Ever Heard of the “Constitutive Principle of Worship”?

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Tempus faciendi, Domine.
More pot stirring, from yours truly.

The PCA Historical Center recently received donation of a bound copy of Brian T. Wingard’s 1992 Westminster dissertation, “As the LORD Puts Words in Her Mouth” : The Supremacy of Scripture in the Ecclesiology of James Henley Thornwell and Its Influence upon the Presbyterian Churches of the South. It looked interesting and so I took it home to read a bit this evening. Along about page 100 in Mr. Wingard’s dissertation, there is this surprising correction on a phrase commonly used in Reformed circles:

Before this study proceeds it is necessary, however, to say a few words concerning the nomenclature that one is likely to find in Thornwell when he discusses this subject. Thornwell used terms in a manner which was very clear to his nineteenth century contemporaries, but which may give some problem to those of us who are not native to that milieu. Confusion and misunder-standing may be the result if a word is not said to arrest their development.

Mention has been made above concerning the “regulative principle of worship”, for this has become the common designation for that principle found in the Westminster Confession, Chapter XXI, 1: “. . . But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or in any way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.” Dr. Thornwell would, however, completely deny the term “regulative” to describe this principle. To his mind the term “regulative” was contrary to the principle itself, and the word which he would put in its place is the term “constitutive.”

The difference which Thornwell saw between the two terms may be noticed in his debate with Charles Hodge over the issue of the nature of Presbyterianism. In an article entitled “Church-Boards and Presbyterianism,” originally published in the Southern Presbyterian Review of July 1861, Thornwell described the difference he saw between “regulative principles” and “constitutive principles.” Regulative principles, said he, define only the ends at which they are aimed. They do not contain within themselves the “mode of their own exemplification.” On the other hand, constitutive principles encompass both the end which is the goal of action and the means by which that goal is to be achieved. For Thornwell a regulative principle was a “general principle,” while a constitutive principle was a “prescriptive” principle. (Thornwell, Collected Writings [1974], 4:252-253)

Is that correction needed and worth striving for, or is the reigning expression “regulative principle of worship” too ingrained in common usage?



Staff member
Is that correction needed and worth striving for, or is the reigning expression “regulative principle of worship” too ingrained in common usage?

Too engrained; I recall finding that in Thornwell some years ago when I was researching where the moniker "regulative principle of worship" came from. It converges from Southern Presbyterianism with Girardeau's regulative principles (according to his biographer son in law [Blackburn?]--so he apparently had no trouble with the use of that term) and Scottish Presbyterianism. The principle was never quite coined to that phrase until Professor John Murray turned the Scots usage (principle regulative of worship) around into an Americanism and a term was born (in my opinion; can't find earlier specific usage).
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