The Regulative Principle of the Church 3: Its Historical Meaning (Part 2)Subscribe
This principle articulated by Calvin and the Reformed against Luther and the Roman Catholics was given sharp focus in the debates between the Puritans and Anglicans in late 16th and 17th Century England. It was given its classic and definitive statement in Reformed confessions formulated in the 17th century in Britain. It is stated in identical language at Chapter 21, Paragraph 1 in both the Westminster Confession and at Chapter 22, Paragraph 1 in the 1689 London Baptist Confession.
The light of nature shews that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all; is just, good and doth good unto all; and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart and all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God, is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.
This Puritan statement may best be understood by contrasting it with the statement of the Church of England found in the 39 Articles. The Twentieth Article of the Church of England’s Thirty Nine Articles states: “The Church hath power to decree rites or ceremonies and authority in the controversies of the Faith. And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything contrary to God’s Word written.”1
G. I. Williamson helpfully and popularly states the Puritan principle exemplified in the Confession: “What is commanded is right, and what is not commanded is wrong.”2 James Bannerman provides this helpful contrast between the Puritan doctrine on this matter (contained in our Confession) and the Anglican doctrine.
In the case of the Church of England, its doctrine in regard to Church power in the worship of God is, that it has a right to decree everything, except what is forbidden in the Word of God. In the case of our own Church, its doctrine in reference to Church power in the worship of God is, that it has a right to decree nothing, except what expressly or by implication is enjoined by the Word of God.3
G. I. Williamson helpfully illustrates the difference between the Anglican and Puritan understandings of the regulative principle with the following diagram.4
The difference between Puritans and Anglicans may be helpfully illustrated by means of two builders intent on building the temple of God. Mr. Anglican must use the materials of the Word of God, but has no blueprint and may use other materials. Mr. Puritan must use only materials of the Word of God and has a blueprint. It takes no special genius to discern that the two completed buildings will differ drastically or to discern which will be more pleasing to God.
1 James Bannerman, The Church of Christ (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1960), 1: 339.
2 G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, 162.
3 Bannerman, The Church of Christ, 1: 339-40.
4 Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, 160.