J. Gresham Machen and the Regulative Principle
D. G. Hart and John R. Muether
One of the lesser known episodes in J. Gresham Machen’s (1881-1937) stormy career was his nomination in 1926 to be Princeton Seminary’s professor of apologetics. Since 1906 he had taught New Testament at Princeton and distinguished himself in works such as The Origin of Paul’s Religion (1921) as the foremost conservative biblical scholar of his day. Yet, the field of apologetics was not foreign to Machen, as evidenced by his popular books, Christianity and Liberalism (1923) and What Is Faith? (1925), works that forcefully defended historic Christianity and the importance of theology. Nevertheless, what made Machen’s nomination to the chair of apologetics unusual was not his lack of formal experience but rather the opposition his nomination aroused.
The election and promotion of any Princeton professor required confirmation by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.’s General Assembly. This step in the nomination process was usually a mere formality. In the history of Princeton no nominee had ever been vetoed. Yet a different outcome awaited Machen. The 1926 General Assembly received a report that questioned his soundness because of his attitude toward Prohibition. At the spring meeting of the Presbytery of New Jersey Machen had voted against a resolution that endorsed the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act. He did not want his vote recorded because he knew his position differed from most American Protestants. The prohibition of the sale and distribution of alcohol enjoyed widespread support as an effort to retain the Christian character of the nation at a time of unprecedented non-Protestant immigration to the United States. Machen’s opposition to Prohibition was a major reason for the General Assembly’s failure to confirm his nomination. As one of his friends later told him, the Assembly was “rabidly Prohibitionist”; commissioners could not understand why a good Christian would not support such an obviously good and biblical cause.
Machen opposed Presbyterian support for Prohibition, however, not because he approved of drunkenness or preferred unpopularity. Rather he did so for important theological—even Reformed—reasons. In a statement defending his position (never published again because of the damage his friends believed it would have done) Machen argued that the church had no legitimate rationale for taking a side in this political question. Aside from the question of the relations between church and state, he believed that the church was bound by the Word of God and so all of its declarations and resolutions had to have clear Scriptural warrant. The Bible did not, however, provide support for Prohibition. It taught the idea of temperance, that is, moderate consumption of alcohol and the other good things of God’s creation. This meant that Scripture forbade inebriation. But even here the Bible did not give directions to government officials for abolishing drunkenness. Should this be a matter for the federal government to regulate or should states and local governments? Was legislation the best way to shape public sentiment or was an educational program more effective? Was regulation of private citizens’ behavior even a proper concern of the state? The Bible did not answer these and various other questions. So, Machen concluded, the church had no business meddling in the politics of Prohibition or any other matter where Scripture did not speak.
Machen’s reasoning here was an extension of the Regulative Principle. In the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition this principle has typically been applied to public worship. It teaches that we may only worship God as he has commanded us to worship him in his Word. People who hear this doctrine for the first time often understand it as overly negative and restrictive, as if we have no freedom in worship. Though the Regulative Principle does limit what we may do in worship, just as important is what it teaches about liberty of conscience and the Lordship of Christ. As the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches (20.2), “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” To bind the consciences of believers on the teaching of Scripture is to recognize and extend Christ’s Lordship. But to do so only on the basis of human wisdom or preference is to usurp his rule.
This principle is what separates Presbyterians from other Protestants. Unlike Lutherans and Anglicans who believe that churches may do whatever God’s word allows, Presbyterians and Reformed teach that churches may only do what Scripture commands; hence the name Reformed, “reformed according to the Word.”
The Regulative Principle applies not only to worship, but to all aspects of the church’s life and witness. Unless the church can find a clear warrant from Scripture for a particular teaching or practice it may not speak or act. Otherwise it runs the risk of binding the consciences of believers and usurping the Lordship of Christ. In this broader sense the Regulative Principle is only a variation on the formal principle of the Reformation, namely, “sola scriptura.” The Reformers believed that Rome had substituted the word of man (i.e. the papacy) for the Word of God. John Calvin grappled with just this issue when he responded to the argument that he should submit to the laws of the Roman church even if they were unjust because God commands that Christians submit to the powers that he has ordained. Calvin responded that it was not a question simply of enduring “some grievous oppression in our bodies.” The real issue was “whether our consciences shall be deprived of their liberty, that is, of the benefit of the blood of Christ.” According to Calvin this was no trifling matter. “No necessity ought to be imposed upon consciences in things in which they have been set at liberty by Christ,” he wrote, because without this liberty man could have no peace with God. “If [believers] wish to retain the grace which they have once obtained in Christ; they must submit to no slavery; they must be fettered by no bonds.”
The wider implications of the Regulative Principle are important considerations for officers charged with governing the witness and practice of the church. Especially in an age when congregations are taking on more and more responsibilities, from day care to Christian aerobics, the Regulative Principle counters with a wise reminder that the work of the church is prescribed by her head, the Lord Jesus Christ speaking through his Word, and that he has commissioned officers to make disciples of all nations, not on the basis of human wisdom or ingenuity but by the faithful proclamation of his Word.
D. G. Hart and John Muether are coauthors of Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Both are ruling elders in the OPC—Mr. Hart at Calvary OPC, Glenside, PA and Mr. Muether at Lake Sherwood OPC in Orlando, FL. Extracted from Ordained Servant 6.1 (January 1997).
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