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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

The Regulative Principle and Biblical Worship: Three Reformed Approaches

Published Monday, November 22, 2021 By Michael Farley

Disputes about how churches should worship are often hard not only due to disagreement about specific practices but also due to disagreement about the standards by which we should evaluate them. Clarifying these differing assumptions and standards is an essential first step toward better understanding. Above all, confessional Protestants want worship to be biblical, but we sometimes hold different assumptions about how to employ that criterion. What is biblical worship? More specifically, what categories of texts and types of reasoning constitute biblical warrant for particular practices of worship?

Reformed Christians often appeal to “the regulative principle” (RP) as the Reformed tradition’s way of answering these questions. The Westminster Confession of Faith states this principle in its classic form: “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 or devices of men or the suggestions of Satan under any visible representation or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures” (21.1). However, a survey of the history of Reformed worship reveals that Christians who agree with Westminster’s formulation have applied biblical norms to worship in a variety of different ways. In my work on liturgical theology within American Presbyterian churches, I have identified three distinct approaches to employing biblical justifications for liturgical practices that also map onto approaches within other evangelical works on worship.[1]

The first approach seeks biblical warrant by looking for biblical references to particular practices. We can call this a practice-oriented RP. Historically, advocates of this hermeneutical approach limit biblical warrant to concrete biblical commands or normative examples of specific practices in the New Testament (NT), and this is what proponents usually mean when they tersely summarize this principle as “whatever God has not commanded, he has forbidden.” A classic example of this restrictive understanding of the regulative principle occurs in the 1572 document Admonition to Parliament,which states numerous Puritan objections to liturgical practices of the Church of England. The rationale offered for this early Puritan perspective appeals almost entirely to the NT because the assumed standard for liturgical practice is the “puritie of the primitive church,” with its “ancient puritie and simplicitie.” Therefore, the authors condemn all practices not explicitly commanded in some fashion in the NT, including even multiple Scripture readings (Gospel and Epistle), the confession of the Nicene Creed, and the singing of the Gloria hymn.

This practice-oriented RP appears in some modern evangelical works as well. For example, in a sermon on worship John Piper argues that because “in the epistles of the NT there is very little instruction that deals explicitly with corporate worship,” Christians should seek to minimize reliance upon “outward” forms. Likewise, in an essay on hermeneutics and worship, D. A. Carson lists only commands and examples of practices in the NT as parameters to guide Christian worship, and he rejects the use of an ancient practice, like the use of incense, because there is no explicit record of Christians using incense in the NT era.[2] These examples reveal the restricted scope of biblical warrant permitted by a practice-oriented RP, for even practices found in the Old Testament (OT) that are not explicitly set aside by NT authors fail this criterion.

Other understandings of biblical warrant find biblical justification for a wider array of liturgical practices by inferring normative principles from a wider range of biblical texts beyond practices explicitly commanded in the NT. In contrast to a practice-oriented RP, these approaches employ a theologically-oriented RP, which means that they expand the category of warrant to include general theological principles and biblical patterns embodied in liturgical practices. While proponents of this broader RP maintain that specific practices commanded in Scripture must be central and foundational for Christian worship, they also maintain that the particular forms, methods, and context of enacting biblical commands can have biblical warrant insofar as they embody biblical content and themes, even if those methods are not specifically described in the Bible.

Historically, I have observed that there are two distinct traditions of liturgical theology that employ a theologically-oriented RP in different ways. I call the first a patristic-ecumenical model. It shares a strong NT orientation with the practice-oriented RP, but it follows the ecumenical liturgical movements of the past century in looking primarily to the more highly developed liturgical structures of the 4th-5th centuries for paradigms of worship practice, arguing that these late patristic liturgies embody biblical theology in exemplary ways.

For example, in the many liturgical works of the evangelical Episcopal scholar Robert Webber,   he establishes a biblical foundation for worship primarily by turning to the NT for the chief elements and theological framework for worship.[3] For Webber, the NT establishes that the ministries of word, prayer, and table are the central axes of Christian worship services, the biblical story culminating in Christ is the main content of liturgy, and the priesthood of all believers entails that worship should engage the whole congregation in active participation in forms that engage the whole person. However, Webber turns to late patristic liturgies to find models of liturgical actions that express these biblical truths.

The work of evangelical liturgical scholar Simon Chan exemplifies the same patristic-ecumenical model.[4] Chan mainly appeals to the NT to find grounds for the basic elements of worship centered upon the ministry of the word and the Lord’s Supper. However, when he outlines liturgical practices to guide the worship of the church, he draws upon an ecumenical ordo grounded chiefly in the pattern of liturgies from the 4th and 5th centuries. Chan defends specific worship practices not by reference to specific biblical commands but rather by analysis of their biblical-theological content. Biblically warranted actions are those that best embody Trinitarian and Christ-centered theology of God, church, creation, redemptive history, and mission.

