Archive Civic Polity Ecclesiastical Polity Reformed Irenicism Steven Wedgeworth

Zacharias Ursinus, Worship, and the Classes of Law

There is much more to be said about Zacharias Ursinus’s view of adiaphora and worship. Our previous post on the issue was widely read, but it did raise a number of important questions. The most interesting is in regards to Ursinus’s relationship to the so-called “regulative principle of worship.” To allow for man-made “ceremonies” in the church certainly seems at variance with the later Puritan and precisionist position.  But Ursinus could also be said to have some sort of regulating principle when it comes to worship; after all, he did say, “Ceremonies instituted by the church are not the worship of God…” Doesn’t this imply some mechanism for distinguishing “worship” from “non-worship”? Here we find an essential key in properly understanding Ursinus’s views of worship and law in general, as well as the development of the Reformed tradition’s language on these matter. Ursinus allowed for “non-worship” ceremonies to be incorporated into the larger liturgical service, so long as they were not said to be divine law nor to possess inherently spiritual value. This distinction actually helps a great deal in explaining both how it is that Ursinus and other earlier Reformed theologians could allow for adiaphora in the worship service of the church and also how their ecclesiastical descendants could reject such a position without recognizing an obvious discontinuity. Ursinus’s distinction here also illuminates the philosophical principles at work in the larger discussion of ecclesiology.

The “Worship” of God

Under the discussion of the Second Commandment in his commentary, Ursinus does give something very close to a regulative principle. He writes:

There are some who object to what we have here said, and affirm in support of will-worship, that those passages which we have cited as condemning it, speak only in reference to the ceremonies instituted by Moses and of the unlawful commandments of men, such as constitute no part of the worship of God; and not of those precepts which have been sanctioned by the church and bishops, and which command nothing contrary to the word of God. But that this argument is false, may be proven by certain declarations connected with those passages of Scripture to which we have referred, which likewise reject those human laws, which, upon their own authority, prescribe anything in reference to divine worship which God has not commanded, although the thing itself is neither sinful nor forbidden by God. So Christ rejects the tradition which the Jews had in regard to washing their hands, because they associated with it the idea of divine worship, although it was not sinful in itself, saying, “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man, but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.” “Woe unto you Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; for ye make clean the outside of the cup and platter, but within ye are full of extortion and excess.” (Matt. 15: 11 ; 23, 25.) The same thing may be said of celibacy and of the distinction of meats and days, of which the apostle Paul speaks, (Rom. 14: 6. 1 Tim. 4: 1-3,) and which he calls “doctrines of devils,” although in themselves they are lawful to the godly, as he in other places teaches. Wherefore, those things also which are in themselves indifferent, that is neither commanded nor prohibited by God, if they are prescribed and done as the worship of God, or if it is supposed that God is honored by our performing them, and dishonored by neglecting them, it is plainly manifest that the Scriptures in these and similar places condemn them.

Here it would seem that Ursinus actually rejects the category of adiaphora in worship, stating that “those things which are in themselves indifferent” may not be “in reference to divine worship.” Is this not the same as the later rule of “what is not commanded is forbidden”? Dr. Littlejohn has explained how such a regulative principle eventually came to amount to a sort of legal positivism for Thomas Cartwright. But this is definitely not Ursinus’s position, as he has elsewhere said, “The church may and ought to institute certain ceremonies, inasmuch as the moral worship of God cannot be observed without defining and fixing the various circumstances connected with it.” Thus he does not need a “word of God for all things” that the church carries out, not even in its ceremonies. How are we to reconcile these varying statements?

Ursinus makes an important distinction in language when it comes to “worship.” He explains:

Such works, therefore, as are indifferent, must be carefully distinguished from those in which we worship God: 1. Because to imagine a different worship of God from that which he has prescribed, is to imagine another will of God, and so another God. And those who do this, as Aaron and Jeroboam formerly did, are no less guilty of idolatry, than those who professedly worship another god, beside that Jehovah revealed in the church. 2. Because, by such a mingling of the true worship of God with that which is false, the true God is confounded with idols, which are honored in the forms of worship invented by men. 3. Because whatsoever is not of faith is sin. (Rom. 14: 23.) But he who does any thing in order that he may worship God by it, his conscience not knowing or doubting, whether God will be worshipped in this way, or not, does it not of faith; because he is ignorant whether his work pleases, or displeases God, and so does not regard him, inasmuch as he presumes to do it, notwithstanding it is displeasing to him.

Thus there is a “worship” of God which has been “prescribed.” Whatever this is, it must be obeyed in order to worship in good conscience and without sin. In order to explain how things other than “worship” can exist within the church, Ursinus launches into a discussion on the various kinds of laws and jurisdictions. Readers of Aquinas and Richard Hooker will sense a similarity in the organizational method here, though the order and names are not identical, and Ursinus’s views on the differing kinds of authority is ripe for further exploration.

