In Defense Of Synod 1574

I have been doing some reading on the struggle between the Reformed ministers and the magistrates in the 1570s and following over how the worship services would be regulated and by what principle.

Heidelberg Catechism 96 articulated“…we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.” Calvin called this principle “the rule of worship.” Since the mid-20th century it has come to be called “the regulative principle,” which may be summarized thus: we do only in worship what God has commanded. It is a unique principle in the modern period (inasmuch as only the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches confess it) with uneven application in where it is professed.

 

In the course of research for a couple of purposes (a journal article and a course) I have had opportunity to read the church orders and church laws of the Dutch (Reformed) churches of the 16th and 17th centuries. I have been doing some reading on the struggle between the Reformed ministers and the magistrates in the 1570s and following over how the worship services would be regulated and by what principle. The magistrates tended to be either Erasmian humanists, who anticipated the values and program of the Pietists. They were much more interested in religious experience than in theological orthodoxy or moral precision. They were trying to hold together a religious coalition against Spain and the Reformed ministers were an obstacle to that program. The magistrates operated under the assumption that if a practice was not forbidden it ought to be permitted. Further, the laity like the use of organs in worship and there were influential magistrates who favored them too. The ministers, however, were seeking to follow the principle articulated in the Belgic Confession (1561) art. 7:

We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul says. For since it is forbidden to add unto or take away anything from the Word of God, it does thereby evidently appear that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects. Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils or decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all; for all men or of themselves liars, and more van than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatever does not agree with this infallible rule, as the apostles have taught us saying, Test the spirits, whether they are of God. Likewise: any one comes to you and brings not this teaching, receive him not into your house.

Note that the churches confess sola Scriptura generally but apply that principle particularly to public worship. “The whole manner of worship which God requires of us” is found in Scripture. It is sufficient to govern public worship. This same core conviction appears again in art. 32: “Therefore we reject all human innovations and all laws imposed on us, in our worship of God, which bind and force our consciences in any way.” Heidelberg Catechism 96 articulated the same principle: “…we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.”

Calvin called this principle “the rule of worship.” Since the mid-20th century it has come to be called “the regulative principle,” which may be summarized thus: we do only in worship what God has commanded. It is a unique principle in the modern period (inasmuch as only the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches confess it) with uneven application in where it is professed.

This post is occasioned, however, by reaction from some quarters, to the way a 1574 provincial synod appealed to 1 Corinthians 14:19 to justify their judgment that the playing of organs should be discontinued immediately. Some have complained that Synod was guilty of poor exegesis. How should we evaluate synod’s appeal to 1 Corinthians 14:19? Is it a classic example of proof-texting? I think not. I think synod can be defended.

First, let us note the genre of the document. It is not a biblical commentary. It is not a confession. It is not even a church order. It is an act of synod. Historically, church orders do not appeal to specific passages of Scripture. They are obligated to submit to Scripture and they cannot rule contrary to Scripture but within the confines of Scripture as confessed by the churches they have authority to issue ministerial decisions.

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