Some Questions about the Regulative Principle -- By: John M. Frame

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 54:2 (Fall 1992)
Article: Some Questions about the Regulative Principle
Author: John M. Frame


Some Questions about the Regulative Principle

John M. Frame

Let it be clear from the outset that my “questions” about the Reformed regulative principle for public worship do not spring from doubts about what I take to be its main thrust. As for many years, I continue now to be convinced that worship must be scriptural (i.e., consistent with Scripture) and, indeed, limited by Scripture. For who of us can say confidently how God wishes to be worshiped except insofar as he has told us in Scripture? If there are principles of worship to be found in nature, these cannot be understood rightly except through the “spectacles” of Scripture; for when we try to reason without Scripture, sin distorts our vision. And Scripture is quick to condemn those who walk according to the “vain imaginations of their own hearts” (Jer 3:17; 7:24; etc.)

Still, it is one thing to affirm the sufficiency of Scripture for worship, another thing to work out a cogent theological account of it. And in trying to develop such an account, I have run into some questions which either I am unable to answer correctly or which call for changes in some traditional ways of understanding the principle. So I place them on the table for discussion; I hope to learn from my readers.

1. What the Principle Says

To begin, let us agree as to the meaning of the regulative principle as received from the Presbyterian secondary standards. The definitive formulation is this one:

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.1

The operative word here is “prescribed.” Roman Catholic and Lutheran liturgists would have agreed that our worship practices ought to be scriptural in the sense of not contradicting the Bible. The Presbyterian-Reformed tradition here insists on a stricter standard: a biblical command is needed for anything we would include in worship. Hence the popular formulation: “whatever is not commanded is forbidden.” The Lutheran or

Catholic counterpart would be “whatever is not forbidden is permitted.” For later reference, I will label the Reformed principle “RP1” and the Lutheran-Catholic principle “RP2.”

An earlier section of the same confession adds another element to the traditional understand...

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