Article of the Month

 

 

 

The Scriptural Regulative Principle of Worship

by G. I. Williamson

 

Editor’s note: Although The Highway considers G.I. Williamson’s defense of the biblical doctrine of the Regulative Principle to be excellent it does not believe that his argument for ‘exclusive psalmody’ to be convincing. We do believe, however, that there is sufficient biblical evidence to reject the current adoption of ‘contemporary music’ and worship by many churches today.

 

How are we to worship God? That is the question. And the answer is already implied in our firm adherence to the Bible as the inspired word of God — the only infallible rule of faith and practice. The remainder of my presentation will therefore be an attempt to demonstrate two things from the Scriptures: [1] The first is the fact that there is a regulative principle taught in the Bible, and [2] the second is what that principle means — and how it ought to be applied — today, in our churches.

In a paper on this subject a few years ago Professor Norman Shepherd referred to the already existent literature on the subject of the regulative principle. He correctly stated that this literature “abounds with references” to certain “Biblical examples.” “There is therefore” he said, “no need to discuss these examples in detail . . . .”1 Well, I could agree with that statement in the context of a gathering of well-informed scholars. But my concern is not so much with the scholars as it is with the rank and file membership of our churches. Are they familiar with what the scripture says on this subject? It is my experience, after nearly forty years in the pastoral ministry, in four Reformed denominations, that they are not.2 Without apology, therefore, I center my attention today on a few of these once well-known examples.

A. The Old Testament

We begin, then, by considering a few examples of what the Old Testament teaches.

[1] And the first is found in Genesis 4, where we read of the worship of Cain and Abel.

The passage tells us that Cain’s worship was rejected by God, while that of Abel was accepted. It also tells us that God’s reason for rejecting Cain and accepting Abel was not only a difference within the two brothers. It was not only the fact that something was wrong with the subjective attitude of Cain, as compared with the attitude of Abel. There was also a vital difference in the objective content of their worship. That is why God had respect not only to Abel but also to his offering.3 Abel offered what God was pleased to accept, whereas Cain did not. The reason for this, in my view, is that Abel gave serious consideration to the revelation that God had given up to that time in history, while Cain treated it lightly. It is possible, of course, that God gave direct revelation to Abel. But I think it more likely that he acted on the basis of the same revelational data that we ourselves have in the first three chapters of Genesis. When God covered the nakedness of Adam and Eve with animal skins, it is self-evident that the animals must have first been killed for this purpose (Gen. 3:21). From this Abel could have deduced4 that his only hope of acceptance with God was by the sacrifice of a dying substitute. But even if we take the view that Abel just happened to hit on ‘the right way of worship’ by intuition, it still leads to the same conclusion. For as soon as God accepted Abel and his sacrifice — while rejecting Cain and his offering — by that very fact He made it perfectly clear that the acceptable way of worship was the way of Abel. But even though Cain knew this, he wasn’t willing to worship God in that acceptable way. It is no exaggeration at all, then, to say that this was Cain’s downfall: he was not willing to limit himself to worship that had God’s approval.5 We therefore see a clear principle: worship which is not sanctioned by God is forbidden.

[2] As a second example I would ask you to consider the second commandment.

This commandment reads: “You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” In the first commandment God declares himself to be the only true God, who alone ought to be worshipped. In the second He informs us of “the kind of worship with which he ought to be honored, that we may not dare to form any carnal conceptions of him.”6 For as Calvin has said: “although Moses only speaks of idolatry [here], yet there is no doubt that by synecdoche, as in all the rest of the Law, he condemns all fictitious services which men in their ingenuity have invented.”7

[3] We find a third example in the construction of the tabernacle in the time of Moses.

And here let me say that it would be hard to think of a way to give greater weight to this regulative principle, than what we find in this account. Every student of the five books of Moses knows how detailed this revelation was. It is no exaggeration to say that every aspect of the construction of the tabernacle was prescribed by God, and that nothing was left to man’s imagination. Did not God say to Moses: “See that you make them” — and by them he means everything in the Tabernacle — “according to the pattern shown you on the mountain” (Ex. 25:40)? It is true, of course, that God made use of men in the construction of the Tabernacle. But it is not true, as is commonly assumed, that the Tabernacle was a product of the mere natural creative and artistic impulse of the people God used to construct it. No doubt these men did have natural creative talent. But that was not enough; the Bible is very clear about that. The things that went into the Tabernacle were produced (like the Bible itself) by a special divine inspiration: “See, I have chosen Bezaleel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts. . . . I have appointed Aholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, to help him. Also I have given skill to all the craftsmen to make everything I have commanded. . . . They are to make them just as I commanded you.” (Ex. 31:2-11) How remote this is from the argument so often heard, today, to the effect that art work by people in the Church is justified (and sanctified!) by the ‘art work’ in the Tabernacle of Moses! The truth is that there was no ‘art work’ in the Tabernacle, unless by ‘art work’ we mean a uniquely inspired and infallible kind; and that kind of art is no longer given.

