Should we use the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) or the Normative Principle of Worship (NPW)?
The Classical Anglican Church, that prior to Laud and Charles I, was most certainly recognised and self-identified as a Reformed Protestant Church with close ties to the Reformed Churches of Switzerland and the Netherlands. But anyone sat at the Council of Dort would have noticed that Anglicans were, well, different. Only one chair in the room had a canopy over it, it was not the person leading and organising the event and discussions but the bishop from the Anglican delegation. The other churches did not have bishops, Anglicans did, interestingly though this was no barrier to recognition on either side and indeed much respect was given the Anglican delegation. So why the difference? Why did Anglicans have bishops and the Continental Reformed not? For that matter, why did the Anglican ministers wear robes when their continental brothers did not? It all comes down to what has been known as the battle between the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) and the Normative Principle of Worship (NPW) - Anglicans followed the latter, the Continental Reformed the former. But why, and what really is the difference - if any?
Usually the difference is put this way: RPW's believe that all we do in worship must be regulated by Scripture and thus to do anything not commanded in the Scriptures is wrong and potentially actually sin. NPW's believe that worship must follow the norms set down by Scripture but so long as it is not explicitly condemned in Scripture it is potentially permissible if it promotes the common good. Now, it is important to recognise the nuance there - the NPW is not the 'negative principle of worship' where worship is a complete free for all and you can do whatever you like so long as Scripture doesn't say you can't do it. No, that is not the NORMative Principle at all. Something that is 'normative' means that it sticks to a prescribed standard and 'normal' way of doing something, for something to be 'normative' it must follow the principles and value judgements of something which says that that is how things should be done.
"anyone sat at the Council of Dort would have noticed that Anglicans were, well, different."
There are a number of issues with the RPW, two of which are that if taken literally it amounts to absurdity and is utterly unsustainable and, secondly, the separation of worship into only a church setting as oppose to the rest of our lives. Let us look at both of these in turn.
If one were to hold literally and solidly to the RPW it would be near impossible to run a church - those who claim they do are almost certainly hypocritical in some areas. Giving out notices in Church? That isn't commanded in Scripture. Preaching from a pulpit? That isn't commanded in Scripture. Using PowerPoint presentations or media systems and microphones? Not in Scripture. Sitting down in services? That isn't commanded in Scripture. Singing only the Psalms? What about the 'New Songs' we are supposed to sing (Psalm 33.3; 40.3; 144.9; 149.1; Isaiah 42.10; Revelation 5/9; 14.3)? In fact if we can only sing what is explicit in Scripture in its exactness why are we not singing in Hebrew and Greek - I don't recall a command to translate the Psalms into English anywhere? Expository style preaching? That isn't found in Scripture. Reciting Creeds or manmade confession of faith? Not commanded in Scripture. Not using cymbals and harps and such instruments in worship? Well you should be as that is commanded in Scripture over and over again in the Psalms. Not raising your hands and not clapping during worship or shouting 'Amen!'? You should be (Psalm 63.4; 134.2; 47.1; 97.8; 1 Corinthians 14.16 1 Timothy 2.8) Not evidencing speaking in tongues and giving prophecy? You should be because Paul tells people they should be.
The problem is that Scripture just simply doesn't tell us, explicitly, enough to run a viable service and many of the things it does we often don't do. A literal taking of the RPW is unworkable. Instead what more sophisticated RPW proponents say is that certain things are 'implied' in Scripture as being present in NT Church worship and that their use is thus right and proper. Preaching expository sermons is implied from the fact that all of Scripture is God breathed and useful for teaching. Giving notices is implied by Paul asking and notifying things in his letters. Essentially these RPW followers pencil in alongside Scripture interpretations that make it workable in the modern world to run a church given the paucity of NT evidence and the massive changes in society since then. But everything done in the service must be Biblical and have a Biblical foundation and be rooted in God's commands. In other words everything must be regulated by the norms of Scripture... which doesn't sound so unlike the NPW. The reality is that sensible and conservative use of the NPW and reasonable use of RPW looks almost exactly the same.
"the NPW is not the 'negative principle of worship' where worship is a complete free for all and you can do whatever you like so long as Scripture doesn't say you can't do it."
From the start of RPW theories the more sophisticated and realistic proponents recognised that there are two areas in the question of how to worship - elements and circumstances. The elements of worship must be commanded in Scripture but given how the world changes the circumstances in which the elements are lived out and portrayed is naturally subject to change. Elements are the basic building blocks of Biblical worship, the circumstances are the paint on the blocks and how they fit together. It is along these lines that it is possible to visit two RPW churches and see that they are very different and see Scripture and regulating different things. When we stop seeing RPW as a monolithic ultra-legalistic method and recognise it as the more nuanced and complex principle that it is the difference between conservative NPW and sensible RPW begins to look less black and white and less clear.
