David Landow
18th Century Theology

Prof. Don Westblade

 

A Humble Inquiry Concerning the Regulative Principle of Worship in the thought of Jonathan Edwards

 

The Reformed tradition contains many distinctive elements that set it apart from other theological traditions. The “regulative principle of worship” is one of the most defining of these. Discussion of the principle is not merely a pedantic issue for doctrinaire theologians. In today’s evangelical churches there rages intense debate about how to regulate worship.  Many people are rediscovering the puritans and in particular the pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards. Many look to his writings to for guidance in addressing today’s pertinent issues. Edwards lived in a time of historical transition. Puritanism was on its way out, exclusive psalmody gave way to hymnody, and first Great Awakening swept through America. Individual people had tremendous physical and emotional “awakenings”. Jonathan Edwards himself played an important role in many of these and major split occurred in the New England Churches over how to react to the “innovations” and changes.

How did Jonathan Edwards understand the regulation of worship? This paper, in the brief amount of space available, will attempt to examine the question.  For its own purposes, this paper defines the puritan “regulative principle” as that principle derived from scripture, which limits worship practices to only what has direct warrant in Scripture.

In 1543 John Calvin, undisputedly the most influential of the early reformed theologians, wrote a letter to the Holy Roman Emperor and the German nobles in which he laid out  the “The Necessity of Reforming the Church.” In that letter Calvin argued that one of the main reasons the Roman church needed reformation was due to men adding there own inventions and ceremonies to the worship of God. He said that the Lord knew that “once we have turned aside from the right path, there is no end to our wanderings, until we get buried under a multitude of superstitions.” The Lord has the right to “assert his full right of dominion, [and] strictly enjoin what he wishes us to do.” God is fully in his rights to “reject all human devices which are at variance with his command.” God can and does expressly “define our limits, that we may not, by fabricating perverse modes of worship, provoke his anger against us." Calvin realized that it is difficult to think that God “disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his word.” After all, should not zeal be enough to credit human worship to God? Calvin has no stomach for this thinking:

But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to his worship, if at variance with his command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, "Obedience is better than sacrifice." "In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men."

Calvin believed that only that worship which had direct warrant in scripture was lawful and acceptable to God.[1]  That in short is the reformed regulative principle of worship.

            Future reformed creeds, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, included statements confirming this principle as scripturally and philosophically true. The confession says:

The light of nature shows that there is a God, who has lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and does good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But 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.

This understanding of scriptural worship  dominated puritan thought. Churches were generally plain without any sort of iconography. Congregations sang only psalms in worship since there was no direct warrant for singing other things. Even though it was a Presbyterian document, the confession itself was widely admired in congragational puritan circles. Edwards himself said that there would be “no difficulty” in his subscribing to the Confession.[2] But besides this implied willingness to ascribe to the Confession’s statement on worship regulation, what else is known about Edwards views on the subject?

            Edwards believed that “the maintaining of the ordinances of divine worship there, in the manner which God hath appointed" presented one of the main reasons for forming individual churches.[3]   In “A History of the Work of Redemption” Edwards looks at the early examples of sacrifices in the Bible. He determines that since sacrifices are not “enjoined by the law of nature” they must have come from divine ordinance. (Edward’s uses the words “ordinance, command and institution” to imply a command ordained in scripture.) He says, “God has declared his abhorrence of such worship as is taught by the precept of men without his institution” Men cannot expect God to accept their un-instituted efforts because worship “has no foundation where there is no divine appointment.” [4] Elsewhere he says it even more clearly, “nothing is to be done in the worship of God more or less but what God has instituted.” These are clear affirmations of the regulative principle.[5]

            Edwards emphasizes that God did not give ordinances to arbitrarily limit humankind and make it difficult to offer acceptable worship to God. Instead, God’s institutions lead men into true worship, which consists of “holy exercises of faith and love, divine fear and reverence, submission, thankfulness, holy joy and sorrow, holy desires, resolutions, and hopes” all with a focus on glorifying God.

