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.”


“A word of God for all things we have to do”

The long-promised discussion on Elizabethan theonomy, although it turns out to be a rather short one, developed amidst a discussion of Puritan biblicism more generally—adapted from the draft of ch. 3 of my thesis.

Unfortunately, Cartwright does not rest content with asserting the supremacy of our duty to God’s glory and our brethren’s salvation over civil concerns.  Indeed, how could he, after long battles in the Vestiarian controversies had ended indecisively, with conformists earnestly insisting that God’s glory and the salvation of the brethren was not in fact at stake?  A more certain rule for resolving the doubtful conscience and adjudicating clashing loyalties was needed—Scripture.

“No man’s authority . . . can bring any assurance unto the conscience,” Cartwright concluded.  Perhaps in “human sciences” the word of man carried “some small force” but “in divine matters [it] hath no force at all.”  Of course, whether the matters in question were “divine matters” or “human sciences” was precisely the point at issue between him and Whitgift.  Whitgift would concede that in divine matters, Scripture alone was our guide, but if the disputed orders and ceremonies were merely civil ordinances, Scripture did not necessarily have much to tell us.  When pressed, then, Cartwright would go so far as to insist that in all actions of moral weight, Scripture was our guide: unless we “have the word of God go before us in all our actions . . . we cannot otherwise be assured that they please God.”  Recognizing the boldness of this claim, Cartwright offers a syllogism to back it up: “But no man can glorify God in anything but by obedience; and there is no obedience but in respect of the commandment and word of God: therefore it followeth that the word of God directeth a man in all his actions.”  Whitgift, breathless at such a declaration, answers that this would make not merely the matters in question, but all civil matters as well dependent on the Word, indeed, any action whatsoever, even “to take up a straw.”

Cartwright happily swallows the reductio, acknowledging that the guidance of Scripture is needed for the taking up of a straw.  Why?  Because although a class of action may be indifferent in itself, any particular action takes on the moral quality of goodness or badness based on the motive, and the motive, says Cartwright, must always be a desire to please God; since he has already argued that no man may be confident he pleases God except when acting in adherence to the Word, Scripture must in some sense go before us even in the most trivial of actions.  Cartwright has thus, under pressure to find some certain rule for guiding the Christian amidst doubtful and disputed moral decisions, collapsed any distinction between indifference epistemologically construed and morally construed, with the result of rendering the concept largely meaningless.  Since no action is morally neutral, and since the Christian must have guidance in all moral matters, and since Scripture is the Christian’s surest guide, Scripture must be taken to pronounce positively or negatively on all matters.

Even the relative indifference of the adiaphora, it would seem, would have to come from the positive permission of the Word.  And indeed, when Whitgift expresses concern on this score, Cartwright confirms that this is his meaning: “For even those things that are indifferent, and may be done, have their freedom grounded of the word of God; so that unless the word of the Lord, either in general or especial words, had determined of the free use of them: there could have been no lawful use of them at all.“  This is a remarkable transformation of the doctrine of adiaphora; no longer is Scriptural silence regarding a matter demonstrative of its moral lawfulness, but it is constitutive of it, so that this silence is to be construed as a positive act of  permission, without which the matter would have remained morally illicit. 

 

The fundamental difference between the conformist and the precisianist, then, is not merely that the precisianist considers that fewer matters have been left indifferent than the conformist does, although that is certainly the case; nor is it merely that the precisianist considers Scriptural guidance on matters that are indifferent to be more detailed and constraining than the conformist does, although that is certainly the case; rather, it is that the precianist considers all the relevant moral criteria to derive from Scripture, rather than merely being expressed in it.  We may see what this difference of approach entails by considering the role of the Mosaic judicial laws in Cartwright’s system.  Whitgift, worrying that the precisianist principle of Scriptural direction for every action would lead not merely to the abridgement of the magistrate’s freedom over ecclesiastical matters, but over strictly civil matters as well, was met with a curious waffling on the part of his adversary.  On the one hand, Cartwright and other precisianists would frequently insist that as ministers of the Gospel, they disclaimed all interest in merely civil and political matters, leaving those to the lawyers; moreover, they denied that the principles they advanced regarding ecclesiastical polity necessitated a similar reconfiguration of civil polity.  On the other hand, however, they at times forthrightly admitted that the laws of England ought to take the laws of Moses as their guide, and were to be condemned as unjust whenever they failed to do so.

