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General Principles Touching the Worship of God.


General Principles Touching the Worship of God.

James Dodson

By Thomas E. Peck, D.D., LL.D.[1]

THE argument in our last number on “Liturgies, Instrumental Music, and Architecture” was addressed chiefly to the officers and members of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, and, we think, was perfectly conclusive upon the point that it is not an open question in this church whether, in its stated public worship, liturgies and organs may be lawfully used or not. These things were put together because they are naturally and historically connected, are parts of one system, and the outgrowths from one root. Accidental hindrances may prevent the full development of the system; but, where no such hindrances exist, popery is the inevitable result. It was also shown that the introduction of such forms of worship, being a violation of covenant stipulations, was, both in principle and in fact, an intolerable tyranny; and, consequently, that they are the true defenders of Christian liberty who stand by the federal constitution in the strict construction of it. We rejoice to know that the argument referred to has met with the hearty approbation of some of the ablest and soundest ministers in our church; and it is, therefore, no presumption in us to hope that our General Assembly—the writer on “Church Architecture” in The Repertory to the contrary notwithstanding—is not quite ready to convert the chair of Polemic Theology in its seminaries into a chair of Presbyterian Art.

We propose now, by way of illustrating still more fully the general question, to state, as briefly as the demands of perspicuity will allow, the principles of the word of God in regard to it. We earnestly beseech our brethren to consider them. The sovereign authority of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned in them, and his epistles to the seven churches show with what jealousy he regards any encroachment upon that authority on the part of his people. The purity of the faith is involved in the purity of worship, and the history of the church tells a fearful tale concerning the corruptions in doctrine which follow innovations in worship. Oh, that our faith might stand, not in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God!

What hath God the Lord spoken? We open the Bible at the Ten Commandments, that comprehensive and perpetual rule of duty, and we find the first four prescribing with the greatest precision, and under the most solemn sanctions, the principles which should regulate our worship; the first forbidding the worship of all false gods, that is, of any other gods than Jehovah, the one only living and true God; the second forbidding all false worship of the true God, that is, any other worship of the true God than that which he himself has prescribed; the third forbidding any abuse or irreverent use of the rule he has given to regulate our intercourse with himself, such as straining, wresting, explaining away, adding to or taking from, or in any way perverting, the rule; the fourth forbidding the neglect or abuse of that day which he has specially consecrated for his worship. But the warnings against tampering with the integrity of the rule, and consulting our own wisdom, are everywhere explicit and abundant: “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish aught from it; that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.” “What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.” “Add not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.” “They have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart.” “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” “Every plant which my Father hath not planted shall be rooted up.” (See, also, Rev. xxii. 18, 19; and, for exemplifications, Lev. x. 1-4; Josh. xxii. 10, etc.; Judges viii. 24, etc.; 1 Sam. xv. 21, etc; 1 Chron. xv. 13, et mult. al.[2]) The reader will pardon this old-fashioned way of quoting Scripture; it is a habit we have got, and we know not what better we can do, even in this enlightened and progressive generation. We are ready, however, to give it up when anybody will show us a more excellent way.

Now that these passages clearly teach that the church is bound by the written word, in the sense that she is not only to do what God has enjoined in the matter of his worship, but to abstain from doing what he has not enjoined, is almost the unanimous faith of the Reformed churches. And we hazard little in asserting that in as far as any branch of the Reformed church hesitates to accept this interpretation, in so far it still needs to be reformed. “The sins forbidden in the second commandment,” says the 109th Answer in the Westminster Larger Catechism, “are all devising, counselling, commanding, using, and anywise approving any religious worship not instituted by God himself; . . . all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense soever; . . . all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God hath appointed.”

“Now,” says old Dr. Owen, with a spice of satire quite unwonted in him, “men who, having great abilities of learning, are able to distinguish themselves from under the power of the most express rules and commands, should yet, methinks, out of a sense of their weakness (which they are ready to profess themselves convinced of when occasion is offered to deliver their thoughts concerning them), have compassion for those who, being not able to discern the strength of their reasonings because of their fineness, are kept in a conscientious subjection to the express commands of God, especially conceiving them not without some cogent cause reiterated.”[3]

