The Puritan Principle of Worship

William Young

The substance of “The Puritan Principle of Worship” was delivered on December 18, 1957 at the Puritan Conference, London. The article was published serially in Blue Banner Faith and Life, vols. 14-16 (1959-61), edited by Johannes G. Vos. We have extensively reorganized the material for greater clarity of presentation. Editorial revisions by Sherman Isbell of this article and of its footnotes are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission of Sherman Isbell.

The importance of the regulative principle of worship for the origin and essential character of the Puritan movement appears in the definition of Puritanism with which Horton Davies opens the first chapter of his standard work, The Worship of the English Puritans: “Puritanism is most accurately defined as the outlook that characterized the radical Protestant party in Queen Elizabeth’s day, who regarded the Reformation as incomplete and wished to model English church worship and government according to the Word of God.”(1) He supports this definition by a reference to the Ecclesia Restaurata: Or, the History of the Reformation, by Heylyn, an opponent of the Puritans. Under “Anno Reg. 7,” Heylyn writes: “This year the Zwinglian, or Calvinian Faction began to be first known by the name of Puritans, which name hath ever since been appropriated to them, because of their pretending to a greater Purity in the Service of God, than was held forth unto them (as they gave it out) in the Common-Prayer Book; and to a greater opposition to the Rites and Usages of the Church of Rome, than was agreeable to the Constitution of the Church of England.”(2)

While Davies’ definition includes church government with worship as part of the basic issue, Heylyn’s statement is restricted to the controversy concerning worship. The worship and the government of the church are both subject to the regulative principle in the Reformed conception. Yet the application of the regulative principle may be said to enjoy a certain primacy with respect to worship rather than to church government. Worship is central in the life of the church. The church exists to worship God, not to function as an organization. Church government also appears to have numerous features to which the regulative principle does not apply in the way in which it does apply to the modes of worship. Judicial procedure in a church trial, for example, must include numerous circumstances of considerable weight which are not prescribed in Scripture, if the requirements of justice are to be observed. Nothing analogous to this necessity appears, so strikingly at least, in connection with worship.

On the other hand, due weight ought to be ascribed to the consideration that the regulative principle of Reformed worship provides a norm for the practice of worship which is paralleled by the Scripture norm for the constitution of the church as an organized institution. Though the organization of the church may not be an end in itself, or even so directly related to the final end, the glory of God, as is the worship of the church, yet the form of church government in the sense of the offices that are to be found in the church, the qualifications and functions of church officers, the nature of an offence and the essential procedure for dealing with offenses, is entirely prescribed in the Word of God. The striking difference between the extent to which worship is prescribed in Scripture, and that to which church government is, may prove to be only superficial and apparent. Church government has more types of attendant circumstances that are inseparable from its exercise and yet no part of its essential structure, whereas worship is simpler and has relatively few types of attendant circumstances accompanying it. In principle, however, both worship and church government in their essential structure and procedure are entirely prescribed in Holy Scripture, according to the regulative principle as understood by Reformed theologians and especially by the Puritans.

Whatever may be the last word as to the ideal relationship of worship and church government to the regulative principle, Puritanism in actual historical fact began with the application of the principle to worship, and later became increasingly concerned with the application of it to questions relating to the form of church government, and the relations between the church and the state. With respect to the latter issues, Puritans divided into diverging camps. However, both Presbyterians and Independents, and both Separatists(3) and those who would remain in the state church, were of one mind as to the application of the regulative principle to the worship of the church. The regulative principle of worship may therefore be regarded as, in a historical sense, the originating and also the unifying principle of Puritanism. An adequate understanding of this principle is a necessary condition for a proper comprehension of the significance of the Puritan movement in the past, and of its relevance to our present problems.

The Puritan principle of worship was no invention of the Puritans. On the contrary, it is the principle regulative of worship formulated by Calvin and adopted by all the Reformed churches, as will appear from the following consideration of the Reformed creeds and the works of Reformed writers. The Reformed view of the principle regulative of the external worship of God stands out by way of contrast with the Lutheran view. Lutherans have held that what is not forbidden in the Word of God may be allowed in the worship of God. Ceremonies in worship are thus regarded as to a large extent indifferent (adiaphora), i.e. things neither commanded nor forbidden in the Scriptures. The Augsburg Confession treats “Of Ecclesiastical Rites,” in part 1, article 15: “Concerning ecclesiastical rites (made by men), they teach that those rites are to be observed which may be observed without sin, and are profitable for tranquillity and good order in the church; such as are set holidays, feasts, and such like. Yet concerning such things, men are to be admonished that consciences are not to be burdened as if such service were necessary to salvation.”(4) The article goes on to condemn human traditions instituted to propitiate God, to merit grace, and to make satisfaction for sins, as opposed to the gospel and the doctrine of faith. Likewise in part 2, article 5, which treats “Of the Distinction of Meats, and of Traditions”: “Yet most of the traditions are observed among us which tend unto this end, that things may be done orderly in the church; as, namely, the order of lessons in the Mass and the chiefest holidays. But, in the meantime, men are admonished that such service doth not justify before God, and that it is not to be supposed there is sin in such things, if they be left undone, without scandal. This liberty in human rites and ceremonies was not unknown to the Fathers.”(5) The Formula of Concord, article 10, “Of Ecclesiastical Ceremonies,” declares: “For the better taking away of this controversy we believe, teach, and confess, with unanimous consent, that ceremonies and ecclesiastical rites (such as in the Word of God are neither commanded nor forbidden, but have only been instituted for the sake of order and seemliness) are of themselves neither divine worship, nor even any part of divine worship. For it is written (Matt. 15:9): In vain did they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”(6)

The thirty-fourth of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England follows the Lutheran line: “It is not necessary that traditions and ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly alike, for at all times they have been diverse, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word.”(7)

Calvin’s Formulation of the Regulative Principle

As opposed to the Lutheran view that there is a substantial area of adiaphora in the service of worship, the Reformed view has uniformly been that only that which is prescribed by the Word of God may be introduced into the worship of God. Calvin formulated this regulative principle with clarity, and applied it with great consistency in the Reformation at Geneva. It is implicit in his celebrated definition of pure and genuine religion as “confidence in God coupled with serious fear – fear, which both includes in it willing reverence, and brings along with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed by the law.”(8) The pertinent expression in the definitive Latin edition (1559) of the Institutes reads “et secum trahat legitimum cultum qualis in lege praescribitur.”(9) The French text of 1560 accentuates the divine origin of acceptable worship: “. . . et tire avec soy un service tel qu’il appartient, et tel que Dieu mesmes l’ordonne en sa Loy.”(10)

In his account of superstition, Calvin proceeds from the regulative principle: “In this way, the vain pretext which many employ to clothe their superstition is overthrown. They deem it enough that they have some kind of zeal for religion, how preposterous soever it may be, not observing that true religion must be conformable to the will of God as its unerring standard;(11) that he can never deny himself, and is no specter or phantom, to be metamorphosed at each individual’s caprice. It is easy to see how superstition, with its false glosses, mocks God, while it tries to please him. Usually fastening merely on things on which he has declared he sets no value, it either contemptuously overlooks or even undisguisedly rejects, the things which he expressly enjoins, or in which we are assured he takes pleasure. Those, therefore, who set up a fictitious worship, merely worship and adore their own delirious fancies; indeed, they would never dare so to trifle with God, had they not previously fashioned him after their own childish conceits. . . . It remains, therefore, to conclude with Lactantius (Instit. Div., lib. 1.2, 6), ‘No religion is genuine that is not in accordance with truth.’ “(12)

The corruption of pure religion by the introduction of worship invented by man is for Calvin a mark of the vanity and blindness of fallen human nature. Calvin unfolds this thought in detail: “Hence we must hold, that whosoever adulterates pure religion (and this must be the case with all who cling to their own views), make a departure from the one God. No doubt, they will allege that they have a different intention; but it is of little consequence what they intend or persuade themselves to believe, since the Holy Spirit pronounces all to be apostates who, in the blindness of their minds, substitute demons in the place of God. For this reason Paul declares that the Ephesians were ‘without God’ (Eph. 2:12), until they had learned from the gospel what it is to worship the true God. Nor must this be restricted to one people only, since, in another place, he declares in general, that all men ‘became vain in their imaginations’, after the majesty of the Creator was manifested to them in the structure of the world. . . . But if the most distinguished wandered in darkness, what shall we say of the refuse? No wonder, therefore, that all worship of man’s device is repudiated by the Holy Spirit as degenerate.(13) Any opinion which man can form in heavenly mysteries, though it may not beget a long train of errors, is still the parent of error. And though nothing worse should happen, even this is no light sin – to worship an unknown God at random. Of this sin, however, we hear from our Savior’s own mouth (John 4:22), that all are guilty who have not been taught out of the law who the God is whom they ought to worship.”(14)

Calvin also appeals to the regulative principle when arguing against idolatry and image worship. Referring to Pss. 115:4 and 135:15, the Reformer inquires: “Whence had idols their origin, but from the will of man?” He argues: “It is, moreover, to be observed, that by the mode of expression which is employed, every form of superstition is denounced. Being works of men, they have no authority from God (Isa. 2:8, 31:7, 57:10, Hos. 14:3, Mic. 5:13), and, therefore, it must be regarded as a fixed principle, that all modes of worship devised by men are detestable.”(15)

Again in distinguishing true religion from superstition, Calvin observes that the latter “seems to take its name from its not being contented with the measure which reason prescribes, but accumulating a superfluous mass of vanities.” The name religion, in Calvin’s opinion, “is used in opposition to vagrant licence – the greater part of mankind rashly taking up whatever first comes in their way, whereas piety, that it may stand with a firm step, confines itself within due bounds.” These due bounds are determined by the law of God. “But God, in vindicating his own right, first proclaims that he is a jealous God, and will be a stern avenger if he is confounded with any false god; and thereafter defines what due worship is, in order that the human race may be kept in obedience. Both of these he embraces in his law when he first binds the faithful in allegiance to him as their only lawgiver, and then prescribes a rule for worshipping him in accordance with his will.” The law, according to Calvin, among other uses “is designed as a bridle to curb men, and prevent them from turning aside to spurious worship.”(16) “He has been pleased to prescribe in his law what is lawful and right, and thus astrict men to a certain rule, lest any should allow themselves to devise a worship of their own.”(17)

In discussing the sufficiency of the moral law as a rule of conduct, Calvin again refers to the regulative principle of worship: “The Lord, in delivering a perfect rule of righteousness, has reduced it in all its parts to his mere will, and in this way has shown that there is nothing more acceptable to him than obedience. There is the more necessity for attending to this, because the human mind, in its wantonness, is ever and anon inventing different modes of worship as a means of gaining his favor. This irreligious affection of religion being innate in the human mind, has betrayed itself in every age, and is still doing so, men always longing to devise some method of procuring righteousness without any sanction from the Word of God. . . . God foreseeing that the Israelites would not rest, but after receiving the law, would, unless sternly prohibited, give birth to new kinds of righteousness, declares that the law comprehended a perfect righteousness. . . . How do we act? We are certainly under the same obligation as they were; for there cannot be a doubt that the claim of absolute perfection which God made for his law is perpetually in force. Not contented with it, however, we labor prodigiously in feigning and coining an endless variety of good works, one after another. The best cure for this vice would be constant and deeply-seated conviction that the law was given from heaven to teach us a perfect righteousness; that the only righteousness so taught is that which the divine will expressly enjoins; and that it is, therefore, vain to attempt, by new forms of worship, to gain the favor of God, whose true worship consists in obedience alone; or rather, that to go a-wandering after good works which are not prescribed by the law of God, is an intolerable violation of true and divine righteousness.”(18)

Calvin also finds the regulative principle of worship established by the second commandment of the decalogue. He expounds the commandment thus: “As in the first commandment the Lord declares that he is one, and that besides him no gods must be either worshipped or imagined, so he here more plainly declares what his nature is, and what the kind of worship with which he is to be honored, in order that we may not presume to form any carnal idea of him. The purport of the commandment, therefore, is, that he will not have his legitimate worship profaned by superstitious rites. Wherefore, in general, he calls us entirely away from the carnal frivolous observances which our stupid minds are wont to devise after forming some gross idea of the divine nature, while, at the same time, he instructs us in the worship which is legitimate, namely, spiritual worship of his own appointment.”(19)

In Calvin’s refutation of the claims of the Church of Rome, the regulative principle of Reformed worship provides a charter of Christian liberty. A superficial view might suppose the regulative principle to be a confining, restricting principle, that condemns Christian worship to barrenness and ugliness. In Calvin’s doctrine and practice, as in that of the Puritans in the following century, the regulative principle was a liberating power, cutting off at the root the tyrannical imposition of men in the worship of God, and exhibiting the worship of God in its native beauty, the beauty of holiness.