What we have said about the Tabernacle is also true of the more elaborate Temple. Nothing was left to man’s innovation. When “David gave Solomon his son the pattern of the porch of the temple, its buildings, its storehouses, its upper rooms, its inner rooms, and the room of the mercy seat, and the plan of all that he had by the Spirit” (I Chron. 28:11), there was nothing in it of his own concoction. To the contrary, “all this, said David, have I been made to understand in writing from the hand of the Lord, even all the works of this pattern” (v. 19).

Now why was this so important? Why did everything have to conform to a pattern revealed (first to Moses, and later to David)? We believe the reason is self-evident: God may not be worshipped in any way that He has not commanded. As Calvin once said: “I am not unaware how difficult it is to persuade the world that God rejects and even abominates everything relating to His worship that is devised by human reason.”8 But the fact is that “there is nothing more perilous to our salvation than a preposterous and perverse worship of God.”9

[4] We find another instructive example in Leviticus 10 — in the story of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron.

They died, we read, when “fire went out from the Lord and devoured them” (Lev. 10:2). But why did this dreadful thing happen? The Bible says it happened because they “offered strange fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded” (v. 1).10 Now it does not say this happened because they were not sincere — or because they lacked ‘good intentions’; it doesn’t even say it happened because they did something God had expressly forbidden. No, what it says is that they did this without first making sure they had a warrant to do it. So, again we see that worship not commanded by God himself is, therefore, forbidden.

[5] And what about the Rebellion of Korah?

Moses and Aaron were appointed by the Lord to mediate between God and his people. But Korah — and those who followed him — abhorred this exclusive appointment.11 They wanted to break out of this ‘narrow’ idea that there is only one right way — the way that God has appointed. So they rebelled against the restriction. But, again, the well known result demonstrates how offensive this was to Jehovah.

These are only a few examples of the many we find in the Old Testament Scriptures. But I think you can see that there is, indeed, a regulative principle for God’s Worship. Whenever men were not satisfied to worship God in the way that He had appointed — whenever they brought in their own inventions — He always made it perfectly clear that He did not accept it.

[6] Take King Saul, for example.

Saul had no authority from God to partake of the priestly office (I Sam. 13:11ff.). Yet he claimed that — because of the pressure of circumstance — he “felt compelled to offer the burnt offering” at Gilgal (v. 12). It may well be, for all we know, that he acted with what many today would call ‘the best of intentions’. Yet we are informed that God was offended. Samuel said Saul “acted foolishly” because he did not limit himself to what God had commanded (v. 13). Because of this, God took the kingdom from him in order to give it to David (v. 14). Does this not show, again, that this principle holds a place of the highest importance with the God of the Bible?

[7] And consider what happened to Uzzah.

When David first tried to bring the ark back to Jerusalem, the oxen suddenly stumbled. At that moment Uzzah put out his hand to steady the ark in order to keep it from falling. How very natural, we might be inclined to say, and what an innocent action. But the Bible says “God struck him down there for his irreverence” (II Sam. 6:7). The reason may not be appealing to us, but it is clearly stated in Scripture. Uzzah died because — as David explained later on — “we did not inquire of [God] about how to do it in the prescribed way” (I Chron. 15:13). It happened, in other words, because they failed to limit themselves to what God had expressly commanded.12 But how different it was when “the Levites carried the ark of God . . . as Moses had commanded in accordance with the word of the Lord” (I Chron. 15:14). Again we see the same principle clearly revealed: the only thing that pleases God is what He has commanded.13

[8] And consider King Jeroboam.

When he became king his first concern was to consolidate his hold on the ten tribes that rebelled against the house of David. In order to do this the scripture says he “appointed “ or “instituted” worship of “his own choosing” (I Kings 12:32-33). For this reason a man of God from Judah was sent to denounce this unauthorized worship. And that is not all. Jeroboam was always spoken of, after that time, as the one who “caused Israel to sin” (as a corporate body) (I Kings 15:30). We hardly exaggerate, then, when we say that this was a major source of Israel’s ultimate downfall. Worship which had been appointed by God was replaced by a new form of worship. But because this worship was not commanded by God it was therefore rejected.

