Rome, Evangelicalism, and the Regulative Principle

In his theology of worship, Calvin was quite keen on simplifying the church’s weekly services  and judged that Roman Catholicism’s elaborate ceremonies were a throwback to the old  covenant era, a continuation of things now out of place in the worship of God’s people on this  side of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.  With an eye to helping those less  acquainted with spiritual matters, he writes,

As a child (says Paul) is guided by his tutor according to the capacity of his age, and is restrained under his tutelage, so the Jews were under the custody of the law (Gal. 4:1-3).  But we are like adults, who, freed of tutelage and custody, have no need of childish rudiments….Therefore, if we wish to benefit the untutored [in this era of redemptive history], raising up a Judaism that has been abrogated by Christ is a stupid way to do it.  Christ also marked this dissimilarity between the old and new people in his own words when he said to the Samaritan woman that the time had come ‘when the true worshipers would worship God in spirit and in truth’ (Jn. 4:23).  Indeed, this had always been done.  But the new worshipers differ from the old in that under Moses the spiritual worship of God was figured and, so to speak, enwrapped in many ceremonies; but now that these are abolished, he is worshiped more simply.  Accordingly, he who confuses this difference is overturning an order instituted and sanctioned by Christ (Institutes, 4.10.14).

For Calvin, keeping pace with the flow of redemptive history entailed using no musical instruments in worship.  Instruments were a feature of old covenant worship, but new covenant singing was to be a cappella affair.  To use instruments would be to go backward in the economy and act as if new covenant believers indwelt by the Spirit needed to lean on the aids of the old dispensation.  In Reformed thought, alongside this redemptive-historical principle stood the complementary ‘regulative principle’, which stipulated that the church is not at liberty to go beyond the New Testament by adding new elements to the worship service (the church doesn’t have magisterial authority but only ministerial).  This would imply in our day that it’s inappropriate to include things such as new praise choruses (soli Psalmi!), videos (especially videos visually depicting any person of the Godhead), and dance in the services.  However, things such as the time of the service on Sunday are adiaphora and can be determined by the individual congregation.

Without wishing to slip into unbridled cynicism about the state of evangelicalism, I will say that it’s sobering to me to think about Calvin’s concerns in relation to some of the things that take place in the services at evangelical churches and in relation to some of the things evangelicals have fought about in the realm of ‘worship’.  What do you make of Calvin’s perspective on worship?  Are there texts in the New Testament suggestive of the church using musical instruments in worship between the two advents?  Is a ‘Psalms alone’ tack theologically compelling?  Is it a remedy for unbiblical shallowness in our singing or is it just an easy way out of wrestling through hard questions about which songs should and shouldn’t appear in the Sunday liturgy?


5 thoughts on “Rome, Evangelicalism, and the Regulative Principle

  1. As I see it, the regulative principle swings the pendulum too far away from Roman Catholicism, and it swings it in the wrong direction. If Roman Catholic worship in the sixteenth century was elaborate and fixed, Calvin made it simple and fixed. Elaborate or simple, it’s the fixed part that needs fixing. We are free in Christ to worship the One True God in whatever way best responds to the interaction of God and humanity in our local context. In a way, this extends the incarnation. This is one of the reasons I’m low church – not that I prefer low liturgy to high liturgy, but that I do not believe there is one correct liturgy. In this way the medieval RC church, Calvin, the Orthodox church, and various perspectives within the evangelical “worship wars” all make the same mistake: telling liturgy to fit into a certain box.

    • Hey Ben,

      Thanks for commenting here. I imagine that, being in a cultural setting so different from the US, you guys are experiencing every Sunday the reality of how diversity among God’s people yields diversity in worship services. I wonder if Calvin could respond to your concerns by saying, for example, that the language and the melodies of Psalm-singing would be peculiar to each culture while the content remains the same. He was, after all, already in his time engaged in cross-cultural considerations by trying to look at NT ecclesial practices and map out how to appropriate them centuries later and in places like Switzerland and France. I suppose I’m playing devil’s advocate a bit and suggesting that congregations in diverse areas might be ‘free’ in certain ways and yet abide by Calvin’s theological principles, especially since freedom in worship by itself is a really pliable concept that invites filling out and requires some theological constraints. If you’ve got time, I’d be curious to hear your response.


      • Hey Steve – I would enjoy going back and forth, but I unfortunately have neither the time nor the energy to do so at the moment. Life has hit the fan these past few days. As it is, I bet you could tease out your own rebuttal… :-)

  2. Anyone see in cheap bookstores, the now-remaindered theological book on A Religious Argument Against Belief? The point seemed to be that religion should always essentially be about mystery, openness; whereas fixed “belief” contradicts that essential quality.

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