How the Regulative Principle of Worship Affirms, Supports, and Ensures a Meaningful World

Independent pres GA

Many Protestants have rightly recognized that much of our thinking, our theology, our worldview, and our way of being is hopelessly modern. We are so caught up in modernity that it takes conscious effort to escape it. Our modern age produces in us the proclivity to see the world as meaningless—as, what Charles Taylor calls, a “disenchanted” world. It is nothing but bits of matter that we, through the instrumentalization of it, use for our various purposes. Modernity is devotion to rationalization, efficiency, and utility. It is one of self-mastery and self-realization through public self-expression and an “authentic” take on the world. That is, we have become or are becoming the image of ourselves that we created from scratch. We have deconstructed the “prejudice” of our ancestors and are pursuing our own self-created course. From there have arisen moral and aesthetic relativism. Manners are considered disingenuous means of covering inward disorder and ugliness. And, among Christians, modernity has produced a Feuerbachian god of our own construction: one that accepts cavalier attitudes toward worship, holiness, and stewardship in creation.

A common explanation for the rise of this way of being is the rise of nominalism. Simply put, nominalism is the position that universals (say, “dog”) are purely name-assignments given out by human reasoning. For example, a poodle and a golden retriever are both “dogs” not because there exists, apart from human naming, the form “dog” (think of Plato’s forms) but only because humans have grouped the two together and assigned the group the label “dog.” Abstractions are not metaphysical realities; they are realities of the mind. Dog is merely a convention, not a metaphysical form. Now, many would quickly say, “Well, that is obvious.” But such a reaction simply shows one’s modernism. This is not and was not obvious. Indeed, the opposite position, namely that these abstractions or forms exist as part of the cosmos apart from human naming, was the dominant position in the West for most of Western history.

Many claim that nominalism made modernity possible. It “flattened” reality by making everything ontologically equal. It made the world full of arbitrary arrangements grouped only by human naming assignments. Everything in the outside world is a particular and nothing participate in some metaphysical universal. Humans supply the universal by mental faculties. Thus meaning in the world is a human assignment or what I call “subject-dependent.” It is fairly clear how this made modernity possible. The outside world is the realm of matter and objects with nothing but their physical properties. There is no teleological end to the laws of nature; and what were once inherent universals (or essences) that communicated (ectypally) the mind of God, are now meaningless mechanisms in which we are thrown at birth and with which we must have our dealings (Heidegger). Properties such as beauty are products of and located in the mind. Morality arises from neuroscience, “human relationships,” or dignity and freedom with which we legislate ourselves the moral law (Kant). Talk of a natural law from outside ourselves that binds our conduct makes little sense in modernity. Nature contains nothing but purposeless physical laws.

Metaphysical truth outside ourselves—e.g., beauty, morality, theology, and universals—is what I refer to when I talk of “meaning” outside of us. It is meaning that is not subject-originating and not solely subject-dependent. An example of something subject-originating and solely subject-dependent is when a person, who (let’s say) exists in a world without outside meaning, declares some natural landscape to be beautiful. The beauty assigned to the landscape originates in the subject and the beauty of it depends solely on the subject’s assignment of beauty. A community or congregation, as a collective subject, can do this as well. One feature of modernity is the acceptance of this type of subjective operation. This is why commercialized Christianity and the Protestant liturgical movements, ironically, share the same metaphysics (though the latter would deny it). Both declare subjectively originating religious acts and things to be spiritual, worshipful and/or meaningful based on their intentions toward the acts or things alone. More on this below.

The curious move by the Protestant liturgical movements

Many Protestants who want to reject modernity by returning to “classical metaphysics” naturally also seek to return to medieval liturgy and ceremonies, such as the observance of Ash Wednesday and other traditional ceremonies and rites. It is only natural that when seeking a return to a certain way of being in the world one would also return to the liturgical practices of that time. However, we must think this through. Rejecting modernity involves realizing that one dwells in a meaningful world, one in which meaning is not solely a subjective operation. Meaning is neither subject-originating, nor solely subject-dependent. And we must keep in mind that the medievals thought that their liturgy had originated from the apostolic era and, for this reason, was divinely instituted. It was not, to their minds, something created, of development, and often from a fusion of diverse practices.

