Some Questions about the Regulative Principle
John M. Frame

Let it be clear from the outset that my "questions" about the Reformed regulative principle for public worship do not spring from doubts about what I take to be its main thrust. As for many years, I continue now to be convinced that worship must be scriptural (i.e., consistent with Scripture) and, indeed, limited by Scripture. For who of us can say confidently how God wishes to be worshiped except insofar as he has told us in Scripture? If there are principles of worship to be found in nature, these cannot be understood rightly except through the "spectacles" of Scripture; for when we try to reason without Scripture, sin distorts our vision. And Scripture is quick to condemn those who walk according to the "vain imaginations of their own hearts" (Jer 3:17; 7:24; etc.)

Still, it is one thing to affirm the sufficiency of Scripture for worship, another thing to work out a cogent theological account of it. And in trying to develop such an account, I have run into some questions which either I am unable to answer correctly or which call for changes in some traditional ways of understanding the principle. So I place them on the table for discussion; I hope to learn from my readers.

1. What the Principle Says

To begin, let us agree as to the meaning of the regulative principle as received from the Presbyterian secondary standards. The definitive formulation is this one:

But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.1

The operative word here is "prescribed." Roman Catholic and Lutheran liturgists would have agreed that our worship practices ought to be scriptural in the sense of not contradicting the Bible. The Presbyterian-Reformed tradition here insists on a stricter standard: a biblical command is needed for anything we would include in worship. Hence the popular formulation: "whatever is not commanded is forbidden." The Lutheran or Catholic counterpart would be "whatever is not forbidden is permitted." For later reference, I will label the Reformed principle "RP1" and the Lutheran-Catholic principle "RP2."

An earlier section of the same confession adds another element to the traditional understanding of RP1: "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 or worship."2 By what has been called an "eloquent semicolon," the confession at this point draws a distinction between the sufficiency of God's word for faith and worship and its sufficiency for the rest of human life. Roughly it is this: in the general course of human life, we are subject to Scripture alone as our ultimate authority. And when lesser authorities command us to do, say, or believe something contrary to Scripture, we have the right to refuse. But in matters of faith and worship, our liberty from human doctrines is even greater. In those areas, we are free to reject not only what is contrary to Scripture, but also what comes from outside Scripture.3 We might put the point this way: in most areas of life, we may adopt the principle that "whatever is not forbidden is permitted"; but in faith and worship we must adopt the stricter principle that "whatever is not commanded is forbidden." In effect, the confession tells us to follow something like RP2 in most of life's decisions, but to follow RP1 in matters of faith and worship.

2. Some Qualifications

(1) In case anyone supposes that RP1 requires an explicit command for each element of worship, locatable in some proof text, WCF 1.6 shows this is not the case: "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 and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture."

The legitimacy of some proposed element of worship, therefore, can be established through "good and necessary consequence," that is, by logical deduction from scriptural premises. It may be derived from Scripture's implicit teaching as well as from its explicit teaching.

(2) Another qualification also appears in 1.6: "√°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." "Circumstances," usually distinguished from "elements" of worship, would include the time and place of worship, use of a building, use of pews, etc. This qualification is more significant than the first, I think, in that it loosens the apparent force of the original principle somewhat. We now see that RP1 pertains only to elements of worship, not to circumstances. The circumstances are discovered by something more like RP2.

(3) Still another qualification must be made, I believe, which, although it is not explicitly formulated in the Reformed confessions, has necessarily been observed in the Reformed practice of worship since its beginning. I describe it as the qualification of "mode." This qualification pertains to "elements," not "circumstances," so it is not equivalent to the distinction above in my opinion, though some questions may be raised here. If some people think this qualification is the same as the last one, I will not protest too strongly. What is important is that we recognize this qualification as legitimate whether or not it is independent of the "circumstance" qualification.

The modal qualification is simply this: that although Scripture prescribes the elements of worship, it does not always describe in detail how those elements are to be carried out. Preaching is an element of worship, let us say; but Scripture does not specify how many sermons there must be in a service, whether there should be only one preacher or several, how loud or softly one should preach, what text a preacher should use on a particular occasion, etc.

3. Some Preliminary Questions

The addition of these three qualifications to RP1 leads to some initial questions.

