Having now given a rather critical picture of the modern liturgical movement and the state of our actual knowledge regarding the “catholic tradition” and the worship of the early church, the question could be asked about what rule we now have left. Are we supposed to simply go back to the, now itself old-fashioned, evangelical practice of subjectivity and individuality? Is it once again just me and my bible? To this we answer “No, not at all. It is me, my bible (read historico-grammatically), along with the best academic scholarship, prudentially applied within a specific ecclesiastical community and tradition.” Finis. But perhaps we can say a bit more.
Within the Reformed tradition, of course, there is a particular liturgical heritage, and whenever one interacts with it, they must take seriously the prioritization of the Scriptures. Most are familiar with the so-called “Regulative Principle of Worship,” that, in the words of the Westminster Confession, “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 imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture” (WCF 21.1). Commonly expressed, this means that our worship must be “biblical.”
Now, as soon as one begins critically interacting with this notion of a “biblical” liturgy, immediate challenges arise. Sometimes the Regulative Principle of Worship is interpreted as meaning that the New does have a prescriptive liturgy, and it just happens to be of the most minimal variety. This often results in a strictly legal understanding of liturgical conversations, with distinct boundaries and the polarity of prescription and proscription: “What is not commanded is forbidden.” But, in fact, there is no New Testament version of the book of Leviticus. All we actually have are certain descriptions of very limited and diverse worship settings and some few commands, namely to assemble and to read the scriptures, pray, and sing, though these are not clearly identified as being “elements” of corporate worship as distinct from ordinary personal devotion. Add to this ambiguity the lack of any verifiable monolithic tradition, as we have shown, and most ambitious claims to “the” biblical liturgy are open to the charge of special pleading.
This legal view was precisely that of Thomas Cartwright and Walter Travers in their controversy against Archbishop Whitgift and Richard Hooker, and they attempted to make it a matter of divine law. As Bradford Littlejohn observes:
This conviction leads Cartwright to a preposterous dependence on Scriptural prooftexts at many points in his debate with Whitgift where mere common-sense would have more than sufficed. For instance, when complaining that in the Prayer Book service, the minister cannot be clearly heard by the congregation when he stands at the far end of the chancel, Cartwright feels the need to allege a Scriptural positive law for the principle, and resorts to Acts 1:15: “Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples.” When Whitgift raises his eyebrows, Cartwright holds his ground: “The place of St. Luke is an unchangeable rule to teach that all that which is done in the church ought to be done where it may be best heard, for which cause I alleged it.” At another point, discussing the requirements for elders, he says “The holie Ghost prescribing by Jethro what officers are to be chosen doth not only require that they should fear God . . . be wise and valiant, but also requireth that they be trusty.” Jethro’s counsel to his son-in-law can no longer be read merely as prudent counsel, the prudence of which ought to be obvious in similar situations, such as the choosing of church officers, but must appear as a specific prescription of the Holy Spirit, intended for use as a positive law for the church.
Accordingly, we frequently find the following form of a fortiori syllogism:
“To prove that there is a word of God for all things we have to do: I alleged that otherwise our estate should be worse, than the estate of the Jews. Which the Adm. confesseth to have had ‘direction out of law, in the least thing they had to do.’ And when it is the virtue of a good law, to leave as little undetermined and without the compass of the law as can be: the Answerer in imagining that we have no word for divers things wherein the Jews had particular direction: presupposeth greater perfection in the law, given unto the jews, then in that which is left unto us. And that this is a principal virtue of the law may be seen not only by that I hade showed that a conscience well instructed and touched with the fear of God seeketh for the light of the word of God in the smallest actions.”
“And,” concludes Travers, “how absurd and unreasonable a thing is it, than especially to think the love and care of God to be diminished towards his Church” that he would omit such express commands in the New Covenant? 1
So, whereas some of the “catholic” thinkers in the church have looked to tradition and the example of the early church for a sort of liturgical law, many in the Puritan and dissenting Protestant tradition have done essentially the same thing but only looking to the Scriptures. This precisionistic understanding of the regulative principle is a sort of liturgical positivism, and, in its most consistent forms, always reduces to the kinds of absurdities pointed out by Dr. Littlejohn.
This sort of observation, one that I believe to be inescapable, does not mean that therefore the entire question of liturgy is relative and at the mercy of popular tastes at any given time. There are several biblical principles which can guide our pursuit. To begin with, there is the apostolic command to let all things be done decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40), and the fact that this “order” is not prescribed by positive law but rather explained as something prudentially discerned shows that it is possible to so prudentially discern what is dignified and appropriate for a given setting. That something is good in some contexts does not mean that it is good in every context, and sensible and mature people can make these sorts of decisions without needing to appeal to divine law. The concept of appropriateness, while subjective to a degree, is not actually arbitrary. As Carl Trueman recently put it, “The difference is not between churches who have liturgies and churches who do not; it is between churches who have intelligent ones that are theologically informed, which they acknowledge and upon which they reflect, and those who do not.” 2 We could just as easily say that the difference is not between churches who have humanly-constructed liturgies based on certain subjectivities but rather between those churches who do so intelligently and self-consciously and those who do not.