But the medievals were wrong. As Notre Dame professor of liturgy and Roman Catholic, Paul Bradshaw stated:

We know much, much less about the liturgical practices of the first three centuries of Christianity than we once thought we did. A great deal more is shrouded in the mists of time than we formerly imagined and many of our previous confident assertions about ‘what the early Church did’ now seem more like wishful thinking or the unconscious projections back into ancient times of later practices.

What we do know about patterns of worship in that primitive period points towards considerable variety more often than towards rigid uniformity. Nowadays, when we talk about ‘what the early Church did’, we need to specify where the practice in question is encountered (Syria, Egypt, North Africa, Rome, or some other region) and when (first second, third, or fourth century, for each of these might be very different indeed from one another), and whether it is the only form found in that place at that time, for variant traditions could have coexisted alongside each other.[1]

There is no historical liturgy; there are, rather, liturgies. Tradition alone cannot provide us the liturgy instituted by the apostles. So even if we are to return to the medieval liturgy, we cannot return with the mindset of a medieval, namely that the liturgy originated with the apostles and therefore have authenticity and sanction by God. With our current knowledge (which is far greater than any period in Christian history), we can only make these various ceremonies and rites meaningful solely through subject-dependence—through our intention in the act. Put differently, we must name it worship for it to be worship. And though these ceremonies and rites did not originate with us in this time, we still participate collectively, across time, in the origination of them, since we have no reason to think that they originated through divine institution. Hence, by participating in these ceremonies and rites, we collectively originate them and solely determine their meaning. One must assume a modern perspective on meaning to return to medieval liturgy.

There are some events in which the subject is an essential part of the event’s meaning. This we can call an irreducibly complex event. For example, the preaching of the Word is a divine event at which God speaks by means of it and communicates his promises to the attentive listener. What makes it meaningful is divine action in both the speaking and the enablement of hearing his voice. It requires, then, God as speaker and man as listener. Our subjective intention to hear is essential to the meaningfulness of the preaching of the Word, but it does not alone make the event meaningful (or spiritual). The same is true with the Lord’s Supper. Man must exercise faith in consuming the Supper, yet the exercising of faith does not alone make it meaningful. For God communicates through it and occasions grace to the partaker. Both events—the preaching of the Word and the Supper—are meaningful, not on the initiation of the participant, but by the Speaker and Host—God. Yet our participation is essential to the meaningfulness of the event. Meaning in these events is subject-dependent, but the ground of the meaning is not reducible to the intention of the subject. Their meaning is irreducibly complex, being both divine- and subject-dependent for meaning.

Praising God through song is a little different, because the worshiper is the initiator of the event. But praising through song is not worship by self-origination (since it is sanctioned in the Word) and it is not solely self-dependent for it being worship. Praising through song is a response to God’s truth, contains God’s truth, and is a ‘joining in’ with the choir of creation (Ps. 148). God does not passively certify the meaning of our worship in song; he is already the object and subject of the song by his own design. The meaning of the event depends on the worshiping subject, but it is not solely subject-dependent. God has both instituted it and made his self-disclosure the content of it. God is already an essential part of it.

Now, what is strange about adding to these elements of worship various ceremonies, such as marking the cross on the forehead on Ash Wednesday, is that there is no reason given in the norming norm of theological belief (i.e., Scripture) to think that God plays any active role in the meaning of these events. If God certifies the meaningfulness of the events, then it is purely in passivity. The meaningfulness of Ash Wednesday is purely subject-dependent and reducible to it. In other words, what makes the cross on the forehead meaningful is wholly dependent on the person’s intention for it to be meaningful. The subjective intention alone makes it meaningful. God certifies it passively. This is worship on the basis of subjective intention alone, not by divine initiation and institution. Only after it is named worship does it become worship. It is a form of nominalism.

This is why it is rather odd that the Protestants who are most afraid of nominalism will conduct religious observances that can only become meaningful given nominalist assumptions. These assumptions are not much different than those used to justify some of the more bizarre practices seen among the charismatics and those used by the emergent church crowd and progressive Christianity.