The implication of the regulative principle for Christian liberty is expressed in Calvin’s stirring words: “The power we have now to consider is, whether it be lawful for the church to bind laws upon the conscience? In this discussion, civil order is not touched; but the only point considered is, how God may be duly worshipped according to the rule which He has prescribed, and how our spiritual liberty, with reference to God, may remain unimpaired. In ordinary language, the name of human traditions is given to all decrees concerning the worship of God, which men have issued without the authority of his Word. We contend against these, not against the sacred and useful constitutions of the church, which tend to preserve discipline, or decency or peace. Our aim is to curb the unlimited and barbarous empire usurped over souls by those who would be thought pastors of the church, but who are in fact its most cruel murderers. They say that the laws which they enact are spiritual, pertaining to the soul, and they affirm that they are necessary to eternal life. But thus the kingdom of Christ, as I lately observed, is invaded; thus the liberty, which he has given to the consciences of believers, is completely oppressed and overthrown. . . . What I contend for is, that necessity ought not to be laid on consciences in matters in which Christ has made them free. . . . They must acknowledge Christ their deliverer, as their only king, and be ruled by the only law of liberty – namely, the sacred word of the gospel – if they would retain the grace which they have once received in Christ: they must be subject to no bondage, be bound by no chains.”(20)

The Christian is free from the commandments of men in matters of worship because God is the only lawgiver and His will is the perfect rule of all righteousness and holiness. Consequently, human constitutions are contrary to the word of the Lord, if they are devised as part of the worship of God and their observance is bound upon the conscience as of necessary obligation. Calvin points out that Paul, in the Epistle to the Colossians, “maintains that the doctrine of the true worship of God is not to be sought from men, because the Lord has faithfully and fully taught us in what way he is to be worshipped.” Calvin comments on ethelothreskeias (“will-worship”): “. . . that is, fictitious modes of worship which men themselves devise or receive from others, and all precepts whatsoever which they presume to deliver at their own hand concerning the worship of God.”(21)

Throughout the further discussion of ecclesiastical legislation in Institutes IV.x, Calvin repeatedly appeals to the regulative principle of worship as the chief ground for rejecting the traditions of men. A few more passages may be quoted in addition to those given, to show how pervasively the regulated principle has penetrated the Reformer’s outlook. “Since Paul then declares it to be intolerable that the legitimate worship of God should be subjected to the will of men, wherein do we err when we are unable to tolerate this in the present day? Especially when we are enjoined to worship God according to the elements of this world – a thing which Paul declares to be adverse to Christ (Col. 2:20).”(22) “Moreover, the worst of all is, that when once religion begins to be composed of such vain fictions, the perversion is immediately succeeded by the abominable depravity with which our Lord upbraids the Pharisees of making the commandment of God void through their traditions (Matt. 15:3). . . . What is meant by making the Word of God void by tradition, if this is not done when recommending the ordinances of God only frigidly and perfunctorily, they nevertheless studiously and anxiously urge strict obedience to their own ordinances, as if the whole power of piety was contained in them; – when vindicating the transgression of the divine law with trivial satisfactions, they visit the minutest violation of one of their decrees with no lighter punishment than imprisonment, exile, fire, or sword?”(23)

Commenting further on the show of wisdom in will-worship, Calvin remarks: “But what does Paul say to all this? Does he pluck off these masks lest the simple should be deluded by a false pretext? Deeming it sufficient for their refutation to say that they were devices of men, he passes all these things without refutation, as things of no value. Nay, because he knew that all fictitious worship is condemned in the church, and is the more suspected by believers. the more pleasing it is to the human mind – because he knew that this false show of outward humility differs so widely from true humility that it can be easily discerned; – finally, because he knew that this tutelage is valued at no more than bodily exercise, he wished the very things which commended human traditions to the ignorant to be regarded by believers as the refutation of them.”(24) Calvin complains of the imposition of a multitude of ceremonies as a restoration of Judaism which burdens rather than aids the weak. To the question, “Are no ceremonies to be given to the more ignorant, as a help to their ignorance?” he replies, “I do not say so; for I think that help of this description is very useful to them. All I contend for is the employment of such a measure as may illustrate, not obscure Christ. Hence a few ceremonies have been divinely appointed, and these by no means laborious, in order that they may evince a present Christ. To the Jews a greater number were given, that they might be images of an absent Christ. In saying he was absent, I mean not in power, but in mode of expression. Therefore, to secure due moderation, it is necessary to retain that fewness in number, facility in observance, and significancy of meaning which consists in clearness.”(25)

Although Calvin is directing his argument toward abuses prevalent in his own day, he recognizes that the regulative principle is applicable to all ages. “For whenever men begin the superstitious practice of worshipping God with their own fictions, all the laws enacted for this purpose forthwith degenerate into gross abuses. For the curse which God denounces – viz. to strike those who worship him with the doctrines of men with stupor and blindness [Isa. 29:13-14] – is not confined to any one age, but applies to all ages. The uniform result of this blindness is, that there is no kind of absurdity escaped by those who, despising the many admonitions of God, spontaneously entangle themselves in these deadly fetters. But if, without any regard to circumstances, you would simply know the character belonging at all times to those human traditions which ought to be repudiated by the church, and condemned by all the godly, the definition which we formerly gave(26) is clear and certain – viz. that they include all the laws enacted by men, without authority from the Word of God, for the purpose either of prescribing the mode of divine worship, or laying religious obligation on the conscience, as enjoining things necessary to salvation.”(27)

Calvin supports the regulative principle by further appeal to Scripture passages. He points out that “it is not property of the church to disregard the limits of the Word of God, and wanton and luxuriate in enacting new laws. Does not the law which was once given to the church endure for ever?” Deut. 12:32 and Prov. 30:6 are quoted with the following observations: “Since they cannot deny that this was said to the church, what else do they proclaim but their contumacy, when, notwithstanding of such prohibitions, they profess to add to the doctrine of God, and dare to intermingle their own with it? . . . Let us understand that the name of church is falsely pretended wherever men contend for that rash human license which cannot confine itself within the boundaries prescribed by the Word of God, but petulantly breaks out, and has recourse to its own inventions. In the above passage there is nothing involved, nothing obscure, nothing ambiguous; the whole church is forbidden to add to, or take away from the Word of God, in relation to His worship and salutary precepts. . . . Now, if the Lord does not permit anything to be added to, or taken away from the ministry of Moses, though wrapt up, if I may so speak, in many folds of obscurity, until He furnish a clearer doctrine by his servants the Prophets, and at last by his beloved Son, why should we not suppose that we are much more strictly prohibited from making any addition to the Law, the Prophets, the Psalms, and the Gospel? The Lord cannot forget himself, and it is long since he declared that nothing is so offensive to him as to be worshipped by human inventions.”(28) Calvin further quotes Jer. 7:22-23 and 11:7, and I Sam. 15:22-23, to show that human inventions may not be defended by appeal to the authority of the church.

The Witness of the Reformed Creeds

The witness of the Reformed creeds to the regulative principle of worship is along the lines laid down by Calvin. The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) used in the German and Dutch Reformed churches, in response to Question 96, “What does God require in the second commandment?” gives as the answer, “That we in nowise make any image of God, nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his Word.”(29) The Belgic Confession (1561) of Guido de Bres, in expounding the sufficiency of the Scriptures, declares in article 7: “. . .the whole manner of worship which God requires of us in written in them at large. . . .”(30) Likewise, in discussing the order and discipline of the church, article 32 of the Belgic Confession rejects “all human inventions, and all laws which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatever.”(31)

Among the Reformed creeds, the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms excel in the accuracy with which doctrine is formulated, and the balance with which the various elements of scriptural truth are set in relation to one another. These standards, it should be remembered, were the work of a body of divines consisting almost entirely of English Puritans. The following passages provide a succinct formulation of the regulative principle.(32)

“The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”(33)

“God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in anything contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.”(34)

“The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. 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 any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.”(35)

The sense of the regulative principle may be rendered clear and precise by certain observations on the Westminster formulation, which we may safely take as the unanimous consensus of Puritan conviction on this subject. 1. The regulative principle is a consequence of the sufficiency of Scripture. Nothing need nor may be added to the Word of God as a rule of faith and practice. Therefore only what is prescribed by the written revelation may be admitted in the worship of God. 2. The mode of prescription need not be that of explicit command in a single text of Scripture. Approved example warrants an element of worship as surely as does an express precept. Moreover, good and necessary consequence can warrant acceptable worship. Without entering upon disputed questions as to the proper subjects of baptism, all would agree that Scripture warrants the admission of women to the Lord’s table, although no express command or approved example can be adduced. There is a sound adage sometimes quoted by Reformed divines, that the sense of Scripture is Scripture.

3. The regulative principle does not entail an impossible demand that an indefinite number of minute circumstances concerning the worship of God should be deduced from Scripture. The time and place of worship for a Christian congregation are not minutely prescribed. 4. Yet this does not mean that all circumstances are adiaphora. The circumstances not prescribed by the Word of God are only such as are “common to human actions and societies,” and only some such. 5. The general rules of the Word of God are to be observed in the ordering of these circumstances “by the light of nature and Christian prudence.” This implies that acts of worship itself are regulated in a much more specific manner by Scripture than are other human actions. An act of worship is never a thing indifferent, something neither commanded nor forbidden by God, but some civil actions and even circumstances accompanying acts of worship may be classed among the adiaphora.

6. This distinction between acts of worship and civil acts is implied in the distinction between things contrary to God’s Word and things beside God’s Word. In all things, human laws contrary to the Word of God are not binding, though in some things human laws beside the Word of God may be binding, as in laws passed by the civil magistrate that may restrict conduct in things indifferent. With respect to matters of faith and worship, however, human laws beside the Word of God, even though not directly contrary to it, have no binding force. 7. The reason for this state of affairs is that the entire content of faith and worship is revealed in the Word of God. The argument closes with a return to its starting point, the sufficiency of Scripture revelation as prescribing the entire content of worship, including all the ways in which God may be worshipped acceptably.

The Testimony of the English Puritan Authors

The Westminster Standards contain the consensus of English Puritan and Scottish Presbyterian judgment as to the regulative principle. Whatever difference of opinion there was in the Westminster Assembly as to church government, there was unanimity as to the regulation of worship. Where the English Puritans were more scrupulous than their Scottish brethren in objecting to the singing of a doxology at the close of a Psalm, the Scottish divines were willing cheerfully to give up their time-honored custom for the sake of uniformity in a matter where they were not called on to sacrifice principle. The same view of the regulative principle that appears in Knox’s argument against the Mass, and in George Gillespie’s Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies (1637), was followed by the English Puritans in contending against the Mass and the ceremonies not sanctioned in Scripture.