            The bare bones regulative principle as laid out above leaves many questions unanswered. Where should the Church meet? What should be the order of service? Where should the pastor stand? At what time of day should the service be at?  Even though God institutes the “acts of worship,” Edwards believed that God did not directly institute the circumstances surrounding those acts. For example: A Church may choose a particular place to meet every week, whether it be a leaky basement or Westminster Abbey, and not step outside of worship directly instituted by God. The reason for this, Edwards argues, is that circumstances surrounding worship are not “pertaining to worship” itself. What this means is that a particular place set aside for worship does not contain any element of the worship in it self. The location is outside of worship. While God commands a particular element of worship, the necessary circumstances needed to perform that act of worship are not commanded and therefore it is left up for men to determine the particulars.[6] Let us examine this idea a bit more for it gives a good picture for how Edwards viewed the regulative principle in practical terms.

In 1748 Edwards published "An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God's People in Extraordinary Prayer, for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ's Kingdom On Earth" that God would “ pour out on all his people abundantly the Spirit of grace and supplications, and prepare them for the amazing changes hastening on the earth, both for previous trials and for following glories.” [7] As with many of his treatises, Edwards attempted to address anticipated objections. Some people apparently objected on the basis that calling for special prayer meetings added human institutions to the worship of God. In other words, it violated the regulative principle.[8]

Edwards responded that while mandating and limiting the circumstances surrounding worship might indeed be dangerously close to adding to God’s law, that was not what the supporters of the resolution advocated.  They did not seek to use “authority” to establish the resolution but instead sought to find general agreement. They were not trying to set one day or time to be higher than another day or time but merely to find a time that was “circumstantially convenient.”  This could not possibly violate the principle for it is what churches do every day in regards to the circumstances of worship.

But surely it cannot be unlawful or improper, for Christians to come into some agreement, with regard to these circumstances: for it is impossible to carry on any social worship without it. There is no institution of Scripture requiring any people to meet together to worship God in such a spot of ground, or at such an hour of the day; but yet these must be determined by agreement; or else there will be no social worship, in any place, or any hour.

 

In addition to the time and place, it is left up to man to determine the order of worship. If a church decided to follow the same order year after year, it would not be a violation of God’s regulation. It would only become a problem if people started to consider it a sin to alter that order.

But yet for any to go about to bind all to such a method, would be usurpation and imposition. And if such a precise order should be regarded as sacred, as though no other could be acceptable to God, this would be superstition…….. If people in different congregations, voluntarily agree to take turns to meet together in the house of God, to worship him and hear a public lecture, once a month, or once in six weeks; it is not unlawful though there be no institution for it: but yet, to do this as a thing sacred, indispensable, and binding on men’s consciences, would be superstition. [9]

 

Edwards’s formulation of circumstances raises several interesting questions. What exactly are the circumstances of worship? How far do they extend? While Edwards would have never dreamed celebrating the “popish” Easter or Christmas, is it possible that his understanding of circumstances might permit their celebration provided it edified the Church and did not have the force of law? Would this understanding allow the introduction of musical instruments into worship if they did not contain worship in themselves? While Edwards did not provide direct answers to these questions, it is obvious that he held to a less rigorous understanding and application of the principle then many of his puritan ancestors. The  rise of hymnody over exclusive psalmody provides a good example of this.

At the time immediately preceding the awakening, the New England churches sang almost exclusively psalms in worship. [10]  No command in scripture instituted singing anything other than psalms, therefore there was no warrant or need to sing anything else. This practice started to change with the awakening. Awakening preachers like Samuel Buell advocated the introduction of the paraphrases and hymns by Isaac Watts. When he was filling the pulpit for the absent Edwards, Buell introduced uninspired hymns to the public worship service in Northampton for the first time.[11]

Edwards was sympathetic to the introduction of hymns, even though it went against the reformed tradition. He responded to critics of the new singing by arguing that it was unreasonable to confine the Church to only singing in the manner of the imagery shrouded Old Testament. 

