Thursday, June 22, 2017

Cutting Off the Flowers: How Sola Scriptura Distorts the Reformed View of Worship

Reformed Christians often complain about the excessive ritualism of the Catholic Church.  All those holy days, cathedrals, images, Latin phrases, altars, priestly robes, the sign of the cross, etc.  They like to contrast all of this with the "simplicity" of Reformed worship, which avoids anything except the reading and preaching of the Bible, the simple administration of baptism and the Lord's Supper, prayer, and singing of songs.

This attitude ultimately stems from a couple of major points in the Reformed interpretation of Scripture.  Reformed Christians follow the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura, which teaches that the only infallible source of special revelation is the Bible.  Church tradition, and the teaching authority of the Church, are fallible and not to be implicitly trusted.  The practical effect of this view is that Reformed Christians feel justified, and at times required, to pit their own personal interpretations of the Bible over and against the interpretations and applications of the Catholic Church.

The Catholic view is that Scripture comes to us as part of a package deal, which includes also the tradition of the Catholic Church as this has been handed down in the teaching and practices of the Church, and the authority to authentically interpret and apply God's revelation granted by Christ to the bishops of the Church.  This is the historical position of the Catholic Church, which the Reformation had to rebel against in the sixteenth century in order to establish itself.  From the historical, Catholic point of view, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura makes no sense, as it involves ripping the Bible out of its historical context without justification and trying to use it in a way it was never intended to be used.  The result of this is the creation of numerous churches all establishing themselves on the basis of their own private interpretations of the Bible in opposition to the Bible's own natural context in the Catholic Church.  G. K. Chesterton described this situation very memorably in his book, The Thing (London: Sheed and Ward, 1929), in the essay, "Is Humanism a Religion?"

Every great heretic had always exhibit three remarkable characteristics in combination. First, he picked out some mystical idea from the Church's bundle or balance of mystical ideas. Second, he used that one mystical idea against all the other mystical ideas. Third (and most singular), he seems generally to have had no notion that his own favourite mystical idea was a mystical idea, at least in the sense of a mysterious or dubious or dogmatic idea. With a queer uncanny innocence, he seems always to have taken this one thing for granted. He assumed it to be unassailable, even when he was using it to assail all sorts of similar things. The most popular and obvious example is the Bible. To an impartial pagan or sceptical observer, it must always seem the strangest story in the world; that men rushing in to wreck a temple, overturning the altar and driving out the priest, found there certain sacred volumes inscribed "Psalms" or "Gospels"; and (instead of throwing them on the fire with the rest) began to use them as infallible oracles rebuking all the other arrangements. If the sacred high altar was all wrong, why were the secondary sacred documents necessarily all right? If the priest had faked his Sacraments, why could he not have faked his Scriptures? Yet it was long before it even occurred to those who brandished this one piece of Church furniture to break up all the other Church furniture that anybody could be so profane as to examine this one fragment of furniture itself. People were quite surprised, and in some parts of the world are still surprised, that anybody should dare to do so.

The Reformed View

One area in which Sola Scriptura has had problematic effects is in the area of the worship and aesthetics of the Church.  Reformed Christians, reading the Bible, find two ideas:

1. The Regulative Principle of Worship.  This is the idea that we should only worship God in ways that he has prescribed, as opposed to worshiping in unauthorized ways.  This is actually a good idea, but if it is combined with the idea that the Bible gives us everything we need to know about what is authorized by God, it is going to lead us into trouble.

2. Christ is the substance and the fulfillment of the Old Testament ceremonial system, which has been done away with since his coming.  This, too, is a good and right idea, but the application made of it by the Reformed is problematic.

These two ideas are the source of Reformed objections to "Catholic ritualism."  The basic theology goes like this:  In the Old Testament, God prescribed all sorts of rituals and ceremonies for his people.  These rituals and ceremonies pointed towards Christ, who was their fulfillment.  (For example, the whole Old Testament sacrificial system pointed towards Christ who would be the true sacrifice that would take away sins.)  When Christ came, these rituals and ceremonies were abolished (or most of them, at least).  Since Christ has come and we therefore now have the substance, we don't need rituals or ceremonies anymore, except for those very few rituals described clearly in the New Testament, such as baptism and the Lord's Supper (communion).  We have no authorization to add any additional rituals or anything else for the practice of the Church, because God, in the Bible, has not authorized anything else.  And to attempt to add additional rituals or ceremonies is to attempt to go back to Old Testament Judaism and involves a denial of the sufficiency of Christ, and so is to be condemned.

