Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Critique of John Frame's "Worship in Spirit and Truth"

By Ryan McGraw

The subject of worship must hold a place of primary importance in the Church of Jesus Christ. In the second commandment, which deals with the manner in which God desires to be worshiped, God is revealed as a “jealous God” who visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those that hate him. In addition to this, man was created to worship and glorify God. In the book of Revelation, this task is presented as the primary occupation of glorified saints as well as angels, in the presence of the Triune God to all eternity. As a result of the purpose for which man was created and of the zeal that God has for his own worship, the proper worship of God ought to be one of the primary areas of study for God’s covenant people.

Throughout the centuries of Christian history, worship has often been the subject of great debate. The present day is no exception. Professor John M. Frame has written a book entitled, Worship in Spirit and Truth, in which he has challenged the historic Reformed understanding of the so-called “regulative principle of worship.” In this book, Professor Frame first attempted to argue that he is in full agreement with the formulation of the “regulative principle” as it is taught in the Westminster Confession of Faith, while asserting that he disagreed with the Puritan and Presbyterian application of the principle. He next proceeded to reconstruct what he believed Scripturally regulated worship ought to look like. In this critique, I shall seek to demonstrate, first, that Professor Frame’s position is not in accordance with the Westminster Standards, and secondly (and more importantly), that his view is not the view of worship taught in the Scriptures. Professor Frame is to be commended for the fact that he has asserted the necessity of searching the Scriptures alone in order to formulate a proper view of worship, but it shall be demonstrated that he is mistaken in his understanding of what the Scriptures teach with respect to worship and that the historic Presbyterian and Westminster view of worship properly reflects the teaching of the Word of God.

The Scriptures themselves are the only authoritative rule given to govern the worship and work of the Church. The Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, purport to present the teachings contained in Holy Scripture alone. These standards themselves note that the Scriptures are, “the only rule for faith and obedience” (Larger Catechism, #3). After affirming the authority of the Scriptures, Frame asserted, “I subscribe enthusiastically to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, and I trust that that commitment will be quite evident in this book.” (John M. Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth: A Refreshing Study of the Principles and Practice of Biblical Worship, Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1996, xiv-xv)Frame, however, distinguished between the teachings of the Puritans, and older Presbyterians, on worship and what is contained in the Westminster Standards. As Frame explained, “In my view, the Westminster Confession is entirely right in its regulative principle – that true worship is limited to what God commands. But the methods used by the Puritans to discover and apply those commands need a theological overhaul” (ibid, xiii). Yet since it is the same Puritans and Presbyterians that he refers to who were involved in formulating, and who approved the Westminster Standards, Frame’s contention is tantamount to saying, “I agree with the theology of the men who wrote the Westminster Standards, but I disagree with how they understood their own theology.” Although men with common principles may disagree at points over application, how can theology truly be understood apart from its application? And how can a “theological overhaul” be attempted without drastically altering the principles themselves? Based upon the statements of the Westminster Standards themselves, it will be demonstrated that Frame’s position is in reality not in accord with these Standards and that it is improper for him to give his reader’s the impression that it is (cf. reviews of the book by Bryan Schwertly, 46, 50 and Joseph Pipa, 5).

Frame understood the regulative principle to be teaching that we are only allowed to do those things in worship that the Scriptures require. This goes beyond the principle of Romanists, Lutherans, and Episcopalians, who have asserted that whatever Scripture does not forbid is permitted in worship (ibid., 38). He added that, “Scripture, God’s word, is sufficient for our worship as for all of life” (ibid., 39). Frame then went on to argue that when the Confession allowed for changes in the “circumstances” of worship, “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” (WCF 1.6), that “circumstances” ought to be equated with the “application” of proper elements of worship. 

