Review – Covenantal Worship by R. J. Gore

Covenantal Worship: Reconsidering the Puritan Regulative Principle is a historical, biblical, and practical critique of the regulative principle of worship (RPW). Covenantal Worship is a revision of Gore’s doctoral dissertation, adjusted heavily toward a popular audience. Its purpose is to suggest a modified principle for worship that Gore believes is more biblically defensible and practically implementable. He describes his way as a via media between the Puritan way, which almost eliminates adiaphora, and the Anglican way, which gives too much freedom to the Church to prescribe liturgy without reference to Scripture.

The first chapter laments the fragmented nature of current Presbyterian worship and surveys contemporary developments in worship theory. The second chapter provides an uncontroversial definition of the RPW based on an examination of the WCF. After this, the book starts to get interesting. Gore argues that the Directory for Public Worship, a document produced by the Westminster Assembly but lacking binding authority over most Presbyterians, is a compromise document between the Scottish Presybterians, English Puritans and Independents. Thus, Gore concludes that the RPW was ambiguous at its outset, since the Directory treated as circumstances what many Assembly divines considered elements (47). Having asserted some ambiguity in the Westminster documents themselves, Gore turns to Calvin to establish that although Calvin held many theological convictions in common with the Puritans, his own theology of worship recognized much more adiaphora, particularly in which ceremonies and forms may be permissible.

Gore then moves from historical to biblical examination. He examines the hermeneutics of the Puritans on the RPW, concluding that they are rationalistic (privileging the intellectual in worship) and atomistic (individual texts are over-exegeted through “necessary consequence”) in their handling of the text. He alleges as well that they rely too heavily on logic and not enough on redemptive-historical considerations. Indeed, John Owen’s prohibition against the Lord’s Prayer is an example of the Puritans’ disparaging attitude toward previous economies of faith. Gore takes a simple line of argumentation against the RPW: Jesus did not worship according to the RPW. According to Gore, Jesus’ participation in synagogue worship (not explicitly instituted) and voluntary Jewish feasts (not the Mosaic ones) proves the validity of the church instituting practices of worship that are consistent with their covenantal experience yet not commanded either explicitly or implicitly.  The strained efforts of the Puritans to prove these elements were directly divinely instituted only shows the weakness of the system.

Gore at this point begins to construct his alternative principle.  He picks up the NT emphasis on life as worship, noting that life in general is not regulated by such strict principles as the RPW. If Sunday worship is simply an amplification of life worship, we should expect the same principles to govern them both. The power of this argument has lead some proponents of the RPW, such as Michael Bushell, to deny the continuity. Gore also appeals to the contours of the OT law: as the casuistic law of the OT provided guidelines but did not cover every possibility, so the NT provides space for the living application of wisdom rather than the mechanical application of rules.

Gore draws on Cornelius Van Til to establish a four covenantal principles that regulate worship: “(1) vicegerency, (2) self-realization, (3) individualization, and (4) analogical action” (121). Gore’s exposition of these principles concludes, “Worship was never intended to consist in simple conformity to a comprehensive set of guidelines. Even in the Mosaic economy, filled with ceremonial and typical elements, basic to true worship was the exercise of dominion as faithful obedient creatures. Now, in the cultural diversity of the New Testament church, the occasion for exercising such stewardship has vastly increased” (124). Gore exegetes Acts 16:1-3, Acts 21:15-26, Romans 14, and 1 Corinthians 8 to prove that there is in the NT ample room for adiaphora. The Formula of Concord, Belgic Confession, Scots Confession, Second Helvetic Confession and Thirty-Nine Articles echo these sentiments.

Gore then synthesizes his “covenantal principle of worship.” Covenantal worship includes all that is explicitly or implicitly commanded in Scripture, but it also may include that which is warranted by Scripture, a broader category including much adiaphora. Worship is to be simple, orderly, free, God-glorifying, edifying, catholic, culturally-sensitive, balanced and Christ-centered.

I found Covenantal Worship to be both a provocative and enjoyable read. It is also a good example of how a confessional Presbyterian should interact critically with his own tradition. Both Gore’s critiques of the RPW and his suggestions for modification come from within the broader Reformed tradition. His purpose is one with which all confessional Presbyterians can agree, more biblical worship in our current context. On the biblical side, he makes some strong arguments not easily refuted (as he has shown) by proponents of the RPW. His own principle, although somewhat (purposefully) vague, does provide regulation and direct attention to the covenant life of the church.

Given his purpose and presumed target audience, I found several aspects of the book surprising. First, it is both short (about 160 body pages in a smallish paperback) and popular. I suspect that most people who would care enough to pick up a book on this topic are rather well-versed in the topic already. Such a treatment may seem superficial to them. His section on Puritan exegesis may backfire. Most of the proponents of the RPW view the Puritans as pretty much the best theologians who ever lived; they are not likely to take kindly to his remarks. That section was rife with generalization and sparsely exampled. Either providing much more thorough documentation or muting his claims would have been a better route. Finally, his use of Calvin is somewhat suspect. Most of the disagreements he included do not involve elements but forms. The Puritan argument against kneeling, for example, was not that kneeling was not an element, but that kneeling to take the Supper was a form of the element that communicated a message incongruous with a proper ecclesiology. So at least some of the appeal to Calvin loses its force.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book. It is relevant to my context and provoked thought on a number of levels. I would not recommend it as a must-read, but I would include it in a list of materials for someone thinking through the RPW.

Published in: on April 19, 2010 at 10:20 am  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I need to read through this as well. Thanks for the clear review.

    I’m studying through the RPW issue as well, and am currently going through “Gospel Worship” by Jeremiah Burroughs (one of the Puritans I would assume Gore criticizes).

    Mention of Gore seems to raise serious hackles among many confessional Presbyterians. But surely we need to interact with his views…so thanks for posting this.

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