It is because of this similarity that someone like Richard Hooker one of the most celebrated Anglican Theologians could defend the BCP and Church Practices against the more extreme RPW Puritans by saying rather frankly "For our constant persuasion in this point, is as theirs, that we have no where altered the laws of Christ further then in such particularities only as have the nature of things changeable according to the difference of times, places, persons, and other the like circumstances."
So to conclude this first point - a literal attempt at the RPW is utterly untenable and those who claim to follow it almost always differ from each other and indeed in ignoring some commands end up being somewhat rather hypocritical.
"When we stop seeing RPW as a monolithic ultra-legalistic method and recognise it as the more nuanced and complex principle that it is the difference between conservative NPW and sensible RPW begins to look less black and white and less clear."
Secondly, it is worth asking if the RPW makes too big a dichotomy between worship in Church and worship in the Christian life. One of the unique things about Christianity is that it teaches that God is not just in a Temple but everywhere and we worship the Father not in Samaria or Jerusalem but in Spirit and Truth where ever we are. Our worship is not to be sacrifices in particular places but rather our whole lives are to be spiritual sacrifices to God in all places at all times. We are not only to pray in Church but to pray without ceasing. All that we do in life, not just in Church, is to be to the glory of God and the praise of His name. Yes, Scripture clearly and irrefutably emphasises the importance and imperative nature of gathering together as an assembly before the Lord but it doesn't make that the be all and end all of worship.
Yet in our everyday lives Christians do not follow the Regulative Principle and say they can only do what Scripture explicitly commands they do, rather they follow the Normative Principle and try to govern their lives by the norms laid down in Scripture and apply them to all kinds of situations. Should you take the job as a banker in Santander or HSBC? Good luck finding an explicit command for that in Scripture. Should you buy a Mercedes SLK or a more practical family estate car? Should you buy violets or roses for your wife? Scripture won't explicitly tell you. But Scripture does impose on us general moral norms and general ways in which we most glorify God and general ways in which we don't. By reading Scripture, not just legal commands but the stories, the parables, the histories, the poetry, the letters, the prophecies, we learn the heart of God and follow that heart in our lives.
If we worship God in our daily lives 24/7 by the Normative Principle then why would we change so radically to the Regulative Principle when we gather together?
"For our constant persuasion in this point, is as theirs" - Richard Hooker
Nonetheless, RPW theologians often try to point to parts of Scripture to prove their point - that the RPW itself is commanded in Scripture. Let us look at some of these and see if they hold water.
The first one chronologically is the story of Abel and Cain - God rejected Cain's sacrifice not just because he was morally corrupt but because it was, being grain, not an acceptable offering. Abel's sacrifice of an animal, pre-figuring Christ and the fundamental importance of spilling blood, was acceptable. Yet the odd thing is - Scripture nowhere tells us that Cain and Abel were ever commanded or expected to offer sacrifices in the first place, they were not acting on God's explicit command but what they felt was an appropriate and natural response to God's love in sparing their lives. To say that the text 'implies' that God commanded them to offer things before Him is to again pencil in an interpretation not actually present in Scripture and thus defeats the very point of the RPW!
The use of the 2nd commandment, the one against idolatry and worship of images, to support the RPW is odd because actually this is a classic example of the NPW of worship in action - this is not a command to 'do' something but one not to do something. It doesn't in and of itself tell you what worship looks like without idolatry only what it looks like with it. The fact that NPW reformers such as the Classical Anglicans were just as iconoclastic, if not at times even more so, than their continental brethren is a case in point that this commandment doesn't really change the playing field for the RPW.
The use of the very detailed almost OCD commands of God in the Old Testament about how the Temple and Tabernacle should be and how everything was tightly ordained in terms of ceremonies is on the surface convincing. The punishment of Korah, Nadab, Abihu, and King Saul are examples of this. But this is only convincing if we reject the three-fold division of the Law because Christ abolished all these ceremonial laws when He brought in the New Covenant and there is nothing in the New Testament even approaching being a pale shadow of such regulation. Indeed, this very fact means that RPW people are in reality saying that these laws show us that the normal principle that God uses to govern worship is very exact and based on His commands - which in and of itself is an NPW argument not an RPW one. Regardless of this the NT ended the Old Covenant and there is nothing in the NT replacing such things. The reason why God seemed so OCD in the Law was not so much to show us under the New Covenant how to worship, rather, all of these ceremonial laws were primarily not even about worship but about Christ and His ministry of which these laws were but a shadow in a dark mirror to be fulfilled. All of these Old Testament Laws teach us something about God's personality, especially His perfection and remaining with His elect, but how this seems to be worked out after the coming of the Holy Spirit into the hearts of all believers look very different in the New Testament witnesses.
