On Facebook, a friend commented on an article shared by someone I don't know (such is social media and digital eavesdropping, I suppose). The post is from a website that seeks to see "Worship Reformed According to Scripture and the Customs of the Ancient Church," an admirable goal if there ever was one. The commented upon post was their "What hath Geneva to do with Canterbury?", in which they defend the RPW (Regulative Principle of Worship), a Reformed standard that they lament is slipping in our day. As a Reformed Presbyterian who works at an Anglican seminary, it was of particular interest to me. I'll let you read the argument and weigh its merits -- this post isn't a response, per se, but a reflection on some of the issues raised.
1) Archbishop Thomas Cranmer's take that the RPW is "the chief foundation of the error of the Anabaptists, and of diverse other sects” is fascinating. I hadn't heard that particular quote from him (and, alas, it isn't cited as far as I can tell). What the RPW does, though, is to take the Church's authority away from worship/liturgy/what-have-you entirely, as it puts the onus of figuring out what the Scriptures proscribe and prescribe squarely on the individual interpreter. Now, of course, a collection of such interpreters (say, at Westminster Cathedral) could draft a series of statements meant to guide the Church in perpetuity; however, who is to say that their interpretation is, in fact, sufficiently biblical? The Bible is a liturgical book, born out of and guiding the worshiping community: its interpretive context is the worship of the Church (which, as a side note, is why the Psalms are indispensable during worship and Scriptural interpretation). If we are using the Bible, not just to critique what the Church has done in worship, but to determine what should be done in worship (sort of "proof-texting" our way into a liturgy), then we are putting the cart before the horse. There are many oblique references to already established liturgical practices in the Epistles (and, arguably, in the Gospels): the texts would be used to explain what was happening in the liturgy itself. Baptism? John 3, Romans 5-8, and wherever St Paul talks about being 'clothed' or 'putting on Christ'. Eucharist? The "Last Supper" narratives, John 3, Revelation, etc.
It should be noted that I'm not accusing the author of the post of doing this: the strong RPW argument that we must build our worship off of Scripture is Baptist than Presbyterian. As he states, "Presbyterians are abandoning their liturgical heritage," which implies that there is already a heritage, a tradition, that is being assumed, not constantly in question and therefore constantly being rebuilt. (That most modern evangelical and Reformed worship would be unrecognizable to the first couple generations of Reformers is beside the point.)
The point, though, is that the RPW falls into the very same trap (and has historically) that sola Scriptura is prone: the community of interpretation (the Church) takes second fiddle to the individual, all in the name of protecting the laity from idolatrous imposition of shoddy practices by fallible men (the leaders of the Church). The question of authority is not solved by sola Scriptura, it is just shifted so that it is difficult to see where the authority really is coming from. It is easy, alas, to hide behind "this is the clear teaching of the Bible," when, in fact, there is no such thing: such a statement says much about the authority of the teacher, but precious little about the authority of the text.
2) "The NPW [the so-called "Normative Principle of Worship"], however, says the church has the right to require acts of worship as long as those acts are not forbidden in scripture. On this principle, the church can invent all kinds of ceremonies and rites and impose them on the saints so long as the required actions are not in themselves sinful."
This quote, in my mind, gets to the meat of my own difficulties with the RPW. Note the language of 'invention' mentioned in it: of course it would be a bad thing, since all humans are totally depraved, for them to 'invent' ways of worshiping God! However, this assumes that the rites, rituals, liturgies, and customs that have come down to us are, in fact, inventions. St Paul, in a number of places, mentions the Apostolic Deposit and the things "taught by word of mouth or by letter" (2 Thess. 2:15). St Basil of Caesarea, at least, understands these "word of mouth" things to be the liturgical, mystagogical, and hermeneutical standards of the Church that aren't necessarily found in the Bible (or, at least, in the surface meaning). Could it be that the Apostles did more than hand down a collection of inspired texts? Could they have provided the necessary interpretive context in the institution of various rites, rituals, and liturgies (which, we should expect, would have some elasticity over time)? (This, also, doesn't rule out that some things are, indeed, inventions -- but that is why there was a college of apostles: to check one another and rebuke as needed, such as is seen in the Sts Paul-Peter encounter recorded in Galatians, or, in post-apostolic times, the letter from Rome to Corinth by the hand of St Clement.)
Going deeper, and my argument for this can be found in fuller detail if you follow the link above ("there is no such thing") at the end of point 1, there is good reason to affirm that the canon of Scripture itself, particularly the New Testament, is a "commandment of men." There is no divinely inspired list of canonical books: there is an ecclesially sanctioned canon of inspired books. I won't get into the fruitless debate that reduces this to "the Bible created the Church" or "the Church created the Bible": both polemics are sufficiently vacuous for themselves. What is important is to note that the Church's sanctioning of the books (say, in the fourth century) says that they thought that these specific books sanctioned the way they "did" Church: there is no hint of reforming in Sts Athanasius, Gregory (pl), Basil, Chrysostom, etc. except getting rid of the heresies that had arisen out of changes made to the liturgies traditioned to them. Why was Arianism such a problem as to need an ecumenical council to defeat it? It changed the worship of Jesus Christ, which had been passed down from the Apostles, into worship of a mere creature. What about Pneumatomachianism? Again, it changed the worship by denying the Spirit personhood and divinity. This last one is itself fascinating, as St Basil found that the worship of the Church did need reform, but only to clarify what had "everywhere, always, by all" been believed. How did the men, guided by the Spirit we hope, who determined what books would be preserved, passed on, expounded, and applied to the Church's life, miss the RPW? How did they miss sola Scriptura?
Alas, I do not have the answers to these quandries. I wish that I did. But they are nagging at me, always. God forgive me where I have erred.