Thursday, May 01, 2014

3FU vs. WCF Worship

                Let me start by simply saying I believe both documents teach the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW).  For those who may be unfamiliar with the RPW it simply states that whatever is not commanded in worship is thus forbidden.  It has some important caveats: 1. You are to use good and necessary consequences and 2. This applies to elements of worship, not circumstances of worship.  An element would be an essential part while circumstances are simply the accidents of those essential parts such as what time worship meets?  What time is not essential, but does have to be answered.  If one is having worship, then it happens at a time; thus, it is an accident of worship.  Other examples include such things as chairs or pews, or whether you stand or sit or kneel for prayer.  Prayer is the element, the body position then has to be answered, but is merely a circumstance of prayer.  Again both documents seems to agree on this point, so let us dive into the differences.

                The Westminster lays out the elements of worship in Chapter 21.  Specifically prayer is discussed as part of religious worship in 21.3, and then reading and hearing Scripture, preaching, administration of the sacraments, and singing psalms are listed in 21.5 as the other elements of worship.  Special things can be added apparently such as oaths and vows, solemn fasting, and thanksgiving.  So we have a regular list of worship elements found in this chapter of the WCF.  The Larger Catechism Q108 also provides a list: prayer and thanksgiving, reading of the word, preaching of the word, hearing of the word, administering and receiving the sacraments, church government and discipline, ministry and its maintenance, fasting, swearing by God’s name, and vowing to Him.  The main addition here seems to be the gathering in of the offering as an acceptable part of worship and performing discipline allowing for sentences passed to be read in worship.  Interestingly enough however WLC 108 does not mention singing by name nor does it mention psalms.   

                The best list found in the Three Forms of Unity comes from the Heidelberg Catechism Q.103.  Here the Catechism lists learning the Word of God, use the holy sacraments, call publicly upon the Lord, and give Christian alms.  This list is much shorter and much broader than the specific list of the Westminster.  Clearly we can agree that learning the word of God means preaching and reading it.  The interesting section is “call publicly upon the Lord”.  What is included here?  Singing is not in the list, nor is prayer, nor confession of faith?  Can one rightly assume they all belong under this heading?  Ursinus in his commentary includes “confession, thanksgiving, and prayer” which is done corporately and publicly (pg. 1005).  Otto Thelemann includes prayer and singing (pg.505) in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism.  It seems then we can include all of those in this section.

                The question becomes does it make a difference?  Does the stricter, longer list of the Westminster differ at all from the Heidelberg’s list?  I think it does.  If the element is call publicly upon the Lord, rather than prayer or singing, then it does change things.  If the element is calling upon the Lord, then the circumstance of how I do that is more flexible.  I can call publicly upon the Lord through confessing the Apostles’ Creed together, by taking vows, or by singing.  In fact, my prayer could very well be sung.  It is simply a circumstance of how I pray.  And it is very traditional for churches to sing the Lord’s Prayer.  That does not make it no longer a prayer, it is now just a prayer that I sing.  The manner of my prayer, or my calling upon the Lord, is simply a circumstance.  Instead the Westminster Confession indicates singing is to be done with the psalms.  Singing is a separate element from prayer.  Thus, it is reasonable to conclude from WCF 21 that singing cannot be done as a prayer unless it is a prayer found in the Psalms.  After all it specifically states, singing psalms.  The Lord’s Prayer is not a psalm.  Not surprisingly we can see this difference play out in history as Continental Reformed Churches much more often sang hymns than the Puritan and Scottish Presbyterians. 

                Another little wrinkle is confessing faith in the Westminster service.  I have been in Westminster churches that use the Apostles’ Creed and even the Westminster in their service.  But where does this fit into the list given in WCF 21?  If it is not a section of scripture, is it considered allowable?  I am sure there is a defense out there, but the easy to see category is not readily apparent.  It is my understanding that post-Westminster Assembly Scottish churches stopped using the Apostles’ Creed in worship as did those churches in England and New England who followed it. 

                So I think then that the Westminster is far stricter on what is and what is not an element of worship, and seems to have a different understanding of the role of singing in church than does the Heidelberg.  The Heidelberg avoids the difficulties of exclusive psalmody completely through its different take on singing and elements in worship.  The Westminster's stricter categories also seem to create problems with such activities as confessing faith using something other than Scripture.  Perhaps it is time we start coming the realization that the Regulative Principle can be agreed upon, but there is vast difference on how to apply this Regulative Principle even within the Reformed Tradition. 


Jeremy B said...

Belgic Confession Article 32 seems like it would have some bearing as well, "...therefore we reject
all human inventions, and all laws which man would introduce into the
worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner

Lee said...

I agree. I think Belgic 32 is one of the places we see the Three Forms committed to the Regulative Principle. I think Heidelberg Catechism 96 agrees with Article 32. On what is required in commandment 2 it states "nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word."