Sola Scriptura and the Regulative Principle of Worship
Sola scriptura is one of the fundamental principles of the Protestant reformation. (One
could even argue that the other great principal doctrines of the Reformation [such as sola gratia,sola fide] are logically dependent upon sola scriptura.) By making the Bible the sole standard
and authority for faith and life, Protestants were able to refute all the Romish doctrines and
practices that originated from human tradition. The Calvinistic reformers achieved a greater,
more thorough reformation in the church because they applied sola scriptura more consistently,
logically and effectively to doctrine, church government and worship than did their Anglican and
The doctrine of sola scriptura, with its teaching regarding the authority, completeness,
perfection and sufficiency of Scripture, needs to be taught today with a renewed zeal and
urgency. The reasons for this renewed zeal are not merely because of the current popularity of
Romanism, Eastern Orthodoxy, modernism, neo-orthodoxy, the cults, the charismatic movement
and the church growth movement. The chief reason is the current declension among the
conservative Reformed and Presbyterian denominations today, particularly in the area of
worship. Not only are many Reformed and Presbyterian churches allowing human innovations in
worship, but the regulative principle of Scripture, and the correlative doctrine of the sufficiency
of the Bible in all matters of faith including worship, is openly rejected by many pastors and
elders. The regulative principle of worship (which is sola scriptura applied to the worship
conducted by the church) is one of the greatest achievements of the Calvinistic reformation. In
order to shore up the foundation of Reformed worship we must go back to the doctrine of sola
scriptura. We pray that this study will be used for the reformation of the church.
Reformed believers today need to understand the theological relationship that exists
between sola scriptura and the regulative principle of worship. The reasons that such an
understanding is necessary are manifold. First, the regulative principle of worship is directly
related to sola scriptura doctrines such as the infallibility, absolute authority, sufficiency and
perfection of Scripture. The Calvinistic reformers and the Reformed confessions often referred tosola scriptura passages (e.g., Dt. 4:2, Pr. 30:6) as proof texts for the regulative principle of
worship. When sola scriptura is consistently applied to worship, the result is Puritan and
Reformed worship. Second, opponents of the regulative principle often argue against it on the
basis of the similarity between sola scriptura proof texts and regulative principle proof texts.
Such argumentation usually follows one or two lines of thought. Some argue that the proof texts
cited in favor of the regulative principle (e.g., Dt. 12:32) are really only teaching sola scriptura.
In other words, it is exegetically illegitimate to use such passages for the strict regulation of
worship. Others argue that the similar and even identical nature of the sola scriptura passages
and the regulative principle passages does not prove a strict regulation of worship but actually
proves the opposite. This argument is based on the following syllogism. Sola scriptura teaches
that the Bible regulates all of life. Yet all of life contains many activities that are not strictly
regulated (in other words, the Bible gives man a great deal of liberty in things indifferent
[adiaphora]). Therefore, it follows that the regulative principle or sola scriptura as it applies to
worship also leaves man a great deal of liberty in the sphere of worship. In this study we will
examine the relationship between sola scriptura and the regulative principle in order to prove
that sola scriptura, properly understood, leads directly to the regulative principle. Then we will
refute many of the popular arguments used today against the regulative principle, including the
argument based on the similarity between sola scriptura and regulative principle proof texts.1
I. What Is Sola Scriptura?
Before we consider the relationship between sola scriptura and the regulative principle,
we need first to define sola scriptura. After a brief definition of this doctrine is given, we will
then turn our attention to the Protestant confessional statements.
Briefly stated, the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura teaches that the Bible (the 66
books of the Old and New Testaments) is the divinely inspired word of God and thereforeinfallible and absolutely authoritative in all matters of faith and life. Because God’sinscripturated word contains all the extant supernatural revelation of God, and because all forms
of direct revelation have ceased (with the death of the apostles and the close of the canon), theBible alone is the church’s sole authority. Because Scripture is perspicuous (i.e., all the necessaryteaching for salvation, faith and life are easily understood by the common people), there is no
need for any additional sources of authority to infallibly interpret the Bible for the church. The
church (whether popes, cardinals, bishops, church fathers, church councils, synods or
congregations) does not have authority over the Bible, but the self-authenticating Scriptures have
absolute authority over the church and all men. Because of what the Bible is (as noted above),the church’s job is purely ministerial and declarative. All men are forbidden to add or detract
from the sacred Scriptures, whether by human traditions, or so-called new revelations of the
1 Many professing Christians today regard theological matters as of little or no importance. Some even regard
theological debate and the refutation of false teaching as unloving, arrogant and insulting to brethren of differenttheological persuasions. Some believers make comments such as: “Should we not be building bridges rather thanerecting walls and fortresses?” While there is no question that theological debate and refutation must be conductedin a spirit of Christian love and concern for professing Christians of different theological opinions, the idea that
theological precision, debate and refutation are somehow bad or unworthy of our time is blatantly unbiblical for a
number of reasons. First, every Christian, and especially every minister, has a moral obligation to defend the truth,
to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3) and to convict those who contradict (Tit. 1:9).In a world full of heresy, apostasy and wolves in sheep’s clothing, a lack of theological precision and anunwillingness to defend the truth on the part of ministers is unpastoral and inexcusable. Second, one of the great
lessons of church history is that God has used heresy and theological controversy to corporately sanctify his church.
Enemies of the truth, heretics and theological perverts have arisen and assaulted the church from within. Yet God in
his infinite kindness and wisdom has used such occasions to advance his own cause and kingdom. Many crucial
doctrines have been clarified and purified in the flames of controversy and persecution. Should we expect our times
to be any different? James Begg writes (1875): “Our own day has furnished abundant illustrations of the generaltruth, thus so well stated, although the worst is probably yet to come. The point of attack from time to time is varied,
but the struggle continues unabated. When Christian men and women have got somewhat accustomed to defend one
true position, the assault is directed to another, and perhaps from a new quarter. Although we shall not venture to
apportion the relative importance of great principles, it may safely be affirmed that nothing can be more importantthan questions connected with the acceptable worship of God” (Anarchy in Worship [Edinburgh: Lyon and
Gemmell, 1875], 4). Third, the only method and ground for true biblical ecumenicity is not to ignore truth or
theology but to vigorously study it, adhere to it, advocate it and defend it. Any type of “Christian” union orcooperation that ignores, downplays or alters the truth is destructive of the faith. Such a union arises not from the
bedrock of Scripture but from the shifting sand of backslidden and apostate bureaucrats.
Spirit, or by the decrees of councils or synods. The Bible is sufficient and perfect and does not
need any human additions. Further, only that which is taught in Scripture can be used to bind the
consciences of men.
1. The Reformed Confessional Understanding of Sola Scriptura
The Reformed confessions are in total agreement regarding sola scriptura or the regulative
principle of Scripture.
First Helvetic Confession (1536)
Art. 1. Scripture. The Canonical Scripture, being the Word of God, and delivered by the Holy
Ghost, and published to the world by the prophets and apostles, being of all others the most
perfect and ancient philosophy, doth perfectly contain all piety and good ordering of life.2
French Confession (1559)
Art. 5. We believe that the word, contained in these books, came from one God; of whom alone,
and not of men, the authority thereof dependeth. And seeing this is the sum of all truth,
containing whatsoever is required for the worship of God and our salvation, we hold it not lawful
for men, no, not for the angels themselves, to add or detract any thing to or from that word, or to
alter any whit at all in the same.3
Belgic Confession (1561)
Article 7. The Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures to be the Only Rule of Faith
We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man
ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of
worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though
an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were
an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul saith. For since it is forbidden to add unto or take
away any thing from the Word of God, it doth thereby evidently appear that the doctrine thereof
is most perfect and complete in all respects. Neither do we consider of equal value any writing of
men, however holy these men may have been, with those divine Scriptures; nor ought we to
consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or
councils, decrees, or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, for the truth is above all;
for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with all
our hearts whatsoever doth not agree with this infallible rule which the apostles have taught us,
saying, Try the spirits whether they are of God. Likewise, If there come any unto you, and bring
not this doctrine, receive him not into your house.4
Second Helvetic Confession (1566)
I. Of the Holy Scripture Being the True Word of God....
2 Translated from the Latin by Peter Hall, The Harmony of Protestant Confessions (Edmonton, Canada: Still WatersRevival Books, 1992 ), 4.
3 Ibid. 8.
4 Joel R. Beeke and Sinclair B. Ferguson, eds., Reformed Confessions Harmonized (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 14,
2. And in this Holy Scripture, the universal Church of Christ has all things fully expounded
which belong to a saving faith, and also to the framing of a life acceptable to God; and in this
respect it is expressly commanded of God that nothing be either put to or taken from the same
(Deut. 4:2; Rev. 22:18-19).
3. We judge, therefore, that from these Scriptures are to be taken true wisdom and godliness, the
reformation and government of churches; as also instruction in all duties of piety; and, to be
short, the confirmation of doctrines, and the confutation of all errors, with all exhortations;according to that word of the apostle, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is
profitable for doctrine, for reproof,” etc. (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Again, “These things write I unto
thee,” says the apostle to Timothy, “...that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave
thyself in the house of God,” etc. (1 Tim. 3:14-15).5
II. Of Interpreting the Holy Scriptures; and of Fathers, Councils, and Traditions....
4. ...Therefore, in controversies of religion or matters of faith, we can not admit any other judge
than God Himself, pronouncing by the Holy Scriptures what is true, what is false, what is to be
followed, or what [is] to be avoided. So we do not rest but in the judgment of spiritual men,
drawn from the Word of God. Certainly Jeremiah and other prophets did vehemently condemn
the assemblies of priests gathered against the law of God; and diligently forewarned us that we
should not hear the fathers, or tread in their path who, walking in their own inventions, swerved
from the law of God.
5. We do likewise reject human traditions, which, although they be set out with goodly titles, as
though they were divine and apostolic, delivered to the Church by the lively voice of the
apostles, and, as it were, by the hands of apostolical men, by means of bishops succeeding in
their room, yet, being compared with the Scriptures, disagree with them; and that by their
disagreement betray themselves in no wise to be apostolical. For as the apostles did not disagree
among themselves in doctrine, so the apostles’ scholars did not set forth things contrary to theapostles. Nay, it were blasphemous to avouch that the apostles, by lively voice, delivered things
contrary to their writings. Paul affirms expressly that he taught the same things in all churches (1Cor. 4:17). And, again, “We,” says he, “write none other things unto you, than what ye read or
acknowledge” (2 Cor. 1:13). Also, in another place, he witnesses that he and his disciples—to
wit, apostolic men—walked in the same way, and jointly by the same Spirit did all things (2 Cor.
12:18). The Jews also, in time past, had their traditions of elders; but these traditions wereseverely refuted by the Lord, showing that the keeping of them hinders God’s law, and that Godis in vain worshiped of such (Matt. 15:8-9; Mark 7:6-7).6
The Westminster Standards (1646-1648)
Q. 2. What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?
5 Ibid. 10, 12.6 Ibid. 14, 16.
A. The word of God, which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the
only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.7
Q. 3. What is the word of God?
A. The holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the word of God, the only rule of faith
Confession of Faith
1.2. Under the name of Holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all thebooks of the Old and New Testaments, which are these: ... All which are given by inspiration ofGod, to be the rule of faith and life.
1.6. The whole co
unsel of God, concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’ssalvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary
consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added,
whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the
inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such
things as are revealed in the Word; and that there are some circumstances concerning the
worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which
are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of
the Word, which are always to be observed.
According to the Reformed confessional statements the Bible is a perfect, complete and
sufficient rule of faith and life. Now that the canon is closed and direct revelation has ceased, the
inspired Scriptures are the only rule of doctrine and practice. Although the Bible is the only rule
that God has given us to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him, there are a number of
issues that need to be clarified before we proceed.
First, the doctrine of sola scriptura is not a denial of natural revelation. The Bible itself
teaches that there are things that man can learn about God and himself from nature (cf. Ps. 19;
Rom. 1:20ff.). We should note, however, that: (1) Natural revelation was never intended to be
used independently of direct revelation. Before the fall God spoke directly to Adam regarding
the tree of good and evil. (2) When mankind fell in Adam, both the earth and the human race
were affected by sin. Sin and the curse have rendered natural revelation unreliable as a source for
ethics. (3) Scripture teaches that although natural revelation is enough to render the human race
guilty and without excuse (Rom. 1:18), it is not sufficient to teach man about salvation, Christ
and many other crucial doctrines. (4) Further, any doctrines or ethics that could be determined
from natural revelation could not contradict and would have to be judged by the perspicuous and
sufficient Holy Scriptures.
Second, the doctrine of sola scriptura is not a denial of the progressive nature and diverse
means of divine revelation before the close of the canon. A fundamental teaching of theregulative principle of Scripture is that man is not to add or detract from God’s word (Dt. 4:2).
7 The Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow, Scotland: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1976), 287. Note: all
quotations in this book from the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms are taken from
Yet prior to the completion of Scripture this command did not preclude God himself from adding
his own thoughts to that which the people of God already had. It did, however forbid anyone to
add or detract from the divine revelation which they did have, whether by false prophecy,
divination, human tradition and the neglect of God’s ordinances. Further, as Christians we lookback to a completed and written revelation. (In times past men received visions, dreams and
verbal communication from God, and not every revelation was committed to writing.) Note also
that God could have preserved divine revelation by a supernatural preservation apart fromcommitting revelation to written form if he had wanted to. However, in God’s good pleasure andinfinite wisdom he has committed everything that the church and the world needs to a written
revelation. Since natural revelation is insufficient, direct revelation to the church has ceased, andGod has committed his will to us “wholly unto writing,” the Scriptures are our sole standard for
faith and life.
Third, the doctrine of sola scriptura, which says that “the whole counsel of God
concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is eitherexpressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced fromScripture,” is not a denial that there were many revelations and historical events that did not
make it into the canon. The completed Scripture that God has given to the church is exactly what
he wanted us to have. He could have given his people one hundred volumes containing more
case laws, more detailed histories of the patriarchs, Moses, Israel, Jesus Christ and the acts of the
apostolic church. But Jehovah gave us the 66 books alone, and this completed canon is perfect
and in every way sufficient to answer its design. God has many secret things that belong to
himself and his divine perfections which are infinite and could never fully and adequately be
revealed to us even if a million inspired volumes existed. But in his mercy everything that we do
need to know, love and serve him has been given to us in the Scriptures.
II. Aspects of Sola Scriptura1. The Authority of Scripture
The regulative principle of Scripture rests upon the fact that the Bible is unique. The
Bible alone is God’s word. The Westminster Confession says, “The authority of the Holy
Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any
man, or Church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; and therefore it isto be received because it is the Word of God” (1.4). Scripture is inspired by God. Therefore, it is
truth and it carries the authority of God himself. It alone among books carries an absolute
There is only one God—the ontological trinity who is transcendent, who has created all
things and who gives meaning to all factuality. Likewise, presently there is only one direct verbal
or written source of divine revelation. There is only one book which tells us the mind and will of
God. Because the Scripture is breathed out by God himself, it is self-authenticating and absolute.
Its authority does not depend on the church, or empirical evidences, or human philosophy. The
church and all men are required to submit to the authority of Scripture without any quibbling or
reservations, for it is the voice of the Almighty himself.
Because Scripture is God’s Word, it is the final, definitive authority in all matters of faithand life. The Bible is the only absolute, objective standard by which ethics, doctrine, church
government and worship are to be judged. The Westminster Confession says, “The supreme
judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils,
opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined; and in
whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture”(1.10). Men who are sinful and fallible can and do receive a delegated authority from God.
However, only God, who is the absolute sovereign and creator of all things, has the right to bind
men to faith and duty.
2. The Sufficiency and Perfection of Scripture
An understanding of the sufficiency, perfection or completeness of Scripture (which is a
crucial aspect of the Reformed understanding of sola scriptura) will lead us to a deeper
understanding of the inseparable connection that exists between the regulative principle of
Scripture and the regulative principle of worship. By the perfection of Scripture we mean that the
Bible is fully sufficient unto the end for which it was designed by God. “All Scripture is given byinspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction inrighteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work”(2 Tim. 3:16-17). Robert Shaw writes, “The Scripture is represented as perfect, fitted to answerevery necessary end, Ps. xix. 8, 9; it is sufficient to make ‘the man of God perfect,’ and able to
make private Christians ‘wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Christ Jesus.’—2 Tim. iii.
15-17. So complete is the Scripture, that its Author has peremptorily prohibited either to add to,
or to diminish ought from it.—Deut. iv. 2; Rev. xxii. 18, 19.”8 A. A. Hodge writes, “as a matterof fact, the Scriptures do teach a perfect system of doctrine, and all the principles which are
necessary for the practical regulation of the lives of individuals, communities, and churches. The
more diligent men have been in the study of the Bible, and the more assiduous they have been in
carrying out its instructions into practice, the less has it been possible for them to believe that it
is incomplete in any element of a perfect rule of all that which man is to believe concerning God,and of all that duty which God requires of man.”9
When we discuss the Scripture as the inspired final revelation of God that is sufficient
and complete for salvation, service to God, faith and practice, we do not mean that there are no
truths that can be ascertained outside of Scripture. We noted earlier that certain things about God
and ourselves are learned from natural revelation. Further, one does not need the Bible to
practice elementary logic, simple mathematics and basic surface observations. The achievements
of unbelieving scientists, engineers, artists, architects, medical doctors and others in the world
are proof of this assertion. However, even in these so-called “secular” areas of life unbelieversmust conduct their affairs in accordance with biblical presuppositions in order to get anything
done. In other words, the Bible not only tells us about God, ourselves, redemption and ethics, it
also is the foundation of all meaning. Apart from divine revelation man cannot really understand
or account for anything. Van Til writes, “Thus the Bible, as the infallibly inspired revelation of
God to sinful man, stands before us as that light in terms of which all the facts of the created
universe must be interpreted. All of finite existence, natural and redemptive, functions in relation
to one all-inclusive plan that is in the mind of God. Whatever insight man is to have into this
pattern of the activity of God he must attain by looking at all his objects of research in the light
of Scripture. If true religion is to beam upon us, our principle must be, that it is necessary to
begin with heavenly teaching, and that it is impossible for any man to obtain even the minutest
8 Robert Shaw, Exposition of the Confession of Faith (Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, n.d. ), 16.9 A. A. Hodge, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955), 124.
portion of right and sound doctrine without being a disciple of Scripture.”10 Further, there are no
areas of ethical neutrality in the universe. Even in areas in which the Bible does not speak
directly, such as structural engineering and rocket science, it does speak indirectly. All of life isto be lived for God’s glory, and even the most mundane activities are to be conducted accordingto general principles of God’s word.
By the “perfection and sufficiency” of Scripture the Reformed confessions mean that theBible is such a perfect and complete guide to man regarding everything that God requires us to
believe (salvation, doctrine, statutes, etc.) and everything that God requires us to do (ethics,
sanctification, worship ordinances, church government, etc.) that it does not need any
supplementation from man. The Reformed confessions emphasize that the Bible is not one rule
among many or simply the best or principal rule. It is the only rule of faith and practice. The FirstHelvetic Confession says: “The Canonical Scripture...doth alone perfectly contain all piety andgood ordering of life” (Art. 1).11 The Belgic Confession says: “We believe that those HolyScriptures fully contain the will of God...the whole manner of worship which God requires of usis written in them...” (Art. 7).12 The Second Helvetic Confession says: “And in this HolyScripture, the universal Church of Christ has all things fully expounded which belong to a savingfaith, and also to the framing of a life acceptable to God...” (1:2). The Westminster Shorter
Catechism says: “The word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and NewTestaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him” (A. to Q. 2). The
Larger Catechism says: “The holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the word ofGod, the only rule of faith and obedience” (A. to Q. 3). The Confession of Faith says: “Thewhole counsel God, concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith,and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may bededuced from Scripture...” (1.6, emphasis added).
Positively speaking, the Bible is the only rule for faith and obedience. Negatively
speaking, men are expressly forbidden to add their own ideas, doctrine and/or precepts to theScripture in any way. The French Confession says: “And seeing this is the sum of all truth,containing whatsoever is required for the worship of God and our salvation, we hold it not lawful
for men, no, for the angels themselves, to add or detract anything to or from that word, or to alterany whit at all in the same” (Art. 5).13 The Belgic Confession says: “it is unlawful for any one,
though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though
it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul saith. For since it is forbidden to add unto or
take away any thing from the Word of God, it doth thereby evidently appear that the doctrine
thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects. Neither do we consider of equal value any
writing of men, however holy these men may have been, with those divine Scriptures, nor ought
we to consider custom or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or
councils, decrees, or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, for the truth is above all;
for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with allour hearts whatsoever doth not agree with this infallible rule which the apostles have taught us...”(Art. 7).14 The Second Helvetic Confession says: “in this respect it is expressly commanded of
10 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955), 124. Van Til
quotes John Calvin, Institutes, I.VI.2.
11 Harmony of Protestant Confessions, 4.
12 Reformed Confessions Harmonized, 14.
13 Harmony of Protestant Confessions, 8.
14 Reformed Confessions Harmonized, 14, 16.
God that nothing be either put to or taken away from the same [the Holy Scriptures] (Deut. 4:2;
Rev. 22:18-19).”15 The Westminster Confession of Faith says: “...unto which [Scripture] nothing
at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men” (1.6).The fact that the Bible is sufficient, perfect and complete renders all attempts at supplementingits teachings regarding faith and ethics with ideas and rules that originate in man’s mind to beunbiblical and foolish. Against spiritualistic enthusiasts, charismatics, diviners and all falseprophets the Westminster Confession of Faith states that no “new revelations of the Spirit” are to
be added to God’s word. Against the papists and all who intrude human traditions into theprecepts, ordinances, worship or government of the church, the Reformed confessions condemnadding “the traditions of men” to the word of God. The doctrine of the perfection and sufficiencyof Scripture protects believers from the tyranny of human requirements. No one (whether a
bishop, church father, synod or council) is permitted to bind men’s consciences with any doctrineor requirement. Everything must be based on Scripture, either by direct command or by good andnecessary consequence. Thus the Westminster Confession of Faith says, “God alone is Lord of
the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in
anything contrary to His Word; or beside it, in matters of faith and worship. So that, to believe
such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty ofconscience...” (20.2). Regarding good works the Confession says, “Good works are only such asGod hath commanded in His holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are
devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretence of good intention” (16.1). Concerning
worship the Confession says, “But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is institutedby Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according
to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visiblerepresentation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures” (21.1).
3. The Completeness and Finality of Scripture
When the Reformed confessions assert the perfection and sufficiency of Scripture, andwhen the Westminster Confession speaks against “new revelations of the Spirit,” they areteaching the completeness and finality of Scripture. By Scripture we mean the completed canon
(the 66 books of the Old and New Testament), the inscripturated word of God. At this point in
salvation history (after the completion of Christ’s redemptive work, after the person and work of
Christ has been explained by the New Testament prophets and apostles and the government,
worship and doctrine of the new covenant church has been fully set forth by the Holy Spirit in
Scripture) the revelatory process has ceased. Scripture could not have been completed until after
Jesus accomplished his work on earth. Everything in Scripture is related in some manner to the
person and work of Christ. Jesus is described as the climax and finality of God speaking to man
Our Lord told his disciples that it was to their advantage that he go away, for after his
ascension he would send the Holy Spirit who would guide them into all truth (Jn. 16:7, 13-15).
The Spirit-inspired apostles and New Testament prophets gave us the foundation (the N.T.
canon) upon which the new covenant churches build (Eph. 2:20-21). Paul said that when the
perfect comes (i.e., the completed N.T. revelation), prophecy and other modes of revelation
would cease (1 Cor. 13:8-12). It is a fact of history that divine revelation did cease when the last
apostle died. Throughout history those who have claimed to have direct revelations from God
15 Ibid. 10.
(e.g., Montanists, Zickau prophets, Irvingites, modern charismatics, etc.) have always been falseprophets. Christ and the apostles predicted the rise of false prophets and warned us not to followtheir counterfeit revelations (cf. Mt. 7:15-23; 24:11; 2 Pet. 2:1 ff.; 2 Th. 2:9-11; etc.).
The fact that revelation has ceased and that Scripture has been designed by God as fullysufficient to meet all our needs (2 Tim. 3:16-
17) means that if we want to know God’s mind andwill, our only source for this knowledge is the Bible. John Murray writes,
Scripture occupies for us an exclusive place and performs an exclusive function as the
only extant mode of revelation. It is granted by those with whom we are particularly
concerned in this address that Scripture does not continue to be written, that it is a closed
canon. Once this is admitted, then we must entertain what our opponents are not willing
to grant, namely, that conception of Scripture taught and pre-supposed by our Lord and
his apostles, and insist that it is this conception that must be applied to the whole canon of
Scripture. Since we no longer have prophets, since we do not have our Lord with us as he
was with the disciples, and since we do not have new organs of revelation as in apostolic
times, Scripture in its total extent, according to the conception entertained by our Lord
and his apostles, is the only revelation of the mind and will of God available to us. This is
what the finality of Scripture means for us; it is the only extant revelatory Word of God.16
III. The Jewish/Romanist Rejection of Sola Scriptura
The Bible and all the Reformed confessions condemn adding the traditions of men to the
word of God. Unfortunately, the principle of sola scriptura has been violated throughout church
history. Two prime examples of adding traditions to God’s word are rabbinic Judaism andRoman Catholicism.
Rabbinic Judaism teaches that when Moses received the written law on Mt. Sinai, he also
received a very lengthy unwritten (oral) revelation. This oral revelation was then supposedly
passed down to Joshua, the seventy elders, the prophets and the great rabbinic teachers
generationally, until it was committed to writing in the Talmud. Although there is no question
that God instructed the church before the time of Moses by unwritten words, or that prophecy
continued until the close of the canon, the idea of an unwritten divine tradition continuing afterthe close of the canon is clearly unscriptural. Even the Pharisaical idea of an authoritative
unwritten tradition functioning as a co-equal authority to written revelation while the canon
remained open is condemned by Scripture in many ways. First, while the Jews are repeatedlywarned not to add or detract from God’s inscripturated word (Dt. 4:2; Pr. 30:5-6; Josh. 1:7-8),
16 John Murray, “The Finality and Sufficiency of Scripture” in Collected Writings (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth,
1976), 1:19. Cults (e.g., Swedenborgianism, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness, the Unification Church, etc.) arenotorious for setting up a new (false) revelation that is then used as an absolute and superior standard to judge and
reinterpret the Bible. Infallibility, absolute authority and sufficiency are shifted from the Bible to the latest
revelation. This gives the cult leader or leaders total power over their deluded followers. The non-cessationist
charismatic movement believes in continuing direct revelation from God. However, tongues, the word of knowledge
and prophecy are inconsistently given a secondary status to the Bible. There are no attempts (by charismatics) to add
new revelations to the canon of Scripture. Some intellectual charismatics have even developed the idea that
prophecy now is different than Old Testament prophecy—that inaccuracies and mistakes are acceptable in new
covenant post-apostolic prophecy. All such teaching is an implicit acceptance of the cessation position and sola
scriptura. When Pentecostal preachers have insisted that their “prophecies” be written down and treated as the veryword of God, they very often have become cult leaders. Modern charismatics claim to have direct revelation from
God, yet in practice they treat those supposed revelations as what they actually are—the words of man.
there are no warnings or even any remarks regarding an unwritten revelational tradition. Second,
commands and warnings regarding obedience, whether found in the law (e.g., Ex. 19:7-8; Dt.
31:9, 12, 46-47) or the prophets (Jer. 36:2, 32), refer either to what was already written or to
what became inscripturated prophecy. There is not a shred of evidence in the Old Testament for
an authoritative tradition. Biblical teaching assumes that there is not an independent source of
oral communication standing alongside of the written revelation. Third, Jesus repeatedlycondemned the Jews for adding human traditions and doctrines to God’s word (e.g., Mt. 15:1-3).
Fourth, the Talmud (which in English translation runs to 34 large volumes) is full of
contradictions, unethical teaching and blasphemous nonsense. It explicitly contradicts many of
the major teachings of the Bible. Modern Judaism is not a religion of the Old Testament but a
religion founded upon human tradition. Like various cults, Judaism has transferred the
infallibility, absolute authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures to a human collection of
The Roman Catholic Church is very similar to Judaism on the issue of authority.
Romanists teach that the Bible and tradition as interpreted by the Church are the final seat ofauthority in religion. The Council of Trent says: “Seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are
contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions” (4th sess.; 1546).17 The Second
Vatican Council says,
This tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the
Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words
which have been handed down.... For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church
constantly moves forward toward the fulness of divine truth until the words of God reach
their complete fulfillment in her (Dei Verbum, 8; 1962-1965).18
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the church “does not derive her certainty aboutall revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be acceptedand honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”19 The Roman Catholic Church
teaches that the hierarchy (i.e., the bishops and the supreme Pontiff), with the help of the Holy
Spirit, picks, authorizes and adds its own authoritative tradition to the written form of revelation.
Romanists do not believe that the church hierarchy is making up doctrine but simply setting forth
the oral teachings of Jesus and the apostles that were never inscripturated. These teachings were
given to the bishops as a parallel source of authority.
Romanist teaching regarding the authority of tradition gives the church hierarchy an
authority over the written word of God. Christ emphatically condemned the use of tradition as a
source of authority (cf. Mk. 7:5-13), because whenever tradition is set up alongside of Scripture,
it eventually is placed above Scripture, and is then used to interpret Scripture. Human tradition
was the chief reason that the nation of Israel in the days of Christ and the Roman Catholic
Church in the Middle Ages became apostate. Throughout its history the papal church multiplied
traditions until both the gospel and apostolic worship were buried under a pile of will worship
and false doctrine.
Why is the Romanist doctrine of an unwritten tradition (as a co-equal authority with
Scripture that somehow is kept pure by the church hierarchy and then delivered to the laity
17 “The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent” in Philip Schaff, ed., The Creeds of Christendom (GrandRapids: Baker, 1983 [1876, 1931]), 2:80.
18 Walter M. Abbott, ed., The Documents of Vatican II (New York: Herden and Herden, 1966), 116.
19 Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 31.
throughout history) unbiblical? There are many reasons why the Roman Catholic doctrine of an
authoritative tradition must be rejected. First, the doctrine of the perfection, completeness and
sufficiency of Scripture renders an authoritative tradition or further revelation from God
unnecessary. Second, God’s inscripturated word forbids adding or detracting from the completedcanon. Third, many of the Romanist traditions that have been added as authoritative doctrine and
practice explicitly contradict the clear teaching of the Bible. Fourth, many Roman Catholic
traditions contradict each other. Fifth, most of the additions of the papal church had their origins
long after the death of the apostles. Sixth, human tradition is dependent upon sinful, fallible men
and thus is obscure, unprovable and indefinite.20 An “authoritative” human tradition requires
faith in sinful man’s fluctuating opinions. Only toward Scripture, which is perfect, complete,sufficient and perspicuous, can we direct our faith, for it is the very word of Christ and gives us a
full assurance. Seventh, the Bible itself condemns all doctrines and worship practices that are notderived from the Scriptures. “In vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments
of men” (Mt. 15:9; Isa. 29:13). Turretin writes,
Nor can it be replied that the Pharisaical traditions are rejected, not the apostolic. All
doctrines taught by men and not contained in the Scriptures are rejected and the
assumption is gratuitous that there are any apostolic traditions out of the Scriptures.
Believers are called to the law and the testimony (Is. 8:20) and destruction is denounced
against those who do not speak according to it. Nor can traditions be meant by thetestimony because God everywhere rejects them. Either the law itself (often called “the
testimony”) is meant as a testimony of God exegetically or the writings of the prophets
which were added to the law.21
Roman Catholic apologists attempt to justify their doctrine of an authoritative tradition by
appealing to certain passages of Scripture. A brief examination of some of these passages is
needed to reveal their true meaning. As we consider these passages we must keep in mind thatthe apostles had a unique authority. The apostles’ oral teaching was authoritative and binding.
Therefore, those men and churches who sat under the teaching of the apostles were obligated to
20 Charles Hodge writes, “It is of course conceded that Christ and his Apostles said and did much that is notrecorded in the Scriptures; and it is further admitted that if we had any certain knowledge of such unrecorded
instructions, they would be of equal authority with what is written in the Scriptures. But Protestants maintain that
they were not intended to constitute a part of the permanent rule of faith to the Church. They were designed for the
men of that generation. The showers which fell a thousand years ago, watered the earth and rendered it fruitful for
men then living. They cannot now be gathered up and made available for us. They did not constitute a reservoir for
the supply of future generations. In like manner the unrecorded teachings of Christ and his Apostles did their work.
They were not designed for our instruction. It is as impossible to learn what they were, as it is to gather up the leaves
which adorned and enriched the earth when Christ walked in the garden of Gethsemane. This impossibility arises
out of the limitations of our nature, as well as its corruption consequent on the fall. Man has not the clearness of
perception, the retentiveness of memory, or the power of presentation, to enable him (without supernatural aid) to
give a trustworthy account of a discourse once heard, a few years or even months after its delivery. And that this
should be done over and over from month to month for thousands of years, is an impossibility. If to this be added the
difficulty in the way of this oral transmission, arising from the blindness of men to the things of the Spirit, which
prevents their understanding what they hear, and from the disposition to pervert and misrepresent the truth to suit
their own prejudices and purposes, it must be acknowledged that tradition cannot be a reliable source of knowledge
of religious truth. This is universally acknowledged and acted upon, except by Romanists. No one pretends to
determine what Luther and Calvin, Latimer and Cranmer, taught, except from contemporaneous written records.Much less will any sane man pretend to know what Moses and the prophets taught except from their own writings”(Systematic Theology [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989], 1:21).
21 Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:139.
obey the apostles’ Spirit-inspired instruction as the very word of God, a rule for faith and life.
However, the fact that the apostles could orally teach inspired authoritative truth while they were
still alive (and that the churches were morally obligated to obey their teaching) does not at all
prove that there is an oral authoritative tradition that is somehow preserved among the Romanist
hierarchy throughout history. Scripture alone must define the phrase “apostolic tradition.”Furthermore, why would the God of infinite wisdom commit some of his revelation to writing
and the rest to oral tradition? While written revelation is easily preserved from corruption, oral
tradition is easily corrupted and lost. Also, when a bishop or pope comes up with a new teaching
from the supposed trough of unwritten apostolic tradition, how are we to determine whether or
not he simply made up that doctrine out of his own imagination? Are we supposed to simply
accept his own word on it? Is this not a blind faith in the words of men? The Romanist
foundation of an authoritative tradition rests upon its doctrine of the special authority of the
church (i.e., the sacerdotal hierarchy). It is a doctrine that in itself is totally contrary to the Bible.
The only way that we can know with absolute certainty what the apostles taught is to read their
In 1 Corinthians 11:2 Paul says: “keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you.” IsPaul here agreeing with the papal doctrine regarding a body of unwritten tradition transmitted by
a succession of bishops from generation to generation? No, not at all. Paul is simply instructing
the Corinthian believers to obey the doctrine and exhortations that he had given them when he
was personally present among them. The word (paradosis) translated as “tradition” or
“ordinance” (KJV), when used in reference to the rule of faith in the New Testament, alwaysrefers to the immediate instructions of inspired men. “When used in the modern sense of the
word tradition, it is always in reference to what is human and untrustworthy, Gal. 1, 14. Col. 2,8, and frequently in the gospels of the traditions of the elders.”22
A favorite proof text of Romanist apologists is 2 Thessalonians 2:15, “Therefore,brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught whether by word or byepistle.” Note that Paul refers to oral or spoken doctrine as well as written teaching. Doesn’t thispassage perfectly fit the papal doctrine of a two-fold revelation: one written and one oral? No,
absolutely not! Once again Paul is referring to inspired teaching given personally. This passage
does not support the idea of a secret teaching handed down through the centuries by bishops.“Paul is not encouraging the Thessalonians to receive some tradition that had been delivered to
them via second or third hand reports. On the contrary, he was ordering them to receive as
infallible truth only what they had heard directly from his own lips.”23
In order to show the absurdity of the Romanist position let us consider one more point.
Assume for a moment that the Roman Catholic position is true, that a large deposit of apostolic
doctrine was given to the church orally for its own sanctification. This orally delivered doctrine
is inspired, authoritative and thus all believers are required to obey it without reservation. If the
church was given this great deposit of apostolic teaching, then why not simply write it all down
so that everyone could immediately benefit from its divine wisdom? If this teaching is
authoritative and required, why dish it out in little snippets over a period of almost two thousand
years? Why not simply place it all out in the open for all to immediately benefit from it? Why
did the church wait until A.D. 1079 to learn that God required the celibacy of the priesthood?
22 Charles Hodge, 1 and 2 Corinthians (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1958 , 206.
23 John MacArthur, “The Sufficiency of the Written Word” in Don Kistler, ed., Sola Scriptura (Morgan, PA: Soli
Deo Gloria, 1995), 177.
Why wait until A.D. 1854 to learn about the immaculate conception of Mary? It is obvious from
both the biblical and historical evidence that the papal doctrine of an authoritative tradition is
merely a clever human attempt at justifying centuries of man-made doctrines and practices. The
Romish doctrine of authoritative tradition is merely a human invention used to shift authority
from the Bible to the church hierarchy. The reason that the pope and bishops dish out small
amounts of the supposed oral apostolic tradition here and there throughout history is that it gives
them incredible power. When some doctrine or practice is needed to control the laity and
increase the hierarchy’s power, a new doctrine or practice is simply made up or discovered by achurch bureaucrat and then imposed on the laity. This gives the Roman Catholic hierarchy a cult-
like power over their flock. The fact that many Roman Catholic bishops and popes may have
been very sincere in their beliefs does not detract from the fact that their doctrine of authoritative
tradition is a doctrine of demons. Beware of false prophets; their doctrine can devour you (cf.
As a result of such teaching regarding authority, the Roman Catholic Church has more in
common with a pagan cult than apostolic Christianity. Turretin writes,
She [the Roman Catholic Church] is apostate and heretical, having failed from the faith
once delivered to the saints and teaching various deadly heresies and thrusting them
forward to be believed under the pain of a curse. Such are the doctrines concerning
justification by works and their merit, human satisfactions and indulgences,
transubstantiation, and the sacrifice of the Mass, sin and free will, sufficient grace, the
possible observance of the law, the ecumenical pontiff and primacy of the pope.... she is
idolatrous and superstitious, both with respect to the object which she worships and with
respect to the mode in which she worships. With respect to the object, inasmuch as
besides God (who as alone omniscient, omnipotent and best ought to be the sole object of
worship and invocation), she venerates and adores creatures also which are by nature not
gods (Gal. 4:8): as the blessed virgin, angels, defunct saints, the consecrated host, the
sacrament, the cross, the pope, the relics of Christ and of the saints. With respect of the
mode, in the making, worship and adoration of effigies and images, so solemnly
prohibited by the law of God. And these things appear not from the private opinion of
teachers, but from the public sanctions and constant practice.24
If the papal church is to be cleansed of its damnable heresies and gross, blasphemous idolatries,
it must return to the biblical doctrine of sola scriptura. The root must first be cured before the
diseased and poisonous fruit is replaced.
IV. Protestant Inconsistencies
While, happily, all Protestants affirm sola scriptura, many Protestants teach and practice
things which contradict the doctrine that Scripture is the sole standard for faith and life. An
implicit denial of sola scriptura, whether by teaching or practice, can be found in Lutheran,
Episcopal, evangelical and even Reformed churches. A brief examination of some of these
inconsistencies will aid our understanding of this crucial teaching.
The doctrine of sola scriptura is both affirmed and implicitly denied in the creedal
statements of the Church of England (the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion [1563, American
version 1801]) and the Lutherans (the Augsburg Confession  and Formula of Concord
24 Frances Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 3:123-125.
[1576, 1584]). Article six of the Thirty Nine Articles contains a good statement regarding theBible. “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read
therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed asan article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”25
The Lutheran confession also contains a strong affirmation of sola Scriptura:
I. We believe, confess, and teach that the only rule and norm, according to which all
dogmas and all doctors ought to be esteemed and judged, is no other whatever than the
prophetic and apostolic writings both of the Old and the New Testament, as it is written(Psalm cxix. 105): ‘Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.’ And St.
Paul saith (Gal. i. 8): ‘Though an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you, let
him be accursed....’
In this way a clear distinction is retained between the sacred Scriptures of the Old
and New Testaments, and all other writings; and Holy Scripture alone is acknowledged as
the [only] judge, norm, and rule, according to which, as by the [only] touchstone, all
doctrines are to be examined and judged, as to whether they be godly or ungodly, true or
Unfortunately, the Lutheran and Episcopal symbols both contradict sola scriptura in their
discussions of ecclesiastical ceremonies, church authority and tradition. The Thirty Nine Articles
give the church an authority that is clearly incompatible with sola scriptura. Article 20—Of the
Authority of the Church reads:
The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of
Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’sWord written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to
another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as
it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to
enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.27
Article 34—Of the Traditions of the Church states,
It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly like; for
at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversity ofcountries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word.Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the
Traditions and Ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God,
and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly (that
others may fear to do the like), as he that offendeth against the common order of the
Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the
25 Creeds of Christendom, 3:489 (all quotes are from the American revision of 1801).26 Ibid. 3:93-94, 96.
27 Ibid. 3:500.
Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish,
Ceremonies or Rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority, so that all things bedone to edifying.28
The Thirty Nine Articles give the church a power independent of Scripture. Not only can the
prelates determine or abolish rites or ceremonies as they please solely on their own authority
without scriptural warrant, they also reserve to themselves the power to discipline believers who“openly break the Traditions and Ceremonies of the Church.” Although their creed does say that
the church cannot “ordain any thing contrary to God’s word written,” it nevertheless give thechurch hierarchy a power independent of Scripture. Thus while article six affirms sola scripturain theory, articles 20 and 34 deny it in practice. The latter articles not only give the church power
to determine or abolish rites or ceremonies as she pleases without any scriptural warrantwhatsoever, they also give the church the authority to discipline believers who “openly break the
Traditions and Ceremonies of the Church.” Article 20 does say that “it is not lawful for theChurch to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written.” This statement, however(which follows the Lutheran confessions), would offer little comfort to the Puritans and
Covenanters who were disciplined and persecuted for refusing to submit to man-made rites and
The Episcopal position on church authority and human tradition is derived from: (1) a
deficient view of the perfection and sufficiency of Scripture; (2) a false understanding of the role
of human reason in determining church ordinances; (3) a fallacious concept of the crown rights
of the resurrected Christ.
When it comes to the government and worship of the church, Episcopalian theologians
and apologists openly admit that Scripture is not a perfect rule for the church but only a partial
rule. Anglicans (at least in such areas as worship and government) view the Bible as incomplete,
vague and general. The Bible is like a defective map with some large roads noted yet with the
details missing. If the map is to be really useful, the prelates must fill in the missing pieces. How
are the details to be arrived at? The bishops will use their reason to glean from the traditions of
the ancient church and add some lovely traditions of their own. The fact that God has made it
abundantly clear that he despises human inventions in ethics or in worship is ignored (cf. Gen.
4:3-5; Lev. 10:1-2; Dt. 4:2; 12:32; Num. 15:39-40; 2 Sam. 6:3-7; 1 Chr. 15:13-15; 1 Kgs. 12:32-
33; Jer. 7:24, 31; Isa. 29:13; Col. 2:20-23).
There is a great contrast between the Anglican and the Reformed understanding of sola
scriptura and the sufficiency of Scripture. Reformed confessions regard the perfection and
sufficiency of the Bible as extending not only to doctrine but also to worship and church
government. If the worship and government that God has instituted in his word is sufficient, then
obviously it does not need supplementation. Davies writes, “The main principle of the absolute
authority of God’s word in the Scriptures for faith, ethics, and worship was expressed by all
Puritans. To depart from this is the utmost human impertinence and pretentiousness, for itimplies that one knows God’s will better than He does, or that the inherent weakness of original
sin does not blind one’s judgment through egocentricity.”29
28 Ibid. 3:508-509.
29 Horton Davies, Worship and Theology in England from Cranmer to Baxter and Fox, 1534-1690 (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1996 ), 1:258.
The Episcopal concept of church authority and tradition also derives from a wrong use of
human reason. Sixteenth century Anglican apologists, in their attempt to refute the dogmatic
biblicism of the Puritans, gave reason a role independent of Scripture in determining the worship
and government of the church. The Puritans were not against the use of reason. However, for
them reason was always to be submitted to Scripture and reason was to be used to deduce
doctrine and practice from the Bible itself. It was not to be used independently of Scripture. The
Westminster divines refer to explicit teachings from Scripture and those deduced from Scripture
by good and necessary consequence (1.6). Anglican apologists (especially Richard Hooker) used
reason to give church authorities autonomy from the strict parameters of the word in order to
justify their human traditions. (Most of these traditions were a continuation of medieval Roman
Catholic practices.) Regarding Richard Hooker (the greatest of Anglican apologists), Cook
In the defense of Anglicanism, published in eight books between 1594 and 1600,
Hooker identifies the real issue in the Anglican and Puritan controversy as the nature ofthe church. He seeks to repudiate Cartwright’s position that the Scripture provides a
prototype for the government of the church for all time. Endeavoring to shift the
argument away from Scripture, Hooker contends for a principle of natural reason as
having equal validity with that of divine revelation. He embarks on an essentially non-
Reformed approach to truth, teaching that some spiritual laws are known by reason quite
apart from Scripture. Here we have the Catholic mind at work, drawing its strength from
Aquinas, operating quite comfortably within the English Church from which it has never
been banished; creating, in fact, the characteristic Anglican mentality which has
controlled the practice of the Church of England ever since.... There is nothing of sola
scriptura in Hooker’s contention that to appeal to the New Testament for the polity of thechurch is to say, in effect, that ‘God in delivering Scripture to his Church should clearlyhave abrogated amongst them the law of nature; which is an infallible knowledgeimprinted in the minds of all the children of men’ [Ecclesiastical Polity, Bk. II, Ch. 8, 6].Reason is given a validity equal to that of Scripture ‘inasmuch as law doth stand uponreason, to allege reason serveth as well as to cite Scripture; that whatsoever is reasonable
the same is lawful whatsoever is author of it.’30
Closely related to the Anglicans’ improper use of human reason is their defectiveunderstanding of original sin. Davies writes, “Anglicans found man to be deficient in spiritualcapacity; his other powers were weakened, but not desperately wounded and in need ofredemptive blood transfusions, as the Puritans claimed. Man’s reason was, for the Anglicans,unimpaired; it had a natural capacity to distinguish between good and evil in a moral order.