But, to accommodate the words of the learned vice-chancellor, lest the present exasperation of the spirits of our brethren who condemn our “high-churchism” and hairsplitting metaphysics should frustrate this expectation, let us consider what these Scripture testimonies mean. Can they mean anything less than that God is absolute dictator in this affair of worship; and, consequently, that every invention of man therein is a grand impertinence and wickedness? Will it be said that the prohibition in regard to things which have not been commanded extends only to those things which are inconsistent with express commandments? Then we ask, in return, what means this phrase, “adding” to the commandment? Does it mean, after all, nothing more than “transgressing,” or “coming short of,” a particular law of God? What should we say of a writ in law under a merely human government which could be interpreted in this wise? It directs certain things to be done, and to be done by certain persons, and in a certain manner, but its meaning is, that all other things can boundlessly be done, provided the authority of the writ be not denied, or its provisions be not contradicted. What would become of the liberties of this country if such principles of interpretation were allowed to be applied to its constitutions, general and local? We say that the command to add nothing is an organic part of the whole law, as law, and, therefore, that every human addition to the worship of God, even if it be not contrary to any particular command, is yet contrary to the general command that nothing be added. And so said those men of God who chose to meet bonds and death rather than submit to rites and forms imposed by men. So must the Presbyterian people of this nation say, or witness the destruction of that liberty wherewith Christ the Lord hath made them free.

But some will say this interpretation confines the action of the church within very narrow limits. Are we not adding to the law when we appoint a certain hour for public worship, when we elect a moderator of a church court, when we erect a synod covering such an extent of territory, when we appoint a chorister to lead the singing, or that chorister uses a tuning-fork to pitch the music? This question has been answered in the article on “The Wisdom of Man vs. the Power of God,” in the July number of this work, p. 313,[4] and to that we refer the reader. We stand immovably by the first chapter of our Confession of Faith, in its obvious sense, and believe, ex animo, in the absolute sufficiency of the Scriptures as the rule of faith and practice. No foolish charge of bibliolatry from any quarter shall make us ashamed of this confession. We not only build the sepulchres of the glorious Non-conformists of the seventeenth century, in which many who sneer at their principles and ours are willing to join us, but we love their principles, and pray that God will make us worthy to walk in their steps and enable us to contend to the very last extremity against any other voice being heard within the fold but the voice of him who has laid down his life for the sheep.

But our brethren who defend the innovations in question, and object to our stiff conservatism, may say again, “We join issue with you upon your own ground; we grant, for the sake of argument, that your interpretation of the law, stringent as it appears to us to be, is just; yet the Bible sanctions the very modes of worship you condemn.”

1. As to liturgies: we find that our Saviour himself gave to his disciples a form of prayer to be used by them in their public devotions. We answer, First, That we are at a loss to conceive where the argument lies; where the connection is between a directory given by Christ, as to the matter of his people’s prayers, and forms of prayer composed by men, who either make no claim to the possession of the “mind of the Spirit,” or furnish very indifferent evidence to authenticate the claim. There is a great gulf fixed between the act of Christ and an act of Parliament, or even an act of an ecclesiastical convocation. Second, The Lord’s prayer, as given in the Sermon on the Mount, seems to have been intended as a directory in secret worship, like the directions in regard to alms-giving and fasting, with which it is immediately connected in that sermon. And our business now, as before explained, is not with private and secret, but with social and public, worship. If it is said that, as given by Luke, it was designed for social devotion, we say again, we do not object to its being so used, but we cannot see how this proves that forms of human invention are also lawful. The burden of proof is on the other side; let them show that the Lord’s prayer was designed to be so used; then let them show that any other form may be used, because Christ’s may, and we give up the point. If it be said again, that the Lord’s prayer was composed out of forms in common use among the Jews, we reply, let them prove this, and then show that because a form made or selected by the great Prophet of his people may be used, a form made or selected by uninspired men may be used; and that the use of forms in an effete and carnal church justifies the use of them in a church replenished with the gifts of the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of grace and supplication. Third, “The Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” Even supposing, therefore, that our Saviour designed that prayer to be used as a public form by his disciples then, when they were so carnal as to be looking for earthly glory as the reward they should receive for having faithfully attended him, and to be unable to hear patiently of his ignominious death upon the cross, it does not follow that it must continue to be so used after his ascension into heaven, and the outpouring of the Holy Ghost with mighty power. And here is the strong point against the use of liturgies, that they are inconsistent with the promise of the Spirit, which is given to ministers to enable them for their work. Where is the necessity for gifts in a church in which everything but the sermon is put down in print, and the only requisites for a canonical performance of the worship can be obtained from the tailor and the common school-master? And as to the sermon, nobody needs to be informed of what sort that is, and what gifts are required to make one, in those churches where liturgies are "almost adored." The truth is, as we said before, it is only in the absence of gifts and grace that the need of a liturgy is felt. Then, indeed, it is one of those circumstances which are of the nature of a “necessary adjunct” of an action; for if the man is to pray at all, it must be by book. But what right has a man to thrust himself into the pulpit, and undertake to lead the people of God in their devotions, if he has no other gift than that which all the people, perhaps, have as well as he, to-wit, the ability to read? Suppose, for one moment, that the General Assembly should prescribe a form of prayer to be read in all the churches, would not the ministry of the church speedily descend, as a mass, to the level of that portion of it which could read only? It would make the weakest the standard of the strong, and a degradation well-nigh universal would be the melancholy result. Gifts would cease to be valued, to be sought, to be cultivated; and a tame, heartless, gloomy formalism settle down upon us like the pall of death. Depend upon it, let men deride “gifted brethren” as they may, if we cease to have gifted brethren we are ruined. The task of those who defend liturgies, therefore, is to prove that a man endued with the Spirit and the promised gifts of Christ cannot pray to edification without such help. It is, in other words, to show that it is a necessary “circumstance” of the action in his case. If this be not done, then the whole tenor of Scripture teaching is against them. (See Eph. iv. 7-16.)

