Friday, 19 December 2008


In a previous post I reviewed Derek Thomas's contribution to the book Always Reforming. He wrote a chapter on the doctrine of the church, and included a few comments on the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). He has written more fully about the RPW in another place, but the few comments I read were enough to worry me just a little.

RPW is defined by Thomas as follows: nothing must be required as essential in public worship except that which is commanded by the Word of God. Thomas seems to think this is opposed to what he calls the Lutheran/Episcopalian worship principle: anything is acceptable as long as it is not explicitly forbidden. Already there is a sense of false dichotomy here.

But my concern grows. One thing to write that worship must be counter-cultural, conscious of not bowing to the prevailing ways of the world. But another thing entirely to claim that it would be "relatively easy to present a case for what some would regard as high-brow culture..."

The choice is between applying biblical principles in context, or following a tradition. I'm not sure you can really do both at the same time, in the same place. Too often I reckon RPW becomes following a tradition rather than biblical principles in cultural context.


R. Scott Clark said...

Hi Nick,

Derek is right here. This dichotomy between the two principles goes back to the 16th century. The phrase, RPW doesn't, but the principle does. You'll see a fairly extensive discussion of it in RRC with a fair bit of documentation.

David Shedden said...

Scott, thanks for commenting. I am sure you and Derek are right to recognise the historical differences in the Protestant church over how to justify worship traditions. I was questioning whether, in theory, these differences are useful or helpful anymore. Derek seems to think so but I'm not as sure. The essay, after all, was about the development of the Reformed doctrine of the church - hence my suggestion that we always choose between traditional practices and attempts to (re-)apply biblical ideas.

Nick Mackison said...

Scott, this post was by my co-blogger Dave!

Hope you're well.

R. Scott Clark said...

Hi David,

Got it. David wrote the post, not Nick. Nice headgear, btw.

Those differences remain as important today as they were 450 years ago. There is a great principle at stake here: sola Scriptura. The point of the RPW is to apply sola Scriptura where it is meant to be applied, to worship. The bizarre thing about the contemporary situation is that we have ostensibly Reformed folk (e.g. John Frame) "applying" sola Scriptura to everything BUT worship and refusing to apply it where it's meant to be applied.

The Lutheran and Anglican principle manifestly was and remains that we may do whatever is not forbidden. The Reformed principle manifestly is that we may do only whatever is commanded. These are mutually exclusive principles. This is why our theologians and confessions and churches all rejected instruments and gradually came to reject all uninspired songs in worship.

These things have only returned, in Reformed services, because we have forgotten the RPW.

Sitting in a service, where I must be, where the minister wants me to join the congregation in violating the law of God, is quite different from sitting in a service where the minister and I are jointly submitting to God's law, where neither of us is trying to impose a preference on the other.

This isn't about circumstances (times, places, languages) but about elements, i.e., that which is essential to worship, namely, word, sacrament, and prayer. It's about that distinction. It's about the holiness of God. It's about the distinction between the sacred and the secular and it's about Christian freedom.

Those are all significant issues.