Disclaimer: My travails with Regulative Principal began while studying Anglican worship, seeing much of it scriptural. Later I found Steve Schlissel’s essays on RPW, & discovered RPW to be rather unscriptural. More at this link. However, I do not subscribe to Schlissel’s congregationalist approach to worship, believing there are far more general restrictions and accountability to the larger church and fathers.
Scriptural texts offered in defense of RPW (e.g, either WLC or WCF) prove no more than “men must do what God commands”– hardly debunking Anglicanism or Lutheranism. In demanding “silence in worship where God is silent”, does RPW violate its own rule by going beyond what the Word reveals?
Surely OT worship was complex and detailed. Yet it is this exactness which left no doubt how God would receive sacrifice. But the existence of many rules hardly proves Regulativism. Can we find examples of so-called ‘normativism’ or NPW? As we provide examples of NPW, we tackle two types of arguments deserving discussion:
1. Scripture which apparently condemns ‘traditions of men’.
2. Verses admonishing the “adding or subtraction” of the Word.
Moreover, it’s worth reminding brothers that passages which allude to man-made additions or subtractions (e.g., Jer. 7:31, Deut 12:32), if read in their scriptural context, are actually admonitions for violating expressed laws against crimes like usury or child sacrifice. Israel was condemned for doing what God forbade.
Traditions Accepted by God?
The classic regulativist example of man-made tradition being unprofitable was King Jeroboam’s construction of Shechem as a rival cult of sacrifice against YHWY’s (1 Ki 12:25-7) But Shechem was rejected not because Jeroboam created an unprescribed festival, but because he built a rival temple against God’s exclusive center of sacrifice in Jerusalem (Deut 12:5-6; 2 Sa 7:10, 13; 1 Ki 5:5). Again, these passages are not proofs of Regulativism but ironically defend normativism. We can further establish our point by showing positive examples of man-made traditions that God either tolerated or accepted.
Let’s first make it clear– the Westminster Confession of Faith., article 21.5, defines feastdays or thanksgivings as specifically forms of worship:
XXI.V …besides religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner.
Thanksgivings include memorials of God’s intercessions and blessings in history. Of course, the greatest intercessionary, historic event was the birth and death of our Savior in Bethleham and at Calvary. From the death of Christ, we calculate the date of Easter.– a ”thanksgiving” Regulativists consider “Papish” (as well as the rest of the liturgical calendar which is revolves and derived from the single Easter date). Yet Regulativists claim the RPW gives freedom to the celebration of memorials. Why then is Easter– a recollection for the greatest extraordinary act of God in history– thus condemned? Does not scripture allow the worship and recollection of God on dates commemorating His special deliverance(s) in history? What is more special than the Cross?
What were God’s commands for special Sabbaths and feast days? God commanded Israel to keep three major feasts–Passover (in memory of deliverance from Egypt); Pentecost; and Tabernacles–three minor feasts (Atonement, Trumpets, and Firstfruits), and two Jubilee Sabbaths. These were required by the Law, and God’s people could neither turn to the Left or Right of them. But these were not the only festivals which Israel celebrated. Others feast days were added according to the latter deliverances of Israel from Babylon and Rome.
According to RPW, Israel could add no further ’special sabbaths’ than what God had provisioned. Yet Esther 9:27 records the Jews establishing a “day of rest” and “assembly” (v. 18) by their deliverance against Haman, “the Jews took it upon themselves to establish the custom that they and their descendants and all who join them should without fail observe these two days every year, in the way prescribed and at the time appointed” (v. 27). Otherwise known as Purim, the feast of Esther has religious significance since prayer or ’thanks’ is a sacrifice accepted by God, prepared for by ‘fasting’. If the book of Esther and Israel’s deliverance from Haman is eschatologically significance, certainly Purim is too.
Another example of a human tradition with religious significance is the Fesitval of Dedication, or Hanukkah, commemorating the purification of the temple during the Maccabean period. Although Jesus’s normal ministry was in Galilee and away from Judea (J 7:1-9), Christ was in Jerusalem during the Dedication (J 10:22). After his disputation with the Jews, he returned “back across the Jordan” (v. 40), indicating a special trip was made. Hanukkah had religious significance with torch and candlelighting, celebrating the future renewal of the Jewish altar and temple via a Messiah. Hence John 10 the jews ask Christ if he is the ‘Savior”. Christ appropriated the occasion of the this festival (i.e, the celebration of Messiah) as he did the wedding at Cana (the new wine) to illustrate a point about himself. Did Christ’s apparent participation in or around Hanukkah violate the second commandment ? Why did he not extinguish the torches of Dedication as he did the money changers when used inside the temple? Instead, he evidently syncronized man-made tradition with an element of worship (preaching) in or around the rituals of the temple?
Cessationism in Providence?
The RPW’s demand for God’s memorial acts in history ought not be celebrated (e.g., saint days or other memorials) is curiously akin to a strict cessationism. Can spiritual realities penetrate history? While some medieval miracles’ or relics may have been embarrassingly fraudulent, hagiography suggests the divine is ever near, ready to intervene in history for his people, even in incredible ways (e.g., Is 37:36; Matt 21:21-22; 26:53). While God’s normal intervention is the salvation of man are regulativists prepared to deny all miraculous deliverances? Moreover, do we have a gnostic view of history– that God cannot pierce and sanctify the material course of time?
The problem with RPW is not really a Warfieldian, crypto-cessationism. It’s not God’s wonderful sanctification of history (Constantine’s sign of the cross) by occasionally breaking into it. Nor is it scandalous that men choose to offer praise, joy, and even worship from time-to-time in response to events in Providence. The problem is churches failing to do what the Lord commands,
“Whatsoever I command you, observe and do it” (Deut. 12:32).
“And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them” (Num. 15:39)
“If you love Me, you will keep my commandments” (J 14:15).
Why can’t the church simply ‘do’ what God says? Isn’t that enough? Mark 7 condemns the ‘traditions of elders’ but only because these ‘traditions handed down’ were used to nullify God’s law (i.e., the 5th commandment, Mark 7:13). Hypocrisy is what God hates. We have no reason to believe God opposes man-made tradition given customs do not contravene or nullify his Law. Purim and Dedication are examples of observances that men declared ‘everlasting’. They were not commanded by God but neither did they violate his express command. These solemn assemblies employed religious significance and celebration yet were born outside the precise stipulation of the Law and not rejected. Furthermore, they were responses to God’s historical providence and intercessions, acknowledging “God is good or faithful” — an occasion deserving praise. In these respects they are “indifferent”, and how can something ‘indifferent’ either add or subtract?