One might respond by saying that they are participating in the “communion of the saints” by observing these ceremonies. But how do these various ceremonies bring one into communion with the saints of the past? Nostalgia for a bygone era does not create communion with it. Of course, it is rather obvious how the Lord’s Supper does. But why Ash Wednesday? Is it because Christians have been doing it for about one-thousand years? (No, it is clearly not apostolic). What is the criteria for choosing one historical practice over another? And, more to the point, how does historical practice make such ceremonies any less subject-dependent? Does God eventually accept it over time? These questions highlight the problem with moving back to historical practices in the interest of rejecting modernity. There is no reason to think that any of these ceremonies rise above mere subject-dependence for meaning. One must assume a form of nominalism to make neutral religious activity meaningful.

This argument is directed at Protestants. For I can see how Roman Catholics can answer this. They would simply say that the Church has the divine authority to recognize and make certain ceremonies meaningful, and by this authority God becomes active in the event. So I think that Roman Catholics are consistent in this regard. Of course, the idea that the Church has such authority is false, but at least they are consistent. Protestants, on the other hand, do not have the benefit of such authority. We could form fuzzy notions of pursuing “catholicity,” but this suffers for want of clear criteria and it cannot legitimately be anything more than an attitude toward pre-reformational traditions.

Regulative Principle of Worship and Meaningfulness

The regulative principle of worship (RPW) is often rejected as a rigid and biblicist perspective on proper worship. For those who are unaware of the RPW, it is basically the following. One is to conduct corporate worship only in accordance with God’s prescriptions for worship. The classic text cited is the one where God consumed Nadab and Abihu with fire for their offering what the text calls “unauthorized” or “strange” fire. Whatever the offering was, it violated Leviticus 9:7, which calls for the priests to “sacrifice…as the LORD has commanded.” One is to worship as the Lord has commanded.

As one might expect, there have been various versions of this principle, ranging from a general principle approach to a strict element/accident approach. The basic commonality is that in worship we ought to do certain things or ought to worship in accordance with certain general and specific prescriptions. The opposite of this (the more Lutheran and Anglican view) is that one can do anything that is not forbidden by Scripture. If you have tracked my argument so far, the latter, given our knowledge of the diversity of historical liturgy, must presuppose a form of nominalism or, at best, presuppose a fuzzy view of God’s participation in non-apostolic practices as if God recognizes human precedent and long-standing usage.

My argument here is that the RPW supports a meaningful world and rejects the radical subject-dependence inherent in nominalist religious observance. In other words, the RPW is the principle by which one pursues the type of religious observances that God has always hosted and calls before him. The principle seeks to worship naturally; that is, it pursues worship in conformity to creational norms. It is a principled means of pursuing the type of worship God prescribed via creation from the beginning and replicated in Scripture.

To start, we must recognize that all of God’s dealings with man is through covenant. As Herman Bavinck said,

If there is truly to be religion, if there is to be fellowship between God and man, if the relation between the two is to be also (but not exclusively) that of a master to servant, of a potter to clay, as well as that of a king to his people, of a father to his son, of a mother to her child, of an eagle to her young, of a hen to her chicks, and so forth; that is, if not just one relation but all relations and all sorts of relations of dependence, submission, obedience, friendship, love, and so forth among human find their model and achieve their fulfillment in religion, then religion must be the character of a covenant.

This means that worship is in the context of covenant. And the covenant that God initially instituted with Adam (the covenant of works or the covenant of creation) had the same destination or goal as, what we call, the covenant of grace. And what grace does is renew nature to its final destiny. God’s post-Fall special revelation (i.e., Scripture), given by grace, is meant to restore man’s relationship to general revelation. As Herman Bavinck emphasized, all divine activity after the Fall is meant to restore creation (including and most importantly his image-bearers) to its eschatological destiny, which is the maturation of creation from immaturity. He writes,

[Grace] does not grant anything beyond what Adam, if he had remained standing, would have acquired in the way of obedience. The covenant of grace differs from the covenant of works in the road, not in its final destination. The same benefits are promised in the covenant of works and freely given in the covenant of grace. Grace restores nature and raises it to its highest fulfillment, but it does not add a new, heterogeneous component to it.

The image of God in humanity may be mangled and mutilated by the sin of the first Adam; but by the last Adam [Christ] and his re-creating grace they are all the more resplendently restored to their destiny.

So since worship is in the context of covenant and since both the covenant of works and the covenant of grace have the same goal in mind, both Adam’s pre-Fall worship and our worship post-Fall is directed toward the same eschatological end of creation. As Bavinck said, the “road” differs, but not the “final destination.”