Yet later in his book, Frame denied the existence of “elements” of worship altogether. He noted that elements were impossible to distinguish in Scripture and that there was no Scriptural warrant for them. He wrote, “Scripture nowhere divides worship into a series of independent ‘elements,’ each requiring independent Scriptural justification” (ibid., 53). Frame also noted in chapters eight and nine that there was not any ultimate distinction between the “elements” of worship either, and that, for example, prayer must also be considered teaching, that drama could be considered preaching, and that the entire service in all of its parts could be considered prayer, since it was something that was offered to God (Cf. ibid., 53). Since he has blurred the elements of worship into indistinguishable entities, the question must be asked what could he still seek to “apply” from these undefined non-elements. Rather than excluding the “imaginations and devices of men” in forming the worship service, Frame has restricted himself exclusively to them almost to the exclusion of Scripture, since the Word of God says nothing definite concerning worship under his view.

Frame has complicated the problem by denying any distinction between public worship and what we do in all of life (Pipa, 7-8). Citing passages such as Romans 12:1 and 1 Corinthians 10:32, he noted that all of life was to be considered worship, and therefore it is improper to make any distinction between the public worship of God and any other aspect of our lives. (It is at this point that Frame’s great weakness as an exegete is demonstrable. This will be taken up below, but it ought to be noted that it is customary in his book to merely cite Scripture without any explanation in such a manner that carelessly ignores the meaning of biblical texts. The vast majority of the time, the Scripture references in this book could be omitted entirely without essentially changing the content or arguments of the work. Cf. Pipa, 8-9.) His contention is somewhat valid, since all of life must be lived before the presence of the Great Triune God, yet it is also true that Scripture itself delineates a clear distinction between worship and all of life. This will be touched on below, but it is sufficient for the time being to note that the Westminster Standards assume the distinction between public corporate worship and other areas of life throughout. For example, Larger Catechism Question 156 makes a distinction between the public reading of the Word of God “to the congregation,” which is only to be done by certain appointed men, and the duty of all people “to read it apart by themselves.” This assumes a distinction between what may be done in the public assemblies of the Church and what may and ought to be done by all Christians in private. Both Frame and the Confession uphold that all of life is to be regulated by Scripture in general, but Frame is at odds with the Confession when he asserts, “the regulative principle for worship is no different than the principles by which God regulates all of our life” (ibid., 43). He added, “Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to prove that anything is divinely required specifically for official services” (ibid., 44). This accentuates his deviation from the Standards.

In stark contrast to Frame’s teaching, the Westminster Standards not only restrict the manner in which God is to be worshiped exclusively to what is revealed in Scripture, but they delineate a list of elements, along with Scripture proof texts to substantiate where those elements have been found in Scripture. This is the very thing that Frame deemed to be impossible and unwarranted in Scripture (ibid., 53). There are many statements in the Westminster Standards in which the regulative principle of worship is set forth. The earliest is in Confession chapter 1.6 concerning Holy Scripture; there are implications for the principle in chapter 20 on Liberty of Conscience; there is a specific chapter devoted to Religious Worship; and there are extensive statements concerning worship included in the exposition of the second commandment in both catechisms. The classic statement of the principle in found in WCF 21.1: “the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped 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.” This statement affirms that worship must be limited to what God commands to the exclusion of anything not “prescribed” in Holy Scripture. Frame, in purported agreement, noted, “the operative word is ‘prescribed’” (ibid., 39). In WCF 21.5, the Confession presents a list of “prescribed” actions, demonstrating how the authors perceived the meaning of the principle. This list includes specific elements, such as reading Scripture, preaching, prayer, singing, etc.

Although Frame professed to uphold this principle in the early part of his book, he consistently denied it in the latter part of the book, both by explicit statements as well as by consequence of his teaching. For example, in discussing the use of symbols in worship, Frame stated that we were not required to use “only those symbols in worship which were explicitly authorized in Scripture” (ibid., 73-74). His only “argument” against such a restriction was that it would mean that we would not be able to use any symbols aside from the Word in worship. However, if no “symbols” were prescribed in worship, the position of the Westminster Confession would imply that they be omitted altogether. With reference to using drama in worship (which he approves with some hesitation), he asserted, “We have seen that specific commands are not always needed” (ibid., 92. Emphasis mine. This stems from his failure to distinguish between elements, circumstances, and forms in worship. Cf. Pipa, 7.) The question Frame was asking was not, “What does Scripture require in worship?,” but rather, “Does Scripture explicitly rule out drama?” Does this not qualify as being “not prescribed in the holy Scripture?” At best, this is similar to the Episcopal and Lutheran view that Frame had earlier tried to distance himself from (Pipa, 9). 