(1) The first qualification somewhat weakens the force of the term "command." It is not as if God has given us a document with a list of commands concerning worship, say numbered 1-75, and we could simply look at the list to resolve any questions we might have about worship. Were such a list available, we could simply look up any disputed practice on the list; if it is commanded by one of the 75 ordinances, then we would do it; otherwise, not.4 Rather, to determine God's "prescriptions," we must exegete, deduce, analyze the force of biblical examples, determine the relations between commands in the OT and those in the NT, etc. Now I am not skeptical enough to deny that normative content can be derived that way. Indeed, this is the way that all theology proceeds. At the same time, we should not assume that RP1 makes it simple to determine God's will for worship. There are many matters that are debatable. Nor is it like reading the Ten Commandments. Much of what Scripture says about worship is between the lines.

(2) The second qualification also injects controversy into our discussion; for it is certainly possible to disagree on where this line is to be drawn between elements and circumstances. Some might, indeed, defend the use of an organ as a "circumstance," for it is "common to human actions and societies" to use an instrument to keep singers on pitch. Others would reject that argument. I have been in congregations of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (Covenanter) which reject pianos and organs on the basis of RP1, but which use pitch pipes (as a "circumstance") to start everyone on the same note. I then ask, if it is permissible to play the first note on an instrument to help people sing it right, why not also the second note? and why not the third? If it is permissible to use an instrument to establish the soprano line, why not also the alto, tenor, and bass? (Most covenanters I know love to sing parts.) That logic, I think, leads to the use of pianos and organs as circumstances of worship. But of course many would dispute that.

(3) The third qualification also raises some issues. For example, some with covenanter views find it important to argue (or at least to maintain) that song is not a mere circumstance, but an element of worship.5 If song is an element, then it falls under RP1, and we must find commands to tell us what words we may sing in worship. But is it possible that song is neither an element nor a circumstance, but a way ("mode") of doing other things? I, at least, think that is likely. Song has no unique and independent functions in biblical worship; rather, it is a way of praying, a way of teaching, a way of praising, and so on. The "elements" are praying, teaching, praising, not song as such. And therefore when we want to know what we may sing, we ask not "what does God command us to sing?" but rather "what does God command us to do in prayer, praise, teaching, etc.?" Doubtless covenanters will disagree with this argument. But showing how it is wrong, if it is wrong, will require some level of theological sophistication. Certainly it is not obviously wrong.

RP1 has, I think, sometimes been regarded as a simple procedure for determining what may be done in worship. But the three qualifications commonly made in Reformed teaching and practice show us that RP1 is really no easier to apply than any other theological principle; indeed, once the relevant qualifications have been made, RP1 can be applied only with substantial difficulty.

I confess that I find it difficult to understand why God, if he wished to lay down a principle governing worship sharply distinct from his principle for governing ordinary life, did not give us something like a "book of commands" for worship, like the book of 75 in the earlier illustration, something like the "directories of public worship" published by various denominations. On the contrary, it appears that we must determine God's will for worship by the same hermeneutically problematic methods by which we seek to discover God's will in other areas of life.

This is not, properly, an argument against adopting RP1; it is only, as I said, a feeling of uneasiness. God has his reasons, and my failure to understand them at this point is a reflection on me, not upon RP1. The fact that we need to exegete does not detract from the authority of Scripture in other areas of life, and certainly it does not detract from it in worship either. But the uneasiness persists in my mind, and it leads me to ask some other questions.

4. Is Worship Governed by a Principle Different from That Which Governs the Rest of Human Life?

From my expressed uneasiness with RP1, and from the title of this section, the reader might suppose that at this point I would try to show that both worship and the rest of life are properly under the rule of RP2 rather than RP1. Quite the contrary! In fact, what I mean to do is to place all areas of human life, including "faith and worship," under RP1!

There is, to be sure, a tradition in Reformed ethics in which the everyday decisions of the believer are governed by something like RP2. When I go to the store to buy cabbage, there is no biblical command to tell me which cabbage to buy. According to the tradition just mentioned, the relevant fact in the situation is that Scripture does not forbid me to buy any cabbage I like. I may buy a particular one, then, because "whatever is not forbidden is permitted," RP2. I have heard this kind of argument made even with regard to serious matters such as abortion: Scripture does not forbid it, so it is part of the adiaphora, morally indifferent. We are free to do it or not to do it.

