Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Unreformed and Unashamed: Conclusion (3 of 3)

If you have not already, you might want to read the first two posts in this series (here and here) before you start reading this one. As the title indicates in brackets, the present post is number 3 of 3 posts. Today, we wrap up this examination of the short comings of reformed theology. I deem these shortcomings important enough for me to distance myself from the reformed movement somewhat. The present post deals with a near-fringe element of our disagreement with reformed theology; for the main reason of my disversion from a Reformed identity, check out the previous article.

Introduction and Definition of Terms

Even though many members of churches may not know it, every church runs by a certain general principle that governs the activities of Sunday worship. The two major principles available on the shelf of choice are the Regulative principle and the Normative principle. The Regulative principle claims to do only what God commands in the Scripture, and the Normative principle to not do what God forbids. We could reverse the positive/negative aspects of these definitions, and we would have the Regulative principle emphasising not to do anything that the Scriptures have not commanded, and the Normative principle emphasising only to do what the Scriptures have not forbidden. The slightly different emphasis will play out in the way that the gathered local church will worship. For instance, the Regulative principle will typically see as the only valid elements of worship singing, praying, reading, and preaching the word, besides financial giving and a recitation of historical (uninspired) documents of the reformed tradition. The Normative principle will advocate a flexibility that does all that God has commanded and none of what He has forbidden. Any church will evaluate which elements of the worship service to keep and which ones to drop based on their rubric. If a potential element is not specifically discussed in the Scriptures, the Normative principle may still have it practiced. The Normative church will make decisions on what to do/not to do by taking into consideration the whole counsel of God's word.

Each principle has its extremities. On one hand you have Regulative principle adherents who confuse a forlorn mood for spirituality, and on the other hand you Normative principle adherents who confuse hype and entertainment for spirituality. Both equate spirituality with an emotional response of sorts. However, there are balanced adherents of either view who seek to be reasonable. This post will be comparing the balanced views of either principle with the aim to show why I am convinced towards applying a polished version of the Normative principle. You could think of "unregulative and unashamed" as the title of this particular post in the series; I am biblically unconvinced of the regulative approach. The rest of this post says why.

The Regulative Principle is Impossible to Live-by

In an ideal environment where God prescribed all the details of the worship service, His people might be able to follow it. As it is, though, the Scriptures are not a guidebook on the corporate worship of the assembled saints. The Regulative principle of worship treats the Bible like such a guidebook. As such, it is a principle built on sand. Its first basic assumption is a faulty one; it is no wonder, therefore, that it fails the reality check. It fails to correspond to reality in four fundamental ways.

Firstly, it has to separate individual worship from corporate worship. No one attempts to make the elements of the private worship of God regulative because they cannot do so. The Scriptures say, that everything we do ought to be worshipful (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17). The dichotomy between a Christian's church life, and their individual life during the week is not biblical one, but the Regulative principle forces it upon us. Imagine trying to find a Scripture that prescribes taking a shower or brushing your teeth for private worship. As far I can tell, it is impossible to hold onto the Regulative principle of worship without creating an unbiblical dichotomy between the principles governing private and corporate worship.

Secondly, even if we admitted, for argument's sake, that this dichotomy can be made, still, strictly speaking, the Regulative principle cannot be lived out in church. That is why the promoters of this principle have to come up with separate categories of things that can be regulated by the Scriptures, typically called elements, and things that cannot, typically called circumstances. (I wonder where this distinction is prescribed in the Scriptures.)

Thirdly, it makes the worship of God a matter of rule keeping: This point will be developed later in the post.

Finally, Regulative principle advocates see no problem with the reading of announcements and non-canonical confessions, and the teaching of Sunday School classes parallel to the Sunday service, and, yet, they vehemently argue that elements ought to derive from the Scriptures. I do not see the Scriptures prescribing the public reading of any Covenants and Confessions, as profitable as they may be. When Regulative principlers persist in participating in these non-canonical elements, they seemingly show that the Regulative principle is a self-imposed burden which is impossible to bear.