[9] And recall the sin of King Uzziah.

The Scripture says “he entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar” (II Chron. 26:16). Azariah the high-priest courageously intervened to oppose Uzziah’s act of invented worship. And he was vindicated by the intervention of God, for the King was instantly smitten with leprosy, as a sign of God’s judgment. Again, it is clear that what is not commanded by God is an abomination to him.

[10] And then there is King Ahaz.

The Bible says Ahaz “burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his sons in the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations” (II Chron. 28:3). The thing that probably makes us cringe, as we read this story, is the fact that they were killing helpless little children. But that was not the main reason why this practice was condemned by God, through Jeremiah the prophet. No, the primary reason — which is far more important — was stated in this way by the prophet: “they have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire — something I did not command nor did it enter my mind” (Jer. 7:31).14 How could God make it any clearer? Worship which has not been commanded by God is therefore forbidden.

Here, then, is the uniform principle taught in the Old Testament Scriptures, summed up in these words of Moses: “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you” (Deut. 4:2).

B. The New Testament

But the question that we must now consider is this: is this also New Testament teaching?

[1] I begin with the words of our Lord Himself concerning Jewish tradition.

He denounced the Scribes and Pharisees because they had “a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe [their] own traditions” (Mark. 7:9). And because of this fact our Lord went on to say this concerning their worship: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain: their teachings are but rules taught by men.” (Mark. 7:6-7, quoted from Jer. 29:13) No doubt they were offended by this, but that is not what matters. What matters is that God was offended and, according to Jesus, there were two reasons: first, there was a setting aside of what God had commanded, and second, there was a diligent observance of what God had not commanded at all, but was only from man-made tradition. So, even traditions — highly esteemed among men — are offensive to God unless they are what He has commanded.15

[2] The second example I want to consider is Christ and the Samaritan Woman.

No one ever expounded the regulative principle with greater force and clarity than Jesus did, in his meeting with the Samaritan woman (John 4:22-26). Here, as Calvin points out, our Lord “divides the subject into two parts. First, he condemns the forms of worshipping God which the Samaritans used as superstitious and false, and declares that the acceptable and lawful form was with the Jews. And he puts the reason for the difference that the Jews received assurance from the Word of God about his worship, whereas the Samaritans had no certainty from God’s lips. Secondly, he declares that the ceremonies observed by the Jews hitherto would soon be ended.” Concerning the first point — where our Lord said “you Samaritans worship what you do not know” — Calvin drew this conclusion: “all so-called good intentions are struck by this thunderbolt, which tells us that men can do nothing but err when they are guided by their own opinion without the Word or command of God.” He then goes on to the second point, saying: “we differ from the fathers only in the outward form [of worship], because in their worship of God [in Old Testament times] they were bound to ceremonies which were abolished by the coming of Christ.” So, if we ask what it means to worship God “in spirit and in truth,” this is the answer of Calvin: “it is to remove the coverings of the ancient ceremonies and retain simply what is spiritual in the worship . . . .” The trouble is that “since men are flesh . . . they delight in what corresponds to their natures. That is why they invent many things in the worship of God . . . [when] they should consider that they are dealing with God, who no more agrees with the flesh than fire does with water.” To worship God in spirit and in truth, in other words, is to worship God as He now commands us. And “it is simply unbearable,” as Calvin says, “that the rule laid down by Christ should be violated.”16 Those who want to worship the true God acceptably must do so in spirit and in truth — because that, and only that, is what He has commanded.17

[3] Consider the Great Commission.

The regulative principle is clearly implied in these words of Jesus: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples . . . baptizing them . . . and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:18-20).18 This, in our view, is exactly what the Apostles did. They taught what Christ had commanded them, not what He had commanded plus their own inventions. Knowing that all authority belonged to Him, they knew there was no place for their own innovations. In the words of Calvin, “he sends away the Apostles with this reservation, that they shall not bring forward their own inventions, but shall purely and faithfully deliver, from hand to hand (as we say), what he has entrusted to them.”19 Now of course it can be argued that these words apply to the whole life of the Christian (and we do not object to that way of speaking). But even if that is so, the fact remains that nothing concerns God more than the worship He has commanded.

[4] Paul’s View of the Scriptures.

This principle is also clearly implied in Paul’s view of the Scriptures: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (II Tim. 3:16-17). It is not our contention that when Paul wrote these words he was thinking, specifically, about worship. But surely it is self-evident that the Apostle’s statement would not be true if there is any aspect of worship which is not clearly — and fully — revealed to us in the Bible.