Indicative of the stance taken in early English Puritanism is the discussion of the second commandment found in William Perkins’ A Warning Against the Idolatry of the Last Times, and An Instruction Touching Religious or Divine Worship (1603). “The second way of erecting an idol is, when God is worshipped otherwise, and by other means, than he hath revealed in the Word. For when men set up a devised worship, they set up also a devised God. Augustine saith of the Gentiles, that they refused to worship the God of the Hebrews, because, if their pleasures were to worship him in any other sort than he had appointed, they should not indeed worship him, but that which they had feigned. [Margin: Aug., De Consensu Evang., lib. 1, c. 18: Si alio modo Deum colere vellent, quam se colendum ipse dixisset, non utique illum colerent, sed quod ipsi finxissent.] The Samaritans worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and they waited for the coming of the Messiah. And yet Christ saith of them, Ye worship ye know not what [Margin: John 4:22], because they worshipped the true God by a worship devised of old, and set up by men. The Lord saith to the Israelites, Ye shall call me no more Baali, whereby he signifieth that because the Jews did some time worship God in the same manner, with the same images, rites, and names, whereby the heathen worshipped the false god Baal, therefore they made him indeed to be even as the idol Baal. . . . God’s worship must be according to his nature, heavenly, divine, and spiritual; but all devised worship is according to the nature and disposition of the deviser: foolish, carnal, vain, as Christ saith, Matt. 15:9. . . . And according to this worship is the God that is worshipped. Therefore when God is worshipped, not according to his own will, but according to the pleasure and will of man, the true God is not worshipped, but a God of man’s invention is set up. One notable example we have in this kind: when God is either represented or worshipped in any image of man’s devising, there is presently made a double idol. The one is the image representing, the other is God represented, who is by this means turned into an idol.(36)

“The second point, is the rule of worship, and that is, that nothing may go under the name of the worship of God, which he hath not ordained in his own Word, and commanded to us as his own worship. For we are forbidden under pain of the curse of God, either to add, or to take away anything from the precepts of God in which he prescribes his own worship. . . . Again, the Lord forbids us in his worship to follow after our own hearts and eyes, or to walk in the ordinances of our forefathers, but only in his commandments. And he holds it a vain thing, to teach his worship and fear by the precepts of men. . . . All voluntary religion, and will-service, is utterly condemned. Therefore nothing may go under the name of God’s worship, but that which he prescribes. It is alleged to the contrary, that when a work is done without commandment, so there be an intention to honor God, it is the worship of God. I answer, it is false. For that any work or action may be the worship of God, four things are required: The person or doer must be regenerate, the matter of the work must be a thing commanded, it must be done in faith, and then, in the intention of the mind, it must be directed to the honor of God. Secondly, the intention to honor God is not always good, unless it be an intention to honor him by yielding obedience to that which he commandeth. Again, it is alleged that a work done in love to God, though there be no commandment thereof, is the worship of God. I answer that love keeps itself to the Word, and will of God, and things done without a word from God are not of love. For love is the fulfilling of the law [Margin: Gal. 5:14].”(37) “For God is not worshipped of us, but when it is his will to accept our worship: and it is not his will to accept our worship, but when it is according to his will.”(38)

Perkins also explains the second commandment in chapter 21 of his A Golden Chain, or the Description of Theology (1608). “The second commandment then concerneth the manner of performing holy and solemn worship unto God.”(39) Among the things forbidden, Perkins mentions “will-worship, when God is worshipped with a naked and bare good intention, not warranted by the Word of God. Col. 2:23, I Sam. 13:9-10, verse 13. Hitherto may we add popish superstitions in sacrifices, meats, holidays, apparel, temporary and beadridden prayers, indulgences, austere life, whipping, ceremonies, gestures, gate conversation, pilgrimage, building of altars, pictures, churches, and all other of that rabble. To these may be added consort in music in divine service, feeding the ears, not edifying the mind. I Cor. 14:15. Justinus Martyr in his Book of Christian Questions and Answers 107: It is not the custom of the churches to sing their meters with any such kind of instruments, etc., but their manner is only to use plain-song.”(40)

“Corrupting of God’s worship, and that order of government, which he hath ordained for his church: that which is done, when any thing is added, detracted, or any way, against his prescript, mangled. Deut. 12:32. This condemneth that popish elevation of bread in the Lord’s Supper, and the administration of it alone to the people without wine, together with that fearful abomination of the Mass. By this we may learn to reject all popish traditions. Matt. 15:9. Now it is manifest, that all popish traditions, they either on their own nature, or others abusing of them, serve as well to superstition and false worship, as to enrich that covetous and proud hierarchy, whereas the Scriptures contained in the Old and New Testament, are all-sufficient, not only to confirm doctrine, but also to reform manners. II Tim. 3:16.”(41)

Perkins’ teaching about the regulative principle of worship may be summarized as follows. 1. Commandment in the narrow sense is not required. What God reveals to be acceptable to Him is warranted, even though it is not commanded so as to be binding on all. Thus Perkins, in answer to the objection “that vows in the Old Testament were a part of the worship of God, and that they were not commanded,” responds: “Though God did not bind all men by a commandment to make vows, yet hath he testified in his Word, that vows were acceptable to him, for he prescribed the manner of vows, and the manner of making, and the keeping of them.”(42) 2. A particular commandment is not required if a general one has been given and the particular is an instance of it. “It is urged, that Mary who anointed Christ, had no commandment so to do, and yet she did a work acceptable to Christ. I answer, though she had no particular commandment yet she had a general. For the work she did, was a confession of her faith and love to Christ, and that is commanded.”(43)

3. The content of worship does not belong to the adiaphora. Perkins considers the case of Paul preaching the gospel freely, and looking for his reward from God, for which he had no commandment. “I answer, to take a stipend for preaching the gospel, is in itself a thing indifferent, and may be done, or not done. Yet was it not a thing indifferent in the church in Corinth, by reason of the offence of many. And therefore Paul preaching freely, and he could do no otherwise, unless he would have abused (as he saith) his authority. For a thing indifferent in the case of scandal, ceaseth to be indifferent, and is a thing commanded.”(44)

4. The prescribing of worship does not belong to ministerial authority. To refute this Puritan teaching, Luke 10:16 had been adduced. “I answer, first the place is properly to be understood, not of all teachers, but of the apostles. Secondly, if it be spoken of all teachers the words must be understood with limitation, for thus is the ministerial commission, Teach them to observe all things which I have commanded you. . . . Thus the truth of this rule is manifest, and we must lay it up in our hearts as a treasure, and never suffer ourselves to be deprived of it, for the use of it is great. By it we may discern the profaneness of our times. All men can say, God must be worshipped. But when it comes to the point, what is the worship wherewith they honor God? Surely, what they list themselves. Some worship God with their good meaning, some with their good dealing, some with the babbling of a few words, as namely, of the Apostles Creed, and Ten Commandments for prayers. This service of God is very common, but alas, it is poor service. For the rule of divine honor is not the will of him that honoreth, but the will of him which is honored. Secondly, here we learn to detest the service and worship which is performed to God in the Church of Rome. For it contains many parts and points of will-worship, having no warrant from God, either by commandment or promise. . . . For these and many other practices, let them bring forth the Word of God, if they can. They plead for many things, that they have the word of traditions. I answer, that traditions ecclesiastical are no word of God, but the word of man. And traditions which are called apostolical, are either of no moment, or doubtful. For how shall we know certainly, that they were the traditions of the Apostles, considering none hath said so, but some of the Fathers, whose testimonies are not sufficient, because they are subject to error?”(45)

In his well-known Medulla Theologiae (1628), the English Puritan William Ames, Professor at Franeker in the Netherlands, systematically discusses the principle of worship under the heading “De cultu instituto” (“Of instituted worship”). The following propositions illustrate the well-ordered argument and precise definitions characteristic of Ames’ Medulla. An English translation, entitled The Marrow of Sacred Divinity, was published in London in 1642. “1. Instituted worship is the means ordained by the will of God, to exercise and further natural worship. 2. All such like means ordained of God are declared in the second commandment, by forbidding all contrary means of worship devised by men, under the title of graven and image: which seeing they were of old the chief inventions of men corrupting the worship of God, they are most fitly (by a synecdoche frequent in the decalogue) put instead of all devises of man’s wit pertaining to worship.”(46)

“10. No worship of this kind is lawful, unless it hath God for the author, and ordainer of it. Deut. 4:2 and 12:32; I Chron. 16:13 [sic]. 11. That is declared in those words of the commandment. Thou shalt not make to thyself: that is, of thine own brain or judgment, for although that particle to thyself, doth sometimes either abound, or hath another force: yet here the most accurate brevity of these commandments doth exclude redundancy, and it is manifest that the vanity of man’s cogitations is excluded by other places of Scripture pertaining to the same thing. As Amos 5:26; Num. 15:39. 12. The same is also declared by that universality of the prohibition, which is explained in the commandment by a distribution of the things which are in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth. 13. For none beside God himself can either understand what will be acceptable to him: or can add that virtue to any worship whereby, it may be made effectual and profitable for us; neither can there be anything honorable to God, which comes not from him as the author of it, neither finally do we read that such a power was at any time given to any man by God, to ordain any worship at his own pleasure. Matt. 15:9. 14. Hence implicitly and by interpretation of God himself, we make him our God, and give the honor due to God to him, whose authority or ordinances we subject ourselves unto in religious worship. 15. In this respect also men are sometime said to worship the devil, when they observe those worships which the devil brought in. I Cor. 10:20; Lev. 17:7; Deut. 32:17. 16. But we must observe that worship which God hath appointed with the same religion, as we receive his word or will, or call upon his name. Deut. 6:17-18 and 12:25, 28 and 13:18 and 28:14.

“17. The means which God hath ordained in this kind, some of them do properly, and immediately make to the exercising and furthering of faith, hope and charity; as public and solemn preaching of the Word, celebration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and prayer. And some of them are means for the right performance of those former, as the combination of the faithful into certain congregations or churches, election, ordination, and ministration of ministers ordained by God, together with the care of ecclesiastical discipline. 18. Those former are most properly the instituted worship of God; yet the rest are also worship, not only in that general respect, as all things are said to be acts of worship and religion, which do any way flow from, or are guided by religion; but also in their special nature, because the adequate end and use of them is, that God may be rightly worshipped. 19. All these therefore both in general, and in special ought to be observed of us as they are appointed by God; for God must be worshipped by us with his own worship, totally and solely, nothing must here be added, taken away or changed. Deut. 12:32.

“20. That is a very empty distinction, whereby some go about to excuse their additions. That only addition corrupting, and not addition conserving is forbidden; because every addition as well as detraction is expressly opposed to observation, or conservation of the commands of God, as being a corruption. Deut. 12:32. 21. Of like stamp also is that evasion whereby they say there is forbidden only addition of essentials, and not of accidentals: for first although there be accidents or certain adjuncts of worship, yet there is no worship to be simply called accidental, because it hath in it the very essence of worship. Secondly, as the least commands of God even to iotas and tittles are religiously to be observed, Matt. 5:18-19. So additions which seem very small, are by the same reason to be rejected. Thirdly, Moses doth seal up even those laws of the place of divine worship, of the manner, of abstinence from blood, and the like which must needs be referred to accidental worship if any such be, with this very caution of not adding, or taking away. Deut. 12:32.