I can find no command or rule of God’s word that does any more confine us to the words of the Scripture in our singing, than it does in our praying; we speak to God in both. And I can see no reason why we should limit ourselves to such particular forms of words, that we find in the Bible, in speaking to him by way of praise, in metre, and with music, than when we speak to him in prose, by way of prayer and supplication.

 

In addition to a lack of prohibition in scripture, Edwards adds another factor in determining if something should be a part of worship, reason:

And it is really needful that we should have some other songs besides the Psalms of David. It is unreasonable to suppose that the Christian church should for ever, and even in times of her greatest light, in her praises of God and the Lamb, be confined only to the words of the Old Testament, wherein all the greatest and most glorious things of the gospel, that are infinitely the greatest subjects of her praise, are spoken of under a veil, and not so much as the name of our glorious Redeemer ever mentioned, but in some dark figure, or as hid under the name of some type.[12]

How does Edwards justify this apparent departure from the earlier puritans? As seen in the above quote, he does not say that God commanded singing man’s words. Instead, he argues that God did not limit singing to the psalms. This is definitely a different take on the regulative principle. It even borders on a Lutheran understanding of worship regulation. In regards to singing at least, the question is no longer whether God commanded singing men’s uninspired words but whether God explicitly limited singing to the psalms. Edwards elsewhere warned, “We should not limit God where he has not limited Himself.”[13]

            Another of the “new innovations” during the time of the Awakening was the great “bodily effects” that occurred to people in response to the preaching of the Word and conviction of sin. Edwards said he observed “tears, trembling, groans, loud outcries, agonies of body, [and]  the failing of bodily strength.” Some argued that these were illegitimate manifestations in worship since scripture does not tell us about them or command them. Edwards had no patience for this objection:

No deviation from what has hitherto been usual, let it be never so great, is an argument that a work is not from the Spirit of God, if it be no deviation from his prescribed rule………      Nobody supposes that there is any need of express scripture for every external, accidental manifestation of the inward motion of the mind: and though such circumstances are not particularly recorded in sacred history, yet there is a great deal of reason to think, from the general accounts we have, that it could not be otherwise than that such things must be in those days.[14]

In his biography of Jonathan Edwards, George Marsden says that Edwards “had no objection to new practices or extraordinary spiritual manifestations not directly found in Scripture, just so long as they did not contradict with Scripture.” This is definitely a much looser understanding of the regulative principle. 

Edwards thought that worship was in fact limited too much. At the same time though, he thought that worship should to be tailored to the people who practice it:

For though I believe we have confined ourselves too much to a certain stated method and form in the management of our religious affairs; which has had a tendency to cause all our religion to degenerate into mere formality; yet whatever has the appearance of a great innovation—that tends much to shock and surprise people’s minds, and to set them a talking and disputing tends greatly to hinder the progress of the power of religion. It raises the opposition of some, diverts the mind of others, and perplexes many with doubts and scruples. It causes people to swerve from their great business, and turn aside to vain jangling. Therefore that which is very much beside the common practice, unless it be a thing in its own nature of considerable importance, had better be avoided.”[15]

 

            What is the conclusion then? There seems to be a clear tension in Edwards thought regarding the principle. While in some places, he clearly affirms the principle, in others he seems to deviate from the traditional puritan understanding and in others he seems that almost outright abandond the principle altogether and adopted an almost Lutheran regulation. His understanding of circumstances opens the door to many innovations surrounding public worship. We can be certain that Edwards would have fought any new addition to the instituted forms of worship but he did not feel bound to the puritan’s application of Ockham's razor to the circumstances surrounding worship. He did not treat the regulative principle as a legal code requiring strict observance. He recommended that the awakening pastors follow the words of the Apostle Paul’s in 1 Cor. 9:20-23 where Paul says

“Unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak. I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.”[16]

 

What would Edwards have thought of modern evangelical worship practices, with their praise bands and dramatizations? Unfortunately, it is not a question that can be definitively answered due to the unresolved tensions in Edwards thought. Had he spent time writing a treatise on the issue it is entirely possible that he might have abandoned the principle all together. On the other hand, though, it is clear that Edwards did believe in a form of the regulative principle. He just believed that people were too restrictive in their application of it.

