Questions for RPW

Bishop Thomas Morton 1618

After King James dismissed the Puritans’ Millenary Petition at Hampton Court, Puritan complaint against ceremony naturally intensified. A longer list of ‘unlawful rites’ were compiled when ministers refused to subscribe to Whitgift’s Three Articles, publishing their grievances in the 1605 Lincolnshire  Abridgment. Thomas Morton, Bishop of Chester, answered the Abridgment in a treatise called A Defense of the Innocence of the Three Ceremonies. Here, Morton handles the three biggest controversies– viz. kneeling at holy communion, the cross in baptism, and the surplice. The arguments which Morton applied were already laid by Nicholas Ridley who defended the cope in 1550 against the parsing of Hooper. Likewise, the 1604 canons gave an elaborated defense for signing the cross, and the same type of apology– namely, the indifference of church ceremony– would also be written by the Scottish bishops at Perth for the sake of bowing.  For the Puritan argument that everything not expressly commanded in God’s Word is forbidden in worship, Morton answers–

“Some ceremonies are merely ceremonies; some mixed. They that are merely ceremonies need no special warrant from scripture, but are sufficiently warranted by the general approbation for God’s Word, which giveth a permission and liberty to all the churches to make their own choice of ceremonies according to the rules of order and decency;  but the mixed ceremonies, whereunto the imposers, or the generality of observers of them, annex some superstitious and erroneous opinion (whether it be of merit or inherent holiness, efficacy, or real necessity), do in this case change the nature and become doctrinal, and in this respect are condemned as not only beside the warrant, but plainly against the precept of Holy Scripture”.

The problem with Puritanism was a confusion of “mixed” for “mere” ceremonies. In his eight volumes of Ecclessiastical Polity Richard Hooker goes to great length distinguishing between these two kinds of ceremony. But, the Regulative principle (RPW) forces conflation by insisting upon imaginary or haphazard application of scriptural. Of this misuse of biblical text, Whitgift had a dismal opinion, “the scripture is most untolerably abused and unlearnedly applied”. Bancroft describes Puritan regulativism as being ‘anabaptist’. In Whitgift’s 1573 Answer to the Admonition, Whitgift notes although the Puritans give chapter and verse for what they say, the texts enlisted bear little or no relation to the point they conclude, only prima facie, “That no ceremony, order discipline, or kind of government may be in the Church, except the same be expressed in the Word of god, is a great absurdity and breedeth many inconveniences’. Even if  RPW is supposed to as true, more questions than answers arise. Amongst these many questions, a few more poignant ones are listed here. While some of these questions are more or less serious, RPW nonetheless requires if a single one is violated God will completely reject worship tendered:

  • The example of Lord’s Supper (Luke 22) was communicated between men with no women feasting. How do regulativists justify female communicants when there’s no example or command for such?
  • Is there an order to administration? Should ministers receive before lay people? What command is there for lay people partaking first? Doesn’t the order of receiving implicate ecclesiastical rank?
  • Many regulativists serve grape juice at communion and/or leavened bread. If consistent, why not unleavened bread and fermented grape? Christ abstained from strong drink, so shouldn’t cups be mixed (cut with water)?
  • How does one justify Sunday morning communion when the example in scripture is Saturday evening?
  • Some Presbyterians intinct (dip) the bread into the wine. Doesn’t this violate the command to “drink”? This seems contrary to the institution.
  • Should the bread be taken from one loaf or distributed in ready wafer-form? How can Regulativists decide either without express command?
  • What about the location of the pulpit relative to the altar? Should it be in the center or to the side? Where should the table sit? Behind the pulpit or midst the people? Though the table is taken from the imagery of the Supper’s institution, there is no command for either a pulpiterium or Lectern in public worship. Often these furnishings are given lesser or greater presence as instruments according to theological bias– plus they are usually decked with images like crosses,  etc.
  • How is pew communion legitimate when the method of distribution set forth in scripture is clearly eating at the Lord’s table. Not in pews?
  • How is the order of worship justified? Why not communion before the sermon? Which is the apex of worship– hearing the Word or being offered the spiritual presence of Christ in/with the sacrament?
  • What is not done or omitted in worship often has ‘theological commitments’ which regulativists rarely take account. An example is the frequency, or lack thereof, of communion. If we ‘remember Christ’ in worship, then shouldn’t this be done according to Christ’s rule, “do this as often as you remember me…”
  • If the scriptural example for prayer follows the orans position (outstretched arms and upright palms), then isn’t clasped hands entirely rejected by God? Nor does the bible give positive example of prayer by sitting? If these are excused away, then how does RPW remain coherent in the face of a scriptural example?
  • What warrant is there for setting the Psalms of David to noted music if these notes are not given in scripture? During the distribution of the Holy Communion, the Zurich and Scottish churches either read scripture or observed silence. They did not sing. Where is the command?
  • At the same token St. Paul apparently exhorts the Holy Kiss when Christians gather. What justification is there for not kissing today?

