John Calvin

John Calvin
1509-1564


Worship in Spirit and Truth

 

John M. Frame
P&R Publishing, 171 pp., paperback


The book’s purpose is to examine the current interpretation of the regulative principle in order to determine if the modern application of the principle is faithful to Scripture and to the original statement of the position in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Prof. Frame states that Presbyterian worship in its early days was “very restrictive, austere, and ‘minimalist’” (page xii) and argues that “the Westminster standards actually contain very little of the Puritan theology of worship” (xii). He asserts that much of the historical practice of Presbyterian and Reformed churches is based on Puritan and Reformed writers and not the standards themselves. Therefore, he calls on us to rethink the way we apply the principle today.

Frame’s list of elements includes: 1) Greetings and Benedictions; 2) Reading of Scripture; 3) Preaching and teaching; 4) Charismatic prophecy and speaking in tongues (now ceased); 5) Prayer; 6) Song; 7) Vows; 8) Confession of Faith; 9) Sacraments; 10) Church discipline; 11) Collections, offerings; and 12) Expressions of fellowship (the ‘love feast’ and the holy kiss). Other elements could be included (55-60). He states that “the list of worship events should [not] be used in a mechanical way.” Every item on the list doesn’t have to be found in every worship service. “Nor should we assume that every meeting of the church must be limited to the items on that list. Not every meeting of the church must be devoted to worship in the narrow sense” (61).

Prof. Frame defends the use of drama as a means of preaching “drama is legitimately a form of preaching or teaching” and “there are no scriptural teachings that would rule it out as a means of communicating the word.” (93). He concludes that drama is preaching done by more than one preacher, rather than in a monologue (93, 94). He also makes an appeal for broad use of individual participation in worship (106).

Particularly controversial is his defense of dance as the music of the body. He says, “I have actually heard people question the propriety of dance as worship on the ground of the regulative principle! Such an argument is preposterous, except on the assumption that the regulative principle exists solely to perpetuate the status quo. It is true, of course, that God does not prescribe dance specifically for the regular worship of the synagogue, tabernacle, or temple. . . . But Psalm 150:4 will not let us limit dance to a few historical occasions. It is for all the people of God. . . . God is pleased when we dance before him in worship, but he does not expect us to do it every time we meet in his name” (131).

There are numerous methodological problems with this book. Prof. Frame tells us that he will give an exegetical reinterpretation of the regulative principle. He leaves for another time a discussion of earlier exegesis of the principle. But when one departs so radically from accepted exegesis he needs to interact with that exegesis. Furthermore, the great majority of the few historical references Mr. Frame makes are not accurate. For example, he asserts that the Puritan approach to worship was minimalistic and went far beyond the statement of the doctrine in the Westminster standards. He says, “very little of the Puritan theology of worship” is found in the Westminster standards (xii). An assertion does not make something true. If Prof. Frame is going to make such a suggestion, he needs to validate it. Chapters 1, 20, 21 of the Confession; L.C. Q. 107-110, 154-196; and S.C. Q. 49-52, 89-107 are a very thorough statement of the Puritan and Reformed theology of worship and the Directory of Worship only applies the principles found in the standards. Most modern proponents of the principle are content to limit themselves to its expressions in the standards. Furthermore, Mr. Frame tends to isolate the Puritans as if they were more narrow in their understanding of the regulative principle than Calvin or the Dutch reformed. This is a false dichotomy (e.g., Heidelberg Catechism 96, “What does God require in the second commandment? We are not to make an image of God in any way, nor to worship Him in any other manner than He has commanded in His word”; cf. Belgic Confession, Article 32; and Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church).

On the other hand, Mr. Frame’s exegetical basis for his views is at best scanty. This problem is most telling in his failure to discuss the relation of the regulative principle to the Second Commandment, which is the basis on which all Reformed exegetes from Calvin through the Puritans developed the principle. Likewise, he fails to discuss the relation of key NT passages such as John 4:20-24 and Col. 2:23.

