standards. 3) Regulativists refuse to deal fairly with the Second Commandment. The only reason they find it there is because they put it there. God certainly didn't. 4) Some regulativists go so far as to seek to impose their principle on the entire Reformed world, denying the name Reformed to anyone who dissents from their unbiblical view. This is assumption run amok. And it's got to stop.

Some have tried to stop the controversy by redefinition. While we much appreciate the spirit of a peacemaker, peace cannot be found if the truth is veneered. By asserting that all Protestants are regulativists, those attempting to be consistent regulativists rightly get their ire fired up. Any truly staunch regulativist knows what his principle is and he wants to press it to the bone. He doesn't take kindly to people claiming his initials while functionally denying what those letters have stood for. Dylan again: Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late. The Reformed churches have never had one mind on this matter.

But as we pursue a common mind, let us not fall into the trap of Reformed primitivism, an affliction wherein the Reformation period or a slice of it is made the best, the last, the only word in what God wills for His church. 1563 was not the best, nor was 1618-19, nor 1645. The best is yet to come.

One of the great regulativists has written that it is obvious that the visible unity of the Apostolic Church was not grounded in uniformity in organization, forms of worship, or even details of faith.5 We all have much to learn, we all have a long way to go. Let's continue to discuss these issues vigorously, lovingly, and honestly.

P.S. Further explanation, examples and illustrations of specifics of the Informed Principle of Worship will appear in Messiah's Mandate, sent to supporters of Messiah's Ministries. If you are not a supporter, there's time to repent. To be added to the Mandate mailing list send your donation to Messiah's, 1405 Avenue Z, Box 110, Brooklyn, NY 11235. You may donate by credit card: call 1-800-288-6202. Be sure to mention that you want the final installment of the RPW series. That and subsequent issues will be mailed to you.

Notes

  1. The Wycliffe Biographical Dictionary of the Church by Elgin S. Moyer.
  2. Quotes in this and the next paragraph are from Schaff's The Creeds of Christendom.
  3. Hughes Oliphant Old, Themes and Variations for a Christian Doxology (Grand Rapids, 1992), 10. Old adds, "For a detailed study of how Oecolampadius developed the principle of 'reformed according to Scripture,' see my study, The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1992), 119ff."
  4. Regulativists don't seek to impose their will on God's beloved people? Then what is it called when they tell them that God hates their worship (which conforms not to their RPW), when they tell people that God abominates their remembrance of Christ's birth in corporate worship on a designated day, that our covenant God is so offended by the singing of "man-made" hymns such as "Abide With Me" that He regards it as being on the same moral level as child sacrifice?
  5. B. B. Warfield in True Church Unity: What It Is. Reprinted as a booklet and available from Messiah's Ministries.

Topics: Biblical Law, Church History, Old Testament History, Reformed Thought

Steve M. Schlissel

Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children  and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.

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