This emphasis on the abiding validity of the Mosaic judicial laws has frequently attracted the interest of scholars for its idiosyncrasy among the Protestant Reformers (with the exception of the Scotch Presbyterians, who were in this of a similar mind as their English brethren), and its lasting influence on later Puritan theonomic/theocratic aspirations.  Paul Avis, in his instructive article “Moses and the Magistrate,” has shown that even where they used similar language, there was a compelling difference between a Calvin and a Cartwright on this issue.  The former, although much more emphatic about the positive uses of the law than Luther was, took a fundamentally similar tack on the judicial laws.  Luther believed that the while the Ten Commandments summed up the natural law, the latter temporally and logically preceded this formal expression, and the same principle applied to the rest of the Mosaic laws.  They were expressions and applications of natural law in a particular polity, and so, although its accuracy as a good application was, by virtue of its divine revelation, more assured than that of the law of Solon, it was not intrinsically more binding.  Only inasmuch as our own circumstances were the same as those of the Hebrews should we expect our own judicial laws to be similar to theirs.  Calvin’s argument is similar, viewing the natural principle of equity, perfected in the gospel principle of charity, to be instantiated in the Mosaic judicial laws, but to exist independently of them, so that it might and often should be instantiated quite differently in a contemporary Christian polity.  Cartwright, however, while he will use Calvin’s term of the “general equity” of the law, understands this as something posterior, rather than prior, to the particular positive law, extracted from it, rather than instantiated in it.  Accordingly there is some room for flexibility in application, but not a great deal:

“And as for the judicial law, forasmuch as there are some of them made in regard of the region they were given, and of the people to whom they were given, the prince and the magistrate, keeping the substance and equity of them (as it were the marrow), may change the circumstances of them, as the times and places and manners of the people shall require.  But to say that any magistrate can save the life of blasphemers, contemptuous and stubborn idolaters, incestuous persons, and such like, which God by his judicial law hath commanded to be put to death, I do utterly deny.”

 

This is because, for Cartwright, as Joan O’Donovan says, “the particular command . . . is the perfect form of law because it ‘leave[s] as little undetermined and without the compass of the law as can be.’”  Accordingly, we ought never to rest content with a mere general moral intuition if a clear Scriptural directive can be found; indeed, the latter is the only basis upon which the former can be valid.  This conviction leads Cartwright to a preposterous dependence on Scriptural prooftexts at many points in his debate with Whitgift where mere common-sense would have more than sufficed.  For instance, when complaining that in the Prayer Book service, the minister cannot be clearly heard by the congregation when he stands at the far end of the chancel, Cartwright feels the need to allege a Scriptural positive law for the principle, and resorts to Acts 1:15: “Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples.”  When Whitgift raises his eyebrows, Cartwright holds his ground: “The place of St. Luke is an unchangeable rule to teach that all that which is done in the church ought to be done where it may be best heard, for which cause I alleged it.”  At another point, discussing the requirements for elders, he says “The holie Ghost prescribing by Jethro what officers are to be chosen doth not only require that they should fear God . . . be wise and valiant, but also requireth that they be trusty.”  Jethro’s counsel to his son-in-law can no longer be read merely as prudent counsel, the prudence of which ought to be obvious in similar situations, such as the choosing of church officers, but must appear as a specific prescription of the Holy Spirit, intended for use as a positive law for the church.

This style of reasoning permeates the writings of Cartwright, Travers, and other precisianists, and is undergirded by two syllogisms that we find frequently repeated.  The first finds perhaps its most amusing expression when Whitgift queries the Admonition’s statement that in the Apostles’ time, there was always a careful examination of communicants before they were permitted to receive the Supper—how, he asks, do they prove this in Scripture?  “After this sort,” replies Cartwright: “all things necessary were used in the churches of God in the apostles’ times; but examination of those whose knowledge of the mystery of the gospel was not known or doubted of was a necessary thing; therefore it was used in the churches of God which were in the apostles’ time.”