There is no need to labor the point. But perhaps it will not be superfluous to briefly consider what the Apostles did in the Apostolic Church when this principle was disregarded, or threatened.

[5] Paul’s rebuke of the Galatians.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians there is a clear mention of unauthorized worship. “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain” (Gal. 4:9-11). The people to whom Paul wrote this letter were probably observing the special days and seasons appointed by God in the Old Testament ceremonial system (Ex. 23:14-17, 34:18, etc.). But, if that is the case, it only makes the force of the Apostle’s objection all the stronger when applied to special days that God never commanded. When Christ came the Old Testament ceremonial system of worship was superseded. Included in this were the annual sacred days, and even the Jewish Sabbaths. For the Galatians to go on celebrating these days was to act as if they were still waiting for the advent of the Messiah. You can readily see the application. If the Apostle found it necessary to say this to people who continued to observe days which had once been commanded, but were now obsolete, what would he say to people, today, who observe special holy days that God never commanded?20

At this point — in order to avoid misunderstanding — we also need to take note of Paul’s teaching in Romans 14. Here the Apostle instructed the strong to be patient with the weak, because the weak did not yet understand the liberty they had in Jesus. As a matter of fact they were no longer under any obligation to observe even the special days that God had once appointed through Moses. But the problem was that some of the members of the Church in Rome did not yet understand this. And, as long as it was only a particular member of the Church who was afflicted with this lamentable weakness, Paul was willing to patiently bear with him. He was willing, in other words, to tolerate church membership for a person who felt constrained — by a misinformed conscience — to observe these days. In Galatians 4, however, the Apostle had a different concern in view. In this instance the Church as a whole had submitted itself to a yoke of bondage. The Galatian church, as a corporate body, had yielded to the demands of ‘the weak’ by observing these days. And when this happened the Apostle was quite uncompromising in his opposition. The reason is that it is wrong for the Church to include in its corporate worship anything that Christ has not commanded. It is one thing, in other words, to tolerate weakness in individual members. But it is something else again when this errant view is imposed on the whole congregation. Yet this is exactly what we see today in most Reformed Churches.

[6] Paul’s warning to the Colossians.

Consider also the Church of Colossae. To this Church the Apostle wrote: “Let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath” (2:16). He warned them not to be defrauded by those who sought to induce them to delight “in self-abasement and the worship of angels” (2:18). “These things,” says Paul “have, to be sure, the appearance21 of wisdom in self-made religion.” But the reality is that these things are “of no value” (v. 23). Here again, we have an application of the principle which says ‘what is not commanded is therefore forbidden.’

[7] The Book of Hebrews.

The whole book of Hebrews is, among other things, an extended application of the regulative principle. It argues that the whole system of worship, commanded by God under the Mosaic administration of God’s covenant, is now obsolete (8:13). And what do we have in its place? The answer is that we have ‘the real thing’ — not the old “copies” of heavenly things, but — “the heavenly things themselves” (9:23). Whereas the people of God, in the time of Moses, came to an earthly mountain (12:18), we “come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,” and so on (12:22). The church today, in other words, is supposed to live in the realm of heavenly realities, and not any longer in the realm of shadowy symbols. What would we think of a mother who neglected her own real baby to go up to the attic to play with the dolls of her childhood? Yet that is exactly what we are seeing in many once-great Reformed denominations — as they go back to the weak and beggarly elements of ceremonial and symbolic worship. As believers under the New Covenant we are supposed to worship in the realm of ‘spirit and truth’, not in the realm of the material and representational, as our Old Testament brothers and sisters did.

Many churches today, that call themselves Reformed, are clamoring for a return to ceremonial worship. They call this ‘liturgical revival’. If such churches were really serious in their claim to be Biblical, they would be consistent enough to go all the way, by adopting the whole Old Testament system. They would then have a choir made up of people from the tribe of Levi. They would gather an entire orchestra instead of just a combo of their own choice. They would even advocate the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple. And if they did, I could at least respect them for being consistent. But, of course, the truth is that these ‘weak and beggarly elements’ have no legitimate place in new covenant worship. We have no need of choirs, orchestras, robes, candles, incense, dancing, or dramatic performance. Why? Because these shadowy representations only obscure the reality of our New Testament privilege; the privilege of going each Lord’s Day — in the faithful observance of the commanded exercises of God’s worship — right into the heavenly places and the presence of Jesus. May the Lord revive and reform His church again so that it will stop going back to the weak and beggarly elements of Old Testament worship, and recover again the simplicity and beauty of spiritual worship.