"The fact that NPW reformers such as the Classical Anglicans were just as iconoclastic, if not at times even more so, than their continental brethren is a case in point that this commandment doesn't really change the playing field for the RPW."
Moving to New Testament texts it is alleged that Jesus' rejection of the 'human traditions' of the Pharisees in Mark 7.6-9 proves that all worship must be regulated by God's express commands. But is that really what Jesus is saying (laying aside that this text is still under the Old Covenant)? Another reading would be that the practices Jesus condemns stem for a works based righteousness and evil hearts and it is this falsity and hypocrisy that He decries yet it says nothing about human traditions which are positive and not promoting works based righteousness. Jesus took part in Synagogue worship - yet you won't find how Synagogue worship was precisely regulated by commands from Scripture. Jesus was concerned about living the law without changed hearts - Christians are not only set free from the ceremonial regulation of the Law but we have the true Law written on our hearts that we might worship Jesus in Spirit and Truth at all times and in all places. The idea that the Great Commission's command to teach people what Jesus taught His disciples is about regulating congregational worship is a massive step of eisegesis given the salvific gospel proclamation context and the fact we have no idea of what Jesus personally commanded regarding the regulation of Worship besides possibly reciting the Lord's Prayer, fasting without pride, the two Sacraments, and giving alms.
To take Paul's rejection of celebrating Jewish holy days and Sabbaths in Galatians 4.9-11 (or Colossians 2) as even more so an explicit rejection of celebrating any human made days and ceremonies is interesting but misses the whole point of Paul's argument. Paul is concerned with the Galatians resubmitting to the Law and falling back into works based righteousness - no sensible NPW places ceremonies and practices onto a salvific level but rather says they are helpful for teaching and order. Of course, if Paul is serious here as RPW would have it then all Christians had better become like Jehovah's Witnesses and never, ever, celebrate Christmas or Easter or Birthdays!!
"We are human beings not disembodied souls and we only truly worship with all that we are when we worship not just in our minds but with our whole bodies. "
The use of The Letter to the Hebrews rejection of the Old Testament Ceremonial Law as a shadow of things to come meaning and implying Christians are to worship on a higher level in our spirit and in truth is odd. Yes we are certainly not under the Ceremonial Law, and yes unlike then we worship more fully in Spirit and Truth, but to claim that this means and entails a rejection of physical and tactile worship which involves rituals and representations of truths is bizarre given that Jesus Himself explicitly commanded only two things definitively for Christian worship and both of them - baptism and the Lord's Supper - are physical, tactile, ritual, and representational acts of worship. We are human beings not disembodied souls and we only truly worship with all that we are when we worship not just in our minds but with our whole bodies. To separate out spiritual and physical worship so much and make one out to be holy and one to be evil is very Gnostic.
Ultimately, the difference between a realistic use of the RPW and a sensible use of the NPW is rather small and one more of emphasis than fact. The strict use of the RPW is so fundamentalist that it is practically impossible to follow and always leads to hypocrisy somewhere. The sharp division of Spirit and Body is rather dangerous and promotes an unbiblical view of the human person. Likewise the sharp division between worshipping God every day and worshipping Him in a congregation is unhelpful and minimises the radical nature of the New Covenant and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Not only does getting a strict RPW explicitly from Scripture rely on eisegesis and the finding of questionable 'implications' there is simply not enough in all of Scripture for us to realistically regulate all of our congregational time together.
All of the ceremonies and aspects of the BCP, Ordinal, and Classical Anglicanism were kept or created not to enslave people to rituals but to bring order and clarity to the church, to use liturgy and praxis as a powerful teaching tool to bring the truth of Faith Alone to a whole nation lost in the ignorance and darkness of mediaeval Roman Catholicism. All of them were governed by principles and norms laid out in the Scriptures or things which teach Scripture by a means consonant and not opposed to Scripture. The state of modern Anglican Practices is another matter entirely but I firmly believe that Classical Anglicanism was on solid ground for all that it did, though at times it was perhaps too legalistic in enforcing unity.
(Religion Saves and Nine other misconceptions by Mark Driscoll has a good chapter on the Regulative Principle vs Normative Principle and ends up proposing a 'Missional Principle' - it is well worth a read and some of it has informed this article.)