John Frame, the RPW, and sola Scriptura

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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.

Agreed.

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).
 

Semper Fidelis

2 Timothy 2:24-25
Staff member
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.

I believe it is that simple. It goes to what the RPW is an is not. You want to come to a Reformed board and re-define what the RPW is by using Frame as an example of another principle of worship and then complicate the discussion because the actual term is being equivocated. If we're going to discuss the RPW then we need to agree on our definitions and not be lectured that we're being simplistic because we don't share a view that allows us to simply re-define terms. Years of debate on a subject does not mean that certain things are not clear but sometimes simply reveals that some people want to take over certain terms without informing others that they're really after another idea.
 

Dr. Bob Gonzales

Puritan Board Junior
Well said Ruben.

That was my point in drawing out what happens when we allow each of our free consciences to determine what is permissible in worship. Remember that the WCF is written against a backdrop where all sort of non-prescribed elements were not only introduced into worship but enforced upon the worshipers as well.

Good point, Rich. I think the Sitz em Leben of the RPW is important for understanding why it was formulated. The Church of England wanted to impose upon all local congregations a certain uniformity that forced individual pastors and congregations to worship God in ways that, in the estimation of those pastors and congregations, had no warrant in Scripture. Of course, this is a two-edged sword. Just as it's possible to "add" to God's word, so it's possible to "subtract" from God's word. The pastoral leadership and congregation of my local church believes God's word warrants the use of non-inspired hymns and musical accompaniment in corporate worship. So we would not be happy if our Reformed community "enforced upon the worshipers" of our church what we deemed unwarranted strictures (exclusive psalmnody a capella) and uniformity (i.e., do it our way or you're not truly Reformed). Thankfully, most of our churches are content with agreement on the general principle of the RPW while allowing differences in its application. I have often told our congregation that the application of the RPW among various churches in various places and various cultures should produce fraternal twins, not siamese twins.

You won't see me arguing against the idea that God's Word regulates our worship in private but that's not precisely what the RPW is meant to govern. It seems sort of naive to imply that, by noting that God prescribes our worship in a public setting by insisting that we worship Him only in the ways commanded that He leaves us utterly free to be idolatrous in private worship. The principle, in focusing on public worship, doesn't overthrow the 1st and 2nd Commandments concerning private worship but, rather, the principle is meant to draw a more distinct line under the public worship of God.

I hope I didn't say anything that implied one is utterly free to be idolatrous in private worship. I know no one one this PB condones that. Nor do I believe Frame would condone that. What is more, I do think the Bible gives some specific instruction regarding corporate worship which it doesn't give regarding, say, housecleaning. So there we may say there is "a more distinct line" drawn with respect to the public worship of God.

There's a certain level of patience that can be Pastorally corrected as the free consciences of men are trained to have more sanctified consciences so that private worship is improved upon but when you're dealing with the public worship of the entire congregation I believe God has purposefully protected us all from invention and binding our consciences in such a fundamental manner that might lead astray into idolatry because it has the "sanction" of the public worship of God by our undershepherds.

I'm not sure what you're referring to here. Can you offer some specific illustrations or examples of what you're alluding to?

This, I believe, is the real distinction and I'm not certain where Frame can argue there is a defect on thinking in Reformed writing on this, Bob. It sort of goes without saying that we cannot be idolatrous in our personal walk but by re-stating that as an "all of life is worship", whether Frame realizes it or not this has the pedagogical effect of flattening out the distinction between corporate and private worship.

As I pointed out above in the citation from his book, Frame does make a distinction between public and private worship. I won't deny, however, that Frame disagrees with some of the Puritans and modern Reformed writers that the line between public and private worship is not always bold and sharp. He writes, "Therefore, it is not wrong to describe the Christian meeting as, in one sense, a worship service. To say this, however, is not to say that there is a sharp distinction between what we do in the meeting and what we do outside of it. Our holiness, our priesthood, our incense-prayers, and our obedient hearing of the Holy Book are not restricted to the church meetings. The difference between worship in the broader sense and worship in the narrower sense is a difference in degree" (p. 34).

I wouldn't go so far as to say that his view has "the pedagogical effect of flattening out the distinction between corporate and private worship." He clearly maintains the distinction. He just appears hesitant to place public worship in some kind of "wholly other" class as private worship.

