The Second Commandments
Chapter 8 – The Regulative Principle
We have been considering worship from the perspective of God’s Law. It should be evident to most that not all Christians would approach the question of worship this way. Here is one of the distinct qualities of Reformed churches – the essence, in fact, of the Reformed approach to worship. Our churches follow the Regulative Principal of Worship.
What is this Regulative Principle? Today we will look at some of the history of worship, and we shall see that struggles over the nature of proper worship are nothing new. We will also consider how the Reformed tradition and theology of worship developed. And we will see why Reformed churches teach and practice the Regulative Principle, which, put simply, is this: We may only worship God in God’s way.
Some controversy exists over the nature and style of early Christian worship. There are instructions in the New Testament, but relatively little remains from earliest church history to tell us how the church worshiped. Consequently, our knowledge tends to begin with Medieval Catholic worship.
Most evangelical Christians are baffled by Roman Catholicism. They no sooner step into a Catholic church than they are confronted with sights and sounds as foreign to them as those in a pagan temple. Some are confused by the multitude of rituals; others are intrigued. Many have asked the obvious questions: Doesn’t the Bible forbid the use of statues in worship? Why are their so many images – of Jesus, of Mary, of other long-dead Christians?
The problem in Catholic worship is a failure to pay close attention to the first two Commandments. Catholic worship is routinely offered to many figures besides God. The various “saints” of Catholicism, particularly Mary, are held up as objects of worship, contrary to the most basic principle of the law, and for that matter, of biblical religion itself. Complex word games to distinguish “worship” from “veneration” (one is given to God, the other to saints) cannot hide the fact that Catholic worship centers on the adoration of persons other than God. In fact, the false gods of paganism have simply been renamed and cast in the image of Christians from earlier ages.
Furthermore, the Catholic Church has advanced a common misunderstanding of the Second Commandment. They insist that the prohibition of idols is part of the First Commandment – that only statues of pagan gods are forbidden. Consequently any “Christian” statue, be it a crucifix or an image of Mary, does not violate the law. They have gone so far as to renumber the Commandments, insisting that the first two are one and dividing the tenth! This makes it appear that only idols to false gods are prohibited, even if the wording of the Tenth Commandment becomes hopelessly tangled.
By mis-numbering the Commandments and by introducing the semantic game in which “veneration” is contrasted with its synonym “worship,” the Catholic Church has emasculated the Law of God regarding worship. Consequently, the defining characteristic of Catholic worship is lawlessness.
When the Reformation came, Luther cut through the nonsense of the “worship/veneration” distinction. Once again the church taught that God alone is to be the object of our worship. Worship of the saints became anathema within Protestant circles. They restored the biblical Mary, a godly woman who struggled against sin and was consequently blessed. The polytheism of Rome was rejected and Trinitarian Orthodoxy reaffirmed.
However, Luther opposed the practice of destroying the images in churches. In part this was a political position; he did not want to see the Reformation degenerate into anarchy. He argued that if images helped people to see the spiritual truth of God, they should be allowed to remain. Sadly, this position was indistinguishable from the ancient practice of idolatry, both among the pagans and in Israel. Spiritual truths would be illustrated through physical artistry.
So while Lutheranism staunchly defended the First Commandment, it did not reinstate the Second. Religious imagery remained a major part of Lutheran worship. Unsurprisingly, the Lutheran tradition did not explore the further implications of the Second Commandment, either. Innovation in worship was not forbidden, but encouraged. Consequently, some of the inventions of Medieval Catholicism survive in Lutheran churches to this day.
Lutheran worship is governed by what is called the Normative Principle of Worship. This is the teaching that God’s law regulates worship in a manner similar to the way in which all of life is regulated: we may not do what God forbids, but all else is permitted.
This is a far sight better than the lawlessness of Catholicism! While Catholics regularly perform a symbolic sacrifice in the Mass, Lutherans understand that God has forbidden this practice in the book of Hebrews. They will not do that which they perceive that God has forbidden. However, where God is silent, they feel free to act, much as Reformed Christians sense a freedom in life where God’s Word is silent. Is this, though, the principle according to which we are to worship?
Early in the Reformation Luther’s contemporary, Ulrich Zwingli, initiated reforms in the church in Zurich. Zwingli was the first of the Swiss Reformers who would follow what is known as the “Reformed” tradition of Protestantism. Zwingli’s sweeping reform of worship was dramatic. The gold and silver plates of the Mass were melted down, and communion was served on wooden platters. Statues were pulled down and pounded into gravel which formed the foundation of new buildings. The Organ at the Zurich cathedral, considered the finest in Europe, was broken up, the wood from it serving as kindling in the stoves that heated the sanctuary!
These were early attempts to rid the church of all worship practices not commanded in Scripture. The Reformed churches of Switzerland were convinced that to worship God rightly, they must do more than redirect worship away from the saints. They desired to eliminate all imagery in church and to rid worship of all innovation. They were convinced that any practice not commanded in the Bible was a violation of the Moral Law and would constitute an offense to God.
Zwingli has been lampooned as a harbinger of the lowering of culture which would engulf Europe in years to come. Certainly the reforms in Zurich seem very severe, and we may well wonder whether every action taken by the Zurich Reformer was strictly necessary. However, this theology of worship was essentially adopted by Calvin in Geneva, and remains the defining characteristic of Reformed Worship.
Is the Regulative Principle biblical? The Swiss Reformers were motivated by the very passages of Scripture we examined in my last post. They understood that what God forbids in the Second Commandment is any image, even one intended to portray Himself. They saw that this is because only God can reveal God, and human attempts to portray Him must fall short of His glory. They further understood that Scripture warns against innovations in worship, which certainly distract from the pure revelation of God. Consequently, they struggled for a simple worship, one based on the directions given in the New Testament and one in which the clarity of Scripture would not be muddled by human inventions.