“22. This observation is in a special manner called obedience, because by it we do that which seems right in the eyes of the Lord, although some other may seem righter in our eyes. Deut. 12:25, 28. 23. There is opposed unto this instituted worship, as unlawful, that will-worship which is devised by men. Matt. 15:9; Col. 2:23. 24. The sin which is committed in will-worship, is by a general name called superstition. 25. Superstition is that whereby undue worship is yielded to God.(47) 26. For in superstition God is always the object, and the end in some measure, but the worship itself is unlawful. 27. It is called undue worship, either in respect of the manner or measure, or in respect of the matter and substance of the worship. In the former manner the Pharisees offended about the Sabbath, when they urged the observation of it as touching the outward rest, above the manner and measure appointed by God. And they also offended in the latter manner, in observing and urging their own traditions. Mark 7:8. 28. Hence superstition is called an excess of religion, not in respect of the formal power of religion, because so none can be too religious; but in respect to the acts and means of religion. 29. This excess is not only in those positive exercises, which consists in the use of things, but also in abstinence from the use of some things, as from meats, which are accounted unclean and unlawful, and the like.”(48)

“33. Religious teaching by images is condemned, first, because they are not sanctified by God to that end. . . . 34. Of like kind with images, are all those ceremonies, which are ordained by men for mystical or religious signification. 35. For such ceremonies have no determinate power to teach, either by any power put into them by nature, or by divine institution: but they can receive none by humane institution, because man can effect this neither by commanding, seeing it is beyond his authority, nor by obtaining, seeing God hath promised no such thing to him that asketh. 36. Neither can men take to themselves any authority in ordaining such ceremonies from that, that it is commanded to all churches, that all things be done decently, and in order. I Cor. 14:40. For neither the respect of order nor decency requires, that some holy things should be newly ordained, but that those which are ordained by God, be used in that manner, which is agreeable to their dignity; neither do order and decency pertain to holy things only, but also to civil duties, for confusion and indecency in both are vices opposite to that due manner which is required to the attaining the just end and use of them.”(49)

William Ames was also the author of A Reply to Dr. Mortons Generall Defence of Three Nocent Ceremonies, Viz., the Surplice, Crosse in Baptisme, and Kneeling At the Receiving of the Sacramentall Elements of Bread and Wine (1622). In Ames’ reply to chapter 1, section 2, he asserts the sufficiency of Scripture: “Whatsoever is objected in this section for the all-sufficiency or perfect fullness of the Scripture, I will take for granted, because nothing is denied by the defendant. It is granted therefore at the first entrance, that the Scripture condemneth whatsoever is done, not only against the warrant and direction of the Word, but also that which is done beside it.”(50) The reply to section 5 discusses a passage in Calvin’s Institutes, IV.x.30: “For Calvin’s meaning was nothing less than to teach that Christ had given liberty unto men for to prescribe at their discretion mystical signs in the church [sic]: but only to dispose of such circumstances as in their kind are necessary, but in particular determination do vary. He instanceth in the next section the circumstance of time, what hour the congregation should meet: in the place, how large, or in what fashion the church should be built: in mere order, what Psalms should be sung at one time, and what another time. These and such like circumstances of order and comeliness, equally necessary in civil and religious actions are understood by Calvin: not significant ceremonies, proper unto religious worship, such as ours are now in controversy.”(51)

In reply to section 12, Ames observes: “The last place of Scripture handled in this argument is Jer. 7:31, the force of which, as it pertaineth to the purpose in hand, is in the last words, which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart. The reason lieth thus (to take honorable Calvin’s interpretation upon the place) seeing God under this title only condemneth that which the Jews did, because he had not commanded it them: Therefore no other reason need be sought for the confutation of superstition, than that they are not by commandment from God.”(52) Replying to section 14, Ames cites Tertullian’s comment: “That is prohibited which is not permitted.”(53)

Responding to section 16, Ames makes these observations on I Cor. 14:26, 40: “All that is left unto the church’s liberty in things pertaining unto God’s worship, is to order them in comely manner. This is manifestly collected out of the place in question: so the defendant seemeth to grant, so P. Martyr understandeth it, as is to be seen in his commentary on I Samuel 14, which judgment of his cited and approved by Whitaker, . . . confirmed also by Junius against Bellarmine, . . . where he showeth that Christ is the only lawgiver that appointeth things in his church: and that he hath appointed all that are requisite: and that the church maketh no laws (properly so called) to appoint any new things to be used, but only canons, orders, directions, ordering in seemly manner those things which Christ hath appointed: and that if she addeth anything of her own, she doth decline. The reason is, because unto her is committed no authority of appointing new things, but a ministry to observe and do such things which Christ hath appointed. . . . This is also confirmed by sound reason, but in respect of the wisdom required in all lawmakers, and perfectly found in Christ, and also in regard of the nature of such institutions. For the former reason teacheth (as Aristotle sheweth Rhet. 1.3) that all which possibly may, should be appointed in the law by the giver of it, and nothing left unto the ministerial judges, but that which must needs be left, as matters of fact, etc. Now in the worship of God, all but particular circumstances of order, may easily be appointed (as in very deed they were) by our lawgiver Christ. As for the nature of such institutions, that doth also require so much: for whatsoever is above civility therein, if it be not a circumstance of order, it is worship, and therefore invented by unlawful will-worship. For whatsoever is used or acted by him that worshippeth God, in that act, it must needs be either grounded on civil humane considerations, and therefore civility: or an act and means of worship, and therefore worship: or the ordering and manner of disposing those acts and means, and therefore lawful, if lawfully and fitly applied: or else, at the least, idle and vain, and therefore to be avoided, according to that of Basil, sigastho de kai peritia en ekklesia theou, a sift cannot be given. By all this it may appear, that the authority of the Church is not to appoint what she will, no not of things in their own nature indifferent, and say they be in order, or for order; but only to order those things which God hath appointed.

“Thus far the proposition, or first part of my syllogism: the assumption followeth. But to appoint and use the ceremonies as we do, is not to order in comely manner any thing pertaining to God’s worship. The reason, is because order requireth not the institution or usage of any new thing, but only the right placing and disposing of things which are formerly instituted. This appreareth 1. by the notation which is given of the word itself, which both in Greek and Latin is taken from the ranking of soldiers in certain bounds and limits of time and place . . . and 2. by the definitions which are given thereof, by philosophers and Divines. . . . 3. The same also is confirmed by our Divines, who usually giving instances of order, do insist in time, place, and such like circumstances, making a difference betwixt mystical ceremonies and order, many times condemning the one, and allowing the other as the divines of France and the low countries, in their observations on the Harmony of Confessions. . . . 4. By the context of the chapter, viz., I Corinthians 14, it plainly appeareth, that order is opposed to that confusion spoken of, verse 33, and therefore importeth nothing but that peaceable proceeding whereby they that should speak, speak one by one, and the rest attend, etc., verses 30-31.

“As for comeliness, that is nothing but the seemliness of order. For as P. Martyr saith in I Corinthians 11: it is such a tempering of actions as whereby they may more fitly attain their end. Otherwhere it may contain that natural and civil handsomeness, which is spoken of chapter 11:13, as it doth chapter 12:23, and so includeth all that which is grounded on civility, as a fair cloth and cup for the communion, a faire and firm vessel for baptism: but not the appointing of new mystical ceremonies, for then such ceremonies were commanded to all churches: . . . and then the apostolic assemblies should have worshipped God uncomelily. Thus we have proposition and assumption of our argument against the ceremonies confirmed out of this place, which the defendant chose as the only place that could be brought for them. Now I hope we may add the conclusion. Therefore to appoint and use the ceremonies as we do, is not left to the liberty of the church, i.e. it is unlawful.”(54)

Another book by Ames which was representative of Puritan thought is A Fresh Suit against Human Ceremonies in God’s Worship. In section 12 (“Concerning that phrase, Jer. 7:31 etc. You do that which I commanded not“), Ames commented: “1. In the twelfth section, we are to inquire, whether and how that consequence in God’s worship, be good: I have not commanded this; therefore, you may not do it. The defendant and rejoinder say it is not good, except by not commanding, be understood forbidding as Lev. 10:1, Deut. 17:3. Which is thus far true, that except some forbidding be included, or (as the rejoinder speaketh) imported in that not commanding, not commanding cannot make a thing unlawful. But that is the very question whether in things proper to religion, not commanding, doth not include some kind of forbidding. 2. The place mentioned by the rejoinder: out of Lev. 10:1 doth most strongly make against him. For the sons of Aaron are there condemned, for bringing strange, or ordinary fire to God’s worship, as doing that which God had not commanded, and yet had not otherwise forbidden, than by providing fire proper to his worship, and not appointing any other to be used in the tabernacle, and this is the very plea which we make against ceremonies of humane institution, in God’s worship.”(55)

Ames also wrote a recommendatory preface to William Bradshaw’s English Puritanism, Containing the Main Opinions of the Rigidest Sort of Those That Are Called Puritans in the Realm of England (1605). Bradshaw’s first chapter set forth what the Puritans taught “Concerning religion, or the worship of God in general.” “Imprimis, they hold and maintain, that the Word of God contained in the writings of the Prophets and Apostles, is of absolute perfection, given by Christ the head of the Church, to be unto the same, the sole canon and rule of all matters of religion, and the worship and service of God whatsoever. And that whatsoever done in the same service and worship cannot be justified by the said Word, is unlawful. And therefore that it is a sin to force any Christian to do any act of religion or divine service, that cannot evidently be warranted by the same. 2. They hold that all ecclesiastical actions invented and devised by man, are utterly to be excluded out of the exercises of religion, especially such actions as are famous and notorious mysteries of an idolatrous religion, and in doing whereof, the true religion is conformed (whether in whole or in part) to idolatry and superstition.

“3. They hold that all outward means instituted and set apart to express and set forth the inward worship of God, are parts of divine worship, and that not only all moral actions but all typical rites and figures ordained to shadow forth in the solemn worship and service of God, any spiritual or religious act or habit in the mind of man, are special parts of the same. And therefore that every such act ought evidently to be prescribed by the Word of God, or else ought not to bee done, it being a sin to perform any other worship to God, whether external or internal, moral or ceremonial, in whole or in part, than that which God himself requires in his Word. 4. They hold it to be gross superstition, for any mortal man to institute and ordain as parts of divine worship, any mystical rite and ceremony of religion whatsoever, and to mingle the same with the divine rites and mysteries of God’s ordinance. But they hold it to be a high presumption to institute and bring into divine worship such rites and ceremonies of religion as are acknowledged to be no parts of divine worship at all, but only of civil worship and honor. For they that shall require to have performed unto themselves a ceremonial obedience, service and worship, consisting in rites of religion to be done at that very instant that God is solemnly served and worshipped, and even in the same worship make both themselves and God also an idol. So that they judge it far more fearful sin to add unto, and to use in the worship and service of God, or any part thereof, such mystical rites and ceremonies as they esteem to be no parts or parcels of God’s worship at all, than such as in a vain or ignorant superstition, they imagine and conceive to be parts thereof.”(56)

Jeremiah Burroughs, in his treatise Gospel Worship (1647), gives the following account of the strange fire offered by Nadab and Abihu: “But had God ever forbidden it? Where do we find that ever God had forbidden them to offer strange fire, or appointed that they should offer only one kind of fire? There is no text of Scripture, that you can find from the beginning of Genesis to this place, where God hath said in terminis, in so many words expressly, You shall offer no fire but one kind of fire. And yet here they are consumed by fire from God, for offering strange fire. I find in the thirtieth of Exodus, verse 9, that there they were forbidden offering strange incense, but I do not find that they were forbidden offering strange fire. In Lev. 6:13 and diverse verses in that chapter, we find that God had appointed that they should keep constantly the fire on the altar burning, and never to let it go out: Now that was it seems God’s intention that therefore they should make use of that fire, and that fire only. God would have them to pick out his meaning: God sent fire down from heaven upon the altar, so in the latter end of the ninth chapter God sent down fire from heaven, and gave them a charge to keep that fire on the altar constantly, and never to let it go out: so that it seems God would have them pick out his meaning, that because he had sent down fire from heaven upon the altar, and gave them power to keep that constantly, God would have them to understand, that what incense or sacrifice he would have the use of fire in, it should be only that fire and no other, though God did never say to them directly in these words, You shall make use of this fire and no other, but God would have them to understand this. That’s their sin therefore in offering of strange fire.”(57)