The overly-simplified received narrative is that the Puritan or “Reformed” position on liturgy just is the precisionist or positivist one described above and that it was opposed by the “Lutheran” and “Anglican” views, the latter of which allow either clergy or magistrates to make liturgical prescriptions based on human law. But this is an inaccurate picture. While it is true that Calvin held to generally minimalist tastes and that he could often sound very “Puritanical” (particularly in his anti-Roman polemics), when read carefully and with an eye towards principles of law, it can be shown that Calvin, as much as Hooker, allowed for human law in worship services. For instance:
Let us now return to human laws. If they are imposed for the purpose of forming a religious obligation, as if the observance of them was in itself necessary, we say that the restraint thus laid on the conscience is unlawful. Our consciences have not to do with men but with God only. Hence the common distinction between the earthly forum and the forum of conscience… Another thing also worthy of observation, and depending on what has been already said, is, that human laws, whether enacted by magistrates or by the Church, are necessary to be observed (I speak of such as are just and good), but do not therefore in themselves bind the conscience, because the whole necessity of observing them respects the general end, and consists not in the things commanded. 3
This section of the Institutes is certainly complicated, as the force of much of the polemic is against human laws being declared to be “necessary” or “worship.” Many readers, assuming the popular but inaccurate historical narrative we just described, have read Calvin in this section to be himself making the argument for personal liberty in all areas not divinely prescribed (and thus “worship” refers to all of the liturgical service). But this liberty is only true, for Calvin, in the “forum of conscience” or the spiritual kingdom. That is, whatever has to do with the soul’s relation to God through Christ must be free from the commands of men. But when it comes to the earthly forum, that realm having to do with hierarchy and human relations, human law is fully appropriate so long as it does not claim to bind the conscience. When Calvin uses the expression “necessary” in this context, he is speaking strictly. He does not simply mean that a law is “necessary” if one in authority asks a person to obey it, but rather if it is ascribed absolute necessity or divine right. As long as a law remains “human law,” it can be made, even in the church. 4
Calvin explains this position quite directly. He even explains how readers might confuse his point and then explains his true meaning:
But as very many ignorant persons, on hearing that it is impious to bind the conscience, and vain to worship God with human traditions, apply one blot to all the laws by which the order of the Church is established, it will be proper to obviate their error. Here, indeed, the danger of mistake is great: for it is not easy to see at first sight how widely the two things differ. But I will, in a few words, make the matter so clear, that no one will be imposed upon by the resemblance. First, then, let us understand that if in every human society some kind of government is necessary to insure the common peace and maintain concord, if in transacting business some form must always be observed, which public decency, and hence humanity itself, require us not to disregard, this ought especially to be observed in churches, which are best sustained by a constitution in all respects well ordered, and without which concord can have no existence. Wherefore, if we would provide for the safety of the Church, we must always carefully attend to Paul’s injunction, that all things be done decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40). But seeing there is such diversity in the manners of men, such variety in their minds, such repugnance in their judgments and dispositions, no policy is sufficiently firm unless fortified by certain laws, nor can any rite be observed without a fixed form. So far, therefore, are we from condemning the laws which conduce to this, that we hold that the removal of them would unnerve the Church, deface and dissipate it entirely. For Paul’s injunction, that all things be done decently and in order, cannot be observed unless order and decency be secured by the addition of ordinances, as a kind of bonds. In these ordinances, however, we must always attend to the exception, that they must not be thought necessary to salvation, nor lay the conscience under a religious obligation; they must not be compared to the worship of God, nor substituted for piety. 5
How to Decide on Human Laws?