 It is apparent Edwards did not view the regulative principle as the only or even final rule regarding the regulation of worship. He did not regulate his own thought to one dimensional terms. In order to gain a complete understanding of Edwards views on regulation, further study is warranted to investigate Edward’s views on beauty, order, the affections, Christian liberty, and obedience in reference to Gods commands and institutions. It probable that Edwards would have tied all these loose ends together in his “History of the Work of Redemption” had he completed it.  Would his views have changed if he saw the effects in modern worship stemming, in some cases, from an abandonment of the principle? We can only speculate. It is interesting to ponder what Edward’s church worship service might have looked like if he had been Pastor in San Francisco in the 21rst century instead of North Hampton in the 18th.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Calvin, John "The Necessity of Reforming the Church," 1543, available from Internet: http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualNLs/NRC_ch02.htm

 

Edwards, Jonathan, "Christian Cautions", Sermon, available from internet: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works2.vi.v.v.html

 

Edwards, Jonathan "The Distinguishing Marks Of A Work of The Spirit of God," available from the internet: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works2.vii.ii.i.html

 

Edwards, Jonathan, "A History of the Work of Redemption," 1774, available from the internet: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works1.xii.iv.ii.html

 

Edwards, Jonathan, "An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God's People in Extraordinary Prayer, for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ's Kingdom On Earth," Available from the Internet:  http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works2.viii.iii.html

 

Edwards, Jonathan, "Letter to the Rev. Mr. Erskine", Northampton, July 1750, available from internet: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works1.i.xvii.html

 

Edwards, Jonathan, "Miscellanies", 76, available from the Internet: http://edwards.dev.oho.com/archive/documents/page?document_id=11936&search_id=&source_type=edited&pagenumber=1

 

Edwards, Jonathan "Some Thoughts Concerning The Present Revival of Religion in New England", available from the Internet: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works1.ix.iv.html

 

Marsden, George, “Jonathan Edwards: A Life” ( New Haven: Yale, 20

 

           

 



[1] John Calvin, "The Necessity of Reforming the Church," 1543, available from Internet: http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualNLs/NRC_ch02.htm

 

[2]  Jonathan Edwards, "Letter to the Rev. Mr. Erskine", Northampton, July 1750,  available from internet: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works1.i.xvii.html

 

[3] Jonathan Edwards, "Christian Cautions", Sermon, available from internet: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works2.vi.v.v.html

[4] Jonathan Edwards, "A History of the Work of Redemption," Period I, Part II, 1774, available from the internet: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works1.xii.iv.ii.html

[5] Jonathan Edwards, "Miscellanies", 76, available from the Internet: http://edwards.dev.oho.com/archive/documents/page?document_id=11936&search_id=&source_type=edited&pagenumber=1

 

[6] Ibid

[7] Jonathan Edwards, "An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God's People in Extraordinary Prayer, for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ's Kingdom On Earth," Preface by the American editors, Available from the Internet: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works2.viii.iii.html

[8] Jonathan Edwards, "An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God's People in Extraordinary Prayer, for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ's Kingdom On Earth," Part III, Sect. I, Available from the Internet: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works2.viii.iii.iii.html

 

[9] Ibid

[10]  George Marsden, “Jonathan Edwards: A Life” ( New Haven: Yale, 2003), 156

[11]  Ibid, 245

[12]  Jonathan Edwards, "Some Thoughts Concerning The Present Revival of Religion in New England", Part III, available from the Internet: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works1.ix.iv.html

 

[13] Jonathan Edwards, "The Distinguishing Marks Of A Work of The Spirit of God," Section  I, available from the internet: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works2.vii.ii.i.html

 

[14] Ibid

[15] Jonathan Edwards, "The Distinguishing Marks Of A Work of The Spirit of God," Section  III, available from the internet: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works2.vii.ii.i.html

 

[16] Jonathan Edwards, "The Distinguishing Marks Of A Work of The Spirit of God," Section  III, available from the internet: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works2.vii.ii.i.html