I have, however, come to believe that this tradition is seriously in error. The application of it to abortion is, I think, almost a reductio ad absurdum. I think it is evident that although there is no specific prohibition of abortion in the Bible, such a prohibition can be derived by good and necessary consequence from the broader principles of Scripture concerning human life.6 That consideration in itself, of course, refutes the idea that abortion is adiaphoron, but it does not refute the application of the theory in question to other matters, such as buying cabbage. But consideration of abortion brings to our attention the need to consider, in every human decision, "broader principles of Scripture." And surely we need to consider those at all times, even when we buy cabbage.

Is buying cabbage really adiaphoron, morally indifferent? I would say no. Buying cabbage, like all human actions, is a matter of concern to God. He says, "Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Cor 10:31). This command, like those in Rom 14:23, Col 3:17, 24, and elsewhere, is absolutely general. It covers all human activities, including buying cabbage. If we buy cabbage to the glory of God, he is pleased; if we do not, he is not. The act is not morally indifferent or neutral; it is either good or bad, depending on its goal and motive. Therefore, in an important sense, there are no adiaphora; there is no human act that is morally neutral.7 Every human act is either right or wrong, either pleasing or displeasing to God.

This means that all human actions are ruled by divine commandments. There is no neutral area where God permits us to be our own lawgivers. There is no area of human life where God abdicates his rule, or where his word to us is silent. What law governs the buying of cabbage? Well, 1 Cor 10:31 at least, not to mention narrower biblical principles requiring parents to nourish their children, to guard the health of themselves and others, etc. Actions in accord with these biblical principles are right, actions not in accord with them are wrong. It is not a matter of merely avoiding explicit prohibitions; rather it is a matter of keeping the commands of God.

And thus I would conclude that all human life is under RP1, and RP2 plays no role in biblical ethics.8 In every action, we are either obeying or disobeying a biblical command.

Does this mean that God commands me to buy a particular cabbage at the store? No. God commands me to glorify him, etc., and buying the cabbage is a "mode," a "way" of fulfilling that commandment. I could, perhaps, have fulfilled it in many other ways. Strict as it is, RP1 allows, both in worship (as we have seen) and in the rest of life, some freedom of application. Here again, there is no real difference between worship and the rest of life. In both cases, the three qualifications listed earlier must be taken into account: (a) we determine our responsibilities not only on the basis of explicit proof texts, but also on the basis of "good and necessary consequence"; (b) there are some "circumstances" not specifically mentioned in Scripture which we seek to arrange wisely, in accord with the broader principles of the word; and (c) Scripture grants us much (though not unlimited) freedom in the ways we carry out divine commands.

So, both in worship and in the rest of life, we should adopt RP1: "Whatever is not commanded is forbidden." Whenever we are not carrying out (rightly applying) a biblical command, we are committing sin (cf. Rom 14:23).

To say this is to say that the "eloquent semicolon" of WCF 20.2 is misplaced. I say this, not because I believe that the passage is too strict in its view of worship, but because I believe it not strict enough in its conception of how the commandments bear upon everyday life. Of course, elsewhere in the Westminster standards, particularly WCF 1.6, which we have quoted, there is a very strong view of the sufficiency of Scripture for all of life.

Does 1.6, then, contradict 20.2? I think it does, because the writers of 20.2 did not, evidently, think through the concept of application as I have tried to set it forth above. Paragraph 20.2 tells us that we are free (in everyday life) from commandments of men that run contrary to Scripture, and that in addition we are free (in the areas of faith and worship) from any commandments beside Scripture. But in one sense, we are always free from commandments beside Scripture, not only in "faith and worship." Scripture alone is our ultimate rule, in all areas of life. Of course, Scripture itself calls us to be subject to lesser authorities (both, incidentally, in worship and elsewhere); but when those lesser authorities command contrary to the will of God, we may and must disobey them. And when they command something "beside" Scripture, then we may not accept that as something ultimately authoritative. If someone claims to give commands equal to Scripture in force and authority, we must deny those claims. We are "free" of them--in worship or life in general.

I can certainly endorse what 20.2 actually says, namely, that we are free from commands contrary to Scripture in any area of life and free from commands beside Scripture in worship. But I would go further than the confession does here in asserting our liberty from extrabiblical revelation (following the lead of the confession's own teaching at 1.6). So, though rejecting the semicolon and the thought behind it, I do not believe I am contravening the system of doctrine taught in the confession.