I have a number of particular problems with the book, but will deal only with those that I consider to be the most serious. In chapter two he asserts that with respect to the non-ceremonial aspects of Old Testament worship “God left the specifics open-ended” (23). He does not prove this assertion exegetically nor does he pay any attention to the role of the Second Commandment in regulating worship. In chapter 3 on NT worship he fails to distinguish between the ceremonial elements of temple worship that Jesus fulfilled and the trans-covenantal elements like preaching, prayer, and singing, when he says, “From a New Testament perspective, we can see all the various elements of Old Testament worship pointing to Jesus” (25). The problem with this inaccurate statement is the conclusion reached: “But what is left when these ceremonies are no longer required? Essentially, what is left is worship in the broad sense: a life of obedience to God’s word, a sacrifice of ourselves to his purposes” (30). By failing to consider the trans-covenantal nature of corporate prayer, praise, preaching and reading of Scripture he is able to suggest the possibility that it is very difficult in the NT to distinguish between broad and narrow worship (31, 32). He wrongly concludes that we may withhold the term “worship” from the New Testament meeting (32): in a number of places the NT applies the term worship to narrow worship (Matt. 4:9,10; John 4:22-24; Phil. 3:3; Acts 13:2; I Cor. 14:25).

His watering down this distinction lays the foundation for the more radical departure he makes in chapter 4, where Prof. Frame radically redefines the regulative principle. But he gives no scriptural reference, let alone exegesis, for his redefinition. He says, “Typically, Scripture tells us what we should do in general and then leaves us to determine the specifics by our own sanctified wisdom, according to the general rules of the Word” (41). The general principles are worked out in “applications.” Application has to do with circumstances (those general areas common to human actions and societies — like times of meetings, type of seating, etc.; or content of prayers, sermons, hymns, etc.). “Human wisdom may never presume to ‘add’ to its commands. The only job of human wisdom is to ‘apply’ those commands to specific situations” (41).

In defending his new definition he confuses both circumstances and forms of worship with elements. The Westminster Confession does not define circumstances as applications of “elements”, but as things that help perform the elements of worship. “Forms” are the precise content of an element — for example, which song to be sung or whether to use common prayer in addition to free prayer. Dr. T. David Gordon has helpfully written of the contrast: “Similarly, if we agree that prayers are to be offered (as elements), it is a ‘circumstantial’ consideration as to how many prayers we will have, and a ‘formal’ consideration as to which particular prayers to include (for instance, whether to pray ‘The Lord’s Prayer,’ or not is a ‘formal’ consideration).”

Further, Frame fails to distinguish between the broad and narrow sense of worship in his application of the principle. “Thus understood, the regulative principle for worship is no different from the principles by which God regulates all of our life” (42). He concludes, since in broad worship Scripture allows us to apply the specific commands to our circumstances, then we may do the same in narrow worship. As he freely admits, this goes beyond the distinction made in WCF 20:2 (“God alone is lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship”). He claims not to contradict the Confession but to go beyond. But the Confession defines the regulative principle purely in matters of corporate worship and government and not broad worship. His new interpretation clearly contradicts the standards.

Moreover, when he applies the new principle, he says that the regulative principle may not be used “to enforce traditionalism in worship” (45). Again Mr. Frame fails to define his terms. He uses the term “traditionalism” here as worship that is invented by men, while throughout the book he uses the term for the approach that carefully applies the regulative principle to all the elements of worship. Thus, he gives the impression that those whom he opposes are worshipping by man-made traditions.

Regarding the elements of worship, he says, “unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to prove anything is divinely required specifically for official services. . . . The most serious problem is that there is no scriptural warrant for it! Scripture nowhere divides worship into a series of independent ‘elements,’ each requiring independent scriptural justification” (44, 53). But the Westminster Confession of Faith is quite clear on elements (21:3-5). Bannerman says: “The scriptures are the only rule for worship, as truly as they are the only rule for the Church in any other department of her duties. And the Scriptures are sufficient for that purpose; for they contain a directory for worship, either expressly inculcated, or justly to be inferred from its statements sufficient for the guidance of the Church in every necessary part of worship” (The Church of Christ, I, 368).

