What’s Wrong with the Regulative Principle?

After two weeks of hibernation (well, excluding the comments thread on the most recent post), the lights will be slowly flickering back on here.  And where better to re-start than with S&P’s patron saint, Richard Hooker?  In this post, I want to look squarely at a question that has been dancing around in the background of many of my Hooker and Puritanism posts, and much of my research on those topics: What did Hooker think about the so-called “regulative principle of worship”?  

The RPW, as any self-respecting Presbyterian knows, runs something like this: “In its worship, the church is to be so guided by Scripture that it must include only those elements for which there is a Scriptural basis, whether it be by way of command or example.”  There are of course looser and stricter applications of this rule, and many of the stricter ones seem to reach bizarrely unbiblical conclusions, such as excluding all musical instruments (um, ever read the Psalms, fellas?).  In principle, though, regulativists agree in denying the so-called “normative principle,” viz., that the Church may worship in any way that is not forbidden by Scripture.  

In reality, of course, the practical difference between the two parties—at any rate with mature, intelligent, and theologically sensitive representatives of them—turns out to be rather less than that bald opposition implies.  For both sides can usually recognize that Scripture offers much more than merely commands and prohibitions; for the most part, it offers principles and historical examples that can and should inform our worship, but in indirect ways that do not necessarily admit of one-to-one application.  Both sides usually draw upon historical precedents as well in forming their liturgies.  The difference then often reduces to one of emphasis, so that regulativists say, “We need to let our worship be always guided by Scripture, always mindful of course of history and common sense” and normativists say “We need to let our worship be guided by history and common sense, always mindful of course of Scripture.”

In particular, the differences are blurred by a key qualification that advocates of the regulative principle have, since their earliest days, had to make: we must distinguish, they say, between “elements” and “circumstances” of worship.  The former are perpetual, essential, commanded by God in Scripture, and must be justified out of it; so we cannot add any additional elements not given in Scripture.  The latter are variable, accidental, not necessarily given in Scripture, and open to improvisation within the general rules of Scripture.  The first consist of the basic building blocks of worship, the latter of the particular ways in which they are manifested in a particular congregation.  It is not hard to see how such a distinction could admit of enormous elasticity.  So, for instance, a loose regulativist might well say merely that “songs of praise” are an “element” whereas the selection of what to sing, how to sing it, and how to accompany it, are “circumstances” that may vary a great deal, and for which we need not seek detailed Scriptural justification.  Stricter regulativists, however, might well contend that the use of musical instruments constitutes an “element,” not a “circumstance,” or that, if singing is an “element,” only Scriptural words must be sung.  A thoughtful non-regulativist, on the other hand, if pressed, could justify many liturgical practices, whether traditional (e.g., a liturgical procession) or contemporary (e.g., a skit) as a “circumstance” or a form of embodying one of the basic elements—prayer, praise, proclamation, offerings, and sacraments.

Moreover, not only must it be conceded that some things may clearly be done in worship that are not prescribed in Scripture, but it also seems clear that not all things prescribed in Scripture for worship must be done in our worship.  Most regulativists today tend to also be cessationists, maintaining that the gift of tongues has ceased and therefore was not intended as a permanent fixture of Christian worship.  

On these basis, some critics have suggested that the terminology of the regulative principle vs. the normative principle isn’t all that useful.  


So if we asked, “Was Richard Hooker—or is Anglican worship—opposed to the regulative principle of worship?” the answer is not that simple.  The Puritan critics of Prayer Book worship were insistent that a matter of basic principle was at stake—Are we going to be ruled by God’s Word or not?  Thriving on dualistic oppositions, they saw the entire debate as hinging upon the clash between this regulative principle—worship *according to* the Word of God—vs. the normative principle—worship *not contrary to* the Word of God.  At the end of Book III of the Lawes, however, Richard Hooker disarmingly dismisses this dualism.  In point of fact, he says, they share the same basic principles regarding worship; they just differed over the particular applications:

“For our constant perswasion in this point is as theirs, that we have no where altered the lawes of Christ further then in such particularities onely as have the nature of things changeable according to the difference of times, places, persons, and other the like circumstances.  Christ hath commanded prayers to be made, sacraments to be ministred, his Church to be carefully taught and guided.  Concerning every of these somewhat Christ hath commaunded which must be kept till the worldes ende.  On the contrary side in every of them somewhat there may be added, as the Church shall judge it expedient.  So that if they will speake to purpose, all which hitherto hath been disputed of they must give over, and stand upon such particulars onely as they can shew we have either added or abrogated otherwise then we ought, in the matter of Church-politie. Whatsoever Christ hath commanded for ever to be kept in his Church, the same we take not upon us to abrogate; and whatsoever our laws have thereunto added besides, of such quality we hope it is, as no lawe of Christ doth any where condemn.” 

