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Topic: The RPW Series

The Regulative Principle of Worship - Has it Become a Human Tradition?

July 31, 2002
Berwyn Hoyt
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(a review of two sets of articles) 


Confessional Refs: WCF 21:1, cf. 1:6; BCF Art 7, 32; HC Q96. For scripture refs, refer to the articles.

The Regulative Principle of Worship (hereafter called RPW) is sometimes stated in this way: “What the Bible does not command is forbidden.” It is usually applied only to public worship. The principle is used to prevent the introduction of man-made worship practices into our services. However, this way of stating the principle has often led people into an error where they think “What the Bible does not explicitly command is forbidden.” This thinking has led some to outlaw things like the use of musical instruments and the singing of hymns in public worship.

I wish to review two recent magazine articles which show that the RPW in this form is both harmful and unbiblical. I would like to stress that the articles do not oppose the principles of worship as expressed in the Scripture or our Confessions (refs. above). However, they do oppose the RPW in its extreme form as written above. These articles do present an alternative principle which is more in line with scripture (and our confessions).


“All I Really Need to Know About Worship … I Don’t Learn from the Regulative Principle.”

By Rev. Steve Schlissel (Messiah’s Congregation, Brooklyn, NY), published in the “Messiah’s Mandate”.

This is a series of five very thorough articles. It shows from Scripture that it is a misleading formulation to say, “What the Bible does not command is forbidden.” Schlissel points out that the RPW in this form has been useful to get rid of permissive idolatry (the worship of images in the churches), but it leads many to legalistic idolatry (forbidding all kinds of things that are warranted as good by Scripture – adding to God’s commands).

Schlissel makes a strong case that this extreme RPW “as found in the Bible, belongs to the ceremonial law.” He says that the detailed requirements for worship have passed away when Christ fulfilled them. He takes pains to promote traditional reformed worship, but uses a more biblical principle than the RPW. Schlissel coins the wording, “Informed Principle of Worship.” By this he simply means that our worship should be modeled on the Word of God - after we have well informed ourselves of all the Bible’s teaching on worship. In this way he allows for the implicit directions of the Bible – not just the explicit.

Highlights from the articles are as follows. The second article tackles the arguments in favor of the RPW. The third clarifies how the RPW belongs to the ceremonial law, and clarifies the “Informed Principle of Worship.” Here is also discussed how the covenantal thinking of the Continental Reformed has helped them avoid the RPW extreme. The fourth article details how the RPW is not biblical. In the fifth article Schlissel proves his perspective from the reformed confessions. To do this he uses the confessions to interpret themselves, and he also delves into their origin-history, concentrating on the Westminster Confession.

In the past, Schlissel himself has believed and defended the extreme RPW. For this reason his argument is very real (and convincing) with practical examples and quotes of many strong proponents of the RPW. Schlissel’s article is very, very thorough. Given any argument that supports the RPW in this form, you can be sure that Schlissel has dealt with it deeply.

On the down side, Schlissel’s articles are poorly organized and quite provocative. Personally, I find the style very tantalizing, but it may discourage non-American ears before they have considered his point. The articles may be long unless you have a particular interest in the topic.

On the up side, these articles are wonderfully thorough, scripturally proven, very real, and contain lots of examples and quotes. I cannot possibly recommend these more highly to someone who really wants to know the answer and its reason. In addition, since Schlissel has some extreme RPW background, I recommend them to anyone who holds strongly to the RPW – not just as an intellectual debate, but in order that you might truly worship as God desires.

There are five articles in the set. Each article is 9 pages and about 7,000 words.

“The Singing of Psalms and Hymns”

By Rev. R. Aasman (Canadian Reformed Churches), published in three issues of the 1999 “Clarion.”

The title of this article hides the fact that it speaks very specifically to the RPW – albeit, with the purpose of showing the biblical requirement to sing more than just the Psalms. Aasman speaks to the RPW from several points of view: John Calvin, the second commandment, and the Heidelberg Catechism. He shows that not one of these support the RPW in the form “what is not commanded is forbidden.” Aasman’s discussion on the RPW is much less provocative than Schlissel, and easier to read for someone who has never before heard of the Regulative Principle.

In addition, Aasman provides a brief but very reasonable presentation of why more than the 150 Psalms must be sung in worship. He includes a section on the command to “Sing a new song to Jehovah,” and proves clearly from scripture that this new song requires something additional to the 150 Psalms.

Aasman’s article is logically presented, easy to understand, and very clear. I would recommend it for any audience. Schlissel’s articles are still far better for a thorough dealing with the RPW.

This article is 5 pages and 5,000 words long.

Source: The Schlissel articles are on the web site. The Aasman articles can be viewed here in PDF format.

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