Cranmer assumed, for example, that men could choose the good without the help of sanctifyinggrace. Jewel affirmed that ‘Natural reason holden within her bonds is not the enemy, but the
daughter of God’s truth.’ Donne held that reason must be employed when the meaning of
Scripture is unclear, but, ‘Though our supreme court...for the last appeal be Faith, yet Reason isher delegate.’”31 As a consequence of such a defective view regarding the effects of the fall,
Anglicans did not understand the danger of allowing sinful, fallen men the right to determine
rites and ceremonies of the church. The Puritans recognized that the corruption of the human
30 Paul E. G. Cook, “The Church” in Puritan and Anglican Thinking (Northamptonshire, England: The WestminsterConference, 1977), 26.
31 Horton Davies, Worship and Theology in England, 1:54.
heart rendered man unable to determine acceptable forms of worshiping a thrice holy God. Even
the regenerated mind cannot be trusted to autonomously determine worship ordinances, for it is
still struggling with the remaining effects of the fall. The only safe thing to do under suchcircumstances is to study what God says and follow it. “Trust in the LORD with all your heartand lean not on your own understanding” (Pr. 3:5). Bushell writes,
The regulative principle may therefore be seen, in a particular sense, as a natural
inference from the doctrine of total depravity. The two are tied together, for example, inExodus 20:25: ‘And if you make an altar of stone for me, you shall not build it of cutsstones, for if you wield your tool upon it, you will profane it.’ Any work of man’s ownhands, that he presumes to offer to God in worship, is defiled by sin and for that reason
The church fathers and theologians of the medieval era, who added many human
traditions to the worship of God, no doubt thought they were inventing things that would benefit
and edify the church. The result, however, was the Romish whore, the church of the Antichrist. It
is for this reason that the Scriptures repeatedly warn the covenant people not to add or detractfrom the laws, statutes and ordinances that Jehovah has prescribed. “When the LORD your Godcuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and
dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they aredestroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these
nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in
that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for
they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be
careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it” (Dt. 12:29-32).
The Anglican concept of church authority and tradition is an implicit rejection of the
crown rights of Jesus Christ. Episcopalian theologians are not obedient to the great commission
in which Jesus commanded the church to teach the nations “to observe all things that I have
commanded you” (Mt. 28:20). Their version of the great commission should read, “teach thenations to observe all things that I have commanded you and all things that the bishops decideare unto edification.” When prelates or anyone else places human laws, religious ordinances,
ceremonies or rites alongside of God’s revealed will, then such men are giving themselves anauthority that belongs solely to God. Only God has the authority to declare an act moral or
immoral. Yet men and women have been disciplined and persecuted simply for refusing to
submit to humanly-devised rites and ceremonies. Every use of human tradition in the worship of
Jehovah is implicitly Romanist and tyrannical. Although evangelical congregations and
backslidden Reformed churches may not use the rack, the boot, imprisonment, confiscation or
banishment to punish modern Puritans, they do use many subtle and not-so-subtle forms of
coercion, discipline and disapproval. Regardless of many churches’ disapprobation of biblical
32 Michael Bushell, The Songs of Zion: A Contemporary Case for Exclusive Psalmody, 120. William Young writes,“The total corruption and deceitfulness of the human heart disqualifies man from judging what is to be admitted into
the worship of God. It may be that before the fall, our first parents had written on their hearts the law of worship and
by looking within the depth of their own beings, could read off the commandments of God. Yet even then, they were
not without direct external communication of the will of Him who walked and talked with them in the garden.“Since the fall, however, though the human conscience still witnesses in all men that worship is due to the supremeBeing, no information can be gained from the heart of man as to how God is to be worshiped” (Frank J. Smith andDavid C. Lachman, eds., Worship in the Presence of God [Greenville, S.C.: Greenville Seminary Press, 1992], 81).
worship, we must never place our faith in the autonomous religious ordinances of finite sinful
men.33 It is wicked and foolish to look to human traditions in worship as if they were a part ofGod’s word. Biblical faith must be directed solely to Christ and His word, “for all our obediencein the worship of God is the obedience of faith. And if the Scripture be the rule of faith, our faith
is not, in any of its concerns, to be extended beyond it, no more than the thing regulated is to bebeyond the rule.”34
Jesus Christ is the only king and sole lawgiver to the church. Whenever men add human
laws, ordinances, rites or ceremonies to what Christ has authorized in his word, they deny
believers the liberty they have in Christ. Owen writes,
That abridgement of the liberty of the disciples of Christ, by impositions on them of
things which he hath not appointed, nor made necessary by circumstances antecedent
unto such impositions, are plain usurpations upon the consciences of the disciples of
Christ, destructive of the liberty which he hath purchased for them, and which, if it be
their duty to walk according to gospel rule, is sinful to submit unto.35
Ironically (today), opponents of sola scriptura as applied to worship (i.e., the regulative principle
of worship) have attempted to turn the tables against modern Puritans by arguing that the
regulativists are the ones who deny believers liberty by not allowing non-regulativists the
opportunity to introduce human innovations into the worship of God. The problem with such anargument is that liberty as defined by Scripture never means liberty from God’s law or liberty to
devise one’s own worship ordinances or ceremonies apart from God’s word. Biblical libertyrefers to: (1) our freedom from obedience to the law as a means of justification before God (e.g.,
Rom. 3:28); (2) our deliverance from the power of sin in us (e.g., Rom. 6:6 ff.); (3) the
abrogation of the ceremonial law and thus our freedom from it; (4) our freedom in areas that are
truly adiaphora, that is, things indifferent (e.g., Rom. 14:20). Christian liberty never means thatwe are permitted to add to God’s moral precepts or that we can add to the worship that God hasprescribed. Such a notion assumes that the most important and reverent activity that Christians
engage in (the worship of God) is somehow within the sphere of adiaphora. That idea is plainly
unbiblical and absurd.
True freedom comes from a proper understanding of the Reformed doctrine of sola
scriptura and the correlative doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. Of the Puritans Rawlinson
Moreover, they believed with Calvin that if God had shown how he was to be
worshiped by the clear light of His Word, it was sheer presumption, bordering on
blasphemy, for men to add to what God had revealed. In 1605 William Bradshaw
33 John Knox writes, “It is not enough that man invent ceremony, and then give it a signification, according to his
pleasure.... But if that anything proceed from faith, it must have the word of God for the assurance; for ye are notignorant, ‘That faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.’ Now, if ye will prove that your ceremonies
proceed from faith, and do please God, ye must prove God in expressed words has commanded them: Or else shall
ye never prove, that they proceed from faith, nor yet that they please God; but that they are sin, and do displease
him, according to the words of the apostle, ‘Whatsoever is not of faith is sin’” (William Croft Dickenson, ed., JohnKnox’s History of the Reformation in Scotland [New York: Philosophical Library, 1950], 1:87).
34 John Owen, “The Word of God the Sole Rule of Worship” in Works (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1967),13:473.
35 John Owen, “A Discourse Concerning Liturgies” in Works (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 1965 [1850-53]),
declared that Puritans ‘hold and maintain that the word of God contained in the writingsof the Prophets and Apostles, is of absolute perfection, given by Christ the Head of the
Church, to be unto the same, the sole Canon and rule of all matters of Religion, and the
worship and service of God whatsoever. And that whatsoever done in the same serviceand worship cannot be justified by the said word, is unlawful.’ Such Bible passages as 2
Timothy 3:15-17; 2 Peter 1:19-21; Matthew 15:9, 13 and Revelation 22:19 were used to
justify this position, whilst from such passages as Acts 2:41-42; 1 Timothy 2:1ff.;
Ephesians 5:19; Romans 10:14-15; 2 Timothy 1:13 and Matthew 18:15-18, it was argued
that there were six ordinances of Gospel worship—Prayer, Praise, Preaching, Baptismand the Lord’s Supper, Catechising, and Discipline.36
Because consistently Reformed churches do not allow humans traditions in worship, they never
discipline people for adhering only to the worship prescribed in Scripture. It is only in churches
that add human traditions that believers are ostracized and persecuted, and ministers are fired for
holding to pure gospel worship. How can modern Puritans be accused of denying anyone’sliberty when all they are guilty of is following the laws and ordinances of Scripture withouthuman admixture? “[T]he value of providing a biblical warrant for all the ordinances of Puritanworship was that this gave these ordinances an August authority for those who used them, as thePuritans did, in the obedience of faith.”37 Those who add human inventions to the worship of
God can never adequately deal with the issue of authority for their human innovations. There is
no divine authority undergirding their practices, and there is no divine authority behind the
coercion that is involved in their implementation and continuance. John Owen writes,
The principle that the church hath power to institute any thing or ceremony belonging to
the worship of God, either to a matter or manner, beyond the observance of such
circumstances as necessarily attend such ordinances as Christ Himself hath instituted, lies
at the bottom of all the horrible superstition and idolatry, of all the confusion, blood,
persecution, and wars, that have for long a season spread themselves over the face of the
Those who do not consider divine warrant an important issue for the government and worship of
the church should remember that over 18,000 men, women and children who were dedicated
Scottish Presbyterians (Covenanters) were murdered simply for refusing to submit to the human
ordinances of Prelacy.
A consideration of non-authorized man-made worship reveals not only that such worship
is by nature without divine authority and therefore tyrannical but also anthropocentric. What is
the purpose of all the pomp, pageantry and spectacle of Anglican worship? Why the dramatic
cathedrals? Why the stained glass, special holy days, special gestures and special priestly dress?
The reason is not that God has commanded such things and thus takes delight in them. God is by
no means impressed with fancy cathedrals, bells, smells and silly vestments. The whole purpose
of the various man-made adornments (aside from high church sacerdotalism) is to have some
psychological effect upon man. The popish paraphernalia and medieval trappings retained in
Anglican churches were considered aids or helps to devotion. They were intended to strike awe,
36 Leslie A. Rawlinson, “Worship in Liturgy and Form” in Anglican and Puritan Thinking (Cambridge, England:Westminster Conference, 1977), 74.
37 Horton Davies, Worship and Theology in England, 1:71.
38 John Owen, quoted in William Cunningham, “The Reformers and the Regulative Principle” in The Reformation of
the Church (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1965), 40-41.
reverence and inspiration among the worshipers. The cathedral with its pomp and ceremony
served a similar function to the LSD, reefers and light show that a hippie would experience
during a rock concert. They set the mood and manipulate the heart. At bottom all such human
devices invented for human enjoyment and psychological effect reveal a serious lack of faith in
the power of the Holy Spirit to accompany pure gospel worship. The pomp and pageantry of
Anglican worship is an implicit denial that the worship authorized and designed by Jesus Christ
is adequate unto the end for which it was intended. George Gillespie warns that human
ceremonies obscure true religion. He writes,
But among such things as have been the accursed means of the church’s desolation,which peradventure might seem to some of you to have least harm or evil in them, are theceremonies of kneeling in the act of receiving the Lord’s supper, cross in baptism,bishoping, holidays, etc. which are pressed under the name of things indifferent; yet if
you survey the sundry inconveniences and grievous consequences of the same, you will
think far otherwise. The vain shows and shadows of these ceremonies have hid and
obscured the substance of religion; the true life of godliness is smothered down and
suppressed by the burden of these human inventions; for their sakes, many, who are both
faithful servants to Christ and loyal subjects to the king, are evil-spoken of, mocked,
reproached, menaced, molested; for their sakes Christian brethren are offended, and the
weak are greatly scandalized; for their sakes the most powerful and painful ministers in
the land are either thrust out, or threatened to be thrust out from their callings; for their
sakes the best qualified and most hopeful expectants are debarred from entering into the
ministry; for their sakes the seminaries of learning are so corrupted that few or no good
plants can come forth from thence; for their sakes many are admitted into the sacred
ministry, who are either popish and Arminianized, who minister to the flock poison
instead of food; or silly ignorants, who can dispense no wholesome food to the hungry.39
For the opponents of the regulative principle of worship who accuse Puritan worship of beingguilty of a “nominalistic minimalism” or a “color-blind iconclasm” we ask the followingquestions: What human improvements can be made to the singing of God’s inspired Psalms?What (in the words of John Bunyan) ear-gate, mouth-gate and eye gate human additions areneeded to supplement hearing God’s word read and preached and looking and feasting upon the
flesh and blood of the Son of God? What are fancy buildings, silly popish dress, ceremonies and
Romish pomp compared to the ordinances given to us by our most blessed Lord and Savior? Is
placing our faith in the infallible words of Christ not enough? Must we also place our faith in the
words and inventions of men?40
39 George Gillespie, A Dispute against the English Popish Ceremonies Obtruded on the Church of Scotland (Dallas,TX: Naphtali, 1993 ), xxx.
40 One of the most common misconceptions regarding the regulative principle of worship is that it was developed
haphazardly as an overreaction to the abuses of Romanism. It is even argued by some that it was only good for that
early period of the Reformation when many people were coming out of the papal church; however, now that
Protestantism is settled and established it is too extreme and is no longer necessary. There are a number of reasons
why the scenario noted above should be regarded as pure fiction. First, the idea that Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, Farel,
Bucer and the early English Puritans were all pragmatists who were willing to twist Scripture for a good end is
ludicrous. These were men who would rather be tortured and killed than compromise the truth of Scripture. For
example, John Calvin spent his whole life preaching, writing commentaries and refining his Institutes. The
regulative principle is clearly taught in his writings from beginning to end (see Appendix A). It is obvious to any
student of history that he did not adopt his position on worship in a sloppy or haphazard manner. Third, the
Lutherans also came out of Romanism yet rejected the regulative principle. If pragmatism was involved in adhering
The Lutheran churches have also departed from sola scriptura in their understanding and
regulation of public worship. The Augsburg Confession (A.D. 1530) reads,
And unto the true unity of the Church, it is sufficient to agree concerning the
doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that
human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by men should be alike every where, asSt. Paul saith: ‘There is one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all’ (Art. 7, Of theChurch).41
Concerning Ecclesiastical rites [made by men], they teach that those rites are to
be observed which may be observed without sin, and are profitable for tranquility and
good order in the Church; such as are set holidays, feasts, and such like. Yet concerning
such things, men are to be admonished that consciences are not to be burdened as if such
service were necessary to salvation. They are also to be admonished that human
traditions, instituted to propitiate God, to merit grace, and make satisfaction for sins, are
opposed to the Gospel and the doctrine of faith. Wherefore vows and traditions
concerning foods and days, and such like, instituted to merit grace and make satisfaction
for sins, are useless and contrary to the Gospel (Art. 15, Of Ecclesiastical Rites).42
The Formula of Concord (1576 ), Article 10, Of Ecclesiastical Ceremonies, reads,
(Which are commonly called adiaphora, or things indifferent.) There has also
arisen among the divines of the Augsburg Confession a controversy touching
ecclesiastical ceremonies or rites, which are neither enjoined nor forbidden in the Word
of God, but have been introduced into the Church merely for the sake of order and
seemliness. (Sound doctrine and confession touching this Article.) I. For the better taking
away this controversy we believe, teach, and confess, with unanimous consent, that
ceremonies or ecclesiastical rites (such as in the Word of God are neither commanded nor
forbidden, but have only been instituted for the sake of order and seemliness) are of
themselves neither divine worship, nor even any part of divine worship. For it is written(Matt. xv. 9): ‘In vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments ofmen.’ II. We believe, teach, and confess that it is permitted to the Church of God anywhere on earth, and at whatever time, agreeably to occasion, to change such ceremonies,
in such manner as is judged most useful to the Church of God and most suited to her
edification.... V. We believe, teach, and confess that one Church ought not to condemn
another because it observes more or less of external ceremonies, which the Lord has not
to the regulative principle, it was not exhibited by the Reformed churches or theologians. Humanly speaking, the
Reformed churches would have been physically much safer from the assaults of Rome and her minions if they
would have compromised their understanding of worship and joined the Lutherans. Fourth, the theologians of the
Second Reformation period in both England (e.g., John Owen) and Scotland (e.g., George Gillespie, Samuel
Rutherford, James Durham), who studied the issue of worship in more detail than even Calvin or Knox, came to
identical conclusions on the matter of worship. If anything, the men of the Second Reformation were even more
consistent and stricter than some of the earlier theologians. Fifth, the undergirding principles that produced full-
blown Romanism are still with us and pose a threat to Protestants. Although the physical danger is no longer with us
in many countries, the spiritual danger of Popish doctrine is as great as ever.
41 Creeds of Christendom, 3:12.42 Ibid. 3:16.
instituted, provided only there be consent between them in doctrine and all the articles
thereof, and in the true use of the sacraments.43
We repudiate and condemn the following false dogmas as repugnant to the Word
of God: I. That human traditions and constitutions in things ecclesiastical are of
themselves to be accounted as divine worship, or at least as a part of divine worship. II.
When ceremonies and constitutions of this kind are by a sort of coercion obtruded upon
the Church as necessary, and that contrary to the Christian liberty which the Church of
Christ has in external matters of this sort.44
The confessional Lutheran position on worship is basically one in which men can add to the
worship of God as they please, as long as the human additions are not considered a part of
worship. The church is permitted to add rites and ceremonies as long as they are not condemned
by the word and are deemed profitable. The human traditions that are added, however, are“neither divine worship, nor even a part of divine worship.” According to Lutheran theologians
the man-made rites and ceremonies are merely external matters and are not actually worship;
therefore, they can be different in different places; they can be added to or detracted from at will;
and they cannot be imposed upon the laity as compulsory.
The Lutheran understanding of worship was developed early in the Reformation and was
directed primarily against Rome. For Luther and Melanchthon the main problem with papal rites
and ceremonies was that they were compulsory and considered necessary for salvation. Luther
On this same weak basis, the Romanists have attributed to the sacrament ofordination a certain fictitious “character,” which is said to be indelibly impressed upon anordinand. I would ask whence do such ideas arise, and on whose authority and for what
reason have they become established? Not that we are unwilling for the Romanists to be
free to invent, to say, or to assert, whatever they like; but we also insist on our own
freedom, lest they arrogate to themselves the right of making articles of the faith out of
their own ideas, as they have hitherto presumed to do. It is sufficient that, for the sake of
concord, we should accommodate ourselves to their ceremonies and idiosyncrasies; but
we refuse to be compelled to accept them as necessary for salvation, which they are not.
Let them do away with the element of compulsion in their arbitrary demands, and we will
yield free obedience to their wishes in order that we may live in peace towards each
other. For it is mean, iniquitous, and servile for a Christian man, with his freedom, to be
subjected to any regulations except the heavenly and divine.45
In his Apology Melanchthon writes, “For Scripture calls traditions doctrines of demons, when itis taught that religious rites are serviceable to merit the remission of sins and grace (218, 4). If
the adversaries defend these human services as meriting justification, grace and the remission of
sins, they absolutely establish the kingdom of Antichrist (220, 18). Daniel (11, 38) indicates thatnew human services will be the very form and constitution of Antichrist (221, 19).”46
43 Ibid. 3:160-163.
44 Ibid. 3:163-164.
45 Martin Luther, “The Pagan Servitude of the Church” in John Dillenber, ed., Martin Luther: Selections from His
Writing Edited with an Introduction (New York: Anchor, 1961), 343-344.
46 Philip Melanchthon as quoted in J. L. Neve, Introduction to the Symbolical Books of the Lutheran Church(Columbus, OH: The Lutheran Book Concern, 1926), 260-261.
The major differences between Reformed and Lutheran worship are the result of the
different theological viewpoints of Luther and Calvin. One could add that with regard to church
practice Luther was very conservative. For Luther the major doctrine to which practically every
other teaching must be considered in order to be understood was justification by faith. It was the
chief doctrine by which the church stood or fell. Therefore, when Luther turned to the
reformation of the medieval style worship that he was accustomed to he used a scalpel and not an
axe. Although Luther was a champion of sola scriptura, he never made the connection between
Scripture alone and the need of divine warrant for worship ordinances, as did Calvin. When
Luther looked at worship practice his major concern was, Is this practice motivated by a belief in
justification by works? Does this ritual or practice detract in any way from the perfect, all-
sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ? With these criteria Luther eliminated may abuses (e.g., the
Roman Catholic Mass, pilgrimages, the saints as mediators, the sacerdotal priesthood, etc.).
Luther also held that any worship practice that contradicted the clear teaching of Scripture must
be avoided. Therefore, the church service should be intelligible to the people. It should be
conducted in their own language. Communion should be served in both kinds—the bread and the
wine. Preaching should be emphasized so the flock will receive instruction and edification rather
than a vain mumbling in Latin. Another important issue with Luther was the matter of Christian
liberty. Human traditions in worship were adiaphora and should not be forced upon the people.
Such coercion smacked of Romanism and merit-mongering.
Luther had a favorable view of church traditions. Human traditions in church should be
respected and considered valuable as long as they do not contradict Scripture. This view of
tradition is observed in Luther’s doctrine of the “orders.” Davies writes,
The implications of this doctrine were that God has so ordered the world that
man must not live as a mere individual isolated from society, but as a being sharing
certain communal relationships. Such communities ordained by God are the Church and
the State. Since they depend for their continuance on the divine sanction, men ought to
respect them. Therefore, except when they definitely contradict the revealed will of God,
they are to be obeyed. Such a doctrine puts a heavy premium upon tradition and as such itmay be regarded as the religious basis of Luther’s conservatism. It also helps to explainwhy the bishops have such an important part to play in deciding what particular liturgical
reforms are desirable. Theoretically Luther left the choice of accepting or rejecting his
liturgical reforms to the Christians of the local churches, but in practice the decision was
left to the discretion of the bishop.47
The Lutheran confessions faithfully reflect Luther’s teaching regarding human ceremonies.
Church traditions (i.e., humanly devised rites and ceremonies not prescribed in Scripture) are
permissible if: (1) they are not Romanizing (that is, no human merit is connected to the
ceremonies), (2) the ceremonies do not violate the teaching of Scripture, (3) they are not over-
multiplied to the point where believers think less highly of real biblical commandments (e.g., theLord’s supper), (4) they are not compulsory (that is, they are not to be conformed underpressure). In other words, they are not to be considered necessary acts of worship. (A necessary
act of worship is that which is commanded by Scripture [e.g., the sacraments].)
Lutherans teach that the church is permitted to add rites and ceremonies only within the
sphere of adiaphora (Gk. for “things indifferent”). Allbeck writes,
47 Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1997 ), 17.
The Formula of Concord first marks out the boundaries of genuine adiaphora. Trueadiaphora are never contrary to God’s Word, never unionizing, never Romanizing, neveruseless foolish spectacles, never essentially constitute the worship of God. Concerning
their status, it is said that adiaphora may be changed by the church in the interest of good
order, discipline, and edification. But there is always the necessity of clear doctrinal
confession by word and deed. Adiaphora are matters of freedom. Compulsory adiaphorainvolve a contradiction of terms. When they cease to be free they must be resisted.48
The Lutheran understanding of sola scriptura does not permit the church to add its own doctrinesto the teachings of Scripture, nor does it allow the church to add to “essential” or “commanded”worship (i.e., the sacraments). It does, however, give the church a very large role in determining
rites and ceremonies simply by declaring the human additions to be within the realm ofadiaphora. In theory the Lutheran statements regarding worship are superior to the Episcopalian
teachings. At least the Lutherans do not regard their human additions as an actual part of
worship. They also claim that the human rites and ceremonies are not compulsory like the
worship ordinances commanded in Scripture. In practice, however, the Lutheran churches are no
better than their Episcopal counterparts. Both deny the sufficiency of Scripture in the realm of
worship. Both are guilty of allowing human corruptions to displace pure gospel worship. They
both deny that the worship of God in the new covenant era is fixed or limited by the canon of
Scripture. As a consequence both leave the parameters of acceptable worship in a state of flux.
The boundaries of worship are always changing because they are determined not by Scripture
alone but also by human tradition, and there are an infinite number of worship options available
to man that do not violate the Lutheran principle of allowing anything not expressly forbidden.
There are a number of reasons why the Lutheran understanding of worship must be
rejected as unscriptural and irrational. First, the idea that external rites or ceremonies areadiaphora is unbiblical. Every act in the moral and religious sphere is always either good or bad.
The only activities that may be considered adiaphora are matters that are truly circumstantial or
incidental to the ceremonies such as setting up chairs, turning on lights, etc. Activities that are
circumstantial do not need to be proven by Scripture. However, they do need to be conducted
according to the general rules of the word. Williamson writes,
One must be careful to distinguish between the circumstances of worship and the
worship itself. For example the Scripture does not prescribe the hour of the day at which
public worship of the congregation is to be held. Neither has the Lord prescribed the
shape, style, or size of the place of worship. In the nature of the case, such circumstances
will vary from country to country, season to season, and place to place. There is a generalrule, however, which requires that congregations assemble somewhere on the Lord’sDay. The general rule controls the particular situation according to the circumstances. But
when the congregation has assembled at the agreed place the worship must be then only
that which God has commanded.49
The style of church architecture, lighting, heating, seating arrangements and length of service are
circumstantial to the worship of God. However, sprinkling holy water, making the sign of the
cross, disallowing meat on Fridays, using salt and cream during infant baptism, confirmation,
48 Willard Dow Allbeck, Studies in the Lutheran Confessions (Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg, 1952), 283.
49 G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and
Reformed, 1964), 164.
Christmas and Easter celebration, special ceremonial priestly garments and kneeling at theLord’s supper are not circumstantial to worship but additions to the worship itself.
Man-made innovations in worship are strictly forbidden by Scripture. The Bible teachesthat men are not to add or detract from God’s moral precepts (cf. Dt. 4:2; Josh. 1:7-8; Pr. 30:5-6)
and men are not to add or detract from the worship that God has instituted in His word (cf. Dt.
12:32; Lev. 10:1-2; 2 Sam. 6:3-7; Jer. 7:31; 19:5). The Lutheran idea that man-made rites or
ceremonies are not worship is unbiblical and totally arbitrary. We know that God considers
human rites or ceremonies to be unauthorized, unacceptable and sinful additions to worship.
Jehovah killed Nadab and Abihu for conducting a humanly-devised ceremony (the burning of
strange fire, Lev. 10:1, 2). Although Lutheran theologians do not regard humanly-devised acts ofworship as real worship, God refers to all such human inventions as “will worship” (Col. 2:20-
23). Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for the humanly-devised rite of religious hand washing (Mt.
15:1-3). The Jews received this rebuke from our Lord not because there is anything intrinsically
immoral regarding hand washings but because the church does not have the authority to add her
own religious ceremonies to what God has authorized in His word. Some have argued that Jesus
was only condemning bad or unedifying human traditions being added to what God has
commanded. The problem with this argument is that religious hand washings from a strictly
ethical standpoint harm no one. Jesus picked the most innocent, innocuous religious human
tradition possible to make the point crystal clear that no human additions are acceptable to Godno matter how small or “innocent.”
Second, the Lutheran assertion that man-made rites and ceremonies are not obligatory or
compulsory is not the actual practice of the Lutherans or anyone else. Why? Because when
human ceremonies are introduced into the public worship of God they are always practiced under
some form of human compulsion. The moment that human traditions are introduced into the
church service people are forced either to depart from that church to avoid the human additions
or to commit sin by participating in unauthorized ceremonies. Whenever a church adds man-
made ceremonies to the worship of God there is always ecclesiastical and social pressure to
submit to the man-made ordinances. Church members are expected and urged to follow the
church calendar, go to the Christmas and Easter service, sing uninspired hymns, listen to themusical groups, watch the children’s choir, participate in the altar call, etc. Even in many“Reformed” churches there is pressure or coercion applied to people so that they will conform tothe various corruptions that have accumulated over the years. People have even been disciplined
for refusing to participate in silly and Romish human inventions (e.g., uninspired hymns, holydays, children’s church, etc.).50
The Lutheran concept of non-compulsory human traditions may sound good as a theory,
but in practice it corrupts the church and destroys Christian liberty. The Bible teaches that Godalone speaking in His infallible word has an absolute, unqualified authority over men’s
consciences. Thus, the Westminster Confession of Faith asserts: “God alone is Lord of the
50 Gordon Clark writes, “The twentieth century church in America seems to have fallen into a curious self-
contradiction. The lust for power and control over men and organizations has produced an almost papal claim to
authority on the part of bureaucratic ecclesiastical officials. When the majority speaks (and the officials manipulatethe majority) it is the voice of God” (What Do Presbyterians Believe? (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian andReformed, 1965), 191). Sadly, many elders in “Reformed” denominations see their job as one of maintaining the
status quo or current backslidden state of their church’s spiritual condition. Unfortunately this often means anunquestioning acceptance of all sorts of unbiblical human traditions. If often also means treating Christians
concerned with reformation as kooks, as people who need to be kept quiet in order to maintain the defections of past
conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in any
thing contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith or worship. So that, to believe such
doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience:
and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty ofconscience, and reason also” (20.2). Believers in Christ are free not only from doctrines and
commandments which are contrary to God’s word, such as confession to a priest, the Mass,celebrating holy days besides the Lord’s day, etc., they also are free from doctrines andcommandments which are additions to the Bible, that is, they may not explicitly contradict
Scripture but are not taught in Scripture; they are derived from human authority. “Any doctrineor commandment contrary to or besides His will in matters religious the Christian not only may
but must disobey. Liberty of conscience means the liberty of the individual to obey God ratherthan man.”51
Although Lutherans insist (as noted above) that their human additions are not compulsory
(in order to avoid the appearance of being Romanistic) they indeed are compulsory. Even the
great Martin Luther was inconsistent. Davies writes,
Similarly, in liturgical matters, it may fairly be claimed that his doctrine of the Word of
God was not logically developed. In extenuation it should be remembered, however, that
he was the first of the Reformers and that by the time of Calvin the situation was more
stable and men had more time for reflection on the issues. Nevertheless, it cannot bedenied that in Luther’s later years the Reformer displayed a growing conservatism. Hedesired more uniformity both in the use of ecclesiastical vestments and of liturgical
forms. What had previously been optional, became obligatory.52
Are we supposed to believe that a Lutheran minister and his congregation would be left
unmolested by church authorities if they decided to discard the church calendar, extra-biblical
holy days, hymnals, organs, crosses and all other human innovations that lack divine warrant?
Sadly, Lutheran congregants, like their Anglican counterparts, are expected to submit to the
ceremonies and commandments of men with an implicit faith and blind obedience. Remember,“Whatsoever is not done in faith, nor accompanied with a personal persuasion of the obligation
or lawfulness of it in the sight of God, is pronounced to be sin—Rom. xiv. 23.”53 Hodge writes,“[I]t is a great sin, involving at the same time sacrilege, and treason to the human race, for any
man or set of men to arrogate the prerogative of God and to attempt to bind the consciences oftheir fellow men by any obligation not certainly imposed by God and revealed in his Word.”54Furthermore, when men participate in worship ordinances that originate in the mind of man—that are not based upon Scripture but ecclesiastical authority—they are not doing religious
homage to God (who never appointed such rites or ceremonies) but to man. They are in principle
bowing down to the autonomous authority of sinful men. Worshiping God without a divineappointment is an implicit acknowledgment of popery and prelacy. “Little children, keep
yourselves from idols” (1 Jn. 5:21).
Third, the Lutheran position suffers from an irreconcilable internal contradiction.
According to the Lutheran confessions men are permitted to add their own traditions, rites or
ceremonies to the worship of God, only if the additions are edifying and are not regarded as
51 James Benjamin Green, Harmony of the Westminster Presbyterian Standards (Collins World, 1976), 155.52 Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans, 18.
53 Robert Shaw, Exposition of the Confession of Faith, 206.
54 A. A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith, 267.
compulsory. These qualifications raise an important question. If men have the ability to devise a
tradition, rite or ceremony that truly sanctifies believers, should not that ceremony, if it reallyedified God’s people, be mandatory? The Anglican articles which state that the church can makeup rites or ceremonies that she regards as edifying and then impose them on the flock with
ecclesiastical discipline if necessary is more logical. If a human tradition, rite or ceremony
sanctifies then it should be mandatory. It is important to note, however, that the apostle Paul
teaches that human commandments and ordinances do not edify or sanctify the church. He
writes, “Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as thoughliving in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—’Do not touch, do not taste, do nothandle,’ which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments
and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed
religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of theflesh” (Col 2:20-23). Human rites and ceremonies are the commandments of men. They appear
to be wise and edifying; however, the truth is that they do not sanctify at all. The Holy Spirit
does not use human traditions, rites or ceremonies to edify the church. He uses the word of God.“Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth” (Jn. 17:17). If we want to receive edification,
then we must only follow God’s laws, statutes and religious ordinances. Papal, prelatic and/or
fundamentalistic legalism does not edify.55
Fourth, the Lutheran assertion that man-made rites or ceremonies are not worship is
fictitious nonsense. When ecclesiastical authorities devise a religious ceremony and then place it
into the public worship service alongside of worship ordinances authorized in Scripture, they are
implicitly teaching that the man-made ceremonies are of the same type and carry an equal
authority to divinely instituted ordinances. When men intermingle human ceremonies with divine
ordinances in the worship service, do they expect the worshipers to distinguish between the two
(human and divine) as the service proceeds? Furthermore, if the man-made religious ceremonies
are not worship, then what are they? What is their purpose? Why are they conducted during the
worship service? Why are they listed in the church bulletin as part of the public worship of God?
Frank Smith writes,
Note carefully that worship is an imposition, since we are required to gather with God’speople in order to engage in public worship. Therefore, which is the legalistic position
(and the one opposed to Christian liberty)—the one which thinks it does not need biblical
warrant to require this or that action to be performed in worship, or the one which makesstrict appeal to Scripture and wishes not to impose anything upon God’s precious flockunless it is found in His Word? In passing, we would note that the Reformed faith is at
once the most strict and narrow, and also the broadest and most universal, because of its
unwillingness to impose upon people anything unless is it biblical.56
The Lutheran idea that their human additions to worship are not really worship shows the
deceitfulness of the human heart. Men are so in love with their non-authorized human traditions
that they will twist the plain meaning of words and resort to illogical and unsound arguments and
exegetical gymnastics to justify their sinful practices. The Lutheran conception is very similar to
55 Gordon Clark writes, “Strange to say, evangelicals, fundamentalists, pietists or other devout people, who would be
horrified at the sign of the cross or bowing to images, have invented religious requirements and taboos of their own.
There is a Bible school which insists that the girls put their hair up in buns, for a looser hair-do would be ‘worldly’”(What Do Presbyterians Believe? 192-193).
56 Frank Smith, “The Singing of Praise” in Worship in the Presence of God, 223.
the absurd Roman Catholic assertion that worship of the saints and the virgin Mary is not really
worship. It is alleged that when Romanists bow and worship God, it is a special worship (latria).
But when they bow down to and worship the saints and blessed virgin, it is doulia (or, for Mary,hyperdoulia). We must recognize that all such pharisaical-type distinctions are nothing more
than clever excuses for departing from the worship that God has prescribed. Against alltyrannical usurpations and encroachments of the church Christ says: “And in vain they worshipMe, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mt. 15:9; cf. Isa. 29:13).
Evangelicals are also guilty of restricting the application of the Bible’s authority. When itcomes to worship, evangelicals do not believe that Scripture is sufficient. They would say that
nothing sinful ought to be a part of worship. However, they believe that men have the authority
to make up any form or content of worship that they think is useful. Unfortunately, the Lutheran
or Episcopal understanding of worship has been embraced by the vast majority of professing
Christians. This pragmatic understanding of worship has predictably led to liturgical chaos in
evangelical churches. Whenever churches abandon sola scriptura in the sphere of worship and
adopt pragmatism, the result is a worship service that becomes increasingly anthropocentric and
This fact has become increasingly evident in the last thirty years as churches have
adopted the worship paradigm of the church growth experts. These “experts,” who look tobusiness, psychology and sociology for wisdom rather than the Bible, argue that the best method
for attaining church growth is to make the church user-friendly to unbelievers. This tactic
involves a de-emphasis on the preached word and the sacraments in favor of a service that
titillates and entertains. The emphasis in most modern evangelical worship services is on
entertainment. Such services do not feed the intellect but rather stir the emotions. Modern
worship services have little in common with apostolic worship and much in common with Las
Vegas, Hollywood and Broadway. In many churches people even applaud after a performance,
as if they were at a play or concert.
As a result the modern evangelical worship service does not glorify God but instead
glorifies man. It is basically a show for man, directed to man, with man-pleasing songs and lotsof entertainment: comedian pastors, music soloists, rock groups, “gospel” bands, celebrity guestspeakers, plays, skits, videos, singers, choirs, liturgical dancing and so on. Pragmatic man-
centered worship has even influenced church architecture. The central feature of a Puritan
meeting house was the pulpit on which rested a large Bible. The central feature of the modern
mega-church is the stage. The men who designed Episcopal and Lutheran worship with all its
man-made defects at least attempted to be reverent and majestic. Modern evangelical worship is
usually neither; it is crass, tasteless pablum.
When we approach a thrice-holy God who is infinite in perfections, should not our sole
concern be to learn what He has prescribed and then focus our attention on what pleases him
rather than on what pleases us and makes us feel good? When we consistently adhere to sola
scriptura and thus depend solely upon God’s infallible and sufficient word to determine what isacceptable worship, we eliminate the possibility of popish, pagan, prelatic, or pragmatic will-
worship from being intruded upon the church. Worship is arguably the most important activity
engaged in by the church. Therefore, when we seek direction regarding worship, should we notplace our trust in God and his infallible word rather than the opinions of sinful man? “We have to
do with a God who is very jealous; who will be worshiped as He wills, or not at all. Nor can we
complain. If God be such a Being as we are taught in the Holy Scripture, it must be Hisinalienable right to determine and prescribe how He will be served.”57 The idea that sinful men
can add to, improve upon and make more sufficient the worship that God has authorized in his
word is arrogant and foolish. Young writes,
The enlightened understanding is content to learn God’s precepts and the renewed will towalk in them, but the regenerate heart as such cannot desire to make the slightest additionto God’s commandments. Whenever true believers have acted inconsistently in this
respect, they have invariably allowed great corruption to be introduced into God’ssanctuary.58
4. Reformed Declension
Many Reformed churches have also abandoned the Bible’s sole authority over worship.Many Reformed and Presbyterian denominations still officially hold to sola scriptura in the
sphere of worship. The rule of Scripture over worship is called the regulative principle of
worship. This principle declares that all the parts or elements of worship must have divine
warrant, that is, everything that is a part of worship that holds a religious significance (i.e., things
or acts that are not circumstantial) must be authorized either by a direct command in Scripture(e.g., “Do this in remembrance of Me,” Lk. 22:19); or by logical inference from Scripture (i.e.,there may not be an explicit command but when several passages are compared they teach or
infer a scriptural practice [e.g., infant baptism]); or by biblical historical example (e.g., the
change from the seventh day to the first day of the week for corporate public worship). Simply
put, every worship practice must be proven from Scripture. This principle (if strictly followed)
eliminates all human innovation, pragmatism and pagan syncretism from worship and thus
leaves the church in the same state as it was in the days of the apostles.
Unfortunately, most Reformed churches today have departed from the regulative
principle and thus allow many practices that have not been prescribed by the Bible (e.g., extra-
biblical holy days such as Christmas and Easter, uninspired hymns, choirs, instrumental music,
etc.). Many Reformed churches are following in the footsteps of Arminian, revivalistic,
charismatic, and the church growth movement style of worship. An excellent example of the
current deterioration is the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). The following statistics
document their declension. Twenty-five years ago the PCA had approximately 2% exclusivePsalms singing churches; 40% “traditional” (e.g., Trinity Hymnal with piano and organ); 50%“traditional” with a few “Scripture songs” and a variety of musical instrumentation; and only 8%
had a “traditional/contemporary” mix. Today, approximately 70% of their churches have a“traditional/contemporary” mix. Hurst writes, “If [they] don’t have dance and drama, it’s onlybecause there is no one to lead it; women and young people may lead worship as individuals
praying and reading Scripture, applause [is] acceptable for [a] job well done; music may take the
57 Samuel H. Kellogg, The Book of Leviticus (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, n.d.), 240.
58 William Young, “The Second Commandment” in Frank Smith and David C. Lachman, eds., Worship in the
Presence of God, 81-82.
form of [a] performance.”59 Less than 1% of PCA churches today adhere to exclusive Psalmody
(i.e., biblical worship).
Some conservatives within Reformed denominations have expressed a concern regarding
the rapid trend away from “traditional” worship toward “contemporary” or “celebrative” worshipin their denominations. These men attempt to stem the tide of new-fangled worship with
discussions on how worship must be dignified, majestic and reverent. Their battle cry is“decently and in order.” While we heartily agree with our brothers regarding the need forreverence, decency and orderliness in the public worship of God, we disagree regarding the
fundamental problem that is causing such a rapid declension in worship. To cure the disease, one
must do more than attempt to alleviate the symptoms; one must go to the root of the problem. As
long as Reformed denominations reject or redefine the regulative principle of worship, rendering
it virtually useless, all efforts at serious reformation in worship will be defeated. Without a strict
interpretation of the regulative principle, the debate over worship shifts from an exegetical
discussion of what is warranted by Scripture to primarily a debate over human preferences. The
beauty and wisdom of the regulative principle of worship is that it protects the church from our
own sinful hearts. Worship that is fixed and founded deep upon the bedrock of Scripture is
immune from the wind and waves of human opinion, fashion and fad.
V. Some Contemporary Objections to Sola Scriptura in the Sphere of
Worship Considered and Refuted
Today, the most vocal critics of sola scriptura applied to the sphere of worship (i.e., theregulative principle) are men who consider themselves “truly Reformed.”60 These apologists for
59 Peter Hurst, “Lesson 4: Congregational Worship” in Byron Snapp, ed., The Presbyterian Witness (Hampton, VA:
Calvary Reformed Presbyterian Church, fall 1997), XI.4, 13. All statistics used in this paragraph are taken fromHurst’s article.
60 One of the great problems that Reformed denominations have today is the existence of corrupt and dishonest
ministers and elders. There are a number of ordained men today who, after having professed their allegiance to the
Westminster Standards, work to undermine them in their writing and teaching. There are men who consider
themselves Reformed who openly attack the regulative principle which is one of the pillars of the Calvinistic
reformation. There are sessions that are introducing many innovations in public worship. The long-term goal of
some ministers and elders is a Presbyterian church with Episcopal worship built upon prelatical principles. To suchmen the words of James Begg are appropriate. He writes, “If it be true, it ought to be firmly maintained, and allworship for which a divine warrant cannot be pleaded, ought to be opposed and discarded. Till it is abandoned,
every Presbyterian minister can only be an honest man by maintaining it. It is utterly vain, and worse, to dispose of
our solemn obligations by vague and pointless declamation. The position taken up by the Presbyterian Church iseither sound or unsound. ‘To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this word it is becausethere is no light in them.’ And the only class of men more inconsistent and criminal than those who leave such amatter in doubt, are those who, in accepting office, profess to hold the doctrine of the Presbyterian Church, and
promise to maintain it, but who afterwards treat their solemn professions and vows with faithlessness and
disregard.... Now we are not proving this [the regulative principle of worship] for the sake of the office-bearers of
the Presbyterian Church. They have all solemnly vowed that, according to their convictions, these are the principles
of Scripture which they will defend to the utmost of their power. To do anything else therefore, to make any other
profession, without abandoning the office which they received in connection with their previous avowal, is simply
an act of perjury, fitted to bring disgrace on the Christian Church, and to give the enemies of the truth cause to
blaspheme. Every Presbyterian office-bearer is as much bound as we are to maintain and vindicate these principles,
and neither directly nor indirectly to connive at their subversion. We live, however, unfortunately, in a day when‘truce breaking’ is not uncommon; and when many, instead of following ‘no divisive courses,’ according to theirsolemn vows, seem to make the promotion of innovations in the worship of God one of their favourite employments.
declension and the status quo have come up with some interesting arguments that they think
justify a wholesale abandonment of the regulative principle of worship in favor of a
Lutheran/Episcopalian conception of worship. In order to sharpen our understanding of solascriptura’s relationship to biblical worship, we will examine and refute such arguments.
1. The “False Understanding of Ethics and Adiaphora” Argument
The first argument used against the regulative principle of worship is based on a false
understanding of the meaning and relationship of sola scriptura, the regulative principle and
Christian liberty or adiaphora. Schlissel writes,
Some regulativists will attempt to broaden their appeal to the “principle” found in12:32 by saying that it is found also in Deuteronomy 4:2. But this passage reads. “Nowtherefore hearken, O Israel, unto the statutes and unto the judgments, which I teach you,
for to do them, that ye may live, and go in and possess the land which the LORD God of
your fathers giveth you. Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither
shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD yourGod which I command you.” If the Regulativist would bring this passage to bear on the
question of worship, he has gone even further from the path leading to the light. For this
passage refers to all the Law of God, not simply to laws governing worship. Very fewregulativists would seriously argue that God’s intent here is to forbid Israel from doinganything whatsoever in any area of life that is not specifically commanded in the Law. I
suppose those Amish who eschew buttons for want of finding them mentioned in
Scripture might look somewhat favorable on this interpretation, but they’d be mightylonely in so doing. Yet that is precisely the conclusion which cannot be evaded if 4:2 iscited as supportive of the Regulativist’s reading of 12:32. Deuteronomy 4:2 is a general
rule, requiring a life that conforms to God’s disclosed will in its entirety. The NIV StudyBible note is to the point: “The revelation of the Lord is sufficient. All of it must be
obeyed and anything that adulterates or contradicts it cannot be tolerated.” God did notintend that the recipients of this verse (4:2) would literally do nothing not mentioned
therein (e.g., no skateboarding, using electricity, driving automobiles, or eating lemon
ices). Thus, 4:2 as a parallel demonstrates that 12:32 is not to be taken in an absolute
sense. If you find a similar phrase used by the same author in the same book, you need to
justify applying a radically different sense to each. If it is agreed that 4:2, referring to the
whole Law, was not to be taken absolutely when it forbids additions and subtractions,
neither is 12:32 to be taken as an abstract and absolute rule. Both are to be interpreted in
terms of the whole Word of God, a Word that simply does not teach: if it is not
commanded, it is forbidden.61
Schlissel’s statement is perhaps the most popular modern argument against the regulative
principle. He argues that Deuteronomy 4:2 refers to the whole law which regulates all of life.
