The Regulative Principle of Worship Part II


* My disclaimer here 

The Regulative Principle of Worship
Ordained Servant—Vol. 10, No. 4 67
G. I. Williamson
In this paper I will attempt to do four things:
1. First, I will try to state clearly what the Regulative
Principle of Worship1 is, and where it came from.
It is my contention that it is an apostolic principle
taught as clearly in the New Testament as in the
Old, and that this precept—and the practice

prescribed by it—is norm-ative for the church until
Jesus returns. I will refer to this principle through
the rest of my paper as the RPW.
2. I will then refer to John Calvin’s teaching and
3. I will then go on to show how this principle was
faithfully articulated in the Reformed catechisms
and confessions, and applied with integrity in the
worship practice of Presbyterian and Reformed
Churches during the historical period in which our
Reformed Confessions were formulated.
4. Then I will endeavor to show how Presbyterian and
Reformed Churches in recent times have stretched
the RPW to the breaking point.
5. And then, finally, I will state my conclusions and
suggest a few modest reforms that are urgently
1 – The RPW Stated and Defended
Let me begin by simply stating what I understand
the RPW to be. It is, quite simply, the application of
the fundamental principle of the Reformation (‘Sola
Scriptura’) to the sphere of worship. And it has never
been expressed more succinctly than it is in the
Heidelberg Catechism. The Catechism asks (in Q. 96)
“What does God require in the second commandment?”
The answer is: “That we in no wise make any image of
God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has
commanded.” As Zacharius Ursinus—an author (if not
1 In this paper I will not discuss the application of this principle to
different kinds of worship, such as private, family, informal, formal,
etc. My focus here is the public worship of the congregations,
under the supervision of duly appointed pastors and elders.
the author) of this catechism—explained it, “The end,
or design of this commandment is, that the true
God…be worshipped under a proper form…such as is
pleasing to him, and not with such worship as that
which is according to the imagination and device of
man…[and] that the worship of God as prescribed be
preserved pure and uncorrupted.”2 Or to say the same
thing more briefly “To worship God truly, is to worship
him in the manner which he himself has prescribed.”3
Direct Scriptural Support for the RPW
It is important to note that the word
“commanded” is not to be taken to mean only what is
found in Scripture in the form of direct, verbal
commandments. There is no direct, verbal
commandment, for instance, that says—in so many
words—that we are to baptize infants. That is why the
Reformed confessions not only used the word
‘commanded’, but also such words as ‘instituted’ and
‘prescribed.’ If a worship practice can be shown to have
apostolic sanction or approval, then that worship
practice has the same normative force as it would have
if it came in the form of a direct commandment. Or, to
say the same thing in a different way, if we find that a
certain practice had apostolic sanction then that is
sufficient proof that the practice is something the Lord
has commanded. In other words, we do not find that
everything commanded by our Lord is recorded in
Scripture in the form of a direct commandment. But by
good and necessary inference drawn from Scripture we
can be certain as to what does—or, conversely, does
not—have divine authorization.
2 The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism,
Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. Grand Rapids MI, 1954, p. 517
3 Ibid. To much the same effect is the Westminster Shorter
Catechism answer #51: “The second commandment forbiddeth the
worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his
word.” The Westminster Larger Catechism further explains that the
commandment forbids “all superstitious devices, corrupting the
worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and
taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under
the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other
pretence whatsoever…and opposing the worship and ordinances which
God hath appointed.”


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