Rich, you've been very patient with me, and you may feel like I'm not getting it. Actually, I confess that I'm not as alarmed as others by Frame's theology of worship though I do disagree with some of his applications. Nevertheless, I want to assure you that in practice most on the PB list would find our worship services quite traditional and simple. By starting this post, I don't intend to encourage the kind of "almost anything goes approach" to worship found in some broad evangelical church. And I really do appreciate the zeal for God's glory and word evidenced by all the contributors of this discussion.
 

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.

I believe it is that simple. It goes to what the RPW is an is not. You want to come to a Reformed board and re-define what the RPW is by using Frame as an example of another principle of worship and then complicate the discussion because the actual term is being equivocated. If we're going to discuss the RPW then we need to agree on our definitions and not be lectured that we're being simplistic because we don't share a view that allows us to simply re-define terms. Years of debate on a subject does not mean that certain things are not clear but sometimes simply reveals that some people want to take over certain terms without informing others that they're really after another idea.

Rich, I wasn't aware that anything I've said contradicts the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, which I acknowledged that I subscribe to in order to join the PB. I assumed that since John Frame was a member and teacher of the PCA his views were judged compatible with the WCF. But many on this list apparently believe Frame's approach to the RPW is incompatible with the WCF. If you don't believe we should continue this conversation, I'm content to end it here. Thanks again for your patience.
 

Semper Fidelis

2 Timothy 2:24-25
Staff member
Bob,

I don't mind the discussion but there is a certain level of frustration when people shift the ground of conversation. Much of my frustration is not leveled at you, per se, but at a general movement that doesn't want to acknowledge when they've actually re-defined terms.

Whether you can read it in what you wrote or not the problem leaps out at me when Frame says that there's a distinction between public and private worship but it's not as bold as what the Reformed Church believes it is. Well, what is it then? It's that sort of mushy language that leaves the whole thing open to a variety of interpretations and, in effect, flattens out the discussion.

Whether or not you agree that it flattens it out, it is apparent that Frame does not agree with the RPW as historically defined so, whatever else he may be getting at, he can't call it the RPW. He needs to acknowledge that he doesn't hold to the RPW instead of using completely different descriptions and then calling it the RPW.
 

Semper Fidelis

2 Timothy 2:24-25
Staff member
Well said Ruben.

That was my point in drawing out what happens when we allow each of our free consciences to determine what is permissible in worship. Remember that the WCF is written against a backdrop where all sort of non-prescribed elements were not only introduced into worship but enforced upon the worshipers as well.

Good point, Rich. I think the Sitz em Leben of the RPW is important for understanding why it was formulated. The Church of England wanted to impose upon all local congregations a certain uniformity that forced individual pastors and congregations to worship God in ways that, in the estimation of those pastors and congregations, had no warrant in Scripture. Of course, this is a two-edged sword. Just as it's possible to "add" to God's word, so it's possible to "subtract" from God's word. The pastoral leadership and congregation of my local church believes God's word warrants the use of non-inspired hymns and musical accompaniment in corporate worship. So we would not be happy if our Reformed community "enforced upon the worshipers" of our church what we deemed unwarranted strictures (exclusive psalmnody a capella) and uniformity (i.e., do it our way or you're not truly Reformed). Thankfully, most of our churches are content with agreement on the general principle of the RPW while allowing differences in its application. I have often told our congregation that the application of the RPW among various churches in various places and various cultures should produce fraternal twins, not siamese twins.
The Church of England doesn't account for the fact that Calvin and other Reformed were consistent on this issue. One cannot merely assert that the RPW subtracts from a principle of worship simply because there is suspicion that it was defined in extremis.

There's a certain level of patience that can be Pastorally corrected as the free consciences of men are trained to have more sanctified consciences so that private worship is improved upon but when you're dealing with the public worship of the entire congregation I believe God has purposefully protected us all from invention and binding our consciences in such a fundamental manner that might lead astray into idolatry because it has the "sanction" of the public worship of God by our undershepherds.

I'm not sure what you're referring to here. Can you offer some specific illustrations or examples of what you're alluding to?
There's a general Scriptural principle that God bears patiently with those that are ignorant and going astray and that He considers our frame. Pastors, likewise, are patient and enduring with their flock.

Consequently, an Elder might run across a man with a weak conscience who is over-scrupulous in certain manners or may even need to be instructed away from certain behavior that is clearly idolatrous. Because a man in private worship with his scruples and ignorant idolatry affects only his own personal worship the consequences are not nearly as dire.

