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The regulative principle as an important doctrinal distinctive

This entry is part 6 of 8 in the series

"Worship and Doctrinal Distinctives"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

Over the past few weeks I have been showing how various aspects of worship theology and practice have necessarily divided orthodox Christians into separate denominations. I have shown, in particular, how views concerning the Lord’s Supper and baptism are significant doctrinal distinctives that prevent full ecclesiastic cooperation.

In addition to differences over theology and practice of the ordinances, disagreements over the authority of Scripture upon worship practice also led to denominational division. As with the Lord’s Supper, Luther and Zwingli could not agree on this point. Luther taught that

whatever is free, that is, neither commanded nor prohibited, by which one can neither sin or obtain merit, this should be in our control as something subject to our reason so that we might employ it or not employ it, uphold it or drop it, according to our pleasure and need, without sinning and endangering our conscience.1

2015.12.09 - Raeville_St._Bonaventure_transept_window_NZwingli disagreed, insisting that worship practices must have explicit biblical warrant, leading him to denounce images, other ceremonial adornments, and even music from public worship since he could find no warrant for them in the New Testament. He argued,

I will confess frankly that I wish to see a considerable portion of the ceremonies and prescriptions abolished. . . . I demonstrated that simple people could be led to recognition of truth by means other than ceremonies, namely, so far as I was able to learn from Scripture, by those with which Christ and the apostles had led them without ceremonies. . . . But should it not be good, they say, for one to sing the praise of God before all men. Answer: Show me that it is good and I will believe it to be good. God alone is good and the sole source of all good things. If the mumbling of psalms is good, then it must come from God. Show me where God has commanded such moaning, mumbling, and murmuring.2

Calvin agreed in principle with Zwingli’s regulative principle of worship, arguing that “a part of the reverence that is paid to [God] consists simply in worshiping him as he commands, mingling no inventions of our own.”3 Calvin did, however, allow unaccompanied, unison psalm singing, since he found support for such practices in Scripture.4

The regulative principle of worship also came to define denominations with Anabaptist and Calvinist roots5 as well as early Baptists.6 Denominations such as the Church of England ascribed to a position more closely resembling that of Luther.

Thus today one could explain the differences between denominations by irreconcilable disagreements in specific areas of worship theology and practice. Roman Catholics hold to baptismal regeneration, to the doctrine of transubstantiation in the Mass, and to a normative principle of worship. Lutherans reject transubstantiation in favor of sacramental union, practice a non-regenerative paedobaptism, and are governed by a normative principle, with Anglicans holding to very similar views with differences in polity. Presbyterians affirm a spiritual presence of Christ in the Supper, practice a non-regenerative paedobaptism, and shape their worship according to the regulative principle. Baptists ascribe to the Zwinglian/Anabaptist memorial view of the Table, practice credobaptism by immersion, and traditionally followed the regulative principle.7

Next week, I will demonstrate how other aspects of worship have provided appropriate unity across denominations lines.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Luther, LW 38, 38:319. []
  2. Quoted in Charles Garside, Zwingli and the Arts [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966], 38, 44. []
  3. Calvin, Institutes, 4.10.23. []
  4. “The psalms incite us to praise God, to pray to Him, to meditate on his works to the end that we love Him, fear, honor and glorify Him. What St. Augustine says is quite true, one can not sing anything more worthy of God than that which we have received from Him” (from the preface to the Genevan Psalter, quote in Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture, Revised and expanded [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002], 45. []
  5. This is perhaps best seen in the Westminster Confession of Faith: “But 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 and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.” []
  6. See Matthew W. Ward, “Pure Worship: The Early English Baptist Distinctive” (PhD diss., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2013). []
  7. I use the past tense here because the regulative principle of worship is not characteristic of a majority of American Baptists today. []