Last night in our Guided Reading Group we reached the thorny topic of ‘worship,’ by which I mean the corporate gathered worship of God’s people in church. We had some sections from Grudem, Calvin, and Keller to wrestle with, and we talked through normative principle and regulative principle and all that jazz. It was Calvin that I found most surprising, refreshing, and even contemporary. Here’s the drift of his argument from Institutes IV.X.27-32:
27. “many unlettered persons, when they are told that men’s conscience are impiously bound by human traditions, and God is worshipped in vain, apply the same erasure to all the laws by which the order of the church is shaped . . . [yet] some form of organization is necessary . . . all things be done decently and in order.”
Calvin is countering those who, having learned of the papal excess in ritual, are now removing all ritual or order – they think they’re free to do whatever they like (it could be a word against some forms of Lutheranism from the time). Calvin’s point is some order is required if Paul’s instruction regarding decency and order is to be followed.
28. “When it is understood that a law has been made for the sake of public decency, there is taken away the superstition into which which those fall who measure the worship of God by human inventions . . . that false opinion of obligation and necessity, which struck consciences with great terror when traditions were thought necessary to salvation, is overthrown. For here nothing is required except that love be fostered among us by common effort . . . When we have the church set up in good order, we provide for its peace and quietness.”
Again, Calvin is saying ‘don’t chuck the baby out with the bath-water.’ Some sort of order is necessary for everybody’s well-being.
29. “As a consequence . . . we shall not establish an order in those trifling pomps which have nothing but fleeting spendor, but in that arrangement which takes away all confusion, barbarity, obstinacy, turbulence, and dissension.”
One of Calvin’s big principles – aedificatio ecclesiae – does it edify?
30. However, because God did not “prescribe in detail what we ought to do (because he foresaw that this depended upon the state of the times, and he did not deem one form suitable for all ages), here we must take refuge in those general rules which he has given . . . the upbuilding of the church ought to be variously accommodated to the customs of each nation and age . . . it will be fitting to change and abrogate traditional practices and to establish new ones.”
Here’s where Calvin started dropping bombs – he’s advocating a regulative principle in so far as that principle appeals to the general rules of Scripture. Each time and age must work out, according to the general principles, how it practises worship.
31. “Now it is the duty of Christian people to keep the ordinances that have been established according to this rule with a free conscience, indeed, without superstition, yet with a pious and ready inclination to obey.”
Order is important, and we should submit, but there will be some exceptions and we are not bound by the customs.
32. “this knowledge assures first that each one of us will keep his freedom in all these things; yet each one will voluntarily impose some necessity upon his freedom, in so far as this decorum of which we spoke or considerations of love shall require . . . establishing no perpetual law we should refer the entire use and purpose of observances to the upbuilding of the church. If the church requires it, we may not only without any offense allow something to be changed but permit any observance previously in use among us to be abandoned.”
We should restrain our personal liberty for the sake of the good of the whole. Some ceremonies may be more or less useful and we are free to use or abandon.
Calvin was an advocate of the regulative principle but his use of it is a good deal more liberal than some other advocates. He notes the necessity of order, decency, and dignity in worship, but then allows a great deal of freedom under the ‘general rules’ of Scripture on the issue. Different cultures and ages have a large amount of freedom in working out how to worship God together. With a little updating of the language and concepts Calvin could speak a powerful word amongst the various denominations today.
Would Calvin have allowed drums in church? He’d have been playing them!