Corporate worship then is and has always been covenantal worship, and corporate worship is a renewal of the covenant. The two covenants—the covenant of works and the covenant of grace—both have the same eschatological destination. If Adam had fulfilled the covenant of works (or covenant of creation), then he would have merited eternal blessedness in a mature creation. But he failed, so God immediately instituted the covenant of grace to restore and complete the original intention of creation that could have been realized via the former covenant. As Jan Veenhof writes,

The fact must not be neglected, however, that this higher glory constitutes the goal to which the earth had been directed from the beginning. Therefore, it is certainly not added to the creation as a foreign component [by the covenant of grace].

The reason why I’ve emphasized the continuity of the covenant is to suggest that God’s prescriptions for worship are fundamentally the same from the beginning, even prior to the Fall. Since both covenants have eschatological maturation as their end, the prescriptions of worship are connected with the same end. To worship as prescribed in the covenant of grace (revealed specially via Scripture) is to worship as prescribed in the covenant of works (revealed generally in creation). The prescriptions in Scripture then are not arbitrary; they are restatements of what ought to be naturally known (that is, by reason alone). The RPW then is not a principle by which we pursue a rigid set of biblicist commands; it is the means by which we pursue our natural calling for worship, a call to worship in accordance with the wishes of our covenanting God and in light of its covenantal end, namely, the eschatological end of creation.

This promise of blessedness was the goal of the covenant of creation, and worship prior to the Fall was (or would have been) a covenantal renewal ceremony of the covenant of creation. We today conduct (at least we should) a new covenant renewal ceremony on Sunday worship, and while this covenant is different from the covenant of works—each is merely a different road or path—their destination is the same, eschatological maturation.

Today’s preaching the Word is a proclamation of the promises of God to his people. In the pre-Fall world, the people would have preached God’s gracious promise to grant eternal blessedness to the human race upon completion of its creational mandate. Our worship in the Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of that eschatological completion that was meant from the beginning. There is good reason hold that God would have hosted an eschatological meal had Adam fulfilled this duty, making a type of sacramental Supper meal for Adam’s worship quite appropriate. There would have been prayer and singing in the pre-Fall state as well. The covenant would have been renewed before the people as a reminder to continue in their divinely instituted task in creation. Worship was fundamentally the same before and after the Fall. Both contained the elements that looked forward to the same eschatological event.[2]

The RPW then is a principle that connects us to cosmic meaning. Since creation itself is covenantal, the worship in context of covenant is natural. Following the RPW is a pursuit of the religious activities that God initiated via creation and in which God and man are co-dependent actors for meaning. It is in pursuit of activity in which man is not the sole provider of meaning, one in which God is not a mere certifier, a notary of sorts.

I’m sure that many would disagree with my understanding of the RPW as getting back to creational worship. But even if I am wrong that it restores us to the natural way of worship, the RPW still moves worship outside of mere subject-dependence. Even if our worship has no relation to pre-Fall worship, the fact that God prescribes it means that he is the host of it and therefore the initiator of it; and it ensures that he is essential for the meaningfulness (or spirituality) of it. God speaks through the preached Word. God communicates and seals his promises in the Supper. God only certifies the ash on your forehead. He was not initially, nor an active participant in the meaning of the event.

If Protestants want to reject modernity, then they ought to reject the nominalist assumptions that go into religious observance outside of revelation. This means rediscovering the regulative principle of worship as the means of reconnecting oneself to God’s creation. Only through this principle will one properly join the choir of creation.

[1][1] “The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[2] What would be in a covenant renewal worship service? I must leave this for a later post.

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4 Responses to How the Regulative Principle of Worship Affirms, Supports, and Ensures a Meaningful World

  1. befranks105 says:

    Wonderfully helpful article. Thanks for writing it. This is a subject that has long fascinated me. I’ve printed off all of your articles on Reformed aesthetics and look forward to working through them in the future.


    • Stephen Wolfe says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I hope that you enjoy my posts on aesthetics. We need a renewed appreciation for aesthetics in the Reformed world. God bless!


  2. This is very helpful. I delight in how you have put together, among other things, the covenant, creation, re-creation and RPW together. Please continue the wonderful work on this topic. Thank you.


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