William Ames Weighs in on Worship
July 21, 2016
The Situation Today
There exists much confusion about worship today. This remains true even in churches that claim the title "reformed" and those claiming the phrase reformata, semper reformanda (“reformed and always reforming”). Typically, the approach of most churches has been, “Whatever God has not forbidden in his Word he allows.” Instead, our attitude ought to be, “Whatever God has not commanded is forbidden.” In this way, we can remain true to the slogan reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei (“reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God”).
Help From the Past
Assistance for our 21st-century context comes from the English Puritans, known as “reformers of the Reformation,” according to what God prescribes in his Word. William Ames (1576-1633) remains an excellent representative of such an approach. The star student of William Perkins (1558–1602) at Christ’s College, Cambridge, he eventually wrote the standard for Puritan theology, The Marrow of Theology (1627). His views on scriptural worship here were later fleshed out in his Fresh Suite Against Human Ceremonies (1633), published the year he died, the same year William Laud (1573–1645), hated for his embrace of popish worship, became Archbishop of Canterbury.
Starting With Theology in General
In The Marrow, Ames called theology, “the doctrine of living to God.” In connection with his studies under Perkins, Ames manifested the thinking of French logician, Petrus Ramus (1515–1572) who was critical of Aristotle’s philosophy, in part since it led theologians to separate theology from ethics. Thus, Ames tells us, Theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi, “Theology is the doctrine living to God.” He went a step further using a Greek term to say that theology is “not unfitly called theozoia” or “living to God.” Likewise, while such a life brings true blessedness, “living well” is “more excellent . . . than living happily.”
Connecting Theology With Natural and Instituted Worship
From this life unto God, argues Ames in The Marrow, arises natural worship, in which we direct our hearts toward God. Religion as observance arises out of faith, or resting upon God in Christ, and leads us to inwardly respond to God “by proper contemplation” of him. This is based on the first commandment (Ex. 20:3) and issues forth in the outward worship of him (Ex. 20:3).
For Ames, instituted worship is “the means ordained by the will of God to exercise and increase natural worship.” He reveals such means in the second commandment, which “forbids all” man-made worship with “the words, graven image and likeness.” “Since these were once the chief inventions of men for corrupting the worship of God, they are rightly used for all devices of man’s wit pertaining to worship.” Unlike natural worship, which relates to “that honor we owe to God because of creation,” instituted worship is based on the “free institution of God” as revealed in his Word.
From such institution arises what we call the “regulative principle of worship,” that informed the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) and continues to challenge us today:
The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all; is good, and doeth good unto all; and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited to 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 representations or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture. (WCF 21.1)
I do not often use the phrase “regulative principle of worship” or its abbreviation, RPW, as it tends to elicit accusations of delusional infatuation with the Puritans by sticks in the mud hopelessly stuck in the past. But this need not be the case if we appreciate the foundation of the Puritans on worship, even if we do not embrace everything they taught. We do indeed need to govern our worship according to the Word of God alone. This does not answer all questions, but embracing the main principle goes a long way in ordering our worship. Indeed, we continue to the have the great need to be reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei.