Principles of worship and what stands behind discussions on the creeds

In and among all the discussions that have been going on about creeds and confessions, another sub-discussion has been going on in the background. Some have cast it as a normative vs regulative principle conversation. To some degree, that is probably right (though I’m not sure it’s exactly that).

Whenever that question comes up, the two positions are frequently described something along these lines:

Normative Principle of Worship (NPW) = anything not forbidden is permissible

Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) = anything not expressly commanded is forbidden

Except, I’m not really sure the majority of people who hold to either position really take either of those positions. Some do, of course, but not most. Rather, most hold something like this:

NPW = What is not forbidden is acceptable so long as it is doctrinally cogent, is in good order and accords with the practice of most/many other churches

RPW = Anything that is done must be warranted biblically. That is, either expressly in a particular form, a valid form of a wider command or biblically warranted within a wider framework and understanding of Christian worship

I appreciate neither definition is quite so snappy. But they do more closely reflect the majority (and range) of those who affirm either position.

Unlike the way it is often stated by regulative principle advocates, most normative adherents don’t say, ‘anything goes so long as the Bible doesn’t explicitly say you can’t’. There are clearly boundaries to what is done even though some of the things they reject are not explicitly forbidden in scripture. Plenty of normative folks would not sign off interpretive dance and mime as a key element of worship even though there isn’t anything explicit in scripture saying you can’t.

By contrast, despite how many normative advocates state matters, most regulative principle people don’t say, ‘unless scripture explicitly states it, we don’t do it’. There clearly are things that lots of regulative principle people do that are not overtly and clearly stated by scripture. Loads of them use guitars and, more recently, John Frame has argued that dancing might well be a valid form of worship under the regulative principle (I haven’t yet heard his case for mime but he does seem open to drama). I appreciate not all regulative principle folks follow Frame’s understanding – as I happen to do – but it does seem important to be clear that even if not following this view, most are not insisting on a biblicist overt and bald statement in scripture for every bit of minutiae that takes place.

I was particularly struck by this comments, in response to Darryl Hart, by John Frame which I do think sheds some light on the place of creeds and confessions in worship services:

Hart’s first statement of the matter seemed to deny this distinction altogether, to suggest that there could be no difference between the historical and the biblical definitions of the term. On further reflection, however, he agreed that the Reformed confessions and tradition could err, but we should never conclude such a thing without going through great agony, similar to the agony Luther went through when he found himself in conflict with the teaching of the Church of Rome. So horrifying is this prospect for Hart that throughout this dialogue he has, for practical purposes, assumed that both the confessions and the tradition contain no error at all, and that we must adhere to them in every detail. He evidently believes that an error in the tradition is so unlikely, and the very possibility so terrifying, that we must adopt a rhetoric that denies that possibility, even though he knows that possibility exists. Even when we go behind the tradition to look at Scripture, he says, we must have a “bias” which is almost a “presupposition” in favor of the tradition. On his view, we must read the Bible the way the tradition does, which of course practically insulates the tradition from any possible criticism. Any other methodology is, he thinks, the moral equivalent of modernism.

In my view this does only lip-service to sola Scriptura, which is just as fundamental to Reformed theology as the RPW. Indeed, the RPW is the principle of sola Scriptura, applied to worship. In Scripture, the RPW guards against the absolutization of tradition (Isa. 29:13Matt. 15:8-9). Sola Scriptura, the RPW, and the example of the Reformers, call us to a respectful, but critical attitude toward tradition, testing it over and over again by our primary standard, God’s Word in Scripture.

Criticism of tradition by Scripture is the regular work of theology. It is not an act into which we are forced only in extreme emergency and with the greatest terror. It is rather what God expects of everyone who is called to teach in his church.

I am not horrified at the prospect of disagreeing with Calvin (or Knox, or Owen, or Gillespie) about something. Calvin, for example, was a great man of God, doubtless far greater than I. But he was a man and not an inspired writer of Scripture. Of course he made mistakes, in his life as in his doctrine. As with Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Augustine, our task is not to accept Calvin’s teachings uncritically, but to test them by Scripture and to build on them.

Fortunately, we don’t have to do very much of that in Calvin’s case, as I see it. Luther was faced with the necessity of breaking with the Church’s very doctrine of salvation, and of rejecting the very authority structure of the church itself. No wonder he was horrified at the prospect! We don’t need to do anything near as radical as that. Maybe a few minor changes, a few different emphases here and there. Nothing to make us proud, certainly nothing to make us think that we outshine Calvin in any way. The fact that we live in a different time doesn’t make us better, though it may sometimes make us more knowledgeable or give us more perspective.

