Some Problems with the Regulative Principle of Worship & a More Biblical View of Scripture’s Normativity

What follows are excerpts from a paper I wrote for a doctoral seminar at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Download the entire paper here.  Much has been omitted.  For instance, instead of including a long section defining “principlization” and “the regulative principle,” I have given brief descriptions to save space.  The reason for including principlization in this discussion is because I see a connection between it as a general hermeneutical method and the regulative principle as a specific method of applying principles in the areas of church worship and church government.

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Brief Descriptions of Principlization and the Regulative Principle

When principlizing, the interpreter seeks to discern the transcultural principles within the culturally situated text of Scripture in order that those principles might be applied to people situated in the contemporary culture.

The regulative principle can be defined this way: church worship must be restricted to only those practices that are prescribed in God’s Word or that are by logical necessity deduced from God’s Word.  Not following this principle will result, so it is argued, in worshiping God in ways he does not desire to be worshiped, and in binding the consciences of worshipers by imposing false worship practices upon them.

Critiquing Principlization and the Regulative Principle

Even proponents of principlization and the regulative principle recognize the difficulty of actually using their respective theories.*1*  Of course, these difficulties could simply be due to the fact that any attempt to interpret and apply Scripture is complicated to some extent.  On the other hand, these difficulties might also be due to the fact that there are fundamental flaws in the theories themselves.  This is not to say that all principlizing is wrong, or that it is wrong to look for principles in Scripture that are particularly related to the worship and government of the church (as the regulative principle does).*2*  Rather, it is a certain way of principlizing that can be faulty, and it is the belief that either the method of principlizing or the regulative principle are sufficient explanations of Scripture’s normativity that is wrongheaded.

One of the major problems with both the principlizing approach and the regulative principle (insofar as the regulative principle relies on this method of interpretation) is that the form of the Bible itself runs counter to what the principlizer seems to want it to be.  The interpreter who tries to turn the Bible into a collection of transcultural, ahistorical, universal truths must wrestle with the question of why it is that God did not simply give his people a book full of mere principles in the first place.  As N. T. Wright reminds us, the Bible “is not a rule book; it is a narrative.”*3*  To attempt merely to gather a collection of all the transcultural principles from Scripture is to “belittle the Bible” because it implies “that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book and [that] it is our job to turn it into the right sort of book by engaging in these hermeneutical moves.”*4*  Likewise, Kevin Vanhoozer notes that, in an attempt to turn every passage of Scripture into a proposition, principlizing does not sufficiently account for the Bible’s literary variety: “The main defect of propositionalism is that it reduces the variety of speech actions in the canon to one type: the assertion.”*5*  Something is simply not right when an interpreter believes he must “entirely replace a literary form with an equivalent descriptive proposition.”*6*  After all, as Daniel Doriani inquires, “[W]hy should doctrinal propositions and direct ethical imperatives gain primacy over other modes of revelation?”*7*  “The principle itself,” Doriani claims, “is extrabiblical.”*8*  In other words, the Bible should be interpreted in accordance with the type of book it is; namely, a book made of up texts that come in a variety of genres.  A hermeneutical method that turns all of Scripture into principles does not meet the Bible on its own terms.  As Richard Lints reminds his readers, “Our interpretive matrix should be the interpretive matrix of the Scriptures.”*9*

At this point, the regulative principle runs into the same problem that the principlizing hermeneutic faces.  Those working on the basis of the regulative principle attempt to discover rules for worship that are “either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.”*10*  As Michael Farley points out, however, no part of the New Testament presents anything like “a complete manual of liturgics.”*11*  To seek to use the New Testament as if it were a rule book for worship, then, is to use it in a way that the New Testament itself does not intend to be used.  As Farley states, “If none of the individual NT books were written to be an exhaustive liturgical manual, then it is wrong to read and apply the NT as a whole in this restrictive fashion.”*12*  To read and apply the New Testament in this way, Farley states, is “to read the NT in an inappropriately narrow and legalistic fashion as if the NT as a whole is to function as a collective new covenant version of Leviticus.”*13*  God could have given the New Testament church a new version of Leviticus for the purpose of directing new covenant worship, but he did not.  This must have at least some bearing on the way we attempt to formulate what it means to regulate church worship and church government according to the Bible.