It should not surprise us to find this sort of reasoning given the precisianist obsession with finding certainty; for the Christian convinced that he must please God in all actions, it was clear that the Church needed detailed guidance in all its practices, and since God must love and favor His church, it stood to reason that he must have provided such guidance in Scripture.  Moreover, since the most specific form of law was the most perfect, the more God loved his Church, the more detailed legislation we should expect.  Accordingly, we frequently find the following form of a fortiori syllogism:

“To prove that there is a word of God for all things we have to do: I alleged that otherwise our estate should be worse, than the estate of the Jews.  Which the Adm. confesseth to have had ‘direction out of law, in the least thing they had to do.’  And when it is the virtue of a good law, to leave as little undetermined and without the compass of the law as can be: the Answerer in imagining that we have no word for divers things wherein the Jews had particular direction: presupposeth greater perfection in the law, given unto the jews, then in that which is left unto us.  And that this is a principal virtue of the law may be seen not only by that I hade showed that a conscience well instructed and touched with the fear of God seeketh for the light of the word of God in the smallest actions.”

In a remarkable early passage of his Full and Plaine Declaration, outlining the Scriptural plan of Presbyterian polity, Walter Travers manages to combine both syllogisms side-by-side.  God’s care for his people, he says, is apparent in the precise and detailed legislation for the building of the tabernacle in the Old Testament; even though Scripture describes David and Solomon’s changes to the worship and building of the temple without narrating God’s prescription of them, we may safely conclude, given the obvious approval of their actions, that they would have only made such changes by express divine command.  “And,” concludes Travers, “how absurd and unreasonable a thing is it, than especially to think the love and care of God to be diminished towards his Church” that he would omit such express commands in the New Covenant?  

 

In their quest to safeguard Christian liberty, then, the precisianists have so hedged it in with unchangeable divine law that even Whitgift’s cold call to submission seems a charter of freedom by comparison.


Calvin, Christian Liberty, and the Regulative Principle

Let’s recap briefly the previous post in this new series: David VanDrunen argues that the doctrine of Christian liberty undergirds Calvin’s (and the Reformed tradition’s) two-kingdoms doctrine–the doctrine ensures that in the spiritual kingdom (which he takes to mean the visible Church) the Christian cannot be bound by any human laws, by anything besides Scripture alone; whereas in the civil kingdom (which he takes to mean the realm of society and politics) the Christian can be bound by laws other than Scripture.  Free in the Church, not in the State.  However, for VanDrunen, this actually comes to mean the opposite: bound in the Church, free in the State.  For the reason we cannot be bound by human laws in the Church is the regulative principle–that Scripture has already given us full and perfect guidance for worship and church order, so that we are bound to follow its rules, and no others.  Scripture, however, leaves plenty of flexibility in the civil kingdom, and so we are free here to make other laws and follow different standards, so long as we do not contradict Scripture.  

 But does Calvin teach such a regulative principle?  And if not, does he mean by Christian liberty, and by the “two kingdoms” the same thing that VanDrunen does?  A careful read of the very chapters that VanDrunen points us to yields a clear answer: “No.”  However, VanDrunen is not an idiot.  There is plenty here in the Institutes, and elsewhere in Calvin, that sounds a lot like the Puritan regulative principle.  Let’s consider this evidence first–Book IV, chapter 10 is the place to look.

 

In section 6, Calvin says of bishops and church leaders,

“Yet I deny that they have been appointed lawgivers over believers as to be able by themselves to prescribe a rule of life, or to force their ordinances upon the people committed to them.  When I say this, I mean that they have no right to command the church to observe as obligatory what they have themselves conceived apart from God’s Word.”

