Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne, Phillip Jensen and occasionally Talar Khatchoyan – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at twoways.news).
As Reformed evangelicals, we tend to be very united on classic biblical doctrine, and very good at expounding the Scriptures. But we’re not as good, and certainly not as united, about how our theology filters down into the practical and moral issues of our ministries.
Sometimes our differences will simply be differences in context, history and circumstance. But very often our differences reveal not so much that we read different passages differently, or even that we have different theological principles, but that we have different methods or approaches for applying theology to our practice.
These kinds of battles have been faced before, in the historic debates that took place between Protestant evangelicals, during and after the Reformation, about what their new Reformed doctrine should mean for practice. Those debates gave rise to two contrasting approaches to applying the Bible to our practice, often called the ‘Regulative Principle’ and the ‘Normative Principle’. In this Two Ways News episode, Phillip and Tony explore the historic debates and begin to suggest a better way forward.
HOW DOES THE BIBLE SHAPE OUR PRACTISE?
TP: Historically, in our reformed and evangelical world, we often think about the regulative versus normative approaches to how you apply the Bible or use God’s voice and Scripture as the way to direct your action.
PJ: So tell us, what does the regulative approach mean and, in contrast, what does the normative one mean?
TP: There are many nuances in the historical movement and controversies and labels that have been given, but broadly speaking, people who have adopted what’s been called the ‘regulative principle’ see the Bible as regulating quite closely what we should do in church. The assumption is that God cares very much about how he is worshipped, as seen in the Old Testament with the detailed regulations and descriptions of how everything should be organized in Old Testament worship. Surely, the argument goes, if the New Testament is even better and more superior in every way through Christ, surely God cares just as much if not more about how we should structure ourselves and how he should be worshipped in a Sunday service. Therefore he has provided regulations, commands and laws within the New Testament that should frame the way we run church services. So what we do practically ought to be driven quite closely and tightly by what is specifically commanded to be done in the New Testament.
Whereas the normative principle says, yes, God does speak to us in Scripture and we must obey his commands, but there’s a whole series of things in which God provides general principles and directions, but no specific commands. There are norms or general guidelines for what we do, but there’s a fair bit of wiggle room for us to reason out what ought to be done. And there’s a degree of liberty and freedom and not such a tight regulation of what should happen in churches.
PJ: Okay, so for example, musical instruments. I’ve been to a church where there are no musical instruments because there’s no instruction in the Bible to have musical instruments in church.
TP: So a really strict regulative principle would say, yes, our singing is something that’s commanded to be done and so we should definitely sing. To not sing would in fact be disobedient. But there’s no mention of musical instruments in the New Testament and none are mandated for us to use. Therefore, we should assume that since it’s not commanded, and since God obviously wants to tell us in reasonable detail what we should do, then they shouldn’t be used.
Another example, or perhaps a more interesting one, in terms of our own Anglican history, was the debate at the time of the Reformation about the use of vestments and ceremonies and so on that carried over from Roman Catholicism.
PJ: What do you mean by vestments?
TP: The fancy robes that ministers sometimes wear. Some reformed Anglicans or Puritans wanted to say that there’s nothing about vestments in the New Testament. What’s more, they’re unhelpful and unedifying, so we should get rid of them and make other further reforms to the church. On the other side, the more normative principle guys argued that since we are free to either wear certain robes or not, therefore they’re not sinful. They’re neither commanded nor forbidden, so if the circumstances make it expedient and useful to wear them, it’s fine, you can just wear them. And these two sides struggled to understand each other in some respects because they shared a great deal; they were both reformed Calvinists. They were both very much on the same side, and they both thought that the Pope was the Antichrist, and were both very much reformed Anglicans. But the regulative side wanted to hear God’s voice directing more explicitly and clearly what should be done. The normative side believed in God’s revelation, of course, but saw a bigger place for human reason to figure stuff out and work out the details.
That’s a rough summary of what was a complex debate, but it shows the two approaches or tendencies that have shaped our history as evangelicals.
PJ: So what are the advantages and disadvantages of the regulatory side?
TP: Well, first of all, the regulative thinkers had a very deep respect and desire for God’s voice to be heard in all our decisions. One of the well known writers at the time was Thomas Cartwright, who argued for the regulative point of view (although it wasn’t called that at this point) against Whitgift and Hooker in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Cartwright acknowledged the argument of the other side, that to say something is positively according to God’s word is logically the same as saying it’s not against or repugnant to God’s word. But he still saw a difference. He said that he didn’t want to ‘shut out’ the voice of God. The regulative guys had this sense that just as God was with the children of Israel and directing them, leading them and speaking to them, so he was with his people now giving active direction and speaking to them. It’s not as if he’d given a set of regulations and laws that were general and then it was up to us entirely, with our reason, to figure everything else out. So their strength was a desire to hear God’s voice and be directed by God in the immediacy of life.
PJ: And what was their weakness?
TP: Twofold–I think because of that desire, and because of their failure to see how the New Testament itself describes the difference between the Old Testament and its laws and ceremonies and the new life in Christ, I think they were too determined to find within the New Testament a set of laws and regulations about church life that had a similar level of detail as Old Testament laws. They decided that those laws should be there and so found them.
This, in fact, was the most telling aspect of the normative case against them. It’s actually quite tenuous to say that this detailed system you’ve come up with is exegetically there in the New Testament. And so I think their weaknesses were in part to think that the New Testament would provide a set of worship regulations parallel to the Old Testament, and to have too strong a reliance on law and command as the way that God spoke to us and directed us, and therefore an overly tight, overly specified view of what was commanded.
PJ: Yes. And going back to the normative, what is the strength of the normative view?
TP: I think they were able to pick exegetical holes in the regulative view. They were able to point out that, for example, the argument for a Presbyterian form of church government was a possible interpretation of the evidence but not a necessary one; and not one that rose to the level of a clear command. So one of their strengths was probably a better reading of how God has spoken the New Testament. It had a better recognition of our freedom in Christ and what God had done for us in Christ, which meant that we were required to think and work things out, that law and command and regulation wasn’t the only mode of our thinking and action and response in Christ. So I think they were right to point that out and lean on that, and realize that things would be worked out that way in different contexts. Their weakness…
PJ: Yes, what are their weaknesses? I can hear weakness in the argument you put forward for the normative as that really opens the can of worms; you can go in any direction from there…
TP: Yes, their weakness is that there’s an overconfidence in the ability for human reason to work things out. So Richard Hooker, for example, who was the great champion of the normative side at the time of the Reformation, he strongly believed that the capacity for humanity under God to work out from nature and from reason what ought to be done was very strong. He was indebted to Thomas Aquinas in the kind of confidence he had in natural human reason to figure things out. That was their weakness: quite a strong belief that if humans and the church and the government together had figured out that this was a decent and orderly way for things to take place, then we should accept that that’s the case unless Scripture gave us a really strong command otherwise.
PJ: Then we will also face the problem of grace and faith against law. That is, even the normative ones would over time say, “This is the way the church is done and you must do it this way because there is nothing in the Bible against it and because this is how it’s been done by godly and reasonable men. And so that freedom that they took for themselves can easily be turned into regulations for other people.
TP: Yes, this is the irony of the historical circumstance in which this whole debate took place in the Reformation. The normative people, who in our minds are associated with freedom, wiggle room, not so tight, they were actually on the side of the government and the state church. Queen Elizabeth was saying, “We’re going let you have a reformation in England and teach reformation doctrine, but you still have to wear all the robes and you still have to have certain ceremonies.” In other words, the state was mandating that these things should take place. And so the normative position says, well, since it’s a matter of freedom, and since the state is telling us to do this, then out of decency and order we have to obey the state. And therefore, you regulative guys who can’t, by conscience, wear these vestments, I’m sorry, you’re out.
So in the end, you have an authority somewhere that ends up asserting itself. On the regulative side, the authority is in a set of regulations, laws, and commands that you’ve derived from Scripture that must regulate the way we act. On the more normative side, there’s some principles, but we figure a lot out by human reason and tradition, and that human reason and tradition can very easily take on its own authority and stature such that it squashes all kinds of non-conformism. In fact, that’s what ends up strangely happening in Anglicanism, in our circles, in our recent history and your history. For example, the move in the 1980s to stop wearing Anglican robes was opposed by the Anglican hierarchy, with the kind of argument that the normative principle people would have used: this has been the tradition forever; it’s a matter of decency and order; it’s neither here nor there, you can wear them, you can not wear them; there’s freedom. But since it’s been a matter of tradition and decency and the nature of church tradition forever, you should not lightly get rid of these things, you should retain these things for the sake of order. Whereas you had a different biblical principle that was driving you.
PJ: Yes, and a different historical principle. For example, the surplus, the white dress or what we used to call a white nightie, was retained on the grounds that it was not a clerical garment because the lay choir members used it. But when the lay choir members no longer use it, then that which wasn’t a clerical garment, becomes a clerical garment. The same with the clerical collar which was a 19th century gentleman’s collar, which we got rid of in the 21st century. Now, everybody changed except the clergy, especially in church. And so in the end, that which was a collar that indicated nothing other than you’re a gentleman became the sign of being a minister. And so suddenly that which didn’t matter whether you wear it or not became ‘you must wear it or you’re not doing the right thing’. So history changes things as well as biblical principles on issues like clothing.
TP: And it’s fascinating that if you go back to those original Reformation debates, imposing these two kinds of names does simplify a very complex debate. The Puritan regulative side was arguing for getting rid of vestments and ceremonies because these practices weren’t edifying. Although they were visual practices, they weren’t words. It wasn’t teaching; it wasn’t a doctrine. And yet the practical application they argued was similar to 1 Corinthians 8-10 about what you do with meat offered to idols, and that was a passage they debated often. What you do can have an offence or can cause stumbling.
PJ: I’m not worried about causing offence so much as teaching, but to shout loudly that you believe in one thing but at the same time practice the exact opposite leads people to follow your practice rather than your shouting. They don’t hear your shouting or logic or argument. If you point down and tell people to look up, they’ll nearly all look down, because that’s where you pointed.
TP: That’s a good point. And it’s interesting that what you’re talking about or modeling is that there’s a theological principle that’s driving me but I still have to think through in the context and situation how that should drive my practice. It’s not as if there was a regulation or rule that I could look to, that could tell me exactly how to dress and exactly what to do. There was a thought process, a deliberation–if you wanted to use ethics language–that then landed in a form of practice that was driven by a theological principle.
So having this alternative way of thinking about this question is perhaps more useful than those two historical categories which have their strengths and weaknesses and limits in working out which theological principles to apply, and how they apply. It reminds me of what we have in the apostles’ example because they frequently say, don’t just obey my commands, but look at my faith, look at my teaching, look at my theology and my life and my example, and look at how those two are connected. Look at how in my life and practice, theological principle drives practice. And you go do the same.
PJ: 1 Corinthians 8-10, at one level, concludes, “I do all things for others that they may be saved. And in this regard, follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” So in the debate of whether you do or do not eat meat that has or has not been offered to idols, the key principle is the salvation of other people, laying down your own life and yourself out for other people’s salvation. It’s love that builds up, not knowledge that puffs up.
TP: And you’re getting an object lesson in how that argument happens. Look at my life and look at how I’ve reasoned, look at which theological principles I’ve brought to bear on understanding these idolatrous practices.
I’m also thinking of the end of 2 Timothy, for example, where Paul says, look, there are these terrible examples of people who are going from bad to worse, but you’ve seen me, you’ve seen my faith in my life and my practice and my doctrine and my persecutions.
Likewise, in Philippians 4:8 he says, think about these things. Listen to whatever is pure, ponder, think about these things. And then the next verse is connected; these things you should think about, you’ve “learned and received and heard and seen in me”. So practice these things and the God of peace will be with you.
And Paul models this throughout his writings. In his all his letters, when he comes to discuss all the issues of church life. It’s very rarely, “You’ve got these issues? Let me tell you, here’s what I command, ‘Do this, don’t be factionalistic. Stop doing that.’” No, it’s usually not just a set of rules to follow, nor is it just, “You should be able to figure this out within the context of your life, go and reason about it.” There’s a movement of thought from the theological principles of the cross of Jesus Christ that ought to drive you to think and act in a completely different way. And so in a sense that approach–which I might call ‘the apprenticeship principle’–of apprenticing ourselves to not just the apostolic commands and conclusion, but the whole way they think from theological truth to practical conclusion is so that we can do likewise…
PJ: That means that different churches will come to very different practices because of their environment, their context, their history, their whole range of reasons as to how best in their circumstances to put these principles into practice. That said, there are still a range of limitations or direct commands, such as in 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul is saying “This is our rule for all the churches” in speaking about the ministry of women and leadership in the church, which interestingly is one area where there is an explicit regulative practice yet is the one that is being ignored by people. It is just kind of strange as there are not many explicit regulative practices like that.
The whole of 1 Timothy is training Timothy how to behave in the church. When it is the household of the living God, it’s not just the simple rules and regulations; it’s understanding the theology of ministry properly. And that understanding will not lead to total anarchy or total liberalism because there will be a great similarity between people who come from the same theological understanding.
TP: Because we’re apprenticed to the same master, you actually will keep thinking your way to the similar conclusions from the same theological principles. You will keep following the Lord Jesus Christ as he speaks through his apostolic word.
All of this demonstrates a weakness in the regulative and normative debate—both sides rely a little too much on law and command as the mode by which God directs us, which on the one hand leads to us either trying to find commands or finding too many, and on the other hand leads us to saying that we’re pretty free to do what we think is reasonable, so long as we’re not transgressing one of those commands. In both cases, there is an insufficient sense of wanting to follow in the apostolic footsteps, to think and act the way Paul thinks and acts.
PJ: And the Scripture is living and active and powerful. It will direct us in ways that our presuppositions and assumptions will not be happy with. And so it has that problem.
As you were talking I remember you mentioned Scripture and tradition and reason, which was famously called the three-legged stool. But of course, it was always a failure in the analogy because the three legs are not the same length. The Scriptures are not the same in their authority as tradition or reason. Tradition and reason must be placed under the Scriptures. And so it’s really a one-legged stool with a couple of little bits sitting on the side.
TP: And so that’s perhaps not the best metaphor then, is it? It’s more relational than a stool we sit on, or a set of regulations we obey. It’s the voice of the living God speaking to us through his word in multiple ways—sometimes commanding, sometimes training our minds and hearts to think and act in certain ways, sometimes exemplifying for us the way of theological wisdom.