The apostle Paul instructs the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). God’s affirmation of man-wrought traditional formulations is made even more clear when the Scripture on occasion picks up such formulations and codifies them as inerrant, inspired, and authoritative divine revelation.
Recently I was paid one of the best compliments I could hope to receive. A colleague told me, “Sam, I know that you are a systematic theologian, but when I think of you, I think: historical theology guy.” This interaction summarizes in a nutshell the kind of systematic theologian I hope to be: one who is richly historical. Commendable, I think, is a deep and abiding suspicion of theological novelty. This disposition of mine translates, in part, into a love of—and vocal self-conscious identification with—creeds and confessions. Probably the most important (and needed) of my creedal commitments is my adherence to the Nicene Creed. My students will not be surprised to know this about me, since we open all of our classes by corporately confessing the creed aloud. So deep is my appreciation for this creed that I commend its vocal and consistent corporate confession not only in the classroom, but in the weekly worship assembly of the local church. I did not always give this commendation, however, on account of a difficulty I had with squaring the practice with another deep conviction I have regarding the Regulative Principle of corporate worship. It took me a while to wrestle with this issue, and while I did, I searched to little avail for resources that addressed the specific question: is the corporate recitation of creeds in weekly worship at odds with the regulative principle? Having arrived at an answer I am satisfied with at the personal level, I have decided to summarize the answer for others who may be in a similar place to the one in which I found myself—this is the article I wish I had read.
What is the Regulative Principle?
We begin with definitions. What exactly is the regulative principle? The first thing we have to say about the regulative principle is that it is, in fact, a principle. Therefore, I do not take it to be a strict prescription in a thoroughly fine-tuned sense. While many may argue for exclusive psalm-singing or a capella or a specific order of service, I do not think you can get that much specificity out of this idea. The regulative principle is the idea that in principle, our corporate worship is regulated by the word of God. This regulative principle is often contrasted with what we might call the normative principle, which also looks to God’s word for instruction, but in a manner that differs from the regulative principle. Where the regulative principle looks to God’s word to receive instructions on the only things to include in corporate worship, the normative principle looks to God’s word to see if a worship practice is consistent or at odds with the Scriptures. The regulative principle uses Scripture in a more prescriptive manner, whereas the normative principle uses Scripture in a more prohibitive manner (whatever Scripture prohibits, normative principle churches stay away from). Underneath the regulative principle is the conviction that God has never left his people without instruction for how they ought to worship him. The people of God have never had to guess what God wants in worship. So, what does this mean for local church weekly worship?
When it comes to the New Testament Church, his word commands Christians to (1) read the Scriptures publicly (1 Timothy 4:13), (2) teach/preach the Scriptures (1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 4:1-2), (3) pray (1 Timothy 2:1; Acts 2:42; 4:23-31), (4) sing (Colossians 3:12-17), and (5) practice the ordinances of baptism and communion (Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38; 1 Corinthians 11:23-34). The regulative principle is the commitment to build the corporate worship service around—and only around—those five elements. This rationale assumes that if God desired for our corporate worship to include anything else, he would have said as much in his word. Theologically, the regulative principle seems to follow directly from Christ’s lordship of his Church (he sets the agenda), the sufficiency of Scripture (the word of God is capable to do the work of God among the people of God—an innovative posture seems to imply that we could improve upon what God has expressly told us to do), and the fact that God is not indifferent about how he is worshipped (as Nadab and Abihu can testify [Leviticus 10]). So, when asked the question, “Can we go beyond what Scripture commands in our corporate worship?” I respond with, “Why on earth would we want to?”
Additionally, the regulative principle strikes an important chord in the heart of pastoral ministry. Whatever a local church does in worship that local church’s pastors bind the consciences of her members to practice. That is no small thing. When a church gathers, she gathers as a single body to worship her King. The weekly gathering is not an expression of individual and autonomous self-expression, which means if a church includes an element in its corporate worship that is not expressed in Scripture (i.e., baby dedications, movie clips in the sermon, interpretive dance routines, special songs, etc.), the conscientious member who objects cannot simply opt out on the personal level. He is there as a participant of what the church is doing. The pastors have essentially already declared, “This is our corporate expression of worship.” This is a weighty reality, and so the regulative principle is a way of protecting not only the theological integrity of a church’s worship, but also the consciences of a church’s members and pastors. Pastors should not be afraid to bind the conscience of their members (to say, “you must do this thing”), but they should be downright terrified to go beyond the bounds of Scripture in their conscience-binding prescriptions.
You are, I trust, beginning to see the potential tension this principle creates with the notion of corporately confessing an extra-biblical statement like the Nicene Creed. Is this something pastors really have the jurisdiction to do? Can they bind the conscience of their members to say, “This is how our church will worship—by confessing our faith in the God expressed in these doctrinal formulations?” I think the answer is yes, but it is an answer that will require a bit of work.
At the very least there is a historical and circumstantial argument to be made here. The regulative principle was first articulated and defended formally by the reformers and their subsequent heirs, which is why it is a staple in the Reformed tradition. Yet, these articulators and defenders of the regulative principle almost uniformly endorsed and practiced the corporate confession of creeds in their worship gatherings. By all appearances, they simply took for granted that confessing the creeds in worship is consonant with the regulative principle. It does not seem as though they even agonized over the question. So, historically, and circumstantially, I think we are safe to conclude that corporate confession of creeds is not at odds with the regulative principle; but how and why this is the case needs some elaboration.