Four Classes of Laws

Under the heading of “Concerning human precepts and the authority of ecclesiastical traditions” Ursinus explains how human law and church tradition can have true authority in the church without being designated as “worship.” He lays out the various kinds of laws and commandments which exist. These are divine law, civil law, ecclesiastical or ceremonial ordinances, and then finally unjust laws which cannot be obeyed. Under each class of law Ursinus also gives a brief explanation.

Divine Law

Ursinus writes:

There are four classes of things concerning which men give commandment. These are, first, divine precepts, which God desires, that men should propose unto themselves for their observance, not, however, in their own name, but by the authority of God himself, as being the ministers and messengers, and not the authors of these precepts. It is in this way that the ministers of the gospel declare the doctrine revealed from heaven to the church, parents to their children, teachers to their pupils, and that magistrates make known to their subjects the precepts of the Decalogue. Obedience to these commandments is, and is called the worship of God, because they are not human, but divine precepts, to which it is necessary to yield obedience, even though the authority or command of no creature accede thereto; yea, even if all creatures should enjoin the contrary. The Scriptures speak of these commandments in the following places: “My son keep thy father s commandment, and forsake not the law of thy mother.” “The man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest that standeth to minister there before the Lord thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall.” “If he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man, and a publican.” (Prov. 6: 20. Deut. 17: 12. Matt. 18: 17. See, also, Luke 10: 17. Thes. 4: 2, 8. Ex. 16: 8. Matt. 23: 2, 8. Heb. 13: 17. 1 Cor. 4: 21. 2 Co. 13: 10. 2 Thes. 3 : 14.) All these declarations teach that we ought to yield obedience to men, as the ministers of God, in those things which properly belong to the ministry; but they do not grant the power to any one to institute new forms of divine worship at their own pleasure, according as it is written: “Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.” “As I besought thee that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine.” (Prov. 30: 6. 1 Tim. 1: 3. See, also, 1 Tim. 6: 25; 4: 11. 2 Tim. 3: 16, 17.)

Here we see what Ursinus means when designates something specifically as “worship.” In this narrow sense, “worship” is a divine command, whether moral, civil, or ceremonial, and it must be obeyed as a matter of conscience. In fact, the very obedience is itself worship, as it is a faithful response to the word of God. “Obedience to these commandments is, and is called the worship of God, because they are not human, but divine precepts, to which it is necessary to yield obedience.”

Civil Law

Ursinus then explains the civil laws:

Secondly, there are civil ordinances prescribed by men, which include the arrangement, or fixing of those circumstances which are necessary and useful for securing the observance of the moral precepts of the second table. Such are the positive laws of magistrates, parents, teachers, masters, and all those who are placed in positions of authority.

These sorts of laws are not themselves “worship” but are directly related to the worship of God insofar as God Himself does command men to obey man-made civil law:

Obedience is the worship of God in as far as it has respect to the general, which is moral and commanded by God, and includes obedience to the magistrate and others in authority; but not in as far as it pertains to that which is special in regard to the action, or to the circumstances connected with it in this respect it is not the worship of God, because only those works constitute divine worship, which it is necessary to do on account of the commandment of God, even though no creature had given any precept respecting them; but these, were it not that the magistrate commands them, might be done or omitted without any offence to God.

As can be seen, Ursinus holds these sorts of law to be human law and thus capable of change. Yet insofar as they are law, they must be obeyed until changed, and the fact of this obedience is a matter of conscience:

But yet these civil ordinances prescribed by magistrates and others, bind the conscience; that is, they must necessarily be complied with, and cannot be disregarded without offence to God, even though it might be done without being connected with any public scandal, if we would keep our obedience pure, and unsullied. So to bear, or not to bear arms, is not the worship of God; but when the magistrate commands, or prohibits it, the obedience which is then rendered constitutes divine worship: and he who acts contrary to this command, or prohibition, sins against God, even though he might so conceal it, as to offend no man; because the general, viz. obedience to the magistrate, which is the worship of God, is then violated. Yet these actions do not in themselves, constitute the worship of God; it is only by accident, on account of the command of the magistrate. If this were not to intervene, obedience would not be violated. The following passages of Scripture are here in point; “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.” “Whosoever resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.” “Wherefore ye must needs be subject not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.” “Put them in mind to be subject to principalities, and powers, to obey magistrates, &c.” (Rom. 13:1, 3, 5. Tit. 8: 1. Also Eph. 6: 1. Col. 3: 22, 23.)