So take a major Catholic holy day like Christmas, for example.  The strictest of the Reformed have historically opposed celebrating Christmas, because it is not prescribed in the Bible.  The Reformed Directory for Public Worship of 1645 puts it this way:

There is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath.  Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.

In the Reformed view, if we were to take up the celebration of Christmas, we would be "Judaizing"--abandoning Christ for something akin to Old Testament ceremonies.

A pamphlet entitled What is the Reformed Faith?, put out by a conservative Presbyterian denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, describes the Reformed view clearly:

Some churches today are returning to ceremonial worship. They call it liturgical revival. If they were serious in their claim to be biblical, they would go all the way, adopting the whole Old Testament system. They would even advocate rebuilding the Jerusalem temple. And, if they did, we could at least respect them for consistency. But, of course, these "weak and miserable" (Gal. 4:9) elements of Old Testament worship have no legitimate place in the new covenant church. We need no purple robes, candles, incense, dancing, or dramatic performance. Why? Because these shadowy representations only get in the way of the reality: the privilege of going each Lord's Day—in faithful, commanded worship—right into the heavenly places (Heb. 12:18-29). 
Are we, then, to do as we please—fashioning our own style of worship (while the Old Testament saints had to be careful)? No, we above all should abhor and shun all human inventions. Is this not what underlies the following warning? "See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused ... how much less will we....? Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our 'God is a consuming fire' " (Heb. 12: 25, 28-29). 
Worship under the new covenant has been instituted by Jesus. Admittedly, there are few commands regarding, or examples of, corporate worship in the New Testament. The closest thing we have to a formal worship service is found in 1 Corinthians 14, and it focuses on speaking in tongues and prophecy, elements that were appropriate only in the apostolic age (cf. WCF, I:1). Nevertheless, we are able to identify prayer, the reading of the Scriptures, preaching, the singing of praise, the gathering of offerings, and the administration of the sacraments as "all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God" (WCF, XXI:5). . . . 
Reformed worship is beautiful, but it does not have the beauty of sensual things. Rather, it has the beauty mentioned in several of the psalms. "Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness" (Ps. 29:2).
It is for this reason that Reformed worship has always been marked by what some have called "a stark simplicity." The beauty is found in the faithful preaching of the Word of God, in the simple, unadorned, but faithful administration of the sacraments, and in the maintenance of faithful discipline. Reformed people find their delight in truth and in the spiritual things that Christ spoke of when he said that we must worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).

The Catholic Response

Catholics would accept the fundamental idea of the "regulative principle of worship."  Of course we should only worship God in ways he has authorized.  But God's authorization is not only to be found in a private interpretation of Scripture outside its context within the authoritative tradition of the Church.  We don't get to simply read the Bible, find no mention of Christmas, find no justification that we can see to have Christmas, and then declare Christmas illegal because it is without God's authorization.  If the Church's authoritative tradition has interpreted God's revelation such that holy days like Christmas are to be received as a good thing, then this is God's will.  When the Church celebrates Christmas, or uses "purple robes, candles, incense," etc., it is not adding to God's worship without authorization.  It is doing precisely what God has prescribed.

But what about the idea that Old Testament ritualism, feast days, etc., have been done away with because Christ, the substance, has come?  If we are to have rituals in this New Testament age, why are they not prescribed in the New Testament?  After all, God gave very specific instructions about worship in the Old Testament age.

It is here that Sola Scriptura really trips the Reformed up.  According to Catholic teaching, the Holy Spirit has been given to the Church to guide her into all truth.  In Old Testament times, although the Holy Spirit was not entirely absent, yet the people of God were at an earlier stage of development.  A great deal more "spoonfeeding" was going on.  So in the Law of Moses, we see immensely detailed commands regarding worship, politics, and many other things.  The New Testament has no comparable exhaustive law code.  Rather, we see the Church being guided by the Spirit as she works out, over time, the application of what Christ has left to her.  We might say that whereas the worship and life of the Old Testament people were primarily imposed externally through explicit commands, the worship and life of the Church come much more through an internal development as the Holy Spirit guides the Church to apply discerningly the deposit of revelation.  It is in some ways like the difference between a younger child and an adolescent or young adult.  A young child must be given a great many, very specific instructions in every area of life.  As the child gets older, more and more this specific external instruction is replaced by habits of internal discernment.  Parents grant more and more freedom to their children to discern for themselves what is right and best, to apply the principles taught to them over the years, and to manage their own lives.  St. Paul uses this very analogy (Galatians 3:23-25; 4:1-6) in his discussion of the people of God under the Law of Moses vs. the people of God in the new age of Christ:

But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. . . . 
Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.