The Regulative Principle Goes Beyond What is Written

The typical reaction when I bring up this point with a Regulative principle adherent is surprise. At a surface level, it may seem like the Regulative principle is trying to stick to what the Scriptures teach. However, two illustrations should suffice to show us how the Regulative principle goes beyond what is written. Imagine unlacing your shoes, polishing them, and leaving them in the corridor (right next to the shoe laces). Now imagine that you sent one child to tell another, "Bring me my shoes," and the child went and delivered that message, but forbade the other from bringing your laces along. Is it not obvious that the messenger kid has added to your prescription by offering a prohibition of their own invention? The Regulative principle does essentially the same thing. It says that you must not do anything that God did not say to do. For a second illustration, a messenger whom you tell, "Buy bananas for lunch," and he interprets that to mean, "Buy only bananas..." has gone beyond your word. A basic understanding of sets in mathematics informs us that the word "only" in an expression means the difference between a right and a wrong answer. On a venn diagram representing the relationship between a basket of bananas (B) and a basket of apples (A), bananas would be represented by B plus (A intersection B) while bananas only would be represented as B minus A. In short, there is a difference between a bare prescription and a prescription that is coupled with a prohibition, and the Regulative principle does not seem to understand that difference.

Are you so convinced of the Regulative principle that you think you could win me over to it? Answer the following question satisfactorily, and you will have me more than half way there. Help me understand; how do you derive a prohibition to buy sugar solely from a prescription to buy milk?

The Regulative Principle Rides Covenant Theology's Fault

The Regulative principle's direct biblical support comes from Covenant Theology's misunderstanding of the discontinuity between Israel and the church. For instance, Derek Thomas argues for this principle based on the specificity with which the tabernacle was supposed to be built (i.e., Exodus 25:40). In fact, even if we granted this reasoning a fighting chance, for argument's sake, the building of the tabernacle would not be a proper parallel for the activities of corporate worship. Instead, had we to carry it over to the New Testament era, it would be a prescription about something that would typically be understood as a circumstance and not an element of worship. Covenant Theology's faulty view of Israel and the church serves to flame the furnace of the Regulative principle. In this particular instance, the same way that Covenant Theologians make too quick a connection between ecclesiastical eldership and the appointment of the 70 elders in Israel (cf. Numbers 11;16-17), is the way the Regulative principle is carried over and applied to the New Testament in its Old Testament garb. By the same means of the admixture of the Old Testament and the New, OT tithing, Sabbatarianism etc. carry over to the New Testament, a phenomenon that can be attributed to Covenant Theology and the Regulative principle that rides alongside it.

The Regulative Principle Rebukes the Normative Principle

When the Regulative principle rebukes the Normative principle, it poses some really difficult challenges for the latter. However, I think that the Normative principle can answer all its critics satisfactorily whereas, I think, the Regulative principle cannot. I have heard no end to criticisms of the Normative principle. Some of them are valid concerns, but others are mere threads.

A leading valid concern against the Normative principle is its risk levels. I have been asked, "Where do you stop?" The Normative principle's allowance for the faithful to walk by the edge of the fence is dangerous, and it seems antinomian. My response to this concern is usually that I see its validity, and that we ought to tread carefully as Normative faithfuls. However, I usually add that I am more favourably inclined to the Normative principle not because it is risk free, but because it seems like a better representation of Scripture (e.g. Romans 14). A counter accusation I make concerns the Regulative Principle's tendency to build a legalistic fence (i.e. less flexible boundaries) within God's more-flexible fence, as the Pharisees did.

In an accusation which is a specifies an instance of the previous one, the Normative principle has been accused of opening a door to syncretism. I see the point, but the Normative principle is not inherently a door to syncretism. My defense is usually that the Normative principle better allows for the contextualisation seen in Paul, and as such, it may struggle with syncretistic tendencies more than other methodologies. Its resolve to obey the spirit of such passages as 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 is what puts it at the risk of the syncretistic tendency. Surely, a risk that arises as a result of obedience to God must be a welcome risk.

I have heard accusations of not adhering closely enough to the protestant reformation's cry of "Sola Scriptura." I have admitted guilt for not adhering close enough to that battle cry, and I have asked God to keep growing me in my love for His Scriptures. Furthermore, I have argued, as above, that the Regulative principle runs the same risk of not adhering to Sola Scriptura, i.e. by adding to the Scriptures. I have pointed out that Luther, who was not a Regulative principle guy, was right at the center of the protestant Reformation. He totally believed the Solas even though he was not "reformed" in the sense that that term is defined today.

