1. Episcopalianism

Unfortunately, the Lutheran and Episcopal symbols both contradict sola scriptura in their discussions of ecclesiastical ceremonies, church authority and tradition. The Thirty Nine Articles give the church an authority that is clearly incompatible with sola scriptura. Article 20—Of the Authority of the Church reads:

The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.27

Article 34—Of the Traditions of the Church states:

It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word.

Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the Traditions and Ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly (that others may fear to do the like), as he that offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren.

Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, Ceremonies or Rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority, so that all things be done to edifying.28

The Thirty Nine Articles give the church a power independent of Scripture. Not only can the prelates determine or abolish rites or ceremonies as they please solely on their own authority without scriptural warrant, they also reserve to themselves the power to discipline believers who “openly break the Traditions and Ceremonies of the Church.” Although their creed does say that the church cannot “ordain any thing contrary to God’s word written,” it nevertheless give the church hierarchy a power independent of Scripture. Thus while article six affirms sola scriptura in theory, articles 20 and 34 deny it in practice. The latter articles not only give the church power to determine or abolish rites or ceremonies as she pleases without any scriptural warrant whatsoever, they also give the church the authority to discipline believers who “openly break the Traditions and Ceremonies of the Church.” Article 20 does say that “it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written.” This statement, however (which follows the Lutheran confessions), would offer little comfort to the Puritans and Covenanters who were disciplined and persecuted for refusing to submit to man-made rites and ceremonies.

The Episcopal position on church authority and human tradition is derived from: (1) a deficient view of the perfection and sufficiency of Scripture; (2) a false understanding of the role of human reason in determining church ordinances; (3) a fallacious concept of the crown rights of the resurrected Christ.

When it comes to the government and worship of the church, Episcopalian theologians and apologists openly admit that Scripture is not a perfect rule for the church but only a partial rule. Anglicans (at least in such areas as worship and government) view the Bible as incomplete, vague and general. The Bible is like a defective map with some large roads noted yet with the details missing. If the map is to be really useful, the prelates must fill in the missing pieces. How are the details to be arrived at? The bishops will use their reason to glean from the traditions of the ancient church and add some lovely traditions of their own. The fact that God has made it abundantly clear that he despises human inventions in ethics or in worship is ignored (cf. Gen. 4:3-5; Lev. 10:1-2; Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Num. 15:39-40; 2 Sam. 6:3-7; 1 Chr. 15:13-15; 1 Kgs. 12:32-33; Jer. 7:24, 31; Isa. 29:13; Col. 2:20-23).

There is a great contrast between the Anglican and the Reformed understanding of sola scriptura and the sufficiency of Scripture. Reformed confessions regard the perfection and sufficiency of the Bible as extending not only to doctrine but also to worship and church government. If the worship and government that God has instituted in his word is sufficient, then obviously it does not need supplementation. Davies writes: “The main principle of the absolute authority of God’s word in the Scriptures for faith, ethics, and worship was expressed by all Puritans. To depart from this is the utmost human impertinence and pretentiousness, for it implies that one knows God’s will better than He does, or that the inherent weakness of original sin does not blind one’s judgment through egocentricity.”29

The Episcopal concept of church authority and tradition also derives from a wrong use of human reason. Sixteenth century Anglican apologists, in their attempt to refute the dogmatic biblicism of the Puritans, gave reason a role independent of Scripture in determining the worship and government of the church. The Puritans were not against the use of reason. However, for them reason was always to be submitted to Scripture and reason was to be used to deduce doctrine and practice from the Bible itself. It was not to be used independently of Scripture. The Westminster divines refer to explicit teachings from Scripture and those deduced from Scripture by good and necessary consequence (1.6). Anglican apologists (especially Richard Hooker) used reason to give church authorities autonomy from the strict parameters of the word in order to justify their human traditions. (Most of these traditions were a continuation of medieval Roman Catholic practices.) Regarding Richard Hooker (the greatest of Anglican apologists), Cook writes:

In the defense of Anglicanism, published in eight books between 1594 and 1600, Hooker identifies the real issue in the Anglican and Puritan controversy as the nature of the church. He seeks to repudiate Cartwright’s position that the Scripture provides a prototype for the government of the church for all time. Endeavoring to shift the argument away from Scripture, Hooker contends for a principle of natural reason as having equal validity with that of divine revelation. He embarks on an essentially non-Reformed approach to truth, teaching that some spiritual laws are known by reason quite apart from Scripture. Here we have the Catholic mind at work, drawing its strength from Aquinas, operating quite comfortably within the English Church from which it has never been banished; creating, in fact, the characteristic Anglican mentality which has controlled the practice of the Church of England ever since…. There is nothing of sola scriptura in Hooker’s contention that to appeal to the New Testament for the polity of the church is to say, in effect, that ‘God in delivering Scripture to his Church should clearly have abrogated amongst them the law of nature; which is an infallible knowledge imprinted in the minds of all the children of men’ [Ecclesiastical Polity, Bk. II, Ch. 8, 6]. Reason is given a validity equal to that of Scripture ‘inasmuch as law doth stand upon reason, to allege reason serveth as well as to cite Scripture; that whatsoever is reasonable the same is lawful whatsoever is author of it.’30

Closely related to the Anglicans’ improper use of human reason is their defective understanding of original sin. Davies writes: “Anglicans found man to be deficient in spiritual capacity; his other powers were weakened, but not desperately wounded and in need of redemptive blood transfusions, as the Puritans claimed. Man’s reason was, for the Anglicans, unimpaired; it had a natural capacity to distinguish between good and evil in a moral order. Cranmer assumed, for example, that men could choose the good without the help of sanctifying grace. Jewel affirmed that ‘Natural reason holden within her bonds is not the enemy, but the daughter of God’s truth.’ Donne held that reason must be employed when the meaning of Scripture is unclear, but, ‘Though our supreme court…for the last appeal be Faith, yet Reason is her delegate.’”31 As a consequence of such a defective view regarding the effects of the fall, Anglicans did not understand the danger of allowing sinful, fallen men the right to determine rites and ceremonies of the church. The Puritans recognized that the corruption of the human heart rendered man unable to determine acceptable forms of worshipping a thrice holy God. Even the regenerated mind cannot be trusted to autonomously determine worship ordinances, for it is still struggling with the remaining effects of the fall. The only safe thing to do under such circumstances is to study what God says and follow it. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Pr. 3:5). Bushell writes:

The regulative principle may therefore be seen, in a particular sense, as a natural inference from the doctrine of total depravity. The two are tied together, for example, in Exodus 20:25: ‘And if you make an altar of stone for me, you shall not build it of cuts stones, for if you wield your tool upon it, you will profane it.’ Any work of man’s own hands, that he presumes to offer to God in worship, is defiled by sin and for that reason wholly unacceptable.32

The church fathers and theologians of the medieval era, who added many human traditions to the worship of God, no doubt thought they were inventing things that would benefit and edify the church. The result, however, was the Romish whore, the church of the Antichrist. It is for this reason that the Scriptures repeatedly warn the covenant people not to add or detract from the laws, statutes and ordinances that Jehovah has prescribed. “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 daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it” (Deut. 12:29-32).