In section 7, he says,

“In his law the Lord has included everything applicable to the perfect rule of the good life, so that nothing is left to men to add to that summary….We hear that God claims this one prerogative as his very own–to rule us by the authority and laws of his word….No man can take this to himself.  We ought, therefore, to acknowledge God as sole ruler of souls, with whom alone is the power to save and to destroy….If we duly weight this, that it is unlawful to transfer to man what God reserves for himself, we shall understand that the whole power of those who wish to advance themselves to command anything in the church apart from God’s Word is thus cut off.” (IV.10.7) 

There you have it–human authority cannot institute or command in the church anything that is not laid down already in God’s Word, because we have a “perfect rule” there, to which nothing must be added.  This is particularly the case for worship, as Paul 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…at the end of the [2nd] 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.  We therefore consider impious all constitutions in whose observance the worship of God is feigned to consist.” (IV.10.8)

He cites proof of this principle from the Old Testament, and asks, 

“Why, then, should we not consider ourselves much more strictly forbidden to add anything to the law, prophets, psalms, and gospel?  The Lord, who long ago declared that nothing so much offended him as being worshipped by humanly devised rites, has not become untrue to himself.” (IV.10.17)

Finally, by section 23, the rhetoric has become quite sweeping indeed:

“[The Lord’s kingdom] 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….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….I say further: although in some contrived worship impiety does not openly appear, it is still severely condemned by the Spirit, since it is a departure from God’s precept….We see how the Spirit loathes this insolence because the inventions of men in the worship of God are impure corruptions.  And the more clearly God’s will is revealed to us, the less excusable is our wantonness in attempting anything.” 

Well, there you have it, that’s the regulative principle.  No inventions of our own, worship God simply as he himself commands; to do anything else is sinful insolence; even if there is nothing sinful about the particular action of worship, it is sinful because it has not been commanded.  To be sure, it would be difficult to deny that the latter statements in particular (those in sections 17 and 23) amount almost to a full-blown statement of the regulative principle (though even here, Calvin is far from going to the Thornwellian extreme, which makes the principle to apply not merely in worship but in matters of order and procedure like denominational mission boards).  In the wider context of Calvin’s doctrine in IV.10, however, these statements appear as rhetorical exaggerations, which indeed is unsurprising, as Calvin is in this part of the chapter engaging in a polemic against the Roman Catholic innovations in worship, a context in which he is often prone to forget himself and get a bit carried away.  Indeed, rightly understood, even these stronger statements might harmonize with his overall teaching.  

 

And what is that teaching?  Well, Calvin is well aware that there will need to be rules laid down in the church for ceremonies (that is, forms of worship) and order, on human rather than Scriptural authority.  Like Hooker, Calvin recognizes that Scripture simply doesn’t speak comprehensively to many questions of worship and polity that might arise, and even when it does speak to them, its guidance may be relative to time and place.  This is spelled out most clearly in sections 27-32 of chapter 10, which I hope to get to in due course (though I have already touched on this in a recent post).  So Calvin does not believe, with VanDrunen, that Scripture can be the only guide in the visible Church.  But how does this fit with the quotes we’ve just seen?  A closer look at some of them, and at others from their context, will help illuminate what Calvin’s up to.

 

When we look at the first quote above, we must ask what is meant by “obligatory,” by saying that nothing can be made “obligatory” in the Church contrary to God’s word.  In fact, in section 8, Calvin tells us precisely how “to distinguish what human constittutions are contrary to the Lord’s Word.  All of these are of the sort that pretend to relate to the true worship of God, and that consciences are bound to keep, as if their observance were compulsory.”  

He says something similar in section 16:  

“But suppose, apart from present circumstances, you simply want to understand what are those human traditions of all times that shold 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, laws made 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.”

Ok, so we have the element of conscience-binding.  This is absolutely crucial for Calvin, was we shall see.  Presumably, then, constitutions which do not claim to bind the conscience (e.g., we kneel while praying) are permitted.  (We will look shortly at what precisely “conscience” means for Calvin.)  But he also gives another criterion–constitutions cannot be made that “pretend to relate to the true worship of God.”  Now what does this mean?  Kneeling while praying is part of worshipping God, right?  So can we not make rules about it

