[Taken from an address given by Rev H M Cartwright to the Inverness Branch of the Scottish Reformation Society, 14 February 2000, The Regulative Principle.]
Our starting point is the truth that Christ is the Head of the Church. In relation to the Church as the body of elect, redeemed, regenerate sinners, the Headship of Christ signifies that through His union with them He is the source of all their life and grace and unity. In relation to the Church as a society on earth, the Headship of Christ signifies that He originated it and that He continues to administer its affairs. It has taken its form from Him and continues to depend upon Him for existence and power. Christ gives the Church its constitution, laws, ordinances, office-bearers, its independent authority and spiritual power.
The Church is accountable to Christ for the exercise of the functions He has given to it. He conducts His Church’s affairs through office-bearers whom He has appointed, but He has not given over the reins of government to any earthly, human, visible head or body of men. The Westminster Confession of Faith (25:6) states this with special reference to the Papacy:
There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ: nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof; but is that antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God.
The Church must implicitly obey every intimation which her Head gives of His will.
For our knowledge of His will we are dependent on His Word. The Headship of Christ underlines the necessity that the Church should seek to discover His will in His Word and put it into effect. This is true not only with regard to the doctrine which the Church ought to believe and proclaim, but also with regard to the way in which Christians ought to live, the way in which the Church ought to be governed and disciplined, and the way in which God ought to be worshipped. If our Lord Jesus Christ has provided us in His Word with materials from which we can discover His will with regard to the Church’s government, discipline and worship, as well as doctrine, His will must be done. We might call this – the regulative principle in its widest form – the principle of the Protestant Reformation, and of all true reformation in the Church: “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20).
This principle motivated our Scottish Reformers. In the Preface to the Scots Confession of 1560 they earnestly requested
that if any man will note in our Confession any chapter or sentence contrary to God’s Holy Word, that it would please him of his gentleness and for Christian charity’s sake to inform us of it in writing; and we, upon our honour, do promise him that by God’s grace we shall give him satisfaction from the mouth of God, that is from Holy Scripture, or else we shall alter whatever he can prove to be wrong.
In the first chapter of The First Book of Discipline (1560), they wrote:
Seeing that Christ Jesus is He whom God the Father hath commanded only to be heard and followed of His sheep, we judge it necessary that His Gospel be truly and openly preached in every Church and Assembly of this realm, and that all doctrine repugnant to the same, be utterly repressed as damnable to man’s salvation.
Their Book of Common Order (1564), [an enlarged edition of The Form of Prayers and Ministration of the Sacraments &c, used in the English Congregation at Geneva, adapted to the Scottish situation], contained examples of prayers for ordinary occasions, advice on forms to be employed in administering the sacraments, a metrical version of the Psalms, and a translation of Calvin’s Catechism. The Preface describes it as
a form and order of a reformed church, limited within the compass of God’s Word, which our Saviour hath left unto us only sufficient to govern all our actions by; so that whatsoever is added to this Word by man’s device, seem it never so good, holy or beautiful, yet before our God, who is jealous and cannot admit any companion or counsellor, it is evil, wicked and abominable.
In The Second Book of Discipline (1572), it is maintained that Church authority
flows immediately from God and the Mediator Christ Jesus, and is spiritual, not having a temporal head in earth but only Christ, the only spiritual king and governor of His kirk. [1.10]
Note the conclusion drawn from this:
Therefore this power and policy of the kirk should lean upon the word of God immediately as the only ground thereof, and should be taken from the pure fountains of the Scriptures, hearing the voice of Christ, the only spiritual king, and being ruled by His laws. [1.11]
This principle is expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Some relevant passages may be noted:
The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the word; and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed. [1:6]
The supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the scripture. [1:10]
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also. [20:2]
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.” [21:1]
The “decrees and determinations” of synods and councils are to be received “with reverence and submission” “if consonant with the word” [31:3].
This principle controls the Westminster Assembly’s Directory for the Public Worship of God. The Directory begins with the comment:
In the beginning of the blessed Reformation, our wise and pious ancestors took care to set forth an order for the redress of many things which they then, by the word, discovered to be vain, erroneous, superstitious and idolatrous, in the public worship of God.