Burroughs proceeds to formulate the regulative principle of worship as follows: “That in God’s worship there must be nothing tendered up to God but what he hath commanded; whatsoever we meddle with in the worship of God, it must be what we have a warrant for out of the Word of God.”(58) And further: “For this speech of Moses is upon occasion of the judgment of God upon Aaron’s sons for offering strange fire: They offered fire that God had not commanded. Hence I say that all things in God’s worship must have a warrant out of God’s Word, must be commanded. It is not enough that it is not forbidden. I beseech you observe it: it is not enough that a thing is not forbidden, and what hurt is there in it? But it must be commanded. I confess in matters that are civil and natural, there this may be enough: If it be but according to the rules of prudence, and not forbidden in the Word; we may make use of this in civil and natural things. But now when we come to matters of religion, and the worship of God; we must either have a command, or somewhat out of God’s Word by some consequence drawn from some command wherein God manifests his will; either a direct command, or by comparing one thing with another, or drawing consequences plainly from the words. We must have a warrant for the worship of God. One would have thought that these priests offering incense to the true God, what hurt was there in taking other fire? But there was no command for it, and therefore it was not accepted.”(59)

Burroughs adopts the standard Puritan distinction of elements and circumstances of worship, terming the latter “natural and civil helps.” “It’s true that there are some thing in the worship of God that are natural and civil helps, and there we need not have any command: As for instance; when we come to worship God, the congregation meets, they must have a convenient place to keep the air and weather from them: now this is but a natural help, and so far as I use the place of worship as a natural help, I need have no command.”(60) A further important distinction is made between those natural circumstances just described, and significant circumstances, or ceremonies which require a warrant. Further developing the example of a place of worship, Burroughs writes: “But if I will put any thing in a place beyond what it hath in its own nature, there I must look for a command. For if I account one place more holy than another, or to think that God should accept of worship in one place rather than in another: this is to raise it above what it is in its own nature. So that when any creature is raised in a religious way, above what it hath in it by nature: If I have not Scripture to warrant me I am therein superstitious. It’s a very useful rule for to help you: If any creature that you make any use of in a way of religion beyond what it hath in its own nature, if you have not some warrant from the Word of God (whatsoever specious show there may be in it) it is superstition.”(61)

The importance of the regulative principle of Reformed worship is eloquently proclaimed by John Owen in his work, Of Communion With God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost (1657). The third thing in which the saints’ chastity towards Christ consists is, “In his institutions, or matter and manner of his worship. Christ marrying his church to himself, taking it to that relation, still expresseth the main of their chaste and choice affections to him, to lie in their keeping his institutions and his worship according to his appointment. . . . On this account, those believers who really attend to communion with Jesus Christ, do labor to keep their hearts chaste to him in his ordinances, institutions, and worship; and that two ways: –

“1.) They will receive nothing, practice nothing, own nothing, in his worship, but what is of his appointment. They know that from the foundation of the world he never did allow, nor ever will, that in anything the will of the creatures should be the measure of his honor or the principle of his worship, either as to the matter or the manner. . . . Believers know what entertainment all will-worship finds with God: ‘Who hath required these things at your hand?’ and, ‘In vain do you worship me, teaching for doctrines the traditions of men,’ – is the best it meets with. I shall take leave to say what is upon my heart, and what (the Lord assisting) I shall willingly endeavor to make good against all the world, – namely, that that principle, that the church hath power to institute and appoint any thing or ceremony belonging to the worship of God, either as to matter or manner, beyond the orderly observance of such circumstances as necessarily attend such ordinances as Christ himself hath instituted, lies at the bottom of all the horrible superstition and idolatry, of all the confusion, blood, persecution, and wars, that have for so long a season spread themselves over the face of the Christian world; and that it is the design of a great part of the Revelation to make a discovery of this truth. . . . This, then, they who hold communion with Christ are careful of: – they will admit nothing, practice nothing, in the worship of God, private or public, but what they have his warrant for; unless it comes in his name, with ‘Thus saith the Lord Jesus’, they will not hear an angel from heaven. They know the apostles themselves were to teach the saints only what Christ commanded them, Matt. 28:20. . . .

“2. They readily embrace, receive, and practice everything that the Lord Christ hath appointed. They inquire diligently into his mind and will, that they may know it. They go to him for directions, and beg of him to lead them in the way they have not known. The 119th Psalm may be a pattern for this. How doth the good, holy soul breathe after instruction in the ways and ordinances, the statutes and judgments of God? This, I say, they are tender in: whatever is of Christ, they willingly submit unto, accept of, and give up themselves to the constant practice thereof; whatever comes on any other account they refuse.”(62) A full discussion of the regulative principle may also be found in Owen’s Discourse Concerning Liturgies.(63)

Objectivity in Worship

The application of the regulative principle provides objectivity in worship. By objectivity is meant in this connection simply conformity to the law of God, as opposed to subjectivism in worship. There is no doubt a good sense in which one might speak of subjectivity in worship, namely the sincere, reverent attitude of the true worshipper. This desirable subjectivity, however, will tend invariably to that worship which is agreeable to the will and Word of God. Opposed to this is subjectivism in worship, worship arising not from the revealed will of the Lord, but from the desires, inclinations, imaginations and decisions of men. Subjectivism is precisely what the Reformers and Puritans termed ‘will-worship’.

An increasing trend toward subjectivism in worship has marked the practice of professing Protestantism since the seventeenth century. This trend corresponds with a general trend in modern thought and life. The Puritan principle was insisted on in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in opposition to the tyrannical exercise of power on the part of an authoritarian church. In the twentieth century, while authoritarian churches still display their characteristic traits, the glaring evil, especially in Protestant circles, is unbridled licence on the part of individuals and groups within the churches. The Puritan principle stands as a principle of order and of liberty between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy in worship. The extremes, in this instance as in others, have a common root error, more expressly manifest in the one than in the other extreme. Tyranny has in it the seeds of anarchy. Anarchy may reveal its root evil at a later stage of development than tyranny, but reveals more clearly the evil that is expressed in tyranny as well, and that evil is departure from the ways of the living God. Rabbi Duncan has well said that there is but one heresy, and that is antinomianism.(64) Legalism itself may be regarded as a disguised type of antinomianism. The Puritan principle is not legalism, for it neither inculcates salvation by works, nor does it admit of any impositions beyond the commandments of God. Legalism whether in Judaism or Christianity has involved essentially the rejection of sovereign grace and of the sufficiency of God’s Word. Puritanism, far from being legalistic in this proper usage of the word, is the one system which through its distinguishing principle has opposed legalism consistently. If Puritans have sometimes fallen into legalistic errors, this lapse is in spite of their allegiance to the regulative principle of worship, and not the natural result of it.

The trend toward subjectivism may be illustrated in a multitude of particulars. Observance of days other than the Christian Sabbath or Lord’s Day (with seasons of thanksgiving and humiliation) has increased with alarming rapidity. The evils of superstition and idolatry that have come to be connected with the church observance of Christmas and Easter are notorious. Subjectivism in these instances attaches itself parasitically to observances originally imposed by an authoritarian church. In other instances, subjectivism invents days suited to that modern spirit which aims beyond all else at the glory of man. Days commemorating motherhood, war and labor make inroads upon the Sabbath and on the purity of God’s worship in general, while a hundred or rather thousands of lesser humanistic spirits hover about particular occasions in the activities of the modern churches. A Sabbath for the Lodge in one church, and in memory of Robert Burns in another!

Many other applications and implications of the regulative principle could be mentioned. A peculiarly idolatrous form of deviation from the regulative principle in some circles at present is the use of pictures of the Savior. The use of a picture of Christ in worship is a blatant violation of the second commandment. The Puritans were concerned with ceremonies (of which three nocent ones singled out were the use of the surplice, kneeling at the communion and the sign of the cross in baptism), and with the imposition of liturgies. Since the eighteenth century, however, a major deviation from the regulative principle in the direction of unbridled subjectivism concerns the musical aspect of the service of worship. The flood of uninspired lyrics commonly miscalled hymns or gospel songs has inundated a declining Protestant Church. This has been matched by musical accompaniments that have transformed churches into theatres and concert halls, featuring preludes, postludes, interludes and who knows what else of the same species?

The godly William Romaine was one of Zion’s faithful watchmen in the eighteenth century who raised voice and pen in protest against the crowding out of divinely-authorized and inspired Psalmody, by the introduction into public worship of ditties of human composition, suited to tingle the itching ear and to allure the carnal mind. Romaine’s words of apology in his Essay on Psalmody (1775) may well be quoted by one who would introduce this subject in twentieth-century evangelical churches.

“I know this is a sore place, and I would touch it gently, as gently as I can with any hope of doing good. The value of poems above Psalms is become so great, and the singing of men’s words, so as quite to cast out the word of God is become so universal (except in the Church of England), that one scarce dares speak upon the subject: neither would I, having already met with contempt enough for preferring God’s hymns to man’s hymns, if a high regard for God’s most blessed word did not require me to bear my testimony; and if I did not verily believe, that many real Christians have taken up this practice without thinking of the evil of it; and when they come to consider the matter carefully will rather thank me, than censure me, for freedom of speech.”(65)

Romaine explains his position as to the use of hymns, and in particular mentions the work of Isaac Watts: “Let me observe, then, that I blame nobody for singing human compositions. I do not think it sinful or unlawful, so the matter be scriptural. My complaint is against preferring men’s poems to the good word of God, and preferring them to it in the church. I have no quarrel with Dr. Watts, or any living or dead versifier. I would not wish all their poems burnt. My concern is to see Christian congregations shut out divinely inspired Psalms, and take in Dr. Watts’ flights of fancy; as if the words of a poet were better than the words of a prophet, or as if the wit of a man was to be preferred to the wisdom of God. When the church is met together in one place, the Lord God has made a provision for their songs of praise – a large collection, and great variety – and why should not these be used in the church according to God’s express appointment? I speak not of private people or of private singing, but of the church in its public service. Why should the provision which God has made be so far despised, as to become quite out of use? Why should Dr. Watts, or any hymn maker, not only take the precedence of the Holy Ghost, but also thrust him entirely out of the church? Insomuch that the rhymes of a man are now magnified above the word of God, even to the annihilating of it in many congregations.”(66)

Romaine writes of Watts not with rancor but with magnanimity, yet nevertheless is unsparing of the followers of Watts who eliminated the Psalms from the service of praise. Watts never intended to thrust the Psalms from the church. His words, quoted by Romaine from the preface to his Hymns, are these: “Far be it from my thoughts to lay aside the book of Psalms in public worship: few can pretend so great a value for them as myself: it is the most artful, most devotional, and divine collection of poesy; and nothing can be supposed more proper to raise a pious soul to heaven, than some parts of that book; never was a piece of experimental divinity so nobly written, and so justly reverenced and admired.” Romaine remarks: “Happy would it have been for the Christian world, if his followers had stopped just where he did. He declares it was far from his thoughts to do what they have done. It never came into his head to lay aside the book of Psalms in public worship. Think of this, and weigh it carefully, ye that idolize Dr. Watts, and prefer his poems to the infallible word of God. It would be well for you, if you valued psalms as much as he did: for he says none valued them more. Then you would have looked upon them in his light: for having already in your hands the most devotional and the most divine collection, you would not have thought of any other, knowing that it was impossible to have a better, but you would have used this, and would have found it too, as Dr. Watts did, the most proper to raise the soul to heaven. Blessed sentiments! I honor the memory of Dr. Watts for this glorious testimony. I can say nothing that can bear harder upon those persons, who, contrary to his opinion, have entirely left off singing the Psalms of God in the church. He never intended to countenance such a practice. He declares it was far from his thoughts, yea, he abhorred the very thought, and in so saying he has upon record condemned it. Here I rest the matter . . . . Farewell. May the Lord guide you into all truth.”(67) Romaine’s magnanimity does not deter him from quoting references by Mr. Hall to Watts’s sound and rhyme as “Watts’s Jingle,” and by Rev. T. Bradbury, who “thought so meanly of Watts’s Hymns as commonly to term them Watts’s Whymns.”(68)