In other words, we too stick firmly to all those things that Christ has commanded us to keep, omitting those things that were merely temporary ordinances, and all those things we add are mere matters of changeable circumstance.  The real debate is simply which particular matters fall under which heading, and whether, in the matters of changeable circumstance, the Anglican orders be beneficial or not—it is not whether or not Scripture is to be authoritative for our worship:  

“they must agree that they have molested the Church with needless opposition, and henceforward as we said before betake themselves wholly unto the trial of particulars, whether every of those things which they esteem as principal, be either so esteemed of, or at all established for perpetuity in holy Scripture; and whether any particular thing in our church polity be received other than the Scripture alloweth of, either in greater things or in smaller.”

Hooker will therefore occupy hundreds of pages in Book V working through these particulars one by one.  Does this mean, then, that Hooker accepts, ultimately, the regulative principle, but merely applies it in a very different way?  In the end, no.  The clever rhetorical move of reducing the whole debate to one over particulars comes only after Hooker has dismantled the principle in the form stated by the Puritans, leaving them as the only valid logical interpretation of the principle the watered-down version that Hooker will “agree” with.

Hooker’s preference, however, would be to reject the principle as a useful starting-point, and not only because it proves so useless and ambiguous when pressed, but on the basis of two underlying assumptions that taint the Puritans’ invocation of it.  First, it proceeds on the assumption that, as Cartwright says, “it is the virtue of a good law to leave as little as may be in the discretion of the judge,” so that the most specific form of a law is the most perfect.  So while it may be that a moderate and judicious use of the regulative principle would be unproblematic from Hooker’s standpoint, he recognized that the impulse that led to the advancing of the principle in the first place militates against such moderation.  All Protestants, after all, had always maintained that Scripture must guide our worship, but faced with the uncertainty and diversity that this general commitment left unresolved, the Puritans proposed the regulative principle as a more precise rule.  The goal from the beginning then was to attempt to restrict the scope of what might be considered “changeable circumstance.”

Second was the Puritan conviction that it was only because it had been set down in Scripture that any element of worship could be legitimate.  According to the reasoning of the regulative principle, public prayer would not be an acceptable element of Christian worship had it not been prescribed in Scripture.  But this was to mistake the uniqueness of Christian worship, which consists not so much in its elements as in its object, not so much in form as in content.  Of course, this is not to deny that the distinctive content of Christian faith does shape the form of our worship in many ways, or that Scripture provides plenty of guidance in that distinctive shape.  But consider that prayer, singing, praise, penitence, offerings, instruction, reading from Scripture all may be found in other world religions.  Indeed, Scripture itself teaches that the instinct to worship is natural to mankind.  On consideration, it is really only the sacraments that constitute truly unique elements of Christian worship, though even here it is the content—Christ Himself—that makes them unique more than the forms, which have parallels in other religions (washing rituals, sacraficial meals).  In this, as in so much else, Hooker insists that grace restores and perfects nature, rather than replacing it.

Of course, we do as a matter of fact find justification for these elements in Scripture, so why does it matter whether we could theoretically justify them from nature as well?  Because it affects our view of the purpose of Scripture.  Scripture, Hooker argues, presumes us already instructed by nature of the propriety of certain matters of liturgy and polity, rather than seeking to offer a complete blueprint starting from scratch.  But if we approach it assuming that it is only by being first set down in Scripture that an element of worship becomes valid, and assuming that the most precise instruction is the best, then we will find ourselves sifting the Scriptures in vain for detailed teaching on matters they simply do not address.  The result will be a stretching and warping of the Scriptures, a dishonor to them rather than an honor:

“As for those marvellous discourses whereby they adventure to argue that God must needs have done the thing which they imagine was to be done; I must confess I have often wondered at their exceeding boldness herein.  When the question is whether God have delivered in Scriptrue (as they affirm he hath) a complete, particular, immutable form of church polity, why take they that other both presumptuous and superflous labour to prove he should have done it, there being no way in this case to prove the deed of God, saving only by producing that evidence wherein he hath done it?  But if there be no such thing apparent upon record, they do as if one should demand a legacy by force and virtue of some written testament, wherein there being no such thing specified, he pleadeth that there it must needs be, and bringeth arguments from the love or good-will which always the testator bore him; imagining, that these or the like proofs will convict a testament to have that in it which other men can no where by reading find.  In matters which concern the actions of God, the most dutiful way on our part is to search what God hath done, and with meekness to admire that, rather than to dispute what he in congruity of reason ought to do.”