Since all of life contains many activities that are not strictly regulated, that are left to the freechoice of man (e.g., “Should I wear blue pants or grey pants?”). Therefore, the virtually identical
Religion is wounded in the house of her professed friends. We can imagine nothing more fitted to eat like a cankerinto the faith and morals of the community” (Anarchy in Worship [Edinburgh: Lyon and Gemmell, 1875], 10, 12-13).
61 Steve Schlissel, “All I Really Need to Know about Worship I Don’t Learn from the Regulative Principle” (PartIV), Messiah’s Mandate.
regulative principle proof text passages such as Deuteronomy 12:32 must also be interpreted in
such a manner that leaves man a great deal of liberty in the sphere of worship.
Schlissel’s argument against the regulative principle is founded upon a complete
misunderstanding of Deuteronomy 4:2 and therefore should be rejected as unscriptural. His false
understanding of this passage and its application to the area of worship is based on a glaring
failure to distinguish between God-given ethics and areas of adiaphora. Schlissel’s assertion that
Deuteronomy 4:2 “was not to be taken absolutely when it forbids additions and subtractions” istotally false. Deuteronomy 4:2 teaches that men are not permitted to add or detract from God’scommandments. In other words, God is the sole source of ethics for personal, family,
institutional and civil life. Men do not have ethical autonomy. They do not have any authority to
make up ethical absolutes, nor are they permitted to ignore or detract from God’s law in anyway. R. J. Rushdoony has a clear understanding of the implications of passages such as
Deuteronomy 4:2. He writes,
It must be recognized that in any culture the source of law is the god of that society. If
law has its source in man’s reason, then reason is the god of that society. If the source isan oligarchy, or in a court, senate, or ruler, then that source is the god of that system....
Modern humanism, the religion of the state, locates law in the state and thus makes the
state or the people as they find expression in the state, the god of the system.... Nothing is
more deadly or more derelict than the notion that the Christian is at liberty with respect to
the kind of law he can have.... Neither positive law nor natural law can reflect more than
the sin and apostasy of man: revealed law is the need and privilege of Christian society.62
Men do not have the authority to declare a thought, word or deed evil or sinful apart from
proving such by a biblical commandment or deduction from the Bible.
Does the fact that there are many matters in life that are adiaphora or indifferent63 (e.g.,
skateboarding, planting tomatoes, riding a bike, etc.) mean that Deuteronomy 4:2 was not meant
to be taken strictly? Does it mean that men are permitted to add or detract from God’s law? No,absolutely not! Likewise in the sphere of commanded or authorized worship men do not have
liberty to add or detract one iota from the worship that God has instituted. However, men do
have a great deal of liberty in areas that are circumstantial or incidental to worship itself.
62 R. J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1977 ), 4-5, 9-10.
63 Regarding areas of life that are ethically indifferent or adiaphora, there are at least four biblical principles that
must be followed. First, everything that we do, no matter how mundane, must be done to God’s glory. “Therefore,
whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). “For none of us lives tohimself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore,whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:7-8). Second, a matter that normally would be indifferent
ceases to be indifferent if it would cause a weak brother to sin. “It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do
anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak” (Rom. 14:21). Third, an activity that initself is indifferent ceases to be indifferent if it cannot be done in faith with a clean conscience. “To him whoconsiders anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean....he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does noteat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:14, 23). Fourth, an act that normally is adiaphoraceases to be adiaphora if a person becomes enslaved to or comes under the power or control of that activity. “Allthings are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought underthe power of any” (1 Cor. 6:12). “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for
me, but not all things edify” (1 Cor 10:23). There are many things that are lawful, such as Twinkies, Big Macs,candy bars, Coca-Cola and fine cigars, that can be abused and thus do not edify. Even organic brown rice can be
abused and used in a sinful manner.
Schlissel’s arguments fail to recognize the distinction between ethics and adiaphora, worship
ordinances and the circumstances of worship.
If opponents of the regulative principle of worship want to use Deuteronomy 4:2 as a
proof text against the Reformed understanding of a strictly regulated worship, they need to
demonstrate that worship ordinances belong to the sphere of life that is adiaphora. Are the parts
or elements of worship that are delineated in Scripture in the same category as riding a bike, or
wearing blue pants instead of grey pants, or planting beefsteak tomatoes instead of early girl
tomatoes? The answer is: obviously not. Adiaphora refers to matters that are indifferent to ethics
(e.g., Should I boil my eggs or scramble them for breakfast?). That is, they involve activities that
are neither commanded nor forbidden, and therefore the decision whether or not to commit the
act or not commit the act does not involve sin or a violation of God’s word. As long as men act
in accordance with the general rules of Scripture (i.e., Is it done to God’s glory [1 Cor. 10:31;Rom. 4:7-9]? Does it cause a weak brother to sin [Rom. 14:21]? Can it be done in faith with a
clear conscience [Rom. 14:14, 23]? Can I engage in this activity without coming under its power
[1 Cor. 6:12; 10:23; e.g., tobacco addiction]?), men have liberty to commit or refrain from the
Worship ordinances do not involve the liberty to do as one desires and therefore cannot
be placed in the category of adiaphora. Are Christians free to omit or add to the elements ofreligious worship as they please? Can a church lawfully eliminate the Lord’s supper and replaceit with a new sacrament? Would the elders of a church be obedient to Christ if they replaced
trinitarian baptism with a man-made ritual? Is it permissible to eliminate the Scripture reading
and replace it with Shakespeare or a rock video? Would it be sinful to eliminate the preaching ofGod’s word and replace it with a “Christian” movie or a “Christian” comedy hour or varietyshow? The answer to these questions is obvious (no, no, no and no). If one places worship
ordinances in the category of adiaphora, then everything involved in public worship and even
public worship itself is optional. Furthermore, one could have two, zero or 20 sacraments.
Because worship ordinances are required by Scripture, they should never be treated asadiaphora. Rather, they should receive the same treatment as God’s moral law. Areas of life that
are adiaphora correspond not to worship ordinances but to the circumstances of worship (e.g.,
Should we start the service at 10:30 a.m. or 11:00 a.m.? Should the meeting house have blue
carpeting or maroon carpeting? Should we use wooden pews or folding chairs? etc.). Ironically,
Deuteronomy 4:2, when properly understood, is one of the strongest proof texts for the regulative
principle of worship, for the regulative principle logically follows sola scriptura. Protestant
reformer John Knox concurs,
And that is principal idolatry when our own inventions we defend to be righteous in the
sight of God, because we think them good, laudable, and pleasant. We may not think us
so free nor so wise, that we may do unto God, and unto his honor, what we thinkexpedient. No! The contrary is commanded by God, saying, “Unto my Word shall ye addnothing; nothing shall ye diminish therefrom, that ye might observe the precepts of yourLord God” (Deut. 4:2). Which words are not to be understood of the Decalogue and Law
Moral only, but of statutes, rites, and ceremonies; for equal obedience of all his Laws
64 John Knox, “A Vindication of the Doctrine That the Sacrifice of the Mass Is Idolatry” in Works, David Laing, ed.
(Edinburgh: The Bannatyne Club, 1854), 3:37-38.
2. The “All of Life Is Worship” Argument
An argument that is closely related to the argument from Deuteronomy 4:2 is one which
claims that all of life is worship, and since life contains many activities that are not strictly
regulated by Scripture, therefore worship is not strictly regulated either. Although, as Christians,
everything we do is to be done to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31), and thus we are to live to the
Lord (Rom. 14:7-8) and present our bodies as living sacrifices to God (Rom. 12:1), the idea that
all of life is worship and therefore no distinction exists between public worship and activities like
mowing the lawn is absurd. There are several reasons why we must regard “the all of life is
worship” argument as unscriptural.
First, there are several passages from both the Old and New Testaments which teach
and/or assume that public worship is special and set apart from everyday life.
Psalm 22:22, 25. “I will declare Your name to My brethren; in the midst of the assembly I willpraise You.... My praise shall be of You in the great assembly; I will pay My vows before thosewho fear Him.”
Psalm 27:4. “One thing I have desired of the LORD, that will I seek: that I may dwell in the
house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire inHis temple.”
David Dickson writes,
A third ground of confidence, is the conscience of his purpose to study to have constant
communion with God, in the use of the means, and the conscience of his very earnest
desire to have the benefit of all the public ordinances, in the fellowship of the church.
Whence learn, 1. Hearty resolution to subject ourselves to all God’s ordinances, and tofollow the appointed means of communion-keeping with God, is a sound mark of solid
faith; and the conscience of this resolution, serveth much to confirm our confidence in
God, if we can say with the prophet, this one thing have I desired, &c. 2. In the using ofthe means and ordinances of God’s house, the glory of the Lord may be seen, counsel anddirection in all things may be had, with comfort and spiritual delight to our souls; for in
the ordinances David was to behold the beauty of the Lord, with delight, and to enquire
in his holy temple. 3. The desire of communion with God, and love to his ordinances,
where it is sincere, should have the chief place in the heart, above all earthly desires and
delights whatsoever: one thing have I desired. 4. A sincere desire must not be suffered to
go away, but should be pursued resolutely, and recommended to God daily; this I will
still seek after, saith he: and the means of communion with God in the public fellowship
of the church must be constantly continued in, even all the days of our life.65
In his application of this passage to believers in the new covenant era Calvin writes, “The Word,sacraments, public prayers, and other helps of the same kind, cannot be neglected, without a
wicked contempt of God, who manifests himself to us in these ordinances, as in a mirror orimage.”66
65 David Dickson, Commentary on the Psalms (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1959 [1653-55]), 1:141-142.66 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 1:455.
Psalm 84:1-2. “How lovely is Your tabernacle, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, yes, evenfaints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.”
David complains of his being deprived of liberty of access to the Church of God, there to
make a profession of his faith, to improve in godliness, and to engage in the divine
worship.... He knew that God had not in vain appointed the holy assemblies, and that the
godly have need of such helps so long as they are sojourners in this world.67
Plummer writes, “The appointed worship of the true God has in all ages possessed great
attractions for the regenerate.”68
Psalm 87:2. “The LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.”David Clarkson writes,
But it may be replied, the Lord had worship, not only in the gates of Zion, in the temple,
but also in the dwellings of Jacob. We cannot suppose that all the posterity of Jacob
would neglect the worship of God in their families; no doubt the faithful among themresolved with Joshua, “I and my house will serve the Lord.” Since, therefore, the worshipof God was to be found in both, how can this worship be the reason why one should be
preferred before the other? Sure upon no other account but this, the worship of God in the
gates of Zion was public, his worship in the dwellings of Jacob was private. So that, in
fine, the Lord may be said to love the gates of Zion before all the dwellings of Jacob,
because he prefers public worship before private. He loved all the dwellings of Jacob,
wherein he was worshiped privately; but the gates of Zion he loved more than all the
dwellings of Jacob, for there he was publicly worshiped. Hence we have clear ground for
this: Observation. Public worship is to be preferred before private. So it is by the Lord, so
it should be by his people. So it was under the law, so it must be under the gospel.
Indeed, there is difference between the public worship under the law and gospel in
respect of a circumstance, viz., the place of public worship. Under the law, the place of
public worship was holy, but we have no reason so to account any place of public
worship under the gospel; and this will be manifest, if both we inquire what were the
grounds of that legal holiness in the tabernacle or temple, and withal observe that none of
them can be applied to any place of worship under the gospel.69
Ecclesiastes 5:1-2. “Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready tohear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil. Be not rash with
thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven,and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few” (KJV).
67 Ibid. 3:353-354.
68 William S. Plummer, Psalms (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1975 ), 794.
69 David Clarkson, “Public Worship to Be Preferred Before Private” in The Blue Banner (Dallas, TX: First
Presbyterian Church Rowlett, July/August, 1999), 1.
This passage alone proves that public worship is unique and special. There is to be a solemn
recognition of the special presence of God in public worship and thus great care must be taken to
be sincere, reverent, composed, deliberate and attentive. Matthew Henry writes,
Address thyself to the worship of God with a solemn pause, and take time to compose
thyself for it, not going about it with precipitation, which is called hasting with the feet,
Prov. xix. 2. Keep thy thought from roving and wandering from the work; keep thyaffections from running out towards wrong objects, for in the business of God’s housethere is work enough for the whole man, and all too little to be employed.... When we are
in the house of God, we are in a special manner before God and in his presence, there
where he has promised to meet his people, where his eye is upon us and ours ought to be
John Gill writes,
All which may denote the purity and cleanness of the conversation of the true worshipers
of God; for, as the feet are the instruments of the action of walking, they may intend the
conduct and behaviour of the saints in the house of God, where they should take care to
do all things according to his word, which is a lamp to the feet, and a light unto the
It is obvious from this and many other passages that public worship is to be treated by God’speople far differently than attending a sporting event or going to a barbecue. Frank Smith writes,
One of the privileges of a worship service is that of coming into the special presence of
God and communing with Him. Anything which detracts from this clearly should not be
allowed. If we were to be in the royal presence of the Queen of England, it would not be
proper protocol to interrupt that audience with the monarch in order to talk with one
another. How much more important it is that we do not interrupt our audience with the
King of kings by trivial items which center on ourselves.72
Leviticus 23:3. “Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, aholy convocation. You shall do no work in it; it is the Sabbath of the LORD in all yourdwellings.”
After Israel was settled in the land, this requirement of weekly public worship could only be put
into practice if there were many congregations meeting throughout the land of Israel. These
decentralized congregational worship services would of course not contain the ceremonial
elements of tabernacle or temple worship (such as animal sacrifices). Matthew Henry writes,
It is a holy convocation; that is, “If it lie within your reach, you shall sanctify it in areligious assembly: let as many as can come to the door of the tabernacle, and let othersmeet elsewhere for prayer, praise, and the reading of the law,” as in the schools of theprophets, while prophecy continued, and afterwards in the synagogues. Christ appointed
the New Testament Sabbath to be a holy convocation, by meeting his disciples once and
70 Matthew Henry, Commentary (McLean, VA: MacDonald, n.d.), 6:1006.
71 John Gill, Exposition of the Old Testament (Streamwood, IL: Primitive Baptist Library, 1979 ), 4:579.72 Frank Smith, “An Introduction to the Elements of Worship” in Worship in the Presence of God, 135.
again (and perhaps oftener) on the first day of the week.... Note, God’s Sabbaths are to bereligiously observed in every private house, by every family apart, as well as by many
families together in holy convocations.73
Acts 15:21. “For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every
city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (cf. Ps. 74:8).
Hebrews 10:24-25. “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, notforsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting oneanother, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Unlike everyday activities such as skateboarding, gardening and driving a car, public worship is
not an area that believers can treat with indifference, for it is not an optional activity. Those whoregard “all of life as worship” (like those who misinterpret Deuteronomy 4:2) completelymisunderstand the difference between public worship, the commanded elements of that worship
and matters indifferent or common to human actions and societies. Once an activity is
commanded and set apart by God, we cannot treat that activity as optional or adiaphora. Singing
praise to God in public worship is in an entirely different category than planting tomatoes, eventhough both are done to God’s glory.
Second, Christ the king and head of the church has appointed public officers with specialpublic functions that require a special public use. “Therefore He says: ‘When He ascended on
high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.... And He Himself gave some to be
apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of
the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:8, 11, 12). TheBible has certain requirements for preaching, reading the Scriptures and administrating the
sacraments in public worship. These worship elements are only to be conducted by an ordained
teacher or preacher and must not be treated as indifferent activities of everyday life. If there is no
distinction between all of life and public worship, then why are public ordinances restricted to
ordained officers in the church? If all of life is worship, then such rules and distinctions would be
Third, when the apostle Paul discusses the conduct of believers during public worship, he
sets forth regulations that presuppose a sharp distinction between public worship and all of life.
For example, women may speak at a barbecue and may teach their children during home school,
yet they are strictly forbidden to speak or teach during the public worship service (cf. 1 Cor.
14:34; 1 Tim. 2:12-14). Regarding the Lord’s supper, Paul tells believers that they must conductthemselves in a proper manner when coming to the Lord’s table. They are to examine themselvesand are to make sure that they have a special regard for their brethren (1 Cor 11:17-34). The
regulations regarding this sacrament obviously do not apply to the local picnic or volleyball
game. There is also a special decorum for public worship that is commanded by Paul. Men are
not to wear head coverings in church while women are (1 Cor. 11:2-16). However, men may
wear baseball caps at the ball park. If all of life is worship (as some assert), and thus worship isnot to be strictly regulated by Scripture, then the apostle Paul’s inspired instructions regardingpublic worship would be superfluous.
Fourth, the term for church (ekklesia) often denotes a society of professing Christians
who constitute a local church that meets together for public worship in a particular location (Ac.
73 Matthew Henry, Commentary, 1:536.
5:11; 11:26; 1 Cor. 11:18; 16:19; Rom. 16:23; Gal. 1:2; 1 Th. 2:14; Col. 4:15; Phm. 2; Rev. 1:11;
20, etc.). Hodge writes,
God has commanded ecclesiastical communities with constitutions, laws and officers,
badges, ordinances and discipline, for the great purpose of giving visibility to his
kingdom, of making known the gospel of that kingdom, and of gathering in all its elect
The New Testament church met together for public worship on the Lord’s day (Ac. 2:1; 20:7; 1
Cor. 14:23, 26, 34, 35; 16:1, 2). Lord’s day public worship was commanded by God (Lev. 23:3;Heb. 10:24-45). It is a period of time that is set apart from everyday life. Public worship consists
of certain elements that are authorized by Scripture such as: reading the Scriptures (Dt. 31:9-13;
Neh. 8:7-8; 13:1; 1 Th. 5:27; Col. 4:16; 1 Tim. 4:13); prayer (Ac. 4:31; 1 Cor. 11:13-15);
preaching from the Bible (Ac. 17:13; 20:8; 1 Cor. 14:28; 1 Tim. 4:13: 2 Tim. 4:2); the
administration of the sacraments (Mt. 28:19; 1 Cor. 11:18-34) and the singing of Psalms (1 Chr.
16:9; Ps. 95:1-2; 105:2; 1 Cor. 14:26; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). It clearly would be inappropriate to
treat public worship conducted by the church in the same manner as areas of life that are
indifferent or adiaphora.
Fifth, the Bible teaches that there is a special presence of God in public worship. In a
special sense Christ is speaking to his covenant people through the preached word. The people asa covenant body respond to God’s word with prayer and praise. The confession of sins to God
includes both individual and corporate sins. When the one body partakes of the Lord’s supper(the bread and wine), there is a special blessing that is received from our Lord. Yet an unworthy
partaking of the supper (e.g. when the corporate assembled body is disregarded, etc.) involves
covenant sanctions and even death (1 Cor. 11:27-34). Cases of serious public sin and
excommunication are to be announced during public worship where Christ is present in his court(Mt. 18:20), where the excommunicate is delivered to Satan by Christ’s power (1 Cor. 5:4). Notonly does the congregation receive a special blessing from the public means of grace and God’sunique presence, but God is more glorified when he is praised by the corporate body of Christ.
The Lord has engaged to be with every particular saint, but when the particular are joined
in public worship, there are all the engagements united together. The Lord engages
himself to let forth as it were, a stream of his comfortable, quickening presence to every
particular person that fears him, but when many of these particulars join together to
worship God, then these several streams are united and meet in one. So that the presence
of God, which, enjoyed in private, is but a stream, in public becomes a river, a river that
makes glad the city of God. The Lord has a dish for every particular soul that truly serves
him; but when many particulars meet together, there is a variety, a confluence, a
multitude of dishes. The presence of the Lord in public worship makes it a spiritual feast,and so it is expressed, Isa. xxv. 6. There is, you see, more of God’s presence in publicworship, ergo public worship is to be preferred before private.75
74 A. A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1958 , 312.75 David Clarkson, 3.
One should not be surprised that God is present in public worship in a special manner, for
nothing on earth more resembles the throne room of God in heaven than public worship. Heaven
is described in Scripture as a place of continued public worship where an innumerable host of
angels and saints behold the face of God and the Lamb (Rev. 1:9-12). “The innumerablecompany of angels, and the church of the first born, make up one general assembly in the
heavenly Jerusalem, Heb. xii. 22, 23. They make one glorious congregation, and so jointly
together sing the praises of him that sits on the throne, and the praises of the Lamb, and continuein this public worship to eternity.”76
To argue that all of life is worship and thus public worship is not strictly regulated byGod’s word is akin to comparing the Lord’s supper to that which is common or profane.
The public assembly is a covenantal gathering, a time and place for God to meet
directly with His people. He lays down the law, and they are to bless Him in
return.... Worship is special and it is dialogical in nature. It is also prescribed. Thefact of being in God’s presence means that not only are general principles to beobserved, but the very elements of service have been written out beforehand.77
3. “The Regulative Principle of Worship Only Applies to the Temple” Argument
Another popular argument against the regulative principle of worship is based on the idea
that the regulative principle only applied to tabernacle and temple worship. This idea is based on
the context of the classic regulative principle text, Deuteronomy 12:32, and the notion that God
was very strict with the tabernacle/temple worship solely because the temple service typified the
person and work of Jesus Christ. If one accepts this argument then one can conclude that: (1) The
decentralized worship in Israel that occurred in the synagogue was not strictly regulated. In other
words, the Israelites could do whatever they desired in worship as long as it did not violate the
express teaching of Scripture (this is essentially the Episcopal-Lutheran conception of acceptable
worship). (2) The regulative principle was abrogated with the death of Christ when his perfect
sacrifice rendered the temple cultus unnecessary. (3) Therefore, the new covenant church has
nothing to do with the regulative principle and has liberty to devise rites, ceremonies and holydays as it desires, as long as the human inventions do not violate or contradict God’s word.
The idea that the regulative principle only applied to the service of the central sanctuary
must be rejected for a number of reasons. First, the notion that since Deuteronomy 12:32 is given
in a section that deals primarily with the tabernacle, and thus only apples to the tabernacle is
76 Ibid, 6.
77 Frank Smith, “What is Worship?” in Worship in the Presence of God, 14-15. David C. Lachman, in refuting the“spiritual gift” argument, makes an important observation that is germane to our discussion: “Much ingenuity hasbeen exercised in attempting to justify various worship practices. Some have even argued that music is a spiritual
gift, claiming that the lists of spiritual gifts given in Scripture are not exhaustive, but rather illustrative. But such
arguments generally contend only for a few other supposed gifts, usually including such artistic accomplishments as
dance, drama and even magic. Beyond these and similar forms of entertainment, no one ever suggests that a surgeon
perform some particularly difficult operation or a plumber clear a clogged drain as a part of worship, however
talented they may be. Although all these may be legitimate parts of our lives, Scripture nowhere suggest that God is
pleased by any of them when they are included as part of our worship. What we may well do to the glory of God inour lives in general is not thereby given any warrant to be intruded into our worship of Him” (“Christian Liberty andWorship” in Ibid. 99).
simply assumed without exegetical proof. Are we told anywhere in chapter 12 or anywhere in the
whole Old or New Testament that the principle of no addition or subtraction is limited to the
tabernacle or temple? No, we are not. But can we not infer from the context that this ultra-strict
principle applied only to the tabernacle/temple? No. In fact the context proves the exact opposite.
While it is true that chapter 12 contains a lengthy discussion of the central sanctuary (in
particular the need to offer sacrifices and offerings at the central sanctuary) the context of
Deuteronomy 12:32 also speaks to the matters of the repression of idolatry and syncretism with
pagan worship that can occur not only at the tabernacle but throughout the whole land of Israel.
Note the immediate context of the passage:
“When the LORD your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go todispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you
are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that youdo not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also
will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for everyabomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn
even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, becareful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it” (Dt. 12:29-32).
The passage applies not just to behavior at the tabernacle but to worship practices throughout the
whole land of Israel. If Deuteronomy 12:32 only applied to the central sanctuary, why would it
be used as a foundational verse to suppress pagan idolatry throughout the land? Pagan Canaanite
worship was decentralized with house idols, local pagan sacred sites, local high places and
sacred groves. Are we supposed to believe that Deuteronomy 12:32 is only concerned with
syncretism within the tabernacle proper? Is verse 31 only concerned with suppressing child
sacrifice within the tabernacle? Of course not! The context of Deuteronomy 12:32 proves that itcannot be restricted to the tabernacle/temple.
Second, Deuteronomy 12:32 cannot be interpreted in isolation from the virtually identicalsola scriptura passages that apply not only to the tabernacle/temple but to all of life. The sola
scriptura passages teach that the church does not have autonomy or legislative authority with
respect to doctrine, ethics or worship ordinances. Note the follow passages. Deuteronomy 4:2.“You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the
commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.” Proverbs 30:5-6. “Every wordof God is pure.... Do not add to His words, lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar.”
We have already noted in our discussion of Deuteronomy 4:2 that it is sinful for men to
make up their own ethical rules. Church members would be justly angry and outraged if their
pastor or session issued a decree that eating meat on Fridays, or wearing blue jeans, or riding a
bike was now sinful and merited church censure. Deuteronomy 4:2 also forbids church
authorities from detracting or adding to the worship prescribed in Scripture. The only way that
Deuteronomy 4:2 can be circumvented by opponents of the regulative principle is to argue that
the worship of God is not a prescribed matter of law but rather belongs to the sphere of things
The idea that the worship of Jehovah (the most sacred and important duty of the church)
is adiaphora is impossible for two reasons.
First, adiaphora refers only to indifferent matters that are neither commanded nor
forbidden, that are not directly regulated by Scripture. Worship, however, is commanded by God.
Second, areas of adiaphora are optional. Worship is not optional. Deuteronomy 12:32,which is virtually identical to 4:2, is given in the context of worship to emphasize: (1) Scripture’s
sole authority over worship, (2) the covenant people’s lack of legislative authority to determineor make up their own worship and (3) the necessity of sticking strictly to what God’s word says
to avoid human additions which because of man’s inherent depravity lead to syncretism and sin.The regulative principle is simply sola scriptura applied to the sphere of worship. Those who
apply Deuteronomy 12:32 solely to the temple do so only because they do not understand
Deuteronomy 4:2 and the full implication of sola scriptura.
Third, the idea that the regulative principle only applied to the temple ignores the fact that
tabernacle/temple worship contained ceremonial and non-ceremonial ordinances. The sacrificing
of animals, the burning of incense and the priestly and Levitical use of instruments during the
sacrifice were ceremonial. But the reading of Scripture, prayer and the singing of praise were not
ceremonial. This assertion is proved from the fact that Scripture reading (1 Th. 5:27; Col. 4:16; 1
Tim. 4:13), prayer (Mt. 6:9; 1 Th. 5:17; Ac. 4:31; 1 Cor. 11:13-15; Phil. 4:6; Jas. 1:5) and the
singing of praise (Mt. 26:30; Ac. 16:25; 1 Cor. 14:26; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; Heb. 13:15; Jas.
5:13) are all integral aspects of Christian worship after the dissolution of the temple and the
abrogation of ceremonial ordinances. Therefore, it is overly simplistic and exegetically unsound
to argue that the regulative principle was annulled with the ceremonial order. If the regulative
principle applied to the temple worship, then it also regulated the non-ceremonial worship that
Those who use the argument that the regulative principle applied solely to the temple and
thus was abrogated with the ceremonial law are guilty of making a total antithesis between
temple worship and synagogue/Christian public worship. One cannot deny that the temple cultus
typified Christ and His work. However, one must not overlook the fact that the temple was also a
place of worship (Jn. 4:21) and prayer (Mt. 21:13). A number of the crucial elements of Christian
public worship were first practiced in the temple. Bushell writes,
To the Old Testament Jew, the Temple ritual was the very epitome of worship,
and all exercises of piety were in one way or another related back to that source.
Liturgical practices in the synagogue in many instances corresponded directly to those of
the Temple. Prayer, for example, was offered in the synagogue at the time of the Temple
offerings. Outside, the Temple prayer was always offered facing the Temple or
Jerusalem. The synagogues were considered sanctuaries in miniature, even to the point
that the furniture in the synagogue (such as the Ark and the seven-branched candelabra)
was patterned after that of the Temple. Considering, therefore, the importance of the
Temple even for worship outside of Jerusalem, it would seem reasonable to postulate a
greater degree of continuity between Christian worship practice and certain aspects of the
Temple liturgy than most authorities are willing to admit. The paucity of references in the
literature to the influence of the Temple liturgy on Christian worship is an unbalanced
situation that needs very much to be corrected. It is our opinion that the Temple rather
than the synagogue is the ultimate source of a number of the most important aspects of
Christian worship. That many of these aspects may have been mediated by the synagogue
is beside the point, at least in so far as our concern with the subject goes.78
78 Michael Bushell, The Songs of Zion, 71-72.
While the attempts to limit the regulative principle to the temple are clever, they have absolutely
no foundation in Scripture. The worship of the temple itself proves that the regulative principle
cannot be restricted to ceremonial ordinances.
Fourth, there are a number of passages that apply the regulative principle outside the
sphere of tabernacle/temple worship. If there is even one passage of Scripture that applies the
regulative principle outside of tabernacle temple worship, then the assertion that the regulative
principle applied only to the temple falls to the ground. We will examine three passages.
(1) In Matthew 15:1-3 Jesus condemned the Pharisees for adding ritualistic washing that
occurred in the home and not in the temple to the law. “Then the scribes and Pharisees who werefrom Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, ‘Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the
elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.’ He answered and said to them,
‘Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?’” This passageposes a serious problem for those who teach that the regulative principle applied only to the
temple, and thus man-made traditions are permissible as long as they do not violate the expressteaching of Scripture. Where is the washing of hands condemned in God’s word? If humanadditions are permissible in the religious sphere, what could be any more innocent, pragmatic or
practical than a simple hand washing? Yet our Lord not only refused to submit to this man-madereligious rite but also strongly rebuked the Pharisees for adding a human rule to God’s word.
“Washing of the hands is a thing proper enough; one could wish it were oftener practiced; but toexalt it into a religious rite is a folly and a sin.”79 The disciples of Christ were well trained, for
they knew that any human tradition, no matter how good and innocent, must not be compliedwith when it is given a religious significance and status by man without divine warrant. “Note,illegal impositions will be laid to the charge of those who support and maintain them [human
traditions in worship], and keep them up, as well as those who first invented and enjoinedthem.”80 “Antiquity and Fathers without Scripture is the old charter of superstitious formalists....
Hence learn: That God in wisdom brings men’s ceremonies to a dispute and so to be refuted and
Jesus is a champion of the regulative principle. He rejects the most innocuous of religious
traditions and also shows us how human traditions and laws drive out and thus set aside what
God has condemned. Rutherford writes,
And when the Pharisees saw some of the disciples eat bread with unwashed hands, they
found fault. The challenge was for an external omission of an outward observance which
may be seen with the eyes. Ergo, these traditions are not condemned by Christ becausethey were contrary to God’s word, or impious, but in this, that they were contrary because
not commanded. For in the external religious act of washing hands, there was no impietyof a wicked opinion objected to Christ’s disciples, about the piety of these traditions, norabout any inward opinion. Nor is there any question between the Pharisees and the Lord’sdisciples, whether the traditions of the elders should be esteemed the marrow and sum of
all religions, as Vasquez saith; but only anent external conformity with walking in the
traditions of the elders, or not walking, as is most clear in the text. It is true, Christobjected they accounted more of the traditions of men, nor of God’s commandments, aspapists and formalists do; but that was not the state of the question between the disciples
of Christ and the Pharisees. 2. Christ rejecteth these traditions, by an argument taken
79 Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1987), 201.80 Matthew Henry, Commentary (McLean, VA: MacDonald, n.d.), 5:210-211.
81 David Dickson, Matthew (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1987 ), 207.
from the want of lawful Author, while he calls them precepts of men, opposed to the
commandments of God.82
People who oppose the regulative principle often attempt to circumvent the obvious import of
these passages by appealing to the context. They argue that the example set forth by Christ in
verses 4 and 5 (of the person who follows a human tradition in order not to provide for his
parents in old age) informs us that Christ only had negative traditions in mind, that is, traditionswhich nullified, set apart or contradicted God’s word. The problem with this interpretation is that
it completely ignores verse 2 or the original confrontation that elicited Jesus’ response in verses3 to 9. Jesus gives an example of why adding human requirements to God’s word is wrong.
Human requirements eventually displace God’s word. (Anyone with knowledge of Judaism or
the history of the Christian church knows that our Lord’s teaching is true.) The fact that Christ
gives such an example does not detract at all from verse 2 where the most innocent and
apparently harmless of human traditions (hand washing) is regarded as totally inappropriate.How does washing one’s hands contradict, violate or set apart God’s word? Jesus condemns thePharisees for assuming (contrary to Scripture) that religious leaders have legislative authority in
the church. When church leaders give themselves authority to invent out of their own
imaginations doctrines or commandments, the eventual result is declension and even apostasy.
Note also that in verse 9 Jesus unequivocally condemns all human doctrines and commandmentsin religion. “And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men”(Mt. 15:9; cf. Isa. 29:13).
Further, the parallel passage in Mark 7 settles the matter once and for all, because in the
Markian account Jesus explicitly identifies the traditions that he condemns as including religious
washings.83 “He answered and said to them, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it iswritten: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they
worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” For laying aside thecommandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, andmany other such things you do.’ He said to them, ‘All too well you reject the commandment of
God, that you may keep your tradition’” (vs. 6-9). “It is just as easy to destroy the authority of
82 Samuel Rutherford, The Divine Right of Church Government and Excommunication (London: John Field, 1647),138.
83 The second half of verse 8 beginning with “the washing of” is not included in modern critical editions of theGreek New Testament (e.g., United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament [third edition]; the Nestle-Aland Greek
New Testament [26th edition]). Most modern translations (ASV, RSV, NASB, NEB, JB, NIV) reflect modern
textual criticism by leaving out the second half of verse 8. The expanded reading of verse 8 is found in the Textus
Receptus (or the Received Text) and the Majority Text (or the Byzantine/Traditional Text). The KJV and NKJV are
based on the Textus Receptus. In short, the critical editions of the Greek New Testament (that virtually all modern
translations are based upon) depend primarily on a few older manuscripts that were discovered chiefly in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (e.g., Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus). The majority texts are not asold as those used in the critical editions; however, they are far greater in number and were used by Christ’s churchsince at least as early as the fifth century. Modern scholarship regarding the majority texts (i.e., archeology,
verification of various readings by older papyri, ancient versions and quotations from the early church fathers [e.g.,
the disputed ending of Mark was accepted as canonical by the second century A.D.]), serious problems with the
presuppositions and methodology of the early critical scholars such as Wescott and Hort, and great variations
between the Vaticanus and Sinaiticus manuscripts have pointed many Christians back to the Majority Text as
superior to the modern critical text. This author accepts the KJV or NKJV reading of Mark 7:8 as reflecting the
actual words of Jesus Christ. Accepting the regulative principle, however, is not dependant upon accepting the
Majority Text reading of Mark 7:8.
God’s Word by addition as by subtraction, by burying it under human inventions as by denyingits truth. The whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible, must be our rule of faith—nothing addedand nothing taken away.”84 Our Lord does not just condemn negative, bad or contradictory
human traditions but all of them without exception. Spurgeon writes,
Religion based on human authority is worthless; we must worship the true God in the
way of his own appointing, or we do not worship him at all. Doctrines and ordinances are
only to be accepted when the divine Word supports them, and they are to be accepted for
that reason only. The most punctilious form of devotion is vain worship, if it is regulatedby man’s ordinance apart from the Lord’s own command.85
After briefly examining Christ’s teaching in context one can only conclude that the argument thatour Lord is only condemning certain bad religious traditions rather than any and all human
traditions is eisegesis of the worst sort.
Attempts at circumventing passages such as Matthew 15:2-9 which prove the regulative
principle are not new but are (in general matters) restatements of old popish and prelatical
arguments long ago rejected by the Reformed churches. Note the words of Zacharias Ursinus
(written in the 1570s and first published in the 1580s):
There are some who object to what we have here said, and affirm in support of will-
worship, that those passages which we have cited as condemning it, speak only in
reference to the ceremonies instituted by Moses, and of the unlawful commandments of
men, such as constitute no part of the worship of God; and not of those precepts which
have been sanctioned by the church and bishops, and which command nothing contrary to
the Word of God. But that this argument is false, may be proven by certain declarations
connected with those passages of Scripture to which we have referred, which likewise
reject those human laws, which, upon their own authority, prescribe anything in reference
to divine worship which God has not commanded, although the thing itself is neither
sinful nor forbidden by God. So Christ rejects the tradition which the Jews had in regard
to washing their hands, because they associated with it the idea of divine worship,although it was not sinful in itself, saying, ‘Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth aman, but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.’ ‘Woe unto you Scribesand Pharisees, hypocrites; for ye make clean the outside of the cup and platter, but within
ye are full of extortion and excess.’ (Matthew 15:11; 23, 25). The same thing may be said
of celibacy and of the distinction of meats and days, of which he calls ‘doctrines of
devils,’ although in themselves they are lawful to the godly, as he in other places teaches.Wherefore, those things are also which are in themselves indifferent, that is neither
commanded nor prohibited by God, if they are prescribed and done as the worship of
God, or if it is supposed that God is honored by our performing them, and dishonored by
neglecting them, it is plainly manifest that the Scriptures in these and similar places
84 J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Mark (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 101-102. Ryle(1816-1900) was an Anglican minister and bishop (of Liverpool) and therefore did not adhere to the regulativeprinciple. Nevertheless, his remarks on Mark cited above are true.
85 Spurgeon, Matthew, 203.
86 Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, n.d.
[from the 1852 edition]), 518-519.
(2) Another passage of Scripture which disproves the “temple only” theory is Colossians2:20-23, “Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as
though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—’Do not touch, do not taste,
do not handle,’ which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the
commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in
self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against theindulgence of the flesh.” The apostle Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spiritseveral years after the regulative principle was supposedly abolished, rigorously enforced the
Paul says that any addition to what God has commanded or authorized is self-imposedreligion, or as the King James Version says, “will-worship.” The Greek word used by Paul(ethelothreskeia) signifies worship that originates from man’s own will. “This is worship not
enjoined by God, but springing out of man’s own ingenuity—unauthorized devotion.... Theworship referred to is unsolicited and unaccepted. It is superstition....”87
The gist is that these ordinances are forms of worship or religious service chosen by man
according to the will of man, not means chosen by God. This is the essence of corrupt
worship, when men seek to establish their own forms of religious service. We might call
it free-will worship, since the advocates of man-made worship are claiming that men
possess the right (or freedom) to institute acceptable means to worship God.88
Paul says that adding to God’s Word is a show of false humility. Can man improve upon the
worship and service that God has instituted? It is the height of arrogance and stupidity to thinkthat sinful man can improve upon God’s ordinances. “It is provoking God, because it reflectsmuch upon His honor, as if He were not wise enough to appoint the manner of His own worship.
He hates all strange fire to be offered in His temple. Lev. x 11. A ceremony may in time lead to a
crucifix. Those who contend for the cross in baptism, why not have the oil, salt and cream aswell?”89 As Paul says, man-made rules and regulations are “of no value” to the believer (Col.2:23).
Opponents of the regulative principle attempt to circumvent the teaching of Colossians in
a similar fashion to the Matthew 15:2ff. passage. They argue that Paul is not condemning all
human traditions but is merely concerned with suppressing certain types of asceticism. In other
words, it is wrong to make rules that forbid the eating of meats and other foods, but it is entirely
acceptable to invent worship practices, holy days and rites.
There are a number of reasons why Paul’s condemnation of human requirements cannotbe limited to certain ascetic eating practices.
First, the broad context of the passage indicates that Paul emphatically rejects all human
traditions in the religious sphere and not merely ascetic dietary laws. The likely problem at the
Colossian church was the influence of an early form of ascetic Gnosticism. Paul does condemn
Gnostic legalism in chapter 2. However, in his condemnation of this particular philosophy and
the false ethical system that flows from it Paul condemns all forms of non-Christian philosophy
and all worship and ethics that are founded upon human philosophy and the tradition of men. In
87 John Eadie, Commentary on the Greek Text of the Epistle of Paul to the Colossians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 199-200.
88 Kevin Reed, Biblical Worship (Dallas: Presbyterian Heritage, 1995), 56.
89 Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1986 ), 63.
this epistle Paul first points the Colossians to Jesus Christ. The Colossian believers need to be
reminded that Christ is pre-eminent (1:18); that in Christ, who is the head of all, they are
complete (2:10); that some have not been holding fast the Head (2:19); that in Christ are hidden
all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (2:3). Christ alone is the king and head of the church.
He alone is our sanctification. Through Christ alone and his law-word come right doctrine,
meaning and ethics. Thus Paul writes, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy andempty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world,and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8). Calvin writes,
According to the tradition of men. He points out more precisely what kind of philosophyhe reproves, and at the same time convicts it of vanity on a twofold account—because it
is not according to Christ, but according to the inclinations of men; and because it
consists in the elements of the world. Observe, however, that he places Christ in
opposition to the elements of the world, equally as to the tradition of men, by which heintimates, that whatever is hatched in man’s brain is not in accordance with Christ, whohas been appointed us by the Father as our sole Teacher; that he might retain us in the
simplicity of his gospel. Now, that is corrupted by even a small portion of the leaven ofhuman traditions. He intimates also, that all doctrines are foreign to Christ that make theworship of God, which we know to be spiritual, according to Christ’s rule, to consist inthe elements of the world, and also such as fetter the minds of men by such trifles and
frivolities, while Christ calls us directly to himself.90
Paul’s condemnation of philosophy that is according to the tradition of men is universal.One cannot argue that Paul in this passage condemns only ascetic Gnosticism yet does not also
condemn the philosophies of Kant, Hegel, Schliermacher, Marx and Dewey. For Paul there is no
such thing as philosophical or ethical neutrality. A doctrine or practice is either according toChrist or it is not. And if it is not, then it comes from man’s autonomous devising and is(according to Paul) a tradition of men. Therefore, when Paul condemns human regulations in
2:20-23, he uses the same universal language. In verse 20 Paul asks those in error at Colossae thequestion (to paraphrase): “Why do you act like unsaved people who are still living in accordance
with a pagan worldview and thus subject yourself to human regulations?” Then in verse 21 Paulgives specific examples. Are the man-made regulations mentioned in verse 21 the only human
traditions that Paul forbids? No. Given the universal condemnation of human philosophy and
tradition that both precedes and follows verse 21, the human requirements of verse 21 must be
viewed as a few examples taken from the universal category of human philosophy and traditions.There is no way that Paul’s statement in verse 22, “according to the commandments and
doctrines of men,” can be restricted to the regulations of ascetic Gnosticism anymore than the
condemnation of human philosophy in verse 8 can be restricted to one Greek sect. Further, thestatement in verse 22, “according to the commandments and doctrines of men,” mirrors thecondemnation of Jewish traditions in doctrines and ethics found in Isaiah 19:13 and Matthew
15:2-9. The Bible condemns human additions and requirements, whether these man-made
traditions in doctrines, ethics or worship are Jewish, Greek, Persian, Roman, German, English or
Second, the interpretation that says that Paul forbids the addition of some human
philosophies and traditions into the doctrines, ethics and worship of the church, yet permits other
90 John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle to the Colossians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 181.
human traditions, violates standard orthodox Protestant methods of interpretation. A study of
both the Old and New Testaments proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that God forbids additions
or subtractions to the doctrine, ethics and worship set forth in divine revelation (Dt. 4:2; 12:32;
Prov. 30:6; Gen 4:3-5; Lev. 10:1-2; 2 Sam. 6:3-7; 1 Chr. 15:13-15; Jer. 7:24, 31, 19:5; Isa. 29:13;
Num. 15:39-40; Mt. 15:2-9; Jn. 4:24; Rev. 2:18, 19; etc.). This assertion is simply the Reformed
confessional understanding of sola scriptura which has been discussed in earlier portions of this
study. The attempt to make Paul a good Episcopalian, Lutheran or Romanist on the issue of
human tradition involves a willful ignorance of the overall teaching of Scripture. The human
heart is so incredibly deceitful that through self-deception and the subtleties of human reason it
develops loopholes for human autonomy where none exist. Therefore, our only hope formaintaining purity in doctrine, ethics and worship is to strictly adhere to and obey God’scommands without departing to the right or to the left.
(3) Another passage which disproves the “temple only” theory is John 4:21-24: “Jesus
said to her, ‘Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, norin Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we
worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true
worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worshipHim. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.’” When Jesusdiscussed worship with the Samaritan woman and contrasted old covenant worship with new
covenant worship, he taught that worship in both dispensations was to be conducted upon thesame principles. Note the phrase, “the hour is coming and now is” (v. 23). Although the death of
Christ eliminated all the typical and ceremonial aspects of old covenant worship, the need toworship God “in spirit and truth” was not a new principle, for it was already in effect when Jesusspoke these words. According to Jesus, God is to be worshiped in spirit and truth, not becausethe temple represents Christ and the gospel, but because of God’s nature and character. Bushell
The Spirit that is the source of eternal life must also be the source of true worship. If we
assume that the Spirit works only in and through His word, it is a fair inference from this
principle that all true worship must be founded upon the Holy Scriptures.... Acceptable
worship must be consonant with the character of God as it is revealed to us in the
Scriptures, and must be in conformity with that sufficient rule at every point. Only that
worship that proceeds ultimately from the Spirit through His word is pleasing to God.91
This passage of Scripture by itself refutes that idea that the regulative principle applied
only to the temple, for when Jesus begins this discussion, it is clear that he was speaking of the
temple worship in Jerusalem (v. 21). Therefore, when he says that the same worship principle of“spirit and truth” that is now operative in the old covenant era will also be operative in the new
covenant era, he is connecting the strict worship principle that regulated the temple to the new
covenant church. If believers of both old and new covenant eras want to worship God properly,
they must do so only in accordance with his nature and character. And the only way to approach
God in a manner that pleases him is to approach him on his own terms in accordance with his
own rules. This means that worship must be prescribed by Scripture and not by sinful men. Godwho is truth itself must be worshiped according to truth and not man’s imagination. The
Westminster Larger Catechism says: “The sins forbidden in the second commandment are: all
91 Michael Bushell, The Songs of Zion, 149, 151-152.
devising, counseling, commanding, using, and any wise approving any religious worship notinstituted by God Himself...” (Larger Catechism #109). The idea that the regulative principle
only applied to the tabernacle/temple worship has no biblical support, contradicts the clear
teaching of Scripture and therefore must be rejected.
