The Regulative Principle

Yesterday, we went to see the house that son and daughter-in-law are buying. It's about 1.5 hours away with rush hour traffic. We drove past a small "Primitive Baptist" church. In this day and age, "primitive" is usually taken to mean "primitive with respect to technology," such as with the Amish and their simple lifestyles, or Jehovah's Witnesses and their refusal of blood transfusions. But the "primitive" in "Primitive Baptist" refers to theology with the claim that their doctrines are those held by the early church. Their worship practices are influenced by the idea that if something isn't commanded in Scripture then it should not be done. For example, as there is no positive command to use musical instruments in worship, most Primitive Baptist churches do not use them. They also reject the idea of "Sunday school" as well as seminaries.
It just so happened that in Sunday school last week, the study was on the Scottish Reformer, John Knox. The lesson notes state:

Knox therefore worked to reform the Scottish Church according to the rule that nothing was to be introduced into the church, except what had divine warrant from the Word of God. This was the great principle which regulated the Reformation in Scotland, and is the reason for the significant difference between the Scottish Church and the Church of England, which held to the view that the church could introduce anything, so long as it was not forbidden by Scripture.

On examining these two views, it can easily be seen that there is a great difference between them, because there are many things which, although they may not be specifically forbidden by God's Word, neither do they have express Scriptural warrant. This difference in
Principle, leads to a great difference in Practice. Many customs have been introduced into the Church of England, and other churches which hold to this view, which the Reformed Church in Scotland would not allow on the grounds that these practices are not commanded by the Word of God. This is the reason why the Puritans objected to various practices in the Church of England, such as the wearing of surplices, the requirement of wedding rings, baptizing with the sign of the cross. and kneeling at Holy Communion.

In the same vein, Greg L. Price

Since Christ in the New Covenant has not expressly forbidden drama, dancing, candles, incense, musical instruments, uninspired hymns, crossing oneself, banners, crosses, images etc. within the house of God, the vast majority of churches today permit these (to lesser or greater degrees) and many more practices into their worship services. However, the Regulative Principle of Worship would prevent all the above practices into the worship of God because they are all without the authorization of Christ, the mediator of the New Covenant.

Four principles can be enumerated:

MandatoryIf God says "do it," then do it.
ForbiddenIf God says "don't do it," then don't do it.
RegulativeIf God does not say "do it," then don't do it.
NormativeIf God does not say "don't do it," then you may do it.

The first two principles should be without controversy. But the second two are arguments from silence. If God has not spoken, what are we to do? One group of Christians, for example, the Anglican church, follows the normative principle. Another group, for example, the Scottish Reformed, follows the regulative principle. Can either principle be derived from Scripture?

If I were to try to demonstrate the regulative principle from Scripture, how would I do it?

I certainly would not use the example of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, from Leviticus 10:1-2:

Now Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his censer, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered unholy fire before the LORD, such as he had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.

While on the surface this seems in line with the regulative principle — after all, they did what they were not commanded to do — what was is about what they did that incurred God's wrath? Elsewhere, God commands censers with incense to be used, for example Leviticus 16:12 and Numbers 16:17. And Exodus 30 says:

You shall make an altar on which to offer incense; you shall make it of acacia wood. … Aaron shall offer fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall offer it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall offer it, a regular incense offering before the LORD throughout your generations. You shall not offer unholy incense on it…

Nadal and Abihu did not violate the regulative principle — they violated a direct command from God by offering unholy incense. But what made the fire unholy?

Scripture doesn't say. We see another example of this much earlier in the Bible. In Genesis 4:3-5:

In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.

The problem with Cain's offering wasn't that it wasn't from the flock. God accepted offerings from the field, for in Exodus 22:29, we read:

You shall not delay to make offerings from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses.

And, again, it isn't explicitly stated why Cain's offering wasn't accepted. Yet Scripture teaches that God does not accept a good offering that is brought with the wrong attitude. Psalm 51:17 says, "The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise" and Hebrews 11:4 says, "By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s." Offerings aren't offered simply because God commands it.

If these two commonly used proof texts don't show the regulative principle, then is there anything else that might? William Cunningham

With regard to the Scripture evidence of the truth of the principle, we do not allege that it is very direct, explicit, and overwhelming. It is not of a kind likely to satisfy the coarse, material literalists, who can see nothing in the Bible but what is asserted in express terms. But it is, we think, amply sufficient to convince those who, without any prejudice against it, are ready to submit their minds to the fair impression of what Scripture seems to have been intended to teach.

Not only does this Reform writer say that the case for the regulative principle is not "very direct, explicit, [or] overwhelming", but he then
poisons the well by engaging in ad hominem against those who might disagree with this evidence.

So, again, if I were to try to show the regulative principle from the Bible, how would I do it? One approach might be to use the portion of 1 Cor 4:6 which says:

…nothing beyond what is written…

But this does great damage to the context of this passage. Paul isn't writing about doctrine or worship — he's writing about people — specifically Apollos, Peter, and himself. He is instructing the church at Corinth to not misjudge God's servants and not go beyond what is written
about them. One then wonders, written about them where, exactly? A judicial document, perhaps a summary of charges against them? This might fit Paul's previous sentence, "But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court." The Lamb's Book of Life? This would be consistent with Paul's "It is the Lord who judges me." But it would be difficult for others to read this and apply it in their judgement about Paul. Maybe Paul is simply referring to an adage that means something like "don't go making up things about people and don't believe everything you hear." I may be puzzled about which writing Paul is referring to in this passage, but I'm not puzzled about it having nothing to do with the regulative principle.

If I'm having a hard time finding support for the regulative principle in Scripture, it might be that I haven't looked hard enough. On the other hand, there is a passage in Scripture that is typically ignored by those on the regulative side, because it perfectly describes the normative principle.

Should Christians eat food that has been offered to idols? Nowhere in Scripture does God say, "eat meat offered to idols." Nowhere in Scripture does God say, "don't eat meat offered to idols." In the midst of this silence, the Christians in Corinth wrote St. Paul and asked, "can we eat food being sold in the market that has been offered to idols? It's really a great bargain, since we can get it at a discount, and we're poor and hungry. But we don't want to offend God."

Had Paul held to the regulative principle, he might have responded, "You must avoid food offered to idols. God hasn't commanded that you eat it, therefore you must not." But he didn't. He wrote, "We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak." [1 Cor 8].

Next, since this post is included in the
science category, let me say something science related. In my ignorance, I was unaware of the regulative and normative principles in church polity. But I was familiar with it from science. In particle physics, there is the maxim that, "whatever is not forbidden is compulsory". While the origin of this saying isn't clear, it appears that Nature is "totalitarian," which is a stricter version of the normative principle where "may" is replaced by "must," although the probability of the compulsory event isn't specified and may be very low.

Because God is both the Author of Nature and the Author of Scripture, I hold that the two have to be in agreement. Given the paucity of evidence for the regulative principle in Scripture, the evidence of a "strong" normative principle in nature, and St. Paul's advice to the Corinthians regarding eating food that had been sacrificed to idols, I have to decide in favor of the normative principle.
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