Another passsage quoted above may shed some light: “We therefore consider impious all constitutions in whose observance the worship of God is feigned to consist.”  This last clause gives us a clue as to what’s going on here.  The problem is not rules about anything whatsoever relating to outward worship, but rules that purport to specify wherein consists the essence of worship–understood not in its horizontal dimension (the corporate actions of the congregation) but in its vertical dimension (that which is pleasing to God, that which establishes and maintains our salvific relationship to him).  It’s not that you can’t make rules saying, “we will all kneel to pray” but you can’t make rules saying, “unless you kneel, it’s not prayer,” you can’t make rules defining, from a God’s-eye perspective, what worship is and isn’t.  Understood this way, the criterion about worship serves simply as a specification and elaboration of the overriding criterion about not “binding the conscience” and not making things “necessary to salvation”–only God’s word can bind the conscience and only God’s word can tell us what’s necessary for salvation, so only God’s word can tell us wherein consists the essence of true worship.  The terminology is misleading at times, to be sure, but this reading fits the structure of Calvin’s discussion in the Institutes, in which the overriding concern is “binding the conscience”; read otherwise, the insistence that worship must follow Scripture alone, in some regulative principle fashion, would sit quite awkwardly with Calvin’s insistence on flexibility in all matters not necessary to salvation–unless, of course, you made every aspect of worship necessary to salvation.  

Finally, this way of reading Calvin’s remarks on worship is confirmed by its context in an attack on papal traditions, traditions of which “the authors themselves define, in clear terms, that the veriest worship of God is, so to speak, contained in these very constitutions” (IV.10.9).  The problem is that they lead “one man to despise, judge, and cast out another because of what are trivial and (in God’s sight) indifferent matters” (IV.10.10).  Note the difference here from the likes of VanDrunen and Thornwell.  For them, the traditions of Catholic worship that Calvin here discusses are not indifferent–because they are not commanded in Scripture, they are wrong.  But for Calvin, in principle, they are indifferent (well, many of them at any rate; others, idolatrous ones, are flat forbidden by Scripture), and the problem is that the Catholics have made them essential, have feigned that in them the true worship of God consists.  Again, it cannot be doubted that in parts of chapter 10, Calvin’s rhetoric against these veers toward the sort of regulativism we see in later Puritanism, but it seems clear that this rhetoric does not square with his overall doctrine of Christian liberty.

 

To get a clearer idea of what this overall doctrine is, let’s look more carefully at his definition of conscience, since Christian liberty consists above all in the inability of conscience to be bound by human constitutions.  Calvin recognizes that confusions at this point are certain to crop up (as they certainly did for those who claimed to follow him) if we “do not sharply enough distinguish the outer forum, as it is called, and the forum of the conscience.”  So he defines conscience for us: “it is a certain mean between God and man…[an] awareness which hales man before God’s judgment” (III.19.15).  

“Therefore, as works have regard to men, so conscience refers to God.  A good conscience, then, is nothing but inward integrity of heart….properly speaking, as I have already said, it has respect to God alone….Hence it comes about that a law is said to bind the conscience when it simply binds a man without regard to other men, or without taking them into account”–that is, laws that would be morally binding even if no other man lived on earth (III.19.16).  

Conscience then refers strictly to the relationship between the individual soul and God; not to the relationship between the individual and other human beings.  Not, of course, that the two aren’t connected in important ways (which brings up all sorts of fascinating new layers to this doctrine), but they are distinct.  Christian liberty means in indifferent things–things not necessary to salvation–that human laws must only bind in the “outward forum,” in terms of the relationships between man and God.  They cannot presume to intrude on the relationship between man and God, and give or take away our standing in the sight of God.  

What this means is that we can, in fact, be outwardly bound in indifferent things, without our inward freedom being thereby compromised.  For instance, by the need not to offend a brother: “For we ought to abstain from anything that might cause offense, but with a free conscience….But however necessary it may be with respect to his brother for him to abstain from it, as God enjoins, he still does not cease to keep freedom of conscience.  We see how this law, while binding outward actions, leaves the conscience free” (III.19.16).  Later he says, “human laws, whether made by magistrate or by church, even though they have to be observed (I speak of good and just laws), still do not of themselves bind the conscience” (IV.10.5).  

Christian liberty does not, therefore, mean that individuals are set completely free vis-a-vis the visible Church, or vis-a-vis civil authority.  Inasmuch as rules made by these bodies pertain to the outward forum, Christians will be bound to obey; and when we are talking about indifferent things, there will be no reason why these bodies cannot make rules one way or another.  What Christian liberty means is that individuals are set free in the realm of conscience, from fearing that their actions in things indifferent necessarily affect their relationship to God.  