The Church describes her own view in the Vatican II document Dei Verbum, Chapter 2, Section 8 (footnotes removed):

And so the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (see 2 Thess. 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (see Jude 1:3). Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes. 
This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51), through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her. 
The words of the holy fathers witness to the presence of this living tradition, whose wealth is poured into the practice and life of the believing and praying Church. Through the same tradition the Church's full canon of the sacred books is known, and the sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and unceasingly made active in her; and thus God, who spoke of old, uninterruptedly converses with the bride of His beloved Son; and the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel resounds in the Church, and through her, in the world, leads unto all truth those who believe and makes the word of Christ dwell abundantly in them (see Col. 3:16).

A good example of this is the Church's position on the circumcision of Gentiles.  In the Old Testament pattern, we might have expected a law authorizing the non-circumcision of Gentiles to be given very explicitly to the people of God by means of prophets.  But in the New Testament, we find that Christ never even mentions this idea or gives the apostles any specific instructions on the matter.  What we find instead is the Church, over time, being confronted with this issue, calling a council, deciding in that council what is right and best, and announcing her decision with the preface (Acts 15:28), "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . ."  Here we see the development of the Church's rules and practices over time by means of the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The Reformed look in the Bible, and they don't see Christmas.  They conclude that God has not authorized Christmas, and that we should therefore not have it.  They conclude that the reason Christmas and other holy days and rituals are not spelled out in the New Testament is because God wants New Testament worship to be simpler than Old Testament worship, because Christ the substance has come.  But this whole scheme of interpretation is not actually spelled out in the Bible.  The Reformed infer it from the New Testament's lack of many specific instructions regarding worship combined with its abolition of Old Testament ceremonies.  This is a good example of how reading the Bible outside its proper context in the Church's tradition can lead to erroneous conclusions being drawn.

The Catholic faith, interpreting Scripture within its proper context, has a different reading.  The Catholic view is that Old Testament rituals and holy days were done away with not because the people of God should be without such things for the rest of the time of her pilgrimage upon earth, but so that she could develop a new set of rituals and ceremonies appropriate to New Testament times, when Christ, the substance, has come.  For although Christ has come, we are not yet in heaven.  We still await the second coming.  In the meantime, we are not without need of tangible reminders of the presence of God, just like the Old Testament people of God.  Whereas the ceremonies of the Old Testament pointed forward to Christ who would come, the ceremonies of New Testament times point to Christ who has come and Christ who will come again.

We see this development of the worship of the Church already underway within the New Testament itself.  We see that Christ's coming did away with sacrifices, since he was the substantial fulfillment of the sacrificial system, but it replaced them not with no ritual but with the Lord's Supper.  We see that circumcision is done away with, not so that it could be replaced with no ritual, so that we should only focus on the spiritual alone from here on out, but to make room for physical baptism as well.  We see the Church establishing the pattern of meeting on Sunday, which comes eventually, in the last book of the New Testament, to be called "the Lord's Day"--a new, Christian holy day to replace and fulfill the Old Testament Sabbath.  But the Church's development did not cease at the completion of the New Testament.  The Holy Spirit has continued to guide her into all truth and into the application of all truth.  Thus, we see through history new customs, new ceremonies, new rituals, new holy days, being established.  Sometimes we see old customs retired and new ones arise in their place.  There is an ongoing, organic development, like the growth and changing of a living organism, guided by the animating principle within--the Holy Spirit.

The Reformed attempt to restrict the development of the Church to what was already completed within the New Testament is like a person who is given a small, young plant, but instead of allowing the plant to grow and flower, he tries desperately to keep it young, cutting off flowers as soon as they appear, trying to prune it to keep it small, believing that he is protecting his plant from unnatural mutations, while what he is really doing is unnaturally hindering its divinely-designed process of development.  The Reformed attempt to protect the worship of God is well-intentioned, but it works within a context of ignorance and false inferences forced upon it by the unbiblical and unhistorical doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

For more on Sola Scriptura, see herehere, and here.

Published on the feast of St. Thomas More (my patron saint!) and of St. John Fisher

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