Not only does Frame differ from the standards, but he also neglects to interact with the exegetical principles that Calvin and the Puritans used to determine the elements — principles that are summarized in the Westminster Confession I, 6: “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture.” Bannerman offers three guidelines for determining elements: explicit commands (Eph. 5:19; 2 Tim. 4:2); NT examples (Acts 2:42); and general principles (theological inference) drawn from scripture (use of benediction or placing Baptism in corporate worship) (I, 368).

Much of what Prof. Frame says in chapters 6-12 regarding application is helpful. However, he gives no exegetical basis for saying that anyone approved by the session may lead in worship. He needs to discuss 1 Cor. 14:34, 35; 1 Tim. 2:8-15; and 4:13. Furthermore, to dismiss the church’s historical position on this issue without interacting with its exegetical reasons does not contribute to positive discussion.

I also disagree with blurring the distinction between corporate worship and other occasions on which teaching or fellowship occur. Moreover, he fails to see the unique role of preaching (kerusso) as verbal, public proclamation by one commissioned to that task by Christ and thus defines all kinds of instruction and verbal communication as preaching. More seriously, he includes drama as a kind of preaching. In doing so, he blurs distinctions and equivocates. He fails to note the difference between the dramatic element in speaking, and drama. He confuses illustrations or Jesus quoting people in a parable with drama. He fails to distinguish between prophetic revelatory actions and drama.

One other serious problem is his defense of liturgical dance. He admits that God does not prescribe dance. He dismisses the application of the regulative principle as a means of preserving the status quo and concludes that even though God does not prescribe dance, he “is pleased when we dance before him in worship” (131). In reaching this conclusion he violates his own principle expressed in chapter three that since all Old Testament worship is fulfilled in Christ, it is very difficult to derive principles of worship in the New Testament.

With respect to his advocacy of drama and dance one begins to see the true nature of Prof. Frame’s regulative principle. He is not refining the position that the Westminster standards teach as the scriptural position, but rather is moving toward the Lutheran view. Luther taught that one may do whatever is not forbidden in Scripture. Calvin insisted that we may do in worship only what the Bible commands by explicit word or good and necessary consequence. Mr. Frame’s redefinition: “Typically, Scripture tells us what we should do in general and then leaves us to determine the specifics by our own sanctified wisdom, according to the general rules of the Word” (41). As he discusses the “elements” of worship he says, “Where specifics are lacking [he never shows which specifics are lacking — JP], we must apply the generalities by means of our sanctified wisdom, within the general principles of the word” (54, 55). In discussing drama, he says “I do believe that Scripture gives us the freedom to use drama; . . .” (94). With respect to dance he says, “It is true, of course, that God does not prescribe dance specifically for the regular worship of the synagogue, tabernacle, or temple” (131).

Herein lies the book’s most serious problem. Mr. Frame departs from the Reformed exegetical understanding of the regulative principle. Of course this does not make his position wrong. Its rightness or wrongness must be determined by Scripture. But is it appropriate for Mr. Frame to offer this book as a clarification of the Confession’s position (xiii)? It would be much more helpful to admit that this book is a reformulation of the principles of reformed worship and to discuss it on that basis. Of course, then Mr. Frame will have to put his exegesis on the table. I am saddened that he published this as a study book for the church at large. The discussion would have been more helpful if he had written the technical book first and interacted exegetically with his critics.

Dr. Joseph Pipa
Westminster Theological Seminary in California


 Discuss this article and other topics in our Discussion Board


Return to the Home Page Return to the Main Highway 

Return to the Book Reviews Index Back to Book Reviews Index

 

Go to the Resource Page