 

This, then, is the proper two-kingdoms distinction that Calvin derives from his doctrine of Christian liberty, a distinction that bears almost no resemblance to that which VanDrunen attributes to him.  He has just said, in III.19.14, that in indifferent things, “we are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them”; otherwise, conscience is threatened by superstition.  Therefore “we conclude that they [believers’ consciences] are to be released from the power of all men.”  But he immediately recognizes that some will understand this to mean that “all human obedience were at the same time removed and cast down.”  Far from it.  For, in Calvin’s famous statement, “There are in man, so to speak, two worlds, over which different kings and different laws have authority….Through this distinction it comes about that we are not to misapply to the political order the gospel teaching on spiritual freedom, as if Christians were less subject, as concerns outward government, to human laws, because their consciences have been set free in God’s sight; as if they were released from all bodily servitude because they are free according to the spirit” (III.19.15).  By “political order” it is clear that we are not to understand merely “civil government,” “the State” or anything of that sort, but a synonym of “outward government” and “human laws”–in short, what Calvin then goes on to call the “external forum” as contrasted to the “internal forum” of conscience–the domain of the spiritual kingdom.  

The nature of this distinction thus means that what we have are not two different spatial spheres of action, so that some actions belong to the civil kingdom (e.g., paying your taxes, executing murderers) and some to the spiritual kingdom (going to church, caring for the poor), but two different modes of action, or we might say two different planes or dimensions, so that an action is simultaneously in the spiritual kingdom, inasmuch as we do it before God, and in the civil kingdom, inasmuch as we do it before man.  This is why our Christian freedom can express itself even in a complete outward bondage–we are no less free, Calvin says, if we abstain from meat for our entire lives because of the weakness of our brother–”Indeed, because they are free, they abstain with a free conscience” (III.19.10)  In this, Calvin is following some of Luther’s finest passages in On the Freedom of a Christian Man.  

 

Because, however, these two kingdoms exist side-by-side, simultaneously, the freedom of the conscience and the bondage of inward action unavoidably “interpenetrate,” we might say, at key points.  My conscience (the internal forum) does demand that I treat my brother in a certain way in the external forum; my response to laws made in the external forum, inasmuch as God has given me commands to be subject to such laws, do affect the internal forum.  I hope in a further post to explore the rich complexities of this relationship which leave Calvin’s paradigm in a state of creative tension–a tension which unfortunately proved quite difficult to sustain for his followers.  (I say, “I hope,” however, because the demands of putting out a roughly-finished product of this chapter for my supervisor might have to take precedence over the leisurely business of piecing it together bit-by-bit here, as I did for “Hooker’s Doctrine of Law.”) 


The Church’s Gag Order (Christian Liberty in the Reformation, Pt. 1)

At several points in his Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, David VanDrunen states that the Protestant doctrine of Christian liberty was foundational to the Reformed understanding of natural law and the two kingdoms, and hence to his own two-kingdoms project.  But has he rightly characterized that foundational doctrine?  Whose liberty, after all, are we talking about? 

One person’s liberty is always asserted over against another person or entity, conditioning their liberty in some way.  That I have a liberty not to be assaulted means that you do not have the liberty to assault me.  So whose liberty are we talking about when we talk about Christian liberty?  Is this liberty corporate or is it individual?  It makes rather a difference, you see, since if it’s the former, then it is the liberty of the Church body over against its individual members, but if it’s the latter, then its the liberty of the individuals over against the Church body, which has quite the opposite effect.  Which is the true Protestant doctrine? 


The dilemma is neatly illustrated by an example that VanDrunen himself examines–a rather bizarre debate in 1860 that could only have happened between two Presbyterians, and two particularly prickly ones at that: Charles Hodge and James H. Thornwell.  The question was: “Is it legitimate for the denomination to create a mission board?”  (Not, mind you, “Is it a good idea?” but “Is it even allowed?”)  Charles Hodge argued a resounding “Yes,” appealing to the doctrine of Christian liberty.  As VanDrunen tells it, “He claimed that Thornwell’s idea ‘ties down’ the government and action of the church to what is prescribed in the New Testament and, toward the end of his article, he writes: ‘There is as much difference between this extreme doctrine of divine right, this idea that everything is forbidden which is not commanded, as there is between this free, exultant Church of ours, and the mummified forms of mediaeval Christianity’” (NLTK 258).  In other words, if the Church is not free to do things neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture, then we are back to a new legalism as bad as that of the Papacy.