Watts was responsible for two innovations in the service of sung praise, both in the direction of subjectivism in worship. He prepared imitations of the Psalms(69) to supersede the metrical versions commonly used in the Puritan churches. The more drastic innovation was the introduction of a collection of hymns of his own private composition. Watts defends both of these departures from the standard Puritan practice in his “Essay Towards the Improvement of Psalmody,” and attempts to produce Scripture warrant for the introduction of uninspired hymns, appealing to references to a new song in Rev. 5:9 and 14:3, and to the Song of Moses and the Lamb in Rev. 15:3.(70) Puritan exegesis of these texts will be produced later, from a work by John Cotton of New England. The modernizing, subjectivist motive appears most clearly in Watts’ plea for what may seem to be the lesser departure from the old ways, namely his provision of imitations of the Psalms. Watts argues as follows for modifying and mutilating the text of the Psalms as used in singing: “Where there are any dark expressions, and difficult to be understood in the Hebrew songs, they should be left out in our psalmody, or at least made very plain by a paraphrase. Where there are sentences, or whole psalms, that can very difficultly be accommodated to our times, they may be utterly omitted. Such is Psalm 150, part of the 38, 45, 48, 40, 68, 81, 108, and some others, as well as a great part of the Song of Solomon.”(71) One may judge for oneself whether such language is consistent with a full-blooded witness to the inspiration, authority, and perfection of Holy Scripture as expressed in II Tim. 3:16-17. Watts’ attempt to distinguish the use of the Psalter in singing from its use in reading(72) does not meet this objection. If reverence for the Word of God should induce the reader to retain an unmutilated text for reading, despite difficulties of a subjective nature, why should such difficulties excuse alteration of the text for purposes of singing? Watts goes so far as to include the beautiful expressions of Ps. 84:3, 6 among “passages which were hardly made for Christian lips to assume without some alteration.”(73)

The defence of uninspired hymnody entails a modification of the regulative principle of worship, in transferring the content of praise from prescribed matter to a thing indifferent. In answering the objection that there is no instance in Scripture of a human composure sung by the people of God, Watts appeals to the general considerations he has argued from Scripture and adds the words “. . . since we perform many circumstantials of worship under the influence of a general command without express and special examples.”(74) Aside from the apparent confusion of good and necessary consequences of general commands, with circumstances of actions in worship which may be adiaphora, the remark betrays an attitude of unwillingness to regulate the details of worship by the Scripture pattern. In the conclusion, after admitting that his arguments will not be found conclusive, he quotes Rom. 14:2.(75) In identifying Psalm singers with weaker brethren, Watts shows that he regards the content of praise as belonging to the adiaphora. This is to say that the regulative principle of worship does not apply. In settling such a question, the judgment of man is made decisive rather than the appointment of the divine will. In this, even more than in the innovations themselves with their far-reaching consequences, lies the deepest deviation of Watts from the Puritan position with respect to worship.

Puritan Teaching Regarding the Content of Sung Praise

A consideration of authentic Puritan teaching with respect to the content of sung praise will now be in order. First of all, mention may be made of the witness of the Puritans at the Westminster Assembly of Divines. In the Westminster Confession of Faith, the singing of Psalms is named among the authorized elements of worship. The Assembly also concerned itself with a metrical Psalter which would provide a faithful rendering of the text of the Psalms.

In his work, Singing of Psalms a Gospel Ordinance (1647), John Cotton, pastor of the church at Boston in New England, finds it first necessary to justify vocal singing in the worship of God. He gives the following proofs in justification of the practice. The first proof is taken from the commandment of the Lord by Paul, Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16, I Cor. 14:15-16. Cotton urges, “That singing of Psalms in the New Testament, is to be dispensed in Christian churches, not only with inward grace in the heart, making melody to the Lord, but also with outward audible lively voice.”(76) Cotton replies to various objections raised against the appeal to the Pauline texts. One objection is to the effect that no spiritual gift is exercised in the singing of the letter of the Psalms. Cotton answers that “Singing of Psalms is accompanied and blessed of God (by his grace) with many gracious effects, above nature or art.”(77) “Singing of a spiritual song, prepareth to prophecy, by ministering the Spirit, II Kings 3:15. . . . The minstrel’s playing, if it had not been accompanied with a spiritual song, it could not have conveyed such a spiritual blessing.” Cotton reasons in like manner from I Sam. 10:5-6: “For prophecy is an utterance only of the Word of God, and of the things of God contained in it; which instruments without voice cannot do. Nor had their playing with instruments been a means of conveying the Spirit to Saul, had not their voices concurred and sung with their instruments.”(78)

Singing of Psalms honors God with our glory, i.e. our tongue, Pss. 108:1, 57:7-8. To the objection that “These gracious effects and fruits of singing Psalms, do plead as much for singing and playing with instruments, as for singing with voices,” Cotton gives several answers, the third of which is of particular interest, as providing a main ground for the Puritans’ rejection of instrumental music in worship: “Singing with instruments, was typical, and so a ceremonial worship, and therefore is ceased. But singing with heart and voice is moral worship, such as is written in the hearts of all men by nature: As to pray in distress, so when we are merry, and have cause of solemn thanksgiving unto God, then to sing Psalms, which the Holy Ghost by the Apostle James approveth and sanctifieth, James 5:13. Or suppose singing with instruments were not typical, but only an external solemnity of worship, fitted to the solace of the outward senses of children under age, (such as the Israelites were under the Old Testament, Gal. 4:1-3) yet now in the grown age of the heirs of the New Testament, such external pompous solemnities are ceased, and no external worship reserved, but such as holdeth forth simplicity, and gravity; nor is any voice now to be heard in the Church of Christ, but such as is significant and edifying by signification (I Cor. 14:10-11, 26) which the voice of instruments is not.”(79)

“The second proof is taken from the examples of Christ himself, and of his saints and disciples in the New Testament. Christ himself with his disciples sung a Psalm or an Hymn together, in the end of the administration of the Lord’s Supper, Matt. 26:30. And Paul and Silas are said to have sung a Psalm in the prison, so as the prisoners heard them, Acts 16:25. Now if in singing they had only spiritually rejoiced, and not expressed their joy and their song in audible and lively voice, the prisoners could not have heard them. The stranger doth not know nor meddle with the spiritual joy of the heart, Prov. 14:10.”(80) In reply to the objection that Matt. 26:30 could as well be translated “They praised God” as “They sung an Hymn,” Cotton observes: “It is more probable, than any reason can wave, that Christ and his disciples did shut up the Lord’s Supper with singing one of their Hebrew Psalms; as the Jews were wont to shut up their celebration of the Passover (as their own records tell us) with singing Psalm 111 with the five other Psalms next following together.”(81)

“A third proof of this truth, is taken from the prophecies of the Old Testament, foretelling and persuading such a duty in the New, Isa. 52:8, ‘with the voice together shall they sing.’ And that is foretold of the times, when the feet of the messengers of glad tidings shall be beautiful, who shall say unto Zion, Thy God reigneth. Which Paul explaineth of the times of the gospel, Rom. 10:14.”(82) Cotton also adds references to Pss. 100:1-2 and 95:1-2, and shows that both of these Psalms relate to the worship of the New Testament church.

Against this appeal to Old Testament texts, the objection was raised that since singing in the Old Testament is associated with the use of instrumental music, these texts do not refer to singing in the New Testament church. Cotton replies, referring to Ps. 95:1-2: “Here is now no mention of making a joyful noise with instruments, but with Psalms. And therefore the making a joyful noise with Psalms doth still continue, even on our Lord’s Days: when making a joyful noise with instruments continueth not, but is laid down in silence: save only so far as it is kept alive in the antitype, the affections of our hearts (our Praecordia) making melody with the songs and professions of our lips, and with the gracious and peaceable conversation of our lives.”(83)

Following upon his elaborate argument in support of vocal singing in the worship of God, Cotton proceeds to the heart of the matter, the content of sung praise in worship, or, as he expresses it, “the matter of the Psalms to be sung.”(84) He refers to “some who do not scruple singing with the voice . . . but singing of the Psalms of David now in these days of the New Testament,” and summarizes their opinion: “As conceiving David’s Psalms were penned for temple worship, during the pedagogy of the Old Testament. But now in the days of the New Testament, when God hath promised to pour out his Spirit upon all flesh, now the whole worship of God should be carried on, not by set forms of Psalms, (no more than by set forms of prayer) but by personal spiritual gifts, whereby some one or other of the members of the church, having received a Psalm by the inditement of the Spirit, he singeth it openly in the public assembly of the church, and the rest of the brethren say Amen to it in the close.”(85)

Ignoring at the present stage of discussion the question as to who should sing, Cotton states his view as to the matter to be sung: “1. That not only the Psalms of David, but any other spiritual songs recorded in Scripture, may lawfully be sung in Christian churches, as the song of Moses, and Asaph, Heman and Ethan, Solomon and Hezekiah, Habakkuk, and Zacharias, Hannah, and Deborah, Mary and Elizabeth, and the like. 2. We grant also, that any private Christian, who hath a gift to frame a spiritual song, may both frame it, and sing it privately, for his own private comfort, and remembrance of some special benefit, or deliverance: Nor do we forbid the private use of an instrument of music therewithal; so that attention to the instrument, do not divert the heart from attention to the matter of the song. Neither do we deny, but that in the public thanksgivings of the church, if the Lord should furnish any of the members of the church with a spiritual gift to compose a Psalm upon any special occasion, he may lawfully be allowed to sing it before the church, and the rest hearing it, and approving it, may go along with him in Spirit, and say Amen to it.”(86)

An important reservation accompanies this concession, namely that such spiritual gifts as “Psalms and tongues” received by sundry members of the Corinthian Church “now are not ordinarily bestowed”: “So we would not call upon men now, to prefer their ordinary common gift as more fit for the public edifying of the church, before the extraordinary gifts of the holy men of God in Scripture, who by the Spirit were guided to prepare spiritual songs, suitable to all the conditions and affections and temptations of the church and people of God in all ages.”(87) Cotton then formulates the issue in a form that is as pertinent to the situation of the Reformed churches of the twentieth century as it was to the Puritans of the seventeenth: “So then the question is, whether the Psalms of David, and Asaph, and such other Hymns and spiritual Songs indited by the Prophets, and recorded in Scripture, be appointed by God, to be ordinarily sung in Christian churches, or whether laying aside Scripture-songs, we are to sing only such spiritual songs, as shall be indited by the personal (but ordinary) gifts of any ordinary officer or member of the church? The former we hold to be the truth, others the latter.”(88)

As a first reason for this restriction of sung praise in worship to inspired songs, Cotton adduces texts which might on a superficial reading seem to support the contrary view, namely Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16: “In both which places, as the apostle exhorteth us to singing, so he instructeth us what the matter of our song should be, to wit, Psalms, Hymns, and spiritual Songs; Now those three be the very titles of the songs of David, as they are delivered to us by the Holy Ghost himself: some of them are called mizmorim, that is Psalms; some tehillim, that is Hymns; some shirim, that is Songs, spiritual Songs. Now what reason can be given why the apostle should direct us in our singing to the very titles of David’s Psalms, if it were not his meaning that we should sing them? Yea, either we must exclude the Psalms of David, from the name of Psalms, and Hymns, and spiritual Songs; or else we must be forced to acknowledge, that we are exhorted to sing them, as well as any other.”(89)

Observe that Cotton rests his argument on the regulative principle. He takes his reasons for faith and practice “from the commandment, or exhortation of the apostle.”(90) The songs that are approved for use in worship are those appointed by God. Even the fact that the Psalms are inspired by God, significant as it is in indicating the content and character of songs that may be sung in worship, is secondary in relation to the fact that these are the songs which God has appointed or authorized for use in his worship. Sung praise is to be restricted in its content to divinely-inspired songs, not simply because inspired songs are superior in quality to the best of uninspired compositions, but more basically because inspired Psalms and Songs are warranted by express command and approved example, while uninspired compositions lack such warrant.