This is clearly a magistratical theory of law, leaving no place for the individual Christian to resist a civil law which does not necessarily require unrighteousness. Thus, a magistrate can make a law concerning adiaphora, and though the adiaphora in itself is not “worship,” the obeying of the magistrate is worship, as that principle is divinely commanded.

Ecclesiastical Law

Next we come to the direct explanation of our original question, the nature of churchly laws:

Thirdly, there are ecclesiastical or ceremonial ordinances, Described by men, which include the determinations of circumstances necessary or useful for the maintenance of the moral precepts of the first table; of which kind are the time, the place, the form and order of sermons, prayers, reading in the church, fasts, the manner of proceeding in the election of ministers, in collecting and distributing alms, and things of a similar nature, concerning which God has given no particular command. That which is general in regard to these laws is moral, as in the case of civil enactments, if they are only correctly and profitably made, and is, therefore, the worship of God. But, as to the ceremonies themselves which are here prescribed, they neither constitute the worship of God, nor bind men’s consciences, nor is the observance of them necessary, except when a neglect of them would be the occasion of offence.

This description is similar to that of human civil laws. The specific content of the ecclesiastical ordinance is not itself worship, and to ascribe to it inherently sacred value would be a violation of Ursinus’s earlier rule, yet once such ordinances are established, they are nevertheless to be obeyed, as the obedience to authority is a part of the moral law. Some of these “circumstances” are non-controversial, such as the time, place, and order of the service, yet the “manner of proceeding in the election of ministers” raises some historically disputed points. Ursinus goes still further, however, allowing for liturgical forms and posture to fall under these permissible ecclesiastical laws:

So it is not the worship of God, but a thing indifferent, and not binding upon men’s consciences, to use this, or that form of prayer, to pray at this, or at that time, at this, or at that hour, in this, or in that place, standing or kneeling, to read and explain this or that text of Scripture in the church, to eat or not to eat flesh, &c.

At this point, Ursinus does insert a complicating factor, something which is consistent in principle but would surely open to the door to practical complications. He allows for “particular individuals” to play some part in the deciding of these kinds of laws:

Nor does this power and authority to establish, abolish, or change these ordinances, belong merely to the church, as she may think it best for her edification; but the consciences of particular individuals also retain this liberty, so that they may either omit or do these things differently, without offending God, if no one take offence at it; that is, if they do it, neither from contempt or neglect of the ministry, nor from wantonness, or ambition, nor with a desire of contention or novelty, nor with an intention of offending the weak. And the reason is, that laws are observed properly, when they are observed according to the intention and design of the lawgiver.

As written, this qualification could be used to give the magistrates power over ecclesiastical ordinances, as was the case in Zurich and England. It could be taken in another sense, however, as individual Christians could argue that they should be given the personal liberty to omit certain ecclesiastical ordinances as long as doing so did not overturn good order. A more pluralistic establishment could thus be legally permissible. The need for further arbitration on this matter is easily anticipated, but Ursinus does not go into detail here explaining the mechanism for such change, nor does he state who the final authority in such disputes ought to be.

This latter sense does seem to be the one which Ursinus is promoting, however, as he goes on to argue that the institutional church should not compel uniformity in the case of resistance:

The church, however, ought to see to it that such ordinances as are established concerning things which are indifferent, be observed not out of regard to her authority, or command, but only for the sake of observing order, and a voiding offence. As long, therefore, as the order of the church is not violated, and offence is not given, the conscience of every one ought to be left free: for it is sometimes necessary, not on account of the command of the church, or of the ministry, but for just causes to do, or to omit things which are indifferent. We may here quote the language of Paul as in point; “If any of them that believe not, bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go, whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question, for conscience sake. But if any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake; for the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; conscience, I say, not thine own, but the other; for why is my liberty judged of another man’s conscience. For if I by grace, be a partaker, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks?” Cor. 10: 2831. See also Acts 15 and 1 Cor. 11.)

Thus Ursinus’s ideal polity would have room for liturgical diversity. This suggestion is pastoral in nature, not “on account of the command of the church,” but rather out of love for the concerns of others.

Magistracy and Ministry: The Ecclesiastical Law of Charity

At this point in his discussion of ecclesiastical law, Ursinus fields objections from those ministers who would demand stricter uniformity within the church and even claim a sort of “political” power for the ministry. He likely has the Roman Catholic interlocutor in mind, but the reasoning would hold against certain Anabaptists as well as the later Puritans like Cartwright.