What then should our attitude be in the face of this awesome privilege? Are we at liberty to do as we please, to fashion our own ‘style’ of worship, whereas the people of God in Old Testament times had to be sure that they worshipped God only as He commanded? No, the truth lies in the opposite direction: we — above all — should abhor and shun all these innovations. Is this not what underlies the following warning? “See that you do not refuse Him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven. . . . Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire.” (12:25, 28-29) If we dare to invent our own way of worship, when God has told us from heaven what He requires, our sin will be much greater than that of Israelites under the old covenant. The way of worship under the new covenant has now been instituted by the Lord Jesus. Unlike the shadowy worship of old, this worship will never be superseded until our Lord’s second coming. How audacious and daring for any of us, then, to presume to change what He has commanded!

We rest our case — primarily — on the kind of Biblical data that we have tried to summarize briefly above. But it is worthy of notice that the regulative principle also agrees with many other vital Biblical principles of the Reformed Faith. We therefore include, at this point, a very brief statement of these principles as they bear on this issue.

C. Other Biblical Principles

[1] The ‘Sola Scriptura’ principle.

It is the teaching of the Reformed Confessions that the holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the inspired Word of God, ‘the only infallible rule of faith and practice,’ and that the Bible, alone, is sufficient. This clearly implies that everything we do in the worship of God must be authorized in the Scriptures.

[2] The doctrine of Christ’s headship.

Christ is the only King and head of the Church, and therefore the only lawgiver. This clearly implies that He alone has the right to determine the content of worship. The regulative principle is the application of the principle of the sole headship of Christ within the realm of worship.

[3] The doctrine of liberty.

It is the teaching of the Bible — and the Reformed Confessions — that “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and that He has left it free from doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to His word, or beside it, if matters of faith or worship.”22 Whenever a Reformed Church imposes any practice which is not commanded by God a tyranny is imposed on God’s people.

[4] The doctrine of man’s total depravity.

Man, by nature (and on account of the fall), is corrupt (or depraved) in every aspect of his being. Even in the regenerate man the motions of sin remain in his members. Therefore, nothing that man invents for himself can possibly be free of contamination, or worthy of being offered to the Lord in worship. Even the Apostles (who were divinely inspired) did not presume to originate anything in the worship of God themselves, but passed on to us exactly what they were given.23 How, then, could we possibly be so vain as to think that we could improve on what they conveyed to us?

It is our conviction that these doctrines are true, and that they are central to the Church’s faithful Biblical witness. It is also self-evident that they imply the regulative principle of worship. If we hold to the regulative principle of worship, we can do justice to these Biblical teachings. Without this regulative principle, we do not even begin to do justice to these Scriptural doctrines.

Appendix A: How This Principle Was Originally Applied in the Reformed Churches

It is clear, from the great Reformed Confessions and Catechisms, that the Reformed Churches — in the fervor that characterized them in the beginning — were determined to worship God in the way that He has commanded, without any additions invented by men, and without any subtractions. What, then, were some of the ways in which this principle came to expression? What were some of the corruptions found in the worship of the medieval church which now were excluded?

[1] The observance of days other than the Lord’s Day.

“During the early days of the Reformation some Reformed localities observed only Sunday. All special days sanctioned and revered by Rome were set aside. Zwingli and Calvin both encouraged the rejection of all ecclesiastical festive days. In Geneva all special days were discontinued as soon as the Reformation took a firm hold in that city. Already before the arrival of Calvin in Geneva this had been accomplished under the leadership of Farel and Viret. But Calvin agreed heartily.”24 In the light of the position of the Reformers, “we are not surprised that the Synod of Dort, 1574, held that the weekly Sabbath alone should be observed.”25 The same position was also taken by John Knox, and the Reformed Church of Scotland. However, in the Netherlands “early Reformed Synods yielded increasingly to pressure from without regarding the observation of ‘Christian festivals.’ The government of the Netherlands made something like legal holidays out of these festivals, and so the Churches, although not favoring the observation of these days, for practical reasons ruled as they did. To prevent people from spending these days in worldliness they introduced Church services for these festive occasions.”26

It was, in other words, the intention and desire of the Reformed Churches, at first, to faithfully adhere to the regulative principle in this matter. But then because of pressure from without the principle was compromised for ‘expedient’ reasons.

[2] The use of the Psalter.