In contrast, when an entire congregation is bound by the personal scruples of a member of a congregation then the entire congregation is led into idolatry. Pastors who want to depart from those things that are clearly prescribed in the Word ought to consider this prior to being overwise and thinking that the RPW is too confining. Were they to remember the safeguard it provides they might be more circumspect about allowing things into worship. The mere fact that Frame has to think about drama, for instance, reveals that he's not trying to tread carefully but is willing to consider an argument for the introduction of an element that has no direct Scriptural warrant whatsoever. Is that worth introducing into a congregation where the entire flock now has to worship in this manner in a way God has not commanded?

This, I believe, is the real distinction and I'm not certain where Frame can argue there is a defect on thinking in Reformed writing on this, Bob. It sort of goes without saying that we cannot be idolatrous in our personal walk but by re-stating that as an "all of life is worship", whether Frame realizes it or not this has the pedagogical effect of flattening out the distinction between corporate and private worship.

As I pointed out above in the citation from his book, Frame does make a distinction between public and private worship. I won't deny, however, that Frame disagrees with some of the Puritans and modern Reformed writers that the line between public and private worship is not always bold and sharp. He writes, "Therefore, it is not wrong to describe the Christian meeting as, in one sense, a worship service. To say this, however, is not to say that there is a sharp distinction between what we do in the meeting and what we do outside of it. Our holiness, our priesthood, our incense-prayers, and our obedient hearing of the Holy Book are not restricted to the church meetings. The difference between worship in the broader sense and worship in the narrower sense is a difference in degree" (p. 34).
That's sort of the "obvious" thing I'm talking about. There's nothing new about the idea that our personal worship is not ungoverned so why does he have to write this as if nobody recognizes this. Again, what does he believe the Reformed teach in contradiction to this notion: that we may do whatever we want as persons or that we need not be holy?

Sorry if I sniped at you earlier but, as much as I like Frame personally, I think his basic approach to Systematics is novel and it infects many areas of his theology.
 

py3ak

Unshaven and anonymous
Staff member
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.

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).

Dr. Gonzalez, perhaps I am the one over simplifying on this matter, but it seems to me that the distinction between elements and circumstances adequately addresses your points above, and is well covered in the confessional language. Matters of circumstance are not questions of conscience, but of convenience; so in fixing a time and a place for stated worship, the church has not bound a conscience, but merely indicated what was determined to be convenient.

The fact that there are disagreements among adherents to the RPW as to what Scripture warrants is quite a separate issue from the discussion whether we need express warrant for how to worship God or not.
 
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NaphtaliPress

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Staff member
Gillespie on Elements and Circumstances

Uploading and attaching a PDF with this post. It contains an extract from George Gillespie's sermon before the House of Commons at the monthly fast, March 27, 1644. Gillespie was one of the youngest commissioners to the Westminster Assembly and probably the sole reason he obtained a seat as a Commissioner from the Church of Scotland was on the basis of his book, A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies. The extract concerns the distinction of circumstances and elements (or sacred parts) in worship.

The extract is from a work currently underway for Naphtali Press which will have the nine sermons of the Scottish Commissioners to the Westminster Assembly preached before one or both of the English Houses of Parliament. The Scots Commissioners were Alexander Henderson, Robert Baillie, George Gillespie, and Samuel Rutherford. These were first published in the old Naphtali Press Anthology of Presbyterian & Reformed Literature in 1988. The text has been redone and improved (significantly; 1988 I was a newbie to editing and publishing).
 

py3ak

Unshaven and anonymous
Staff member
[Off Topic]
Chris, will that contain all the same material as the old anthology?
[/Off Topic]
 

NaphtaliPress

Administrator
Staff member
It will contain only the Scottish Sermons; there was quite a bit more in the old Anthologies but those sermons made up a good portion of the first four issues of 1988 which made up volume 1. 1988 is a long time and a many number of computers and OS ago; and while a good portion of the texts failed to make the journey, the Scots Sermons did; but they were in need of a significant amount of reworking; learned me a thing or two in 20 years.;) And while most will not be interested or even notice, I wanted to do a book in a classic layout (something about Fibonacci numbers).
[Off Topic]
Chris, will that contain all the same material as the old anthology?
[/Off Topic]
 

py3ak

Unshaven and anonymous
Staff member
Thanks for the information. That sounds like quite a valuable volume to have.
 
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