Obj. But if the edicts of magistrates bind the consciences of men, why do not the traditions of the church also? Ans. The cases are not the same. God has given to the magistracy the authority to frame civil laws, and has threatened to pour out his wrath upon all those who violate these laws; but he has given no such authority to the church, or to her ministers, but requires merely that their laws and ordinances be observed according to the rule of charity: that is, with a desire of avoiding offence, and not as if there were any necessity in the case, as though the conscience were bound thereby. The Scriptures expressly teach this difference: “Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them; but it shall not be so among you.” “Neither as being lords over God’s heritage.” “Let no man judge you in meat or in drink, or in respect of an holyday.” “Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.” (Matt. 20: 25. 1 Pet. 5: 3. Col. 2: 16. Gal. 5: 1.)

Ursinus even adds that the ministry is different in quality from the magistracy, and he clearly excludes the laws of the church from properly “political” status:

The reasons of this difference are evident: 1. Because there is a great difference between the civil magistrate, whose province it is to exercise authority over his subjects, and to compel such as are obstinate to yield obedience by corporal punishment, and the ministry of the church, to whom no such power is granted; but who are entrusted with the office of teaching men in reference to the will of God. 2. Because when ecclesiastical ordinances are violated without any offence being given thereby, there is no violation of the first table of that Decalogue, to which they ought to contribute; but when civil enactments are violated, even though there may be no offence, there is a violation of the second table, inasmuch as this cannot occur without detracting something from the commonwealth, or giving some occasion of injury to it.

To this it is replied: Obedience ought rather to be rendered to that office which is the greater and more honorable. Therefore those things which have been instituted by the ministers of the church, bind more strongly the consciences of men, than civil laws. We reply to the antecedent: That greater obedience is due to that office which is the more honorable, in those things which belong properly to the office itself. But it is the proper office of the civil magistrate to make laws, which are to be observed out of regard to the command itself; whilst it belongs properly to the ecclesiastical ministry to institute ceremonial precepts, which shall be observed, not on account of the command of men, but for the sake of avoiding offences.

Unjust Laws

Ursinus’s final class of law are those laws which are themselves sinful. These are not merely “not commanded” but rather are in express opposition to the moral law:

Fourthly, there are human enactments which are in opposition to the commands of God. These God forbids us to comply with, whether they be enjoined by the civil magistrate, or by the church and her ministry, according as it is said: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” “Why do ye transgress the commandment of God by your tradition.” (Acts 5:29. Matt. 15: 3.)

This final classification does show that some laws, if determined to be unjust, must be disobeyed, yet we should keep in mind Ursinus’s earlier classification of things indifferent. For a law to be disobeyed it must not merely be “other” than what God has commanded, but it must be in actual “opposition” to what God has commanded.

Conclusion: Adiaphora in Religious Ceremonies

Ursinus concludes his discussion of the kinds of laws by summarizing what he has previously said. He explains that all moral laws must be obeyed, all civil magistrates must be obeyed as a matter of conscience, and that church ordinances should be obeyed for the sake of love and proper order. The church is itself not a political institution and thus should not institute laws of its own authority nor exert any sort of willpower over its members, yet it can and does organize precepts and ceremonies in an effort to promote charity, order, and the best religious propriety. For Ursinus, the term “worship” specifically designates those laws directly commanded by God, yet worship itself requires Christians to submit to the precepts and laws of all proper authorities when done justly and in love.

With this larger philosophical understanding, we can return to Ursinus’s explanation of man-made ceremonies, found under his discussion of the Fourth Commandment:


There are two kinds of ceremonies some that are commanded by God himself; and others that are instituted by men. Ceremonies which have been instituted by God, are such as constitute his worship, and can only be changed by God himself. Sacrifices, by which we offer and render obedience to God, are ceremonies of this sort, being divinely instituted. So the sacraments, by which God testifies and bestows his benefits upon us, are also divinely instituted. Ceremonies instituted by the church are not the worship of God, and may be changed by the advice of the church, if there are sufficient causes to demand a change.


The church may and ought to institute certain ceremonies, inasmuch as the moral worship of God cannot be observed without defining and fixing the various circumstances connected with it. We may, therefore, say that it is proper for the church to institute ceremonies when the following conditions are observed: 1. They must not be unholy; but such as are agreeable to the word of God. 2. They must not be superstitious such as may easily lead men astray, so as to attach to them worship, merit, or necessity, and which may occasion offence when observed. 3. They must not be too numerous, so as to be oppressive and burdensome. 4. They must not be empty, insignificant, and unprofitable; but tend to edification.

Thus some ceremonies must be present in the religious service, as they are commanded by God and constitute “worship,” properly considered. Other ceremonies may or may not be instituted by the church, so long as they are not said to be themselves of divine command. Additionally they must not be “unholy” or in contradiction to God’s word, they must not be superstitious nor give offense, they must not be too numerous or difficult, and they must promote edification.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

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