4. The “Circumstances of Worship” Argument
A common method of avoiding the full implication of sola scriptura in the sphere of
worship is to confuse and blur the distinction between worship ordinances and the circumstances
of worship. The statement of the Westminster Confession regarding circumstances of worship
(1.6) is often used as a justification to introduce human traditions and innovations into the public
worship of God. An opponent to the regulative principle writes,
We are here simply insisting that the Westminster Confession’s admission concerning
“circumstances” of worship “that there are some circumstances concerning the worship
of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which
are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence according to the general
rules of the Word, which are always to be observed“—is, in truth, a far morecomprehensive statement of God’s will for New Order worship than is recognized insome quarters.92
It is common for opponents of the regulative principle (and for men who claim adherence to the
regulative principle yet who refuse to apply to apply it to certain areas of worship because of a
love of human traditions) to add human innovations and traditions to the worship of God and
then arbitrarily declare the additions to be circumstances of worship. This tactic, which leads to
the corruption of worship, is simply a more sophisticated, up to date version of the Lutheran
notion that their additions all belong to the sphere of adiaphora. This method of circumventing
the regulative principle is not a direct frontal attack upon sola scriptura over worship but rather
is clever side-stepping or back-door evasion of the regulative principle. In denominations that
adhere to Reformed confessions (thus officially adhering to the regulative principle) yet have
backslid and departed from biblical worship, apologists for declension and the status quo have
developed some clever unbiblical arguments. Some popular examples of such argumentation are
(1) Some argue that singing is not a separate element of worship but is merely acircumstance of worship. Bahnsen writes, “Is singing a separate ‘element’ of worship or a
‘circumstance’ of worship? If the latter, it does not require biblical warrant according to the
regulative principle. I have argued that singing is simply a means to (one circumstance through
which to) pray, praise, exhort, or teach—rather than an element of worship itself.”93 What
92 Steven Schlissel, “All I Really Need to Know about Worship I Don’t Learn from the Regulative Principle” (PartIV) in Messiah’s Mandate.
93 Greg Bahnsen, “Exclusive Psalmody” in Antithesis 1:2 (March-April, 1990), 51. The argument that singing is not
a separate element of worship was popularized by Vern S. Poythress, professor at Westminster TheologicalSeminary and a PCA minister. In 1974 he wrote, “We regard teaching-by-singing and teaching-in-the-narrow-sense
as simply two forms of teaching, each particularly effective in meeting certain needs and expressing certain aspects
of Christian doctrine. Each has its advantages and limitations, due to the nature of the medium of expression. We
challenge the exclusive psalmist position to prove from Scripture, rather than assume, that teaching-by-singing andproclaiming are ‘two separate elements of worship.’ To us they appear little more ‘separate’ than preaching to avisible audience versus preaching over the radio” (“Ezra 3, Union with Christ, and Exclusive Psalmody,”
Bahnsen is saying is that the general command to praise God is an element of worship, but how
this command to praise is carried out is a mere circumstance of worship. Thus, a person could
praise God through singing, or silent meditation, or speaking, or even through drama or dance,
for the circumstances of worship are not strictly regulated by God’s word.
(2) Many argue that musical accompaniment to the singing of praise in public worship is
a circumstance of worship. Theologian John Frame gives a typical example of this argument. He
Churches in the Covenanter tradition, such as the Reformed Presbyterian Church ofNorth America, often justify the use of pitch pipes as ‘circumstance,’ while rejecting the
use of organs and pianos as unauthorized ‘elements.’ The logic of this distinction escapes
me. If it is legitimate to use a pitch pipe to give the congregation the first note of a song,why shouldn’t we also give the congregation help with the second note, the third, and therhythm?94
Others point out that the use of musical instruments in worship is “common to human actions
and societies.” Therefore (they argue) it must be a circumstance of worship.
(3) Many pastors and sessions in Reformed or Presbyterian denominations who have
special Christmas and Easter services yet who understand that such services have no warrant inGod’s word argue that choosing a text for a sermon is a circumstance of worship. Therefore, it isentirely permissible (as a circumstance of worship) for the pastor to preach on the incarnation on
or near December 25. Thus, one can find many a Presbyterian church following a Romanist or
Anglican church calendar with the excuse that doing so is only a circumstance of worship.95
In order to refute arguments intended to circumvent Scripture’s sole authority inauthorizing worship elements, it is necessary to briefly consider the difference between the
circumstances of worship and worship ordinances.
The first difference is that worship ordinances are prescribed or determined from
Scripture. Every part or element of worship must be based on either an explicit command from
Westminster Theological Journal 37 [1974-75], 225-226). The latest expression of this argument comes from thepen of John M. Frame: “Even if we accept the division of worship into elements, it is not plausible to argue that
song is an element of worship, independent of all others. As we saw in the preceding chapter, song is not an
independent element, but rather a way of doing other things. It is a way of praying, of teaching, of confessing, etc.
Therefore, when we apply the regulative principle to matters of song, we should not ask specifically what words
Scripture commands us to sing, but rather, what words Scripture commands us to use in teaching, prayer,confession, etc.” (Worship in Spirit and Truth: A Refreshing Study of the Principle and Practice of Biblical Worship[Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1996], 124).
94 John Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth, 62, ftn. 1.
95 If a pastor is preaching through a book of the Bible and in the natural course of his exposition he comes to a
passage on the birth or incarnation of Christ on or near December 25th, then choosing that text is a circumstance of
worship. But, if a pastor is preaching through a book and purposely changes the subject to the incarnation or birth of
Christ on or near December 25th then he has deliberately regarded an extra-biblical holy day, and is using the
choosing of a text as a circumstance, as an excuse. Some of the reasons that Reformed believers give for not
celebrating Christmas are: (1) The Bible has only authorized the Lord’s day or the Christian sabbath as a specialreligious holy day. In it believers are to celebrate the whole work of redemption. (2) Jesus Christ was not born on
December 25th and thus Christmas is a lie. Our Lord was born in the fall of the year. (3) It is immoral for Christians
to syncretize biblical worship with paganism and popery. Believers should have nothing to do with remnants of
paganism or the trinkets of Antichrist. (4) The Bible tells God’s people to “love not the world, neither the things that
are in the world” (1 Jn. 2:15). Christmas was the invention of rank pagans and apostate Romanists. It is loved andadmired by pagans (sodomites, murderers, child molesters, Hollywood, etc.) all over the world as a special “holy
day.” Therefore, it is unchristian and should be shunned by all believers.
the Bible (e.g., “Do this in remembrance of Me” [Lk. 22:19]); or an approved historical examplefrom Scripture (e.g., the change from the seventh day to the first day of the week for corporate
worship);96 or by logical inference from the Bible (i.e., there may not be an explicit command
but when several passages are compared they teach or infer a scriptural practice).97 Because the
elements of worship must be proved from Scripture, they are finite in number; and, because the
canon of Scripture is closed, the elements are fixed and unchanging. The circumstances ofworship are not determinable from the Bible. Although public worship is required on the Lord’sday (the Christian sabbath), the time to meet is not prescribed. Other circumstances of worship
are: the type of building to meet in; the type of seating; the location of the meeting house; the
particular psalm selections; the choice of what text to preach on; the choice of Scripture reading,
etc. The circumstances of worship are determined by Christian prudence (i.e., sanctified common
sense) according to the general rules of Scripture (e.g.: What time to meet would be the most
convenient and edifying for the congregation? What Psalm selections are most appropriate for
the sermon text? What type of building design will help the congregation focus on the preached
Some circumstances are determined by the pastor (e.g., the sermon text); others by the
session (e.g., the time to meet) and others by heads of households and individuals (e.g., Should I
wear a blue, black grey or brown suit to church? etc.). Unlike worship elements, the
circumstances of worship are virtually infinite in number and frequently change. Remember, if
something in public worship is determinable by Scripture, then it cannot be a circumstance of
worship. Furthermore, note that only God has the authority to take something that is a
circumstance of worship and make it a worship ordinance. For example, there is nothing
intrinsically special regarding any particular day of the week. Yet God has the authority to set
aside a particular day and make it religiously significant. There is nothing religiously significant
or special regarding any particular piece of land on the earth. Yet, in the old covenant era, God
made Jerusalem and the temple a special religious place. Therefore, when men add their own
holy day, or make up a holy place or object, or bring musical instruments or non-inspired hymns
into the worship of Jehovah, they are usurping God’s authority.
96 An instance of historical example is Lord’s-day public worship. There is no explicit command or divine
imperative changing public worship from the seventh day (Saturday) to the first day (Sunday) of the week, recorded
in Scripture. Yet in the New Testament, the change from the seventh day to the first day is recorded as an
accomplished fact (Ac. 20:7, 1 Cor. 16:2, Rev. 1:10). Not every divine command or prophetic word has beeninscripturated (i.e., included in the Bible). The universal practice of the apostolic church, such as Lord’s-day public
worship, is binding because of the unique authority given to the apostles, i.e., direct revelation. When the apostles
died, direct revelation ceased and the canon was closed; now our doctrine, worship, and all historical examples are
limited to the Bible, the word of God. Those who appeal to church traditions, invented after the closing of the canon,
for authority in establishing worship ordinances, are, in principle, no better than Jeroboam the son of Nebat (1 Kgs.
97 “There is of course careful distinction to be made between the Word of God and inferences drawn from the Wordof God. We may challenge the validity of inferences drawn from Scripture and attempt to determine whether they
are indeed scriptural, but we may never in the same way challenge the validity of the explicit statements of
Scripture. The words and statements of Scripture are absolutely authoritative. Their authority is underived and
indisputable. The authority of valid inferences from Scripture, on the other hand, is derivative in nature, but one
cannot argue that such inferences are therefore less authoritative than the express declarations of Scripture. Theysimply make explicit what is already expressed implicitly in Scripture” (Michael Bushell, The Songs of Zion, 124).
Some of the most important and foundational doctrines of Christianity are drawn from inferences of Scripture, suchas the hypostatic union of the two natures in Jesus Christ and the doctrine of the trinity. That the use of “good and
necessary consequence” or logical inference from Scripture to formulate doctrine is biblical can be seen in thefollowing passages: Lk. 20:37ff., Mt. 22:31ff., Mk. 12:26, Mt. 19:4-6, 1 Cor. 11:8-10.
Once one understands that worship ordinances are commanded or prescribed by Scripture
then he will not be misguided by those who attempt to blur the distinction between the elements
or parts of worship and the circumstances of worship. For example (as noted above), many
pastors today argue that the use of musical instruments in public worship is a circumstance of
worship. To someone who is not familiar with the Bible this argument sounds plausible. After
all, are not musical instruments used in all cultures and nations? Are they not also commonly
used in religious ceremonies? The problem with this argument is that the use of musical
instruments was commanded by God and only priests and Levites were authorized to play them
in association with the temple cultus (Num. 10:18, 10; 1 Chr. 15:14-24, 23:5, 28:11-13, 19; 2
Chr. 5:11-14, 29:26; Ezra 3:10; Neh. 12:27, etc.). If musical instruments were only a
circumstance of worship, and if any Israelite could play musical instruments in worship, then
such commands would be totally unnecessary and out of place. Something incidental to worshipby nature is incidental or discretionary in all circumstances.
Second, anything in worship which holds a religious or moral significance is an element
or part of worship and therefore must have divine warrant. The circumstances of worship are“common to human actions and societies.” Note the following illustrations for clarification. If achurch in first-century Palestine had a bucket of water inside the door that believers used to rinse
the dust off their feet before they sat down, then this rinsing of the feet would not be religiously
significant. But if the elders of that church instructed church members to dip their hand in the
water and make the sign of the cross or take some water and toss it in the air while saying a
certain prayer, then they would be guilty of adding a human tradition to the worship of God.
Many pastors have a glass of water on or near the pulpit to drink during the sermon. There is
nothing religiously significant regarding a glass of water. However, if the pastor blesses the glass
of water and then dips a baby rattle in it and starts sprinkling church members while mumbling
in Latin, then he has added a human tradition to worship. Today there are many human additions
to worship that clearly have crossed the line and are regarded as holding a special, sacred or
religious significance (e.g., the sign of the cross, holy water, priestly garments, prayer candles,
kneeling at communion, the altar call, religious drama, liturgical dance, the “Christian” calendar,
saints’ days, holy days [apart from the Sabbath], etc.).
Third, worship ordinances are practices that are required by Scripture and therefore are
not voluntary or optional. That is, they are biblically necessary. Church members do not have the
option of eliminating the sermon, the Scripture reading or the sacraments, etc. (in fact,
evangelicals often consider sects that omit such things as cults). Circumstances are not required
or biblically necessary. Worship services are not dependent upon buildings, seating and pulpits.
The circumstances of worship are matters that can be changed, eliminated or added without anyconsequence to public worship. No Christian would argue that the Lord’s supper was optional.
Yet would anyone be taken seriously who argued that a music soloist, or a drama skit, or a
puppet show, or a rock band, or an altar call, or an incense procession, or a whirling dervish were
necessary aspects of worship? When churches take non-required and unnecessary human
traditions and add them to the worship of God, they detract from what God has prescribed; mix
that which is profane with that which is truly religiously significant; and offend God who has not
appointed such things.
The attempt to broaden the definition of the circumstances of worship, or to blur the
distinction between worship elements and circumstances, or to merge distinct elements into
broad categories, is unscriptural and anti-Confessional.98 One must never treat the elements ofworship as abstractions that can be molded to fit one’s own preconceptions of what ispermissible in worship. The proper biblical interpretive procedure lets the Bible tell us what the
distinct elements of worship are and lets Scripture delineate the rules for each element. Although
it is true that the elements of singing praise, preaching or teaching and prayer can have certain
aspects in common (e.g., many psalms contains prayer, prayer can contain praise and sermons
can contain praise and supplication, etc.), the idea that these distinct elements can be collapsed
into one category (e.g., teaching) or that the specific rules given by Scripture for one element can
98 The Westminster Confession of Faith does not just set forth broad categories but rather gives well defined, distinct
worship elements that all serve as the ordinary parts of religious worship. The Confession names “prayer with
thanksgiving” (21:3); also “the reading of the Scriptures with godly fear; the sound preaching, and conscionablehearing of the word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence: singing of psalms with grace
in the heart; as also the due admiration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ; are all parts of
the ordinary religious worship of God: beside religious oaths and vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgiving upon
several occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner” (21:5).The authors of the Confession clearly believed that scriptural authorization or proof was required for each separate
part of worship. That is why each distinct element of worship is proof-texted by the Confession. The confessional
view of the circumstances and elements of worship is supported and reflected in the writings of the greatest
theologians of that time. George Gillespie (1613-1648) wrote: “Beside all this, there is nothing which any way
pertaineth to the worship of God left to determination of human laws, besides the mere circumstances, which neither
have any holiness in them, forasmuch as they have no other use and praise in sacred than they have in civil things,
nor yet were part-determinable in Scripture, because they are infinite; but sacred significant ceremonies, such as
cross, kneeling, surplice, holidays, bishopping, etc., which have no use and praise except in religion only, and
which, also, were most easily determinable (yet not determined) within those bounds which the wisdom of God didset to his written word, are such things as God never left to the determination of any human laws” (A Dispute
Against the English Popish Ceremonies Obtruded upon the Church of England, Christopher Coldwell, ed. [Dallas,
TX: Naphtali, 1993 (1637, 60)], xli). Samuel Rutherford (c. 1600-1661) wrote: “In actions or religious means ofworship, or circumstances physical, not moral, not religious, as whether the pulpit be of stone or of timber, the bellof this or this metal, the house of worship stand thus or thus in situation” (The Divine Right of Church-Government
and Excommunication [London: John Field for Christopher Meredith, 1646], 109). William Ames (1576-1633)wrote: “The outward circumstances are those which pertain to order and decency. 1 Corinthians 14:40. Let all thingsbe done decently and in order. But the general rule of these is that they be ordered in that manner which maketh
most for edification. 1 Corinthians 14:26. Of this nature are the circumstances of place, time, and the like, which are
common adjuncts to religious and civil acts. Therefore although such like circumstances are wont to be called of
some rites, and religious or ecclesiastical ceremonies, yet they have nothing in their nature which is proper toreligion, and therefore religious worship doth not properly consist in them” (The Marrow of Sacred Divinity[London: Edward Griffen for Henry Overton, 1642], 318). John Owen (1616-1683) wrote: “It is said men may addnothing to the substance of the worship of God, but they may order, dispose, and appoint the things that belong to
the manner and circumstances of it, this is all that is done in the prescription of liturgies. Of circumstances in and
about the worship of God we have spoken before, and removed that pretense. Nor is it safe distinguishing in the
things of God where himself hath not distinguished. Indeed, there is nothing in its whole nature, as it belongs to the
general being of things, so circumstantial, but that if it be appointed by God in his worship, it becomes a part of thesubstance of it; nor can anything that is so appointed ever by any be made a circumstance of his worship” (“ADiscourse Concerning Liturgies and Their Imposition” in Works [Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1965 (1850-53)],
15:40). Thomas Ridgely (1667-1734) wrote: “The first idea contained in them [worship ordinances], is that they arereligious duties, prescribed by God, as an instituted method in which he will be worshiped by his creatures.... Now,
the ordinances, as thus described, must be engaged in according to a divine appointment. No creature has a warrant
to enjoin any modes of worship, pretending that these will be acceptable or well-pleasing to God; since God alone,
who is the object of worship, has right to prescribe the way in which he will be worshiped. For a creature to institute
modes of worship would be an instance of profaneness and bold presumption; and the worship performed would be‘in vain’; as our Saviour says concerning that which has no higher sanction than the commandments of men” (A
Body of Divinity [New York: 1855], 2:433).
be applied to the other parts of worship completely breaks down when one examines the specific
rules and context that the Bible gives to each separate ordinance. Note the follow examples.
(1) One element is preaching from the Bible (Mt. 26:13; Mk 16:15; Ac. 9:20; 17:10;
20:8; 1 Cor. 14:28; 2 Tim. 4:2). Preaching involves reasoning from the Scriptures (cf. Ac. 17:2-3; 18:4, 19; 24:25) and explaining or expounding God’s word (cf. Mk. 4:34; Lk. 24:27; Ac. 2:14-
40; 17:3; 18:36; 28:23). New covenant teachers did not speak by divine interpretation but
interpreted divinely inspired Scripture. In the same manner the Old Testament Levitical teachers
explained and interpreted the inscripturated law to the covenant people (cf. Neh. 8:7-8; Lev.
10:8-11; Dt. 17:8-13; 24:8; 31:9-13; 33:8; 2 Chr. 15:3; 17:7-9; 19:8-10; 30:22; 35:3; Ezr. 7:1-11;
Ezek. 44:15, 23-24; Hos. 4:6; Mal. 2:1, 5-8). There are specific biblical rules that apply to
preaching that distinguish it from other elements such as praise and prayer. While both men and
women can pray (Ac. 1:13-14, 1 Cor. 11:5) and sing praise (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; Jas. 1:5) only
men (1 Cor. 14:34-35; 1 Tim. 2:11-14) who are called by God and set apart to the gospel
ministry can preach (Mt. 28:18-20; Ac. 9:15; 13:1-5; Rom. 10:14-15; Eph. 4:11-12; 2 Tim. 4:2,
etc.). Therefore, the idea that singing praise is not an element of worship but only one way to
teach or a circumstance of teaching is clearly unscriptural. If singing praise was simply one given
method of teaching, then women would be forbidden to sing praise in church, for they are
forbidden to teach in the public assemblies. Furthermore, if singing were a circumstance of
worship, then it would be optional and could be excluded from public worship altogether.
(2) Another part of worship is the singing of Psalms (1 Chr. 16:9; Ps. 95:1-2; 105:2; 1
Cor. 14:26; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Unlike preaching, where the minister uses his own uninspired
words to exposit Scripture, singing praise involves only the use of Spirit-inspired songs. In the
Bible prophetic inspiration was a requirement for writing worship songs for the church (cf. Ex.
15:20-21; Jdg. 5; Isa. 5:1; 26:1ff; 2 Sam 23:1, 2; 1 Chr. 25:5; 2 Chr. 29:30; 35:15; Mt. 22:43-44;
Mk. 12:36; Ac. 1:16-17; 2:29-31; 4:24-25). The writing of worship songs in the Old Testament
was so intimately connected with prophetic inspiration that 2 Kings 23:2 and 2 Chronicles 34:30use the term “Levite” and “prophet” interchangeably.
(3) Reading the Bible is also a part of public worship (Mk. 4:16-20; Ac. 1:13; 13:15;
16:13; 1 Cor. 11:20; 1 Tim. 4:13; Rev. 1:13). Obviously, Scripture reading requires reading from
the Bible alone. Reading from the Apocrypha or Shakespeare or uninspired Christian poetry or
theology books cannot be substituted for this element. Scripture reading, like preaching but
unlike singing praise, is restricted to ministers of the gospel (Ex. 24:7; Josh 8:34-35; Dt. 31:9-13;
Neh. 8:7-8; 13:1; 1 Th. 5:27; Col. 4:16; 1 Tim. 4:3).
(4) Another element of worship is prayer to God (Dt. 22:5; Mt. 6:9; 1 Cor. 11:13-15; 1Th. 5:17; Phil. 4:6; Heb. 13:18; Jas. 1:5). Unlike the elements of singing praise and reading theScriptures, the Bible authorizes the use of our own words in prayer, as long as we follow thepattern or model given to us by Christ (cf. Mt. 6:9). God promises his people that the Holy Spiritwill assist them when they form their prayers (cf. Zech. 12:10; Rom. 8:26-27).
A brief consideration of the elements of worship noted above proves that the rules that apply toone element (e.g., prayer) cannot be applied to another element (e.g., singing praise or readingthe Bible) without violating Scripture. Our consideration has also proved that collapsing various
elements into broad categories violates God’s word. The only reason people artificially constructsuch broad categories is to avoid the specific rules that God has instituted for each particular
element of worship. Feminists do so to accommodate women reading the Scriptures and
preaching in church. Others do so to allow a drama group to substitute for the sermon. There are
also many who do so in order to substitute the uninspired songs of men for the inspired Psalms of
5. The “Jesus Accepted and Participated in Human Traditions” Argument
A popular argument against the regulative principle is that Jesus himself did not believe
in it, for he accepted and even participated in man-made religious traditions. It is argued that
Jesus celebrated the Passover according to the non-authorized Rabbinical tradition; that is, theJewish Seder with all its human additions. Regarding the Jewish Seder (Hebrew for “order”)there is no question but that the Pharisees added their own rituals to the meal. Wilson writes,
The meal included various symbolic elements, each consumed at specified points
throughout the evening. These included roasted lamb, bitter herbs, unleavened bread,
[haroset] (pastry mixture of nuts, fruit, and wine), and a raw vegetable dipped into a tart
liquid. At various intervals four cups of wine, a symbol of joy, were consumed. The wine
was probably mixed with water and heated (cf. Pesahim vii.13). Ritual hand-washings,
prayers, and portions of the Hallel (Pss. 113-119) also punctuated the observance.99
What is the textual evidence that is offered as proof that Jesus participated in the variousRabbinical additions? The only “evidence” that is offered is the fact that Jesus drank wine. It isassumed that since Christ and the apostles had wine with their meal, that they must also have
participated in a Seder with its additional rituals. Note: Not one of the Jewish additions—the
rituals of the Seder—is mentioned in any of the various accounts of the Last Supper. When thevirtually universal practice of the Jews in Jesus’ day was to drink wine with their meals, is theJewish Seder theory a necessary inference from the text or pure speculation? Is it theologically
and pastorally responsible to develop a theology of worship on pure speculation and guesswork?
But what about the use of wine? Some argue that since the use of wine is not commanded
in the original institution of the Passover it therefore is a human innovation in a religious ritual.
Is the use of wine a violation of the regulative principle? No, for the Passover was a meal, and
the drinking of a beverage is an ordinary, necessary circumstance of eating (especially if one is
eating roasted lamb, unyeasted bread and bitter herbs). During the feast of unleavened bread the
Israelites were commanded to eat unleavened bread for seven days (Ex. 12:15ff.) Yet nothing is
mentioned whatsoever of any beverages to be drunk. Obviously God was not requiring the Jews
to die of thirst in the hot Egyptian climate. The fact that Christ and the disciples drank wine with(or after) their meal was not significant at all until Jesus made it a gospel ordinance in the Lord’ssupper. An argument from an historical account must be based on the written account itself, not
on assumptions about what happened.
Not only is the “Jewish Seder” theory totally speculative, but it also violates standardProtestant methods of interpretation (i.e., the analogy of Scripture). Whenever an interpreter
encounters a difficult or unclear passage, he must use the clearer portions of Scripture to interpretthe less clear. Does it make sense to interpret Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper in a manner thatcontradicts the clear teaching of both the Old and New Testaments? Are the sola scriptura orregulative principle passages unclear or difficult to understand? Should one choose an
interpretation that makes Jesus look incompetent and hypocritical? Jesus frequently condemned
99 M. R. Wilson, “Passover” in Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 3:677.
the Pharisees for adding human traditions to God’s word, including religious hand washings (Mt.15:2ff.). Would our Lord participate in the Jewish Seder which included ritual hand washings100after he condemned the Pharisees in the strongest of terms for the exact same behavior?
Note also the foundation of the “Seder theory” is not the inspired Scriptures but theJewish Mishnah. The Mishnah is a compilation of rabbinical oral traditions that date from around200 B.C. until about A.D. 200. The Mishnah was compiled primarily by Rabbi Judah (“Ha Nasi”
or the “Prince”) along with other Jewish scholars around A.D. 189. Because most of what waswritten down at that time came by way of oral tradition, no one is sure how much the Mishnah
accurately reflects Jewish traditions. Edersheim writes, “It has already been hinted more than
once that the law laid down in the Mishnah frequently represents the theories and speculations of
the Jewish doctors of the second century A.D., and not the actual practice of any given period.
Several of their regulations deal accordingly with obsolete customs, and have little regard to theactual circumstances of the time.”101 While it is understandable that a Christian scholar would
examine the Mishnah in an attempt to shed light upon the social milieu of first century Palestine,it is incredible that pastors and scholars of “Reformed” persuasion would look to such anuntrustworthy and blasphemous document102 to undermine sola scriptura.
Another popular argument it that Jesus celebrated Chanukah because he was present at its
celebration according to John 10:22-23. “Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it
was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon’s porch.” Does this passage of Scriptureprove or even imply that Jesus accepted and participated in human traditions in worship? No.
There are many reasons why such a view must be rejected.
100 Alfred Edersheim writes, “the ‘cup of blessing,’ which was the third, and formed part of the new institution of the
Lord’s Supper, being mentioned in verse 20. In washing their hands this customary prayer was repeated: ‘Blessed art
Thou, Jehovah our God, who hast sanctified us with Thy commandments, and hast enjoined us concerning thewashing of our hands.’ Two different kinds of ‘washing’ were prescribed by tradition—’dipping’ and ‘pouring.’ Atthe Paschal Supper the hands were to be ‘dipped’ in water” (The Temple: Its Ministry and Services as They Were at
the Time of Christ [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950], p. 239. Note Edersheim’s footnote to the quote above: “Thedistinction [between two types of ritual hand washings] is also interesting as explaining Mark vii 3. For when water
was poured on the hands, they had to be lifted, yet so that the water should neither run up above the wrist, nor back
again upon the hand; best, therefore, by doubling the fingers into a fist. Hence (as Lightfoot rightly remarks) Markvii 3, which should be translated: ‘For the Pharisees...except they wash their hands with the fist, eat not, holding the
traditions of the elders’” (Ibid. ftn. 4). Note, Mark 7:2ff. is a parallel account with Matthew 15:2ff. What all this
means is that if Jesus and the disciples celebrated the Seder as it is set forth in the Mishnah (as many assert), then
Christ was guilty of participating in the exact same ritual that earlier in the gospel accounts he and his disciples
refused to do and which elicited a scathing condemnation of the Pharisees by our Lord. We regard such a scenario as
exegetically and theologically impossible. There are other problems with the idea that Jesus followed the Seder
according to Mishnah. For instance, the gospel accounts do not speak of four cups but merely one which was shared
by all the disciples.
101 Alfred Edersheim, History of the Jewish Nation after the Destruction of Jerusalem under Titus (Grand Rapids:Baker, 1979 ), 381.
102 Note how the Mishnah perverts the meaning of Leviticus 18:21 and endorses idolatry. “MISHNAH. HE WHO
GIVES OF HIS SEED TO MOLECH INCURS NO PUNISHMENT UNLESS HE DELIVERS IT TO MOLECH
AND CAUSES IT TO PASS THROUGH THE FIRE. IF HE GAVE IT TO MOLECH BUT DID NOT CAUSE IT
TO PASS THROUGH FIRE, OR, THE REVERSE, HE INCURS NO PENALTY, UNLESS HE DOES BOTH.
GEMARA. R. Abin said: Our Mishnah is in accordance with the view that Molech worship is not idolatry.... R,
Simeon said: if to Molech, he is liable; if to another idol, he is not [Sanhedrin 64a]. R. Aha the son of Raba said: If
one caused all his seed to pass through [the fire] to Molech, he is exempt from punishment, because it is written, ofthy seed implying, but not all thy seed [Sanhedrin 64b]” (The Babylonian Talmud quoted in Gary North, Tools of
Dominion: The Case Laws of Exodus [Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990], 1019). (In the Talmud,
the Mishnah is always written in all capitals.)
First, one cannot ascertain from the text if Jesus even celebrated the Feast of Dedication.
The passage does not say that Christ went to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of dedication, but
merely that he was in Jerusalem at that time. Many excellent commentators (e.g., Hengstenburg,
Meyer, Weiss and others) argue that Jesus had been staying in Jerusalem since the feast of
Second, there is nothing significant regarding our Lord’s presence in Jerusalem at thetime of this feast, for it was not a feast that occurred only in Jerusalem. Chanukah was celebratedthroughout the whole nation. John is not making a statement regarding Jesus’ attitude towardChanukah, but is merely giving an historical setting to the addresses that follow.
Third, even if Christ went to Jerusalem to be there during the feast, the chapter as a whole
indicates that he went there to teach. Gillespie writes,
[W]e must remember, that the circumstances only of time and place are noted by
the evangelist, for evidence to the story, and not for any mystery. Christ had come up to
the feast of tabernacles (John 7), and tarried still all that while, because then there was a
great confluence of people in Jerusalem. Whereupon he took occasion to spread the net ofthe gospel for catching of many souls. And whilst John says, ‘It was at Jerusalem the
feast of the dedication,’ he gives a reason only of the confluence of many people atJerusalem, and shows how it came to pass that Christ had occasions to preach to such amultitude; and whilst he adds, ‘and it was winter,’ he gives reason of Christ’s walking in
Solomon’s porch, whither the Jews resort was. It was not thought beseeming to walk inthe temple itself, but in the porch men used to convene either for talking or walking,
because in the summer the porch shadowed them from the heat. Others think, that whilst
he says, it was winter, imports that therefore Christ was the more frequently in the
temple, knowing that his time was short which he had then for his preaching; for in the
entry of the next spring he was to suffer.103
There is not one shred of evidence that our Lord participated in any man-made rituals. (Note:
Paul preached at the Areopagus [Ac. 17:22ff.], not because he had a favorable attitude toward
Greek philosophy, but because it provided an excellent evangelistic opportunity.)
Fourth, Jesus’ presence does not prove that he celebrated the Feast of Dedication, for thecelebration of Chanukah did not involve any holy convocations. Further, it was not a religious
sabbath in which people were required to cease from their labors.
Fifth, most commentators who speculate regarding the apostle’s mention of the feastargue that here Jesus dedicates himself to death (cf. Pink, Lightfoot, Stachen, etc.). In other
words, the mention of the feast points to Christ, not human tradition.
Sixth (as noted above), one should never choose an interpretation that violates the
analogy of Scripture. It is exegetically irresponsible to read into a text what is not there
(eisegesis) and then use that speculative interpretation to overthrow the many clear passages of
Scripture which unequivocally condemn human traditions in the religious sphere. Such a
procedure is nothing more than self-deception, excuse making and a grasping after straw.
Another argument (that Jesus countenanced human traditions in worship) is based on the
idea that our Lord gave his blessing to two Jewish ceremonies that were likely added after the
close of the Old Testament canon. These rituals were associated with the feast of Tabernacles. Itis argued that Jesus’ strategically placed statements (that played off these ceremonies) prove that
103 George Gillespie, English Popish Ceremonies, 269-270.
he did not condemn such human traditions. A brief examination of these passages will prove that
such a conclusion is unwarranted.
This first passage is John 7:37-39. “On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus
stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes inMe, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ But this He spokeconcerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was notyet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” F. F. Bruce give an explanation of the festival asit would have been celebrated in Jesus’ day.
The festival lasted eight days, and on the eighth day was ‘a holy convocation...a
solemn assembly’ (Lev. 23:36; cf. Num. 29:35ff.; Neh. 8:18). When the people thankedGod at the celebration of Tabernacles for all the fruits of the past year—vine and olive as
well as barley and wheat—they did not forget his gift of rain, apart from which none of
those crops would have grown. An association of this festival with adequate rainfall is
implied in Zech. 14:16f., and although the ceremony of water-pouring, well attested in
connexion with Tabernacles for the two centuries preceding AD 70, is not mentioned in
the OT (with the doubtful exception of 1 Sam. 7:6), it was probably of very considerableantiquity. This ceremony, which was intended to acknowledge God’s goodness insending rain and to ensure a plentiful supply for the following season, was enacted at
dawn on the first seven days of the festival. A procession led by a priest went down to the
pool of Siloam, where a golden pitcher was filled with water, and returned to the temple
as the morning sacrifice was being offered. The water was then poured into a funnel at
the west side of the altar, and the temple choir began to sing the Great Hallel (Pss. 113-
Jesus made his statement on the eighth day when no water was poured by the priests. Many
commentators believe our Lord purposely timed his statement to dramatize and emphasize the
need for true spiritual life-giving water.
The second passage is John 8:12. “Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, ‘I am the light
of the world, He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.’” Some
commentators believe that Jesus’ statement regarding “the light of the world” was a purposefulcomparison of himself to the large brilliant golden lamps that were placed in the Court of
Women and were lit at the beginning of the Feast of Tabernacles.
There are a number of reasons why the idea that these passages prove that Jesus accepted
and approved of human traditions in worship must be rejected.
First, neither of the passages in question say that our Lord approved of man-made
traditions. The idea that Christ approved of human additions is simply assumed with no textual
evidence. Is it not wise to follow what the Bible says instead of rejecting what it says in favor of
what it does not say?
Second, a theory, hypothesis or speculative interpretation should never be used to
overturn the clear teaching of Scripture. The whole idea that Jesus was setting forth his
approbation of human traditions is an argument from silence. It is not founded upon the text but
on the uninspired Mishnah which was composed by unbelieving Jews in A.D. 189.
(Commentators are not in agreement regarding these passages. In fact, most commentators do
not believe that our Lord was comparing himself to certain rituals but rather was comparing
104 F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 181.
himself to events in the book of Exodus (the water from the rock [Ex. 17:6; Nu. 20:7-11] and the
pillar of fire [Ex. 13:21-22]).105 Perhaps we should heed Hengstenberg’s comment. He writes, “Itis needless to spend time in forming hypotheses, externally accounting for the saying of our
Lord, by the rising of the sun, the kindling of the lamps in the temple, etc. If anything significantof this kind had taken place, the Apostle would not have left us to guess about it.”106
Third, even if Jesus did make his statements to coincide with certain Jewish rituals, it
does not mean that he approved of man-made additions. If a pastor (who happens to be anti-
Christmas) passes out gospel tracts at the shopping mall in December, or preaches in the malland refers to Christ’s work of redemption as a gift from God, it does not mean that he approvesof Christmas. One should be careful not to read something into a passage that is not there.
Fourth, a more logical and scriptural inference from these passages is not that he was approving
of their additions but rather that he was teaching that the law and the prophets did not point to
silly rituals but to himself.107 Contrary to modern popular opinion, Jesus was neither a Pharisee
or a papist.
But what about the argument that says, “If Jesus was a strict regulativist, would he nothave physically attacked the priests and Levites of the temple who were adding to God’s word as
he had earlier done with the money changers?” The argument that Christ would have attackedthe priests and Levites if he believed in the regulative principle is based on an ignorance of
Scripture. Jesus did not come to earth as a civil judge (cf. Luke 12:13-14; John 8:1-11). Hisopinion of Pharisaical additions to God’s law was well known through his teaching (e.g., Mt5:17-6:8; 15:2-9; 23:1-36; etc.). If Jesus became angry and resorted to whips every time he
encountered sin, he would have had little time to preach the gospel, which was his primary
didactic mission. Further, the priests and Levites were not common merchants or money
changers; they held positions of authority. If our Lord had attacked them, he would have: (1)
105 Leon Morris writes, “Yet, just as the reference to the water in ch.7 seems to point us back to the rock in thewilderness rather than to the pouring of water from the golden pitcher, so the light may refer us to the pillar of fire in
the wilderness. We have noted the reference to the manna in ch. 6, so that in three successive chapters the wildernessimagery seems consistently used to illustrate aspects of Jesus’ Person and work. It must always be borne in mind
that light is a common theme in both Old and New Testaments, so that it is not necessary for us to find the source ofJesus’ great saying in any non-biblical places’ (The Gospel According to John [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971],
437). R. C. H. Lenski writes, “Maimonides states that this ceremony took place every evening during the feast,others are sure that it occurred only on the first evening. The main difficulty in connecting the word of Jesus with
this ceremony is that it leaves out an essential part of the figure. Those candelabra were stationary, and men dancedin the courts, while Jesus speaks of a movable light: ‘he that follows me.’ We may say more. In 7:37, when Jesus
calls those that ‘thirst’ and bids them come to him and ‘drink,’ he does not stop with the ceremony of drawing water
from Siloah and pouring it out at the altar, in which no quenching of thirst by drinking is pictured; he reaches back
to the original blessing received at Meribah where the thirsty actually received water to drink. He does the same
here. One of the great blessings during the desert sojourn of Israel was the pillar of cloud and of fire, evidence of thepresence of Jehovah with his people” (St. John’s Gospel [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961], pp. 593-594).
106 E. W. Hengstenberg, Commentary on the Gospel of John (Minneapolis: Klock and Klock, 1980 ), 1:429.107 Hengstenberg writes, “The feast was not only one of thanksgiving, it was also one of hope; and of this latteraspect of it, Isa. xii. 3 was the appropriate text. Jesus declares Himself to be the water of salvation, announced by the
prophet Isaiah; and Isaiah himself gave the warrant for doing so. The connection of the springs of salvation with the
person of the Messiah is plain from the relation of ch. xii. to ch. xi., where all the salvation of the future is bond up
with the person of the Messiah. And what Isaiah said in ch. xii. concerning the waters of salvation, receives itsconsummation also in ch. iv. 1, to which the words ‘ean tis dipsa poeto’ definitely allude: comp. on ch. vi. 45, iv.14” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1:405). Brooke Foss Westcott writes, Nothing can prove more clearly the
intimate relation between the teaching recorded by St. John and the Old Testament than the manner in which Christis shown to transfer to Himself the figures of the Exodus (the brazen serpent, the manna, the water, the fiery pillar)”(The Gospel According to St. John [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980], 277).
been committing an act of revolution; (2) precipitated a riot at the temple; (3) prematurely
endangered his own life and the lives of his disciples; and (4) possibly even been arrested by the
Roman authorities. Jesus dealt with apostate priests and Levites in A.D. 70; however, while on
earth he respected lawful governing authorities (cf. Mt. 23:2-3; Ac. 23:1-5). The opponents of
the regulative principle are once again grasping after straw.
6. The “Feast of Purim” Argument
Perhaps the most popular argument in support of human traditions in worship is based on
the Feast of Purim. It is argued that the Jews without any command or special revelation from
God made up their own holy day; therefore, the church can make up its own holy days such as
Christmas and Easter. There are a number of problems with this argument.
First, this argument assumes without evidence that Purim was a special holy day like
Christmas. The biblical text makes it abundantly clear that Purim was not a special religious holy
day but rather was a time of thanksgiving. The events of Purim are: “Joy and gladness, a feast
and good day...and of sending portions to one another, and gifts to the poor” (Est. 8:17; 9:22
kjv). “There is no mention of any religious observance connected with the day.”108 There were
no special worship services, there were no ceremonies, there were no Levitical or priestly
activities. Also, Purim—unlike Christmas and Easter—was not an admixture of pagan and
popish monuments and paraphernalia with the religion of Jehovah. Purim should not be
compared to popish holy days, such as Christmas, but to special days of rejoicing such as
Thanksgiving day. The Westminster divines (who were champions of the regulative principle)
used Purim as a proof text (Est. 9:22) authorizing occasional days of thanksgiving (cf.
Confession of Faith 21.5, proof text a).
Second, Purim did not come about because the people or church officials got together anddecided to make up a holy day. It came about because of a unique historical event in Israel’ssalvation history. The festival was decreed by the civil magistrate (the prime minister, Mordecai,
and the queen, Esther). Religious leaders had nothing to do with it. After the civil decree, it wasagreed to unanimously by the people. Thomas M’Crie writes,
Did Mordecai, in proposing it, act from the private notion of his own mind; and,
in confirming it, did he proceed entirely upon the consent of the people? Or was he
guided in both by divine and extraordinary counsel, imparted to him immediately, or by
some prophetic person living at that time? That the vision and the prophecy were still
enjoyed by the Jews dwelling in Persia, cannot be denied by those who believe the
canonical authority of this book, and what is contained in that of Ezra. We have already
seen reasons for thinking Mordecai acted under the influence of the faith of Moses’parents, from the time that he proposed his cousin Esther as a candidate to succeed Vashti
the queen. There can be no doubt that he was raised up in an extraordinary manner as a
saviour to Israel; and in the course of this Lecture we have seen grounds for believing
that, in addition to his other honours, he was employed as the penman of this portion of
inspired scripture. From all these considerations, it is reasonable to conclude that the feast
of Purim was not instituted without divine counsel and approbation. Add to this, that the
108 J. P. Lewis, “Feasts” in Merrill C. Tenney, ed., The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids:
Zondervan, 1975, 1976), 2:525.
decree of Esther confirming it, it is expressly said, in the close of this chapter, to have
been engrossed in this book, by whomsoever it was written.109
Note, the occasion and authorization of Purim are inscripturated in the word of God and
approved by the Holy Spirit. Thus, Purim itself satisfied the requirement of the regulative
principle as biblically defined.
Third, the notion that Purim proves that men are permitted to make up holy days
whenever they desire cannot be true, for if it were, Scripture would contain a blatant
contradiction. Not only would it contradict the passages which teach that we are not permitted to
add to what God has authorized (e.g. Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Prov. 30:5; etc.); it also would contradictthe book of Kings where God condemned King Jeroboam for setting up a feast day “in the month
which he had devised in his own heart” (1 Kgs. 12:33). Not even kings have authority to makeup their own holy days. M’Crie writes,
To seek a warrant for days of religious commemoration under the gospel from
the Jewish festivals, is not only to overlook the distinction between the old and new
dispensations, but to forget that the Jews were never allowed to institute such memorial
for themselves, but simply to keep those which infinite Wisdom had expressly and by
name set apart and sanctified. The prohibitory sanction is equally strict under bothTestaments: ‘What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not addthereto, nor diminish from it.’
There are times when God calls, on the one hand, to religious fasting, or, on the
other, to thanksgiving and religious joy; and it is our duty to comply with these calls, and
to set apart time for the respective exercises. But this is quite a different thing from
recurrent or anniversary holidays. In the former case the day is chosen for the duty, in the
latter the duty is performed for the day; in the former case there is no holiness on the day
but what arises from the service which is performed on it, and when the same day
afterwards recurs, it is as common as any other day; in the latter case the day is set apart
on all following times, and may not be employed for common or secular purposes. Stated
and recurring festivals countenance the false principle, that some days have a peculiar
sanctity, either inherent or impressed by the works which occurred on them; they proceed
on an undue assumption of human authority; interfere with the free use of that time which
the Creator hath granted to man; detract from the honour due to the day of sacred rest
which he hath appointed; lead to impositions over conscience; have been the fruitful
source of superstition and idolatry; and have been productive of the worst effects upon
morals, in every age, and among every people, barbarous and civilized, pagan and
Christian, popish and protestant, among whom they have been observed. On these
grounds they were rejected from the beginning, among other corruptions of antichrist, by
the Reformed Church of Scotland, which allowed no stated religious days but the
Christian Sabbath. 110
7. The “Misrepresentation of the Regulative Principle” Argument
A rather common method of circumventing the regulative principle today is to give it a
false definition that is scripturally and rationally indefensible. After defining the regulative
principle in this manner, the opponents of sola scriptura over worship then proceed to make their
109 Thomas M’Crie, Lectures on the Book of Esther (New York: Robert Carter, 1838), 287-288.110 Ibid. 298-300.
false straw-man version of the regulative principle look totally absurd. The false version of theregulative principle that is used is: “If it is not commanded, it is forbidden.” In other words, theremust be an explicit divine imperative for every worship ordinance in the church. Fundamentalist
Baptists argue in this manner when they say, “Where are we commanded in the Bible to baptize
infants?” Seventh-day Adventists follow this tactic when they say, “Show us where God
commanded the apostolic church to rest and worship on Sunday instead of Saturday!” Anti-
regulativists use arguments such as: (a) the worship of the synagogue was never commanded by
God; (b) Christ and the apostles attended and approved of synagogue worship; therefore, Christ
and the apostles rejected the regulative principle.111
Once a person understands the true definition of the regulative principle, he will
immediately recognize that the objections to Reformed worship offered by Baptists, Seventh-day
Adventists and anti-regulativists are not based on Scripture, but on an ignorance of the regulativeprinciple itself. Although it is not uncommon to see a regulativist give a statement such as “if it
is not commanded, it is forbidden” as a brief statement or summary of the principle, theWestminster Confession and virtually all Reformed authors define the regulative principle in a
much broader fashion. The regulative principle refers not just to explicit commands of Scripture,
but also to approved historical examples within the Bible and to good and necessary
consequence, i.e., a particular worship practice or ordinance is inferred from many passages of
The Confession and various Reformed authors will prove that the genuine, historic and
confessional understanding of the regulative principle is broad and easily defended by Scripture.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (1.6) says,
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory,man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good andnecessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time
is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.