7 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with the Regulative Principle?

  1. Joseph Minich

    Brad, I'm struggling to find a totally different underlying principle here. As you state it, it would seem that Hooker does not disagree that all elements are to be found in Scripture – though he might disagree that they are found only there. And perhaps there is a difference in logic behind it (the need for clarity in law, etc). But, it would seem that as we look at their respective view of the "RPW" qua the "RPW" itself (rather than its background motivations) – there is an underlying agreement with a extremely large gap in application. Your argument that Hooker rejects the version "stated by the Puritans" is followed by an analysis of Puritan motivation and biblicism, but neither of the latter are (in general) necessary for the RPW as formulated at the beginning of your post. Even if all worshiped required nature AND specific commandments for the elements, this still might not get very specific or fail to admit large diversity of application. In short, the very basics of the principle seem to obtain in both groups: Worship is the kind of thing that requires (in substance!) specific divine warrant – even if Hooker thought the latter was also in nature and admitted of a wider variety of application.


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey Joseph,I basically agree with you—sorry that I failed to put this more clearly in the post. My point is that, as I understand, historically speaking the regulative principle as such was developed by these Puritans, and therefore was for Hooker unavoidably tainted with the assumptions that they brought to it, and their rationale for employing it. To be sure, the basic principle is sufficiently flexible that, stated in a different context, with greater nuance, and without that underlying agenda, a Hooker or a Hookerian could make use of it. Of course, given this very flexibility, I question how useful it is to talk about the RPW as such, instead of appealing to more general notions of Scriptural authority and the need to honor God in our worship. But if someone wants to use that term, I (and I think Hooker) would be willing to work within it.


  3. An interesting question arises regarding the logical necessity of the regulative principle vis-a-vis the principle of sola scriptura, namely, "where does the bible set forth the regulative principle?" Also, what about the views of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli? This is a very interesting topic – enjoyed reading your post!


  4. This is a helpful post, thanks. A number of comments/quesitons:It seems that Hooker and/or you would say that the RPW, depending on it's exact formulation, isn't so much contrary to Scripture as merely imprudent?What are some things that Hooker wanted that the RPW doesn't allow for? Episcopacy? Requiring BCP imposition of specific forms? Among all the "particulars," what things does he argue for?It's funny that you should mention non-instrumental (or acappella only) as "bizarre". I think there is good evidence that the church refrained from instrumentation for the first 700 years or so.For those wondering where/how does the Bible teach the RPW (and for more on the instrument issue), see here: http://www.reformedonline.com/view/reformedonline/music.htmI don't agree with Cartwright's general principle (!) that the most specific forms of law are always best, and I don't think other major advocates of the RPW (eg. J.Bannerman) follow him in that argument. But I do agree with your observation that combining that (dubious) idea with the RPW problematically tends towards "sifting the Scriptures in vain for detailed teaching on matters they simply do not address" (not in detail anyway).


  5. Brad Littlejohn

    Jesse,Luther didn't teach anything like the regulative principle, but one can find something like it in Zwingli, as I recall, though I haven't studied him very much. With Calvin, it's complicated (as usual). He has a lot of statements that sound like it; on the other hand, his real polemic, like Luther's, is against requiring anything as *necessary* in worship without Scriptural basis. He allows considerable scope for churches to come up with their own practices in adiaphora, a category that covers a pretty wide swath for him. So he could be categorized as a pretty broad and flexible regulativist.Greg,"It seems that Hooker and/or you would say that the RPW, depending on it's exact formulation, isn't so much contrary to Scripture as merely imprudent?"Yes, I think that's pretty much right. I would say that it seems to me that the important underlying idea is shared by most Protestants, who recognize the need to avoid forms of worship that are out of step with Scripture, and have maintained generally sound worship without, for the most part, making explicit appeal to the RPW. However, most of what has gone on under the banner of explicit invocation of the RPW has been fairly unhelpful in my view, with churches splitting sometimes over relatively minor liturgical questions. So I'm unconvinced that much is to be gained by it. As far as the particulars that Hooker is concerned to defend—well, episcopacy wouldn't fall under the heading of issues of "worship," for one. For the rest, the Table of Contents of Book V of the Lawes is a good place to look, but issues included consecrating churches, reading pre-written homilies as sermons, the use of canticles such as the Nunc Dimittis and Gloria Patri, private baptisms, the sign of the cross in baptism, confirmation, festival days, funeral rites, and more. Each of these, I think, is defensible within a broadly construed version of the RPW, and one could describe Hooker's defenses in those terms, although he does not usually do so himself.Regarding Bannerman, thanks for the link—I've put that on my Kindle, and will add it to my (very long) list of things to read and interact with.


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