Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Regulative Principle

I grew up in a country Baptist church. It had many advanced Bible students. On the other hand, we were simple unsophisticated folks. Knowledge of the Bible came from the Bible and the study of it. No sophisticated scholars with dangling degrees and no talk in fancy seminary terms to describe and categorize. The people basically held the “regulative principle” without having ever heard of it. If any had ever heard of it, they did not speak of it. They spoke of believing the Bible and “doing what the New Testament church did.” However, this was never articulated in some overarching principle like the regulative principle. I don’t fault my forefathers. I am a product of their faith (and glad of it). They never read the words “regulative principle” in the Bible, but they understand the simplicity of taking the Bible alone for a rule of faith and practice. Nevertheless, that simplicity began to break down under the assault of a modern post-World War II era that arrived with a vengeance. The simple life of farm folk was no longer sufficient to hold the interest of the rising generation. Preachers were now as often products of the seminary as products of the local church pews. Moreover, the simple “doing what the New Testament church did” did not suffice for those of greater ambition who realized we actually didn’t always do what the New Testament church did. So why did we, for example, immerse believers but not hold all things in common?

I spent a great part of my early ministry trying to understand why we had done what I instinctively believed was right – try to follow the example of the apostles and the New Testament churches. It was, for all intents as purposes, the regulative principle. The Regulative Principle of Worship is a principle derived from and implicit in the Second Commandment, that God and not man ordains how He will be worshipped. Along the way, I would find this principle articulated in plentiful parts and various vocabulary. This was in contrast to the normative principle.

The normative principle holds that whatever is not forbidden in the Scriptures may be lawfully used in the worship of God. If a practice which is not explicitly contrary to God’s Law has not been forbidden in the Word, then it may be employed in worship. This was the growing practice of the post-World War II churches and is rampant now among 21st century Baptists. In contrast, I was learning to articulate the less popular varieties of the regulative principle.

I learned expressions like “command, precept and example” or “command, example, and necessary inference.” John Spilsbury would invoke such in his rejection of infant baptism, stating that “there is neither command, or Example in all the New Testament for such practise.” Likewise, Hercules Collins on the same subject wrote, “We have neither precept nor example for that practice in all the Book of God.” Daniel Parker would raise the issue in his rejection of the missions system, saying, “It has neither precept nor example to justify it within the two lids of the Bible.” Though not belonging to them, through consistent usage the useful phrase “command, approved example and necessary inference” has become almost synonymous with the Stone-Campbell Restoration movement.

I learned about “the law of exclusion” – or “inclusio unius, exclusio alterius” – the idea that the specification of one thing is the prohibition or exclusion of every other thing.[i] For example, if Jesus commanded His disciples to immerse professed believers, the specification of that excludes the sprinkling of professed believers, or the immersion of professed unbelievers, etc. This is exclusion due to specificity, most often explained by God’s command to Noah, “Make thee an ark of gopher wood.” To use any other kind of wood would be disobedience of the highest order.

Another iteration of this is “apostolic practice as normative” – that the practice of the New Testament churches based on apostolic teaching and example provides the standard for present church practice.[ii] New Testament worship is regulated by explicit precepts, approved examples, and good & necessary inferences derived from Scripture. New Testament Christianity means New Testament practice (I Cor. 11:2; 14:33). The New Testament, which is our only rule of faith and practice (Acts 20:27-28; II Tim. 4:2) enjoins following the “traditions” taught the churches by the apostles.

Defining the Regulative Principle
The term “Regulative Principle” may not come up much in modern Baptist discussion, except in Reformed-leaning Baptist circles. Nevertheless, it is not a new idea.  Though not using the terminology, the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, 22:1 expresses it this way:
“...But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God, is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.” 
Writing on The Regulative Principle of Worship Derek Thomas says, “Put simply, the regulative principle of worship states that the corporate worship of God is to be founded upon specific directions of Scripture.” Others have said:
“...Scripture regulates what is permissible to do in public worship.” – Aaron Menikoff
“God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word.” – John Calvin
“Churches are not free to do whatever they want to do; they must do what Scripture instructs and requires them to do.” – Terry Johnson
The regulative principle is a belief actually held by many Baptists, though it does not seem common for many of them to express it under this terminology unless influenced by the recent upswing in Reformed theology. For the average Baptist, it might be put in more colloquial terms, requiring “command, precept or example” for a corporate practice and rejecting extra-biblical practices as “offering strange fire” (Cf. Lev. 10:2-3). The regulative principle is also rejected by many Baptists, who have swallowed – hook, line, and sinker – stunts like preachers getting on top of the church building in their underwear and swallowing goldfish. May God deliver us!

[i] I did not know the Latin terminology back when.
[ii] “Apostolic practice as normative” is not related to “the normative principle.” This view expects that the way the apostles and early church did a thing is the way that God expects we ought always to do a thing, or that it is the best way to do a thing.

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