It cannot be argued that the exclusive use of the Psalms, in worship, was ever entirely universal in the Reformed Churches. Some, including Calvin’s church in Geneva, sang at least a few other songs (such as a version of the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer). But even so, the centrality of the inspired psalms in Reformed worship was such that they received the overwhelming emphasis. And to this day, in some churches of the Reformed family, it is still the inspired Psalter which is sung exclusively, on the ground that these alone are commanded.

This is a subject that I began to study many years ago, and from my research two things have greatly impressed me. First, I have never seen any exegetical proof that God wants us to produce our own hymns in order to sing them in worship instead of the inspired psalms He has provided. As a matter of fact the arguments that I have seen, defending the prevailing practice today, always seem to me to stand on a Lutheran foundation. Instead of attempting to prove that present practice is commanded by God, there is usually a subtle shift to the argument that ‘it is not forbidden.’ But I believe this utterly fails to meet the criterion set down in the Scripture. In the second place it is simply an historical fact that the great change, in substituting uninspired hymns for the inspired psalms, was not the result of new discoveries in the content of Scripture. It was not a reluctant change compelled by careful exegesis. At least this is true in the several instances of this innovation in the history of the Reformed Churches known to the writer. No, the change came, rather, by way of giving in to increasing popular demand — it was a change made to please the people. I once had opportunity to discuss this subject with an elderly minister of the old United Presbyterian denomination. I asked him what brought that church to change its stand on the exclusive use of psalms in worship, as it did in the 1925 creedal revision. His answer was both interesting and revealing. He said the church had already started, some years before, to celebrate such days as Christmas. After these had become well-entrenched, he said, the pressure began to grow to bring in ‘appropriate’ music.

[3] Pictures and visual symbols.

We should certainly mention the use of religious statues, pictures and symbols. These were also rejected firmly by Reformers such as Knox, Zwingli and Calvin. The Heidelberg Catechism says: “God neither can nor may be visibly represented,” and that “we must not be wiser than God, who will not have His people taught by dumb images, but by the living preaching of His Word.” (Question and Answer 97 and 98) Even so recently as a hundred years ago, Reformed people still understood the regulative principle enough to remain negative toward these representations. However, in an address entitled “The Antithesis between Symbolism and Revelation,” presented to the Presbyterian Historical Society, Abraham Kuyper warned of a subtle trend already at work then, which was weakening this sense of awareness. Kuyper spoke of “the symbolical tide . . . undermining in the most dangerous way the very foundation of all Calvinistic Churches.” Kuyper put it like this: “the principle of Symbolism and that of Calvinism are just the reverse of one another.” We would add only this comment: the regulative principle taught in the Word of God is the only safeguard against it.

Appendix B: The Defense of Present-Day Practice in Reformed Churches

I came to feel the weight of the biblical, confessional and historical data supporting the regulative principle soon after I graduated from seminary in 1952. But, for many years, it was almost impossible to interest anyone in a serious discussion of the regulative principle of divine worship. I believe the primary reason for this has been, quite simply, inertia. When people are comfortable with things as they are, it is hard to get them to reconsider. After all, why create problems? For many, therefore, the strongest possible argument on this subject is an emotional statement affirming the status quo. In the face of this kind of argument, I was forced to the reluctant conclusion that the regulative principle was quite dead in most Reformed denominations. Churches still gave lip service to it. But what convinced me that the principle no longer ‘lived’ in most Reformed Churches was the kind of reasons — or arguments — put forth in defense of present-day practice. Some did not even pretend to rest on biblical data. Others appealed, in a more general way, to the ‘broad teaching’ of Scripture.

First, we may consider the argument from analogy. An example of this kind of argument is that since we are not given certain prescribed prayers in the Bible, neither should we feel confined to the inspired psalms. The problem I have with this argument is that I find no basis for it in Scripture. To the contrary, what I find is that God has given a different command for each of the elements of authorized worship. Our Lord did not leave us without specific instruction concerning prayer, just as He did not leave us without such instruction concerning our singing. What He did was to teach what is commonly called ‘the Lord’s Prayer,’ saying that we should pray “in this manner” (Matt. 6:9). The prayer, in other words, is a pattern for us, which we are commanded to follow. And that is not all. For as Paul the Apostle reminds us, “We do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.” (Rom. 8:26-27) So we not only have a general pattern that we are commanded to follow, but we also have a specific promise of the help of the Spirit — on the spot, so to speak — as we follow that pattern. But there is no such provision for ‘on the spot help’ in composing our own songs for worship. To the contrary, the same Apostle commanded the Ephesian and Colossian believers — not to compose their own spiritual psalms, hymns and songs, but — to sing the ones they already had in the Bible.27

The argument from analogy is not valid. We may not argue, for instance, that all may preach because all may sing in divine worship. Or, for that matter, neither may we argue that only a few may sing because only a few are permitted to preach the Word to God’s people. The argument is made that since in preaching the preacher does not confine himself to the very words of Scripture, there is no need to do so when it comes to singing. What this overlooks is the fact that ministers are commanded to expound — or to explain — the text of the Scripture in preaching. But nowhere is the same command given with respect to singing.

