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The conservatism of the normative principle

At this year’s Conference on Conservative Christianity (which concluded Tuesday), Steve Thomas of Huron Baptist Church made a point in one of his sessions that I found remarkably insightful. Most of those attending the conference would either embrace the regulative principle of worship outright, or would advocate something very much like the regulative principle. The contrasting position (the normative principle) would be viewed by most conservatives with some suspicion, as it is typically defended as the basis for allowing innovation in the church.

And yet, as Pastor Thomas observed, the original impetus for Luther’s advocacy of the normative principle was actually a conserving, traditional impulse. Luther did not endorse the normative principle because he wanted to innovate; he endorsed it because he saw wisdom in maintaining the not-specifically-authorized-in-Scripture worship practices that had become common in the Roman church. Because such practices were not forbidden in Scripture, Luther did not see the need to terminate them immediately and risk alienating those for whom such practices had become normal.

Thus, modern advocates of the normative principle, who find in it license to add elements to the liturgy and task of the church that are not authorized in Scripture, still violate the spirit of the normative principle.

Michael Riley

About Michael Riley

Student of theology, apologetics, and Christian affections. Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Wakefield, Michigan.

4 Responses to The conservatism of the normative principle

  1. Michael,

    This sounds to my ears like a pragmatic position based on a calculated outcome rather than a normative (uh oh…) position, which is not to say it was unwise for Luther to do it. It seems analogous to Judean reformer-kings who did not take away the high places. I don't mean to multiply imagery here, but Christ employed the opposite approach with the money-changing enterprises in the Temple.

    Others have likened it to attempting to reverse the course of a loaded oil tanker that is going 180 degrees from the proper course: slow an incremental change prevents capsizing the entire vessel. I don't know if Scripture authorizes this approach or not: I'm inclined to say that it doesn't.

  2. Chris, I think you make a valid point, but I don't think Pastor Thomas was necessarily defending the NP. His point was that the NP of Luther was nothing like the anything goes worship of today's church. He may not have come far eenough, but his retention of some extra-biblical practices was actually rooted in a noble desire to continue a tradition.

    The "NP" of today's church is actually more like the Romanist position that Luther was against!

  3. Good points all, Scott. I don't think that's where Pastor Thomas was going either, not given his other lectures. I just wonder if Luther's desire to preserve traditional worship forms didn't necessitate the Radical Reformation.

    Your last point would be worth exploring further: mix in a little bit of American democratization, and they are almost indistinguishable. The difference is, today, anything goes as long as it has the imprimatur of somebody famous.

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