Having now distinguished between “worship” and the necessary “bonds” which hold human societies together, Calvin goes on to explain the principles by which these human bonds can be created. He uses the Pauline principle of order:
We have, therefore, a most excellent and sure mark to distinguish between those impious constitutions (by which, as we have said, true religion is overthrown, and conscience subverted) and the legitimate observances of the Church, if we remember that one of two things, or both together, are always intended—viz. that in the sacred assembly of the faithful, all things may be done decently, and with becoming dignity, and that human society may be maintained in order by certain bonds, as it were, of moderation and humanity. For when a law is understood to have been made for the sake of public decency, there is no room for the superstition into which those fall who measure the worship of God by human inventions. On the other hand, when a law is known to be intended for common use, that false idea of its obligation and necessity, which gives great alarm to the conscience, when traditions are deemed necessary to salvation, is overthrown; since nothing here is sought but the maintenance of charity by a common office. 6
Thus we see that, for Calvin, all human societies must have laws which are obeyed and these extend to religious rites and forms. These laws cannot claim to be of absolute divine law, nor to bind the conscience, and they should be directed towards the goals of decency, dignity, moderation, humanity, common use, and charity. How do we define these attributes? Calvin writes:
We shall not, therefore, give the name of decency to that which only ministers an empty pleasure… But we give the name of decency to that which, suited to the reverence of sacred mysteries, forms a fit exercise for piety, or at least gives an ornament adapted to the action, and is not without fruit, but reminds believers of the great modesty, seriousness, and reverence, with which sacred things ought to be treated. Moreover, ceremonies, in order to be exercises of piety, must lead us directly to Christ. 7
The general principle of “order” is directed towards the goal of encountering Christ. Calvin then explains the “decency” as being suited to reverence and fit for piety, which he also understands to include modesty and seriousness. These attributes are not strictly prescribed by the Scriptures but are, rather, reasonable principles to achieve the goals of order and decency which are prescribed by the Scriptures.
Calvin himself recognizes that a measure of subjectivity is here introduced. While he never tries to wholly deny this subjectivity, he still opposes innovation as such, and so he attempts to give human law a sort of divine anchor. Calvin writes, “I approve of those human constitutions only which are founded on the authority of God, and derived from Scripture, and are therefore altogether divine,” and also, “the whole sum of righteousness, and all the parts of divine worship, and everything necessary to salvation, the Lord has faithfully comprehended, and clearly unfolded, in his sacred oracles, so that in them he alone is the only Master to be heard.” 8 Stripped from their context, these sorts of states can be and often are used to enlist Calvin back into the precisionist camp. But in the immediate context, it is clear that these “constitutions” are only “founded” on divine law in the sense that they take their basic principles and goals from the Scriptures. They must be consistently interpreted, but then applied prudentially. So at the end of all of his qualifications, Calvin still says:
But as in external discipline and ceremonies, he has not been pleased to prescribe every particular that we ought to observe (he foresaw that this depended on the nature of the times, and that one form would not suit all ages), in them we must have recourse to the general rules which he has given, employing them to test whatever the necessity of the Church may require to be enjoined for order and decency. Lastly, as he has not delivered any express command, because things of this nature are not necessary to salvation, and, for the edification of the Church, should be accommodated to the varying circumstances of each age and nation, it will be proper, as the interest of the Church may require, to change and abrogate the old, as well as to introduce new forms. I confess, indeed, that we are not to innovate rashly or incessantly, or for trivial causes. Charity is the best judge of what tends to hurt or to edify: if we allow her to be guide, all things will be safe.
Things which have been appointed according to this rule, it is the duty of the Christian people to observe with a free conscience indeed, and without superstition, but also with a pious and ready inclination to obey. They are not to hold them in contempt, nor pass them by with careless indifference, far less openly to violate them in pride and contumacy. You will ask, What liberty of conscience will there be in such cautious observances? Nay, this liberty will admirably appear when we shall hold that these are not fixed and perpetual obligations to which we are astricted, but external rudiments for human infirmity, which, though we do not all need, we, however, all use, because we are bound to cherish mutual charity towards each other. 9
Forms and Their Laws
There is something here similar to the distinction between “forms” and “elements,” often heard in Reformed ecclesiology today, but we shouldn’t underestimate the significance of Calvin’s forms, nor the necessity of their enforcement once they are instituted. Among these humanly-introduced forms, Calvin includes kneeling, women wearing head-coverings, women keeping silent in the churches, and even the specifics of discipline and polity. 10 And the laws about these forms, once made, ought to be ordinarily obeyed by the individual Christians. Though they are free in Christ, this freedom applies to the spiritual forum. When it comes to their relationship to the broader assembly, Christians should submit to their authorities in charity for the sake of order:
For what a seed-bed of quarrels will confusion in such matters be, if every one is allowed at pleasure to alter what pertains to common order? All will not be satisfied with the same course if matters, placed as it were on debateable ground, are left to the determination of individuals. But if any one here becomes clamorous, and would be wiser than he ought, let him consider how he will approve his moroseness to the Lord. Paul’s answer ought to satisfy us, “If any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.” 11
These human laws can be changed and abrogated, and indeed Calvin believes that they often will be changed and should always considered as open to change, but such changes must always come through the appropriate means: a representational jurisdiction which acts on the principles of order and charity. Thus while Calvin has a theology of freedom, he has an applied ecclesiology of order and jurisdiction. In other words, his ecclesiastical polity is much like that of the supposed “Anglican” or “Lutheran” polities.