Cotton devotes an entire chapter of nineteen pages to clearing objections against his appeal to Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16. He remarks: “The objections are many, and some of them seem more weighty, and some more light: let us unpartially and evenly (by the Lord’s guidance) weigh them all in the balance of the sanctuary.”(91) Within the limits of the present paper, protracted as it is, the whole range of arguments cannot be considered. A selection of arguments will be made, with a view to illuminating some points that have been raised in contemporary discussions about the use of inspired or uninspired songs in the worship of God.

One sometimes hears it argued, “If Paul meant to enjoin the exclusive use of Bible Psalms, why does he write ‘Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual songs,’ which would then mean ‘Psalms, Psalms, Psalms’?” Cotton disposes of a similar objection: “If Paul had meant David’s Psalms, or Scripture songs, it had been an easy matter to have named David’s Psalms, or Scripture-songs, as David himself named his songs, the Psalms or Songs of David, when he delivered them to the chief musician, and to his company to be sung.” Cotton answers, first, that it could be as well argued that Paul might have used language explicitly excluding David’s Psalms and enjoining “such Psalms and Songs, as the Spirit should suggest unto their hearts.” Secondly Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual songs are the very express titles of the Psalms in the Book of Psalms, and thirdly, David’s name was appropriately set to the Psalms at their first publication, but need not be mentioned in every subsequent reference to the Psalms (Luke 24:44 and Acts 13:33).(92)

To the objection that the expression the word of Christ is “properly the gospel, by way of eminency, in way of opposition to the law, given by Moses,” Cotton gives a brief but apt reply: “Though the words of Christ be the gospel, yet the words of David are not to be shut out of the gospel; for the gospel was preached to Israel, when David and the other Prophets were preached, yea and some parts of Moses also, Heb. 4:2, John 5:46.”(93)

To the somewhat curious argument that “Paul biddeth the Ephesians, to be filled with the Spirit, in singing the spiritual songs of the New Testament, as drunkards are filled with wine, and in the strength and spirits of their wine, invent and sing their wanton sonnets,” Cotton gives the following instructive reply: “Paul did exhort them to be filled with the Spirit, as drunkards be with wine, not that they might invent, and sing spiritual songs as drunkards do wanton sonnets; for neither do drunkards filled with wine, usually invent sonnets, but sing such as they learned before, when they were sober; nor doth the apostle speak of inventing songs at all, either wanton songs by drunkards, or spiritual songs by the faithful; but only to be filled with the Spirit, as drunkards be with wine, that so they might avoid the riotous and excessive mirth of drunkards, and employ and improve their holy mirth and joy, to the singing of Psalms and Hymns and spiritual Songs, for their own mutual edification and consolation, and for holy thanksgiving and praise unto the Lord.”(94)

Cotton’s interpretation of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs as referring exclusively to the inspired compositions found in Holy Scripture is standard Puritan exegesis. This is evident from the Exposition Upon the Epistle to the Colossians by Nicholas Byfield. Writing on Col. 3:16, Byfield observes: “The matter is here three ways to be considered: First, in the ground, foundation, or authority of the Psalms we use, viz. they must be the word of Christ, that is contained in the Scriptures. Secondly in the kinds of Psalms there are many sorts of Psalms in Scripture. The Psalms of Moses, David, Solomon, and other prophets: but all are here referred to three heads; they are either Psalms, specially so called, or Hymns, or Songs, great ado there is among interpreters, to find a difference in these; some would have Psalms to be the songs of men, and Hymns of angels: some think they differ especially, in the manner of music. Some are sung by voice, some played upon instruments; but the plausiblest opinion is not to distinguish them, by the persons that use them, or by the kind of music, but by the matter, and so they say Psalms contain exhortation to manners or holy life. Hymns contain praises to God in the commemoration of his benefits. Songs contain doctrine of the chief good, or man’s eternal felicity. But I think there needs not any curious distinction: it may suffice us that there is variety of Psalms in Scripture, and God allows us the use of every kind. Thirdly, the property of the Psalms, they are Spiritual, both because they are indited by the Spirit, and because they make us more spiritual in the due use of them.”(95) Byfield draws two uses from this text: “First for instruction, when we are merry to sing Psalms. . . . Secondly, for reproof of such as set their delight in fleshly lusts and sports, in dancing, gaming, etc. in singing of carols, ballads, filthy rhymes, etc.”(96) Byfield’s metaphrase of Col. 3:16 runs, “And in special be careful of the Psalms, remembering that they also are the word of Christ, and the rather considering the exquisite variety of sweet matter in them. . . .”(97)

A favorite argument for the supplanting of psalmody by hymns of uninspired writers, or at least for the introductions of such hymns, is drawn from Scripture references to singing a new song (Ps. 96:1, Rev. 5:9). Cotton replies in considerable detail: “1. There is no estate and condition that ever befell the church and people of God, or can befall them, but the Holy Ghost, as he did foresee the same, so he hath provided and recorded some Scripture-Psalm, suitable thereunto. And these Psalms being chosen out suitably to the new occasions and new conditions of God’s people, and sung by them with new hearts and renewed affections, will ever be found new songs. Words of eternal truth and grace, are ever old (as the gospel is an eternal gospel) and ever new; as the commandment of love is a new commandment as well as old. . . . 2 David’s exhortation to sing a new song, pertained to them in the Old Testament as well as to us in the New. And yet they upon new occasions sang the old songs of David, and that with acceptance, II Chron. 5:13, 20:21, Ezra 3:11. 3. Asaph, Heman, and Ethan, were men indued with an infallible measure of a Spirit of prophecy, in inditing those Psalms, which the Church of Israel received from them. Give us the like men with the like gifts, and we shall receive their Psalms, as the Church of Israel did the other.

“4. The places objected out of the Revelation, admit a further answer, though the former might serve; the new song mentioned in Rev. 5:9-10 may either be understood metonymically for a doxology or thanksgiving, which the saints in the church should give to Christ upon occasion of his revealing a clear exposition of the Revelation; or else, if it be understood literally, that they sang that very song, as it is there penned by the Holy Ghost, then it appeareth, that at such a time that song shall be translated into number and meter, fit to be sung, and shall be sung by the church. . . . And thus, this place only sheweth, that it will be lawful to sing other songs, beside those of David and Asaph; but yet such only, as are penned by an infallible Spirit; or else upon special occasion, by men of spiritual gifts, which we deny not. The song of the 144,000 followers of the Lamb, it is not expressly said to be a new song, but as it were a new song, Rev. 14:3. New to them who had been wont to hear the worshippers of the beast to sing and rejoice in their own merits, and superstitious devotions: And new also in respect of the renewed affections, wherewith they sang it: But yet the same ancient song which the sheep and saints of Christ were wont to sing, even in David’s time, of the righteousness of Christ, even of his only, and of their own blessedness in his not imputing their sins to them. Thus David’s Psalms in the spiritual use and sense of them are new songs, or as it were new songs, to this day, unto all that are renewed by grace. . . .”(98)

Cotton gives the following exposition of the Song of Moses and of the Lamb: “The song of those who had gotten victory over the beast (Revelation 15) is said to be the Song of Moses and of the Lamb, verse 3. And surely the matter of Moses’ Song (Exodus 15) might justly yield fit matter for the like doxology (or thanksgiving) upon the like occasion: As the like did fall out in the year 88, Rome being spiritual Egypt (Rev. 11:8). And the Pope with his Prelates resembling Pharaoh with his task-masters, and the Spanish Armada marching forth with the like pride and fury . . . upon which miraculous deliverance, not only the matter of Moses’ Song, but the very words also were then fitly used, and still may be for a spiritual song of thanksgiving unto the Lord, both for that and the like deliverances. And as for the Song of the Lamb, which those that had victory over the beast did sing, surely all those Songs of David, which celebrate either his own deliverances from Saul, or the deliverance of the church from Egypt, or Babylon, or from other enemies, may justly own and bear that title. For when David acknowledgeth and professeth, that in his songs, the Spirit of the Lord spake by him, and that his word was in his tongue (II Sam. 23:2), what Spirit of the Lord was that, but the Spirit of the Lord Jesus? And what are then such songs, but the songs of the Lamb, through whose redemption the church and saints enjoy all their deliverances?”(99) The Song of the Lamb recorded in Rev. 15:3-4 appears to be compiled from Pss. 86:8-10; 111:2, 4, 7; 71:22; 9:16 and 64:9.

Thomas Manton, in his exposition of James 5:13, observes that singing of Psalms is a duty of the gospel. Although Manton does not forbid the singing of other songs besides Scripture Psalms, he has no other grounds to adduce for this besides the testimony of Tertullian’s Apology, chapter 29: “Post aquam manualem et lumina, ut quisque de scripturis vel proprio ingenio potest, provocatur in medium Deo canere.” Nevertheless, Manton proceeds to argue that Scripture Psalms may be sung and beyond this that they are the fittest to be sung: “1. That they may be sung, may be proved by reason; the Word limiteth not, and therefore we have no reason to make any restraint. They are part of the Word of God, full of matter that tendeth to instruction, comfort, and the praise of God, which are the ends of singing; and therefore, unless we will bring a disparagement upon Scriptures, we cannot deny them a part in our spiritual mirth. Besides, thus hath it been practiced by Christ himself, by the apostles, the servants of the Lord in all ages; and there is no reason why, in these dregs of time, we should obtrude novel restraints upon the people of God. That Christ himself sang Scripture psalms may be probably collected out of Matt. 26:30, Humnesantes, ‘when they had sung a hymn,’ etc., which hymn, that it was one or more of David’s psalms, may be proved by these reasons to those that do not wrangle rather than scruple. 1. By the custom of the Jews; they were wont to end the paschal supper with solemn psalms or hymns; they sang six psalms in the night of the passover, when the lamb was eaten; the psalms were 113 to 119, which were called by the Jews the Great Hallelujah, as Lucas Brugensis, Scaliger, Buxtorf, and others skilled in their customs do inform us; and it is more than probable that Christ followed their custom herein, because in all other things he observed their usual passover rites. 2. From the word itself, they sang a hymn. Now what shall we understand by this, but such a hymn as was usual in that age? . . . Now the psalms or hymns then in use were the psalms of David. 3. The evangelists specified no new hymn made for this purpose, who are wont to mention matters of far less moment or concernment. Grotius, indeed, is singular, and thinketh that the 17th of John was the hymn; but that is a solemn prayer, not in meter or measured words, hath not the style of other hymns and songs; and those words were spoken by Jesus alone, the disciples could not so properly join in them: ‘These words spake Jesus, and lift up his eyes,’ etc., John 17:1.

“That hymn which Paul and Silas sang, Acts 16:25, was probably also a Scriptural hymn; such as were used in that age. Certainly it must be such a hymn as both were acquainted with, or else how could they sing it together? If the practice of the apostles may be interpreted by their instructions, the case will be clear. In Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:19, Paul biddeth us to ‘speak to one another, psalmois kai humnois kai odais pneumatikais, in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.’ Now those words (which are the known division of David’s psalms, and exactly answering to the Hebrew words, Shurim, Tehillim, and Mizmorim, by which his psalms are distinguished and entitled), being so precisely use by the apostle in both places, do plainly point us to the Book of Psalms.

