Sunday, September 21, 2014

Worship, RPW, Time and Culture

For some reason, Dr. Clark has been repeatedly promoting his "Scripture-only" position of worship on his blog the past couple of days. If Dr. Clark or any congregation wishes to worship with Scripture-only or even exclusive psalmody, that is their prerogative. They can burn the organ, piano or guitar in a bonfire if they so wish. But the problem comes when they want to universalize it for all churches and all Christians, such that not worshiping as they supposed worship ought to be done is a sin. Such a position of course has always been the position of many within the history of the Church; no doubt about that. But that does not make it necessarily right.

Christianity consists of two main parts: belief (doctrine) and praxis (life), or just life and doctrine. One believes what Scripture teaches, and then implements it in life. When it comes to worship, there is also the doctrine of worship found in Scripture, which is the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). Then one has to apply this doctrine to the actual practice of worship. The issue when we come to the issue of instruments and the songs used for worship is that these are all applicational questions. Nowhere in Scripture do we find the commandment, "Thou shalt sing only the 150 psalms of David." No, such is a deduction exclusive psalmodists claim to be the conclusion of the RPW. Whether that is a valid deduction from the RPW however is what those of us who reject exclusive psalmody dispute. As we can see therefore, one cannot just claim "RPW" as if the RPW itself necessitates either exclusive psalmody (EP) or "Scripture-only."

A major factor ignored in much of the discussion over the issue is the failure to see one's historical situatedness and cultural standing in such debates. We have already established that the RPW is not the issue, but its supposed application by traditionalists. While I disavow the idea of a "non-white theology," it is true that those who are not from a European culture and coming from a non-Reformed background could see things that those within it might have missed. In such debates, why it is assumed for example that the metric is the way to sing the Psalms? Since the RPW in the hands of the Scripture-only and EP guys, everything that is not found in Scripture, every "element" which somehow includes instruments as an element, must be thrown out, why shouldn't we throw out the metrical rhythms, and the metrical tunes? Let's go back to Hebrew cantical notations (i.e. the "Selah" you see in the psalms) instead, since these are most certainly found in Scripture. Concerning instruments, why even use a tuner to establish the first note of the song? Those are instruments too, since they produce one or a few musical notes. Speaking of which, I sure hope those promoting EP and Scripture only are promoting singing in unison, not in 4-part harmony, since I am sure the Psalms in Hebrew do not consist of Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass parts!

One might object that one has to somehow sing, and thus the metrical tunes are necessary. But why not just chant the Psalms? No metric needed here! We can eliminate another "element" from worship, the variations of metrical tunes that are "not expressively commanded in Scripture."

The problem with the traditionalist argument here is that, in its desire to be specific in opposing something that others want to utilize for worship, the RPW has been used as a catch all concept to justify the prohibition of using whatever it is (other) people are utilizing, while at the same time the stuff Reformed people currently use (i..e metrical tunes, tuning fork, pipes etc) are blindspots exempted from the "rigorous application" of the RPW. If those using the RPW in this manner were to be actually consistent, they should just stop the usage of tunes of any kind. Go back to chanting, and by that I do NOT mean Gregorian chants (which is still music). I mean the type of chant where there is little inflection of voice besides what is necessary to mouth the words, monotonal (any variations of tone would make it musical of sorts), and basically as far away from musical tunes as possible, since we are not given any biblically inspired tunes for the Psalms except for Hebrew cantical notation which we don't exactly know how to interpret and utilize.

If that strike you as being rather ridiculous, I'm just stating what the logical implications of holding to such a "rigorous traditionalist application" of the RPW are. If one doesn't want to bite that bullet, one has to reject the EP and Scripture-only positions. I for one are not going to bite that bullet, not because of aesthetics but because I don't even think the manner of applying the RPW has been properly framed. So yes, I am going on record as saying I disagree with the traditionalist manner of framing the argument with respects to worship, even if that means going against most of church history.

The problem with the traditionalist arguments is that the wrong questions are asked, so therefore one gets all the wrong answers. The questions are not: Which elements Scripture approves of? Is that an element or a circumstance (accidence)? Those are necessary to be asked, but such should not be the starting point of the debate. The question Scripture poses is: What principles God calls for in His worship? Is X congruous or incongruous to the maintenance of any and all the principles taught in God's Word concerning acceptable worship?

Our first attempt is not to use Aristotelian categories and ask the question, "Is this an element or an accidence?" God is NOT an Aristotelian. Last I know, there is no Book of Aristotle in the Bible. This does not mean that Aristotelian categories are not useful, but that is not where we go to first. Within each principle taught in Scripture concerning worship (i.e. the dialogical principle, reverence, God's speech of forgiveness or absolution etc), one can then pose the question as to what is a matter of indifference with regards to the maintenance of the principle (i.e. accidence) and what will affect the maintenance of the principle (i.e. element). Note here how the Aristotelian categories are re-tooled in a proper way. No more do we begin with Aristotle and ask a blanket question of what is element and what is accidence. Instead, we start with Scripture and let Scripture determine how we are to use philosophy to clarify how what the Scriptures says about worship are to be implemented.

Matters of application are always culturally and time-conditioned. That is just the way the world works. Head coverings in the first century AD were certainly not nice ladies' hats worn in the Victorian era, just to mention how the principle of head coverings has changed in its implementations. Similarly, the RWP does not have to be tied to 16th/ 17th century European worship, or even European worship in general. Like it or not, times change. Yes, people are still sinners. Yes, sin and wickedness do not change. But cultures do change, and the change in culture between 16th/17th century Europe and North America to the modern 21st century world is many orders of magnitude greater than the change in culture between 16th century Europe and the Ancient Near-East. To attempt to go back to 16th/ 17th century or even 1st century culture is naive. It only reinforces the cultural insensitivity of the church, and give people the portrayal of total irrelevance. Going to a church practicing these almost seems like a trip back in time, a reconstruction of the past almost. Now, if I want to see history, I go to a museum. Why do I have to go to church to worship the living God who still IS in the 21st century, by trying to go back in time to the 16th century? Do I not have museums to go back into time?

I hold on to the RPW. However, that does not mean I hold on to the traditionalist application of the RPW. Time is unidirectional, and while there is nothing wrong with people worshiping God like He only desires 17th century forms of worship, such is certainly not mandated by Scripture, much less do I think it wise.


Jordan Rossi said...

Thanks Daniel. Well written.

PuritanReformed said...


you're welcome