And since worship is communication, among other things, and since the language of communication changes from one century to the next, we need to reconsider our tradition also from that standpoint. We should expect to find that traditions need to change in order better to communicate God’s truth. That is a biblical principle (“intelligibility”) and a Reformational emphasis (“vernacular”). We should not change anything mandated by Scripture. But where Scripture allows liberty, we should choose forms that best communicate with people today, even if that means changing our traditions.

I think something of what Frame is getting at lies behind much of the discussion at hand regarding the recitation of creeds. Ironically, it is some of those who reject the RPW who are insisting on the reciting of creeds because it stands in their tradition (hence why the short definition of the NPW doesn’t actually do justice to what they think – my suggesting we don’t recite them was deemed majorly problematic). Many were taking a position closer to Darryl Hart’s who was arguing that to question the tradition at all is anathema. But, as Frame (rightly) notes, sola scriptura guards us against absolutising our traditions, including the recitation of creeds as part of a formal service of worship.

Frame would, based on what he says above, find this sort of tweet bemusing:

We may well come to agree with such men (I, for example, gladly affirm Nicea). But the idea that they necessarily ‘knew their Bibles better than us’, as though they couldn’t possibly be wrong, is without warrant. That is to raise to the level of scripture uncritically men who – good and sound as they may be – are only to be accepted as such in light of the scriptures themselves. As Frame says, and applies equally here, ‘Calvin, for example, was a great man of God, doubtless far greater than I. But he was a man and not an inspired writer of Scripture. Of course he made mistakes, in his life as in his doctrine. As with Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Augustine, our task is not to accept Calvin’s teachings uncritically, but to test them by Scripture and to build on them.’

I don’t agree with the Nicene Creed because some men ‘gave their blood, sweat and tears to defend biblical orthodoxy’. Arians claim exactly the same thing, as could lots of other heretics! Energy expended does not equate to biblical fidelity and nor does an inverse form of chronological snobbery. In every generation, there will be things correct and things incorrect. Each generation will doubtless be closer to the truth in some areas and further away in others. Time elapsed is not the ground for determining biblical orthodoxy. Scripture is. Those defenders of orthodoxy were correct because what they said accords with the scriptures. They are orthodox not because they won out at a council; it is because they rightly taught what is in the Word of God. Everybody claims the Word is on their side but we determine the rightness of the Word by the Word itself – consciences being held captive to the Word of God and all that. But maybe I am only saying that because that is a reformation principle and it is the tradition in which I stand? But I am surprised that it is particularly controversial for others who happen to stand in that same tradition.

Interestingly, what was classed as Biblicism on my part by some – or nuda scriptura by others – was merely a willingness to critically question the authority of the traditions that had been handed down. Those who think this are problem strike at sola scriptura. If people want to throw out ‘biblicist’ as an insult at me, I can name-call too by throwing Roman Catholicism back at them. An agreement with orthodox statements because they teach what is in line with scriptures is right and proper. Adherence to those orthodox statements because our tradition leads us to agree with them, without asking the important questions of our tradition in light of scripture itself, is less good. Even the creeds and councils must ultimately come under the authority of scripture and we accept them, or reject them, based on it. Otherwise, aren’t we all bound to affirm the Lateran Councils too? Or, are we allowed to ignore those because Calvin suggested Gregory I was the last ‘good pope’? It is easy to make our own papal figures at the expense of others we don’t like so much.

That is not to say that reciting creeds (for example) is sinful. And, let’s not forget, I was only ever talking about the recitation of creeds in a service of worship (a point that seems to have lost by most people who commented). One can make a case that it is a valid form of the teaching and training we are called to do if one is so inclined. That is to say, it is a warranted – if not necessary – thing to do (which is why the longer definition of RPW is necessary because what is a valid form is not necessarily a required form. Hence why Frame can defend dancing as valid but does not include it in his own church). But to insist that reciting the creeds is both warranted and required is to push a line, on grounds of tradition, and then to insist tradition itself cannot be questioned.

This is essentially where the issue seems to lie. What, exactly, is our view of tradition? Do we accept it uncritically or not (this is a sola scriptura issue)? If we critically view it in light of scripture and then affirm it, does it come in a form that can helpfully be used today? If it can be used in its existing form, is it the best way to achieve what is required of us by scripture in a service of worship? These, I think, are the questions that lie behind much of the discussion.