Nevertheless we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be
necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and
that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the
Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of
nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are
always to be observed.
For the Westminster divines, sola scriptura is the natural starting point for the regulative
principle as a spring is to a stream. There can be no question whatsoever but that the phrase
111 Let us briefly examine the writings of an independent Calvinistic minister who opposes Reformed worship. Hewrites, “The very existence of the synagogue, however, undoes the regulativist’s position! For he knows that thesynagogues existed. And he knows that Christ and the Apostles regularly worshiped at synagogues without so much
as a breath of suggestion that they were institutionally or liturgically illegitimate. And he knows that he cannot find
so much as a sliver of a Divine commandment concerning what ought to be done in the synagogue. And, according
to his principle, if God commanded naught concerning what ought to be done, then all was forbidden. And if all was
forbidden, then the whole of it—institution and liturgy—was a sinful abomination. But that brings him back to
Christ attending upon the service of God there and Christ following its liturgy: did He sin by participating in anentire order of worship that was without express divine warrant? The thought is blasphemy!” (Steve Schlissel, “All I
Really Need to Know About Worship I Don’t Learn from the Regulative Principle,” Part 1, in Messiah’s Mandate,
“good and necessary consequence” applies to the worship and government of the church. To
argue otherwise would render the section on the “circumstances concerning the worship of God
and government of the church” totally out of place.
John Owen, in his essay, “The Word of God the Sole Rule of Worship,” deals with an
opponent of Puritanism, Samuel Parker. Owen says that Parker considers the “foundation of all
Puritanism” to be this principle: “That nothing ought to be established in the worship of God butwhat is authorized by some precept or example in the Word of God, which is the complete andadequate rule of worship.”112 This accurate definition was formulated by Parker by reading theavailable Puritan literature of his day (the seventeenth century).
Robert Shaw writes,
In maintaining the perfection of the Scriptures, we do not insist that every article
of religion is contained in Scriptures in so many words; but we hold that conclusions
fairly deduced from the declarations of the Word of God are as truly parts of divine
revelation as if they were expressly taught in the Sacred Volume. That good and
necessary consequences deduced from Scripture are to be received as part of the rule of
our faith and practice, is evident from the example of our Saviour in proving the doctrine
of the resurrection against the Sadducees,—Matt. xxii. 31,32; and from the example of
Paul, who proved that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, by reasoning with the Jews out of
the Old Testament Scriptures.—Acts xvii. 2, 3. “All Scripture” is declared to be“profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness;” butall these ends cannot be obtained, unless by the deduction of consequences. Legitimate
consequences, indeed, only bring out the full meaning of the words of Scripture; and as
we are endued with the faculty of reason, and commanded to search the Scriptures, it was
manifestly intended that we should draw conclusions from what is therein set down in
Hetherington writes, “They [the Scottish Reformers] dared, therefore, to conclude that Divine
authority might be rightfully claimed, not only for the direct statements contained in the
Scriptures, but also for whatsoever could be deduced from Scripture by just and necessaryinference.”114
Francis Petticrew writes,
A practice about a mere matter of detail, a mere circumstance, a thing held by the
Church to be indifferent, immaterial, and on purpose left open, does not constitute
common law. But a practice founded on a principle does to all intents and purposes
constitute common law. And this is the character of the practice of this Church in
excluding the use of instrumental music in the worship of God. That principle was
substantially this, that for all the constituents of worship, you require the positive
sanction of divine authority, either in the shape of direct command, or good and
necessary consequence, or approved example; and that you are not at liberty to introduce
112 Samuel Parker quoted in John Owen, “The Word of God the Sole Rule of Worship” in Works (Carlisle, PA:Banner of Truth, 1967 ), 13:462.
113 Robert Shaw, Exposition of the Confession of Faith (Edmonton, AB, Canada: Still Waters Revival, n.d. ),
114 W. M. Hetherington, History of the Church of Scotland (Edinburgh, Scotland, 1848), 1:15.
anything else in connection with the worship of God, unless it comes legitimately underthe apostolic heading of “decency and order.”115
James H. Thornwell writes, “We have not been able to lay our hands upon a single PuritanConfession of Faith which does not explicitly teach that necessary inferences from Scripture are
of equal authority with its express statements: nor have we found a single Puritan writer, having
occasion to allude to the subject, who has not explicitly taught the same things. The principle of
inference they have unanimously affirmed. Our own Confession of Faith—and surely that is a
Puritan document—does it, in a passage already cited.”116
John L. Girardeau writes, “A divine warrant is necessary for every element of doctrine,government and worship in the church; that is, whatsoever in these spheres is not commanded in
the Scriptures, either expressly or by good and necessary consequence from their statements, is
A. A. Hodge writes,
That, while the Scriptures are a complete rule of faith and practice, and while
nothing is to be regarded as an article of faith to be believed, or a religious duty
obligatory upon the conscience, which is not explicitly or implicitly taught in Scripture,
nevertheless they do not descend in practical matters into details, but, laying down
general principles, leave men to apply them in the exercise of their natural judgment, in
the light of experience, and in adaptation to changing circumstances, as they are guided
by the sanctifying influences of the Holy Spirit.
This liberty, of course, is allowed only within the limits of the strict interpretation
of the principles taught in the Word, and in the legitimate application of those principles,
and applies to the regulation of the practical life of the individual and of the Church, in
detailed adjustments to changing circumstances.118
B. B. Warfield writes,
It must be observed, however, that the teachings and prescriptions of Scriptureare not confined by the Confession to what is “expressly set down in Scripture.” Men are
required to believe and to obey not only what is “expressly set down in Scripture,” but
also what “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” This isthe strenuous and universal contention of the Reformed theology against Socinians and
Arminians, who desired to confine the authority of Scripture to its literal asservations;
and it involves a characteristic honoring of reason as the instrument for the ascertainment
of truth. We must depend upon our human faculties to ascertain what Scripture says; we
cannot suddenly abnegate them and refuse their guidance in determining what Scripture
115 Francis Petticrew, “Speech of the mover of the report to the General Assembly, 1873” in James Glasgow, Heart
and Voice: Instrumental Music in Christian Worship Not Divinely Authorized (Belfast: C. Aitchison; J. Cleeland,
n.d.), 4-5. Glasgow adds the following footnote: “Not religious circumstances entering into and blending with
worship, but men’s mere social circumstances, as of times, places, persons, &c” (Ibid, 5).
116 James H. Thornwell, “Boards and Presbyterianism” in Collected Writings (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1974), 4:255.
117 John L. Girardeau, Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church (Havertown, PA: New Covenant
Publication Society, 1980 ), 9.
118 A. A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1961 ), 39.
means. This is not, of course, to make reason the ground of the authority of inferred
doctrines and duties. Reason is the instrument of discovery of all doctrines and duties,whether “expressly set down in Scripture” or “by good and necessary consequence
deduced from Scripture”: but their authority, when once discovered, is derived from God,who reveals and prescribes them in Scripture, either by literal assertion or by necessary
implication. The Confession is only zealous, as it declares that only Scripture is the
authoritative rule of faith and practice, so to declare that the whole of Scripture is
authoritative in the whole stretch of its involved meaning. It is the Reformed contention,
reflected here by the Confession, that the sense of Scripture is Scripture, and that men are
bound by its whole sense in all its implications. The reemergence in recent controversies
of the plea that the authority of Scripture is to be confined to its expressed declarations,
and that human logic is not to be trusted in divine things, is, therefore, a direct denial of a
fundamental position of Reformed theology, explicitly affirmed in the Confession, as
well as an abnegation of fundamental reason, which would not only render thinking in a
system impossible, but would discredit at a stroke many of the fundamentals of the faith,
such e.g. as the doctrine of the Trinity, and would logically involve the denial of the
authority of all doctrine whatsoever, since no single doctrine of whatever simplicity can
be ascertained from Scripture except by the use of the processes of the understanding. It
is, therefore, an unimportant incident that the recent plea against the use of human logic
in determining doctrine has been most sharply put forward in order to reject a doctrine
which is explicitly taught, and that repeatedly, in the very letter of Scripture; if the plea is
valid at all, it destroys at once our confidence in all doctrines, no one of which is
ascertained or formulated without the aid of human logic.119
William S. McClure writes, “God’s commands are either explicit, clearly stated, or they areimplicit, implied as a logical, necessary inference from authoritative example, such as that ofChrist or His Apostles.”120
William Young writes, “The mode of prescription need not be that of explicit command in singletext of Scripture. Approved example warrants an element of worship as surely as does an express
precept. Moreover, good and necessary consequence may warrant acceptable worship. Without
entering upon disputed questions as to the proper subjects of baptism, all would agree thatScripture warrants the admission of women to the Lord’s table, although no express command or
approved example can be adduced.”121
Michael Bushell writes,
When we say that each element of worship requires a divine warrant, we do not
mean that an explicit command in a single text is required in every instance.
Commandment in the narrow sense of the term is not necessary to establish divine
prescription. Approved example or inference from relevant scriptural data is sufficient to
determine the proper manner of worship. The Confession of Faith clearly operates on theassumption that principles derived from the Word by “good and necessary consequence”
119 B. B. Warfield, “The Westminster Doctrine of Holy Scripture,” in Works (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981 ),
6:226-227 (originally published in The Presbyterian and Reformed Review iv , 582-655).
120 William S. McClure, “The Scriptural Law of Worship” in John McNaugher, ed., The Psalms in Worship(Edmonton, AB: Canada; Still Waters Revival Books, 1992 ), 33.
121 William Young, The Puritan Principle of Worship (Vienna, Va.: Publication Committee of the Presbyterian
Reformed Church, n.d.), 10.
are every bit as binding upon us as those “expressly set down in Scripture.” It isremarkable that there is so much confusion in Reformed circles concerning the validity of
this essential principle.... The assumed validity and binding character of argument by
inference from Scripture is an essential part of the life of every Christian and lies at the
base of every statement of doctrine or belief that goes beyond the express words of
Scripture. Certainly we may want from time to time to question the validity of inferences
which some people draw, but that is a different question altogether from that of whether
or not the church may bind the conscience of a believer on the basis of an inference from
It is important that one understand the proper, broad interpretation of the regulative
principle, for anti-regulativists often point to historical examples in the Bible as proof texts
against sola scriptura over worship. When an anti-regulativist comes to a worship practice in the
Bible that does not have a prior inscripturated divine imperative behind it, it is assumed that
such practices must have originated from human tradition. When a Puritan or Reformed
regulativist encounters a worship practice that is approved by God, yet is not accompanied by an
explicit command, it is assumed (based on the analogy of Scripture) that such a practice is based
on some prior revelation that did not make it into the canon. For example, John Owen writes,
For a long time God was pleased to guide his church in many concerns of his
worship by fresh occasional revelations, even from the giving of the first promise unto
Adam unto the solemn giving of the law of Moses; for although men had, in process of
time, many stated revelations, that were preserved by tradition among them, as the first
promise, the institution of sacrifices, and the like, yet as to sundry emergencies of his
worship, and parts of it, God guided them by new occasional revelations. Now, those
revelations not being recorded in Scriptures, as being only for present or emergent use,
we have no way to know them but by what those to whom God was pleased to reveal
himself did practice, and which, on good testimony, found acceptance with him.
Whatever they so did, they had especial warrant from God for; which is the case of the
great institution of sacrifices itself. It is a sufficient argument that they were divinely
instituted, because they were graciously accepted.123
Opponents of the regulative principle argue that the Puritan or Reformed understanding of“approved historical examples” is an argument of begging the question (i.e., assuming that whichone sets out to prove); or, that it is an argument from silence; or, that regulativists are guilty of
forcing the evidence to fit their own faulty starting point. All these objections, however, are
easily refuted if one understands necessary inference from Scripture and follows standard
Protestant procedures of interpretation.
One of the most fundamental principles of biblical interpretation is that Scripture cannot
contradict itself. Another important principle is that when two or more passages seem to
122 Michael Bushell, The Songs of Zion (Pittsburgh, PA: Crown and Covenant, 1993 ), 122-123. Note also
Brian M. Schwertley, The Regulative Principle of Worship and Christmas: “Whatever is not commanded inScripture is forbidden. Anything that the church does in worship must have warrant from an explicit command of
God, be deduced by good and necessary consequence, or be derived from approved historical example (e.g., thechange of day from seventh to first for Lord’s Day corporate worship)” (Southfield, MI: Reformed Witness, 1996),4.
123 John Owen, “The Word of God the Sole Rule of Worship” in Works (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 1967
contradict each other, the clearer portions of Scripture should be used to interpret the less clear.
If one follows these interpretive rules, determining which understanding of an approved
historical example is biblical will be simple.
Note the many reasons why the regulativist approach must be accepted. (1) There areseveral passages in the Bible which unequivocally condemn adding to God’s law-word (e.g.,
Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Prov. 30:5). (2) Man is not permitted autonomously to determine his own
ethics, theology or worship. (3) There are also passages where both Christ (e.g., Mt. 15:2-9; Mk.
7:1-13) and Paul (e.g., Col. 2:20-23) condemn human traditions in worship. These passages are
not hard to understand. Indeed, they are crystal clear, if one is willing to accept what they say.
Given the clear teaching of Scripture regarding adding human traditions to ethics or worship,
what interpretation should one choose when one encounters Jesus or the apostles engaging in
worship that is not specifically discussed in the Old Testament Scriptures?
If one argues that Jesus by his attendance at synagogue was endorsing human traditions
in worship, then one has chosen an interpretation which contradicts clear portions of Scripture. If
one argues that the sola scriptura and regulative principle passages must be reinterpreted in light
of passages such as Jesus attending synagogue worship or the change of public worship to
Sunday, then one is guilty of using passages which do not even speak directly to the issue of
human tradition in worship (and thus are not clear passages) to overthrow the clear passages that
do speak directly to the issue of human additions. When regulativists approach passages where
God accepts the worship offered, yet there are no accompanying divine imperatives, they do not
simply argue from silence or impose an arbitrary starting point or assumption on the text.
Instead, they stand upon the overall clear teaching regarding worship and therefore legitimatelyinfer that what God accepts cannot be “the doctrines and commandments of men.”
The regulativist position is not only supported by standard biblical hermeneutical
procedures but is also supported by an inspired New Testament interpretation of an Old
Testament worship practice that was not accompanied by any inscripturated divine commands.
Genesis 4:3-5 says, “And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering ofthe fruit of the ground to the LORD. Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their
fat. And the LORD respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering.And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.” In this passage Abel’s blood sacrifice isaccepted, while Cain’s bloodless plant offering is not. Note, there are no previously recordeddivine imperatives regarding blood sacrifice in the book of Genesis. If one applies the same anti-
regulativist interpretation to this passage that has been used of Jesus and the synagogue service,then one would have to conclude that God preferred Abel’s human tradition over Cain’s. Theauthor of Hebrews implicitly rejects the anti-regulativist’s interpretation when he says that “byfaith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain” (Heb. 11:4). Biblical faithpresupposes divine revelation. Throughout Hebrews 11 true faith is spoken of as a belief inGod’s word that results in obedience to God’s revealed will. Any idea that Abel’s offering wasbased on reason alone, or that God’s acceptance of the blood sacrifice was arbitrary or based on
the subjective state of Abel’s heart alone, must be rejected as unscriptural. John Brown concurs,
Though we have no particular account of the institution of sacrifice, the theory of
its originating in express divine appointment is the only tenable one. The idea of
expressing religious feelings, or of expiating sin, by shedding the blood of animals, could
never have entered into the mind of man. We read that God clothed our first parents with
the skin of animals, and by far the most probable account of this matter is, that these were
the skins of animals which He had commanded them to offer in sacrifice. We have
already seen, in our illustrations of the ninth chapter, ver. 16, that all divine covenants, all
merciful arrangements in reference to fallen man, have been ratified by sacrifice. The
declaration of mercy contained in the first promise seems to have been accompanied with
the institution of expiatory sacrifice. And expiatory sacrifice, when offered from a faith in
the divine revelation in reference to it, was acceptable to God, both as the appointed
expression of conscious guilt and ill desert, and of the hope of mercy, and as an act of
obedience to the divine will. It would appear that this revelation was not believed by
Cain, that he did not see and feel the need for expiatory sacrifice, and that his religion
consisted merely in an acknowledgment of the Deity as the author of the benefits which
he enjoyed. Abel, on the other hand, did believe the revelation. He readily acknowledges
himself a sinner, and expresses his penitence and his hope of forgiveness in the way ofGod’s appointment. Believing what God has said, he did what God had enjoined.124
The Hebrews 11:4 passage offers indisputable biblical proof that acceptable worship cannot be
based on a human tradition which involves, not a faith in God and his infallible Word, but a faithin man’s wisdom and imagination. Acceptable worship can only be based on faith in divinerevelation. Therefore, when one notes that Noah offered clean animals, or that the apostles
observed a first-day Sabbath, or that Jesus and Paul read and exposited the Scriptures in the
synagogue (all without accompanying explicit divine imperatives), one should never assume that
these accepted worship practices were based on human tradition. They were based on faith in the
spoken word of God. 125
Summary and Conclusion
This study regarding sola scriptura and its relation to the regulative principle of worship
has proved a number of important assertions.
First, it has shown that the scriptural law of worship formulated by the Calvinistic
reformers and set forth in all the Reformed creeds and confessions is thoroughly biblical.
Reformed worship should be embraced by all professing Christians. Those men who mock the
124 John Brown, Hebrews (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1963 ), 493-494.
125 One objection to the Puritan and Reformed concept of approved historical examples from Scripture is that it is
pharisaical and Romish. It is argued that when Reformed theologians assume that historical examples are based on
prior revelation that was not inscripturated, they are advocating a form of binding and normative oral tradition. This
comparison with Pharisees and Romanists is a clever yet unwarranted ad hominem attack. The Pharisees and Roman
Catholics were and are guilty of adding their own doctrines and commandments to what the Bible teaches. They
justify their additions to the Scripture by advocating a source of divine revelation which is independent of the Bible.
The Jews have their Talmud (which in English translation runs to 34 large volumes) and the Roman Catholics have
the church fathers, councils, decrees and papal declarations. Puritan and Reformed pastors and theologians add
nothing of their own to the doctrine or commandment of Scripture. They do not believe in any independent sources
of revelation outside of the Bible. They simply infer from the Bible itself that in the few cases where God is
described as accepting worship practices that are not accompanied with explicit instructions, the people involved
(such as Abel [Gen. 4:4] or Noah [Gen. 8:20]) had based their practice on a previous communication by God. As
noted above, the Reformed interpretation is a necessary inference from Scripture. Approved historical examples
come only from the text of Scripture, and not from any Pharisaical or Romish type of independent oral tradition. It is
one thing to infer a communication based on a particular text of Scripture, and quite another to posit with absolutely
no biblical evidence that God spoke the whole Talmud to Moses on Mount Sinai. Opponents of the regulative
principle are comparing apples to oranges, and they know it. Who has more in common with a Pharisee or
Romanist? Someone who adds his own human traditions to what God has authorized? Or someone who refuses toadd to God’s word?
regulative principle and who urge Reformed believers to abandon this crucial pillar of the
Reformation should not be heeded at all. (Indeed, they should be intellectually honest and join an
Second, an analysis of non-Reformed views of worship has uncovered a number of
insurmountable theological, exegetical, logical and ethical problems that are intrinsic to all such
(1) The idea that men are permitted to add to the worship authorized by God in his word
contradicts the express teaching of Scripture. There is simply no way that men can circumvent
the plain meaning of the sola scriptura passages without ignoring or altering their obvious
contextual and historical meaning. Jehovah says, “Do not add or detract from what I have
commanded.” There is nothing complex or difficult or esoteric regarding the regulative passages.A charge that is so often made is that the regulative principle itself is a human addition to
Scripture. This charge is totally unfounded. God says, “Do not add or detract,” and thereforeregulativists refuse to add or detract. The regulative principle is simply a theological restatementof the plain teaching of God’s word. To those who regard the regulative principle as an
unbiblical addition, we ask: How can a strict obedience to what the Bible teaches be wrong? Has
the church been harmed when she followed the teaching of Scripture without turning to the right
or to the left? Are regulativists guilty of sin when they refuse to obey the traditions of men thathave no warrant from God’s word? Can a church member be disciplined for refusing toparticipate in a man-made ritual? If the answer to this question is yes, then please explain how a
Christian can be disciplined when nothing in Scripture was violated. Romanists and prelatists
have an answer to this question. However, we do not heed the words of Antichrist.
(2) The idea that men are permitted to add their own innovations to authorized worship is
also a denial of the sufficiency and perfection of God’s word. Are the ordinances that God hasgiven to the church sufficient or are they inadequate? If one believes that they are not sufficient,
then please identify what is lacking. If one believes that the Scriptures are sufficient, then why
add worship ordinances that are not needed? Also, please explain how the doctrines andcommandments of men can perfect God’s word and lead to edification. Did not the apostle Paulwarn the church that human commandments are not real wisdom and do not sanctify (Col. 2:23)?
What would a great painter such as Claude Monet (1840-1926) have thought if imbeciles andchildren were given paints and then permitted to alter and “perfect” his paintings as they saw fit?Such acts would be the height of stupidity and arrogance. Yet men do far worse when they add to
the holy, sufficient and perfect Scriptures of God.
(3) Non-Reformed theories do not properly take into account God’s nature and character(e.g., his infinite holiness, majesty, righteousness, etc.), and man’s sinful nature. The idea thatmen (even regenerate men) after the fall can acceptably approach in worship a thrice-holy God
on their own terms, according to their own rules, is contrary to Scripture and sanctified common
sense. James Begg writes,
Man as a sinner, as all true Christians will admit, has no right to approachinto God’s presence at all. The amity which previously existed in Eden was
broken up by the Fall. God “drove out the man,” and He alone is entitled to saywhether, and on what conditions, he shall ever again be permitted to approach His
throne. It is manifest presumption on the part of fallen creatures to dictate to God
either that there shall be worship at all or what form it shall assume. In entering
the courts of earthly monarchs, even where a right to enter is conceded, every rule
and form of the court must be carefully observed; and far more is this important in
entering, by gracious permission, into the immediate presence of the King of
kings and Lord of lords.126
The worship of Jehovah must be sincere, through Jesus Christ, and it must be of divine
appointment. Fallen human reason should never have an independent creative role in
determining doctrine, ethics, or worship ordinances. It must be totally dependent on Scripture.
(4) It is impossible for men to impose human innovations in public worship withoutviolating their congregants’ Christian liberty. All man-made rites and ceremonies in public
worship invariably involve some type of human compulsion. Believers are commanded by God
to attend Sabbath day public worship. When bishops, pastors or sessions place a man-made rite
or ceremony in the public worship service, they force their congregants either: a) to participate in
non-authorized will worship or, b) to separate themselves from the unbiblical corruptions. The
non-regulativists’ idea that human traditions are permissible in public worship (from thestandpoint of Christian liberty) can only be defended in two ways, both of which are unbiblical
One method of defense is to argue that God has given the church a power independent of
Scripture. In other words, not only can bishops, pastors and sessions add their own inventions to
public worship, they also have an authority to order church members (under the threat of
discipline and excommunication, if necessary) to submit to the new human ordinances. This
position is nothing less than popery and prelacy at its worst. (This author is unaware of any anti-regulativist “Reformed” or “Presbyterian” writers who have used such a blatantly Romanist
The most common defense is that humanly devised rites and ceremonies are within the
sphere of adiaphora or matters indifferent. The problem with this view is that it is based on a
false, arbitrary definition of adiaphora. What are indifferent matters? For something to be
indifferent, it must be: (1) a matter that is not determinable or required by Scripture, (2)
something that is truly circumstantial to worship and not an element or essential part of it, (3)
something that is optional or voluntary or (4) something that is unnecessary (i.e., something that
can be eliminated at any time, unlike prayer, preaching, the Lord’s Supper, etc.). When acongregation adds a human tradition to the public worship service, that practice cannot honestly
be regarded as adiaphora, for, (1) as part of the service it is no longer optional or voluntary,
unless one leaves or refuses to attend; (2) it is placed alongside of and receives the same
treatment as commanded elements; (3) it is part of essential worship or (4) as part of public
worship it is enforced by implicit and/or explicit compulsion. Although churches may refer to
human traditions as adiaphora to justify their use in public worship, they never act as if the
additions are indifferent in practice. When words are defined in an arbitrary manner, one can
prove any proposition. The adiaphora argument is an excuse founded upon a lie.127
126 James Begg, Anarchy in Worship, 4-5.
127 There are other serious problems with the non-regulativist position that need to be addressed. A very serious
problem that every Christian should note from Scripture and church history is that human additions to the ethics,
worship, doctrine, or church government set forth in the Bible invariably drive out what God has warranted in favor
of the man-made traditions. What happens is that men simply do not have the self-restraint to carefully limit their
own traditions. An innovation is added here and there and these new additions eventually become loved and“indispensable” to the church governors and their congregations. A few man-made traditions may not seem to be
much of a problem at first, but one must keep in mind that the church is a very old institution. Over time man-made
innovations accumulate until the doctrine and worship of a church are radically changed. Over many generations so
Third, an analysis of the most common objections to the regulative principle has shown
that these objections are not based on a careful exegesis of Scripture but upon
misunderstandings, misrepresentations and pure speculation. Some arguments are founded upon
a misunderstanding of the sola scriptura passages and adiaphora. Others are based on a false
definition of the regulative principle. Similarly, others are dependent upon a false understanding
of the circumstances of worship. Most arguments, however, are based on pure speculation.
Theories are developed using extra-biblical materials (e.g., the Mishnah) and then are imposed
upon the passage of Scripture in question.
The doctrine of sola scriptura and the regulative principle of worship must be taught,
emphasized, and rigorously defended in our day of declension, ignorance and apathy. The heroic
struggle by men such as Calvin, Knox, Melville, the English Puritans and Scottish Covenanters
for the reformation of worship must continue. This point cannot be too strongly pressed in the
present day when biblical worship is attacked from all sides; when the greatest opponents of
Reformed worship come from the supposedly Reformed and theonomic camp. Such men, indefiance of Scripture, seek to “improve” the worship of God by their own inventions. They seekto remove the liberty that we have in Christ from the doctrines, commandments and traditions of
men. They arrogantly mock the Reformation attainments of our spiritual forefathers. These so-
called teachers of the law offer us human autonomy and the tyranny of church officials, all in the
name of Christian liberty. What is the “weighty” evidence that is offered to lead us to abandonour creeds and confessions in favor of adding human traditions to worship? It is primarily
speculations founded upon the Mishnah. A love of human traditions has caused many normally
competent teachers and scholars to resort to exegetical gymnastics and twisted reasonings of the
worst sort. Our best defense against all such Romanizing arguments is a vigorous offense. The
great truth of sola scriptura taught and accompanied by the Spirit of God will penetrate the mists
of confusion and ignorance, rending asunder the pillars of popery and prelacy. To secure this
great end, let us earnestly work and pray.
John Calvin and the Regulative Principle
John Calvin (1609-1564) was the greatest theologian and expositor of Scripture of the
Protestant Reformation. Through the theological academy at Geneva and his abundant writings,
Calvin did more to shape the doctrine and worship of Presbyterian, Reformed and Puritan
churches than anyone else. Calvin’s teaching regarding worship is clearly reflected in all the
many man-made doctrines, commandments and worship innovations are added to the church that pure gospel
worship, and even the gospel itself, is obscured and even lost. This has happened in different degrees to Judaism,
Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, evangelicalism and even many Reformed churches. People who reject the
regulative principle do not have any solid limiting factor upon their additions. How many innovations are
acceptable? When should we stop adding more? Pastors who argue against the regulative principle say that there isno need for concern, “the session will keep the additions under control.” The truth, however, is that apart from theregulative principle it is almost impossible to get rid of human traditions. Once a tradition is loved and accepted by a
congregation (e.g., Christmas), woe unto the pastor who attempts to rid the church of such non-commanded
elements! The only dependable, safe method for avoiding man-made corruptions is to draw the line on worship
content and ceremony where God draws the line. To allow sinful men to draw and redraw the line as they please hasbeen a total disaster for the church. Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisees has a very broad application: “Thus you havemade the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition” (Mt. 15:6).
various Reformed creeds and confessions: the French Confession (1559), the Scottish Confession
(1560), the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Second Helvetic
Confession (1566), and the Westminster Standards (1643-1648).
It is important that believers who take upon themselves the name of Reformed orPresbyterian have some acquaintance with Calvin’s views on worship (in particular theregulative principle) for a number of reasons. First, we live in a time of serious declension
regarding worship in many denominations that are considered Reformed. Many pastors, teachersand elders in “Reformed” churches either directly or through subterfuge reject Reformed worship
in favor of a Lutheran or Episcopal conception. Second, because of this declension and ignorance
there has been a reductionism of what it means to be Reformed. For both Calvin and Knox
Reformed meant more than a biblical soteriology; it also meant a biblical conception of worship
(i.e., the regulative principle). Today the word Reformed is used of anyone who merely accepts
the five points of Calvinism. Thus, we have pastors and organizations today which boast of being“truly Reformed” or “neo-puritan” who a few centuries ago would have been considered anti-
puritan and non-Reformed. Third, today many hold the opinion that purity of worship should not
be a major concern of the church. People who concern themselves with such matters are often
held in contempt. Yet Calvin regarded the true worship of God to be (as far as the Christianreligion) is concerned second to none in order of importance. In “The Necessity of Reforming
the Church” he writes, “If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a
standing existence amongst us, and maintains its truth, it will be found that the following two not
only occupy the principal place, but comprehend under them all the other parts, consequently the
whole substance of Christianity, viz., a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly
worshiped; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained. When these are
kept out of view, though we may glory in the name of Christians, our profession is empty andvain.”128
What follows is a series of quotations from John Calvin that reveal his doctrine of
worship. Calvin was the champion and chief expositor of what would be called the regulative
principle of worship.
And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron. A memorable circumstance is here recorded,
from whence it appears how greatly God abominates all the sins whereby purity of religion is
corrupted. Apparently it was a light transgression to use strange fire for burning incense; and
again their thoughtlessness would seem inexcusable, for certainly Nadab and Abihu did not
wantonly or intentionally desire to pollute the sacred things, but, as is often the case in matters of
novelty, when they were setting about them too eagerly, their precipitancy led them into error.
The severity of the punishment, therefore, would not please those arrogant people, who do nothesitate superciliously to criticize God’s judgments; but if we reflect how holy a thing God’sworship is, the enormity of the punishment will by no means offend us. Besides, it was necessary
that their religion should be sanctioned at its very commencement; for if God had suffered the
sons of Aaron to transgress with impunity, they would have afterwards carelessly neglected the
whole Law. This, therefore, was the reason of such great severity, that the priests should
anxiously watch against all profanation. Their crime is specified, viz., that they offered incense
128 John Calvin, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church” in Selected Works: Tracts and Letters, Henry Beveridge,
ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983 ), 1:126.
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 worth of greater attention. The “strange fire” is distinguishedfrom the sacred fire which was always burning upon the altar: not miraculously, as some pretend,
but by the constant watchfulness of the priests. Now, God had forbidden any other fire to be used
in the ordinances, in order to exclude all extraneous rites, and to shew His detestation of
whatever might be derived from elsewhere. Let us learn, therefore, so to attend to God’scommand as not to corrupt His worship by any strange inventions. But if He so severely avenged
this error, how horrible a punishment awaits the Papists, who are not ashamed obstinately to
defend so many gross corruptions?129
Neither shall ye profane. In forbidding the profanation of His name, He confirms in other
words the foregoing sentiment; guarding by them His worship from all corruptions, that it may
be maintained in purity and integrity. The same, too, is the object of the clause in apposition,which immediately follows; for they hallow God’s name who turn not away from its rightful andsincere worship. Let this be carefully observed, that whatever fancies men devise, are so manyprofanations of God’s name; for although the superstitious may please themselves by their
imaginations, yet is all their religion full of sacrilege, whereby God complains that His holiness
And, first of all, by contrasting “the hearts and eyes” of men with His Law, He shows that
He would have His people contented with that one rule which He prescribes, without the
admixture of any of their own imaginations; and again, He denounces the vanity of whatever
men invent for themselves, and however pleasing any human scheme may appear to them, He
still repudiates and condemns it. And this is still more clearly expressed in the last word, whenhe says that men “go a whoring” whenever they are governed by their own counsels. Thisdeclaration is deserving of our especial observation, for whilst they have much self-satisfaction
who worship God according to their own will, and whilst they account their zeal to be very good
and very right, they do nothing else but pollute themselves by spiritual adultery. For what by the
world is considered to be the holiest devotion, God with his own mouth pronounces to befornication. By the word “eyes” he unquestionably means man’s power of discernment.131
Now, therefore, hearken, O Israel. He requires the people to be teachable, in order that
they may learn to serve God; for the beginning of a good and upright life is to know what is
pleasing to God. From hence, then, does Moses commence commanding them to be attentive in
seeking direction from the Law; and then admonishing them to prove by their whole life that
they have duly profited in the Law. The promise which is here inserted, only invites them to
unreserved obedience through hope of the inheritance. The main point is, that they should neither
add to nor diminish from the pure doctrine of the Law; and this cannot be the case, unless men
first renounce their own private feelings, and then shut their ears against all the imaginations of
129 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 3:431-432.130 Ibid. 1:344.
131 Ibid. 1:365.
others. For none are to be accounted (true) disciples of the Law, but those who obtain their
wisdom from it alone. It is, then, as if God commanded them to be content with His precepts;
because in no other way would they keep His law, except by giving themselves wholly to its
teaching. Hence it follows, that they only obey God who depend on His authority alone; and that
they only pay the Law its rightful honour, who receive nothing which is opposed to its naturalmeaning. The passage is a remarkable one, openly condemning whatsoever man’s ingenuity mayinvent for the service of God.132
What thing soever I command. In this brief clause he teaches that no other service of God
is lawful, except that of which He has testified His approval in His word, and that obedience is as
it were the mother of all piety; as if he had said that all modes of devotion are absurd and
infected with superstition, which are not directed by this rule. Hence we gather, that in order to
the keeping of the First Commandment, a knowledge of the true God is required, derived from
His word, and mixed with faith. By forbidding the addition, or diminishing of anything, he
plainly condemns as illegitimate whatever men invent of their own imagination.133
2 Samuel 6:6-12
Moreover, we must gather from it that none of our devotions will be accepted by God
unless they are conformed to his will. This rule ruins all the man-made inventions in thepapacy’s so-called worship of God, which has so much pomp and foolishness. All of that is
nothing but sheer trash before God, and is in fact an abomination to him. Hence, let us hold this
unmistakable rule, that if we want to worship God in accordance with our own ideas, it will
simply be abuse and corruption. And so, on the contrary, we must have the testimony of his will
in order to follow what he commands us, and to submit to it. Now that is how the worship which
we render to God will be approved.134
On the second point, when God is worshiped by inventions of men, he condemns this“fear” as superstitious, though men endeavour to cloak it under a plausible pretense of religion,or devotion, or reverence. He assigns the reason, that it “hath been taught by men.” I considermelummadah to have a passive signification; for he means, that to make “the commandments of
men,” and not the word of God, the rule of worshiping him, is a subversion of order. But it is thewill of the Lord, that our “fear,” and the reverence with which we worship him, shall beregulated by the rule of his word; and he demands nothing so much as simple obedience, by
which we shall conform ourselves and all our actions to the rule of the word, and not turn aside
to the right hand or to the left.
Hence it is sufficiently evident, that those who learn from “the inventions of men” howthey should worship God, not only are manifestly foolish, but wear themselves out by destructivetoil, because they do nothing else than provoke God’s anger; for he could not testify more plainlythan by the tremendous severity of this chastisement, how great is the abhorrence with which he
regards false worship.135
132 Ibid. 1:344-345.
133 Ibid. 1:353.
134 John Calvin, Sermons on 2 Samuel (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1992), 246.135 John Calvin, Sermons on 2 Samuel (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1992), 246.
He afterwards adds, that they walked in their tortuous counsels, and also, in the
wickedness of their evil heart. This comparison aggravates their sin,—the Jews preferred to
follow their own humour rather than to obey God and his commands. Had anything been set
before them, which might have deceived them and obscured the authority of the law, there would
have been some excuse: but when there was nothing to prevent them from obeying the command
of God, except that they followed their own foolish imaginations, they were wholly inexcusable.
For what excuse could they have made? That they wished to be wiser than God! How great a
madness was this, and how diabolical? But the Prophet leaves them nothing but this vain excuse,
which doubled their guilt. They thought, no doubt, that their heart was well fitted for the
purpose: but he does not here allow them to judge, but distinctly condemns them as they
We ought to take particular notice of this passage; for the majority of men at this day setup their own fictions against God’s word. The Papists indeed pretend antiquity; they say thatthey have been taught by their ancestors; and at the same time they plead councils and the
ordinances of the fathers: but yet there is not one of them, who is not addicted to his own
figments, and who does not take the liberty, nay, an unbridled license, to reject whatever he
pleases. Moreover, if the origin of the whole papal worship be considered, it will appear, that
those who first devised so many strange superstitions, were only impelled by audacity and
presumption, in order that they might trample under foot the word of God. Hence it is, that all
things are become corrupt; for they brought in all the strange figments of their own brains. And
we see that the Papists at this day are so perversely fixed in their own errors, that they prefer
themselves and their own trumperies to God. And the same is the case with all the heretics. What
then is to be done? Obedience, as I have said, is to be held as the basis of all true religion. If,
then, on the other hand, we wish to render our worship approved by God, let us learn to cast
aside whatever is our own, so that his authority may prevail over all our reasons.136
Which I commanded them not, and which never came to my mind. This reason ought to be
carefully noticed, for God here cuts off from men every occasion for making evasions, since hecondemns by this one phrase, “I have not commanded them,” whatever the Jews devised. Thereis 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. And if this principle was adopted by the Papists,
all those fictitious modes of worship, in which they absurdly exercise themselves, would fall to
the ground. It is indeed a horrible thing for the Papists to seek to discharge their duties towards
God by performing their own superstitions. There is an immense number of them, as it is well
known, and as it manifestly appears. Were they to admit this principle, that we cannot rightly
worship God except by obeying his word, they would be delivered from their deep abyss oferror. The Prophet’s words then are very important, when he says, that God had commanded no
136 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Prophet Jeremiah and the Lamentations (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 1:397-
398 (italics in original).
such thing, and that it never came to his mind; as though he had said, that men assume too much
wisdom, when they devise what he never required, nay, what he never knew.137
God first complains that he had been forsaken by them, because they had changed the
worship which had been prescribed in his Law. And this is what ought to be carefully
considered; for no one would have willingly confessed what Jeremiah charged upon them all;
they would have said,—“We have not forsaken God, for we are the children of Abraham; butwhat we wish to do is to add to his worship; and why should it be deemed a reproach to us, if we
are not content with our own simple form of worship, and add various other forms? and we
worship God not only in the temple, but also in this place; and further, we do not spare our ownchildren.” But God shows by one expression that these were frivolous evasions; for he is notacknowledged except what he orders and commands is obediently received. Let us know, that
God is forsaken as soon as men turn aside from his pure word, and that all are apostates who turn
here and there, and do not follow what God approves....
The Jews might have raised such an objection as the Papists do at this today,—that their
modes of worship were not devised in their time, but that they had derived them from their
ancestors. But God regarded as nothing those kings and the fathers, who had long before
degenerated from true and genuine religion. It must be here observed, that true knowledge is
connected with verity: for they who had first contrived new forms of worship, doubtless
followed their own foolish imaginations; as when any one in the present day asks the Papists,
why they weary themselves so much with their superstitions, good intention is ever their
shield,—“O, we think that this is pleasing to God.” Therefore rightly does God repudiate theirinventions as wholly vain, for they possess nothing solid or permanent.138
Then scribes and Pharisees. As the fault that is here corrected is not common but highly
dangerous, the passage is particularly worthy of our attention. We see the extraordinary
insolence that is displayed by men as to the form and manner of worshiping God; for they are
perpetually contriving new modes of worship, and when any one wishes to be thought wiser than
others, he displays his ingenuity on this subject. I speak not of foreigners, but of the very
domestics of the Church, on whom God has conferred the peculiar honour of declaring with their
lips the rule of godliness. God has laid down the manner in which he wishes that we should
worship him, and has included in his law the perfection of holiness. Yet a vast number of men, as
if it were a light and trivial matter to obey God and to keep what he enjoins, collect for
themselves, on every hand, many additions. Those who occupy places of authority bring forward
their inventions for this purpose, as if they were in possession of something more perfect than the
word of the Lord. This is followed by the slow growth of tyranny; for, when men have once
assumed to themselves the right to issue commands, they demand a rigid adherence to their laws,
and do not allow the smallest iota to be left out, either through contempt or through
forgetfulness. The world cannot endure lawful authority, and most violently rebels against theLord’s yoke, and yet easily and willingly becomes entangled in the snares of vain traditions; nay,such bondage appears to be, in the case of many, an object of desire. Meanwhile, the worship of
God is corrupted, of which the first and leading principle is obedience. The authority of men is
137 Ibid. 1:413-414.138 Ibid. 2:438-439.
preferred to the command of God. Sternly, and therefore tyrannically, are the common people
compelled to give their whole attention to trifles. This passage teaches us, first, that all modes of
worship invented by men are displeasing to God, because he chooses that he alone shall be
heard, in order to train and instruct us in true godliness according to his own pleasure; secondly,
that those who are not satisfied with the only law of God, and weary themselves by attending to
the traditions of men, are uselessly employed; thirdly, that an outrage is committed against God,
when the inventions of men are so highly extolled, that the majesty of his law is almost lowered,
or at least the reverence for it is abated.139
But in vain do they worship me. The words of the prophet run literally thus: their fear
toward me has been taught by the precept of men. But Christ has faithfully and accurately given
the meaning, that in vain is God worshiped, when the will of men is substituted in the room of
doctrine. By these words, all kinds of will-worship, as Paul calls it, (Col. 2:23) are plainly
condemned. For, as we have said, since God chooses to be worshiped in no other way than
according to his own appointment, he cannot endure new modes of worship to be devised. As
soon as men allow themselves to wander beyond the limits of the Word of God, the more labour
and anxiety they display in worshiping him, the heavier is the condemnation which they draw
down upon themselves; for by such inventions religion is dishonoured.
Teaching doctrines, commandments of men. In these words there is what is calledapposition; for Christ declares them to be mistaken who bring forward, in the room of doctrine,the commandments of men, or who seek to obtain from them the rule for worshiping God. Let it
therefore be held as a settled principle, that, since obedience is more highly esteemed by God
than sacrifices, (1 Sam. 15:22, 23) all kinds of worship invented by men are of no estimations in
his sight; nay more, that, as the prophet declares, they are accursed and detestable.140
The sum is this—that the worship of God, true piety, and the holiness of Christians, do
not consist in drink, and food and clothing, which are things that are transient and liable to
corruption, and perish by abuse. For abuse is properly applicable to those things which are
corrupted by the use of them. Hence enactments are of no value in reference to those things
which tend to excite scruples of conscience. But in Popery you would scarcely find any other
holiness, than what consists in little observances of corruptible things.
A second refutation is added—that they originated with men, and have not God as their
Author; and by this thunderbolt he prostrates and swallows up all traditions of men. For why?This is Paul’s reasoning: “Those who bring consciences into bondage do injury to Christ, andmake void his death. For what is of human invention does not bind conscience....”
Observe, however, of what colours this show consists, according to Paul. He makes
mention of three—self-invented worship, humility, and neglect of the body. Superstition among
the Greeks receives the name of ethelothreskeia—the term which Paul here makes use of. He
has, however, an eye to the etymology of the term, for ethelothreskeia literally denotes a
voluntary service, which men choose for themselves at their own option, without authority from
God. Human traditions, therefore, are agreeable to us on this account, that they are in accordance
139 John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker,1981), 2:245-246.
140 Ibid. 2:253-254.
with our understanding, for any one will find in his own brain the first outlines of them.... 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, consequently, any kind of service is not lawful, simply on the
ground that it is agreeable to us. This, also, ought to be a commonly received point—that we owe
to God such humility as to yield obedience simply to his commands, so as not to lean to our own
understanding, etc., (Prov. iii:5)....
Thus, at the present day, Papists are not in want of specious pretexts, by which to set
forth their own laws, however they may be—some of them impious and tyrannical, and others of
them silly and trifling. When, however, we have granted them everything, there remains,
nevertheless, this refutation by Paul, which is of itself more than sufficient for dispelling all their
Institutes of the Christian Religion
Images and pictures are contrary to Scripture
Now we ought to bear in mind that Scripture repeatedly describes superstitions in thislanguage: they are the “works of men’s hands,” which lack God’s authority (Isa. 2:8; 31:7;
37:19; Hos. 14:3; Mic. 5:13); this is done to establish the fact that all the cults men devise of
themselves are detestable.142
True religion binds us to God as the one and only God
But godliness, to stand on a firm footing, keeps itself within its proper limits. Likewise, it
seems to me that superstition is so called because, not content with the prescribed manner and
order, it heaps up a needless mass of inanities.143
Honoring images is dishonor to God
For by his law it pleases him to prescribe for men what is good and right, and thus to hold
them to a sure standard that no one may take leave to contrive any sort of worship he pleases.144
The sufficiency of the law
On the other hand, the Lord, in giving the rule of perfect righteousness, has referred all its
parts to his will, thereby showing that nothing is more acceptable to him than obedience. The
more inclined the playfulness of the human mind is to dream up various rites with which to
deserve well of him, the more diligently ought we to mark this fact. The best remedy to cure that
fault will be to fix this thought firmly in mind: the law has been divinely handed down to us to
teach us perfect righteousness; there no other righteousness is taught than that which conforms to
the requirements of God’s will; in vain therefore do we attempt new forms of works to win thefavor of God, whose lawful worship consists in obedience alone; rather, any zeal for good worksthat wanders outside God’s law is an intolerable profanation of divine and true righteousness.145
141 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 201-203.
