Canonical Principal of Worship?

If RPW is extrascriptural, or a type of ‘liturgical teetolin’, what are the implications? Certainly worship requires rules, but RPW is not necessarily the only way to obtain common order. To say otherwise places a false dilemma.


Worship Anarchy?


When examining the commands of God regarding worship, we find plenty of rules as well as scriptural examples. We have plain orders for baptism, supper, preaching, and prayer. Moreover, in less explicit matters, there are general guidelines, norms determined necessary consequence, and principals which bracket and regulate worship. If the church simply obeyed the rules given by Christ, there’d be no reason to fear a quick descent into anarchy or so-called ‘will worship’. Far from it. The bible is indeed sufficient, “Do as I have command” 


Implicit Rules


The bible provides implicit rules regarding the conduct of worship which are quite comprehensive and far-reaching if consistently applied. Some of which are: 


1. Do not cause a brother to stumble, 1 Cor. 10:32, Acts 15:19-21

2. Let all things edify, 1 Cor. 14:26, Eph. 4:12

3. Let all things be done properly and in an orderly manner, 1Co 14:40


Though general rules, we see flexibility for the sake of brotherly love and peace. Clearly, Acts 15 is an example of establishing rules, though unscriptural, for the sake of weak consciences. In this case, it was asking Gentiles to refrain from food practices which harmed fellowship with Jewish Christians. Furthermore, Acts 15 is an example of canonical rule or discipline for the intent of preserving unity.


Though we may find many church rules painful or even unscriptural, the peace and order of the church asks us to refrain from schism, utilizing constitutional channels/redress instead. God is a God of order not confusion, and we have been baptized into a single faith (Eph 4:5) and confession (R. 15:5). Sometimes matters take time to resolve or take serveral ecclessial court appeals. Yet Christ gave the church a resolution process (Deut 19:15; Matt 5:23; 18:15-16; Lk 17:3; Gal. 6:1; 1 Tim 5:19-20), and until the matter is flushed out, a Christian ought to wait in patience and even sacrificial love.


Dealing with Problems of “Necessary Consequence”


During the reformation sacramentalism tore the swiss Reformers apart from German Lutherans, rendering the Wittenburg Concord impossible. The first half of the Reformation was greatly preoccupied over the mode of eating the sacrament. Was Christ locally present with the bread or not? Debates with Romans centered over the substance of the bread becoming Christ’s flesh or not. While today we present the respective theological camps positions in an extremely simplistic matter, conducive more to denominational polemics than fair witness, the discussions over the eucharistic bread was very nuanced and sophisticated. Lutheran, Reformed, and Catholic conclusions often dealt with Scholastics, but more particularly with Chalcedon and latter trinitarian formulas. How these creeds and canons were intellectually grasped in turn determined fine details worship practice– are the elements adored, the “moment” of real presence, how are the elements are consumed or dispensed, are they consecrated or nature of consecration, and what are their benefits?


Like the trinitarian formulas which sacramental theology was built upon, these questions are very complicated matters, the answers of which are not readily plain or evident from scripture, requiring many iterations of ‘necessary consequence’. We do injustice to legit questions by answering them with strawman arguments. The insistent philosophical inquiry and resultant precisionism of dogma and confessions has been the penchant of the West (perhaps an unfortunate legacy) while the East wisely left these matter a mystery, resigning the church to silence where God has been the same. Is it enough to believe the Word is effectual, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever…For my flesh is real food adn my blood is real drink” (John 6:51, 56) and, “Take and eat; this is my body” (Matt 26:26)?


Canonical Rule


Important matters of worship ought to be ruled by scripture and the commands of Christ. Yet not all matters are plain and evident, requiring iteration and great deliberation. In these many, many instances can each church reach the same ‘unity of faith’ without any judicial or ecclesial structure? In England Calvinists could not agree over polity (amongst other things) and denominationalism arose along the same lines of disagreement—namely, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Anglican. Whether polity or sacrament, necessary consequence was at times indeterminate and compromise ensued. Even in Westminster, divines “agreed to disagree” in adopting 1648 articles of religion, omitting entire sections of WCF, particularly articles 30 &31 on ecclessial censures and synods for the sake of Independents. Confessions may not be precise, leaving matters deemed important at the time “open”, but nonetheless the articles were devout attempts to be true (after puritan divines drove the bishops from the assembly). The same can be said canon in general. Canon goes one step further than mere ‘normativism’ as they deal with discipline in general and matters where there may be no consensus. They are devices of unity, common order, safeguarding worship and doctrine. The preface to the 1552 Book of Common Prayer explains the adoption of public prayer,

And although the keeping or omitting of a ceremonies (in itself considered) is but a small thing: yet the wilful and contempteous transgression, and breaking of a common order and discipline, is no small offence before God. Let all things be done among you (saith S. Paul) in a semely and due order. The appointment of the which order, pertaineth not to private men: therefore no man ought to take in hand, nor presume to appoint or alter any public or common order in Christ’s church, except he be lawfully called and authorized there unto.” 

Thus, by ‘necessary consequence’ regarding common peace and order in the church, this being nothing less than the same love for the Bride (the church) as Christ shows for her, we might say the church is best ruled not either by scriptural injunction alone or mere normativism (both too often leave divergent views unresolved), but by canonical principal. As an alternative to RPW, let’s propose the ‘canonical principal of worship’ or CPW? And where we genuinely disagree, we ought to seek constitutional redress; else we might prove little better than ‘rebels without a cause’ in hastiness and zeal? 


Solemn League and Covenant?


