Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Regulative Principle and the issue of culture

On the 9Marks blog, Trip Lee has posted an interesting article concerning the Regulative Principle as it relates to culture, reflecting on the similarities and differences in worship of his church in America, compared to the church in Zambia, Africa [HT: The Aquila Report]. His main point is that the Regulative Principle will ensure much similarity in worship, but also it allows for much diversity as well. As he puts it,

While our churches should not be innovative in the content or the components of our services, the way we carry those things out is, to some degree, up to us. Scripture gives us the “substance” and the “elements,” but within broad biblical guidelines, the forms are flexible.

Now, as a non-white non-European person, I do think that culture does play a part in the way Christians worship. I do not think that the whole world should worship with one uniform Scottish Psalter (and translations into different languages) from the 17th century with its corresponding liturgy. Nevertheless, that does not mean that one can re-cast the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) as one sees fit, and then claims diversity is allowed under the RPW based upon one's interpretation of it.

We see immediately that Lee has an interesting idea of the RWP. In his scheme, the "elements" merely refer to events as a composite whole, thus "praise," "sermon" etc. Those events as a composite whole are "elements," while the manner of doing those events, the "forms," are totally flexible. Thus, the forms, are "accidents" like a "six-piece band of talented musicians" and who knows what instruments and musicians were used in the Zambian church?

The issue is not whether diversity is allowed under the RPW. I for one am under no illusions that the manner in which people worship is shaped in some measure by culture(s), which may be good or bad. To go back to a 17th century Scottish Psalter with its "thees," "thous," and "ye's" and language that is not understandable by anyone without a working knowledge of 16th century English literature in this modern age is ridiculous. There is after all nothing sacrosanct about the 17th century, or the Scottish culture of the 17th century. But that does not mean that one can drive a truck through the RPW as if regulation merely applies to events as a composite whole.

The Regulative Principle is a regulative principle. Forms are not totally neutral, and are to be regulated by Scripture as well. If anyone claims that form is totally neutral, why shouldn't anyone sing a psalm a capella with a heavy metal "melody" and "beat"? So on the one hand, against those like Lee who sees the Scriptures as allowing for any form, this counter-example is enough to disprove his assertion that the RPW does not govern forms. On the other hand, for those who are fastidious about applying the RPW under a strict Aristotelian taxonomy about "elements" and "accidents," this also is a counter example. Asserting exclusive psalmody and no instrumentation solves nothing, because the underlying assumptions are still very much based upon an early modern European cultural framework. Again, is there anything wrong with singing Psalms 2 with a heavy metal beat? What "elements" and "accidents" categorization could solve the issue of beat and accompanying music? What Aristotelian category does the "metrical rhythm" fall under? Or should we just chant the Psalms? Oh wait, chanting does have a beat too! Asserting the "wisdom" category does not solve the problem for the usage of Aristotelian taxonomy, for if we have "elements" and "accidents" only, where does "wisdom" fit in? And if we say wisdom is required to reject heavy metal beat etc, then the usage of Aristotelian taxonomy is only seen to be self-serving in the interests of conserving white conservative Caucasian cultural preferences, for why is wisdom used to reject heavy metal beat, whereas CCM are rejected in toto even when some of them are paraphrases of Scripture and even if they are sung a capella?

Against those who broaden the RWP so that it becomes almost like the Normative Principle, and against those who restrict the RPW so that it becomes the mere rationale for cultural imperialism, we should strive to see and apply the RPW afresh. The RPW is a regulative principle, and thus it governs all parts of worship. It is a regulative principle, and not law. Against those who claim that forms are flexible, the RPW informs us that forms are also to be governed by Scripture. No part of worship can be said to be free from what Scripture has said. At the same time, the RPW does not give us the exact forms to use; it is not a law, but a principle. There can be thus diversity in forms, but a diversity that occurs as people govern their worship with its forms according to the Scriptures. How that looks like will defer in various social and cultural contexts, but each church needs to wrestle with what Scripture teaches concerning forms as it reforms its worship according to Scripture.

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