Tag Archives: Heidelberg Catechism QA 96

Living Sola Scripturally

There are differences between the way houses are often built in Australia and the way they’re built in Canada.  I’m not a builder but even I can see some of these differences.  In many areas of Canada, a house will be built with a basement as the foundation.  However, at least where I live in Australia, most houses are built on top of a flat concrete slab.  But either way they have a solid foundation.  You wouldn’t dream of building without one.

The Protestant Reformation was about getting the church back on a solid foundation.  For the Protestant Reformers there was but one such foundation:  God’s Word.  From that we receive one of the key tenets of the Reformation:  sola Scriptura.   The Bible alone is our foundation.  As the Belgic Confession states in article 7, “Since it is forbidden to add to or take away anything from the Word of God (Deut. 12:32), it is evident that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects.” 

It’s quite easy to maintain this principle merely in an abstract fashion.  However, sola Scriptura is meant to be lived.  The Bible is not only the foundation for theology in the academic sense, it’s also meant to be the foundation for the life of the church and the life of every Christian.  Let’s briefly explore two ways of living “sola Scripturally.”

Worship

A moment ago I mentioned the Belgic Confession and what it says about the sufficiency of Scripture.  Interestingly, earlier in article 7, the Confession connects the sufficiency of Scripture to public worship:  “The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length.”  It’s in the Belgic Confession because it was a contentious issue in the Reformation.  The Roman Catholic Church didn’t maintain the sufficiency of Scripture and that was reflected in how it approached public worship.  Many practices were introduced into the worship of God which had no warrant from God in his Word.

Contrary to that, the Reformers insisted that God’s Word alone can determine the elements of our public worship.  This eventually came to be known as the Regulative Principle of Worship.  As the Heidelberg Catechism expresses it in QA 96, “We are not…to worship him [God] in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.”  Scripture alone is the foundation for Reformed worship.       

So one of the ways we live “sola Scripturally” is that we aim to worship God only in his ways.  For example, the church can never substitute anything for the preaching of God’s Word.  Scripture commands (2 Tim. 4:2) that we must have preaching – authoritative proclamation by a man ordained for that task.  And Scripture also commands that it be the preaching only of God’s Word.  It can’t be human opinions, nor can it be “preaching” based on what God is supposedly revealing in a TV show or movie.  Perhaps that seems obvious, but sadly, it’s not so obvious to many churches not upholding the Regulative Principle of Worship.    

Apologetics

Over the course of my 20-plus year ministry so far, there’s been a surge of interest in learning how to defend and promote the Christian faith.  Back in my seminary training, apologetics wasn’t even taught and there was a level of suspicion attached to it.  Today that’s changed and it’s all for the better.

However, the Reformed approach to apologetics (pioneered by Cornelius Van Til) is still very much the minority opinion, especially in your vanilla Christian bookstore.  Why this matters has to do with foundations.  Non-Reformed apologetics builds on something other than the Scriptures.  Sometimes it’s human rationality and our ability to evaluate arguments or evidence; at other times it might be our sense perception.  Regardless of the details, we’re looking at an approach that’s building on a foundation of sand.

What distinguishes Reformed apologetics is a commitment to sola Scriptura.  This commitment isn’t just lip service.  We actually go to what God says to find out how to defend and promote what God says.  The Bible holds the content of our apologetics, but it also determines our method.

1 Peter 3:15 is often referred to as the “Magna Carta” of apologetics.  Here the Holy Spirit tells us that we’re always to be prepared to offer a reasoned defence of our faith.  However, the first part of the verse is sometimes overlooked:  “…but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy.”  One of the best ways we can do that in apologetics is by building on the foundation Christ gives in his Word.  We need an apologetical method which is determined by Scripture alone.  Reformed apologetics supplies that method.

Conclusion

The word “Reformed” is often reckoned as short-hand for “Re-formed according to the Bible.”  While true enough, we could improve it by adding one little word: “alone.”  To be Reformed is to be constantly going back to the Bible alone.  The reason we do that is because it’s the only sure foundation for our lives as individuals and collectively as the people of God.  It’s been said that you have to stand somewhere in order to get anywhere.  If the place you’re standing is sinking sand, you’re going nowhere.  But if you’re on solid rock, you’ve got the traction you need.  Only the Word of God provides that.


We Distinguish: Elements/Circumstances

Many moons ago, in the days of Pine, Lynx and dial-up modems, there was an online discussion group known as Ref-net.  I can’t say I was among the first participants of this e-mail forum, but I’m quite sure I got in while it was still made up mostly of Canadian Reformed university students.  We were exploring what it means to be Reformed Christians in cyberspace.  All sorts of ideas were up for debate, including public worship.