142 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion I.XI.4, Ford Lewis Battles, trans. (Philadelphia: Westminster
Press, 1960), 1:104.
143 I.XII.I, 1:117.144 I.XII.3, 1:120.
145 II.VII.5, 1:371-372.
Spiritual worship of the invisible God
In the previous commandment, he declared himself the one God apart from whom no
other gods are to be imagined or had. Now he declares more openly what sort of God he is, and
with what kind of worship he should be honored, lest we dare attribute anything carnal to him.
The purpose of this commandment, then, is that he does not will that his lawful worship be
profaned by superstitious rites. To sum up, he wholly calls us back, and withdraws us from petty
carnal observances, which our stupid minds, crassly conceiving of God, are wont to devise. And
then he makes us conform to his lawful worship, that is, a spiritual worship established by
himself. Moreover, he marks the grossest fault in this transgression, outward idolatry.146
(Traditions and human inventions in worship condemned in Scripture and by Christ himself, 23-26)
The appeal to the authority of the church contradicts the evidence of Scripture
But how important do we think it that the Lord is deprived of his Kingdom, which he so
sternly claims for himself? But it is taken away whenever he is worshiped by laws of human
devising, inasmuch as he wills to be accounted the sole lawgiver of his own worship. So that
now one may think this something negligible, let us hear how highly the Lord regards.“Because,” he says, “this people...feared me by a commandment and doctrines of men,...behold,I will astound this people with a great and amazing miracle; for wisdom shall perish from their
wise men, and understanding shall depart from their elders.” [Isa. 29:13-14 p.] Another passage:“In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine the precepts of men” [Matt. 15:9]. And truly,when the Children of Israel corrupted themselves with many idolatries, the cause of all that evilis ascribed to this impure mixture: they have transgressed God’s commandments and have
fabricated new rites....”
Thereupon, it is afterward said that they, frightened by that punishment, took up the rites
prescribed in the law; but because they were not purely worshiping the true God, it is twice
repeated that they feared him and feared him not [II Kings 17:24-25, 32-33, 41]. From this we
gather that a part of the reverence that is paid to him consists simply in worshiping him as he
commands, mingling no inventions of our own. And pious kings are often praised because they
acted in accordance with all precepts, and did not turn aside either to the right or to the left [II
Kings 22:1-2; cf. I Kings 15:11; 22:43; II Kings 12:2; 14:3; 15:3; 15:34; 18:3]. I say further:
although in some contrived worship impiety does not openly appear, it is still severelycondemned by the Spirit, since it is a departure from God’s precept. The altar of Ahaz, thepattern of which was brought out of Samaria [II Kings 16:10], could seem to enhance theadornment of the temple, since it was Ahaz’s intention to offer sacrifices there to the only God,
which he was going to do more splendidly than on the old original altar. Yet we see how the
Spirit loathes this insolence solely because the inventions of men in the worship of God are
impure corruptions [II Kings 16:10-18]. And the more clearly God’s will is revealed to us, theless excusable is our wantonness in attempting anything.147
Perverse worship an abomination to God
Many marvel why the Lord so sharply threatens to astound the people who worshiped
him with the commands of men [Isa. 29:13-14] and declares that he is vainly worshiped by the
146 II.VIII.17, 1:383.
147 IV.X.23, 2:1201-1202.
precepts of men [Matt. 15:9]. But if they were to weigh what it is to depend upon God’s biddingalone in matters of religion (that is, on account of heavenly wisdom), they would at the same
time see that the Lord has strong reasons to abominate such perverse rites, which are performed
for him according to the willfulness of human nature. For even though those who obey such laws
in the worship of God have some semblance of humility in this obedience of theirs, they arenevertheless not at all humble in God’s sight, since they prescribe for him these same laws whichthey observe. Now, this is the reason Paul so urgently warns us not to be deceived by the
traditions of men [Col. 2:4 ff.], or by what he calls ethelothreskeia, that is, “will worship,”
devised by men apart from God’s teaching [Col. 2:23, 22]. It is certainly true that our own and
all men’s wisdom must become foolish, that we may allow him alone to be wise. Those who
expect his approval for their paltry observances contrived by men’s will, and offer to him, as ifinvoluntarily, a sham obedience which is paid actually to men, do not hold to that path.148
Refutation of Romanist counterevidence
In short, every chance invention, by which men seek to worship God, is nothing but a
pollution of true holiness.149
(Church laws and traditions, and the Christian’s conscience before God, 1-4)
The basic question
This is the power to be discussed, whether the church may lawfully bind consciences by
its laws. In this discussion we are not dealing with the political order, but are only concerned
with how God is to be duly worshiped according to the rule laid down by him, and how the
spiritual freedom which looks to God may remain unimpaired for us.
It has become common usage to call all decrees concerning the worship of God putforward by men apart from his Word “human traditions.” Our contention is against these, not
against holy and useful church institutions, which provide for the preservation of discipline or
honesty or peace.150
Directions to determine which human constitutions are inadmissible
Paul employs the former reason when he contends in the letter to the Colossians against
false apostles who were trying to oppress the churches with new burdens [Col. 2:8]. He makes
more use of the second reason in the letter to the Galatians, in a similar case [Gal. 5:1-12].
Accordingly, he argues in the letter to the Colossians that we are not to seek from men the
doctrine of the true worship of God, for the Lord has faithfully and fully instructed us how he is
to be worshiped. To prove this, he says in the first chapter that the gospel contains all the wisdom
by which the man of God is made perfect in Christ [Col. 1:28]. At the beginning of the second
chapter he states that all treasures of wisdom and understanding are hidden in Christ [Col. 2:3].
From this he subsequently concludes that believers ought to beware lest they be seduced fromChrist’s flock through empty philosophy, according to the constitutions of men [Col. 2:8]. But atthe end of the chapter he condemns with greater confidence all self-made religion, that is, all
feigned worship, which men have devised for themselves or received from others, and all
precepts they of themselves dare promulgate concerning the worship of God [Col. 2:16-23].151
148 IV.X.24, 2:1203.
149 IV.X.26, 2:1204.
150 IV.X.1, 2:1179.
151 IV.X.8, 2:1186-1187.
(Ecclesiastical constitutions authorizing ceremonies in worship are tyrannous, frivolous, andcontrary to Scripture, 9-18)
The Roman constitutions are, according to the foregoing principles, to be rejected
I am not yet touching on the gross abominations with which they have endeavored to
overthrow all piety. But among them it would not be imagined to be such an atrocious crime to
fail to observe in even the least little tradition if they did not subject the worship of God to their
fictions. How do we sin, if today we cannot bear what Paul has taught to be unbearable—that the
lawful order of divine worship is reduced to men’s decision? Especially, when they commandmen to worship according to the elements of this world, which Paul testifies to be against Christ
[Col. 2:20]. Again, it is well known with what extreme rigor they bind consciences to observe
whatever they command. When we contradict them, we make common cause with Paul, who on
no account allows faithful consciences to be reduced to human bondage [Gal. 5:1].152
The papal constitutions deny God’s law
Moreover, this evil thing is added, that when religion once begins to be defined in such
vain fictions, such perversity is always followed by another hateful depravity, for which Christrebuked the Pharisees. It is that they nullify God’s commandment for the sake of the traditions ofmen [Matt. 15:3]. I do not wish to fight with words of my own against our present lawmakers; letthem win, I say, if they can in any way cleanse themselves of Christ’s accusation.153
Roman constitutions meaningless and useless
I know that my description of them as foolish and useless will not be credible to the
wisdom of the flesh, which takes such pleasure in them that it thinks the church utterly deformed
when they are removed. But this is what Paul writes, “These have...an appearance of wisdom incounterfeit worship, in self-abasement,” and for that reason they seem by their severity to be ableto tame the flesh [Col. 2:23 p.]. Surely a most salutary admonition, this, which ought never to
escape us! Human traditions, he says, deceive under the appearance of wisdom. Whence this
deceptive hue? From the fact that they have been feigned by men. Human wit recognizes there
what is its own, and embraces it, once recognized, more willingly than something truly excellent
but less in accord with its vanity.... Lastly, because they apparently try to restrain the delights of
the flesh, and to subject it to the rigor of abstinence, they therefore seem to have been wisely
contrived. But what does Paul say to these? Does he tear off these masks, that the simple-minded
may not be deluded by false pretense? Since to disprove them he had deemed it enough merely
to have said that they were the devisings of men, he passes over all these things without
refutation [Col. 2:22], as if he counted them of no value. Indeed, Paul knew that all counterfeit
worship in the church was condemned, and that the more it delights human nature the more it is
suspected by believers; he knew that that false image of outward humility is so far from true
humility as to be easily distinguished from it; lastly, he knew that elementary discipline is no
more to be esteemed than bodily exercise. He wished the very facts to serve as a refutation of
human traditions for believers, for whose sake these were commended among the unlearned.154
General application of common insights
152 IV.X.9, 2:1187-1188.153 IV.X.10, 2:1188.
154 IV.X.11, 2:1189-1190.
For whenever this superstition creeps in, that men wish to worship God with their
fictions, all laws enacted for this purpose immediately degenerate to these gross abuses. For God
threatens no one age or another but all ages with this curse, that he will strike with blindness and
amazement those who worship him with the doctrines of men [Isa. 29:13-14]. This blinding
continually causes those who despise so many warnings of God and willfully entangle
themselves in these deadly snares, to embrace every kind of absurdity. But suppose, apart from
present circumstances, you simply want to understand what are those human traditions of all
times that should be repudiated by the church and by all godly men. What we have set forth
above will be a sure and clear definition: that they are all laws apart from God’s Word, lawsmade by men, either to prescribe the manner of worshiping God or to bind consciences by
scruples, as if they were making rules about things necessary for salvation.155
As for the present case, suppose that, tearing away all masks and disguises, we truly look
upon that which ought to be our first concern and is of greatest importance for us, that is, the
kind of church Christ would have that we may fashion and fit ourselves to its standard. We shall
then easily see that it is not a church which, passing the bounds of God’s Word, wantons anddisports itself in the framing of new laws. For does not that law once spoken to the church holdgood forever? “Everything that I command you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to it ortake from it.” [Deut. 12:32.] And another passage: “Do not add to” the Word of the Lord, or take
away from it, “lest he rebuke you, and you be found a liar” [Prov. 30:6 p.]. They cannot denythat this was spoken to the church. What else, then, do they declare but its recalcitrance, for they
boast that, after such prohibitions, it nonetheless dared add and mix something of its own withGod’s teaching? Far be it from us to assent to their falsehood, by which they bring so muchinsult upon the church! But let us understand that whenever one considers this inordinate human
rashness—which cannot contain itself within God’s commands but must, wildly exalting, runafter its own inventions—the name “church” is falsely pretended. There is nothing involved,
nothing obscure, nothing ambiguous in these words which forbid the church universal to add toor take away anything from God’s Word, when the worship of the Lord and precepts of salvationare concerned.... The Lord, who long ago declared that nothing so much offended him as being
worshiped by humanly devised rites, has not become untrue to himself.156
The Roman constitutions do not reach back to the apostles, or even to the “apostolic tradition”
But to trace the origin of these traditions (with which the church has hitherto been
oppressed) back to the apostles is pure deceit. For the whole doctrine of the apostles has this
intent: not to burden consciences with new observances, or contaminate the worship of God with
our own inventions. Again, if there is anything credible in the histories and ancient records, the
apostles not only were ignorant of what the Romanists attribute to them but never even heard of
Confession of Faith in the Name of the Reformed Churches of France (1662)
Of the Service of God
Now on our part, in accordance with his declaration, that obedience is better than
sacrifice, (1 Sam. xv. 22,) and with his uniform injunction to listen to what he commands, if we
155 IV.X.16, 2:1194.
156 IV.X.17, 2:1195-1196.157 IV.X.18, 2:1197.
would render a well regulated and acceptable sacrifice, we hold that it is not for us to invent what
to us seems good, or to follow what may have been devised in the brain of other men, but
confine ourselves simply to the purity of Scripture. Wherefore we believe that anything which is
not derived from it, but has only been commanded by the authority of men, ought not to be
regarded as the service of God....
The second axiom is, that when we presume to serve God at our own hand, he repudiates
it as corruption. And this is the reason why he exclaims by his prophet Isaiah, (Is. xxix. 13,) that
all true religion has been perverted by keeping the commandments of men. And our Lord Jesus
Christ confirms the same by saying, (Matt. xv. 9,) that in vain would we know God by human
tradition. It is with good reason, therefore, that his spiritual supremacy over our souls remains
inviolable, and that at the very least his will as a bridle should regulate our devotions.158
Of Human Tradition
We have in this matter such notable warnings from common experience, that we are the
more confirmed in not passing the limits of Scripture. For since men began to make laws to
regulate the service of God, and subject the conscience, there has been neither end nor measure,
while, on the other hand, God has punished such temerity, blinding men with delusions which
may make one shudder. When we look nearer to see what human traditions are, we find that they
are an abyss, and that their number is endless. An yet there are abuses so absurd and enormous,
that it is wonderful how men could have been so stupid, were it not that God has executed the
vengeance which he announced by his prophet Isaiah, (Is. xxix. 14,) blinding and infatuating the
wise who would honour him by observing the commandments of men.159
Of Idolatrous Intentions
Since men have turned aside from pure and holy obedience to God, they have discovered
that good intention was sufficient to approve everything. This was to open a door to all
superstitions. It has been the origin of the worship of images, the purchase of masses, the filling
of churches with pomp and parade, the running about on pilgrimages, the making of vows by
each at his own hand. But the abyss here is so profound that it is enough for us to have touched
on some examples. So far is it from being permitted to honour God by human inventions, that
there would be no firmness nor certainty, neither bottom nor shore in religion: every thing would
go to wreck, and Christianity differ in nothing from the idolatries of the heathen.160
The Necessity of Reforming the Church (1544)
Moreover, the rule which distinguishes between pure and vitiated worship is of universal
application, in order that we may not adopt any device which seems fit to ourselves, but look to
the injunctions of Him who alone is entitled to prescribe. Therefore, if we would have Him to
approve our worship, this rule, which he everywhere enforces with the utmost strictness, must be
carefully observed. For there is a twofold reason why the Lord, in condemning and prohibiting
all fictitious worship, requires us to give obedience only to his own voice. First, it tends greatly
to establish His authority that we do not follow our own pleasure, but depend entirely on his
158 John Calvin, “Confession of Faith” in Selected Works: Tracts and Letters (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983 ),2:147-148.
160 Ibid. 148-149.
sovereignty; and, secondly, such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do
is go astray. And then when once we have turned aside from the right path, there is no end to our
wanderings, until we get buried under a multitude of superstitions. Justly, therefore, does the
Lord, in order to assert full right of dominion, strictly enjoin what he wishes us to do, and at once
reject all human devices which are at variance with his command. Justly, too, does he, in express
terms, define our limits, that we may not, by fabricating perverse modes of worship, provoke His
anger against us.
I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of
worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them,
being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a
sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honour of God. But since God
not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to
His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The wordsof God are clear and distinct: “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” “In vain to they worship me,
teaching for doctrines the commandments of men,” (1 Sam. xv. 22; Matth. xv. 9.) Every additionto His word, especially in this matter, is a lie. Mere “will worship” (ethelothreskeia) is vanity.
This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate....161
Having observed that the Word of God is the test which discriminates between his true
worship and that which is false and vitiated, we thence readily infer that the whole form of divine
worship in general use in the present day is nothing but mere corruption. For men pay no regard
to what God has commanded, or to what he approves, in order that they may serve him in a
becoming manner, but assume to themselves a license of devising modes of worship, and
afterwards obtruding them upon him as a substitute for obedience. If in what I say I seem to
exaggerate, let an examination be made of all the acts by which the generality suppose that they
worship God. I dare scarcely except a tenth part as not the random offspring of their own brain.
What more would we? God rejects, condemns, abominates all fictitious worship, and employs
his Word as a bridle to keep us in unqualified obedience. When shaking off this yoke, we wander
after our own fictions, and offer to him a worship, the work of human rashness, how much
soever it may delight ourselves, in his sight it is vain trifling, nay, vileness and pollution. The
advocates of human traditions paint them in fair and gaudy colours; and Paul certainly admits
that they carry with them a show of wisdom; but as God values obedience more than all
sacrifices, it ought to be sufficient for the rejection of any mode of worship, that is not
sanctioned by the command of God....162
In regard to the worship of God, our adversaries next accuse us, because, omitting empty
and childish observances, tending only to hypocrisy, we worship God more simply. That we
have in no respect detracted from the spiritual worship of God, is attested by fact. Nay, when it
had in a great measure gone into desuetude, we have reinstated it in its former rights....163
But the worst of all is, that though God has so often and so strictly interdicted all modes
of worship prescribed by man, the only worship paid to him consisted of human inventions.
What ground, then, have our enemies to vociferate that in this matter we have given religion to
the wind? First, we have not laid even a finger on anything which Christ does not
discountenance, as of no value, when he declares that it is vain to worship God with human
161 “The Necessity of Reforming the Church” in Selected Works, 1:128-129.
162 Ibid. 1:132-133.163 Ibid. 1:151.
traditions. The thing might, perhaps, have been more tolerable if the only effect had been that
men lost their pains by an unavailing worship; but since as I have observed, God in many
passages forbids any new worship unsanctioned by his Word; since he declares that he is
grievously offended with the presumption which invents such worship, and threatens it with
severe punishment, it is clear that the reformation which we have introduced was demanded by a
I am not unaware how difficult it is to persuade the world that God rejects and even
abominates every thing relating to his worship that is devised by human reason. The delusion on
this head is owing to several causes,—“Every one thinks highly of his own,” as the old proverbexpresses it. Hence the offspring of our own brain delights us, and besides, as Paul admits, this
fictitious worship often presents some show of wisdom. Then, as it has for the most part an
external splendour which pleases the eye, it is more agreeable to our carnal nature, than that
which alone God requires and approves, but which is less ostentatious. But there is nothing
which so blinds the understanding of men, and misleads them in their judgments in this matter,
as hypocrisy. For while it is incumbent on true worshipers to give the heart and mind, men are
always desirous to invent a mode of serving God of a totally different description, their object
being to perform to him certain bodily observances, and keep the mind to themselves. Moreover,
they imagine that when they obtrude upon him external pomp, they have, by this artifice, evaded
the necessity of giving themselves. And this is the reason why they submit to innumerable
observances which miserably fatigue them without measure and without end, and why they
choose to wander in a perpetual labyrinth, rather than worship God simply in spirit and in
The mockery which worships God with nought but external gestures and absurd human
fictions, how could we, without sin, allow to pass unrebuked? We know how much he hates
hypocrisy, and yet in that fictitious worship, which was everywhere in use, hypocrisy reigned.
We hear how bitter the terms in which the Prophets inveigh against all worship fabricated by
human rashness. But a good intention, i.e., an insane license of daring whatever man pleased,
was deemed the perfection of worship. For it is certain that in the whole body of worship which
had been established, there was scarcely a single observance which had an authoritative sanctionfrom the Word of God. We are not in this matter to stand either by our own or by other men’sjudgments. We must listen to the voice of God, and hear in what estimation he holds that
profanation of worship which is displayed when men, over leaping the boundaries of his Word,
run riot in their own inventions. The reasons which he assigns for punishing the Israelites with
blindness, after they had lost the pious and holy hypocrisy, and will-worship, (ethelothreskeia)
meaning thereby a form of worship contrived by men.165
The True Method of Giving Peace to Christendom and Reforming the Church
We may add that the knowledge of this matter demands its own proper explanation.
There are two principal branches. First, we must hold that the spiritual worship of God does not
consist either in external ceremonies, or any other kind of works whatsoever; and, secondly, that
no worship is legitimate unless it be so framed as to have for its only rule the will of him to
164 Ibid. 1:152-153.165 Ibid. 1:189.
whom it is performed. Both of these are absolutely necessary. For as we savor of nothing but
earth and flesh, so we measure God by ourselves. Hence it is that we always take more pleasure
in external show, which is of no value in the sight on God, than in that inward worship of the
heart, which alone he approves and requires. On the other hand, the wantonness of our minds is
notorious, which breaks forth, especially in this quarter, where nothing at all ought to have been
dared. Men allow themselves to devise all modes of worship, and change and rechange them at
pleasure. Nor is the fault of our age. Even from the beginning of the world, the world sported
thus licentiously with God. He himself proclaims that there is nothing he values more than
obedience. (I Sam. xv. 22.) Wherefore, all modes of worship devised contrary to his command,
he not only repudiates as void, but distinctly condemns. Why need I adduce proofs in so clear a
matter? Passages to this effect should be proverbial among Christians.166
Brief Form of a Confession of Faith
I confess that both the whole rule of right living, and also instruction in faith, are mostly
delivered in the sacred Scriptures, to which nothing can, without criminality, be added, fromwhich nothing can be taken away. I therefore detest all of men’s imagining which they wouldobtrude upon us as articles of faith, and bind upon our consciences by laws and statutes. And
thus I repudiate in general whatever has been introduced into the worship of God without
authority from the word of God. Of this kind are all the Popish ceremonies. In short, I detest the
tyrannical yoke by which miserable consciences have been oppressed—as the law of auricular
confession, celibacy, and others of the same description.167
Letter to Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, Duke of Somerset, Regent of England
under the Minority of Edward VI (1548)
Praise be to God, you have not to learn what is the true faith of Christians, and the
doctrine which they ought to hold, seeing that by your means the true purity of the faith has been
restored. That is, that we hold God alone to be the sole Governor of our souls, that we hold his
law to be the only rule and spiritual directory for our consciences, not serving him according to
the foolish inventions of men. Also, that according to his nature he would be worshiped in spirit
and in purity of heart. On the other hand, acknowledging that there is nothing but all
wretchedness in ourselves, and that we are corrupt in all our feelings and affections, so that our
souls are a very abyss of iniquity, utterly despairing of ourselves; and that, having exhausted
every presumption of our own wisdom, worth, or power of well-doing, we must have recourse to
the fountain of every blessing, which is in Christ Jesus.168
166 John Calvin, “The True Method of Giving Peace to Christendom and Reforming the Church” in Selected Works:
Tracts and Letters (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 3:260-261.
167 John Calvin, “Brief Form of a Confession of Faith” in Selected Works: Tracts and Letters (Grand Rapids: Baker,
168 John Calvin, “To the Protector Somerset” in Selected Works: Tracts and Letters, 5:189.
The Neo-Presbyterian Challenge to Confessional PresbyterianOrthodoxy
A Biblical Analysis of John Frame’s Worship in Spirit and in Truth
John Frame (a Presbyterian Church in America ordained minister, “worship leader,” andprofessor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida) has
written a book that both defends and sets forth the worship paradigm of most modern“conservative” Presbyterianism. (By conservative Presbyterianism we refer to those Presbyterian
bodies that strictly adhere to biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth, literal miracles, vicarious
atonement, a literal resurrection, the five points of Calvinism and so on.) Before analyzing many
of the fundamental assertions of Frame’s book, this author would like to commend Frame for anumber of things. First, the book, Worship in Spirit and in Truth, is well written and organized.
Second, Frame has tackled a subject that is very important and hardly addressed in this century.
Third, Frame is strongly committed to biblical inerrancy and the absolute authority of the Bible.Although Frame’s book has some commendable aspects, it must be condemned over-all as a
serious departure from the standard, historical understanding of Reformed worship. What isparticularly disturbing regarding Frame’s book is that he abandons the Westminster Standards,yet presents himself as a champion of the regulative principle. Frame is either guilty of serious
self-deception, or he is incredibly dishonest. In this brief analysis of Frame’s book we will
consider: (a) Frame’s book as a justification of the status quo (i.e., neo-Presbyterian worship), (b)Frame’s misrepresentation of the position regarding worship of the early Presbyterians andWestminster Standards, (c) Frame’s redefinition of the regulative principle, (d) Frame’s bizarre,arbitrary and unorthodox exegetical methodology that he uses to justify many human innovationsin worship, and (e) Frame’s case for modern “celebrative” worship.
Defending the Status Quo
One of the purposes of Frame’s book is to justify the type of worship practiced by his andmany other churches. He writes, “Part of my motivation was a concern to preserve for my localcongregation and others like it the freedom to worship God in its accustomed style—one that is
nontraditional, but in my judgment, fully spiritual.”169 Frame throughout the book refers to
traditional vs. non-traditional worship. Although he never defines traditional worship, it is clear
that he is not in favor of it. He says, “Historically oriented books typically try to make us feelguilty if we do not follow traditional patterns. Theological traditionalists also typically want to
minimize freedom and flexibility. Even those who offer suggestions for ‘meaningful worship’
are often very restrictive, for they tend to be very negative toward churches that don’t follow
their suggestions.”170 This statement which occurs in the preface of the book is a classic case of
169 John Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth: A Refreshing Study of the Principles and Practice of Biblical Worship(Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1996), p. xii.
170 Ibid. p. xvi.
what debaters call “poisoning the well.” According to Frame, there is traditional worship whichhe implies is founded upon human tradition and there is his type of worship which is truly free of
human traditions and is biblical. We will see, however, that Frame proposes all sorts of things inworship that have no warrant from God’s word. If by traditional, Frame was condemninguninspired hymns, musical instruments (e.g., the piano and organ) and extra biblical holy days
(e.g., Christmas and Easter), then he would be on the right track.171 However, one will note as hereads Frame’s book that his problem with the typical old-fashioned corrupt “Presbyterian”worship is that it does not have enough human innovations. He is really in favor of more, not
less, human autonomy.
As this study progresses we will see that there are two basic schools of thought regardingworship in “conservative” Presbyterian circles. There are strict, consistent regulativists whofollow the original intent of the Westminster Standards. Such people worship exactly as
Presbyterians did for over two hundred years (i.e., a cappella exclusive psalmody without extra-
biblical holy days). There are others (the vast majority) who have found ways to circumvent the
regulative principle and bring in various human innovations. Frame, as part of the latter group, issimply being more consistent. That is primarily the reason that Frame’s Arminian-Charismaticstyle of worship is being adopted throughout “conservative” Presbyterian denominations thathave already abandoned biblical worship. Frame’s main disagreement with old-fashioned corrupt“Presbyterian” worship (e.g., Trinity Hymnal and a piano) is really one primarily of style or taste.
(Although there are also still some major philosophical differences regarding the role of the mind
in worship and mysticism.) Frame’s disagreement with the Westminster Standards and strictregulativists is fundamental and foundational. Thus, most of his book is directed against the
Westminster Standards and the worship that it produced (exclusive a cappella psalmody without
extra-biblical holy days, etc.).
In a sense, Frame has done the church of Christ a great service by putting in written form
for all to read and analyze a defense of neo-presbyterian worship. What is neo-presbyterian
worship? It is Arminian-Charismatic style worship conducted by Presbyterians who pretend to
hold to the Westminster Standards (in the sphere of worship). One can understand where Frameis coming from, from the following statement: “In a way, the volume seeks to summarize thethinking underlying the worship of the ‘New Life’ Presbyterian churches: New Life Presbyterian
Church in Escondido, California, where I worship, our ‘mother church’ of the same name in
171 In order to keep this review reasonably short this author will not refute Frame’s arguments against the historicReformed positions on exclusive psalmody, musical instruments in worship and the celebration of extra-biblical
holy days (e.g., Christmas and Easter). This author has already refuted Frame’s arguments (which are typical of themodern Presbyterian status quo) in other works: The Regulative Principle of Worship and Christmas; Musical
Instruments in the Public Worship of God; A Brief Examination of Exclusive Psalmody; and Sola Scriptura and the
Regulative Principle of Worship. All these books are available free at http://www.reformed.com. Other
recommended works are: John L. Girardeau, Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church (Havertown,
PA: New Covenant Publication Society, 1983 ); Kevin Reed, Christmas: An Historical Survey Regarding Its
Origins and Opposition to It (Dallas, TX: Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1983); Biblical Worship (Dallas, TX:
Presbyterian Heritage, 1995). Michael Bushell, The Songs of Zion: The Contemporary Case for Exclusive Psalmody(Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant Publications, 1977). G. I. Williamson, On the Observance of Sacred Days(Havertown, PA: New Covenant Publication Society, n.d.); Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of God;
Commanded or Not Commanded? D. W. Collins, Musical Instruments in Divine Worship Condemned by the Word
of God (Pittsburgh: Stevenson and Foster, 1881), p. 38.
Glenside, Pennsylvania, and others.”172 The “mother church” to which Frame refers was foundedin the 1970s by Orthodox Presbyterian pastor Jack Miller. The “mother church” in Glensideadopted the worship practices of Arminian-Charismatic churches and discovered that the new
worship practices were fun, attracted young people and led to church growth. It is important tonote that the new “non-traditional” worship adopted by the original New Life Church in Glensidewhich is now practiced in a majority of the Presbyterian Church in American congregations and
in many Orthodox Presbyterian churches did not come into being from a careful exegesis of
Scripture by Reformed pastors and theologians. It was simply borrowed lock, stock and barrel
from Arminian-Charismatics who couldn’t care less if there was such a thing as the regulativeprinciple. Frame, a “worship leader” in such a church, attempts in his book to harmonize suchworship with the Reformed faith twenty years after such worship was adopted. He has taken
upon himself the task of harmonizing a non-Reformed, Arminian-Charismatic worship paradigm
with the strict regulativist paradigm of the Westminster Standards. In a moment we will see thatthis involves redefining the Reformed concept of “divine warrant” so broadly that almostanything is permitted in worship. Frame has the job of fitting a very large square peg (Arminian-
Charismatic worship) into a very small round hole (the Reformed-confessional doctrine of
worship). Therefore, he spends a great deal of time with a hammer and chisel making the small
round hole very large and square. One must give Frame credit for the skill with which he so
smoothly, cunningly and craftily completely redefines the regulative principle, all the while
claiming total allegiance to the Westminster Standards.
Another stated purpose of Frame’s book is to soothe the guilty consciences of Reformed
pastors who know enough theology and church history to recognize to a certain extent that they
have departed from Reformed, confessional worship. He writes,
Presbyterian worship—based on the biblical “regulative principle,” which I describe in thesepages—was in its early days very restrictive, austere, and “minimalist.” It excluded organs,choirs, hymn texts other than the Psalms, symbolism in the worship area, and religious holidays
except for the Sabbath. Presbyterians in the “Covenanter” tradition, such as those in theReformed Presbyterian Church of North America and a few other denominations, still worship
in this way, but they are in that respect a small minority of conservative Presbyterians today.
Nevertheless, the Puritan theology of worship that produced this minimalism is still taught in
theologically conservative Presbyterian churches and seminaries as the authentic Presbyterian
and Reformed view of worship. This is partly because that theology is reflected in the
Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, to which these churches subscribe. But the
Westminster standards actually contain very little of the Puritan theology of worship. The
Puritan and Scottish divines who wrote the Westminster standards were wise not to include in
them all their ideas of worship. The principles responsible for liturgical minimalism come from
Puritan and other Reformed texts that go above and beyond the confessional documents. Yet
these extraconfessional texts themselves have considerable informal authority in conservative
The result has been that although few conservative Presbyterian churches actually worship in
the Puritan way, the Puritan theology of worship remains the standard orthodoxy among them.
This discrepancy sometimes leads to guilty consciences. I have talked to pastors, for instance,
who are unwilling to go back to exclusive use of the Psalms in congregational singing, yet feel
awkward about singing hymns. They almost seem to think that they ought to worship as the
172 Worship in Spirit and in Truth, p. xvi. This author attended the ‘mother church’ in the late 1970's and met andtalked with Dr. Miller, who was a very sincere, pious and godly man (he passed on to glory in 1995). In the area of
worship, however, his efforts have done much to corrupt the church of Christ.
Puritans did, even though they have no intention of doing so. They worry that this wavering
amounts to an inconsistency in their commitment to the Reformed faith and to Presbyterian
I believe that Presbyterians need to do some rethinking in this area. In my view, the
Westminster Confession is entirely right in its regulative principle—that true worship is limited
to what God commands. But the methods used by the Puritans to discover and apply those
commands need a theological overhaul. Much of what they said cannot be justified by Scripture.
The result of our rethinking, I hope, will be a somewhat revised paradigm for Presbyterian
worship; one thoroughly Reformed in its assumptions, affirming the regulative principle and the
statements of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, but allowing much greater flexibilitythan the Puritans did in applying God’s commands for worship. Such a revised paradigm will
relieve the guilty feelings mentioned earlier, not because it allows us to ignore God’scommandments, but because it helps us to understand more accurately what our Lord expects of
Frame’s book should be seen for what it is. It is first and foremost a defense of the departure anddeclension in most Presbyterian denominations in the area of worship that has occurred over thepast two hundred years. Frame openly admits in the quote above that there is a “discrepancy”between what modern Presbyterians profess and what they actually practice. This discrepancy
causes some Presbyterian ministers to feel guilty. Therefore (according to Frame), what theseministers need is a new “revised paradigm” that allows “much greater flexibility” (which
amounts to “much greater human autonomy”), so that ministries can worship in the corruptbackslidden fashion they are accustomed to without “guilty feelings.” In order to soothe guiltyconsciences Frame wages guerilla warfare upon Reformed worship. He attacks the regulative
principle by completely redefining it and gutting it. He then attacks the standard, historic,
biblical positions held by Presbyterians until the declension began (e.g., exclusive Psalmody, the
non-use of instruments in public worship, the non-celebration of pagan, papal holy days, etc.).
The secondary purpose of Frame’s book is to justify to his already backslidden (Trinity
Hymnal, piano and organ) audience the superiority of Arminian-Charismatic contemporary
worship. We will see that what most modern Presbyterians need is not an apologetic for
declension but rather a call to sincere repentance. There must be a return to the biblical
attainments of our covenanted Presbyterian forefathers.
Before we turn our attention to Frame’s treatment of the regulative principle we first mustconsider the misrepresentation of church history that is given to make it appear that his position
is not contrary to the Westminster Standards. He writes, “[T]he Westminster Standards actuallycontain very little of the Puritan theology of worship. The Puritan and Scottish divines who
wrote the Westminster Standards were wise not to include in them all of their ideas on worship.
The principles responsible for liturgical minimalism come from Puritan and other Reformed textsthat go above and beyond the confessional documents. Yet these extra-confessional textsthemselves have considerable informal authority in conservative Presbyterian churches.”174
173 Ibid. pp. xii-xii, emphasis added.174 Ibid, emphasis added.
The purpose of this statement is to make a distinction between the teaching of theWestminster Standards and “extra-confessional texts” (i.e., books, tracts, pamphlets, and
sermons) by Puritans and other Reformed persons “that go above and beyond the confessional
documents.” According to Frame it is not the confession that produced “liturgical
minimalism”175 but rather Puritan extremists who went too far. Why does Frame separate the
teachings of the Westminster Standards from the writings on worship of those Puritans and
Presbyterians who wrote the Westminster Standards? The simple reason that Frame and other
advocates of neo-presbyterian worship repeatedly misrepresent the teaching of the Westminster
Standards is that they do not want to admit that their position is anti-confessional. Advocates of
neo-presbyterian worship (e.g., uninspired hymns, musical instruments in worship and extra-
biblical holy days [e.g., Christmas and Easter]) either ignore or misrepresent church history.
In order to prove that the distinction that Frame makes between the Westminster
Standards and the Puritan and other Reformed texts that supposedly go beyond the Confessionand produce “liturgical minimalism” is false, and that Frame’s attack on this supposedminimalistic worship is anti-confessional, we will briefly consider three positions that Frame
opposes yet were advocated by the Westminster Assembly: exclusive psalmody, the non-use of
musical instruments in worship and the rejection of extra-biblical holy days.
In the Confession of Faith (chapter 21, section 5) we read regarding religious worship:“The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear; the sound preaching, and conscionable hearing of
the word, in obedience unto God, with understanding faith, and reverence; singing of psalms
with grace in the heart; as also the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments
instituted by Christ; are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God.”176 According to the
Confession what are Christians to sing during the ordinary religious worship of God? They are to
175 Frame has borrowed the term “minimalist” from James Jordan’s Liturgical Nestorianism (Niceville, FL:
Transfiguration Press, 1994). In his book Jordan accuses strict regulativists of being like Nestorians who denigratedhuman nature by “saying that God and man were not joined.” Aside from the fact that it was the Monophysites who
denied and thus denigrated the true humanity of Christ by manner of a fusion of the two natures, Jordan’s argumenthas nothing to do with the debate over the regulative principle. It sounds creative and intellectual and that is enoughfor many of Jordan’s followers. That Frame would approvingly reference Jordan’s book is not surprising. Jordan hasmisrepresented and mocked the regulative principle for years. He also is well known for “interpretive maximalism.”Through his creative LSD hermeneutics he discovers hidden obscure meanings in a text. Both men, however, attack
the regulative principle for different reasons. Frame wants charismatic style worship while Jordan prefers a more
high church liturgical style worship. Note the following quotes from his Sociology of the Church (Tyler, TX:Geneva Ministries, 1986): “Biblical teaching as a whole is quite favorable to Christmas as an annual ecclesiastical
festival.... As I study Scripture, I find that Lutheran and Anglican churches are more biblical in their worship [thanBaptist and Reformed], despite some problems” (p. 210). “What I am saying is that the custom [of crossing oneself]is not unscriptural, and that the conservative church at large should give it some thought” (p. 212). “This [theScripture reading and sermon] is all designed to lead us to the second act of sacrifice: the Offertory. The Offertory isnot a ‘collection,’ but the act of self-immolation.... Thus, the offering plates are brought down front to the minister,who holds them up before God (‘heave offering’) and gives them to Him” (p. 27). “The whole-personal priesthood
of all believers means not only congregational participation (which requires prayer books), but also holistic ‘doing.’
It means singing, falling down, kneeling, dancing, clapping, processions, and so forth” (p. 32). “By requiringknowledge before communion, the church cut its children off from the Table....If we are to have reformation, we
must reject this residuum of Gnosticism and return to an understanding that the act of the eucharist precedes theinterpretation of it” (p. 38). Jordan, just as Frame, argues from “large, over-arching principles of worship” (p. 209)
and thus often engages in speculative, creative application. If one disagrees with Jordan’s “high church” views he isarbitrarily labeled (with absolutely no proof whatsoever) as Neo-platonic, Nestorian, Gnostic, Nominalistic, Stoic,
176 The Confession of Faith, The Larger and Shorter Catechisms, etc. (Glasgow, Scotland: Free Presbyterian
Publications, 1985 ), p. 93.
sing Psalms. The question that is often raised concerning this section of the Confession is: Doesthe term “psalm” refer to the book of Psalms, religious songs in general including man-made
hymns, or to all inspired Scripture songs? Advocates of neo-presbyterian worship like to point
out the fact that the word psalm is not capitalized as if this proves the word is used in some
vague generic sense. The problem with this argument is the simple fact that the authors the
Westminster Standards only capitalized the word Psalms when it was used as a title of the whole
book. Note the following quote from The Directory for the Publick Worship of God:
We commend also the more frequent reading of such Scripture as he that readeth shall think
best for edification of his hearers, as the book of Psalms, and such like. When the minister who
readeth shall judge it necessary to expound any part of what is read, let it not be done until the
whole chapter or psalm be ended.... After reading of the word, (and singing of the psalm,) the
minister who is to preach....
It is the duty of Christians to praise God publickly, by singing psalms together in the
congregation, and also privately in the family.
In singing of psalms, the voice is to be tunably and gravely ordered; but the chief care mustbe to sing with understanding, and with grace in the heart, making melody unto the Lord.
That the whole congregation may join herein, every one that can read is to have a psalm book;and all others, not disabled by age or otherwise, are to be exhorted to learn to read. But for thepresent, where many in the congregation cannot read, it is convenient that the minister, or someother fit person appointed by him or the other ruling officers, do read the psalm, line by line,before the singing thereof.
The quote above proves that the word psalm or psalms refers not to worship songs in general
whether inspired or uninspired but to the book of Psalms in particular.
Further examination of the Minutes of the Westminster Assembly proves that the onlysong book approved by the assembly for public worship was Mr. Rouse’s version of the book of
Mr. Reynolds made a report of an answer to the Lords about Mr. Barton’s Psalms. It wasread and debated....This answer to the House of Commons.
Ordered—That whereas the Honble House of Commons hath, by an order bearing the date of
the 20th of November 1643, recommended the Psalms set out by Mr. Rouse to the consideration
of the Assembly of Divines, the Assembly hath caused them to be carefully perused, and as they
are now altered and amended, do approve of them, and humbly conceive that it may be useful
and profitable to the Church that they be permitted to be publicly sung.(1)
Ordered—The Committee that perused the Psalms shall carry this up to the Honble House of
Dr. Temple, Dr. Smith, Dr. Wincop, to carry up the answer to the House of Lords.178
A footnote tells us the response of the House of Lords: “(1)The House in consequence resolved‘that this Book of Psalms set forth by Mr. Rouse, and perused by the Assembly of Divines, be
forthwith printed.’—Journals of House of Commons, vol. iv. p. 342.”179
177 Ibid. pp. 376, 393.
178 Edited by Alex F. Mitchell and John Struthers, Minutes of the Sessions of the Westminster Assembly of Divines
While Engaged in Preparing Their Directory for Church Government, Confession of Faith, and Catechisms
(November 1644 to March 1649), From Transcripts of the Originals Procured by a Committee of the General
Assembly of the Church of Scotland (Edmonton, AB, Canada: Still Waters Revival Books, 1991 ), p. 163.
The only debates that occurred in the Westminster Assembly regarding the singing of
praise were over whether or not other translations of the book of Psalms should be sung in thechurches. The assembly only authorized the Rouse version because “it is so exactly framedaccording to the original text” and for the sake of uniformity and edification:
The Committee made report of an answer to the House of Lords about Mr. Barton’s Psalms. Itwas read; and upon debate it was.
Resolved upon the Q., To be transcribed and sent to the Lords as the answer of this Assembly to
their order. Mr. Carter, jun., enters his dissent to this vote of sending up this answer to the
(1) This answer is not inserted in the Minutes, but it has been preserved in the Journals of the
House of Lords, and is as follows:—
TO THE RIGHT THE HOUSE OF LORDS ASSEMBLED IN PARLIAMENT.
The Assembly of Divines received April 9
th from this Honourable House an Order, bearing date
March 20th, 1646, to certify this Honourable House why the translation of Psalms by Mr. Barton
may not be used and sung in the churches, by such as shall desire it, as well as any other
translation; do humbly return this answer: That whereas on the 14th of November 1645, in
obedience to an order of this Honourable House concerning the said Mr. Barton’s Psalms, wehave already commended to this Honourable House one translation of the Psalms in verse, made
by Mr. Rouse, and perused and amended by the same learned gentlemen, and the Committee of
the Assembly, as conceiving it would be very useful for the edification of the Church in regard
it is so exactly framed according to the original text: and whereas there are several other
translations of the Psalms already extant: We humbly conceive that if liberty should be given to
people to sing in churches, every one that translation they desire, by that means several
translations might come to be used, yea, in one and the same congregation at the same time,
which would be a great disruption and hindrance to edification.—Journals of House of Lords,
vol. viii. pp. 283, 284.180
The last debate, regarding whether or not Mr. Barton’s translation of the Psalms (or any otherversion other than the Rouse version) would be used, occurred on Wednesday morning, April 22,
1646.181 As noted in the quote above it was resolved that only Mr. Rouse’s version would bepermitted in the churches. Only six months later on Friday morning, October 30, 1646, chapter
21—“of Religious Worship” was voted on and agreed to by the assembly.182 The idea (that israther common today) that the word “psalms” in the chapter regarding religious worship includesuninspired hymns is clearly false. Did the Puritan and Presbyterians go beyond the Standards (as
Frame asserts) in their insistence upon exclusive Psalmody? No. Absolutely not! If neo-
Presbyterians want to include hymns and campfire ditties in their worship services, their
backslidden General Assemblies certainly allow it. They, however, should be open and honest
and admit that they are anti-confessional on this matter.
Robert Shaw in his Exposition of the Confession of Faith (1845) teaches that the “singing
of psalms” in the Confession of Faith means exactly that it says:
3. Singing of psalms. This was enjoined, under the Old Testament, as a part of the ordinary
worship of God, and it is distinguished from ceremonial worship.— Ps. lxix.30, 31. It is not
180 Ibid. pp. 221-222.181 Ibid. p. 221.
182 Ibid. p. 298.
abrogate under the New Testament, but rather confirmed.—Eph. v. 19; Col. iii. 16. It is
sanctioned by the example of Christ and his apostles.—Matt. xxvi. 30; Acts xvi. 25. The Psalms
of David were especially intended by God for the use of the Church in the exercise of public
praise, under the former dispensation; and they are equally adapted to the use of the Church
under the present dispensation. Although the apostles insist much upon the abolition of ritual
institutions, they give no intimations that the Psalms of David are unsuitable for gospel-
worship; and had it been intended that they should be set aside in New Testament times, there is
reason to think that another psalmody would have been provided in their room. In the Book of
Psalms there are various passages which seem to indicate that they were intended by the Spiritfor the use of the Church in all ages. “I will extol thee, my God, O King,” says David, “and I
will bless thy name for ever and ever.”—Ps. cxiv. 1.183
Not only is the teaching of the Confession of Faith and Directory of Public Worship clear on this
issue, it is a fact of history that Presbyterians in Scotland, Ireland and North America were
exclusive Psalm singers until the latter part of the eighteenth century. What is of particular
interest regarding the abandonment of exclusive psalmody by the large Presbyterian bodies in the
eighteenth century is that exclusive psalmody was not abandoned as a result of careful study and
refutation by pastors, scholars and theologians.