The larger lesson we should learn from this discussion is that it is very difficult, in general, to separate "life" from "worship" in a biblical framework. Indeed, the language of worship is often used in Scripture in a broad sense to indicate general ethical purity. See, for example, Rom 12:1-2, Jas 1:26f. One may distinguish between worship in a narrow ("cultic") sense and worship in a broader ("ethical") sense, but these are certainly related very closely. Certainly it is unlikely that they would be subject to radically different forms of divine regulation.

5. Is There, Then, Nothing Unique about Worship?

But more needs to be said, for we have not yet explored the biblical data usually advanced in support of the traditional way of understanding the regulative principle.

These data include (1) passages indicating the depth of God's concern about violation of his commandments for worship. Under this category I would include Num 16:1-40, the rebellion of Korah and others who denied the special mediatorship of Moses and were judged by God; Num 20:10-13, in which Moses himself is judged for disobeying God's command to speak to the rock and for substituting his own procedure;9 1 Sam 13:8-14, where Saul disobeys God's commandment concerning sacrifice (v. 13); 1 Chronicles 13 and 15 (especially 15:13), where Israel violates the command of God that only Levites are to carry the ark.

These passages raise no problems for the view I have been arguing. I would emphatically agree that the commands of God are always to be obeyed, whether in worship or in any other area of life. These are never to be replaced or changed at human initiative, for we are never to add to or subtract from the word of God (Deut 4:2; 12:32; Prov 30:6; Rev 22:18-19). None of these passages imply that there is anything unique about worship in its manner of divine regulation.

(2) The second group of passages consists of biblical condemnations of idolatry on the ground that idols are the result of human initiative: Exod 20:4; Deut 4:28; Acts 7:41. Note especially Isaiah's biting satire of idolatry on the ground that idols are helpless without the aid of human ingenuity, 40:18ff.; 44:12ff. In this way I would also understand Paul's reference to "will-worship" in Col 2:22f. These passages also fit well into the position that I am arguing. For again they tell us, essentially, not to add to the word of God. They tell us not to worship according to our own word, but according to God's.

(3) There is a third group of passages, however, that raises some questions. Some people have suggested that these passages require explicit and specific divine warrant for practices in worship, rather than the "good and necessary consequence" approach of the WCF and my earlier discussion. One of these passages is Exod 25:40, in which God tells Moses to make the tabernacle "according to the pattern shown you on the mountain." Does this require everything to be made according to an explicit divine revelation? I would say no. Certainly on the looser view I have presented it would be appropriate to say that worship (and all of life!) must be carried out according to divinely revealed pattern. Of course, we must remember that in the context of Exodus 25-30 there is a very specific body of instruction concerning the tabernacle and the priesthood. So if someone insists on relating 25:40 to a specific, explicit pattern, he can do so plausibly, because there is precisely such a detailed pattern before Moses in the context. But there is no such specific, detailed pattern (e.g., a "Directory of Worship") for other forms of worship in Scripture.

Beside the tabernacle/temple worship, there is another strain of worship in the OT. On weekly sabbaths and feast days, God commanded the people to have "holy convocations" or "assemblies" (Exod 12:16; Lev 23:2ff., 7f., 21, 24, 27, 35ff.; Num 28:18, 25f.; 29:1, 7, 12). We know very little of what was done at those convocations. Surely there is no revelation about them comparable to the detailed teachings about the tabernacle, sacrifices, and priesthood.

With regard to the tabernacle/priesthood worship, we might say, RP1 could have been applied almost without our first qualification ("good and necessary consequence"). For that kind of worship, God indeed provided a detailed book of commands, a sort of Directory for Worship. Almost everything God required could simply be looked up in that book. (I say "almost," because no written set of rules explicitly anticipates every eventuality.) But with regard to the "holy convocations," there is almost no specific revelation. Were the people to read the law on such occasions? to sing Psalms? to watch the priests perform sacrifices? to hear teaching? Apparently, God left these matters in the hands of the religious leaders, as those appointed to apply the broader commands of the word.

This system of holy convocations, I would assume, was the ancestor of the synagogue worship. God's approval upon that system can be verified through Jesus' regular attendance at the synagogue (Luke 4:16) and through the early church's apparent decision to follow the synagogue model in some degree in their own worship. But this is worship without a divinely revealed Directory. It is worship which simply applies the general principles of the word to various human circumstances.