Perhaps the most attractive argument against the exclusive use of psalms in worship, and for the production and use of modern hymns, is the argument from the history of salvation. It is argued that, in the past, whenever there was a great new era of revelation, it called forth an outpouring of new songs. This being the case, it is argued, there is today also a great need for new songs, additional to those in the Psalter, to celebrate the content of the greatest revelation of all, which came in the incarnation of Christ. My problem with this argument is that if this was true the New Testament itself would have just such a new book of praise. After all, if there was need for such, surely the Apostles would have been the first to realize it. And, being divinely inspired men, they would have been the best qualified to supply that need. Yet the undeniable fact is that we do not have a New Testament book of psalms. Instead, we have Paul’s instruction to sing the pneumatic psalms, hymns and songs that they already had the Apostolic Churches, in their Septuagint version of the Bible.

This argument from the history of salvation is erroneous. It assumes the very thing that needs to be proven. It assumes that the Old Testament Psalter is inadequate for God’s new covenant people. It assumes the need for something better. And then, further, it also assumes the competence of uninspired men today to supply what is supposedly need. I cannot see that any of these assumptions are valid.

Conclusion

Does all this sound discouraging? Well, it certainly would be if there was no improvement in sight. But there is. In recent years — in my experience at least — not a few younger Christian people seem to sense that something is seriously wrong. Being confronted with ‘the chaos of modern worship practices’ they have come to see the need for a valid principle of discrimination, by which to distinguish between things that are holy and good, and things that are worthless and vile. What really is pleasing to God, and what should be rejected? When people want to innovate this, or that, in the worship of God, how are we to give them a convincing answer? My point is that the situation today is driving many — willingly or unwillingly — to reconsider the stand of our fathers. Could it be that they were right after all, when they stressed this principle so strongly? The encouraging thing is that there are not a few in the rising generation who are taking a new and serious look at this question. May the Lord enable many to come back to this Biblical standard.

Things not commanded by God are now deeply entrenched in most of the Reformed Churches. It will take a new reformation to change this. But that day will not come unless we who are Reformed pastors at least begin raising the issue.


