Jesus and Tradition
Jesus’ condemnation of Pharisaical traditions seems to supply a sufficient blow to the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW).
Now when the Pharisees gathered to [Jesus], with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— “then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do” (Mark 7:11-13).
This is often used by me to address the Roman Catholic understanding of authority. Roman Catholics typically “Jesus is only rebuking the traditions of men, He does not rebuke Traditions from God!”
This is true, but the thrust of the argument is not that Jesus hates all traditions; but rather, that traditions must be checked by Scripture to find validation. Thus, Jesus still establishes a practice of our traditions being subservient to the Scriptures.
Nonetheless, the Roman Catholic brings up a good point that does seem to challenge some understanding of the RPW. While Jesus does condemn their traditions, He does not condemn them for not being derived from Scripture. Rather, He condemns them only because their traditions contradicted Scripture.
This seems to suggest Jesus is more in line with the Normative Principle of Worship (NPW) than the RPG. Our traditions don’t need to be derived from Scripture, but must merely be consistent with Scripture.
Although, most of this hinges on how one defines the RPW. For example, Jesus celebrated a cultural holiday not prescribed in Scripture (John 10). Therefore, we have a Scriptural deduction which validates celebrating holidays not prescribed in Scripture.
John Calvin did not seem to apply the RPW in its most severe form, but he is certainly a proponent of the RPW over the NPW. Calvin says this in his commentary on Galatians,
“If [the Papists] plead expediency [for all their ceremonies], I ask, are they better judges of what is expedient than God himself? Let us entertain the firm conviction that the highest advantage, as well as the highest propriety, will be found in whatever God has determined. In aiding the ignorant, we must employ not those methods which the fancy of men may have been pleased to contrive, but those which had been fixed by God themself, who unquestionably has left out nothing that was fitted to assist their weakness. Let this shield suffice for repelling any objections: God has judged otherwise, and his purpose supplies to us the place of all arguments; unless it be supposed that men are capable of devising better aids than those which God had provided, and which he afterwards threw aside as useless. Let it be carefully observed, Paul does not merely say that the yoke which had been laid upon the Jews is removed from us, but expressly lays down a distinction in the government which God has commanded to be observed. I acknowledge that we are now at liberty as to all outward matters, but only on the condition that the church shall not be burdened with a multitude of ceremonies, nor Christianity confounded with Judaism” (emphasis mine).
Calvin does argue for the RPW in this quotation, but he does leave the door slightly ajar for some extra-biblical worship procedures provided they are minimal and not legalistically imposed. In other words, that the church does not become burdened with mandatory ceremonies.
I prefer Calvin’s approach. The church I serve largely adheres to the RPW. One would be hard pressed to find any part of our liturgy suffering the inability to be grounded in Scripture. There are some exceptions. Specifically, holidays. We do celebrate “evangelical feast days.” We do celebrate Advent, and we even use an Advent candle as we anticipate the celebration of the incarnation. Certainly, Advent is not biblical in that sense. But it seems that Jesus would approve as long as we aren’t breaking the Scriptures.
It seems Calvin likewise would approve, since doing Advent once a year is hardly burdening the church with ceremonies or making us indistinguishable from Judaism.