A second version of a theologically-oriented RP is the biblical-typological model. Whereas the patristic-ecumenical model is NT-centric and tends to appeal mostly to general biblical-theological themes, a biblical-typological approach devotes substantial attention to texts about worship in the OT and infers guidelines for the practice of Christian worship by reasoning typologically from those OT foundations. Proponents of this approach work out a whole-Bible approach to liturgical theology, tracing the redemptive-historical development of worship from the garden of Eden through the various periods of Israel’s history. This OT work bears liturgical fruit as this model shows a double fulfillment of the OT in both Christ and the church. Specifically, it highlights not only the way OT worship prefigures the person and work of Christ as an individual but also the worship of the people of God in Christ.

There is a confessional root to the biblical-typological model for numerous Reformed confessions derive applications for the theology and enactment of baptism and the Lord’s Supper from the OT signs of circumcision and Passover, respectively. This model simply extends this mode of typological reasoning to other OT practices. For example, Michael Horton, Hughes Oliphant Old, and John Witvliet note a consistent pattern of covenant making and renewal in the OT that establishes the outline of a liturgical order of worship moving from God’s initiative in gathering the people to confession of sin to proclamation of God’s word recounting the history of God’s mighty acts to responses of commitment to a celebratory meal and God’s blessing.[5] Allen Ross and Peter Leithart add further detail by inferring patterns for visual art and symbol in the Tabernacle and Temple, patterns for liturgical order in the specific OT liturgy of sacrifices, patterns for liturgical leadership in the ministry of priests and Levites, patterns for liturgical music in the choirs and instruments that King David introduces into public worship, and patterns for a liturgical calendar in the OT cycle of festivals and seasons.[6]

The biblical-typological model is both like and unlike the two other views. Like the patristic-ecumenical model, it is a theologically-oriented RP, which includes in the category of biblical warrant theological arguments for liturgical practices derived from biblical themes and patterns in addition to practices commanded in the NT. Advocates also tend to support many of the liturgical practices favored by patristic-ecumenical proponents. Like the practice-oriented RP, however, the biblical-typological model focuses more intently than the patristic-ecumenical model on seeking normative guidance for worship from specific biblical practices. Moreover, adherents are more inclined to critique features of late patristic liturgies for biblical reasons. What distinguishes the biblical-typological model is that it seeks to maximize the ongoing relevance of OT revelation as a source and guide for Christian liturgical theology and worship. Via typological hermeneutics, this model strives to show that NT fulfillments of OT worship practices radically transform those OT practices but do not negate many potential applications of those OT patterns to Christian worship, even patterns that are not explicitly exemplified in the NT. This chief aim of this article is description rather than prescription. Analysis of the modes of biblical application in Reformed liturgical theology reveals two distinct types of regulative principles (practice-oriented vs. theologically-oriented), and the latter subsists in two distinct models for drawing upon the Bible to establish norms for liturgical practice (patristic-ecumenical vs. biblical-typological). In my next article, I will switch to the prescriptive task of evaluating relative strengths and weaknesses of each model.

Rev. Dr. Michael Farley is the pastor of spiritual formation at Central Presbyterian Church (EPC) in St. Louis, Missouri.  He has served as an adjunct professor of theological studies at Saint Louis University and as an adjunct professor of worship at Covenant Theological Seminary, and he has published articles on liturgical history and theology in journals such as Studia Liturgica, The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Calvin Theological Journal, and The New Mercersburg Review.

[1] Michael A. Farley, “Reforming Reformed Worship: Theological Method and Liturgical Catholicity in American Presbyterianism, 1850-2005” (Ph.D. diss, Saint Louis University, 2007). See also Michael A. Farley, “What Is ‘Biblical’ Worship?: Biblical Hermeneutics and Evangelical Theologies of Worship,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 51 (2008): 591-613. https://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/51/51-3/JETS%2051-3%20591-613%20Farley.pdf

[2] D. A. Carson, “Worship under the Word,” in Worship by the Book, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002).

[3] See, for example, Worship Old and New (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 87-205; Worship Is A Verb  (Waco, TX: Word, 1985); Ancient-Future Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 93-115; “An Evangelical and Catholic Methodology,” in The Use of the Bible in Theology: Evangelical Options, ed. Robert K. Johnston (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985).

[4] Simon Chan, Liturgical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).

[5] Michael Horton, A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002);

Hughes O. Old, Themes and Variations for a Christian Doxology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 111-137; John Witvliet, “The Former Prophets and the Practice of Christian Worship,” Calvin Theological Journal 37 (2002): 82-94.

[6] Allen Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006); Peter J. Leithart, From Silence to Song (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003); Peter J. Leithart, Theopolitan Liturgy (West Monroe, LA: Theopolis Books, 2019).

  • Michael Farley

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