On New Age and Flowers

Q. Is it true that "All Creatures of Our God and King" has New Age ideas in it?

A. lt would take some stretch of imagination or of history to detect New Age notions in a poem written in the 1200s. Francis of Assisi wrote his "Canticle to the Sun" near the end of his life, and it is a song of praise to God, especially for creation. For a close approximation of the original, it is best to read the English translation of Matthew Arnold (found in Albert Edward Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns). The version found in most of our hymnals is a translation by William Draper that modifies the original considerably.

The fear that Francis may express New Age ideas probably arises from his use of "mother earth" (retained in some hymnals—for example, in Rejoice in the Lord). Actually, the original also uses, "brother the sun," and "sister the moon." The ascribing of human characteristics to nature is, of course, also found in the Bible (the sun is a bridegroom in Psalm 19). I would consider Francis' language an extension of that biblical use.

Perhaps there is a touch of mysticism (especially a union of humanity and nature) here that is not a good fit with Reformed theology. But that won't keep me from singing the praise to God that is found in "All Creatures."

Q. Our pastor says that we may not have flowers in our sanctuary. He says that the "regulative principle" forbids this. I had never heard of the regulative principle. What is it? Do all Reformed churches hold to it?

A. This is a big one. Let me try to give a brief answer and also steer you to some more reading.

In the background there's the large question of how Scripture determines our worship. All Reformed Christians hold that the Bible guides our worship, but there's considerable disagreement on how the Bible functions in determining whether the pastor ought to wear a black, white, blue (or no) preaching robe. Supposedly the Calvinist answer always has been "We may do in worship only what is commanded in Scripture," while the Lutheran position is, "We may do in worship whatever is not forbidden in Scripture." I don't know who designated these positions as THE Calvinist or Lutheran answers, but I find the options increasingly less satisfactory.

One interpretation of this "Calvinist" approach is the "regulative principle," as based on Article 21 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. The article says: "But the acceptable way of worshiping God is instituted by himself, and so limited by 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 representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture." So far so good—no Christian would want to practice worship suggested by Satan. The complications arise in the application of this article.

For example, a group of "Concerned Presbyterians" in the Presbyterian Church in America recently formulated a "Memorial" which would forbid any PCA congregation from ever using drama in its worship service. However, a professor from Westminster Seminary, who also holds firmly to the Westminster Confession and the regulative principle, finds such application too restrictive and sees no objection to drama. (See Westminster Theological Journal, Fall, 1992 and the two following issues). Some maintain that the regulative principle forbids hymn singing, observing Christmas, wearing vestments, and organ playing; others, also claiming adherence to the regulative principle, encourage all those worship practices, and also permit drama and liturgical dance; one (James Jordan) has adopted many practices usually associated with the Anglican tradition.

I find a principle that yields such diversity of interpretation (even among conservative Presbyterians) less than helpful. It is interesting that among the continental Reformed this principle was generally not adopted, and thus the question of whether to use musical instruments in worship never became such a controversial issue. I am therefore not hopeful that continuing or introducing the regulative principle into our contemporary discussions on worship is going to contribute much light.

Of course, the question of how Scripture determines worship is crucial. I would, therefore, strongly urge biblical and theological scholars to contribute to the dialogue. Worship committees need to know why (or why not) the musical saw is an appropriate worship instrument.

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.