Saturday, January 13, 2018

"Majestic in simplicity"

William Cunningham was a great theologian. Always worth reading. So it's useful to examine his case for the regulative principle of worship (RPW). 

With regard to the Scripture evidence of the truth of the principle, we do not allege that it is very direct, explicit, and overwhelming.

That's a striking admission, although he doesn't regard it as a damaging concession for his position. 

The principle is in a sense a very wide and sweeping one. But it is purely prohibitory or exclusive; and the practical effect of it, if it were fully carried out, would just be to leave the Church in the condition in which it was left by the apostles, in so far as we have any means of information — a result, surely, which need not be very alarming, except to those who think that they themselves have very superior powers for improving and adorning the Church by their inventions...There is no force in the presumption, that, because so little in regard to the externals of the Church is fixed by Scriptural authority, therefore much was left to be regulated by human wisdom, as experience might suggest or as the varying condition of the Church might seem to require. For, on the contrary, every view suggested by Scripture of Christianity and the Church, indicates that Christ intended His Church to remain permanently in the condition of simplicity as to outward arrangements, in which His apostles were guided to leave it.

That's an interesting claim, but quite general. 1C Christians usually worshiped in private homes. Sometimes out of doors or in the Temple precincts. Does this mean we need to reproduce the socioeconomic conditions of the 1C church even when we have opportunities to do something more? 

For instance, private homes aren't designed for public worship, so if you construct a separate building that's specifically for worship, the question naturally arises, how should that be designed? Surely the design will differ in many respects from a private home. Cunningham himself worshipped in formal church buildings, did he not?–which departs from the condition of NT churches (e.g. Roman domus). Now he may say that's incidental, but that's where what seems to be a clear-cut principle in the abstract affords precious little guidance in practice.  

Of the innumerable inventions of men introduced into the government and worship of the Church, without any warrant from Scripture, but professedly as being indicated by the wisdom of experience, or by the Christian consciousness of a particular age or country, to be fitted to promote the great ends of the Church, not one can with any plausibility be shown to have had a tendency to contribute, or to have in fact contributed, to the end contemplated.

i) That depends in part on how we define Scriptural warrant. For instance, proponents of the RPW appeal to approved example. Likewise, is "Scriptural warrant" confined to NT worship? What about examples of OT worship? For instance, proponents of the RPW make psalm-singing a central component of worship, yet that's a carryover from OT worship. 

ii) What about edification as a goal of worship? Proponents of the RPW sound as though worship ought to be dutiful rather than enjoyable. But that's a false dichotomy. 

It is no doubt very gratifying to the pride of men to think that they, in the exercise of their wisdom, brought to bear upon the experience of the past history of the Church, or (to accommodate our statement to the prevalent views and phraseology of the present day) in the exercise of their own Christian consciousness, their own spiritual tact and discernment, can introduce improvements upon the nakedness and simplicity of the Church as it was left by the apostles. Perhaps the best mode of dealing with such persons, is to call upon them to exemplify their own general principle, by producing specific instances from among the innumerable innovations that have been introduced into the Church in past ages, by which they are prepared to maintain that the interests of religion have been benefited...We find plainly enough indicated in Scripture a great comprehensive principle, suited to the dignity and importance of the great subject to which it relates, the right administration of the Church of Christ — a principle ‘majestic in its own simplicity’. 

i) Depends on what is meant by "innovations". For instance, OT temple worship is very artistic. A strong audiovisual component. That includes architectural excellence. An impressive, tasteful sanctuary. That includes musical excellence. A professional choir with musical accompaniment. In addition, the temple and tabernacle were studded with Edenic and heavenly symbolism. Likewise, the Psalter has literary excellence. 

And in the NT we also have scenes of heavenly worship in Revelation. A feast for eyes and ears. So we have exemplars of public worship in both Testaments where there's a strong aesthetic component, as well as rich religious symbolism. And it's not distinguished by "naked simplicity".

ii) 2000 years of church history has produced aesthetic counterparts to those exemplars in church art, architecture, and music. These are variations on general aesthetic and emblematic principles we find in Scripture. 

iii) In addition, it's not as if worship must be aesthetically uniform. There's a place for plain, spare worship as well as something more elaborate. 

no limitation can be put to them unless the principle we maintain be adopted

i) What about artistic standards? What about edification? What about special applications of general principles? 

ii) Truth is another criterion. For instance, many customs in Roman Catholic worship (to take one example) are based on false theology. We can prune the effects by pruning the noxious theology that produces poison fruit (e.g. monstrance, Lady chapel). 

iii) Or take the role of light as a central metaphor in Scripture. Candlelight at night and stained-glass in daytime exemplify that metaphor.  

Because this principle has been often brought out in connection with the discussion of matters which, viewed in themselves, are very unimportant — such as rites and ceremonies, vestments and organs, crossings, kneelings, bowings, and other such ineptiae...

i) That depends on the examples, which need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Are these all of a kind? It's not as if all these traditions are logically interrelated, so that if you accept organs, that entails commitment to vestments or genuflections.  

ii) There's nothing wrong with beauty in worship. Musical, visual, and literary beauty. That goes back to OT worship. 

Many people, including many Christians, are strongly drawn to natural (as well as artistic) beauty. Scripture itself extols the natural world as a manifestation of God's greatness. Not to mention the Solomonic temple. Or descriptions of paradise and the heavenly temple in Revelation. 

It's a problem when Puritans dichotomize human experience so that we find beauty outside the church rather than inside the church. So that we associate church with drab effortful duty. 

Moreover, Christians raised in aesthetic deprivation can be suckers for beauty. When exposed to a Gothic cathedral or fine church music for the first time, they may become instant converts to that denomination or theological tradition, without regard to doctrinal soundless. By contrast, if Christians are already used to aesthetic excellence, they were never confronted with that false dilemma. 

iii) I'd add that there's a difference between beauty and ostentation. St. Peter's Basilica and the Asam Church (to take two examples) are vainglorious. Compare that to Sainte-Chapelle or King's College Chapel. 

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