The Regulative Principle is the doctrine that all that is not specifically authorized is forbidden. It’s antithesis is called the Normative Principle, which is that whatever is not specifically prohibited in Scripture is permitted. Both are wrong.
The Regulative Principle was first announced by John Calvin and represents his approach to purifying the church from various Catholic additions that had accreted over the 1,500 years of Christianity preceding Calvin’s work.
In Calvin’s teaching, it’s really the “Regulative Principle of Worship,” as he only applied it to the doctrine of worship. However, others came to apply it to church organization, such as James Henry Thornwell in 1841-2, part of the Old School Presbyterian Church. Even the Puritans and other strict, old-school Calvinists saw the dangers of expanding the rule to include all of Christianity.
Thomas and Alexander Campbell
In the Restoration Movement, many trace the Regulative Principle back to Thomas Campbell’s dictum, “We speak where the Bible speaks; we’re silent where the Bible is silent.” As soon as Campbell announced the principle, the argument was made that infant baptism should be rejected, as the Bible nowhere says anything about it. However, it was several years before Campbell came to insist on believer baptism, and that was due to much more consideration than the rote application of this slogan to the scriptures.
The question is whether by “silent” Campbell meant “say nothing” or “speak a prohibition.” “Silent where the Bible is silent” can actually more naturally be understood as an insistence on the Normative Principle — say nothing.
The reality is a bit more complex. The teachings of the church can be thought of in three layers — soterology, other doctrine, and praxis. Let me use better words: the Bible’s teachings on salvation, all other Biblical teaching, and practices not dictated by the Bible — what we like to call matters of expedience. The Campbells weren’t very careful in distinguishing the three — and this has led to unspeakable grief within the Restoration Movement churches.
Although I say the Campbells weren’t sufficiently careful, they are clear enough to anyone who bothers to read their writings with the question in mind. Let’s consider what they said about salvation first. Alexander Campbell wrote,
Faith in Jesus as the true Messiah, and obedience to him as our Lawgiver and King, the ONLY TEST of Christian character, and the ONLY BOND of Christian union, communion, and co-operation, irrespective of all creeds, opinions, commandments, and traditions of men.
Preface to the second edition of the Christian System (1839) (emphasis in the original).
Now, Campbell’s point was not that creeds are bad because creeds are in error—
Our opposition to creeds arose from a conviction, that whether the opinions in them were true or false, they were hostile to the union, peace, harmony, purity, and joy of Christians; and adverse to the conversion of the world to Jesus Christ.
Ibid. Some have said we have no creed but the Bible, meaning by this that we have no creed except our interpretation of the Bible — as though there were some profound difference between a written creed and an unwritten creed. Obviously, there is none. Rather, Campbell taught that we should replace creeds with faith in Jesus, not faith in our understanding of divorce and remarriage or our understanding of the role of women in the church.
Thomas Campbell, Alexander’s father, taught the same thing in his “Declaration and Address,” generally considered the founding document of the Restoration Movement and frequently quoted by even the most conservative writers.
Thomas Campbell wrote,
8. That as it is not necessary that persons should have a particular knowledge or distinct apprehension of all divinely revealed truths in order to entitle them to a place in the church; neither should they, for this purpose, be required to make a profession more extensive than their knowledge: but that, on the contrary, their having a due measure of scriptural self-knowledge respecting their lost and perishing condition by nature and practice; and of the way of salvation thro’ Jesus Christ, accompanied with a profession of their faith in, and obedience to him, in all things according to his word, is all that is absolutely necessary to qualify them for admission into his church.
The Campbells came to their understanding of baptism some years later. Hence, except for baptism, Proposition 8 of the “Declaration and Address” is simply the plan of salvation as we’ve traditionally taught it. To be saved you must be aware of your lost condition, confess faith in Jesus, and consent to be obedient to him—hear, believe, repent, and confess.
9. That all that are enabled, thro’ grace, to make such a profession, and to manifest the reality of it in their tempers and conduct, should consider each other as the precious saints of God, should love each other as brethren, children of the same family and father, temples of the same spirit, members of the same body, subjects of the same grace, objects of the same divine love, bought with the same price, and joint heirs of the same inheritance. Whom God hath thus joined together no man should dare to put asunder.
However, Proposition 9 is dramatically different from our traditional teaching. Here, Campbell urges that everyone who meets the standards stated in Proposition 8 should be considered a fellow Christian and “subjects of the same grace” and “joint heirs of the same inheritance.”
In other words, Campbell contends that the standard by which we first become saved is the same standard by which we stay saved. “Hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized” defines not only who is first saved but who goes to heaven, provided, of course, they remain true to their faith and repentance.
And so, we see here the Campbell’s soterology — doctrine of salvation. It has nothing to do with being silent or authority or pianos. It’s what we’ve always taught, except that the rules don’t change after our baptism. There doesn’t come some magic day when getting divorce and remarriage wrong damns — because you can perfectly well have faith and be penitent and be honestly mistaken on the question — can’t you?
But, of course, the Campbells had a lot to say on other subjects, especially their desire to unite the churches based on a common form of worship and church organization. They argued that if we’d all follow the First Century pattern, we’d have no trouble being united both in God’s eyes and in actual practice.
The problem arose when many of their disciple took this “Restoration Plea” and turned it into a salvation doctrine, relying on (you guessed it) the Regulative Principle. How could their students have so badly misunderstood?
[Next up — how the Baptists messed up Campbell’s teaching for us.]