Through the Ref-net I met a friend from South Africa who introduced me to the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW).  Though it was right there in the Three Forms of Unity, I had never really noticed it before.  Its presence is clearest in Heidelberg Catechism Answer 96, “We are not to make an image of God in any way, nor to worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.”  This is one of the rudiments and distinctives of Reformed worship.

I became involved in a number of discussions about Reformed worship on the Ref-net.  These ranged from general wrangling about the RPW as such to specific polemics on applications of the RPW to questions like psalm-singing and “days of commemoration.”  One of the objections I heard to the RPW in general was that it was impractical.  If we’re to worship God only as he has commanded, then where has God commanded us to worship at 9:30 AM?  Why do we sit in pews when God hasn’t commanded that?  In these and many other ways, no Reformed or Presbyterian church really follows the RPW.  To the lurkers it must have appeared as if this objection had just detonated the RPW into oblivion.

However, this gotcha moment didn’t last very long.  It was quickly noted that the RPW comes with an indispensable distinction.  When it comes to public worship, Reformed theologians have often distinguished between elements and circumstances.  Elements are the things God commanded in Scripture for public worship, things like preaching, singing, the reading of Scripture, prayers, etc.  Elements are governed by the RPW.  Circumstances are the incidental things which surround the elements.  Circumstances include things like the time of worship, whether one sits on pews or chairs, what temperature the room will be, and far more.  Circumstances are not governed by commands from the Bible, but by wisdom and discretion informed by the Bible.

It’s true that this distinction doesn’t appear in the Heidelberg Catechism.  Since it was written for children, you shouldn’t expect it to.  But Zacharias Ursinus (the main author of the Catechism) does use this distinction in his theological commentary on the Catechism.  It was also employed by Puritans such as John Owen and Jeremiah Burroughs.  Not surprisingly then, it becomes part of the Reformed confessional heritage in Westminster Confession 1.6, speaking of circumstances in worship “which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”         

The historical pedigree of this distinction is sound, but the most important question is whether it’s biblical.  Certainly in the New Testament we see believers worshipping God in a variety of places – homes, synagogues, and even the temple.  We see believers worshipping God at different times:  evening, late evening, and morning.  This sort of variability observed in Scripture is what undergirds this distinction.  Outside of the elements commanded for worship, God grants liberty to his church to order the circumstances wisely.

This distinction doesn’t instantly solve every question in Reformed worship.  There are disagreements amongst Reformed and Presbyterian liturgists about what constitutes elements and circumstances.  Probably the most well-known example has to do with musical instruments.  Some, such as myself, would contend that musical accompaniment (done judiciously) is circumstantial.  Others would maintain it has the character of an element and, since it is not commanded in the New Testament, it cannot be justified by the RPW.  Note:  both sides fully affirm the RPW.  However, they differ at the application of it, specifically when it comes to defining elements and circumstances.  And no, it’s not a matter of “strict” RPW versus “loose” RPW.  You either hold to the RPW or you don’t. 

While those disagreements can be quite intense at times, we do well to note the broad consensus existing amongst confessionally Reformed churches.  There’s unanimous agreement that things like the time of the worship services and the type of seating are circumstantial.  Whether you worship in a custom-built church building or use a school gymnasium – God-pleasing worship in Spirit and truth can happen regardless.  Conversely, we all agree that what matters are the God-commanded elements.  Without elements like the reading and preaching of Scripture and prayer, you simply don’t have Reformed worship.  You have something less than authentic Christian worship.  Because of our love for the Saviour and what he’s done, we want to follow his Word carefully when it comes to the content of our worship.  But we’ll also be careful about imposing our own opinions where God has granted liberty to be different.

For more on Reformed worship, check out Aiming to Please: a Guide to Reformed Worship.


“Plain Water” — The Reformation and Worship

The Reformation wasn’t only about theology.  It was also, and perhaps most centrally, about doxology.  It was about the right giving of glory, about worship.  That was the central thesis of Carlos Eire’s 1986 book, War Against the Idols: the Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin.  It’s essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what really drove the Reformation in the sixteenth century.

At the heart of the Reformed drive to purify Christian worship was a principle.  That principle was sola Scriptura — by the Bible alone.  Our worship is to be governed only according to the Word of God.  God alone has the prerogative to determine how we are to worship him and his prerogatives are expressed in the Scriptures.

That key principle found expression in the Reformed confessions.  For instance, article 7 of the Belgic Confession says that Scripture is sufficient for our faith and practice.  Then it adds, “The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length.”  Later, in article 32, the Confession insists:

We believe that, although it is useful and good for those who govern the church to establish a certain order to maintain the body of the church, they must at all times watch that they do not deviate from what Christ, our only Master, has commanded.  Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the conscience in any way.

Or as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it in QA 96, “We are not to worship him [God] in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.”  That is the most succinct expression of the Reformed principle of worship.  In more recent times, it’s been called the regulative principle of worship.  It’s simply the application of sola Scriptura to worship.