Another problem with both principlization and the regulative principle is that neither theory is sufficiently alert to the canonical contours and developments within Scripture.  Principles cannot simply be culled from anywhere in the canon and applied to New Testament believers today.  In doing this, R. J. Gore notes, “the redemptive-historical character of revelation is, at times, neglected,”*14* including the discontinuity that exists between the covenants.

One traditional way that Reformed theologians have attempted to set biblical laws (including those related to worship) within their redemptive-historical context is by appealing to the threefold division of the law.  Civil and ceremonial laws, it is argued, are transformed with the coming of the new covenant, but the moral laws of the Old Testament remain binding upon believers of all eras.*15*  The problem with this argument, however, is that the very idea that biblical law can be divided up in this threefold manner “does not hold up under close scrutiny.”*16*  As Douglas Moo argues, “Jews in Jesus’ and Paul’s day certainly did not divide up the law into categories; on the contrary, there was a strong insistence that the law was a unity and could not be obeyed in parts.  This being the case, we would require strong evidence from within the New Testament to think that the word ‘law’ in certain texts can apply to one part of the law.”*17*  Strong evidence for this is precisely what Moo argues we do not find in Scripture.  Thus, “the continuity of the law in the new covenant cannot be founded on such a distinction among the different ‘kinds’ of laws.”*18*

A better way of applying the Bible, including the Mosaic law, will be set forth in the next section, but for now the point needs to be emphasized that a method concerned primarily with discerning transcultural moral principles for worship does not sufficiently account for Scripture’s normativity.  It is simply not enough to ask, “What is the principle in this text?”  One must also ask of any text, “What time is it?”*19*  In other words, discerning where the text is situated in the drama of redemptive history is just as important as discerning the principles within a text; for as N. T. Wright states, “If you affirm a doctrine but place it in the wrong implicit narrative, you potentially falsify it as fully and thoroughly as if you denied it altogether.”*20*  A text’s meaning (and thus any principle within that text) develops as the narrative of God’s salvation unfolds.*21*  Thus, lifting a principle from its Old Testament context without accounting for the way in which that principle develops up until it reaches the same epoch as the interpreter will result in an attempt to fit an underdeveloped principle (canonically speaking) into a more developed time period.  This is unnatural, and should be avoided; and yet, on their own, neither the principlizing approach nor the regulative principle can prevent this from happening.

Another weakness of the regulative principle is that Jesus seems not to have practiced it.  If the regulative principle teaches that only those practices prescribed in Scripture may be observed in the worship of God, then what is to be made of Jesus’ attendance of synagogues and Jewish feasts not prescribed in the Mosaic law?*22*  Neither synagogue worship, nor (for example) the Feast of the Dedication of Jerusalem (John 10:22) were prescribed in the Old Testament.  Both were a part of first century Jewish worship, and both were observed by Jesus, but both might also be categorized by the Westminster divines as established “according to the imaginations and devices of men,” as ways of worship “not prescribed in Holy Scripture.”*23*  If Jesus did not follow the regulative principle, then why should we?

Yet another problem with the regulative principle is that the argument from liberty of conscience (one of its principal arguments) is faulty.  For the Puritans, one of the primary motivations for developing the regulative principle was to protect their consciences from the imposition of extrabiblical observances by the state church.*24*  But, as R. J. Gore points out, “Today there is no ‘national church’ seeking to impose uniformity of worship.  Instead, we see denominational systems of local congregations in which individuals freely associate and voluntarily embrace confessions of faith, constitutions, and directories of worship.  The problem of imposition is virtually nonexistent.”*25*  To repeat Calvin, “There is . . . a great difference between establishing some exercise of piety which believers may use with a free conscience, or   . . . abstain from it, and making a law to entrap consciences in bondage.”*26*  A minister does not “bind” the consciences of church members simply by including an activity in the order of service that is not prescribed in Scripture.  Congregants can decide whether or not they want to participate in the activity, or even whether they want to attend that particular church at all, for that matter.
Finally, another weakness of both principlization and the regulative principle is that these views are sometimes accompanied by a false antithesis that goes something like this: either one holds to the regulative principle or one does not believe that the Bible is normative for contemporary church worship and government.  For instance, Reisinger and Allen state that “every part of divine worship must be authorized in the Scriptures.  Otherwise, how could the ‘sole authority’ for religious ‘practice’ be the Bible?  Only the regulative principle teaches that the sole authority for ‘practice’ is Scripture.”*27*  The problem with this statement is that these are not the only options.*28*  There are other, more biblical, ways of understanding Scripture’s normativity than the regulative principle, and it is to this subject that the next section of this paper is addressed.