2. As to instrumental music, it is said “that it formed a part of the stated worship of the temple under the law, and that the frequent allusions to the harp, psaltery, etc., in the Psalms show that instrumental music may be associated with sentiments of true spiritual devotion.” We remark: First, That it is a little singular that our brethren who have such a horror of Jewish bondage, and protest so earnestly against making the ancient people of God—who were not allowed to do what was right in their own eyes—an example for us who enjoy the liberty of the gospel, should not be able to find in the notices of public worship in the New Testament any traces of the use of instrumental music; but must needs go back to the days of bondage for their precedents. We hear of “singing the praises of God” in the church of the apostles; of “singing with the spirit and with the understanding also”; that is, so as to be understood, as the connection (1 Cor. xiv.) shows the meaning to be, implying that as the human voice is the only organ which can articulate sentiment, it is the only organ to be used; of “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”; but not one word about wind or stringed instruments, which can neither feel or speak. Second, Even upon the supposition that instrumental music was a part of the stated public worship of the temple, it does not follow that it is lawful under the gospel. The fact that it belonged to the temple service is a strong presumption that it was peculiar to the worship of the ministration of death. It seems to have been associated whenever it was performed with the offering of sacrifice; but Christians know no other sacrifice but that of Jesus, which has been offered once for all. Let the Papists, who believe in temples, priests and sacrifices, stick to their organs; let not the freemen of the Lord, who have boldness to enter into the holiest of all through the blood of the Son of God, who has passed into the heavens, borrow their pitiful machinery. We prefer the synagogue to the temple.[5] Third, But it is more than doubtful whether music of this sort ever formed any part of the stated public worship even of the temple. Upon this point we quote the following sentences from a short essay on Instrumental Music, by Dr. R. J. Breckinridge, first printed in the Presbyterian Herald, and reprinted in Baltimore three years ago. No attempt, as far as we know, has been made to answer the argument. Why, it is not difficult to divine:

“The very nature of the sacrificial system of the Jews was incompatible with the stated use of music of any sort in direct connection with it; and it is positively certain that instruments of music formed no part of the divinely-appointed means or utensils of the tabernacle or temple service; for everything lawful to be used in every part of that service by every person any way connected with it is expressly recorded in the Bible, and everything else is forbidden to be used or even made; and yet no musical instrument is ever mentioned as amongst them or connected with their use. We have four catalogues preserved by God in his word of everything made according to the pattern shown to Moses in the mount, catalogues embracing the minutest as well as the most important thing, but no allusion is made to any musical instrument. The temple service of the Jews, which was full of Christ to come, had no such machinery. As to the -synagogue system— that system after which, both in its model and in its objects, the Christian church was confessedly and undeniably formed—it allowed no instrumental music. Probably in the tens of thousands of Jewish synagogues which have covered the earth during the whole career of that wonderful people, not one can be found in which a congregation of enlightened Jews, who adhered to the institutions of their religion and their race, allowed any instrument of music, much less an organ, to form any part of their system of the public worship of God.