VanDrunen immediately lets us know what he thinks about this:

“The Reformed doctrine of Christian liberty was never about the church being freed to to things (such as create boards to which it could delegate the work of missions) about which Scripture was silent.  Instead, with direct reference to the two kingdoms doctrine, Reformed theologians and confessions spoke of Christian liberty in regard to the justified individual, who was freed in the civil kingdom from any obligation to do things contrary to the teaching of Scripture and in the spiritual kingdom from any obligation to do things beside the teaching of Scripture….Thus, when Hodge taught, as the Presbyterian’s doctrine of Christian liberty, that the church is permitted to do what is not forbidden in Scripture, he was in fact transferring the traditional Reformed standard for the civil kingdom to the spiritual kingdom and thus giving the church precisely the power (speaking and acting beyond the teaching of Scripture) that the Reformed tradition had tried to take from it” (NLTK 258-59).

This, he said, was Thornwell’s contention, who responded with, we are told “an incisive, biting, and at times humorous response” which “lamented on the one hand the lack of candor and honor in his [Hodge’s] article and, on the other hand, his ineptness in regard to ecclesiology.”  Hodge, he said, had it backward–his “principle that the church is permitted to do all that Scripture does not forbid it to do was not the Reformed principle of Christian liberty over against Rome but the principle of Rome which the Reformed doctrine of Christian liberty sought to overthrow” (NLTK 259).  In short, “Thornwell sought to limit the government and action of the church to the prescriptions of the Bible only, and did so with reference to historic Reformed convictions about the church’s ministerial authority and about Christian liberty” (260).

VanDrunen is in no doubt what the proper Protestant doctrine is–Christian liberty means the individual believer is freed from having to do anything not directly commanded in Scripture, and therefore the Church is bound not to authorize anything that is not directly commanded in Scripture.  (There is already a tension, mind you–one could understand how this construal of Christian liberty would mean that the Church could not require individual believers to serve on church boards, etc.; but it is a bit harder to see why it would mean that the Church could not authorize them in any way as an option for its members.  But more on this anon.)  Believer free, Church bound.  This dialectic is even further intensified in Thornwell’s doctrine of the spirituality of the Church, which is much more relevant to VanDrunen’s own project: the liberty of the individual Christian means that he is free from having to receive any guidance from the Church on anything not directly contained in Scripture (e.g., political issues like, say, slavery)–the Church is bound not to speak on any such matters.  

Now, Hodge’s concern seems justified here–surely this is not freedom but legalism!  Surely this cannot be the traditional Protestant doctrine.  But earlier in the book, VanDrunen has already shown that it is, hasn’t he?  Let’s follow the trail backwards.  He sprinkles the appeal to Christian liberty throughout his narrative, but a significant focus of the discussion comes near the end of chapter 5.  

 

Thornwell’s legalism may be understood as an application of the “regulative principle of worship” (or RPW), which, says VanDrunen, “states that the public worship of the church may consist only of those elements that the New Testament itself teaches are proper elements of worship” (191).  This comes from the doctrine of Christian liberty: “Because the church has no power to impose anything beyond the teaching of Scripture upon the consciences of believers, it has no power to demand that believers worship God in any other way than what Scripture ordains” (191-2).  This is again all wrapped up in the two kingdoms doctrine:

“In the spiritual kingdom of the church, ecclesiastical authorities, dealing only with spiritual things, have no power to bind consciences beyond the declaration of what Scripture itself teaches (a ‘ministerial’ authority) and believers have no conscientious obligation to believe or do anything that the church says otherwise.  Believers are free from anything ‘beside’ the word of God.  In the civil kingdom and with respect to civil matters, however, believers are free only from commands ‘contrary’ to Scripture, meaning that they are conscientiously bound to do all things that the magistrate commands (however disagreeable) so long as they do not contradict some biblical teaching” (191). 