Constructing a Better Theory of Scripture’s Normativity

A better way of understanding how it is that Scripture is normative for the contemporary church is by viewing salvation-history as the drama of redemption, and the Bible as the script in that drama that determines the canonical appropriateness or inappropriateness of church practices.  Scripture, as script, both tells the story of previous acts in the drama of redemption and calls for a fitting continuation of that drama by modern believers.

Two of the most prominent scholars who have argued for viewing Scripture’s normative in this way are N. T. Wright and Kevin Vanhoozer,*29* and it is a model like theirs that is offered here as a more canonically oriented approach to the question of Scripture’s normativity. [It should be noted that while I don’t agree with Wright on some things, I do find his material on this particular subject to be helpful.]

[Several pages have been omitted here as the main purpose of this post is to draw attention to the weaknesses of traditional understandings of the regulative principle and the need to have a more canonically oriented approach.]

With the models of both Wright and Vanhoozer,*30* principles are still used in the process of determining canonical fittingness,*31* but they are used with heightened attention to their place and development within redemptive history (the “What time is it?” question).*32*  This requires that an interpreter not merely discern the principles within a text, but also the ways in which those principles develop along the Bible’s storyline: it “involves knowing where we are within the overall drama and what is appropriate within each act.”*33*  When it comes to matters of church worship and church government, then, contemporary practices will be “fitting” or “appropriate” if they go with the grain of the redemptive-historical script, and must be considered “unfitting” and “inappropriate” if they cut against that grain.  Principles will still need to be discerned, and church worship and government will still need to be regulated by them;*34* but, with a more canonical model of Scripture’s normativity, Scripture can be applied with greater respect for the nature of the Bible itself and with greater sensitivity to the church’s place in the biblical drama.


*1*For instance, Walter Kaiser states, “This area of the cultural and historical application of the biblical message is not easily resolved in every case.”  See Kaiser and Silva, Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics, 237.  Kaiser also notes the difficulty with seeking a transcultural principle, when the interpreter himself is culturally conditioned: “Interpreters also must be aware of the way that their culture forces certain questions while leaving them blind to other, perhaps equally provocative questions.  Furthermore, when interpreters arrive at a text, they have already formed a kind of hermeneutical spiral that has a forceful way of imposing categories or ways of looking at certain questions and the like.  Interpreters must constantly go through periods of self-examination to see just how free they really are and to consider how much each of these points previously adopted has indeed affected the exegesis” (Ibid., 238).  Likewise, Douglas Kelly, a proponent of the regulative principle, states, “It is much easier to state these two varying rules for regulating church worship and government than to decide exactly how to work either of them out!”  See Kelly, “Puritan Regulative Principle,” 71.

*2*As Kevin Vanhoozer notes, “One need not be a propositionalist . . . to maintain a role for propositions.”  See Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 279.  Vanhoozer criticizes “[b]oth the traditional propositionalist and critics such as [George] Lindbeck” for “(1) failing to see the propositional component in all communicative action and (2) failing to see that the larger literary forms have cognitive significance that consists of something other than conveying propositions” (Ibid.).  Again, Vanhoozer argues that understanding a text’s propositional content is necessary, but not enough, when he writes, “To take the apostolic discourse as normative for theology, one must do more than read it as direct communication—that is, as a straightforward teaching of revealed truths.  Theologians must do more (but not less!) than ‘narrow’ analysis that simply distills clear propositions from texts in order to assess their cogency.  This kind of analysis . . . yields only thin textual descriptions that overlook the cognitive significance of larger forms of discourse, such as literary genres.”  See Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “The Apostolic Discourse and Its Developments,” in Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible: How the New Testament Shapes Christian Dogmatics, eds. Markus Bockmuehl and Alan J. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 200-01.  David Clark also sees the necessity of principlizing, though he criticizes severely the way some people go about it: “Some kind of principlizing is necessary to evangelical theology.  But there are dangers. . . . Clearly, drawing out principles from the total teachings of Scripture is one of the important tasks of theology.  But using this model only—seeing all theology as principlizing the Bible—is inadequate.”  See Clark, To Know and Love God, 94.