The biggest historical implication of RPW is the legitimacy of Solemn League and Covenant (SLC). If one reviews SLC (section I. below), it is apparent its overriding concern was correcting the doctrine, worship, and polity of the church according to “the word of God” and “the example of the best reformed Churches” (Geneva).  


“I. That we shall sincerely, really, and constantly, through the grace of God, endeavor, in our several places and calligns, the preservation of the reformed religion in the Church of Scotland, in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government, against our common enemies; the reformation of religion in the three kingdoms of England and Ireland, in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government, according to the Word of God, and the example of the best reformed Churches… and shall endeavour to bring the Churches of God in the three kingdoms to the nearest conjunction and unifromity in religion, Confession of Faith, Form of Church Government, Directory of Worship and Catechising.”


The root of the problem was worship and oversight. SLC was born in the Scottish national covenant, a reaction to Archbishop Laud’s aggressive restoration of the Prayer Book and government of Bishops in Eidenburgh (“the danger immanent to true Protestant religion.. by the multitued of Papists adn their adherents in arms in England and Ireland”– SLC preamble). Of course, polity and discipline are directly related to RPW since they are rejoinders to the proper ministration and oversight of the gospel and sacraments. Despite repeated peitions for defense of the “office” of monarchy, the RPW justified not only war with prelates of the Church (“that we shall, in like manner, without respect of persons, endeavour the extripation of Popery, prelacy”– SLC article II) but actual rule of Charles I (whose father, James I said, ‘no bishop, no crown’) against the embellished ‘rights’ of Parliament.


The ultimate result of SLC was not only a permanent, irreversible destruction of peace in the Church of England (the Acts of Tolerance first introduced by Cromwell and later William & Mary), but the triumph of Parliament over the Crown. Thus, at the foot of SLC is the rubble of Christendom and birth of Republicanism, the State eventually removing itself from questions of religion and free conscience, as well as the eclipse of peerage in favor of ‘suffarage’ and ‘rights’ via a republican body. Thus, SLC not only possesses a ‘modernist’ biblicism, i.e., ‘the Word of God’ (contra tradition) but a modern polity or rise of ‘nation’ (“all ranks”, sic., “We, noblemen, barons, knights, gentlemen, citizens, burgesses, ministers of the Gospel, and commons of all sorts”– preamble). Thus, the church fell under the rule of the mob or national assembly, underming erastianism. Thus, Geneva, not London or Wittenburg, indeed won the day. 


Not all disputes on worship between 17th century Anglican and Puritans were ungrounded. Allegorical and symbolic elements cluttered and obfuscated the holiness of worship. Silence and modesty could be as majestic as ornamented externals. Yet the manner and urgency in which these disputations were protested is questionable. Many disputations were unnecessary, hastily, or polemically conceived. For example, as noted above, complaints over black rubrics or adoration is not as simple as ‘bread worship’ (though for Zwinglians and Anabaptists it might be). Likewise, marriage rings and vestments are things indifferent, better relegated to considerations in edification or church order. Many reforms were pushed too fast, producing little more than harmful backlashes. Indeed, the support of catholics like Mary I or Anglicans like Charles I received was mostly rural compared to the backbone of Puritanism, in the cities and amongst the middle classes. The peasantry loved their festive processions, saints, and King, yet the realm suffered irreparable war.


The protests of Puritans and Reformers often have a veneer of great piety and fidelity to the Word, typically appealing to ‘plain and evident’ scripture. But some of the most contested questions of the reformation–be it between protestant camps, national churches, or against Rome– were not simple matters. If RPW is an unscriptural imposition or rule, essentially an argument born from the silence of scripture (with no positive example of god’s wrath against ‘adiaphora’), then we admit a tragic excess to the reformation, “‘Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda”, that cooperated in breaking down church order, perhaps even opening the door to later  Finnian revivalism and Briggian higher criticism. And with the church so followed the state in likewise disorders. SLC’s intransigence not only prepared the way for religious pluralism, breaking the back of church/state mutualism, but it effectively transfered the iconic sovereignty of a federal head (sic., the king, monarchism) to the abstract mass of commons (i.e., the people, or ‘nation’). Hence we enter into the disorder of  modern democracy altogether, whether it be in worship or civil law, where jurisdictions are highly fragmented and culture is by default ‘pragmatic’ and ‘secular’.  




The pivotal events of reformation, where Godly patience lost out to Biblicist zeal, is beyond the scope of this entry. RPW, together with SLC, were pious but foolish declarations of war against divinely appointed authority and constitutional hierarchy in the church as well as the larger society. Born out of these contestations was not only Protestantism but also arrived the ‘rights of man’, and republicanism, deconsecrating society as well as civil government. Not only this, but the RPW proves nothing more than Lutheranism was right, “We must do as God commands”. God also commands we obey instituted authorities, both civil and ecclesial, and while members of the church certainly have a right to appeal abuses (this too being God-ordained), it ought to be done with love of Christ and his church in mind, “thinking oneself better than their brother” 


Gen. 4:9, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” 

1 J 3:15, “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him” 

Col. 1:24, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for he sake of his body, that is, the church”

What may suffer error requires patience and love until Canon may be rightly addressed, appealing to prior ‘necessary consequence’ and scripture as rules of faith. In Rome and the East ‘necessary consequence’, in the canonical sense, is simply called ‘holy tradition’. While Rome and East do not agree entirely over how holy tradition is dogmatically established, both acknowledge universal councils and synods as a means redress, and in many a treatise both Calvin and Luther enlisted tradition, though rather selectively. Nonetheless, it is far from foreign even for protestants to at least refer to it.  But is said with many qualifications, and the subject deserves another post entirely. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s