It was obviously considered that “further reformation” along these lines was required and the authors go on to say:
We have, after earnest and frequent calling upon the name of God, and after much consultation, not with flesh and blood, but with His holy word, resolved to lay aside the former Liturgy, with the many rites and ceremonies formerly used in the worship of God; and have agreed upon this following Directory for all parts of public worship, at ordinary and extraordinary times. Wherein our care has been to hold forth such things as are of divine institution in every ordinance; and other things we have endeavoured to set forth according to the rules of Christian prudence, agreeable to the general rules of the word of God.
As one of the Puritans, Jeremiah Burroughs, [1599-1646], puts it in his Gospel Worship [sermons on Leviticus 10:3, in the context where Nadab and Abihu offered strange fire before the Lord: “Then Moses said unto Aaron, This is it that the Lord spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified”]:
In God’s worship, there must be nothing tendered up to God but what He has commanded. Whatsoever we meddle with in the worship of God must be what we have a warrant for out of the Word of God. . . . All things in God’s worship must have a warrant out of God’s Word. It must be commanded, it’s not enough that it is not forbidden. . . . Such things as seem to be very small and little to us, yet God stands much upon them in the matter of worship, for there is nothing wherein the prerogative of God more appears than in worship.
After the Revolution, the Church of Scotland General Assembly’s 1707 Act against Innovations in the Worship of God reaffirmed this principle and opposed Episcopal innovations on the ground that they are
dangerous to this Church and manifestly contrary to our known Principle (which is, that nothing is to be admitted in the worship of God, but what is prescribed in the Holy Scriptures).
The supremacy and decisive authority of the inscripturated Word of God in the life of the Church is a basic principle of other Reformed Confessions. For example, the Belgic Confession of 1561 [adopted by the Synod of Dort in 1619, and authoritative in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands] asserts that
the marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. [Article 29]
William Cunningham [in his Historical Theology, vol. 1, pp. 65-66] concludes from the doctrine of the sufficiency and perfection of God’s written Word that
anything which is imposed upon the church as binding by God’s authority. . . must be traced to something contained in, or fairly deducible from, Scripture. Unless Scripture proof be adduced, we are entitled at once to set aside all claim alleged upon our submission. If God really fitted and intended the written word to be the only rule of faith and practice, and has made this known unto us, He has thereby not only authorised but required us to reject or disregard anything obtruded upon the church as binding that cannot be traced to that source.
In other words, he says:
Nothing ought to be admitted into the ordinary government and worship of the Christian Church which has not the sanction or warrant of scriptural authority, or apostolic practice at least, if not precept. [p. 68]
Cunningham asserts that
when this general truth is denied there is no limitation that can be put to the introduction of the inventions of men into the government and worship of Christ’s house. [p. 72]
A different principle is found, for example, in the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England. This accounts to a large extent for what the Puritans considered to be the “half-reformed” state of the Anglican Church. Article 20 claims that
the Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written.
In spite of the earlier contentions of men such as John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester, and Johannes a Lasco, a Polish minister to foreign refugees in London during Edward’s reign, the view prevailed in the Church of England which also prevailed in the Lutheran section of the Reformation. According to it, what is not forbidden is allowed whereas our principle asserts that what is not commanded is forbidden.
Cunningham [The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, pp 31-32] remarks that:
the Calvinistic section of the Reformers . . . were of opinion that there are sufficiently plain indications in Scripture itself that it was Christ’s mind and will that nothing should be introduced into the government and worship of the church unless a positive warrant for it could be found in Scripture. This principle was adopted and acted upon by the English Puritans and the Scottish Presbyterians; and we are persuaded that it is the only true and safe principle applicable to this matter.
As Hooper and a Lasco explained, and as the Westminster Confession of Faith asserts, there are matters with regard to the implementation of Biblical commands which are “to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed” – practical steps have to be taken to ensure that “all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14: 40). But for anything essential to Church government, worship and discipline – anything on which the Word speaks – we must take our directions from the Word.