Other passages discussed in this connection are Lev 10:1f., where Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu are judged by God for offering "unauthorized fire" (NIV) before the Lord, and Jer 7:31, where God condemns those people who burn their children in fire, "something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind." Lev 10:1f. should be understood as pertaining specifically to the tabernacle/priesthood regulations in which the duties of priests are exhaustively specified. Nadab and Abihu were adding to that revelation, and their presumption is condemned. Jer 7:31 does not, I think, presume the existence of a "Directory" covering all worship in which a command to burn children happens to be lacking. Clearly the activity in question is an obvious violation of the sixth commandment and of the very specific commandment in Lev 18:21. Why, then, does the passage refer to the absence of a command rather than to violation of a command? Because, I think, this language better reinforces the thought that such a thing did not "enter my mind." The emphasis is that such activity is totally contrary to the holiness and righteousness of God. The question of how God revealed the hideousness of such behavior is not at issue in this verse.

6. Conclusion

I therefore reaffirm the regulative principle in the form RP1, while denying that this principle for worship is any different from the principle by which God governs other areas of human life. To do this, I must reiterate the confession's qualifications upon RP1 (and the third qualification, which comes from Reformed practice); for those qualifications entail areas of freedom analogous to those we enjoy as we apply the word to other areas of life.

What implications does this discussion have for the actual practice of worship? It serves as a warning against applying RP1 in a wooden manner, such as by demanding specific proof texts to justify worship practices. That sort of wooden approach does have some precedent in Scripture; it is not wrong to find something like this approach in connection with the tabernacle/temple/sacrificial worship. But it is not a rule for worship in general any more than for the rest of life.

Does the approach of this paper encourage or discourage any specific practices in worship, such as exclusive use of Psalms, use of instruments, use of drama? My approach does not in itself settle any of those questions. I think my "three qualifications" make the arguments for exclusive psalmody and against musical instruments much less obvious than they appear to some people. As for drama, the question is clearly not "is there a specific biblical command to have drama in worship?"10 Rather, the question is, "is drama a legitimate application of the biblical commands to preach the word?" Is drama a "mode" of preaching or an alternative to it? In my own mind, the former is the case, since the language for preaching in the NT does not seem to me to presuppose a contrast with drama.11

My approach does not give automatic answers to any of these standing controversies, but it helps us, I think, to see why these questions are difficult and not to impose upon them a false simplicity.

Westminster Theological Seminary in California
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1 Westminster Confession of Faith (hence WCF) 21.1

2 WCF 20.2.

3 Are we also free to accept what comes from outside Scripture? No, according to 21.1, discussed above.

4 Of course, hermeneutical problems would exist, no doubt, even if such a list were available, for the list would itself require "exegesis." But even if problems of that sort could be minimized, we do not in fact have such a list.

5 John Murray and William Young, defending exclusive use of Psalms in worship, state emphatically, but without argument, that song is an element of worship distinct from prayer. See their minority report of the Committee on Song in Public Worship, Minutes of the Fourteenth General Assembly, Orthodox Presbyterian Church (May 1947) 58f.

6 I am speaking here of the process of "application," described in more detail in my Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987). The very possibility of Christian ethics requires that we be able to apply biblical principles to matters which are not explicitly mentioned in Scripture: abortion, nuclear war, in vitro fertilization, etc. If application in this sense is not part of "good and necessary consequence," it is doubtful that we can use the Bible at all as a rule for human life. For any use of the Bible involves application in this sense, if only to the extent that we retranslate the Bible into our own language and thought forms.

7 It is possible, certainly, to use the term adiaphora in legitimate ways, e.g., for actions which depend on circumstances for their rightness or wrongness. I prefer not to use it even in those cases, because the word seems to me always to connote moral neutrality. But I am not interested in quarreling over words. My concern is to emphasize that, taken concretely, every human act is either right or wrong, either pleasing or displeasing to God.

8 Sometimes, to be sure, the lack of a prohibition is significant in determining the nature of our positive responsibility. The fact that Scripture does not forbid me to buy this cabbage means, in the broader context, that buying this cabbage is a proper way of fulfilling the broader commands of Scripture.

9 I am not sure whether this passage deals with worship in a narrow sense, but it is often used to establish the regulative principle, so I include it. Certainly, Moses is standing before the people in the presence of God, bringing blessing to them (water) by means of a symbol of God himself (the rock). So there are at least some elements of worship here.

10 There is no specific biblical command, so far as I can tell, to have sermons in worship, or even to sing from the book of Psalms.

11 See the distinction between "contrast, variation, and distribution" in Vern S. Poythress, Philosophy, Science and the Sovereignty of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976) 123.

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