*3*N. T. Wright, “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?,” Vox Evangelica 21 (1991): 10.

*4*Ibid., 13.  Elsewhere Wright states that “biblicistic proof-texting” is “inconsistent with the nature of the texts we have.”  See N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 140.  Wright contrasts the problematic approach of principlizing with what he considers to be a better way forward: “Rather than trying to filter out the actual arguments that Paul is mounting in order to ‘get at’ the doctrines that, it is assumed, he is ‘expounding,’ I have stressed that we must pay attention to those larger arguments and to the great story of God, the world, Israel, and Jesus, giving special attention to the ‘Israel’ dimension, within which the cross means for him what it means for him.”  See N. T. Wright, “Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture,” in Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible: How the New Testament Shapes Christian Dogmatics, eds. Markus Bockmuehl and Alan J. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 70.

*5*Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 31.  He goes on to say that “[t]his results in a monologic conception of theology, and of truth.  To think of theology as a monologue, even a truthful monologue, is to reduce theo-drama—in which the dialogical action is carried by a number of voices—to mere theory.  Neither the theo-drama nor the canonical script can be reduced to propositions and theories without significant loss.  Doing justice to the biblical text ultimately requires a different kind of exegetical scientia, one that goes beyond propositionalism without, however, leaving propositions behind” (Ibid.).  According to Vanhoozer, “[t]hose who dedramatize the Bible in this way want the ‘point’ without the parable, the content without the form, the ‘soul’ without the body of the text.”*29*  See Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “A Drama-of-Redemption Model: Always Performing?,” in Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology, ed. Gary T. Meadors (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 158.  David Clark makes a similar criticism of principlizing: “It can suggest, very delicately, that the genres of Scripture are of essentially the wrong type.  It can hint that the Bible, to be truly or more helpfully theological, should not retain its from as prophecy, poetry, letters, or history.  Rather, some seem to assume that God should have inspired more abstract propositions.  They view Scripture as an ‘unsorted edition of Calvin’ or some other theological hero.  Their method of reading the text, by valuing abstract and general propositions over the Bible’s literary genres, implies that God inspired the wrong sort of book.  It suggests that the theologian’s task is to translate the Bible into a better, more useful form—that is, into sets of philosophy-like statements.”  See Clark, To Know and Love God, 95-96.  Emphasis original.  So Richard Briggs, who states that the principlizing approach, “assumes that whatever the kind of text we have, what we are really looking for is principles, and if we do not see them in the text then we need to find them by drawing them out of the text.” See Briggs, Reading the Bible Wisely, 89.

*6*Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “From Canon to Concept: ‘Same’ and ‘Other’ in the Relation between Biblical and Systematic Theology,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 12/1 (1994): 112-13.  To do so is to commit “the ‘substitution theory’ of genre” (Ibid., 112).

*7*Daniel M. Doriani, “A Redemptive-Historical Model,” in Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology, ed. Gary T. Meadors (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 88.

*8*Ibid., 87.  Of the problems with Kaiser’s principlizing approach, Doriani also writes: “First, principlizing treats the particularity and cultural embeddedness of Scriptures more as a problem to be overcome than as something essential to the givenness of the Bible.  Kaiser says cultural issues ‘intrude’ on the text; the problem is ‘handled’ by principlizing the text. . . . As a result, there can be no aiding interest in the genres of Scripture.  Once the principle is extracted, the God-given form of Scripture falls away like a wheat husk or pea pod.  Second, and more seriously, principlizing’s insistence on timeless, propositional truth privileges one from of divine communication above others.  While we must never deny or even minimize the importance of propositional truth, we must remember that revelation comes in many forms.  Alongside propositions, the Bible contains commands, questions, prayers, promises and curses, riddles, vows, parables, and more. . . . Third, Kaiser appears to claim a privileged position with regard to the text, as if he might be able to transcend both the original culture of the Bible and his own. . . . No human can achieve a timeless, culture-free posture.” See Daniel M. Doriani, “A Response to Walter C. Kaiser, Jr,” in Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology, ed. Gary T. Meadors (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 53-55.

*9*Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 269.  Lints continues, “It should make sense of the past and the present and the future in the same manner that the Scriptures do.  In order to do this, a theological framework cannot simply mine the Scriptures looking for answers to a set of specific questions that arise uniquely in the modern era.  It should seek out the questions that the Scriptures are asking, for these remain the questions that are important for understanding the past and present and future” (Ibid.).