“These statements may excite surprise in those who have not paid attention to the subject; and it may be demanded what are we, then, to understand was the exact position occupied by instruments of music in the religious system of the Jews. To this various replies may be made: 1. It is not at all material to the question now under discussion what position they occupied, the only thing needful to be shown being that they were not a part of the stated worship of God. 2. The greater the obscurity concerning their proper place and use, the greater the absurdity of making1 their place and use in the Jewish system control the nature of the Christian system of public worship. 3. It is for those who cite their use to justify innovations on our established and covenanted ordinances to be able, at least, to show us clearly and certainly that the Jewish use they rely on was not contrary to our ordinances. 4. It is manifest that if this Jewish use could be shown, and, when shown, had the weight attributed to it, the argument would be far deeper and broader than merely to justify the proposed innovation in our churches, it would render that innovation an absolute and universal duty; for if God established amongst the Jews, as a part of his stated worship, the use of organs or other similar instruments, and if he has done nothing since to change that institution, then it is still universally binding. 5. But not to leave the point wholly in the dark as to the Jewish use of instruments of music in God’s worship, I suppose that use chiefly as follows: First, On great and extraordinary occasions, such as the dedication of the temple, the bringing up of the ark of God, national rejoicings, national mournings, and the like. Second, On the occasions of the assembling three times every year of the whole Jewish people at Jerusalem to celebrate their great annual feasts, the tens of thousands of Israel, in their vast processions through the city, chanting, as they ascended to the temple, the ‘Songs of Degrees,’ accompanied by the sound of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of harps, psalteries, cymbals, and the like. Third, In the meetings of the priests, Levites, and others exclusively devoted to a religious profession and service amongst the Jews, official meetings, so to speak, for prayer and mutual instruction, instrumental music connected with sacred praise seems to have been an object of special attention, and what is said in the two immediately preceding heads shows how natural and important this would be. Fourth, On the whole, the system of instrumental music for religious uses amongst the Jews was no part of their synagogue system and no part of their temple system, but seems rather to have been an offshoot, connected incidentally, but intimately, with their great sacrificial system, in its combined aspect as a system at once religious and national. And it is to be remembered that it was not Moses nor the prophets, but it was David, who arranged the whole musical economy of the Jews, whatever it may have been; David the king, as well as David the psalmist—as the latter composing divine songs for God's people in his own and all other ages, as the former suiting the use of instrumental music to them in the peculiar aspect of his own people considered in a religio-national point of view, and not as either, strictly speaking, temple worshippers or synagogue worshippers.”

It will be observed that the argument of this paper has been strictly confined to the point of the warrant of Scripture for the innovations in worship which some of our brethren are disposed to defend. Many pages might be written upon the desolating influence, in fact, of these corruptions, but all we want to know about anything is, that it is bad; its effects must correspond with its nature. As the tree is, so must the fruit be. Let our brethren on the other side distinctly understand that we are conservatives, and are acting on the defensive. They are bound to show cause why these imitations of Rome are to be tolerated in the Presbyterian Church, and a taste cultivated in our children which they must go to Episcopacy or Popery fully to gratify. We stand upon the platform of that great Westminster Assembly, “by the advice of whose leading members the Long Parliament passed an act declaring the use of organs in churches to be a part of idolatrous worship, and ordering every one to be removed.” What have we to do with the drums of Tophet? Alas! what madness is it to come down from that lofty elevation on which God and the blood of our martyred fathers have placed us, to go into the market and bid for men with the gew-gaws and follies of those who, we say, are totally apostate or only half reformed! Turn us again, O Lord God of hosts! Cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved!


[1] This article appeared in the December number of The Critic, 1855.—Ed.

[2] Lev. x. 1-4: Nadab and Abihu, for offering strange fire, are burnt with fire; Josh. xxii. 10 ff.: the Israelites under Joshua would allow no altar of worship beyond the Jordan; Judges viii. 34 ff.: Gideon’s ephod causeth idolatry; 1 Sam. xv. 21 ff.: Saul condemned because of his sacrifice at Gilgal; 1 Chron. xv. 13: the breach upon Israel bringing up the ark, because they “sought him not after the due order.”—ED.

[3] “Discourse on Liturgies,” Works, Vol. XIX., p. 440. We commend this masterly discussion to all who wish to understand the true doctrine of the “discretionary power” of the church, so much talked of in recent debates amongst us.

[4] See p. 111 of this volume.

[5] We once heard a doctor of divinity in a “Free Conversation on the State of Religion” intimate that his faith in organs had been somewhat confirmed by reading that “Jubal was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ.” An organ had been recently introduced into his own church, and we thought at the time that his conscience was in distress, and, therefore, ready to put into any port in the storm. We have heard of some people arguing for immersion from the phrase “divers baptisms” in Hebrew ix. 10; and though we do not think it possible that the readers of the Critic could attach any consequence to the text in Genesis as touching this question, yet out of deference to the doctorate we will say: 1. That Jubal was of the children of Cain, who “went out from the presence of God.” 2. That, by parity of reasoning, as “Jabal was the father of such as dwell in tents, and of such as have cattle,” we ought to worship in tents and sacrifice cattle; and as “Tubal-Cain was the instructor of every artificer in brass and iron,” we ought to use a brass band or brass cannon in our public worship.

We do not desire to call any man “father on earth”; but if we must have a metaphorical father, the line of Cain is about the last we should go to.