Soli Deo Gloria: For the Glory of God Alone
Posted: Thursday, April 15, 2010 2:44 pm
The Messenger, April 15, 2010
Reformed Worship and
the Regulative Principle
By ARTHUR W. HUNT III
Special to The Messenger
A significant portion of the Protestant Reformation was a reaction against the pomp and circumstance of the Medieval Church. The Catholic Mass, conducted in Latin, was hardly discernable to the average parishioner who only spoke in his native language. The common worshiper in the 15th century was fortunate if he could even read.
But it really didn’t matter if you were illiterate. Medieval worship was a banquet for the senses where one could see saints colorfully displayed in stone or stained glass, smell smoking incense, taste the body of Christ and enjoy an occasional Passion Play.
Now fast forward 500 years and enter a typical American evangelical church where it is not uncommon to experience video clips, drama, rock-and-roll music, dance and billed entertainers. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
While Martin Luther sought to secure the theological tenet of justification by faith alone, John Calvin spent much of his time pointing out the trappings of what he called “idolatry” in worship. The Reformer did not view worship as a side-issue, but as central to the life of the church.
The so-called “worship wars” is not a 20th century phenomenon. Calvin was born in the middle of the biggest worship war in church history!
Calvin thought it wrong to justify a worship practice based only on the merits of doing it in God’s name. He argued that worship was primarily for God’s glory. The personal edification of the worshiper came second. He insisted that “lawful” worship is that which God has established “by Himself.”
Through the centuries Presbyterians have held to what is called the regulative principle. When applied to worship, the principle says only that which is expressly prescribed in Scripture should be permitted as a part of corporate worship. By contrast, most churches work off the assumption that if Scripture says nothing about such-and-such, then it must be OK.
We should remember that it was Charles Finney who believed faith and repentance could be “induced” by the “most efficient means.” This kind of pragmatic thinking could allow for just about anything in a religious service … and has.
The Westminster Confession, an important Reformed creed, states, “The acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by God 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.”
Worship is about God, for God’s glory … not about entertaining church members or amusing the unsaved.
Consequently, most Presbyterians do not have altar calls … or dance in church … or juggle for that matter. The simplicity and beauty of Reformed worship is that all the elements come from Scripture: reading the Word, preaching the Word, praying the Word, singing the Word, and seeing the Word (baptism and the Lord’s supper). The regulative principle is tied to the doctrine of total depravity. Without the sanction of Scripture, it is believed the worshiper would be prone to wander away from what is appropriate.
Editor’s note: Arthur W. Hunt III is assistant professor of communications at UT Martin and a member of Grace Community Church in Union City.