Initial Thoughts on the Regulative Principle and the Visual Arts

The Regulative Principle in regards to worship is, in summary, the idea that all forms of worship must strictly follow forms as described in Scripture. Silence on a particular method is seen as evidence that God does not deem it worthy for mention and thus is forbidden in public worship.

The iconoclastic controversies that led up the to the Protestant Reformation centered on the place images played in public worship. My thesis would begin with the argument that perhaps the nature of visual images in the worship space should not be considered solely a worship issue, but rather one of communication. We are commanded by God to communicate his self revelation through his Son, Jesus Christ. I would argue that the nature of worship is one of responding back to God from his first communication to us. Images are most properly used in the direction from God to us. It is in our attempt to respond back to God’s through meditating on the visual image where idolatry is the most feared, but not always the result. Although visual images are traditionally (and biblically) thought of as part of worship, I would argue that the visual arts are more accurately used for communication both inside and outside of public worship. If the church were to begin seeing visual art as a need for communicating God’s revelation then I think the fears raised by the reformation iconoclasts could begin to calm.

Visual images most definitely carry a danger in that they can easily become idols of worship. Congregates can so easily gain a sentimental attachment to the material item and fall into idolatry. Yet the sin here is not the visual arts. It is the attitude of the worshipper that is at fault.

John Frame argues in his work, Worship in Spirit and Truth, that the regulative principle provides freedom within the confines of Scripture regarding images. The second commandment of God’s Decalogue forbids the making of images for the purpose of bowing down to worship them. Yet, the regulative principle brings freedom, within the confines of Scripture, to worship God through various means. We are commanded in Scripture to communicate God’s revelation through his Son. We are not commanded specific methods in how to do that. So certainly visual art can be used to communicate that revelation. One can find precedent set in the Old Testament to worship freely and create (as commanded by God) ornaments for the use of symbolism and visual creativity in the temple — the sacred space dedicated to worship. This creativity was meant to only communicate God’s revelation about himself and was not to be worshipped.

The strongest arguments against visual art only address the issue of idolatry, and rightly so. Where the debate is silent is in the strengths of images for communication. If the thinking of theological aesthetics were to include both the strengths of communication for God’s revelation and the warnings against idolatry, then perhaps the church could regain a balanced view of the visual arts within the evangelical protestant tradition.

One could argue that John Frame’s defense is a weakened regulative principle position. His use of the regulative principle for worship lends itself strongly for an argument for the normative principle. Deeper study is needed for the strengthening of the regulative principle in favor of the visual arts. So far, it appears the normative principle is foundational to the appeal for visual arts in public worship space.


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