The departure of various Presbyterian denominations from exclusive psalmody (i.e.,
biblical worship) occurred primarily for three reasons: (1) Various Presbyterian churches lost the
biblical understanding of the regulative principle of worship and thus only applied it to the publicworship service. “Private” gatherings, family and private worship were considered areas of lifeoutside the strict parameter of divine warrant. Virtually all the innovations of the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries came into the churches through practices that were arbitrarily placedoutside of the “Sola Scriptura” (e.g., family worship, Sunday School, revival meetings, etc.). (2)
Many Presbyterians were influenced by the pietistic, sentimental revivalism that swept through
the colonies in the eighteenth century. During this time a number of families and pastors beganusing Isaac Watts’ Psalms of David Imitated (1719) instead of the carefully translated 1650psalter employed by Presbyterians of the day. Watts’ version of the Psalms was a radicaldeparture from exclusive psalmody which went far beyond even a paraphrase of the Psalms.Watts’ version of the Psalms in many instances amounted to uninspired hymns loosely based on
the Psalms. One must never forget that Isaac Watts, in the preface to his Hymns and Spiritual
Songs (1707), openly admitted that he regarded the Psalms of David as defective, “opposite to
the Gospel” and liable to cause believers to “speak a falsehood unto God.” Watts’ version of thePsalms became accepted by many families and various ministers and was a stepping stone to theblatant uninspired hymnody of Watts’ hymnbook. (3) The innovations of the eighteenth century
183 Robert Shaw, An Exposition of the Confession of Faith (Edmonton, AB, Canada: Still Waters Revival Books, ed.
, pp. 224-225. Orthodox Presbyterian pastor G. I. Williamson concurs: “Another element of true worship is
‘the singing of psalms with grace in the heart.’ It will be observed that the Confession does not acknowledge thelegitimacy of the use of modern hymns in the worship of God, but rather only the psalms of the Old Testament. It is
not generally realized today that Presbyterian and Reformed churches originally used only the inspired psalms,
hymns, and songs of the Biblical Psalter in divine worship, but such is the case. The Westminster Assembly not only
expressed the conviction that only the psalms should be sung in divine worship, but implemented it by preparing a
metrical version of the Psalter for use in the Churches. This is not the place to attempt a consideration of this
question. But we must record our conviction that the Confession is correct at this point. It is correct, we believe,
because it has never been proved that God has commanded his Church to sing the uninspired compositions of menrather than or along with the inspired songs, hymns, and psalms of the Psalter in divine worship.” (The Confession of
Faith For Study Classes [Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1964], p. 167).
would not have taken root if the presbyteries in the colonies had done their job and disciplined
ministers who had corrupted the worship of God and departed from Scripture and the
Westminster Standards. There was an unwillingness to make purity of worship an issue ofdiscipline. There were various battles over the Watts’ version from 1752 through the 1780's. Theoutcome, however, was always the same. The presbytery or synod involved refused to take
decisive action, thereby allowing the Watts imitations to continue. As a result, those unwilling to
pollute themselves separated to smaller, more biblical Presbyterian bodies. The declension was
codified in 1788 when a new directory for worship was adopted which changed the statement of
the 1644 directory—“singing of Psalms” to “by singing Psalms and hymns.”
Michael Bushell warns us to learn from the sins and mistakes of the P.C.U.S.A. He
Under the pietistic and humanistic influences attending and following the Great Awakening,
the American Presbyterian Church eventually came to the conclusion that the peace of the
church was best to be served by allowing considerable diversity in the worship practices of the
churches under its care. The worship practice of the Presbyterian church was, in effect, cut loose
from the bonds of Scripture and allowed to run its own course. It was this situation as much asanything else that led eventually to the Presbyterian church’s defection to Modernism. If achurch will not keep its worship pure and biblical, if it will not jealously guard its own practice
when its people come before God in self-conscious praise and adoration, then it is not to be
expected that it will long maintain its doctrinal purity. It is no small wonder that men have so
little respect intellectually for the Scriptures when daily they ignore their clear commands
concerning how their Author is to be worshiped. The worship of the Presbyterian church in this
country is dictated now largely by the demands of convenience, not the demands of Scripture,
and there is no basic difference between liberal and evangelical churches on this score, not at
least as regards outward form. To our brethren in the various Reformed communions whowould disagree with this, we would ask this simple question: “If the regulative principle werenot taught in the Scriptures, what difference would it make in your worship?” The answer in
most cases would have to be, “very little.” We would also ask our brethren whether they havesought self-consciously to apply the regulative principle to their worship practice. We have a
suspicion that most of the people in our Reformed churches have never even heard of the
regulative principle, much less sought to apply it. Our Reformed churches have inherited a
pattern of thinking which will countenance virtually any practice in worship as long as it does
not offend the wrong people. These are harsh words, but we are fully convinced that they are
Another supposed “minimalistic” practice that Frame implies goes beyond theWestminster Standards was the non-use of musical instruments in worship. Was the non-use of
musical instruments in worship only the opinion of some Puritans who went beyond the
consensus of the Westminster Assembly? No. Absolutely not! A letter from the Scottish
ministers and elders who were delegates to the Westminster Assembly to the General Assemblyof Scotland (1644) proves the opposite. It reads: “[W]e cannot but admire the good hand of GOD
184 Michael Bushell, The Songs of Zion: A Contemporary Case for Exclusive Psalmody (Pittsburgh: Crown and
Covenant Publications, 1993 ), pp. 210-211. For a more thorough discussion of the abandonment of exclusive
psalmody by the P.C.U.S.A., see Bushell, pages 198-212. The abandonment of exclusive psalmody by other
Presbyterian denominations and Dutch Reformed churches is discussed in pages 212 to 220. For further reading onthe P.C.U.S.A. and Watts’ Psalms see Charles Hodge, The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the
United States of America (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1851), part 2, pp. 244-306.
in the great things done here already, particularly; That the Covenant (the Foundation of the
whole Work) is taken; Prelacie and the whole train thereof, extirpated; The Service-Book in
many places forsaken, plain and powerful preaching set up; Many Colleges in Cambridge
provided with such Ministers, as are most zealous of the best Reformation; Altars removed; The
Communion in some places given at the Table setting; The great Organs and Pauls and of Petersin Westminster taken down; Images and many other monuments of Idolatry defaced andabolished.”185 The General Assembly of Scotland responded to the letter from the commissionersby writing an official letter to the Church of England. It reads: “We were greatly refreshed tohear by Letters from our Commissioners there with you...of the great good things the Lord hath
wrought among you and for you...many corruptions, as Altars, Images, and other Monuments of
Idolatry and Superstition removed...the great Organs at Pauls and Peters taken down.”186 The
non-use of musical instruments in worship was the norm of Puritans and Presbyterians and was
the main position of the Westminster divines. The non-musical instrument position among
Presbyterians began to be abandoned in the 1880's.
A third practice which Frame would consider “minimalistic” and extreme is the non-
celebration of holy days (e.g., Christmas and Easter) other than Sunday, the Christian Sabbath. Is
this position something that goes beyond the Westminster Assembly? No. The assembly hasmade itself very clear on this matter. The Westminster Assembly’s Directory for the Publick
Worship of God (1645) says, “There is no day commanded in the Scripture to be kept holy under
the gospel but the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath. Festival days, vulgarly calledHoly-days, having no warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued.”187
Frame apparently wants us to believe that there is the Westminster Standards with which
he is in agreement and there are Puritan and other Reformed texts that go beyond the Confession
that need to be corrected. Given the fact that the Assembly endorsed exclusive psalmody, the
abolishment of musical instruments in worship and holy days, we ask Frame to show us what arethe “minimalist” views that go beyond the Confession that he is referring to? There were
Puritans who argued that churches should stop saying the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, theConfession, and the doxology. There also was disagreement over issues such as conventicles.
However, division did not occur over these side issues. If these are the issues that Frame is
referring to, one cannot tell by reading his book. The issues that do bother Frame, that he spends
time refuting, were all matters which were endorsed by the Westminster Assembly. Therefore, itis fair to conclude that Frame’s book at many points is an attack on the Westminster Standards inparticular and Reformed worship in general.188
185 John Maitland, Alexander Henderson, Samuel Rutherford, Robert Baillie and George Gillepsie (the Scottishdelegates to the Westminster Assembly), 1644.
186 The General Assemblies [sic] Answer to the Right Reverend the Assembly of the Divines in the Kirk of England(1644). Samuel Gibson writes, “But it hath been often said, Take away the Common Prayer Book, take away our
Religion. Nay, our Religion is in the Bible, there is our God, and our Christ, and our Faith, and our Creed in allpoints. The whole Bible was Paul’s belief; there are the Psalms of David, and his Prayers, and the Lord’s Prayer, andother prayers, by which we may learn to pray. We have still the Lord’s Songs, the Songs of Zion, sung by many withgrace in their hearts, making melody to the Lord, though without organs. There we have all the commandments.”—Samuel Gibson (minister, Church of England; Westminster divine), The Ruin of the Authors and Fomentors of Civil
187 The Confession of Faith, The Larger and Shorter Catechisms, etc., p. 394.
188 What is particularly bizarre regarding Frame’s book is that in the paragraph immediately prior to the one inwhich he falsely claims that minimalistic worship was not a product of the Westminster Standards, but came from
other Puritan and Reformed works that go beyond the Standards. He wrote: “Presbyterian worship—based on thebiblical ‘regulative principle,’ which I describe in these pages—was in its early days very restrictive, austere, and
Frame’s Redefinition of the Regulative Principle
In this section we will prove that Frame completely redefines the regulative principle of
worship. It is very important that Reformed believers who adhere to the Reformed symbolsunderstand that Frame’s concept of divine warrant has virtually nothing to do with theWestminster Standards. In fact, what Frame offers as an exposition of the regulative principle is
totally unique. This author (who has studied this issue extensively) is unaware of any Reformed
theologians, expositors or authors who have advocated views on the regulative principle ordivine warrant that are even remotely similar to Frame’s view. (The closest view perhaps is
Steve Schissel’s “informed principle of worship” which is founded on an open rejection of theregulative principle.189) Frame should have followed his own advice on how to write a
theological paper. He writes, “At the very least, it will involve exegetical research and intelligent
interaction with biblical texts. Otherwise, the theological work can hardly make any claim toscripturality; and if it is not scriptural, it is simply worthless.”190 We will see that Frame’s use ofthe biblical texts for divine warrant of such things as drama is not intelligent, not scriptural andcompletely worthless. Frame continues, “Additionally, there should usually be some interaction
with other orthodox theologians to guard against individualistic aberration.”191 Frame’sunderstanding of the regulative principle is clearly an individualistic aberration. This reviewer
challenges Frame and the seminary professors who endorsed his anti-confessional book toproduce one Reformed author who agrees with Frame’s concept of divine warrant.
Frame lays the foundation of his own unique version of the regulative principle inchapters 4 and 5. In chapter 4 (“rules for worship”) Frame discusses the regulative principle. In
chapter 5 (“What to Do in Worship”) he deals with the elements of worship. What Frame does in
these chapters is very deceptive. First he gives a fairly standard orthodox definition of the
regulative principle. (In this section, however, he does ignore how Puritans and Presbyterians
defined methods of divine warrant.) After he identifies himself as a confessional Presbyterian
who adheres to the regulative principle he then proceeds to systematically redefine and destroythe historic confessional understanding of the regulative principle. A careful reading of Frame’sbook reveals that Frame believes the historic confessional understanding of the regulative
principle is unbiblical and unworkable. Because Frame believes that the historic confessional
understanding of the regulative principle is unbiblical and unworkable, he sets it aside and then
proceeds to give us his own unique version of it.
‘minimalist.’ It excluded organs, choirs, hymn texts other than the Psalms, symbolism in the worship area, and
religious holidays except for the Sabbath” (p. xii). The regulative principle, that Frame says in its early days was
very restrictive, austere, and minimalist that produced the Presbyterian and Reformed worship that Frame describes,
is set forth in the strictest manner in the Standards (cf. WCF 1:6-7; 20:2; 21:1-5; LC 108, 109, 110; SC 50, 51, 52).Frame’s version of history makes no sense whatsoever. The Puritans and Presbyterians taught and practiced a strict
regulativist type of worship, yet supposedly in their Standards they espoused something different. Such a version of
events is totally absurd.
189 See Brian M. Schwertley’s A Brief Critique of Steven Schissel’s Article against the Regulative Principle ofWorship.
190 John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987), p.
How does Frame replace the confessional regulative principle with his own uniqueversion of it? There are a number of things that must be examined in our analysis of Frame’sredefinition. First, Frame takes the position that the Bible does not offer specifics regarding
worship but only generalities. This type of argument was common among Anglican theologians
(e.g., Hooker) as they attempted to refute the Puritans. According to Frame, the specifics are left
to man’s discretion. Second, Frame gives a false portrayal of the Puritan-Presbyterian position
regarding informal vs. formal meetings. He also makes no distinction between public, family and
private worship; and, ignores the distinction between extra-ordinary events and set times of
worship. Frame wants to be able to mine the Scriptures for divine warrant in places that clearly
have nothing to do with a public worship service. Third, Frame rejects the confessional view
regarding the circumstances of worship in favor of what he calls “applications.” This departurefrom the Confession allows Frame to move away from specific warrant to warrant that is
dependent on general rules or principles. Frame takes the rules that the Westminster divines
applied only to circumstances or incidentals of worship and uses them as divine warrant forworship ordinances. Fourth, Frame rejects the Westminster Confession of Faith’s view regardingthe elements of worship. Frame replaces the confessional view of separate elements that are each
dependent on specific divine warrant in favor of a few general categories that men can apply asthey see fit. As we consider Frame’s redefinition of the regulative principle we must not lose
sight of the fact that Frame’s book is a defense of neo-Presbyterian (i.e., Arminian-Charismaticstyle) worship. Frame’s clever redefinitions are directed at one goal. That goal is the removal of
the strict, “minimalistic,” confessional concept of divine warrant in favor of a very broad,general, loose concept of divine warrant.
Frame’s Lip Service to the Westminster Standards
If one reads Frame’s endorsement of the Westminster Standards and his initial definitionof the regulative principle in isolation from the rest of his book, one would get the impression
that Frame was a confessional, or orthodox, Presbyterian. Frame writes, “My own theologicalcommitment is Presbyterian; I subscribe enthusiastically to the Westminster Confession of Faith
and Catechisms, and I trust that that commitment will be quite evident in this book.”192
Note that Frame defends the Reformed understanding of worship against non-Reformed
views. He writes, “Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and Lutherans have taken the position thatwe may do anything in worship except what Scripture forbids. Here Scripture regulates worship
in a negative way—by exercising veto power. Presbyterian and Reformed churches, however,
have employed a stronger principle: whatever Scripture does not command is forbidden. Here
Scripture has more veto power; its function is essentially positive. On this view, Scripture mustpositively require a practice, if that practice is to be suitable for the worship of God.”193 Frame
then quotes the classic regulativist statement from the Westminster Confession of Faith (21:1)
and says, “The operative word is ‘prescribed.’ Eventually this restriction of worship to what Godprescribes became known as the ‘regulative principle.’”194 Frame continues, “Can any of us trustourselves to determine apart from Scripture, what God does and does not like in worship? Our
finitude and sin disqualify us from making such judgments.... Scripture itself condemns worship
192 John Frame, Worship in Spirit and in Truth, p. xiv-xv.193 Ibid. p.38.
194 Ibid. p. 39.
that is based only on human ideas.... Scripture, God’s word, is sufficient for our worship, as for
all life.”195 Frame refers to a number of standard regulative passages such as Leviticus 10:1-2,
Isaiah 29:13, Matthew 15:8-9, Mark 7:6-7 and Colossians 2:23.196
Frame Reveals His True Colors
After reading Frame’s statements regarding his commitment to the WestminsterStandards and the regulative principle one would naturally think that Frame was a champion of
the regulative principle and the Reformed worship of Calvin, Knox, the Puritans and earlyPresbyterians. The truth of the matter, however, is that Frame’s concept of the regulativeprinciple and divine warrant as delineated in the rest of his book is an explicit rejection of the
Westminster Standards and Reformed confessional worship.
One can begin to see Frame’s real opinion of the regulative principle when he writes,“Unlike some Presbyterian writers, I believe that I understand, and understand sympathetically,
why some sincere Christians prefer not to worship in the Presbyterian way. I recognize that there
are real problems in the traditional Presbyterian view that need to be addressed from theScriptures, and I intend to deal with these problems seriously.”197 Did we not just read aboutFrame’s strong commitment to the Westminster Standards and the regulative principle ofworship? If Frame adheres to the Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms, as he
claims, then would he not believe that the Presbyterian way is the biblical way? Is he not
admitting here that he believes there are problems with the Westminster Standards that need to
be addressed by the Scriptures? In other words, the Westminster Standards are unscriptural and
need to be altered in order to meet biblical teaching. Is it possible that Frame is not referring to
the Standards themselves but to the corruption of the Presbyterian worship that has occurred
since the second half of the eighteenth century? No. Since Frame spends a good deal of time
196 Frame, p. 39. Although Frame gives us a list of traditional regulative principle proof texts, note that he does not
really believe that these passages actually prove the regulative principle. He tells us that he relies on more generalprinciples; however, he does not tell us where or how these principles are derived from the Bible. He writes, “Somereaders will note that although I earlier cited a list of passages such as Lev. 10:1-3 to show God’s displeasure withillegitimate worship, I have not used this list to prove the regulative principle, but have instead relied on moregeneral considerations. It does not seem to me that that list of passages proves the precise point that ‘whatever is notcommanded is forbidden.’ The practices condemned in those passages are not merely not commanded; they are
explicitly forbidden. For example, what Nadab and Abihu did in Lev. 10:1 was not only ‘unauthorized,’ the text
informs us, but also ‘contrary to [God’s] command.’ The fire should have been taken from God’s altar (Num.
16:46), not from a private source (compare Ex. 35:3)” [p. 47, endnote 2]. Frame’s analysis of the Nadab and Abihuincident is erroneous. The reason that the fire of Nadab and Abihu is called “strange” (KJV), “profane” (NKJV) or
“unauthorized” (NIV) is not because it is expressly forbidden, but because as the text explicitly says, it was nevercommanded. The passages that Frame offers to disprove the traditional regulativist understanding of the passage do
not prove his point at all. The Numbers 16:46 passage simply says that fire is to be taken from the altar and put on a
censer. Neither in this or any other passage are people expressly told not to use fire from any other source. The pointof the regulative principle is that when God says take fire from the altar men must follow God’s direction withoutadding their own human rules or traditions. The passage that Frame offers as proof (Ex. 35:3) that fire from another
source is expressly forbidden teaches that the people are not to kindle a fire in their dwellings on the Sabbath. It has
nothing to do with the Leviticus 10:1 passage. That Frame would list a series of passages in a section on the
regulative principle that he really doesn’t believe teaches the regulative principle is strange. However, since he
heartily endorses the Westminster Standards’ teaching on worship and then explicitly rejects it later in the samebook, we should not be surprised by such contradictions.
197 Ibid. xv.
defending the declension that has occurred, one can only come to the conclusion that Framebelieves there are “real problems” with the Westminster Standards.
Frame also admits that his concept of the regulative principle leaves plenty of room for
human autonomy. He writes, “The first key to meaningful worship is to do as God commands.Beyond that, of course, there is the question of how best to carry out those commands in our owntime and place. This is the question of the ‘language’ in which we should express our worship toGod and in which we should seek to edify one another. But we must know what limits God has
placed upon us before we can determine the areas in which we are free to seek more meaningful
forms. One of my main concerns in this book is to define both the areas in which we are boundby God’s norms and the areas in which we are set free (by those same norms!) to developcreative applications of those norms.”198 The key to understanding Frame’s redefinition of the
historic understanding of the regulative principle is the phrase “creative applications.” (His
unique view regarding “creative applications” will be dealt with below.)
Frame believes that the regulative principle does not lead God’s people to any particular
“style of worship.” He writes, “In the remainder of this book, therefore, I will not urge anyone toconform to the Puritan style of worship or to any other style. In that respect, this book will be
rather unusual, compared to most other worship books! Rather, I shall present the regulative
principle as one that sets us free, within limits, to worship God in the language of our own time,to seek those applications of God’s commandments which most edify worshipers in our
contemporary cultures. We must be both more conservative and more liberal than most studentsof Christian worship: conservative in holding exclusively to God’s commands in Scripture as ourrule of worship, and liberal in defending the liberty of those who apply those commandments inlegitimate, though nontraditional, ways.”199 According to Frame the Bible does not offer any
blueprints in the sphere of worship. It rather is vague and general and thus leaves the details to
man (i.e., human autonomy).200
198 Ibid. xv.
199 Ibid. p. 46.
200 Frame has also adopted unbiblical views regarding women in public worship. He has imbibed the teachings of
James Hurley on this issue which were set forth to circumvent the clear teaching of Scripture and accommodate theinfiltration of feminism in the church. Frame writes, “In general, I agree with James Hurley, Man and Woman in
Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), and others, who argue that the only biblical limitation onwomen’s role is that women may not be elders. Hurley argues that the prohibition on women speaking in 1 Cor.
14:34-35 is not for the duration of the meeting, but for the authoritative ‘weighing of the prophets’ described in vv.29-33, and that the teaching prohibited in 1 Tim. 2:12 is the authoritative teaching of the office of elder. However
we may interpret these difficult passages, it is plain that under some circumstances women did legitimately speak in
worship (1 Cor. 11:5) and that women were not entirely excluded from teaching (Acts 18:26; Titus 2:4) (p. 75,endnote 6).” There are a number of reasons why the teaching of Frame and Hurley must be rejected. First, nowherein the Bible do we find a distinction between authoritative versus non-authoritative teaching in public worship. This
kind of arbitrary, non-textually based distinction would have made the medieval scholastics proud. Second, Hurley
ignores the fact that although women were not permitted to ask questions, speak or teach in the Jewish synagogues
in the Old Covenant and apostolic era, men—the heads of households—were permitted to ask questions and make
comments regarding the Scripture reading and exposition. Women had to ask their husbands at home. Why ignore
the historical context (and cultural milieu) and read our modern feminist culture back into the text? The answer issimple. Hurley’s arguments are more a justification of existing practice (i.e., the current declension) than objectiveexegesis. Third, at no point in the passage (1 Cor. 14:34-35) or the context are we told that women keeping silentapplies only to the evaluation of prophets. Hurley’s conclusion is speculation—a speculation not made by virtually
any commentator, theologian or preacher until the rise and popularity of feminism in the 1970's. Fourth, Hurley’sspeculative conclusion contradicts the explicit teaching of 1 Tim. 2:12 where there is no possibility that Paul is only
speaking about the evaluation of the prophets. Fifth, the reasons that are given in Scripture for women not speaking,
teaching or asking questions in church (e.g., 1. God’s ordained order of authority [1 Cor. 11:3]; 2. Adam was created
According to the Westminster Standards and Puritan thought, the regulative principle
gives men freedom from human traditions and innovations in worship. Frame defines the
regulative principle in a manner that gives freedom to innovate as long as some generalguidelines are followed and the innovations are called “creative application.” He writes, “In myview, once we understand what Scripture actually commands for worship, we will see that it
actually leaves quite a number of things to our discretion and therefore allows considerable
flexibility. I believe that most books on worship, Presbyterian and otherwise, underestimate the
amount of freedom that Scripture permits in worship.... This book, however, will stress that
Scripture leaves many questions open—questions that different churches in different situationscan legitimately answer differently.”201 If the regulative principle restricts men to only those
practices that are dependent upon divine warrant or scriptural proof, how can one argue that this
principle gives men great freedom? If by freedom Frame means freedom from doctrine,
commandments and innovations of man or a certain freedom in areas that are circumstantial to
worship (e.g., seating arrangement, lighting, type of pulpit, etc.), then we would agree. But,Frame’s definition of freedom goes way beyond the Westminster Standards. He defines freedom
as “creative application” of general principles that can lead to completely different types of
worship. Note the phrases such as: “our discretion,” “considerable flexibility,” “creative
application,” “many questions open,” “we are free to seek more meaningful forms,” etc. Framewants worship that is based on human autonomy and that is full of innovations, but which in a
very loose, convoluted manner is somehow connected with the general teachings of Scripture.
Frame’s “No Specifics” Regulative Principle
Frame’s unique definition of the regulative principle is in part founded upon hisunderstanding of synagogue and (apostolic) Christian meetings. He writes, “Jesus attended thesynagogue regularly and taught there (Luke 4:15-16), so there can be no question as to God’sapproval of the institution. It is interesting, however, to note that the synagogue and the temple
first [1 Tim. 2:14]; 3. The woman [Eve] originated from the man [Adam] [Gen. 2:21-22; 1 Cor. 11:8]; 4. The
woman-wife was created as a help-meet to the man-Adam [Gen. 2:18; 1 Cor. 11:9]; 5. Eve was deceived and fell
into transgression [1 Tim. 2:14]; 6. The covenant headship of the husband [1 Cor. 14:34-35]) obviously apply to all
forms of teaching or speaking in public worship. They cannot arbitrarily be applied to only one type of speaking orteaching. This point is strongly supported by Paul’s statements regarding women being submissive and asking theirown husbands at home. Paul is setting forth and supporting the biblical teaching regarding covenant headship.
Hurley artificially applies these broad overarching principles to a tiny sliver of public worship (the evaluation of
prophets) that no longer even applies to the modern church, for prophecy has ceased. Sixth, the alleged major
difficulty of reconciling 1 Cor. 11:5 (where women are said to pray and prophecy) with 1 Cor. 14:34-35 (where
women are forbidden to speak in church and are commanded to keep silent) has been resolved in ways that do not
violate the analogy of Scripture and are much more exegetically responsible than Hurley’s speculation. Threepossible interpretations are: 1. When Paul refers to women praying and prophesying in 1 Cor. 11:5, the termprophesying refers to women singing the Psalms which are prophetic Scripture. 2. Paul’s discussion of women
praying and prophesying in public worship is merely hypothetical, for he later forbids the practice altogether in 1
Cor. 14:34-35 (cf. Calvin’s commentary on the passage). 3. Paul under inspiration regards women setting forthdirect revelation from God to be an exception to regular speaking (e.g., making comments or asking questions) or
teaching (i.e., the uninspired exposition of Scripture). In other words, since prophecy is God Himself speaking
without human exposition, a woman prophesying is not herself exercising authority over a man. The passages that
Frame uses (Ac. 18:26; Ti. 2:4) for women teaching have nothing to do with public worship. The first passage refersto Priscilla and her husband’s private instructions of Apollos. The second passage refers to older women who in
their inter-personal relationships with younger women are to teach them how to be good wives and homemakers.
201 Ibid. xvi.
were very different in their scriptural warrant: God regulated the sacrificial worship of the
tabernacle and the temple in detail, charging the people to do everything strictly according to the
revealed pattern. He hardly said anything to Israel, however, about the synagogue (or, for that
matter, about the ministries of teaching and prayer carried out on the temple grounds), leaving
the arranging of its services largely to the discretion of the people. Of course, they knew ingeneral what God wanted: he wanted his word to be taught and prayer to be offered. But God left
the specifics open-ended.”202 Frame argues that divine warrant is applicable only in a “general”
manner. The specifics are “open-ended.” That is, the specifics are determined by man.
Frame asserts that the Christian meeting was like the synagogue in that scriptural warrant
does not descend to the level of specific parts of worship. Therefore, various actions that are partof new covenant religious worship do not require “specific scriptural authorization.” He writes,“Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to prove that anything is divinely required specificallyfor official services.”203 He adds, “The New Testament tells us a little more about the Christianmeeting (which was more like the synagogue than like the sacrificial worship of the temple), but
it gives us no systematic or exhaustive list of the events that were authorized for such services.
Certainly it gives us no list of elements in the technical sense of Puritan theology—actions
requiring specific scriptural authorization as opposed to circumstances or applications that donot.”
After arguing that the regulative principle does not apply to specifics (which Frame
knows is a non-confessional understanding of the regulative principle), he sets forth his own
unique version of divine warrant. He writes, “Where specifics are lacking, we must apply thegeneralities by means of our sanctified wisdom, within general principles of the word.... The
New Testament does not give us an exhaustive list of what was and was not done at early
Christian meetings. However, as in the case of the Old Testament synagogue, we may, by appeal
to broad theological principles, gain assurance as to what God wants us to do when we gather inhis name.”204 In the area of worship Frame believes that the Bible is not specific. It is
incomplete, vague and general. The Bible is like a defective map with some large roads noted yetwith the details missing. If the map is to be useful (or workable), men must use their “sanctified
wisdom” to fill in the specifics, details or missing pieces. Frame has adopted a position that is
closer to Episcopalianism than the strict regulativist position of the Westminster Standards.
Although Frame does not say that men are permitted to make things up as long as their
innovations are not contrary to Scripture, he does allow men a great area of autonomy as long aspractice is loosely based on “the general principles of the word.”
There are a number of ideas in Frame’s statements that need further comment. First,Frame has adopted the anti-regulativist interpretation of the Jewish synagogue. He assumes that
since there is not a set of inscripturated divine imperatives regarding the synagogue meetings,therefore what occurred in the synagogues was left “to the discretion of the people.” BeforeFrame even begins his chapter on the regulative principle (i.e., “The Rules for Worship”) he
argues that the regulative principle as historically defined at the most only applied to “the
sacrificial worship of the tabernacle and the temple.”205 Frame believes that the WestminsterStandard’s teaching that specific warrant is required for every worship ordinance or element is
202 Ibid. p. 2,. emphasis added.
203 Ibid. p. 44, emphasis added.
204 Ibid. pp. 54-55, emphasis added.205 Ibid. p. 23.
wrong and unbiblical. If Frame’s understanding is correct, then there is no regulative principle.
All of Frame’s talk regarding his strong commitment to the Westminster Standards is a sham.Frame’s analysis of the Jewish synagogues does raise a few important questions. Does the factthat there is not a set of explicit commands in Scripture which regulate the synagogues prove that
the Puritan-Presbyterian concept of divine warrant (that applies to specific parts or elements of
worship) is unscriptural? Did the Westminster divines and our Puritan and Presbyterian
forefathers make a serious blunder when they adopted the strict regulativist position and
incorporated it into their confessions and catechisms? Is Frame a hero for boldly standing up anddeclaring “the emperor has no clothes”? The answer to all these questions is an emphatic “no”!One can assume (as do Frame and many others) that synagogues were not under the regulative
principle (as historically defined) and that the Jews were making up the specifics of worship as
they went along. The only problem with such an assumption, however, is that it contradicts the
clear teaching of Scripture.
There are many passages in the Bible which unequivocally condemn adding to God’slaw-word (e.g., Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Prov. 30:5). Man is not permitted autonomously to determine
his own ethics, theology or worship. There are also passages where both Christ (e.g., Mt. 15:2-9;
Mk. 7:1-13) and Paul (e.g., Col. 2:20-23) condemn human traditions in worship. The Bible does
not merely condemn additions or innovations in a general manner but deals with specific
additions (e.g., offering the fruit of the ground instead of blood [Gen. 4:3-5]; strange fire [Lev.
10:1-2]; ritual hand washings [Mt. 15:2-9]; ascetic eating practices [Col. 2:21]. Note also that the
regulative principle (as biblically defined, i.e., the Puritan version) is not restricted to the
tabernacle or temple but is applied to individuals at home and church. Given the fact that
Scripture cannot contradict Scripture and the clearer portions of Scripture should be used to
interpret the less clear, does it make sense (hermeneutically) to assume that the synagogue
meetings were not regulated by divine revelation of some sort? Taking the Scriptures as a whole,
the Puritans believed that it would be contradictory for Christ and Paul to condemn specific
religious additions in the home and church yet countenance additions in the synagogue. Anaspect of “good and necessary consequence” (WCF 1:6, i.e., logical inference from Scripture) is
what Puritans referred to as approved historical example. When one observes in Scripture that
Abel (Gen. 4:4) and Noah (Gen. 8:20-21) offered acceptable sacrifices to Jehovah without any
prior inscripturated divine imperatives, or that the universal practice of the New Covenant
church was not seventh but first day public worship apart from any inscripturated instructions to
change the day, then one may logically infer that such practices were based on some form of
divine revelation that was not inscripturated.
The Puritan understanding of approved historical example is supported by Hebrews 11:4which says, “by faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain.” Biblical faithpresupposes divine revelation. Throughout Hebrews 11 true faith is spoken of as a belief inGod’s word that results in obedience to God’s revealed will. Any idea that Abel’s offering wasbased on reason alone, or that God’s acceptance of blood sacrifice was arbitrary or based on the
subjective state of Abel’s heart alone, must be rejected as unscriptural. Given the analogy ofScripture, the necessity of faith in acts of religious worship and the acceptance of certain
practices by God in Scripture that appear without detailed instructions, the idea that thesynagogue meetings were not regulated but were determined by “the discretion of the people” isunwarranted. To assume (as Frame does) that the Jews of the synagogue were making it up asthey went along (“winging it”) is to assume something that contradicts the clear teaching ofScripture.
Second, Frame argues that like the Jewish synagogues, the Christian meetings were
basically unregulated as to specifics (e.g., “The New Testament...gives us no systematic or
exhaustive list of the events that were authorized for such services”206). Although it is true that in
no place in the New Testament do we find a systematic list of what is to occur in public worship,
that does not mean that the New Testament has nothing to say in the matter or that the various
elements of worship cannot be determined from a study of Scripture. Whether or not the New
Testament gives us a systematic list of worship ordinances for New Covenant services is
irrelevant. Many important doctrines and issues are set forth in Scripture in a very non-
systematic manner. Frame is attempting to convince the readers of his book that a regulative
principle that deals with specifics must be rejected. Once he has deconstructed the historic,
traditional understanding of the regulative principle, then he will put in its place the general or“virtually anything goes” version. However, since the Bible clearly teaches that everything mandoes in worship (even to the specifics) must have divine warrant, we must not be deceived byFrame’s subterfuge. What about Frame’s claim that the New Testament does not give us an
“exhaustive list of the events that were authorized for such services”? The New Testament does
not need to give us an exhaustive list because if a practice is not found in the New Testament (or
taught or inferred from the Old Testament) then it is already forbidden. The idea that there is notan “exhaustive list” presupposes a prelatical concept of worship and is an implicit denial of the
sufficiency of Scripture in the sphere of worship.
Third, Frame teaches that divine warrant is not specific but general. He argues that since
the Bible does not contain specifics regarding synagogue or New Testament Christian meetings,men are to seek divine warrant in “broad theological generalities.” Men are to use their sanctified
wisdom to “apply the generalities.” People must follow the “general principles of the word.”When Frame speaks of divine warrant in terms of “broad theological principles,” “generalities”
and “general principles of the word,” he has rejected the Westminster Standards on this issue andhas completely redefined the regulative principle. There is a great difference between specific
warrant from Scripture for a particular practice and basing a practice on a “generality” or “broad
theological principle.” Using Frame’s definition of the regulative principle one can have aninfinite variety of worship options as long as a particular practice is loosely connected with a“generality” or “broad theological principle.” The strict, narrow version of the regulativeprinciple advocated by the Reformed confessions produced a general uniformity of worship formany generations. Frame’s view leads to chaos and a multiformity of worship practices precisely
because it leaves man a large area of autonomy. Frame of course does not call it autonomy. Heuses phrases such as “creative application” and “considerable flexibility.”
In order to reveal how Frame’s concept of divine warrant can prove almost anything one
wants, let us examine how Frame himself justifies certain practices in public worship. On page
56 he argues that greetings should be a part of the worship service. How does he prove that
greetings are prescribed by God? Frame writes, “They [greetings and benedictions] were clearly
part of church life, since they were a regular part of Paul’s letters (see Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3;Rom. 15:33; 1 Cor. 16:23-24; 2 Cor. 13:14). Since his letters were most likely read in church
meetings (Col. 4:16; 1 Th. 5:27; Phm. 2), these greetings and benedictions were also a part ofpublic worship.”207 Normally if a Reformed person wanted to argue in favor of a special
greetings time (i.e., handshake and hug time) during public worship he would look for a specific
command or attempt to infer a greeting time from a scriptural historical example. Frame,
206 Ibid. p. 55.207 Ibid. p. 56.
however simply points out that Paul greeted churches in his epistles and his letters were read in
the churches. The fact that all letters contain greetings and that it is doubtful that whole books ofthe Bible were read at each service is ignored. Following Frame’s logic one could argue: Boatsare frequently mentioned in Scripture (e.g., 2 Sam. 19:18; Prov. 30:19; Isa. 33:21; Ezek. 27:5;
Jon. 1:3-5; Mt. 4:21-22; Mk. 1:19; Lu. 5:3; Jn. 6:22; Ac. 27:16, 30, 32; etc.); since Scripture is
read in the church meetings, boats also should be part of public worship.
A better example of Frame’s concept of “creative application” is the divine warrant heoffers for the use of drama (i.e., skits or plays) in public worship. Frame’s argumentation in favorof drama gives us an explicit understanding of his unique definition of divine warrant. He even
introduces his argumentation as an example of an application of a general principle. He writes,“Many churches are using drama today in an attempt to communicate the word of God moreclearly than could be done through more traditional forms of preaching. Some Presbyterians
oppose this, because there is no specific command in Scripture to use drama in this way. But we
have seen that specific commands are not always needed. When God gives us a general
command (in this case the command to preach the word), and is silent on some aspects of its
specific application, we may properly make those applications ourselves, within the general rules
of Scripture. The questions before us, then, are whether drama is legitimately a form of
preaching or teaching, and whether there are any scriptural teachings that would rule it out as a
means of communicating the word. I would answer yes to the first question, and no thesecond.”208 Note, once again, that for Frame specific warrant is unnecessary. When Scripture issilent on “application” (i.e., when Scripture is insufficient or incomplete), man is to use hisautonomous thought to remove God’s silence. In other words man must take what is insufficientand general and make it sufficient and specific.
What does Frame offer as divine warrant for drama in public worship? He argues that“preaching and teaching contain many dramatic elements”209; Jesus “taught parables, which
often included dialogues between different characters”210; Paul’s letters “are often dramatic”211and “the book of Revelation is a dramatic feast”212; “the prophets sometimes performed symbolic
actions”213; and, “the Old Testament sacrifices and feasts, and the New Testament sacraments arere-enactments of God’s great works of redemption.”214
When we read Frame’s application of his own version of the regulative principle we areastonished that this book was endorsed by four seminary professors from two different“conservative, Reformed” seminaries.215 Why? Because Frame’s concept of divine warrant is sogeneral, wide and arbitrary one could prove virtually anything. His concept of “proof” wouldmake any cult leader smile. If one thinks this is exaggeration, let’s apply Frame’s concept ofdivine warrant to other practices that some people would find “refreshing” in public worship. Inthe Bible we often encounter prophets that are depressed. There also are many books in the Bible
that contain many sad and depressing elements. Therefore, we are authorized by God to have
208 Ibid. pp. 92-93.209 Ibid. p. 93.
215 Richard L.Pratt, Jr. and Steve Brown from Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando; Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. and
D. Clair Davis from Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia.
blues bands (with appropriate lyrics of course) as part of public worship. Why not? As Frame
asserts, is not singing simply one manner of teaching or preaching?
In the Bible we often read of military battles. The apostle Paul often portrays the
Christian life as one of warfare. In the book of Revelation do we not have a great war portrayedbetween Christ’s people and the followers of the beast? Therefore, as a creative application ofthese general theological principles we can incorporate sword fights into public worship. No one
would be hurt of course. They would simply be dramatic reenactments of the Christian life. The
children would love it.
The “exegetical” methods that Frame uses to prove or justify certain worship practicesare absurd. Frame goes to the Bible and takes things that have nothing to do with public worship
and then makes an arbitrary application to the human innovation he desires. Does the fact that
God required certain prophets to do some unusual and dramatic things tell us anything about how
we are to conduct a public worship service? No, of course not! There is no connection
whatsoever. Does the fact that preaching in Scripture can be dramatic somehow imply that God
has authorized dramatic presentations in public worship? No, not at all! The connection is totally
arbitrary. In fact not one person throughout all of church history saw such a connection until
Frame made it up. Does the fact that Jesus spoke in parables that had more than one character in
them prove that dramatic presentations are biblical? No. Listen carefully. Don’t miss this. The
characters in Jesus’ parables were not characters in a play or even real people. Christ was tellinga story in His teaching. To argue that our Lord was authorizing dramatic presentations in public
worship is pure fantasy. If Jesus was authorizing drama groups, the Spirit-inspired apostlesdidn’t see it, for dramatic presentations were excluded from apostolic worship. A legitimate
application of Jesus’ preaching methodology would be the use of illustrations and stories inpreaching. Does the fact that Revelation (according to Frame) is a dramatic feast tell us anything
about public worship? No. Although the book does contain some worship scenes couched in
apocalyptic imagery, there are no commands, historical examples or logical inferences pointing
to dramatic presentations in the book at all.
The argumentation that Frame uses to “prove” the worship practices that he desires oftenreminds this author of the argumentation used by Vern Poythress (a professor at Westminster
Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania) in his book The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses.216Given the many striking similarities a quote from Greg L. Bahnsen’s analysis of Poythress’ work
is in order. Bahnsen’s analysis fits Frame’s argumentation like a glove. When reading Bahnsen’s
analysis, just substitute Frame’s name for Poythress’. Bahnsen writes,
Poythress has a penchant for appealing to vague “motifs” in biblical passages and thentelling us (without exegetical basis) that they are suggestive of some theological “connection” or
“relation” (without definition). To deal with broad and ambiguous allusions is not precise
enough to demonstrate any specific conclusion; because there are no control principles or
predictability in how such vague notions will be taken, the door is left open too wide for theinterpreter’s subjective creativity. And simply to assert that X is (somehow) “related” or
“connected” to Y is trivial—not very informative. (Everything is related in some way to
everything else, after all.) These vague connections play a determinative role where Poythresswants to draw significant theological conclusions.... The key to drawing artful “connections”everywhere in the Bible, of course, is to make your categories broad and vague enough to
include just about anything.... What is the theologian supposed to do with such discussions?
216 Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth and Hyatt, 1991.
They aren’t arguments, really. They are more like mood enhancers (“take a couple of Valium
and enjoy the experience”). Seen in their least harmful light, I suppose such discussions may
have homiletical or pedagogical value—as adductive or illustrative aids for conclusions
established on more reliable exegetical grounds. They may even subjectively reinforce
preconceived theological commitments, but they hardly function as objective proof in a
theological argument, one subject to common rules of reasoning, predictable results, and public
examination. Poythress is not the only author these days who enjoys this style of writing:stringing together a host of loose “connections” in a stream-of-consciousness style, often with
organizing categories broad enough to include almost anything anyway, until one stipulates thathe has reached a “conclusion”—one which is usually as vague and ambiguous as it is lacking in
textual warrant. I would like to say that Poythress does it “better” than others, but there is reallylittle way to judge (since there are so few objective criteria).217
If professing Christians want to use Frame’s concept of divine warrant to “prove” variouspractices in public worship, they are free to do so. However, they should be honest and admit
that their version of the regulative principle has nothing to do with the Westminster Standards orReformed theology on the subject. Frame’s arbitrary, loose manner of “proving” various
practices from the Scriptures leaves Presbyterian and Reformed churches with no real restraints
on worship except the prelatical (i.e., Episcopal-Lutheran) principle that anything goes as long as
it is not expressly forbidden in the Bible.
Fourth, Frame rejects the Westminster Confession’s doctrine regarding the elements orparts of worship. He writes,
In response to this kind of question [i.e., the problem of generality and specificity], thePuritans developed the doctrine of “elements” or “parts” of worship. Worship, they believed, is
made up of certain clearly distinguishable elements: prayer, the reading of Scripture, preaching,
and so on. The regulative principle, they held, requires us to find biblical warrant for each of
these elements. For them, that answered the question about the level of specificity. We need not
find a biblical command to pray this or that particular prayer (assuming that the prayers under
consideration are all scriptural in their content and appropriate to the occasion), but we do need
a biblical warrant to include prayer as an element of worship.
But there are serious problems with this approach. The most serious problem is that there is
no scriptural warrant for it! Scripture nowhere divides worship up into a series of independent“elements,” each requiring independent scriptural justification. Scripture nowhere tells us thatthe regulative principle demands that particular level of specificity, rather than some other.218
Note, that (once again) Frame argues against the Puritans rather than the Westminster
Confession. He says that the Puritan position does not have biblical warrant, which is to say it is
unbiblical. He ignores the fact that: (a) the authors of the Westminster Standards and the early
Presbyterians were Puritans219 and (b) the Westminster Confession (21:3-5) clearly teaches the
217 Greg L. Bahnsen, No Other Standard: Theonomy and Its Critics (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics,1991), pp. 299-300, 302-303.
218 Worship in Spirit and in Truth, p. 52-53.
219 John Coffey writes, “In describing Scots like Rutherford as Puritan we are following the example of theircontemporaries. When James VI revisited Scotland in 1617 he recalled that many English Puritans had yielded
under royal pressure, and declared ‘Let us take the same course with the Puritans here.’ Peter Heylyn too, did not
hesitate to speak of ‘the Presbyterian or Puritan Faction in Scotland.’ Rutherford himself noted that ‘we be
nicknamed Puritan’ and complained that ‘a strict and precise walking with God in everything’ was scorned as
‘Puritan.’ The nickname was given throughout the English-speaking world to people who were felt to be excessively
Puritan position that Frame rejects. Given the fact that Frame says that he enthusiastically
subscribes to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms on page xiv in his book, one
should not be surprised that Frame is unwilling to admit that his enthusiastic subscription was
false, that he subscribed with crossed fingers. Frame of course is free to reject the teaching of the
Westminster Standards. However, since he does so, he should be honest and consistent and join
the Reformed Episcopal Church instead of deceitfully working to undermine an essential aspect
of the Reformed faith.
As we consider Frame’s attack on the confessional concept of elements or parts ofworship, keep in mind that Frame’s strategy throughout his analysis of the rules for worship is tomake divine warrant broad enough to allow human innovations disguised as creative
applications. Therefore, he must eliminate the confessional doctrine of elements of worship, each
of which requires specific divine warrant. There are a number of arguments to consider inFrame’s rejection of the elements of worship. First, Frame argues that Scripture nowhere teaches
“that the regulative principle demands that level of specificity.”220 He adds, “The problem is that
Scripture doesn’t give us a list of elements required for Christian worship services.”221 NoteFrame’s disingenuous and inconsistent method of argumentation. When he disagrees with thePuritan confessional view, he demands credible evidence. He wants a command, an explicit
statement or even a detailed list. Yet when he sets out to prove his own ideas regarding divine
warrant he offers no solid exegetical argumentation, only bizarre loose connections and arbitrary
applications. Does the regulative principle descend to the level of the elements of worship? Is it
specific? Although there is no detailed list set forth in the New Testament of worship elements,
the various elements or parts of religious worship are easily proved from divine imperatives and
descriptions of worship services or approved historical examples found in Scripture. As weconsider Frame’s next objection to the idea of specific elements of worship, the scripturalevidence will prove that Frame is wrong. Furthermore, the biblical passages that teach theregulative principle itself demand specificity. If Old Testament believers used Frame’s generalflexible version of the regulative principle, it would have been very easy for the Jews to justify
religious hand washings, ascetic eating practices (e.g., note the Seventh-day Adventist
justifications for various eating practices), strange fire, etc.