One last statement by Frame illustrates his deviation from the Westminster Standards well. He wrote, “We pay much attention to what Scripture says, and also to what Scripture doesn’t say. This is the force of the regulative principle, which protects both the integrity of God’s design for worship and the freedom that he gives us to apply his word in different situations” (ibid., 153).  This is not the regulative principle as it is found in the Westminster Standards (Schwertly refers to this as Frame’s “own unique version of the regulative principle,” 50). The “circumstances” of worship (i.e., place, time of day, etc.) are left to the light of reason, but are still to be regulated by “the general rules of the Word” (WCF 1.6). Yet the Standards affirm clearly that when Scripture is silent, and when an element is not prescribed for worship, then that element is censured as “devising, counseling, commanding, using, and in any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself” (Larger Catechism, #109. It is significant to note as well that the regulative principle is tied into the exposition of the second commandment, making it a binding part of the moral law of God. Frame approaches the subject of worship with the presupposition that no elements of OT worship are to carry over into NT worship without explicit NT warrant [and he does not even seek that]. On the contrary, the regulative principle entails that whatever was not fulfilled in Christ is still binding as a part of the second commandment. For example, teaching and preaching of Scripture, public prayer, congregational singing, etc.). In short, we must only pay attention “to what Scripture doesn’t say” in the sense that Scriptural silence is as forceful as an explicit prohibition.

Whether or not Frame’s position is biblical, for the sake of integrity, it must be admitted that his teaching is contradictory to the doctrinal Standards of the church in which he ministers. (And by implication, all who seek to advocate his views must acknowledge themselves to be out of accord with Standards. Cf. Schwertly, 46, 60.) It is as though he has spoken out of both sides of his mouth by emphatically stating that he upholds and believes the Westminster Standards on worship and then consistently and clearly denying what he earlier affirmed. This matter is either a question of integrity or of confusion on the part of Mr. Frame and bears upon those who seek ordination in the Presbyterian Church of America and elsewhere. More importantly, however, Frame’s position contradicts the clear teaching of Holy Scripture, which itself teaches the so-called “regulative principle of worship.”

One of the classic biblical statements of the regulative principle of worship is found in Deuteronomy 12. The chapter as a whole deals with the place in which the Old Testament people of God were to worship, yet the discussion of the place of worship provided an occasion for Moses to address principles of worship in general. After initially laying out the regulations placed upon the location in which sacrifices were to be offered, Moses added, “You shall not at all do as we are doing here today – every man what is right in his own eyes” (Deut. 12:8). The general principle here is that with respect to the worship of God, every man must not do what is right in his own eyes. The implication is that every man must only do what is right in God’s eyes, or according to what God has revealed in his Word. At the end of the chapter, the principles regulating worship are summarized:

“When the Lord your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which he hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it not take away from it” (Deut. 12:29-32).  (Emphasis mine. It is also interesting to take note of Jeremiah 32:35, which appears to be applying this text, the greatness of the sin involved is emphasized, not in terms of sacrificing their sons and daughters, but in terms of doing those things, “which I did not command them, nor did it some into my mind.”)

In this passage, the people must not only refrain from inquiring after pagan gods, but the people are forbidden from worshiping the Lord their God in the “way” that the nations worshiped their gods. By contrast, the manner of worship must be limited to what God has commanded in his Word. There is no freedom in inventing elements of worship, either through the imaginations of our own hearts (“every man doing what is right in his own eyes”) or by learning from the culture around us (“you shall not worship the Lord your God in that way”). In case there were any ambiguity in the principle, the Lord emphatically pronounced in verse 32 that the people were limited in worship to whatever God commanded, and they were not to “add to it or take away from it.” This text alone ought to be enough to prove the regulative principle, as taught in the Westminster Standards. The language of not adding to or taking away from what God has revealed implies the sufficiency of Scripture for all that it speaks to. It is my contention, that although the forms and circumstances in which biblical elements must be expressed (such as time of day, place, even style of music, etc.) often change over time, the elements themselves must consist of those that are divinely mandated only.