At this point, the Anglican-minded readers would be tempted to jump to Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity and show that, while there are certainly disagreements among the particular applications, Calvin and Hooker are actually of one mind when it comes to their understanding of law and even principles of authority, order, and charity. However, in order to reinforce the unquestionably “Reformed” character of this perspective, we will add to Calvin the example of Zacharius Ursinus and the Heidelberg school. 12 In so doing, however, we will also show a different application of the same underlying principles, one which opens up the possibility for more individual freedom and diversity.
In his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, in the section discussing the Second Commandment, Ursinus lays out a theology of “things indifferent.” He writes, “Such works, therefore, as are indifferent, must be carefully distinguished from those in which we worship God.” 13 Just as with Calvin, we see the term “worship” being used in the strict sense, not denoting all rites and forms associated with the liturgy, but rather specifically directed to things commanded by God. This is made explicit when Ursinus lays out the difference between divine laws and human laws. He writes:
[D]ivine 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. 14
But when it comes to human laws, whether civil or ecclesiastical, Ursinus believes that they can be implemented and enforced apart from positive biblical prescriptions, so long as they are not claimed as divine law or “worship.” They do have a divine nature, a way in which they are “worship,” but this is in their general morality and principial founding, not in their particulars:
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. 15
We see the same key terms as in Calvin: necessary, worship, and binding the conscience. The “worship” of God is directly commanded by God and inseparable from the moral law. Yet there are those other matters of which “God has given no particular command” which can be instituted and ordered by men.
And yet Ursinus allows that human ecclesiastical laws can be disobeyed, unless to do so “would be the occasion of offence.” In this, he is a bit more liberal than Calvin, applying the same principles but in exactly the opposite direction. Whereas Calvin allows for nearly no public dissent once the human laws are enacted, providing those laws do not claim for themselves divine character, Ursinus states that the individual conscience ought to be granted the freedom to dissent, except in those cases which would cause offense:
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. 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 avoiding 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. 16
Ursinus anticipates the objection that parallels church order to civil order, and thus seeks to require uniform submission for the purpose of stability and harmony. His answer is that the power of the ministry is different in kind from that of the magistracy:
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. 17
Since the ministry’s authority is itself grounded in charity, it ought to defer to the individual conscience when at all possible. What prevents rebellion or decision is that this comes from the minister’s own allowance and is not a rebellion against his judgment and authority.
And so we see in Ursinus the allowance for the church to create laws and ordinances from human power, but because of the nature of the church, it ought not to make laws merely out of its own power but rather for the sake of charity. This is something of a weaker-brother principle here. And while this outlook might seem to nearer approach the “Puritan” position, its non-legal nature is precisely what distinguishes it from that position. The church has the power to make certain human laws, but it ought to voluntarily limit its law-making to modest bounds for the sake of its members.
Ursinus summarizes his position on adiaphora and liturgy in his treatment of the Fourth Commandment, writing:
III. HOW MANY KINDS OF CEREMONIES ARE THERE?
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.
IV. IS IT LAWFUL FOR THE CHURCH TO INSTITUTE CEREMONIES?
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. 18
So we see two general points here. First, a theological distinction must be made between divine law, which is properly constituted as “the worship of God,” and “ceremonies instituted by the church” which must always be considered, to a degree, adiaphorous. The second point is that these adiaphorous ceremonies must be pastorally strategic. They have to be consistent with the teaching of the Scriptures, not tending towards superstition or false theology, not too difficult, and not frivolous but rather with a clear and discernable objective consistent with love and edification. Ursinus’s perspective is particularly helpful in instructing those of us who have neither the desire nor the means to compel a congregation towards an unfamiliar liturgical uniformity.
Thus we have identified a properly “Reformed” precedent for a more open attitude towards liturgy. It need be absolutely tied to neither a positive list of biblical commands, nor a totalizing ecclesiastical tradition, and its openness runs in two directions: an openness to allowing human laws and an openness to individual freedom. This Irenic Reformed position seeks to find biblical principles upon which it can build prudentially, according to the specific needs of the congregation. Ecclesiastical traditions can and should be honored, but those traditions should themselves be governed by the principles of charity and grace. And all that is done must be applied strategically by pastors who properly understand the nature of their authority. The necessary order must not come at the expense of liberty but rather through an optimal but reasonable level of consent. To best explain how to accomplish such a goal would require its own essay, but we can safely say that the primary tool would have to be a reasonable, charitable, and patient persuasion founded on the basic theological distinctions we have here explained.
Steven Wedgeworth is the pastor of Christ Church in Lakeland, Florida. 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 Trust. A graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), Steven lives in Lakeland, FL with his wife, son, daughter, and two terriers.
The Calvinist International is a forum for research, resourcement, and renewal of Christian wisdom.