*10*Westminster Confession of Faith, 195; WCF 1.6.

*11*Michael A. Farley, “What Is ‘Biblical’ Worship? Biblical Hermeneutics and Evangelical Theologies of Worship,” JETS 51/3 (2008): 610.

*12*Ibid., 610-11.

*13*Ibid., 610.  John Frame also recognizes the contradiction that exists between the desire to use the Bible as a rule book for worship and the fact that the Bible itself does not come to us in this form: “It is not as if God has given us a document with a list of commands concerning worship, say numbered 1-75, and we could simply look at the list to resolve any questions we might have about worship.  Were such a list available, we could simply look up any disputed practice on the list; if it is commanded by one of the 75 ordinances, then we would do it; otherwise, not. . . . I confess that I find it difficult to understand why God, if he wished to lay down a principle governing worship sharply distinct from his principle for governing ordinary life, did not give us something like a ‘book of commands’ for worship, like the book of 75 in the earlier illustration, something like the ‘directories of public worship’ published by various denominations.  On the contrary, it appears that we must determine God’s will for worship by the same hermeneutically problematic methods by which we seek to discover God’s will in other areas of life.”  See John Frame, “Some Questions about the Regulative Principle,” WTJ 54 (1992): 359, 361.  To imagine that questions of the regulation of worship can be solved by turning to a rule in a rule book is “to impose upon them a false simplicity” (Ibid., 366).  For a critical response to Frames “questions” about the regulative principle see T. David Gordon, “Some Answers about the Regulative Principle,” WTJ 55 (1993): 321-29.

*14*Gore, Covenantal Worship, 98.  Gore notes, for instance, the way the Westminster Confession uses prooftexts in §21.1: “For example, in dealing with the definition of worship, the Westminster Confession of Faith, 21.1, uses prooftexts that had relevance in a particular cultural setting, namely the entrance of Israel into a land in which paganism was the dominant religious system: Joshua 24:14; Deuteronomy 4:15-20; 12:32; Exodus 20:4-6, among others.  Certainly these texts would be a part of an overall theology of worship, but to absolutize them without due regard for their cultural setting is to distort their place in a developed theology of worship and their relevance for contemporary challenges” (Ibid.).

*15*For this view see Knox Chamblin, “The Law of Moses and the Law of Christ,” in Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship between the Old and New Testaments, ed. John S. Feinberg (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1988).

*16*Douglas J. Moo, “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses: A Modified Lutheran View,” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley N. Gundry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 335.

*17*Ibid., 336.


*19*See N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 138.  For Wright’s attempt to address this question in relation to where Jesus saw himself on the redemptive-historical timeline see Ibid., 467-72.  “What time is it?” is one of a series of questions that Wright believes go into shaping a persons worldview (i.e., the narrative in which they see themselves).  For the other questions see Wright, New Testament and the People of God, 123.  He adds “What time is it?” to his list in Jesus and the Victory of God.  Wright criticizes the Reformers for not emphasizing enough the narrative nature of Scripture: “What we miss today, as we read the Reformers, is something which is vital within scripture itself but which, in their attention to the details, they were not concerned to stress: the great narrative of God, Israel, Jesus and the world, coming forward into our own day and looking ahead to the eventual renewal of all things. . . . Thus, for instance, their readings of the gospels show little awareness of them as anything other than repositories of dominical teaching, concluding with the saving events of Good Friday and Easter but without integrating those events into the Kingdom-proclamation that preceded them.” See N. T. Wright, The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 76.  Emphasis original.

*20*Wright, “Reading Paul,” 66.

*21*See Peter J. Leithart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009), 35-74.  Richard Lints also holds that a text’s very meaning can develop: “Old Testament passages are often ‘recast’ in the New Testament.  This is not to say that New Testament authors dismissed the original event of redemptive significance as no longer useful; rather, in light of the new revelation, they moved aspects that had formerly gone unnoticed into the foreground, thereby creating a broader horizon of interpretation.  In this sense, they completed or refined the meaning of the original events.”  See Lints, Fabric of Theology, 308-09.  Emphasis original.  Like Leithart, Lints even goes so far as to say that the transformation that the text produces in its contemporary readers is part of the text’s meaning: “A theological analysis of a particular text must be careful not simply to tell us what the text ‘means’ but must also seek to capture the manner in which that meaning is conveyed and the impact it is to have on life.  We must not drain away the life of the text by abstracting its meaning.  Part of the meaning of the text is the transformation of life that it occasions” (Ibid., 296).