It has already been demonstrated that though Frame has denied the existence of “elements” in worship, he has continued to speak as though there were distinct elements. The fact is that it is impossible not to speak of distinct elements of worship. Frame’s thesis reduces texts such as Deuteronomy 12 to a principle that cannot be applied. Should we honestly expect to stand before God himself in good conscience when he has explicitly said not to worship after the dictates of our own hearts, in the manner that the nations worship their gods, and by adding to or taking from his Word, and proceed to tell him that his principles were impossible to apply? If no elements of worship are prescribed in Scripture, then we have nothing left but to do what is right in our own eyes (Deut. 12:8), since God would have, in effect, revealed nothing concerning how we ought to worship him.

As has been noted, Frame had a tendency to ignore Old Testament revelation with respect to principles of New Testament worship. Yet in this passage, general principles are laid out to prove why God must be worshiped in the manner that he prescribed. The Old Testament sacramental system was merely the divinely mandated expression of this general principle at that time. Unless Frame desires to take the position of the dispensationalist to the effect that unless commands are explicitly repeated in the New Testament, they are no longer binding upon the Christian, then we must assume that whatever has not been abrogated through the work of Christ must continue under the New Testament. Frame himself applies this criterion to matters such as the Christian Sabbath (ibid. 65-66), yet it is strange that he does not seem willing to do so with respect to elements of worship. He stated, for example, that there is no New Testament requirement to have public prayer and preaching/teaching of the Word. Yet these things were included as part of Old Testament worship in places such as Nehemiah 8 and 9, Deuteronomy 33:10, Malachi 2:7 and elsewhere. Would it not be proper to assume that since teaching and prayer were not of the same nature as the sacrifices (i.e., not types of Christ), they were not fulfilled in Christ and, therefore, remain in New Testament worship? Why should we expect God to repeat himself needlessly in the New Testament when he has already taught his people what is required for worship? So then, one of Frame’s major mistakes is his virtual dismissal of the Old Testament with regard to the principles governing worship. It is also clear by examples in the New Testament, however, that the Apostles assumed that Old Testament practices, such as preaching on the Sabbath, should continue (for example, cf. Acts 20:7). (For the sake of space, it will not be possible to address Frame’s treatment of synagogue worship. Frame asserted repeatedly that the synagogue worship of the Jews became the basis for New Testament worship. Throughout the book, he assumed that the synagogues were not regulated by the word of God and yet seemed to be approved by Jesus and his Apostles. The fact is, however, that the synagogues were regulated by the word of God. They included every element of worship required by God with the exception of those things that only the priests were permitted to do. Yet from the first part of Deuteronomy 12, we learn that to refrain from doing certain things outside of the temple that would pertain only to the priests and to temple worship were themselves a requirement of the word of God. In other words, it would be wrong and contrary to Scripture to implement those elements, such as sacrifices, outside of the context of the temple. And aside from this, the synagogue worship was implicitly commanded in texts such as Leviticus 23:3, in which the people were required to have a “holy convocation” every Sabbath, and yet only required to go to the temple in Jerusalem three times in the year. Such meetings were required by Scripture and yet it was also required that there be no sacrifices at such meetings. Hence, the “synagogue” worship greatly resembled those things that remained in Christian worship, demonstrating that both were indeed regulated by Scripture. Cf. Schwertly, 52-53.)

