The Regulative Principle is Fulfilled in Christ?
Dr. Vern Poythress, noted Professor of New Testament Interpretation, argues against exclusive psalmody as follows: “The regulative principle of worship finds its final, decisive expression when Christ fulfills the law of Moses and the ordinances of David with superabundant fulfillment and riches.”(34) He further states that the fulfillment of the regulative principle “is of a piece with the fulfillment of the priestly, kingly, and prophetic ministry” of the Old Testament: “all is fulfilled in Christ.”(35)
Professor Poythress mixes apples and oranges. The regulative principle arises from the Second Commandment; it is part of the moral law, which is perpetual. “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them …” (Exod. 20:4-5). “What is forbidden in the second commandment?” Answer, “The second commandment forbiddeth the worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his word” (WSC 51, italics added). Shorter Catechism 51 is a classic statement of the regulative principle of worship. Believers are not to worship in any way God does not command in His word. The Old Testament prophets, priests, and kings were prophetic types pointing forward to Christ and fulfilled in Him. They served under the ceremonial law and the civil law of Israel, which were temporary.
The professor also uses the term fulfilled in different ways. The prophetic types of prophet, priest, and king are fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the anti-type. Old Testament ceremonies are fulfilled when Christ sets them aside to establish His own sacrificial work as final (Heb. 10:9). Christ fulfills the moral law in a different way. He obeys it. Since the regulative principle is part of the moral law and therefore perpetual, it remains in force. God calls all people to obey it.
Professor Poythress goes on to rightly say, “In our worship we are to strive for complete conformity to the law, bending all our efforts and finding all our joy in fulfilling it (not going beyond it with inventions).”(36) Amen! However, the professor also says, “Moreover, it is conformity which is internal.”(37) Expressing the need for this internal conformity, he continues, “We must have the mind of Christ …”(38) How true. What happens when there is failure? “We must see that Christ himself is the definitive embodiment of true righteousness.”(39) Christ, therefore, fulfills the regulative principle; “all is fulfilled in Christ.”(40) Note the ambiguity, the equivocation. Christ fulfills the regulative principle as a part of the Second Commandment by His perfect obedience. Since the regulative principle is a perpetual and moral principle and not ceremonial, Christ does not fulfill it like the Old Testament sacrifices, which He does set aside.
Conformity to God’s moral law is not only internal. Believers must outwardly act according to God’s law, including the regulative principle. Yes, believers must have the mind of Christ. There is an internal and subjective aspect to worship as God commands. Calvin, following Athanasius, points in this direction in his Preface to the Psalms, “[T]here is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented …”(41) Athanasius teaches “each one sings the Psalms as though they had been written for his special benefit …” and we sing them “as a pattern and model for the amendment of our lives.”(42) The Psalms are a divine guide for the expression of personal thoughts and emotions in worship.
The regulative principle of worship remains in force. Psalmody helps believers fulfill, follow, and obey it. As Christians sing the Psalms in worship, God works internal conformity to His Law in them by training their thoughts and emotions. Holding to the regulative principle of worship, the church continues to sing the Psalms.
- Vern S. Poythress, “Ezra 3, Union with Christ, and Exclusive Psalmody,” Westminster Theological Journal 37:1 (Fall 1974) 82.
- Ibid., 82-83.
- Ibid., 83.
- John Calvin, “The Author’s Preface,” Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 1:xxxvii.
- Athanasius, “Letter to Marcellinus Concerning the Psalms,” Fisheaters.com, accessed November 15, 2011.
Used by permission from Dr. Dennis Prutow
Prutow, Dennis. Public Worship 101: An Introduction to the Biblical Theology of Worship, the Elements of Worship, Exclusive Psalmody, and A Cappella Psalmody. Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.