The Anglican concept of church authority and tradition is an implicit rejection of the crown rights of Jesus Christ. Episcopalian theologians are not obedient to the great commission in which Jesus commanded the church to teach the nations “to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:20). Their version of the great commission should read, “teach the nations to observe all things that I have commanded you and all things that the bishops decide are unto edification.” When prelates or anyone else places human laws, religious ordinances, ceremonies or rites alongside of God’s revealed will, then such men are giving themselves an authority that belongs solely to God. Only God has the authority to declare an act moral or immoral. Yet men and women have been disciplined and persecuted simply for refusing to submit to humanly-devised rites and ceremonies. Every use of human tradition in the worship of Jehovah is implicitly Romanist and tyrannical. Although evangelical congregations and backslidden Reformed churches may not use the rack, the boot, imprisonment, confiscation or banishment to punish modern Puritans, they do use many subtle and not-so-subtle forms of coercion, discipline and disapproval. Regardless of many churches’ disapprobation of biblical worship, we must never place our faith in the autonomous religious ordinances of finite sinful men.33 It is wicked and foolish to look to human traditions in worship as if they were a part of God’s word. Biblical faith must be directed solely to Christ and His word, “for all our obedience in the worship of God is the obedience of faith. And if the Scripture be the rule of faith, our faith is not, in any of its concerns, to be extended beyond it, no more than the thing regulated is to be beyond the rule.”34

Jesus Christ is the only king and sole lawgiver to the church. Whenever men add human laws, ordinances, rites or ceremonies to what Christ has authorized in his word, they deny believers the liberty they have in Christ. Owen writes:

That abridgement of the liberty of the disciples of Christ, by impositions on them of things which he hath not appointed, nor made necessary by circumstances antecedent unto such impositions, are plain usurpations upon the consciences of the disciples of Christ, destructive of the liberty which he hath purchased for them, and which, if it be their duty to walk according to gospel rule, is sinful to submit unto.35

Ironically (today), opponents of sola scriptura as applied to worship (i.e., the regulative principle of worship) have attempted to turn the tables against modern Puritans by arguing that the regulativists are the ones who deny believers liberty by not allowing non-regulativists the opportunity to introduce human innovations into the worship of God. The problem with such an argument is that liberty as defined by Scripture never means liberty from God’s law or liberty to devise one’s own worship ordinances or ceremonies apart from God’s word. Biblical liberty refers to: (1) our freedom from obedience to the law as a means of justification before God (e.g., Rom. 3:28); (2) our deliverance from the power of sin in us (e.g., Rom. 6:6 ff.); (3) the abrogation of the ceremonial law and thus our freedom from it; (4) our freedom in areas that are truly adiaphora, that is, things indifferent (e.g., Rom. 14:20). Christian liberty never means that we are permitted to add to God’s moral precepts or that we can add to the worship that God has prescribed. Such a notion assumes that the most important and reverent activity that Christians engage in (the worship of God) is somehow within the sphere of adiaphora. That idea is plainly unbiblical and absurd.

True freedom comes from a proper understanding of the Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura and the correlative doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. Of the Puritans Rawlinson writes:

Moreover, they believed with Calvin that if God had shown how he was to be worshiped by the clear light of His Word, it was sheer presumption, bordering on blasphemy, for men to add to what God had revealed. In 1605 William Bradshaw declared that Puritans ‘hold and maintain that the word of God contained in the writings of the Prophets and Apostles, is of absolute perfection, given by Christ the Head of the Church, to be unto the same, the sole Canon and rule of all matters of Religion, and the worship and service of God whatsoever. And that whatsoever done in the same service and worship cannot be justified by the said word, is unlawful.’ Such Bible passages as 2 Timothy 3:15-17; 2 Peter 1:19-21; Matthew 15:9, 13 and Revelation 22:19 were used to justify this position, whilst from such passages as Acts 2:41-42; 1 Timothy 2:1ff.; Ephesians 5:19; Romans 10:14-15; 2 Timothy 1:13 and Matthew 18:15-18, it was argued that there were six ordinances of Gospel worship—Prayer, Praise, Preaching, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Catechising, and Discipline.36

Because consistently Reformed churches do not allow humans traditions in worship, they never discipline people for adhering only to the worship prescribed in Scripture. It is only in churches that add human traditions that believers are ostracized and persecuted, and ministers are fired for holding to pure gospel worship. How can modern Puritans be accused of denying anyone’s liberty when all they are guilty of is following the laws and ordinances of Scripture without human admixture? “[T]he value of providing a biblical warrant for all the ordinances of Puritan worship was that this gave these ordinances an August authority for those who used them, as the Puritans did, in the obedience of faith.”37 Those who add human inventions to the worship of God can never adequately deal with the issue of authority for their human innovations. There is no divine authority undergirding their practices, and there is no divine authority behind the coercion that is involved in their implementation and continuance. John Owen writes:

The principle that the church hath power to institute any thing or ceremony belonging to the worship of God, either to a matter or manner, beyond the observance of such circumstances as necessarily attend such ordinances as Christ Himself hath instituted, lies at the bottom of all the horrible superstition and idolatry, of all the confusion, blood, persecution, and wars, that have for long a season spread themselves over the face of the Christian world.38

Those who do not consider divine warrant an important issue for the government and worship of the church should remember that over 18,000 men, women and children who were dedicated Scottish Presbyterians (Covenanters) were murdered simply for refusing to submit to the human ordinances of Prelacy.

A consideration of non-authorized man-made worship reveals not only that such worship is by nature without divine authority and therefore tyrannical but also anthropocentric. What is the purpose of all the pomp, pageantry and spectacle of Anglican worship? Why the dramatic cathedrals? Why the stained glass, special holy days, special gestures and special priestly dress? The reason is not that God has commanded such things and thus takes delight in them. God is by no means impressed with fancy cathedrals, bells, smells and silly vestments. The whole purpose of the various man-made adornments (aside from high church sacerdotalism) is to have some psychological effect upon man. The popish paraphernalia and medieval trappings retained in Anglican churches were considered aids or helps to devotion. They were intended to strike awe, reverence and inspiration among the worshipers. The cathedral with its pomp and ceremony served a similar function to the LSD, reefers and light show that a hippie would experience during a rock concert. They set the mood and manipulate the heart. At bottom all such human devices invented for human enjoyment and psychological effect reveal a serious lack of faith in the power of the Holy Spirit to accompany pure gospel worship. The pomp and pageantry of Anglican worship is an implicit denial that the worship authorized and designed by Jesus Christ is adequate unto the end for which it was intended. George Gillespie warns that human ceremonies obscure true religion. He writes:

But among such things as have been the accursed means of the church’s desolation, which peradventure might seem to some of you to have least harm or evil in them, are the ceremonies of kneeling in the act of receiving the Lord’s supper, cross in baptism, bishoping, holidays, etc. which are pressed under the name of things indifferent; yet if you survey the sundry inconveniences and grievous consequences of the same, you will think far otherwise. The vain shows and shadows of these ceremonies have hid and obscured the substance of religion; the true life of godliness is smothered down and suppressed by the burden of these human inventions; for their sakes, many, who are both faithful servants to Christ and loyal subjects to the king, are evil-spoken of, mocked, reproached, menaced, molested; for their sakes Christian brethren are offended, and the weak are greatly scandalized; for their sakes the most powerful and painful ministers in the land are either thrust out, or threatened to be thrust out from their callings; for their sakes the best qualified and most hopeful expectants are debarred from entering into the ministry; for their sakes the seminaries of learning are so corrupted that few or no good plants can come forth from thence; for their sakes many are admitted into the sacred ministry, who are either popish and Arminianized, who minister to the flock poison instead of food; or silly ignorants, who can dispense no wholesome food to the hungry.39

For the opponents of the regulative principle of worship who accuse Puritan worship of being guilty of a “nominalistic minimalism” or a “color-blind iconclasm” we ask the following questions: What human improvements can be made to the singing of God’s inspired Psalms? What (in the words of John Bunyan) ear-gate, mouth-gate and eye gate human additions are needed to supplement hearing God’s word read and preached and looking and feasting upon the flesh and blood of the Son of God? What are fancy buildings, silly popish dress, ceremonies and Romish pomp compared to the ordinances given to us by our most blessed Lord and Savior? Is placing our faith in the infallible words of Christ not enough? Must we also place our faith in the words and inventions of men?40