Consider the implications. If any of the above violates outward form, then prayer and sacraments are null and void. That leaves little grace amongst regulativists! As mentioned before, RPW is the flipside of Romanism. Both elevate ceremony (or the lack of) beyond scriptural warrant, making what previously was indifferent (subject at most to ‘principle’ rather than explicit command) a matter of of grievous salvific necessity. The recent near split in the Presbyterian Church in America over intinction is a case in point.

One reason I’ve returned to the discussion of RPW is because the same logic which debunks it also applies against enormous claims of ‘Holy Tradition’. In both cases, what is necessary and what has liberty are hopelessly muddled. Anglicanism historically have solved both problems by dividing doctrine and discipline according to the rule of scripture, “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man” (Article VI), and is therefore left to “common order” (Article XXIX).

4 responses to “Questions for RPW

  1. Good thoughts, Charles

    Cranmer’s “On Ceremonies”seems to follow the mere and mixed distinction. The latter comprised two kinds:

    1. Ceremonial, “of godly intent and purpose devised”, but which later “turned to vanity and superstition. ”

    2. Ceremonial of “indiscreet devotion”, which grew “daily to more and more abuses.”

    To his credit Cranmer makes it clear that the reform of the English Church had the glory of God in mind, rather than partisanship with either the conservatives who “were so addicted to old their old customs”, or the radicals, who “would innovate all things, and so despise the old”.

    Second to that was the edification of the people in Divine worship, for which purpose the retention of ancient ceremonies provided not only “a decent order and godly discipline”, but a means to “stir up the dull mind of man to the remembrance of his duty toward God, by some special signification, whereby they might be edified.”

    This latter point is especially fascinating, because it concedes that a mere sacramental had a didatic efficacy, which the Puritans reserved solely for preaching and catechizing. Finally, his essential conservatism shows-through when he reminds the radicals that the old ceremonies of Christian worship, besides lending order and decency to the liturgy , deserve veneration, merely for “their antiquity.”

    It’s odd how denominations that adhere to RPW have no qualms about outfitting the sanctuary with liturgical furnishings, such as pulpits and wall crosses, and treating “Reformation Sunday” as something near to a dominically mandated feast.


    • Hi Mark. I’ve also heard OPC members talk about the Westminster Assembly having plenary inspiration. lol.

      BTW., Mark, your quote of Cranmer adds a needed context. It’s by this same context we might understand the articles which say regarding certain sacraments, “being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles”. While we may add peripheral ceremony, say to baptism or perhaps even the Supper, these do not complete or validate the sacrament or, as bishop Ridley said, ‘neither justifiying’ nor ‘necessary unto salvation’. Ridley’s defense against Hooper is one of the more precise and early expositions on the difference of tradition vs. scripture in Anglicanism. To me, especially with respect to worship practices of Anglicanism vis Rome, this is the heart of it. And, as Hooker reminds us, the problem with both the “Genevan consistories” and “Roman papacy” is their general failure to distinguish between different kinds of laws. When we read our Articles (or even the pre-Elizabethan catechisms) there is a delineation of those things which indeed bind men for salvation versus that which is subject to catholic order yet changeable. To me this distinction fundamentally separates us from both Rome and the East, and without it we neither have scripture as the rule of faith nor justification. As Mr. Marder recently said on another thread, ‘too often Anglicanism suffers from a kind of memory lapse if not senility’.


  2. Pingback: Matthew 15:9 « Anglican Rose

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