Notes

  1. The Biblical Doctrine of Worship (Pittsburgh: Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, 1974), p. 50.
  2. How many Presbyterians today are aware of the fact that the Westminster Confession of Faith (XXI.iv), prescribes “the singing of psalms” in public worship?
  3. “And the Lord respected Abel and his offering.” (Gen. 4:4) “By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain . . . .” (Heb. 11:4)
  4. The Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of those truths which “by good and necessary inference may be deduced from Scripture” (I.vi). We see no reason why the same principle would not have been operative in Abel’s time, too, on the basis of such revelation as had been given by God.
  5. “For since the Apostle refers the dignity of Abel’s accepted sacrifice to faith, it follows, first, that he had not offered it without the command of God (Heb. 11:4). Secondly, it has been true from the beginning of the world, that obedience is better than sacrifices (I Sam. 15:22), and is the parent of all virtues. Hence it also follows, that man had been taught by God what was pleasing to Him.” John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 1:192-93).
  6. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.viii.
  7. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses, 2:107.
  8. John Calvin, Selected Works, 1:34.
  9. Ibid., p. 115.
  10. Calvin: “Their crime is specified, viz., that they offered incense in a different way from that which God had prescribed, and consequently, although they may have erred from ignorance, still they were convicted by God’s commandment of having negligently set about what was worthy of greater attention. . . . Let us learn, therefore, so to attend to God’s command as not to corrupt His worship by any strange inventions.” Calvin’s Commentaries, 2:431-32.
  11. “Four worthless men wickedly endeavor to overthrow Moses and Aaron; and straightway two hundred and fifty persons are ready to follow them . . . hence we must be the more cautious, lest any bugbears (larvae) should deceive us into making rash innovations.” Calvin’s Commentaries, 3:100.
  12. “The Levites, or more particularly the Kohathites, were expressly commanded to bear the ark. The manner of bearing it was also commanded. . . . They were forbidden to touch the ark upon pain of death. . . . And it deserves consideration that those heathen had not been killed for handling the ark, while for doing the same thing God’s people, who should have known better, were taught an awful lesson.” John Girardeau, Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church, p. 18.
  13. “David’s intention was right enough, no fault can be found with that; but right things must be done in a right way. . . . All the way through this incident, we see that there was no taking heed to the commands of God, and to the rules which He had laid down. The people brought will-worship to God, instead of that which He had ordained. What do I mean by will-worship? I mean, any kind of worship which is not prescribed in God’s own Word. . . . Inasmuch, therefore, as these people did not show any reverence for God by consulting His record of the rules which He had laid down for their guidance, — seeming to think that, whatever pleased them must please Him,—whatever kind of worship they chose to make up would be quite sufficient for the Lord God of Israel, — therefore, it ended in failure. . . . How I wish that all religious denominations would bring their ordinances and forms of worship to the supreme test of the New Testament. . . . But, alas! they know that so much would have to be put away that is now delightful to the flesh, that, I fear me, we shall be long before we bring all to worship God after His own order.” C. H. Spurgeon, a sermon on “The Lesson of Uzzah.”
  14. Commenting on this statement, Calvin says: “There is then no other argument needed to condemn superstitions, than that they are not commanded by God: for when men allow themselves to worship God according to their own fancies, and attend not to His commands, they pervert true religion.” Calvin’s Commentaries, 9:414.
  15. “By these words [“in vain do they worship me,” etc.], all kinds of will-worship (ethelothreskeia), as Paul calls it (Col. 2:23), are plainly condemned. For, as we have said, since God chooses to be worshipped in no other way than according to his own appointment, he cannot endure new modes of worship to be devised.” Calvin’s Commentaries, 16:253.
  16. Calvin’s Commentaries, 17:150-164.
  17. “If worship must be consonant with the nature of God, it must be in accord with what God has revealed himself to be and regulated as to content and mode by the revelation God has given in holy Scripture. The sanction enunciated (‘in spirit and truth’) excludes all human invention and imagination and warns us against the offense and peril of offering strange fire unto the Lord.” John Murray, “The Worship of God in the Four Gospels,” in The Biblical Doctrine of Worship, p. 93.
  18. “Jesus does not suggest in these words . . . that we are permitted to teach what he has not forbidden, but rather implies that we will neither add to nor take from what He has commanded.” Norman Shepherd, “The Biblical Basis for the Regulative Principle of Worship,” in The Biblical Doctrine of Worship, p. 44.
  19. Calvin, loc. cit., p. 390.
  20. “Do we wonder that Paul should be afraid that he had labored in vain, that the gospel would henceforth be of no service? And since that very description of impiety is now supported by Popery, what sort of Christ or what sort of gospel does it retain? So far as respects the binding of consciences, they enforce the observance of days with not less severity than was done by Moses. They consider holidays, not less than the false prophets did, to be a part of the worship of God. . . . The Papists must therefore be held equally censurable with the false apostles; and with this additional aggravation, that, while the former proposed to keep those days which had been appointed by the law of God, the latter enjoy days, rashly stamped with their own seal, to be observed as most holy.” Calvin’s Commentaries, 21:125.
  21. “Observe,” says Calvin “of what colors this show consists, according to Paul. He makes mention of three — self-invented worship, humidity, and neglect of the body. . . . Paul, however, bids farewell to those disguises, for what is in high esteem among men is often an abomination in the sight of God. (Luke 16:15) . . . . For it should be a settled point among all the pious, that the worship of God ought not to be measured according to our views; and that . . . any kind of service is not lawful, simply on the ground that it is agreeable to us.” Calvin’s Commentaries, 21:201-02.
  22. Westminster Confession of Faith, XX.ii.
  23. Note, for example, Paul’s statement in I Cor. 11:23, “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you . . . .”
  24. Monsma and Van Dellen, The Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Company, 1941), p. 273).
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid., p 274.
  27. It is a noteworthy fact that these three terms (psalmos, hymnois, and odais) were used in the titles of the Psalms in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, which was the Bible used in the Apostolic Churches.

Author

G.I. Williamson received his B.A. degree from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and his B.D. degree from the Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. He has served congregations of the old United Presbyterian Church of North America, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, but most of his ministerial labors have been with the Reformed Churches of New Zealand and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (in which he continues to serve). He is author of popular study guides to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Shorter Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism. For fourteen years he served as editor of Ordained Servant, a journal for church officers.

The website of G.I. Williamson can be accessed here.



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