Another accusation is that the normative idea oversimplifies issues so that, "I have dad's permission to punch you in the face since dad did not say not to." My response is that properly understanding the whole counsel of God's will usually protect the church, which is "the pillar and buttress of truth" (1 Timothy 3:13-14) from such nonsensical errors. The Scriptures teach a lot more by way of principle than just by direct prescription and/or prohibition. A kid who has interacted with dad long enough will know that dad would not want him punching his siblings in their faces even though dad may never have forbidden that specific act directly.

Also, there have been biblical examples that have been summoned to warn me against my belief in the Normative principle. The deaths of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10 and that of Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6 are usually invoked to assert that the Normative principle is dead wrong. My response is usually to point out that Nadab, Abihu, and Uzzah each did something that God had clearly said not to do. They crossed the proverbial boundary, and for that breach they died. Nadab and Abihu used "strange fire" where they were supposed to use fire from the altar of the LORD (cf. Leviticus 16:12). Uzzah disobeyed Numbers 4:15. Comparing Nadab, Abihu, and Uzzah's situations to the Normative principle is clearly wrong since the Normative principle teaches not to do anything that God said not to do. These examples of people who faced God's wrath to the point of death did so because they did not heed the warning of the Normative principle. Until an example can be shown of someone who was thus treated by the Lord for doing something that God had not forbidden, the Normative principle should continue to stand unmoved.


In light of the fact that several legitimate queries are laid before the Normative principle, I am convinced that every normative practice requires careful application. There are those who are more convinced the regulative way, and would rather deal with the accusations laid before that principle instead. Depending on how much polishing they do to the Regulative principle, we might find ourselves in roughly the same place pertaining to the methodology of our worship.

Interestingly, I think that mistake that reformed theology makes is to think that their theology is what represents the Reformation not totally unlike Pentecostals who think that their theology is what aptly represents the events of the day of Pentecost. In this sense, the names Reformed and Pentecostal can be quite misleading. I understand that Westminster and 1689 are a rich legacy; I would be a great fool not to recognise that, but even a great human legacy is not infallible. Among other shortcomings, Luther had his mutilating of the Scriptures to exclude James, and this was precisely because of his rich legacy. In the same vein, Calvin stuck to his paedo-baptisms considering them the New Testament replacement of circumcision--and that is but one of the dents of his rich legacy. On that note, I will not, therefore, be too surprised to learn, if I do, that I have been mistaken on a point or two, if I have. If such a time ever comes, may the Lord grant me the humility to say, I was wrong, like I have said about some things in the past. Thus must I come to the conclusion of this series that has hopefully blessed you as it has definitely blessed me.

May the revival at my church never bring us to a place where we lose track of the distinctives that make us a more pure biblical church than most today. Chief among those distinctives is an unshakable resolve to obey God's voice in the Bible no matter what. As a church, may we continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

I hope to see you back here again and again for more meditations on the things of our God.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Caleb. I've come back to this post as I've just been reading a few things in the last few days giving different perspectives on the Regulative Principle. I personally remain unconvinced of the arguments for RP, esp. the arguments for exclusive acapella psalmody and the arguments restricting worship to the Sunday meeting (which you address).
    Just for the sake of fairness I think it's worth noting that there is quite a range among the Regulation guys. Just search the 9 Marks site for regulative principle and you find that there are some who are quite flexible and happy to have instruments, cultural elements and are far from a "forlorn mood". They use the principle more as a guide / focus rather than as a ruthless razor.
    There's also a wide range of views (emphasis) within the Reformed sphere. It's helpful that you mention Luther (the Reformer). Reformed does not necessarily equal Westminster/1689. At one end of the covenant/reformed spectrum are the late Calvinists and Puritans who often (though not always) had a pretty flat/systematic reading of the Bible, saw a huge amount of similarity between Israel under Moses and the Church under the New Covenant, looked for 'general Scriptural principles', and basically understood the main theme of the Bible to be worship (so emphasising the time of Kings and Chronicles and the fight for pure worship). At the other end of the spectrum would be Luther, seeing the main theme of the Bible as Salvation, reading the Bible as a narrative, the unfolding of salvation history, concerned for eschatology, seeing a major difference between Law and Gospel, Both ends of the spectrum emphasised the importance of the sacraments, the unity of the people of God, the pre-incarnate Christ in the OT etc. (i.e. they were covenant guys) but there are hermeneutical differences there too. I'm personally rather more at that (Luther) end of the spectrum.
    One final thought. You mention tithing. What do we think about tithes? It certainly fits the Puritan paradigm but why do some dispensationalist / fundamentalist churches still use the language of tithes?


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