Dr. Bob Gonzales
Puritan Board Junior
Dr. Gonzalez, I wonder if the answer to your question is not actually quite simple.
I wasn't trying to oversimplify the whole debate. Years of debate within the Reformed community obviously demonstrate that the answer to the question (or at least all the issues flowing from the question) is not that simple.
When the Confession says that God has left our conscience free, it is obviously talking about what can be imposed by authority. Civil or ecclesiastical authority has no authority to bind my conscience in things that are contrary to the word of God.
But then there is an additional limitation expressed towards ecclesiastical authority. The Church has no right to bind my conscience without express warrant from the word of God. Some time ago Mr. Winzer explained this very point on a PuritanBoard thread, and it really helped me understand the RPW far better than I ever had before. (Though let me add that I make no claim to be stating Mr. Winzer's views in this post.)
In that case, the distinction is really rather clear. There was not express Scriptural warrant for Caesar Augustus to tax the whole world; but the civil authority doesn't need express Scriptural warrant, they need to not contradict Scripture. On the other hand, when it comes to our manner of approaching God, since He Himself, and His will regarding worship are unknowable apart from His own revelation, we do need express warrant for anything we do in worshipping Him. If we do not, our conduct implies either that we think we have access to information about God apart from His own self-disclosure, or that we have the authority to tell God what He ought to like -which seems to me like a clear violation of not only the second but also the first commandment.
The light of nature and biblical principle indicates that government officials, like the laborer, are worthy of their hire (Deut. 25:4; Mark 12:16-17; Rom. 13:7; 1 Tim. 5:18). So the Scriptures do provide warrant for Caesar Augustus' tax in general. Of course, he has to make a circumstantial application of the general principle. And in this case, he did not need explicit warrant to impose a tax on the whole Roman empire on that particular occasion. Neither do ecclesiastical authorities need explicit warrant to impose on their congregations necessary circumstantial applications of general principles in Scripture. For example, the Scriptures command God's people to gather for worship on the Lord's Day. They do not specify the exact location, time, duration, or number of meetings. The ecclesiastical authorities have to apply the general principles of God's word in concrete ways that do not contradict or invalidate God's word. This legitimate freedom is positively warranted by Scripture (see WCF I, 6). Just as parents are authorized (within the bounds of Scripture) to set house rules, so pastors may set "house rules," i.e., circumstantial applications of general principle, for which there is no explicit warrant.
Of course, the Scriptures make clear that the only way to approach God is throught the gospel of Jesus Christ (John 14:6). Man may not devise another method. The exactness of regulations regarding the building of the temple, the role of the priests, and the offering of sacrifice point to the need to be very exact and precise in our proclamation of the gospel. If anyone alters the gospel, he is under God's curse (Gal. 1:8-9). Moreover, the Scriptures identify the activities that should be part of our public worship, viz, preaching, teaching, praise, prayer, the sacraments, giving, etc. We're not at liberty to disregard these activities.
The Reformed community needs to realize that the simple assertion of the RPW as articulated in the Puritan confessions does not settle all disputes. In my opinion, most of those disputes, at least within the Reformed community, center on matters of the circumstantial application of God's word. One Reformed brother thinks singing anything other than the psalms is a form of idolatry. Another condemns the use of instruments as a human innovation. I recently had someone write me a long letter of concern that I had introduced human tradition into worship because I preached on our duty to honor our mother on "Mother's Day." On and on I could go.
My point is not to suggest that we reject the principle that affirms we may only worship God in the ways he warrants. But I do question whether the Scripture provides clear support for positing two distinct principles for governing life. I realize some Reformed and Puritan pastors and theologians have and continue to argue affirmatively. But I haven't been convinced by the exegesis. Moreover, it seems to me that despite whether one takes a more traditional view or a more "novel" Framian view, he must still in the end make his case from the Bible not from the practices of our forefathers. Does the Scripture warrant the replacement of a sermon with a dramatic skit. Frame thinks it may. On the basis of NT precedent, I don't agree. But it's not because I've adopted a different operating principle than Frame. Sola Scriptura is the bottom line. That doesn't exclude the need for wisdom and discernment (e.g., choosing contemporary hymns that have solid lyrics and tunes that are edifying to God's people).