*22*R. J. Gore makes this point in Gore, Covenantal Worship, 100-10.

*23*Westminster Confession of Faith, 217; WCF 21.1.

*24*“Arguably, some of the view on worship practices coming out of the Reformation were influenced or affected, at least in part, by a reaction to the prevailing worship practices of the Roman Catholic Church, rather than just out of a desire to apply pure biblical principles.”  See Dominic A. Aquila, “Redemptive History and the Regulative Principle of Worship,” in The Hope Fulfilled: Essays in Honor of O. Palmer Robertson, ed. Robert L. Penny (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 254.

*25*Gore, “Regulative Principle, Part II,” 45.

*26*Calvin, Institutes, 1199.

*27*Reisinger and Allen, Worship, 35.  They are referring to the 1925 Southern Baptist Faith and Message, which states that “the sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.”  Quoted in L. Russ Bush and Tom J. Nettles, Baptists and the Bible (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1980), 105.

*28*To prove that the regulative principle alone “teaches that the sole authority for ‘practice’ is Scripture,” the authors would have to debunk every other theory of Scripture’s normativity.  In their book, however, the only approach against which they argue is the normative principle.  These are not the only options.

*29*See Wright, “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?”; idem, New Testament and the People of God, 121-44; and idem, The Last Word.  See also Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine; and idem, “Drama-of-Redemption Model.”  All that follows is similar to what Richard Lints calls for when he speaks of the need to take note of the epochal context of Scripture: “A contemporary theological framework must focus centrally on our ‘redemptive-historical index,’ by which I mean the understanding of our place in the historical unfolding of the purposes of God.  We stand in a unique epoch of God’s redemptive dealings with humankind, and until we have understood the relationship between our epoch and those that have preceded it and will follow it, we will retain a hopelessly fragmented conception of ourselves and our culture.  We must understand where we have come from and where we are headed if we are to understand who we are right now.”  See Lints, Fabric of Theology, 276.  “The Bible is relevant,” writes Lints, “because the present situation is but another episode in the story of the Bible—a story that has begun and climaxed and awaits a consummation foretold in the Scriptures.  The Scriptures offer a framework for interpreting this past, present, and future, including our own past, present, and future” (Ibid., 313).

*30*Wright and Vanhoozer were not the first to develop these ideas.  For example, see the seminal work of Nicholas Lash in Nicholas Lash, Theology on the Way to Emmaus (London: SCM, 1986), especially chapter three entitled “Performing the Scriptures.”  Lash states that “Christian practice, as interpretative action, consists in the performance of texts which are construed as ‘rendering,’ bearing witness to, one whose words and deeds, discourse and suffering, “rendered” the truth of God in human history.  The performance of the New Testament enacts the conviction that these texts are most appropriately read as the story of Jesus, the story of everyone else, and the story of God” (Ibid., 42; emphasis original).  Lash uses the analogy of Scripture being like a play that needs to be performed: “[C]onsider another example: a company of actors and an audience performing King Lear.  Once again, the activity upon which they are engaged is that of interpreting a text.  And, once again, the quality of the interpretation depends partly upon an element of creativity that is essential to the interpretative task.  We look to the actors and the producer to enable us in some measure freshly to experience and understand the play” (Ibid., 41).  Like Wright and Vanhoozer, Lash recognizes that there are standards for determining whether a contemporary performance is fitting: “the range of appropriate interpretations of a dramatic or literary texts is constrained by what the text ‘originally meant.’  This is what keeps the historians and textual critics in business.  Good Shakespearean production, for example, presupposes an effective and abiding interest in what was originally meant.  The author retains his authority if it is his text, and not some other, that we seek to interpret. . . . To put it very simply: as the history of the meaning of the text continues, we can and must tell the story differently.  But we do so under constraint: what we may not do, if it is this text which we are to continue to perform, is to tell a different story” (Ibid., 44; emphasis original).  Stephen Barton refers to Lash as the first scholar to develop a performance interpretation model: “In the last two decades, there have been several major proponents of the idea that the most fruitful way to think about biblical interpretation is by analogy with what is involved in the interpretation of a musical score or a dramatic script.  The first that I know of is the Cambridge Roman Catholic philosophical theologian Nicholas Lash, in his seminal essay, ‘Performing the Scriptures,’ first published in 1982.”  See Stephen C. Barton, “New Testament Interpretation as Performance,” SJT 52/2 (1999): 180.  Barton, himself, seeks to advance on this view, “arguing for a new paradigm for NT interpretation.  This paradigm is one which sets interpretation in a framework of divine and human action understood as ‘performance.’  This is a larger framework than the more parochial ones of historical criticism and literary criticism conventionally understood, because the horizon of meaning is not restricted to the past nor to the text as text.  Now the Bible is seen as unique testimony to the ‘performance’ of the triune God, and true interpretation is a matter of so embodying the text as to become part of that performance, sharing in the divine life” (Ibid., 205-06; emphasis original). See also the important work of Michael Farley, who argues for “a more theologically oriented regulative principle” (Michael A. Farley, “Reforming Reformed Worship: Theological Method and Liturgical Catholicity in American Presbyterianism, 1850-2005” [Ph.D. dissertation, Saint Louis University, 2007], 337-38, et al), and a “biblical-typological approach” to hermeneutics (Farley, “What Is ‘Biblical’ Worship?,” 612, et al). See also Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, “Story and Biblical Theology,” in Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation, eds. Craig Bartholomew, Mary Healy, Karl Möller, and Robin Parry, Scripture and Hermeneutics Series, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 144-71; and Wells, Improvisation.