“2. Scripture psalms not only may be sung, but are fittest to be used in the church, as being indited by the infallible and unerring Spirit, and are of a more diffusive and unlimited concernment than the private dictates of any particular person or spirit, in the church. It is impossible any should be of such a large heart as the penman of the Word, to whom God vouchsafed such a public, high and infallible conduct; and therefore their excellent composures and addresses to God being recorded and consigned to the use of the church for ever, it seemeth a wonderful arrogance and presumption in any to pretend to make better, or that their private and rash effusions will be more edifying. Certainly if we consult with our own experience, we will have little cause to grow weary of David’s psalms, those who pretend to the gift of psalmody, venting such wild, raw, and indigested stuff, belching out revenge and passion, and mingling their private quarrels and interests with the public worship of God. But suppose men of known holiness and ability should be called to this task, and the matter propounded to be sung be good and holy, yet certainly then men are like to suffer loss in their reverence and affection, it being impossible that they should have such absolute assurance and high esteem of persons ordinarily gifted as of those infallibly assisted. Therefore, upon the whole matter, I should pronounce, that so much as an infallible gift doth excel a common gift, so much do Scriptural psalms excel those that are of a private composure.”(100)

Manton answers a variety of scruples, the last of which concerns “the present translation of the Book of Psalms, the meter being so low and flat, and coming so far short of David’s original.” He gives a sane reply: “I confess this is a defect that needeth public redress and reformation: But it is good to make use of present means, though weak, when we have no better; as the martyrs did of the first translations of the Bible, which in many places were faulty and defective. At least, it is far more safe to sing the psalms as now translated than to join in the raw, passionate, and revengeful eructations of our modern psalmists. Besides, for those that conscientiously and modestly scruple this, the Lord hath provided some help by the more excellent translations of Sands, Rous, Barton, and others. Thus I have shewed how many ways the devil seeketh to divert men from this comfortable ordinance.”(101)

Finally, John Calvin, in the preface to La Forme des Prieres et Chantz Ecclesiastiques (1543), had also recommended the singing of Psalms on the grounds of their being from God. Divine authorization and divine inspiration do not appear to be distinguished by Calvin in the following striking statement: “But what then ought to be done? Let us have songs that are not only decent, but also holy. These will incite us to pray and praise God, to meditate on his works, in order to love, fear, honor and glorify him. But what Augustine says is true, that no one can sing things worthy of God, unless he has received them from Himself. Therefore, after we have made a thorough search in all regions, we shall not find better nor more proper songs to do this than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit has dictated to him and produced. And moreover, when we sing them we are certain that God puts words in our mouth, as if he himself were singing in us to exalt his glory. Hence Chrysostom exhorts men, women and little children alike to become accustomed to sing them, in order that their practice might be as a meditation to associate themselves with the company of angels.”(102)

(1) Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans (Westminster: Dacre Press, 1948), p. 1.
(2) Peter Heylyn, Ecclesia Restaurata: Or, the History of the Reformation, (London: H. Twyford, T. Dring, J. Place, W. Palmer, 1661), p. 172.
(3) In the narrow sense of the terms, the Separatists may be opposed to the Puritans. Davies, however, says of the term ‘Puritan’ (Worship of the English Puritans, p. 11) that “Whilst the term is strictly applicable only to the ecclesiastical party who urged this concern in Elizabeth’s day and renewed it in the days of James I, it may be extended, in a wider sense, to the semi-Separatists such as John Robinson, who would never allow himself to deny that the Church of England was a true church.”
(4) Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1877), 3:16.
(5) Ibid., 3:48.
(6) Ibid., 3:161-62.
(7) Ibid., 3:508.
(8) John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1879), 1:42 (I.ii.2).
(9) Ioannis Calvini Opera Quae Supersunt Omnia, edited by W. Baum, E. Cunitz, and E. Reuss (Brunswick: C. A. Schwetschke and Sons, 1863-1900), 2:35.
(10) John Calvin, Institution de la Religion Chrestienne, edition critique avec introduction, notes et variantes, ed. Jean-Daniel Benoit (Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1957-63), 1:58.
(11) Calvin, Calvini Opera, 2:39: “. . . sed non animadvertunt, veram religionem ad Dei nutum, ceu ad perpetuam regulam, debere conformari. . . .” Institution de la Religion Chrestienne, 1:65: “Mais ils ne notent pas que la vraye religion doit estre du tout conforme à la volonté de Dieu, comme une reigle qui ne fleschit point. . . .”
(12) John Calvin, Institutes, 1:47-48 (I.iv.3).
(13) Calvin, Calvini Opera, 2:51: “Quare nihil mirum si cultus omnes hominum arbitrio excogitatos tanquam degeneres repudiet spiritus sanctus. . . .” Institution de la Religion Chrestienne, 1:83 (I.v.12): “Il ne se faut donc esmerveiller si le sant Espirit a reietté tout service de Dieu controuvé à la poste des hommes comme bastar et corrompu. . . .”
(14) John Calvin, Institutes, 1:61 (I.v.13).
(15) Institutes, 1:93-94 (I.xi.4). Calvini Opera, 2:77: “. . . ut hoc fixum sit, detestabiles esse omnes cultus quos a se ipsis homines excogitant.” Institution de la Religion Chrestienne, 1:125: “. . . afin que nous ayons une reigle infallible que tous les services divins que les hommes se forgent sont détestables.” Cf. Institutes I.x.3.
(16) Calvin, Institutes, 1:104-05 (I.xii.1).
(17) Ibid., 1:106-07 (I.xii.3).
(18) Ibid., 1:319-20 (II.viii.5).
(19) Ibid., 1:330 (II.viii.17).
(20) Ibid., 2:414 (IV.x.1).
(21) Ibid., 2:419 (IV.x.8).
(22) Ibid., 2:420 (IV.x.9).
(23) Ibid., 2:420-21 (IV.x.10).
(24) Ibid, 2:241-22 (IV.x.11).
(25) Ibid., 2:423-24 (IV.x.14). Calvini Opera, 2:877: “. . . in numero paucitatem, in observatione facilitatem, in significatione dignitatem quae etiam claritate constat. . . .”
(26) For the passage referred to by Calvin, see Institutes IV.x.1, and cf. Calvin’s tract, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church,” in Tracts (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1844-51), 1:127ff.
(27) Calvin, Institutes, 2:425 (IV.x.16).
(28) Ibid., 2:426 (IV.x.17).
(29) Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 3:343.
(30) Ibid., 3:388.
(31) Ibid., 3:423.
(32) S. W. Carruthers’ edition of the text is used, as taken from Cornelius Burgess’ original manuscript, written in 1646: The Westminster Confession of Faith, with notes by S. W. Carruthers (Manchester: R. Aikman and Son, 1937).
(33) Westminster Confession, chap. I, sec. vi.
(34) Ibid., XX.ii.
(35) Ibid., XXI.i.
(36) William Perkins, The Workes, 3 vols. (Cambridge: John Legate, 1608-09), 1:659-60.
(37) Ibid., 1:683-84.
(38) Ibid., 1:661.
(39) Ibid., 1:35.
(40) Ibid., 1:38.
(41) Ibid.
(42) Ibid., 1:684.
(43) Ibid.
(44) Ibid.
(45) Ibid.
(46) William Ames, The Marrow of Sacred Divinity, bk. 2, chap. 13, p. 269, in The Workes of William Ames (London: John Rothwell, 1643). A recent translation is The Marrow of Theology, ed. and trans. John D. Eusden (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1968).
(47) William Ames, Medulla S.S. Theologiae, editio quarta (London: [T. Cotes], 1630), p. 337: “Superstitio est, qua Deo cultus indebitus exhibetur.”
(48) Ames, Marrow of Sacred Divinity, pp. 271-73.
(49) Ibid., pp. 274-75. Further discussion of these outward circumstances is found in chapter 14 (“Of the manner of divine worship”), sections 20-27, of the Marrow.
(50) William Ames, A Reply to Dr. Mortons Generall Defence of Three Nocent Ceremonies, Viz., the Surplice, Crosse in Baptisme, and Kneeling At the Receiving of the Sacramentall Elements of Bread and Wine (n.p., 1622), p. 1.
(51) Ibid., p. 3.
(52) Ibid., p. 6.
(53) Ibid., p. 7, citing Tertullian, De corona 2.4.
(54) Ibid., pp. 9-12.
(55) William Ames, “The Dispute About Human Ceremonies,” pp. 23-24, in A Fresh Suit against Human Ceremonies in God’s Worship (n.p., 1633).
(56) William Bradshaw, “English Puritanism,” in Several Treatises of Worship and Ceremonies (London: 1660), pp. 35-36 of sec. 4.
(57) Jeremiah Burroughs, Gospel Worship (London: Peter Cole and R. W., 1647), p. 3.
(58) Ibid., p. 8.
(59) Ibid., p. 9.
(60) Ibid.
(61) Ibid.
(62) John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter, 1850-53), 2:150-52.
(63) Ibid., 15:1-55.
(64) William Knight, Colloquia Peripatetica, fifth ed., enlarged (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1879), p. 70.
(65) William Romaine, “Essay on Psalmody,” in The Whole Works (London: B. Blake, 1837), p. 990.
(66) Ibid., pp. 990-91.
(67) Ibid., pp. 996-97.
(68) Ibid., p. 999.
(69) The imitations were published under the title, The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, and Applied to the Christian State and Worship (1719).
(70) Isaac Watts, The Works of Isaac Watts, selected by [David] Jennings and [Philip] Doddridge, comp. George Burder (London: J. Barfield, 1810), 4:373-74. The “Essay Towards the Improvement of Psalmody” appeared in the first edition of Watts’ Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707).
(71) Ibid., 4:376.
(72) Ibid., 4:375.
(73) Ibid., 4:377.
(74) Ibid., 4:386.
(75) Ibid., 4:388.
(76) John Cotton, Singing of Psalmes a Gospel-Ordinance (London: M. S. for Hannah Allen, 1647), p. 3.
(77) Ibid., p. 4.
(78) Ibid., p. 5.
(79) Ibid., pp. 5-6.
(80) Ibid., pp. 7-8.
(81) Ibid., p. 8.
(82) Ibid., p. 10.
(83) Ibid., p. 12.
(84) Ibid., p. 14.
(85) Ibid., pp. 14-15.
(86) Ibid., p. 15.
(87) Ibid., p. 16.
(88) Ibid.
(89) Ibid., pp. 16-17.
(90) Ibid., p. 16.
(91) Ibid., p. 17.
(92) Ibid.
(93) Ibid., pp. 18-19.
(94) Ibid., pp. 19-20.
(95) Nicholas Byfield, exposition of chap. 3, p. 101 (fol. Ll3 recto), An Exposition Upon the Epistle to the Colossians (London: William Stansby for Nathaniel Butter, 1628).
(96) Ibid., p. 102 (fol. Ll3 verso).
(97) Byfield, Epistle to the Colossians, fol. Bb6 verso.
(98) Cotton, Singing of Psalmes, pp. 25-27.
(99) Ibid., pp. 27-28.
(100) Thomas Manton, An Exposition on the Epistle of James (London: Banner of Truth, 1962), pp. 442-43. Manton’s commentary was first published in 1651.
(101) Ibid., p. 445.
(102) Calvin, Calvini Opera, 6:169-72: “Or qu’est-il doncq question de faire? c’est d’avoir chansons non seulement honnestes, mais aussi sainctes: lesquelles nous soyent comme esguillons pour nous inciter à prier et louer Dieu, à mediter ses oeuvres, afin de l’aymer, craindre, honnorer et glorifier. Or ce que dit S. Augustin est vray, que nul ne peut chanter choses dignes de Dieu, sinon qu’il ait recu d’iceluy: parquoy quand nous aurons bien circuy par tout pour cercher çà et là, nous ne trouverons meilleures chansons ne plus propres pour ce faire, que les Pseaumes de David: lesquelz le sainct Esprit luy a dictz et faitz. Et pourtant, quand nous les chantons, nous sommes certains que Dieu nous met en la bouche les parolles, comme si luy-mesmes chantoit en nous pour exalter sa gloire. Parquoy Chrysostome exhorte tant hommes que femmes et petis enfans, de s’accoustomer à les chanter, afin que cela soit comme une meditation pour s’associer à la compagnie des Anges.”