Naturally, there is a background to this in the pre-Reformation church.  In the medieval church, things had been added and subtracted from Christian worship.  This had been done on human authority, without any divine approbation from the Scriptures.  When the Reformation arrived, people again became attuned to the Scriptures and they realized that the church’s worship had become idolatrous.  Worship was in need of renewal according to the Bible.

A noteworthy example of this is found in article 34 of the Belgic Confession.  This article first speaks in general terms about the meaning of Christian baptism.  Baptism has replaced circumcision.  Baptism is the means by which we are “received into the church of God.”  Through baptism we are set apart from the world.  Then the Reformed churches confess this:

For that reason he has commanded all those who are his to be baptized with plain water into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19).

Notice especially the mention of “plain water.”  Those two words are pregnant with meaning.

“Plain water” is directed at the ways in which Rome had added to baptism.  In his book Flesh and Spirit, Steven Ozment describes how baptism was administered by Rome around the time of the Reformation:

The traditional service of baptism began with the priest blowing gently under the eyes of the newborn and commanding the devil, “Flee from this child, unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit.”  The child then received the mark of the cross on its forehead and chest and a pinch of consecrated salt in its mouth, this time accompanied by the words, “Take the salt of [divine] wisdom, and may it atone for you in eternity.”  Thereafter, the priest imitated Christ’s healing of a deaf-mute (Mark 7:33-34) and a blind man (John 9:6) by dabbing a mixture of his own sputum and dirt in the child’s nose and ears, while pronouncing a double command, the first for the child, the second for the devil:  “[Dear child] receive the sweetness [of God]…devil, flee, for the judgment of God is near.”  The priest then anointed the child’s chest and shoulders with olive oil and placed a consecrated mixture of olive oil and balsam — the holy chrism — on the crown of its head.  The final acts of the service belonged to the godparent, who took the naked, baptized child from the priest and clothed it in the traditional white shirt or gown (the Wester, Alba, or Westerhemd) — symbols of purity and acceptance into the body Christian– which the godparent provided for the occasion.  The godparent then named the child, often after the godparent.  The service concluded with the placement of a candle in the combined hands of the child and parent(s), who were exhorted to “receive the ardent and blameless Light [of God].”  (page 78)

That was a long, complicated description, wasn’t it?  And how much of it is commanded in Scripture?  You can see why the Belgic Confession says so much with two words about baptism:  “plain water.”  That’s how Christ commanded baptism to be done, so that’s how we do baptism.  It’s simple and biblical.

With 500 years since the Reformation, is this Reformed principle of worship still relevant?  Look around.  You’ll see Protestant churches that add and take away from Christ’s commands for worship here, there, and everywhere.  Sadly, there are churches where there is no biblical preaching to speak of.  There are churches which neglect the sacraments.  There are churches which substitute dramatic productions (on the stage or on the screen) for preaching.  In some “Presbyterian” churches, they’ve at times added liturgical dancing.   There have even  been “Reformed” churches where they decided to preach on The Simpsons rather than the Word of God.  It’s almost as if the Reformation never happened!  For this reason, we need to learn again from the Reformation about worship.  We need to go back to the faithful summary of Scripture in our Reformed confessions.  When we do that, we will worship God only as he commands in his Word — no additions or subtractions.


Reconciling the Regulative Principle with “Feast Days”/”Days of Commemoration”

In its basic form, the regulative principle of worship states that we are only to worship God as he has commanded, not adding or taking away from Scripture. It was some years ago, while I was still in university, that I became convinced that this regulative principle of worship is the Reformed, confessional, position on worship.  It was not difficult to see that the teaching of Heidelberg Catechism QA 96 (we are not to worship God “in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word”) is biblical and exactly in line with other Reformed confessions like the Westminster Standards.  I also came to see that this Reformed principle of worship was not only in the Belgic Confession in article 32, but also in article 7.  I wrote a paper on that, demonstrating that the regulative principle, according to our confession, is simply the liturgical outworking of Sola ScripturaI have also argued that denying the regulative principle of worship has serious consequences and leads to bizarre liturgical innovations.

The principle itself is straightforward.  Application of the principle is where we often encounter differences.  It took some time for me to work through some of these issues too.  For example, there was a time when I struggled with understanding how one could celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25 and still hold to the regulative principle.  However, through further research and conversations with others, I came to peace with that.  I still hold to the regulative principle, but I can also in good conscience join with God’s people in commemorating the birth of our Saviour on December 25.  Rather than have me explain in detail how I have reconciled these things, I highly recommend this article by my colleague Daniel Hyde.  This article is being published in the 2015 issue of the Mid-America Journal of Theology.  It helpfully explains how one can both hold to the regulative principle and worship on the “feast days” or “days of commemoration.”