*31*“I do see a modest role for something like principlizing, but the primary thing is to form and transform biblical interpreters through their apprenticeship to the particular habits of prophetic and apostolic judgment intrinsic to and embodied in the biblical texts.”  See Vanhoozer, “A Response to Walter C. Kaiser Jr.,” 62.

*32*As Oliver O’Donovan notes, “Every element of Scripture contributes to the testimony of the whole, but the different contributions are not uniform.  The right understanding of any given element of Scripture is determined by its relation to the whole; but that means by its relation to the historical shape of the event that Scripture attests, the calling of Israel fulfilled in the coming of the Christ.”  See Oliver O’Donovan, “The Moral Authority of Scripture,” in Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible: How the New Testament Shapes Christian Dogmatics, eds. Markus Bockmuehl and Alan J. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 167.

*33*Wright, The Last Word, 121.

*34*On the need for a redemptive-historical framework in biblical hermeneutics and its relevance to debates over the regulative principle see David F. Wells, “On Being Framed,” WTJ 59 (1997): 299.  Because of the weaknesses of the traditional way of understanding the regulative principle (mentioned above), much more weight must be put on the believer applying wisdom as he evaluates the fittingness of certain practices.  Taking up the contested subject of whether or not to allow interpretive dance in a worship service, Timothy Keller writes, “In other words, if you think that dancers in leotards will be too distracting and sexually provocative for your congregation, just say so—don’t try to prove that the Bible forbids it.  It is a bad habit of mind to seek to label ‘forbidden’ what is really just unwise.”  See Timothy J. Keller, “Reformed Worship in the Global City,” in Worship by the Book, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 199 n. 12.  What is required, writes Michael Farley, is “more than merely following a list of clearly prescribed biblical rules; rather, it demands the intelligent and careful exercise of biblical wisdom.”  See Farley, “Reforming Reformed Worship,” 339.


  1. I assume that, when you say you don’t agree with N.T. Wright on some things, that you are (I hope) referring to his skewed soteriology.

    Thank you for writing this paper. I’m a Calvinist, but have to admit that I have some issues with the stringent application of RPW, although in fairness I can see the problem with the other extreme of NPW as well (having been in a pentecostal church for some time in my youth, I can understand why NPW is something to be feared at times). Well done work, sir.

  2. There is a bigger problem with the Regulative Principle. That problem is that its application has been leaked to other areas of our life than just worship. And because of that, believers are thrust into the position of assuming that either there have been no significant changes in the historical and cultural contexts of then and now or to make the Bible too inflexible to address today’s world. In the end, it seems that the RPW is a fence that would restrain us from repeating the abuses of the Roman Church during Reformation times. As for the Regulative Principle being applied to other areas of life, it also acts as a fence but not one that keeps us out, it is one that keeps us in so that it makes us too insular to relate God’s Word to the world.

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