Second, Frame wants to mix the various elements of worship into general categories. He
writes, “Another problem with the concept of elements of worship is that the things we do in
worship are not always clearly distinguishable from one another. Singing and teaching, for
example, are not distinct from one another (Col. 3:16). And many hymns are also prayers and
creeds. Prayers with biblical content contain teaching. The entire service is prayer, since is it
uttered in the presence of God, to his praise. The entire service is teaching, since it is all based onScripture. Perhaps it would be better to speak of ‘aspects’ of worship, rather than ‘elements’ or
‘parts.’”222 Frame adds, “Since we cannot identify elements, we cannot say that song is anelement and therefore requires specific divine commands governing its content. Even if we
accept the division of worship not elements, it is not plausible to argue that song is an element of
worship, independent of all others. As we saw in the preceding chapter, song is not an
zealous and strict in their religion, people whose intense desire to obey Scripture often brought them into conflictwith royal ecclesiastical policy” (Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions: The Mind of Samuel Rutherford[Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997], p. 18).
220 Worship in Spirit and in Truth, p. 53.
222 Ibid. p. 54.
independent element, but rather a way of doing other things. It is a way of praying, confessing,
etc. Therefore, when we apply the regulative principle to matters of song, we should not ask
specifically what words Scripture commands us to sing, but rather, what words Scripturecommands us to use in teaching, prayer, confession, etc.”223 For Frame there are not specific
elements of worship but only broad categories that have different aspects. Why does Frame
attack the confessional doctrine of elements of worship? A major reason is that it enables him to
apply biblical rules for one element to another. This is one of the common arguments against
exclusive psalmody. If a person can make up their own words for prayer or preaching, then(according to Frame’s concept of aspects) one can make up their own words for singing praise.Although it is true that elements of singing praise, preaching or teaching and prayer can have
certain aspects in common (e.g., many psalms contain prayer, prayer can contain praise and
sermons can contain praise and supplication, etc.), the idea that these distinct elements can be
collapsed into one category (e.g., teaching) or that the specific rules given by Scripture for one
element can be applied to the other parts of worship completely breaks down when one examines
the specific rules and context that the Bible gives to each separate ordinance. Note the following
(1) One element is preaching from the Bible (Mt. 26:13; Mk 16:15; Ac. 9:20; 17:10;
20:8; 1 Cor. 14:28; 2 Tim. 4:2). Preaching involves reasoning from the Scriptures (cf. Ac. 17:2-3; 18:4, 19; 24:25) and explaining or expounding God’s word (cf. Mk. 4:34; Lk. 24:27; Ac. 2:14-
40; 17:3; 18:36; 28:23). New Covenant teachers did not speak by divine interpretation, but
interpreted divinely inspired Scripture. In the same manner the Old Testament levitical teachers
explained and interpreted the inscripturated law to the covenant people (cf. Neh. 8:7-8; Lev.
10:8-11; Dt. 17:8-13; 24:8; 31:9-13; 33:8; 2 Chr. 15:3; 17:7-9; 19:8-10; 30:22; 35:3; Ezr. 7:1-11;
Ezek. 44:15, 23-24; Hos. 4:6; Mal. 2:1, 5-8). There are specific biblical rules that apply to
preaching that distinguish it from other elements such as praise and prayer. While both men and
women can pray (Ac. 1:13-14, 1 Cor. 11:5) and sing praise (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; Jas. 1:5), only
men (1 Cor. 14:34-35; 1 Tim. 2:11-14) who are called by God and set apart to the gospel
ministry can preach (Mt. 28:18-20; Ac. 9:15; 13:1-5; Rom. 10:14-15; Eph. 4:11-12; 2 Tim. 4:2,
etc.). Therefore, the idea that singing praise is not an element of worship but only one way to
teach or a circumstance of teaching is clearly unscriptural. If singing praise was simply one given
method of teaching then women would be forbidden to sing praise in church, for they are
forbidden to teach in the public assemblies. Furthermore, if singing was a circumstance of
worship, then it would be optional and could be excluded from public worship al- together. Doesthe average “conservative” Presbyterian allow women to preach or teach in the public assembly?
No, he does not. But isn’t that because the Bible explicitly forbids women from teaching or even
speaking in church? Yes, indeed it is. What this proves is that in practice those who adhere toFrame’s unorthodox theories on worship must follow the distinction between elements of
worship in order to conduct a worship service. Frame’s rejection of distinct elements or parts of
worship is simply a clever tactic to eliminate the specificity of the regulative principle.
(2) Another part of worship is the singing of Psalms (1 Chr. 16:9; Ps. 95:1-2; 105:2; 1
Cor. 14:26; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Unlike preaching, where the minister uses his own uninspired
words to exposit Scripture, singing praise involves only the use of Spirit-inspired songs. In the
Bible prophetic inspiration was a requirement for writing worship songs for the church (cf. Ex.
15:20-21; Jg. 5; Isa. 5:1; 26:1ff; 2 Sam 23:1, 2; 1 Chr. 25:5; 2 Chr. 29:30; 35:15; Mt. 22:43-44;
223 Ibid. pp. 123-124.
Mk. 12:36; Ac. 1:16-17; 2:29-31; 4:24-25). The writing of worship songs in the Old Testament
was so intimately connected with prophetic inspiration that 2 Kings 23:2 and 2 Chronicles 34:30use the term “Levite” and “prophet” interchangeably.
(3) Reading the Bible is also a part of public worship (Mk. 4:16-20; Ac. 1:13; 13:15;
16:13; 1 Cor. 11:20; 1 Tim. 4:13; Rev. 1:13). Obviously, Scripture reading requires reading from
the Bible alone. Reading from the Apocrypha or Shakespeare or uninspired Christian poetry or
theology books cannot be substituted for this element. Scripture reading, like preaching but
unlike singing praise, is restricted to ministers of the gospel (Ex. 24:7; Josh 8:34-35; Dt. 31:9-13;
Neh. 8:7-8; 13:1; 1 Th. 5:27; Col. 4:16; 1 Tim. 4:3).
(4) Another element of worship is prayer to God (Dt. 22:5; Mt. 6:9; 1 Cor. 11:13-15; 1
Th. 5:17; Phil. 4:6; Heb. 13:18; Jas. 1:5). Unlike the elements of singing praise and reading the
Scriptures, the Bible authorizes the use of our own words in prayer, as long as we follow the
pattern or model given to us by Christ (cf. Mt. 6:9). God promises His people that the Holy Spirit
will assist them when they form their prayers (cf. Zech. 12:10; Rom. 8:26-27).
A brief consideration of the elements of worship (noted above) proves that the rules
which apply to one element (e.g., prayer) cannot be applied to another element (e.g., singing
praise or reading the Bible) without violating Scripture. Our consideration has also proved thatcollapsing various elements into broad categories violates God’s word. The only reason peopleartificially construct such broad categories is to avoid the specific rules that God has instituted
for each particular element of worship. Feminists do so to accommodate women reading the
Scriptures and preaching in church. Others do so to allow a dramatic presentation to substitute
for the sermon. There are also many who do so in order to substitute the uninspired songs of men
for the inspired Psalms of God.
Given the abundant scriptural evidence for the Puritan concept of elements or parts of
worship, one can understand why the authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith did not just
give us broad categories but rather set forth distinct worship elements. The Confession names“prayer with thanksgiving” (21:3), “The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear; the soundpreaching, and conscionable hearing of the word, in obedience unto God, with understanding,
faith, and reverence: singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also the due administration and
worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ; are all parts of the ordinary religious
worship of God: beside religious oaths and vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgiving upon several
occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in a holy and religiousmanner” (21:5). The work of the Westminster Divines on worship was the culmination of overone hundred years of Reformed exegesis, debate and analysis of the matter. Their statements
were simply a refined statement with some added details of the writings of the reformers andReformed symbols that preceded its authorship. Frame’s arrogant and flippant disregard of thereformers and Reformed confessions with no real evidence is disturbing. That he is a minister in
good standing in a denomination which claims adherence to the Westminster Standards and
teaches at a Reformed seminary is even more disturbing.
Third, after rejecting the Westminster Standards on elements or parts of worship Frame
leaves us with aspects of worship. What exactly is an aspect of worship? Although Frame doesnot define what he means by aspects, he apparently means “things to do” that are related to hisgeneral categories. Since the English dictionary gives as one of its main meanings for aspect as“part” we wonder what exactly is the difference between “element,” “part,” “things to do” and
“aspect.” Perhaps a course in perspectivalism will aid our understanding.224 “Perhaps with theacumen of the medieval schoolmen, Mr. Frame can explain to us the subtle difference between‘things, ‘aspects,’ and ‘parts’ in worship.”225
Frame’s Rejection of the Circumstances of Worship
Frame rejects the confessional concept of circumstances of worship in favor of what he
calls applications. Once again we see Frame setting aside the Westminster Standards and over
four hundred years of Reformed thought for his own unique concept of applications. Note that,as before, Frame’s goal is to greatly broaden the concept of divine warrant. After quoting theConfession of Faith (“There are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, andgovernment of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by
the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which arealways to be observed” [1, 6]) Frame writes,
Scripture, they believed, was sufficient to tell us the basic things we should do in worship.
But it does not give us detailed direction in the area of “circumstances.”
What are these “circumstances”? The confession does not define the term, except to say that
they are “common to human actions and societies.” Some of the Puritans and ScottishPresbyterians, trying to further explain this idea, taught that circumstances were secular matters,of no actual religious significance. But surely, in God’s world, nothing is purely secular;nothing is entirely devoid of religious significance. That follows from the fact that in one sense
worship is all of life. The time and place of a meeting, for instance, are not religiously neutral.
Decisions about such matters must be made to the glory of God. The elders of a church would
not be exercising godly rule if they tried to force all the members to worship at 3:00 A.M.!
Decisions about the time and place of worship can greatly affect the quality of edification (1Cor. 14:26). Although it is “common to human actions and societies” to make decision aboutmeeting times and places, the decision nevertheless has religious significance in the context of
the church. The divines understood this, and so they insisted that all these decisions be made“according to the general rules of the Word.” But then, how are we to distinguish circumstancefrom substantive elements of worship?
224 Frame offers a few other arguments against the confessional concept of elements or parts of worship. One is what
he calls the practical snags argument. He points out that there have been disagreements over the years regarding
what are elements and what are not (p. 53). He fails to point out, however, that the disagreements that he refers to
are all of recent origin and were primarily dredged up to circumvent exclusive psalmody. Then he brings up the fact
that the Puritans disagreed over issues like reading written prayers and reciting the Apostle’s Creed. However, heignores the fact that these were individual disagreements and that in the sphere of worship the Puritans and
Presbyterians were in unanimous agreement regarding the Westminster Standards. Does the fact that professing
Christians disagree over the abiding validity of the ten commandments meant that we should jettison the ten
commandments and replace them with something different? Of course not! The fact that people disagree over
certain issues is irrelevant to whether or not a theological position is correct. This issue must be determined by solid
exegetical evidence and not LSD hermeneutics. Frame also raises the issue of a marriage worship service. Sincethere is no such thing as a marriage worship service in Scripture, Frame’s consideration is not germane to thediscussion. If Frame wants us to reject the Westminster Standards and over 400 years of Reformed thought on the
subject of worship, he is going to have to offer something more substantial. A good starting point would be some
good old-fashioned biblical exegesis. We are still waiting.
225 Kevin Reed, “Presbyterian Worship: Old and New” in Brian Schwertley, Musical Instruments in the Public
Worship of God (Southfield, MI: Reformed Witness, 1999), p. 139.
Furthermore, there seem to be some matters in worship that are not “common to human
actions and societies,” concerning which we must use our human judgment. For example,
Scripture tells us to pray, but it doesn’t tell us what precise words to use in our prayers on every
occasion. We must decide what words to use, within the limits of the biblical teachings about
prayer. That is a decision of great spiritual importance. It does not seem right to describe this
matter as a mere “circumstance.” Prayer is not “common to human actions and societies.” Butin prayer we must use our own judgment within biblical guidelines; if we don’t, we will notpray at all.
I agree with the confession that there is room for human judgment in matters that are“common to human actions and societies.” But I do not believe that that is the only legitimatesphere of human judgment. In my view, the term best suited to describe the sphere of human
judgment is not circumstance, but application. Typically, Scripture tells us what we should do
in general, and then leaves us to determine the specifics by our own sanctified wisdom,
according to the general rules of the Word. Determining the specifics is what I call“application.”
Unlike the term circumstance, the term application naturally covers both types of examples I
have mentioned. Applications include such matters as the time and place of worship: Scripture
tells us to meet, but not when and where—so we must use our own judgment. Similarly,
Scripture tells us to pray, but does not dictate to us all the specific words we should use—so we
need to decide. As you can see, the sphere of application includes some matters that are“common to human actions and societies” and some matters are not.226
There are a number of things to note regarding Frame’s discussion of the circumstances of
worship. First, Frame’s contention that some (unnamed) Puritans and Scottish Presbyteriansregarded circumstances as secular is wrong and misleading. They did not regard the
circumstances of worship as secular or religiously neutral. They did, however, regard them as
things that were not specifically determinable by Scripture that had a certain commonality with
civil or secular affairs. For example, a civil meeting will have a beginning and end, chairs,
lighting, a podium, a building and so forth. However, these circumstances of worship are to bedesigned or conducted “according to the general rules of Scripture.” Frame (once again) asserts afalse bifurcation of thought between certain (unnamed) Puritans/Presbyterians and the
Second, Frame gives us an over-simplification of the concept of circumstances in order to
make the confessional understanding look incompetent and unworkable. Frame tells us that since
the words we use in prayer are of “great spiritual importance” and prayer is not “common to
human actions and societies”; therefore, we need to use a better more workable concept than the
term circumstances of worship. Frame’s alternative is “applications.”
Frame’s argument raises a number of questions. Is what believers do when they praymerely a circumstance of worship? Is prayer regulated only by the general rules of Scripture?
Although it is true that believers are free to make up their own words in order to meet the various
circumstances and contingencies of daily life, prayer itself is specifically regulated by Scripture.Jesus told the disciples to pray in a certain manner (Mt. 6:9). He told them not to “use vain
repetitions as the heathen do” (Mt. 6:7). Further, we are told that the Holy Spirit will assist us
when we pray (cf. Zech. 12:10; Rom. 8:26-27). Strictly speaking, prayer is not a circumstance of
worship. The Westminster divines did not regard the content of prayer in the same manner as the
type of seating, lighting, pulpit style, flooring, etc. Therefore, the idea that choosing one’s own
226 Worship in Spirit and Truth, pp. 40-41.
words for prayer in worship renders the concept of circumstances of worship somehow
unworkable is not true.
If one holds to the confessional understanding of the regulative principle, that all the parts
or elements of worship require divine warrant, one must explain those things that are necessary
to conduct a public meeting that are not specifically addressed in Scripture. Does the Bible tell us
what type of building to meet in, or the type of chairs to use, or what the type of pulpit should be
used and so forth? Are there not areas related to a public worship service that do not directly
affect the content or parts of religious worship? The confessional answer that there are some
circumstances relating to worship that are not themselves parts of worship or worship ordinances
is unavoidable and obvious. If Frame observes that, in certain areas or applications, the concept
of circumstances need clarification, then that is one thing. But why does he insist on tossing itaside for his own concept of applications? The main reason is related to Frame’s rejection of theconfessional doctrine of elements or parts of religious worship each of which requires divine
warrant. Once one rejects the concept of worship elements, one is left only with broad categories.Believers are to determine out of broad categories the various “things to do” in worship.
According to Frame the “things to do” can be determined by specific commands or according to“broad theological principles.” What this means is that Frame has taken the concept of “the
general rules of the word” that the Westminster divines only applied to the circumstances of
worship and has applied it to worship itself. This incredible broadening of the concept of divine
warrant renders the whole section in the Confession dealing with the circumstances of worshipsuperfluous. Since Frame has already taken the Confession’s “the general rules of the word” andapplied it to worship itself, he must redefine the circumstances into applications. Why? Becausethe term “applications” is broad enough to cover everything relating to worship, whether worshipordinance or the circumstantial areas. In fact everything in life that we do as Christians is an
application of Scripture in some sense. Frame continues on his path of taking well thought-out
clear distinctions found in the Westminster Standards and replacing them with very general
concepts. Remember, the end game is human autonomy in worship.
Frame’s Misrepresentation of the Puritan/Presbyterian Position Regarding Formal versus
Frame accuses “some theologians” and the Puritans of only applying the regulative
principle to “formal” or “official” worship services. He writes,
This position on church power, however, led some theologians to distinguish sharplybetween worship services that are “formal” or “official” (i.e., sanctioned by the ruling body ofthe church), and other meetings at which worship takes place, such as family devotions, hymn
sings at homes, etc., which are not officially sanctioned. Some have said that the regulative
principle properly applied only to the formal or official service, not to other forms of worship.
But that distinction is clearly unscriptural. When Scripture forbids us to worship according to
our own imaginations, it is not forbidding that only during official services. The God of
Scripture would certainly not approve of people who worshiped him in formal services, but
worshiped idols in the privacy of their homes!
On the Puritan view, the regulative principle pertains primarily to worship that is officially
sanctioned by the church. On this view, in order to show that, say, preaching is appropriate for
worship, we must show by biblical commands and examples that God requires preaching in
officially sanctioned worship services. It is not enough to show that God is pleased when the
word is preached in crowds or informal home meetings. Rather, we must show that preaching is
mandated precisely for the formal or official worship service. Unfortunately, it is virtually
impossible to prove that anything is divinely required specifically for official services.227
This is a total misrepresentation of the Puritan position. The truth of the matter is that the idea
that the regulative principle only applied to public worship was not widely accepted until the late
nineteenth century. As worship innovations and declension occurred throughout the nineteenth
century and certain practices such as the use of musical instruments in family worship, the
celebration of Christmas in the home and various Sunday school programs where women were
allowed to speak, ask questions and even teach men became popular, a concerted effort was
made to at least keep these innovations out of the “official service.” In fact, today an “ultra-conservative” Presbyterian is often defined as someone who wants to keep the celebration ofpapal-pagan holy days out of the public worship, yet who thinks celebrating such days in the
home and decorating the home with the trinkets of anti-Christ and pagan paraphernalia is
perfectly acceptable. The Puritans and Presbyterians never allowed church members to violate
the regulative principle in the home. People who celebrated Christmas or Easter were
Although the Puritans, Presbyterians and Westminster divines strictly applied the
regulative principle to all worship whether public, family, or private, that does not mean that
each sphere had the exact same rules. For example, in family worship the father is to lead (Dt.
6:7-9) in teaching and Scripture reading. But he is not permitted to dispense or partake of thepublic ordinances (i.e., baptism and the Lord’s supper) or exercise church discipline. It is veryimportant that when we seek divine warrant for a practice in public worship, we distinguish
between commands or historical examples in Scripture that apply to an individual, or family, or
public meeting, or even an extra-ordinary event. Why? Because Frame misrepresents the Puritan
position not because he wants to abolish innovations in the home but because he wants to be able
to mine the Scriptures for divine warrant in passages that clearly have nothing to do with public
worship. What is a major justification that Frame offers for drama in public worship? The
prophets sometimes did dramatic things. How does Frame justify liturgical dance in public
worship? He points to several passages that refer to extra ordinary national and local victory
celebrations (i.e., outdoor parades).228 Frame’s caricature of the Puritan position sets the stage for
his redefinition of the regulative principle and his sloppy, no- real-connection proof-texting of
various modern innovations.229
228 See Worship in Spirit and Truth, p. 131.
229 As Frame misrepresents the Puritan’s understanding of the scope of the regulative principle he also misrepresentsthe Westminster Confession. He writes, “I am aware that traditional Presbyterian statements of the regulativeprinciple typically draw a much sharper distinction than I have drawn between worship services and the rest of life.
The Westminster Confession, for example, states that in all of life we are free from any ‘doctrines and
commandments of men’ that are ‘contrary to’ God’s word, but that in ‘matters of faith, or worship,’ we are also free
from doctrines and commandments that are ‘beside’ the word” (20.2) (p. 43). In this section on liberty of conscience
the phrases “contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship” go together and are connected by the
verb “are” to “the doctrine and commandments of men.” The Confession is not making two separate statements—
one regarding all of life and another regarding only matters of faith. Anything contrary to or beside God’s Word in
all matters of faith or worship does not have God’s authority. Shaw writes, “In this section the doctrine of liberty of
conscience is laid down in most explicit terms. The conscience, in all matters of faith and duty, is subject to the
authority of God alone, and entirely free from all subjection to the traditions and commandments of men. To believe
any doctrine, or obey any commandment, contrary to, the Word of God, out of submission to human authority, is tobetray true liberty of conscience” (Exposition of the Confession of Faith, p. 205). A. A. Hodge writes, “God has
Frame’s Case for Contemporaneity in Worship
As we consider Frame’s book we must never lose sight of the fact that his book is an
apologetic for the Charismatic-Arminian style of worship conducted in the “New Life” churches.
This type of worship is commonly referred to as “contemporary” or “celebrative” worship. Howdoes Frame justify this new type of worship from Scripture? His argument is founded upon the
fact that tongues must be translated into an understandable language. He writes,
On the other hand, Scripture also tells us, and more explicitly and emphatically, that worship
should be intelligible. It should be understandable to the worshipers, and even to non-Christian
visitors (1 Cor. 14, especially vv. 24-25). And intelligibility requires contemporaneity. When
churches use archaic language and follow practices that are little understood today, they
compromise that biblical principle.... Another important consideration is that the style chosen
must promote the intelligibility of the communication. We have seen that this is the chief
emphasis of 1 Corinthians 14, which is the most extended treatment of a Christian worship
meeting in the New Testament. Intelligibility of communication is crucial to the Great
Commission and to the demand of love, for love seeks to promote, not impede, mutual
Intelligibility requires us, first, to speak the language of the people, not Latin, as the
Reformers emphasized. But communication is more than language in the narrow sense. Content
is communicated through body language, style, the choice of popular rather than technical
terms, well-known musical styles, etc.230
Frame’s argument for contemporary worship is another example of what he calls “creative
application.” A more accurate designation would be “arbitrary application.” When the apostlePaul was dealing with a specific problem at Corinth (un-interpreted or non-translated tongues)
was he also making a statement regarding musical styles, body language or contemporary song
styles? No. Neither Paul or the Corinthians or any commentators past or present (with the
exception of Frame) believe or teach that Paul was telling the church to make sure they had
proper body language. Frame is (once again) grasping after straws. One could just as well applyFrame’s concept of intelligibility to church architecture, Christian clothing, the pastor’s car andfurniture, etc., for the application is arbitrary. It is not rooted in standard Protestant biblical
How did “celebrative” or “contemporary” worship begin? Was there a group ofChristians who out of a serious study of Scripture (e.g., 1 Cor. 14:24-25) decided that God
required worship to be modernized to better speak to our childish degenerate culture? No.
Generally speaking, its rise in popularity is a combination of three historical developments. First,
contemporary worship has its roots in Arminian pragmatic revivalism. Arminian revivalists
learned that feminine, emotional, tear-jerking songs helped people make a “decision for Christ.”They also learned that entertainment, performances, organ interludes and so forth brought more
people into the tent. Second, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s many pot-heads and hippies
authoritatively addressed the human conscience only in his law, the only perfect revelation of which in this world is
the inspired Scriptures. Hence God himself has set the human conscience free from all obligation to believe or obey
any such doctrines or commandments of men as are either contrary to or aside from the teachings of that Word”(The Confession of Faith, p. 265).
230 Worship in Spirit and Truth, pp. 67, 83.
became professing Christians. Many of these converted hippies (“the Jesus people”) incorporatedthe communal, simple, emotional style of singing they were accustomed to into their services.
This new style of worship often consisted of one-verse choruses that were sung over and over
again until people were worked into an emotional frenzy or meditative type of trance. Sadly, this
emotionalism and trance-like state was and still is equated with the special presence of the Holy
Spirit or a mystical communion with God. Believers need to understand that this new emotional,
non-doctrinal type of worship has its roots not in the Bible but in hedonistic, counter-culture,
mystical paganism. Peter Masters writes, “It was a form of worship fashioned and conceived inthe womb of the hippie meditational mysticism, in which hippies in their hundreds and thousands
would sit on California hillsides with eyes closed, swaying themselves into an ecstatic state of
experience. Former hippies carried into their new Christian allegiance the method of seeking the
emotional release or sensations to which they were accustomed, and no one showed them a betterway.”231
Third, there was the rise of the church growth movement which offered a pious sounding
but totally pragmatic justification for man-centered, entertainment-oriented worship. The factthat modern “celebrative” music was shallow, worldly and immature was not important becauseworship must be user-friendly. It must appeal to shallow, worldly and immature seekers. That is,
it must be attractive to the flesh. In this paradigm, worship is not primarily considered to be
directed to God but to man. Worship is treated as another evangelistic church growth tool. Framewould not put the matter so crassly. But his concept of “intelligibility requires contemporaneity”even to non-Christian visitors says much the same thing. Thus, today churches often have child-
like, repetitive songs coupled with rock bands, drama groups, comedian pastors, liturgical dance,
videos, movies and so on.
In another book on worship (Contemporary Worship Music: A Biblical Defense), Frame
argues in favor of super-simplified (i.e., dumbed down) hymns on the basis of Old Testamentsaints such as Job, Moses and Isaiah. Job’s lengthy, detailed speeches are compared to traditionalworship. When Job was finally confronted with God he spoke only a few simple words.Likewise, when Moses and Isaiah were in God’s presence they were in awe and had very little to
say.232 Peter Masters’ analysis of Frame’s book advocating contemporary worship is right on themark. He writes, “One of John Frame’s many complaints about traditional worship is that it is fartoo complex. It has too many words, is too intelligent, and too scholarly. It is not for ordinary
people. In supporting this complaint, the author pronounces himself in favor of minimal words.
He wants to bypass rationality, and substitute feelings as the leading component in worship. He
also insists that there is a physical dimension to worship, dancing and other activities being valid.
He wants to get the senses and sensations strumming in order to touch God. The point in raising
231 Peter Masters, “Worship in the Melting Pot: Is New Worship Compatible with Traditional Worship?” in Sword
and Trowel (London, England, 1998), no. 3, p. 13. This author is indebted to Rev. Masters for his many insights intothe “new worship.”
232 When we read passages about a prophet entering into God’s presence and being awe-struck and speaking few
words, does this mean that God is telling us by way of “creative application” that He would like worship songswritten that consist of one sentence? No, not at all! A legitimate application of such texts would be that we worship
an infinitely holy, awesome God. Therefore, when we approach him in worship we need to be very careful to do so
according to His rules. Our God is a consuming fire. Also, the worship of such a God (Jehovah) ought to be done ina serious, majestic manner. Churches which practice the new “celebrative” worship with the jokes, skits,entertainment, vain repetition “Romper-Room” choruses, rock bands and camp-fire antics, are neither serious,respectful or majestic. “But, brother, these people are sincere.” Indeed, many are. However, sincerity which is notbased on truth is worthless.
his book at this stage is to show how ‘traditionalists’ who adopt new worship eventually
capitulate to the sensational-mystical-aesthetic philosophy of worship.”233
The origins and arguments in favor of the modern “celebratory” worship raise a few veryimportant questions. Why does modern worship have to cater or lower itself to the immaturityand degeneracy of modern culture? Isn’t such thinking a type of relativism? If rap musicbecomes the predominate form of musical expression in society, will the advocates of“contemporaneity” use rap music in public worship? (Some churches already use “Christian” rapgroups in their worship service entertainment segments.) Also, when Frame and others look to
the Scriptures for proof or guidance regarding worship, why point to passages that have nothing
to do with singing of praise when God has already told us exactly what He wants? God has
written His own hymnal—the book of Psalms—and placed it in the middle of our Bibles, andcommanded us to sing it. The only possible reasons that “celebrative” worship advocates ignorethe obvious and rely on “creative application” is either a woeful lack of knowledge regardingScripture or a blatant disregard of Scripture in favor of human autonomy in worship.
The fact that God Himself has written and given the church a hymnbook (the Psalter)
tells us a number of things regarding praise, all of which contradict the “celebrative” worshipparadigm. First, note that the Psalms are saturated with deep theology and are doctrinally
balanced, complex, non-repetitive, and often long.234 David and the other inspired prophets who
wrote the Psalms did not regard heavy doctrine and complexity of meaning as impediments to
biblical worship. That is because biblical praise does not attempt to bypass the intellect in favor
of an ecstatic experience. Our faith in Jesus Christ is strengthened by learning and understanding
biblical doctrine, not by experiencing an emotional phenomenon devoid of cognitive input. There
is certainly nothing wrong with experiencing emotions. The Psalms, far better than any
uninspired hymnal, reflect the full range of human emotions from the deepest despair to the
heights of joy and bliss. However, our emotions are to be founded upon biblical truth. The HolySpirit uses God’s word to convict and sanctify, not to stir some mystical emotional experience.Remember that the “celebrative” worship paradigm is an outgrowth of the Charismaticmovement. Philosophically, it is rooted in an irrational type of Christian existentialism. What
Charismatic churches often do is whip the people into an emotional frenzy by means of exciting
music, visual-sensual programs, cheerleaders called “worship leaders” (whose primary functionis to encourage the people to get more emotional and worked up), highly repetitive worship
choruses, etc. Then when the people are having a wonderful experience they are told: “Now
don’t you just feel the Spirit’s presence? Do you feel the power? This room is on fire!” These
poor deluded souls are taught to equate an “empty-headed”, music-driven emotional experiencewith God’s presence. This non-rational, sensual, emotional technique of experiencing (what theythink) is God’s special presence is mysticism. It is any wonder that many Charismatic churchesregard doctrine and solid exegetical preaching as unimportant; that the Charismatic movement isleading many Protestants back to Rome? “Emotion-driven, mystical worship is a delusion,
233 Masters, p. 15.
234 People who argue in favor of repetitive choruses sometimes will point to the Psalms as a justification of short
repetitive phrases in worship song. The truth of the matter is that the Psalter is nothing like modern choruses at all.
Instead of choruses that are repeated over and over, the Psalms contain what is called a refrain. In Psalm 136 at theend of each verse we find the refrain “For His mercy endures forever.” Unlike modern choruses, the refrain is givenat the end of a new and different thought. Every verse of Psalm 136 is different. Thus the mind is focused inthanksgiving upon God’s attributes and redemptive acts instead of the vain repetition of modern choruses where theexact same thing is repeated over and over like a Hindu mantra.
producing intensely emotional and subjective worshipers for whom personal enjoyment is the
Second, the fact that God introduced the Psalms to a primitive, agricultural, mostly
illiterate society completely disproves the idea that we need to dumb-down worship by usingrepetitive choruses, drama and musical performances. If one applied Frame’s “intelligibility”argument to the Israelites, would not their worship have to be even more simple and lesscomplex than that of today’s computer programmers, engineers, pilots, computer scientists andso forth? After all, the vast majority of Israelites were simple peasant farmers and herdsmen. Yet
God gave them the complex, highly theological, lengthy, intellectually challenging book of
Psalms. God did not expect the Israelites to put their minds on hold while they closed their eyes
and repeated the same words over and over and over again like a stoned hippie or Hindu mystic.
Biblical worship requires attentiveness of mind. It requires thinking, understanding and focus.
Certainly a philosophy of worship that (if consistently applied) would require God’s people to setaside the perfect, sufficient, inspired book of Psalms cannot be true.236
Third, the “contemporaneity” argument is also disproved by the regulative principle. Didthe Jews in the Old covenant era go to the Canaanites, Philistines, Egyptians, or Assyrians in
order to make sure that their worship was culturally relevant? Did the New Covenant churchseek out “contemporaneity” with Greek or Roman culture? No. They were to do only as God
commanded precisely, i.e., to avoid syncretism with the pagan culture. “Take heed to yourselfthat you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you
235 Ibid. p. 14.
236 A common charge against Puritan or truly Reformed worship by high church liturgists and Charismatic style
celebratists is that Puritans view worship as a purely mental activity or a purely intellectual exercise. They argue thatPuritans neglect the whole man (body and soul) in worship. That what we need is a “ceremonious view” of worship.Then it is often argued that the holistic view entails gestures, dance, ceremony, and ritual, with the Eucharist, not the
sermon, being the centerpiece of Christian worship. We are told that there must be act as well as thought. Another
charge that is brought in is that Puritan worship is really a result of Greek philosophy and not a careful exegesis of
Scripture. Are these charges accurate? No. They consist of a straw man caricature of Reformed worship and blatant
misrepresentations. Do Puritans view worship as a purely intellectual, mental affair? No. That accusation simply is
not true. For example, the Puritans believe and practice the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper where
specific acts and elements are signs and seals of spiritual realities. In the Lord’s supper (for example) all the sensesare in operation. There is the hearing of the word, the tasting and touching of the bread and wine. There is the visual-
sensual experience of looking at the elements. The issue between strict regulativists and high church liturgists is not
purely mental vs. whole man worship. The real issues are: (a) the Puritans want to limit worship to only what is
authorized by Scripture while the liturgists want human additions (e.g., pageantry and ritual); and (b) regulativistsunderstand the centrality of the preached word. It is not that Puritans set aside emotion and the “whole man.”Following Paul and others they recognize that proper emotion and visible ordinances must be based on faith and
understanding. Otherwise one is left with empty ritualism and mysticism. Paul says that prayer or singing without
understanding is useless and does not lead to edification (cf. 1 Cor. 14:12-19). The apostle presupposes that for
sanctification to occur there first must be comprehension by the mind.
What about the common accusation that the Puritans have followed Greek philosophy in their conception
of worship? Anyone who is familiar with the writings of John Calvin, John Knox, John Owen, George Gillespie,
Samuel Rutherford and others know that such an accusation is totally false. These men derived their philosophy of
worship directly from a careful exegesis of Scripture. Note also that the accusers always make their assertions with
zero evidence. It is ironic that a strict application of the regulative principle is the only philosophy that disallows the
intrusion of human philosophy into the sphere of worship. We ask our brothers who are dissatisfied with the
simplicity of pure gospel worship (or what they denigrate as minimalistic worship) to show us based on the real
exegesis of Scripture (without creative application and LSD hermeneutics) where Calvin, Knox and the Westminster
divines went wrong. We will not be dissuaded by smoke and mirrors.
do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do
likewise.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to theLORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters
in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to itnor take away from it” (Dt. 12:30-32). Although Americans today are not sacrificing their
children to Molech, many do serve at the altar of hedonism. Our culture does not look to the
prophets of Baal but to sports, Hollywood and Las Vegas. This self-centered, entertainment
oriented, hedonistic attitude has thoroughly penetrated many modern Evangelical churches.
Modern celebrative music is not a better more biblical way to worship God. It is a syncretistic
worship. It is a mixture of the elements of worship with the American hedonistic worldview.Frame’s rejection of the Puritan/Presbyterian/confessional understanding of the regulativeprinciple and his alternative of “creative application” has one major objective: the justification ofmodern syncretistic worship.237
One of the most important debates that is presently occurring between “conservative”Presbyterians is over the issue of the regulative principle and its application to worship. This
theological battle is crucial, for its outcome will greatly affect the future course of
Presbyterianism. The main battle that is taking place is not between status quo traditionalists and
charismatic style celebratists but between strict confessionalists (i.e., those who still hold to a
strict, consistently applied, historical understanding of the regulative principle) and all those who
have rejected or reinterpreted the regulative principle in a non-confessional manner. Frame is
without question one of the chief apologists for those who have rejected the confessional position
and have charted a new course consistent with what is popular among non-regulativist, Arminian
Evangelicals. Although in our day we see a renewed interest in biblical worship (e.g., a cappellaPsalm singing) it appears that at present the main trend in worship in “conservative” Presbyteriandenominations is toward the new “celebrative” worship advocated by Dr. Frame. This trend is tobe expected. When denominations depart in practice from the regulative principle with
uninspired hymns, musical instruments and extra-biblical holy days, the trend usually is toward
consistency. In other words a little leaven leavens the whole lump.
The purpose of the review is to warn everyone who considers himself to be Reformed or
Presbyterian that Frame is waging war against biblical worship and the Westminster Standards.
Frame is subversive; he is using deception, ambiguity and deceit to persuade others to embracehuman autonomy in worship. Note, that Frame’s subversion is deliberate and well-planned.
Frame is not a novice. He is not a theological amateur who has simply made some mistakes
237 People who are in favor of “celebrative” worship sometimes portray strict regulativists as theological snobs,unloving or even as influenced by neo-platonism or nominalism. The truth of the matter is that strict regulativists
simply want to preserve biblical (i.e., Reformed) worship from worship that is idolatrous, Pelagian and Arminian.
When people ignore or set aside what God has commanded in favor of autonomy in worship, they are implicitlysaying that God can be approached in worship on man’s terms. That man through his own creativity, effort, andmystical experience can lift himself up to God. Such thinking is the essence of paganism and Romanism. The Bible,
however, teaches that God alone initiates mediation and sets forth the worship between Himself and His people.
Jehovah sets the rules and controls worship. It is the height of arrogance for sinful men to approach God in worship
on their own terms. Such men may be friendly and sound very pious, humble and loving. But their doctrine and
actions reveal them to be (at least in the area of worship) false teachers and prophets of declension.
because of immaturity and a lack of knowledge. He has taught theology and apologetics at the
seminary level for over 27 years. He knows full well that what he has proposed in his book is a
radical departure from the Westminster Standards. Therefore, he is an ordained minister and
seminary professor who holds to the Confession of Faith with crossed fingers. Frame and others
who have taken ordination vows to uphold the Westminster Standards, yet who now reject the
teaching of the Standards have three choices: (1) They can be honest and consistent and resign
from their position as pastor, seminary professor or ruling elder and join themselves to a
denomination that is Calvinistic in soteriology yet which openly and confessionally rejects
Reformed worship (i.e., the regulative principle); (2) they can be dishonest, redefine the
regulative principle in an anti-confessional manner and work to subvert a major Presbyterian
distinctive and corrupt others; or (3) they can repent, obey their ordination vows and return to the
biblical worship of their spiritual forefathers.
Frame’s subversion of the Westminster Standards, the endorsement of Frame’s book by
professors from four separate “conservative” Reformed seminaries, and the publication ofFrame’s book by a purported “Presbyterian and Reformed” publisher reveal two things about thetime in which we live. First, we live in a time of great declension. Most of what passes as
conservative Presbyterian practice today in the area of worship is really much closer to Arminian
Evangelicalism and prelacy than the original intent of the Confession of Faith. Indeed, it is
doubtful that someone such as John Knox, George Gillespie or Samuel Rutherford could get ateaching job at any of the “conservative” Presbyterian seminaries today; and, it is virtually
certain that not one major Presbyterian publisher would publish any of their writings on worship.Why? Because the “conservative” Presbyterian seminaries and major Reformed publishers andmost people in Presbyterian denominations do not really believe in confessional worship. “Awonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land; the prophets prophecy falsely, and thepriests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so” (Jer. 5:30-31).
Second, we live in a time when confessional subscription is very lax; when ministers and
elders can repudiate and break their ordination vows with virtually no disciplinary consequences.
This situation raises some important questions. (1) If a man openly breaks his ordination vows
and publicly teaches an unbiblical doctrine of worship, can the denomination and seminary
which refuses to discipline such a man really claim to be Reformed? Are they not by their refusal
to enforce their own standards accomplices in that man’s deception and corrosive false teaching?
Is not their inaction an implicit acceptance of heterodox views? “If Presbyterians took their creedseriously, Mr. Frame would be removed from both the seminary and the pastorate, and notallowed to teach.”238 (2) Further, is not a refusal to bring sanctions against such blatant violations
of our standards also an unpastoral refusal to protect church members from false teachers? Is it
not an implicit rejection of one of the main purposes of adopting a biblical, carefully-craftedcreed? Gary North’s analysis of the Presbyterian conflict in the P.C.U.S.A. (c. 1880-1936)
applies to our own time of loose subscriptionism and non-disciplined covenant breakers. He
The age-old debate between a strict interpretation of a standard and loose interpretation
was a big part of the Presbyterian conflict. To understand what was involved, consider a speedlimit sign. It says “35” (either miles per hour or kilometers per hour). What if a man drives 36?Will he be ticketed by a policeman? Probably not. The policeman has limited amounts of time to
pursue speeders. He has to chase the speeder, ticket him, and perhaps appear in court to defend
his actions. In a world of limited resources, a person who speeds by driving 36 in a 35 zone is
238 Kevin Reed, “Presbyterian Worship” in Musical Instruments in the Public Worship of God, pp. 143-144.
probably going to get away with it; the safety of the public is dependent on stopping activities of
those other, life-threatening speeders. Only if the community is willing to hire many, many
policeman and judges can it afford to ticket speeders who drive 36.
Now consider someone who drives 55 in a “25” speed zone for young school-age
children. Will a policeman pursue him? Without question. The speeder is putting children at risk.
That speeder is a serious lawbreaker. To refuse to pursue him, a policeman would be abandoning
the very essence of law enforcement. His own job would probably be at risk for malfeasance. A
city that will not bring employment sanctions against a traffic policeman who steadfastly refuses
to pursue such speeders is saying, in effect: “Our posted signs mean nothing. Drive as fast as you
want, day or night.” In other words, “Young children had better look out for themselves; we will
not do it for them.” Strict subscription, like speed limits, is designed to protect the vulnerable
person who is under the protection of the law. As surely as a seven-year-old child walking to
school is protected by a speed limit sign and a court system prepared to enforce it, so is a
resident in a country protected by the strict interpretation of a written civil constitution and a
court system prepared to enforce it and so is a Church member protected by strict subscription to
a confession of faith and a court system prepared to enforce it.
Two conclusions follow: (1) law without sanctions protects no one; (2) law interpreted by
loose construction protects no one predictably. This is true in ecclesiastical matters as it is in
highway safety matters. The child is under the protection of the law, the posted limit, the police,
and the court, even though he did not publicly swear an oath of allegiance to obey the law. The
speed limit sign is for his protection: the person at greatest risk from speeders. When he becomes
a driver, he will be expected to obey the law.
In the Bible, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger are identified as the most vulnerablepeople in the community. The civil law is supposed to protect them. The minor or resident alientoday is protected by the national constitution, even though he did not publicly swear an oath ofallegiance to it, as the person most at risk of government tyranny.
The visitor or the non-voting Church member is protected by the confession of faith, even though
he did not publicly swear allegiance to it. It protects his soul from wolves in sheep’s clothing:false shepherds. He will be expected to take public oath to uphold the confession if he ever
becomes a church officer.239
Furthermore, what is the point of official adherence to a creed and requiring ordination
vows to believe in and uphold the teaching of that creed, when ordained men who have swornallegiance to that creed can openly deny and subvert some of its most important teachings? “The
whole purpose of a creed is to ‘lock-in’ a particular theological viewpoint, to stand against theeroding tides of shifting fashion. Consequently, a creed must be understood in terms of itsoriginal intent or else it fails of its purpose....”240 Men are free to disagree with the original intent
of the Westminster Standards. However, if they have sworn allegiance to the Standards they have
a moral obligation to make their disagreements known, resign from their position as pastor,
elder, teacher or deacon and move on. Likewise, denominations and seminaries who claim
allegiance to the Standards yet which teach contrary to the Standards and refuse to discipline
men for teaching contrary to the Standards have a moral obligation to (at the minimum) make
changes in the Standards so that they are in accord with what is actually being taught and
239 Gary North, Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church (Tyler, TX: Institute forChristian Economics, 1996), pp. 10-11.
240 Ken Gentry, Jr., “In the Space of Six Days: On Breaking the Confession with the Rod of Irons” in Chalcedon
Report (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon, April, 2000), p. 17.
practiced. Ordained men, seminaries and denominations which pretend to adhere to the
Standards when they really do not, are guilty of violating the ninth commandment. They are
guilty of false advertising. What is occurring today is fraud on a massive scale. How can
declension be stopped when the original intent of the Westminster Standards is ignored or set
aside to accommodate heterodox views on worship and creation, women in office, etc.? Gentry
writes, “[W]hen we witness the attempt at re-interpreting the clear language before us, deep and
serious concerns boil up. Where will this methodology lead? What elements within the
Confession are safe from the re-interpretive hermeneutic? And for how long are they safe oncethis interpretive approach is unleashed?”241
Lastly, if crucial sections of the Westminster Standards are ignored or completely
redefined in a manner that contradicts the plain historical meaning of the Standards, will this not
eventually lead to a shift in authority from the original intent of the Standards to an unwritten,
historically relative, arbitrary standard? Yes, it certainly will. Every organization is going to have
some sanctions. So it is never a question (in the long run) of sanctions versus no sanctions. What
happens over a period of time is the anti-confessional non-historical interpretation of the
confession becomes the status-quo. Soon, discreet sanctions are used against strict
confessionalists (e.g., they are refused pulpits, teaching jobs, committee assignments and are
shunned and have evil motives assigned to their theological positions [e.g., so and so only cares
about theology not people; or, he is unloving; or, he is divisive; or, he is unconcerned about
church growth, etc.]). Next, over a period of time strict confessionalists are even openly
admonished and disciplined. Note, when negative sanctions are not imposed upon church
officers who have abandoned the Westminster Standards then a time will come when sanctionsare “imposed in terms of a standard other than the Westminster Confession of Faith and its twocatechisms.”242 Apart from a strict adherence to the Westminster Standards the institutional
question will be: By What Other Standard?243 The time will come when those who adhere to the
biblical worship of the confession will be marginalized and then driven out. For those who
believe this scenario is far-fetched, keep in mind that this pattern has been repeated throughout
It is our hope and prayer that Frame (along with those who take the name Presbyterian
and claim adherence to the Westminster Standards, yet who attack the regulative principle [i.e.,
Reformed worship] and promote innovations in the worship of God) would cease his attacks
upon biblical worship and publicly repent of lying, breaking his vows, taking part in perverted
worship, and causing others to corrupt the worship of God.
Copyright 2000 © Brian Schwertley, Lansing, MI