At this point, a glaring weakness in Professor Frame’s work comes to the surface. The primary purpose of his book was to, “state simply the main biblical principles governing the public worship of God’s people” (ibid., 13, emphasis mine.) Although Frame has included numerous Scripture references throughout his book, he has ignored the common passages used to defend the regulative principle of worship and its “application.” Many of his own assertions, upon closer examination, are not supported by sound exegesis the biblical texts he appeals to. One of the most striking examples in this respect is found in his discussion of preaching/teaching, particularly in reference to the propriety of “drama” in worship. His argument is as follows: There is no conceptual distinction between preaching and teaching in the Bible. The Bible nowhere requires that “preaching” must be restricted to a monologue delivered by a single preacher. Drama may be a used as a teaching tool. Therefore, drama is permissible (ibid., 93-94. At this point he also noted that Scripture does not forbid drama, therefore, it ought to be allowable. By this he has already denied the “regulative principle” as it is taught in Deuteronomy 12).

Some basic questions cast doubt upon this conclusion. To begin with, “Is there no true distinction made by Scripture between teaching and preaching?” Two Greek words are commonly translated “preaching” in our English versions. These are euangelidzomai and kerusso. The former is used broadly to describe both the public proclamation of the Word by the Apostles and others (Acts 8:25, for example), as well as a form of individual communication (perhaps Acts 8:4). The latter term, however, is used with respect to the public declaration of the gospel by ordained ministers only, with the exception of a few texts such as Mark 1:45, in which the leper whom Jesus cleaned went about “proclaiming” or “preaching” (kerussein) when Jesus had explicitly commanded him not to do so (verse 44). It is interesting to note that in Acts 8:4-5, the disciples who were scattered under persecution went “preaching” (most English translations. Gr. euangelidzomenoi) the Word, yet in the next verse when Philip “the Evangelist” went to Samaria, his activity was described by ekerussen. At the very least, the question arises whether or not Luke intended to make a clear distinction between the action of Philip, who was ordained to be a herald of the gospel, and that of the rest of the disciples. This is especially noteworthy, since (as has been mentioned) this word is almost always used in reference to ordained ministers in the New Testament. The list of officers given in Ephesians 4, by implication, seems to distinguish the actions of “teachers” from those of the other offices mentioned. The New Testament seems to indicate that the verb “to preach” (kerusso) is a specific task performed only by designated men. Preaching is a public, authoritative, verbal proclamation of the Word of God by men who have been sent as ambassadors of Christ.

The point that is baffling about Frame’s argument is that “preaching” is by definition a monologue! This automatically rules out his first two premises. With respect to the remainder of his argument, it cannot be denied that drama may indeed “teach” something to people, yet this is immaterial. The question is not, “Can this be useful?,” but, “Does God require this?” It appears that Frame was aware of this difficulty since his ultimate justification for drama in worship was that “Specific commands are not always needed (ibid., 93). Yet with specific reference to the type of worship that is to be offered to God, Deuteronomy 12:32 states: “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it or take away from it.” By advocating drama in public worship, Frame has simultaneously added to the law of God as well as taken away from it. He has added an element of worship that God has not commanded, and he has taken away from worship the unique status of the preaching of the Word. Frame’s system could theoretically remove preaching entirely, since not only drama, but song and prayer may potentially fulfill the purposes of preaching/teaching (Ibid., 53. Also see his discussion of each of the individual “elements,” or non-elements in his view, in chapters 8 and 9. He also added an “argument” on the basis of the fact that in telling parables, Jesus was essentially presenting a “drama” in which he was playing all the parts [pg. 93]. This line of argumentation hardly requires refutation).

In the final analysis, Professor John M. Frame has failed to accomplish both of his stated purposes in his book. He has not demonstrated himself to be in accord with the teachings of the Westminster Standards, and he has not presented a cogent biblical case for his principles. Yet though we may differ from Mr. Frame and believe that he is in serious error, we ought to be able to affirm with him that, “Worship is incomparably precious to me” (ibid., ix). Worship must be incomparably precious to us since it is incomparably precious to our God. For this reason we must demonstrate a heartfelt zeal to “receive, observe, and keep pure and entire, all such religious ordinances and worship as God has appointed in his word” (Shorter Catechism, #50). The Westminster Standards accurately represent the teaching of the Word of God concerning how God desires to be worshiped. Therefore, we must be diligent to love, teach and practice these principles in our worship.