We are down to the final hours of the “Ask Anything” deal, and my question on the Regulative Principle is hanging tough (NKOTB style). I appreciate the interest level and thousands of votes that have come in over the past week.
Many of you know that I have been reading a lot of Finney this semester. I have written about some new “new measures” as well as Finney the controversialist. In this post, I want to share Finney’s view of methodology which is an out and out rejection of the Regulative Principle. Historically speaking, the regulative principle has been understood to mean that nothing must be required as essential to public worship except which is commanded by the word of God. Derek Thomas argues that one of the reasons for holding to the RP is to understand that “what makes worship different is that is cultural ethos is determined by scriptural commands and principles rather than personal or collective tastes and mores.” It is important to note that, historically, the RP was not to bind or impose upon worshipers regarding what they can or cannot do; rather, it was quite the contrary. For Luther, Calvin, and the Westminster Divines, it was about the liberty of conscience and freedom of the Christian.
Charles Finney grew up being taught the Westminster Confession of Faith, eventually publicly consenting to it when ordained in the Presbyterian Church. One would think, then, that Finney would be at least sympathetic towards a Scripture-governed view of the church. However, much like his soteriological departure, his view of the church manifested a clear rejection of the authority and priority of Scripture in worship and practice. For us, it is a lesson that theology indeed does drive methodology.
In an attempt to defend the legitimacy of his new methodology, Finney wrote, “The Bible lays down no specific series of events for promoting revivals, instead leaving it to ministers to adopt strategies wisely suited to secure the end.” Finney believed it was necessary to continually be developed new methods of reaching people, and given that Scripture is silent on the issue, the minister is at liberty to develop and implement whatever method that accomplishes the greatest results. Finney argues, “The Gospel was now preached as God’s appointed means of furthering Christianity; and it was not left to the church’s discretion to decide from time to time what measures should be used in giving the Gospel its power.” Notice carefully what Finney says. The power or efficacy of the Gospel is not in the Gospel itself (Rom. 1:16) but in the measures or methods adopted. Therefore, if there are not results, it is not the Gospel’s fault, but the method or more specifically, the minister using the methods. What we find in Finney’s methodology, then, is that the regulative principle was not the commands of Scripture but the dictates of pragmatism.
Obviously, the question of the regulative principle is intrinsically related to the sufficiency and authority of Scripture. Should the church, in determining her worship, government, and mission, be shaped, guided, and regulated by Scripture? Has God spoken to these matters, or could be consider them all adiaphora (matters of indifference)? Not only is there the question of Scripture, but there is also the relationships of Christ as head of the Church. Can it be said that Christ has relegated the outworking of His body, the Church, to whatever seems best in the eyes of men? For Finney, “The fact is that God has established in no church any particular manner of worship for furthering Christianity. Scripture is silent on this subject, and during the time of the preaching of the Gospel, the church is left to exercise discretion about such matters.” When it is argued that Scripture is silent, then Finney perhaps is right to advise ministers to “do it-the best way you can . . . to make the Gospel known in the most effective way, to make the truth stand out strikingly and secure the attention and obedience of the greatest number possible.”
Contrary to Finney’s methodological freedom, Jonathan Edwards took a different route. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, speaking of Edwards methodology, wrote, “Whatever he might be tempted to think, the Bible was supreme: everything was subordinate to the Word of God.” Whether it was distinguishing the works of the Spirit of God, counseling awakened sinners, or ministering through worship and the Word, Edwards was committed to a God-governed understanding of the church. Michael Haykin points out that, when Edwards sought to determine whether conversion or revival has occurred, he argued that “the Scriptures are ‘the great and standing rule which God has given to his church’ to discern spiritual authenticity. They and they alone are ‘infallible and sufficient.'” Where Finney argued that Scripture is silent, Edwards argued that it was “the great and standing rule.” Where Finney appealed to the methods and ministers for sufficiency and efficacy, Edwards believed Scripture alone to be “infallible and sufficient.”
We are living in a day where there are many church practitioners, like Finney, who believe that neither Christ nor Scripture has any bearing on how we do church. Some may feel led to believe that the regulative principle is only for matters of worship. While this may be historically true, it is not total truth. For, everything we do in Christian life is penultimate to worship. As Piper has rightly argued, mission exists because worship doesn’t. If you are passionate about worship, then you will be passionate about mission, and if you are a Christian or church seeking to be missional, then it should matter why and how you practice the Christian faith as it finds its telos before the throne room of King Jesus.
I also believe that we are living in a day where the younger generation of ministers is looking more to the Edwardsean and Puritan tradition that is positively committed to the word of God and its implications in every area of our lives as well as churches. In the heart of God, I believe the Church is precious and a passionate interest. For those who are desirous to seek His heart, we should look nowhere else than His Word and His Son. Whether the issue is related to worship, government, or mission, I am convinced that it is most wise to submit not only our theology but also our methodology under that “great and standing rule” as a measure of both faithfulness and fruitfulness in God’s kingdom.
Derek W.H. Thomas, “The Regulative Principle: Responding to Recent Criticism” in Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, ed. by Phillip Graham Ryken, Derek W.H. Thomas, and J. Ligon Duncan III (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2003), 75.Ibid.
Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revival (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1988), 121.
Ibid., 161. Emphasis mine.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1987), 356.
Michael A. G. Haykin, Jonathan Edwards: The Holy Spirit in Revival (Webster, NY: Evangelical Press, 2005), 92.