In fact, this is all in Calvin, VanDrunen tells us on the previous page: “in Institutes 3.19, alongside 4.11 and 4.20, Calvin lays down the principle that while ecclesiastical authorities cannot bind the conscience of believers in anything beyond what Scripture teaches, civil authorities do in fact bind consciences when they command anything that is not contrary to biblical teaching” (190). 

Well, by Jove, there you have it.  Calvin said it, in the Institutes no less, so it must be the proper Christian doctrine.  Following the narrative back further, we come to chapter 3, where Calvin is dealt with in great detail.  So let’s look at this closely.

For Calvin, christian liberty consists in 1) “having one’s conscience assured of justification and no longer seeking justification by the law,” 2) “being obedient to the law voluntarily rather than under legal compulsion,” and 3) “being freed from obligation to do or not to do external things that are in themselves morally indifferent” (NLTK 73).

However, this last point is immediately qualified by the two kingdoms doctrine–since “Christian liberty is in all its parts a spiritual matter,” this freedom from obligation to things indifferent does not apply in the civil sphere: “By attending to this distinction, we will not erroneously transfer the doctrine of the gospel concerning spiritual liberty to civil order, as if in regard to external government Christians were less subject to human laws, because their consciences are unbound before God…” (Inst. 3.19.15).

The redemptive doctrine of Christian liberty, VanDrunen explains,“applies to life in the spiritual kingdom but not to life in the civil kingdom.  No human authority can bind the believer’s conscience in regard to participation in the spiritual kingdom of Christ.  Over against Roman Catholic claims, Calvin teaches that Scripture is the only authority in this realm.  Hence, as he explains in Institutes 4.10-11, the church can minister the word of God alone and never its own opinions, and it can prescribe for worship only those things that Scripture provides….In other words, the officers of the church have authority to do and command only those things prescribed in Scripture, and Christians in the spiritual kingdom are thus free in conscience from anything beyond this”; on the other hand, “civil magistrates have a broader discretion to promote justice and order in the civil kingdom, and Christians are bound to obey them except if their commands contradict their biblical obligations” (NLTK 74).

Was this, then, the Protestant doctrine of Christian liberty–the believer’s freedom from any command outside Scripture in the visible Church, and the Church’s corresponding gag order not to say, do, or command anything besides what is specifically laid down in Scripture?  I have already argued in a recent post that such a notion of sola Scriptura is simply impossible and incoherent–no church could function if it took VanDrunen’s rhetoric seriously.  So was Protestantism really so incoherent at such a key point?

 

I would suggest that the answer is a resolute “No,” and that VanDrunen has in fact distorted the teaching of the magisterial Reformers almost beyond recognition at this point.  He has done so by equivocating at the exact point where Calvin is so careful to be absolutely precise–the notion of “conscience.”  VanDrunen slides carelessly from saying “the Church cannot bind the conscience beyond Scripture” to “the Church cannot command anything beyond Scripture” to “the Church cannot do anything beyond Scripture.”  Not only are the last two quite different statements (as I already pointed out parenthetically above with regard to church boards), but for Calvin, the first two are quite different statements.  Indeed, because of this, VanDrunen has in fact gotten Calvin wrong on the other side of the duality as well–magistrates cannot bind the conscience in the civil kingdom, for Calvin, because in fact there is no one but God himself who can bind the conscience. 

In a series of posts over the coming weeks, preparatory to a chapter draft for my Ph.D., I will be exploring this question in Calvin, but also in several of his contemporaries, in the Puritans who claimed to follow him, and of course in Hooker.  VanDrunen’s construal is not, I will argue, completely alien to the Reformation–it was certainly there, and popped up from time to time in incendiary outbursts, but it was always resisted by the magisterial Reformers–Luther, Melanchthon, Bullinger, Bucer, Vermigli, Calvin.  Hooker, I hope to argue, helped resolve some of the tensions thus raised that his predecessors had not quite been able to deal with satisfactorily.  

 

(For some of my initial critiques of VanDrunen on some the chapters quoted above when I read them last year, see here and here–take all with a grain of salt, however.)

(For an initial sketch of my Ph.D thesis, or what I aspire to be my thesis, covering a lot of the ground discussed above, see here.)

(For an excellent review of VanDrunen that exposes the category confusion that lies at the heart of this problem, see this article by Steven Wedgworth.)