Iain Murray and the Regulative Principle

I love the writing of Iain Murray. I’ve probably recommended and given out more of his books than I do most others. And I can certainly say that I’ve benefitted from his historical insights and applications to such a degree that many of my convictions about pastoral ministry and church and preaching have been derived from his histories – insights gleaned from the great heroes of the faith and so poignantly applied by Murray. Murray, founder of The Banner of Truth Trust, is a historian who is unabashedly committed to the truth that God works in history and therefore we can write (and read) history with that presupposition “out up front”. It is no platitude to say that God has blessed Iain Murray’s writing throughout the many decades of his work, and at the current age of 91 and still writing, we can and should thank God for this faithful historian of God’s mighty works.

         Certainly, many repeated themes tie much of his corpus together – his devotion to the truths of the Reformed tradition, his continued emphasis upon true revival, and his ability to highlight men who have stood courageously in the midst of opposition or theological downgrade. But one theme stands out to me as particularly precious and it’s a theme I pray Murray is especially remembered for. This is his repeated endeavor to highlight, defend, and call the church back to the regulative principle of worship.

            I don’t have the space, time, or even the desire to highlight every instance of Murray doing this,[1] but I would like to share just a few examples from Murray’s writing that I hope will give you, the reader, a flavor for what I mean and hopefully a deeper conviction to take Murray’s call more seriously.

            The first, and as far as I can tell, the earliest published by Murray on this topic, is his essay “Scripture and ‘Things Indifferent’”, first delivered at The Puritan Conference at Westminster Chapel in 1963, and now published in Puritan Papers, Volume Three (1963-1964).[2] Therein he delivers a fantastic history of how the regulative principle came about from the time of Calvin and Knox and Tyndale and up through the Puritan era, with many quotes on both sides of the debate which allows the reader to really wrestle “in real time” with why the issue mattered so much.

            The heart of his essay is to really locate the historical boundaries of what came to be referred to as adiaphora, or things indifferent, because all sides agreed that there would always be aspects to worship and polity that needed to be included but were not essential – they were things, well, that were indifferent. You can think here of things like when on the Lord’s Day a church might meet, or what kind of chairs or benches the people sat upon, how fast or slow a psalm was sung, etc.

            But even though there was a widely accepted understanding that the accidents of worship were distinct from the essentials, nonetheless, how to define what was accidental still demanded a lot of thinking and produced no little amount of writing. As Murray makes and applies the point for us: “The fundamental question surely is, how far does the Scripture allow all this? There is no disagreement about the fact that the exercise of prudence, wisdom, and common sense are Christian duties; the disagreement between ourselves (20th century evangelicals) and the Puritans is that we have acted as though there is a wide area of church practice which lies outside the scope of the New Testament. They drew the line between legitimate expediency and disobedience at a different point from that at which we draw it. As evangelicals we have been inclined to believe that wherever our failure lies, it does not lie in our disobedience to Scripture. But if the Puritan teaching on the regulative principle is true, it places our conduct in a different light” (emphasis mine).[3]

            On the established church side, which generally looked down upon Puritan convictions over worship, Samuel Parker “a staunch upholder of the Act of Uniformity of 1662, attacked the regulative principle as the foundation of all Puritanism.”[4]  John Whitgift likewise concluded that “the tendency of the Puritan policy was to bring about the overthrow of the gospel through contention about external things... Surely, if they be matters ‘necessary to salvation,’ then is there some just cause of breaking the peace of the church for them; but, if they be matters of no such weight, then can you not excuse either yourself or them?”[5]  As Murray quotes Bishop Hall, it was “a thousand times better to swallow a ceremony than to rend a church.”[6]

            That push-back against a Scripturally narrow regulation of worship has certainly not diminished over time - in fact, I’d say, it has generally won the day. Those today committed to the Puritan understanding of worship are few and far between, even among many of the self-proclaimed “Reformed” types. What John Wingram argued in 1547 (against John Knox) is widely held as self-evident today, namely that “the Scriptures are too general to regulate everything, therefore the demand for a Scripture warrant is absurd.”[7]

            Murray makes great use of George Gillespie, a Westminster Divine, and how he defended the Puritan position. For an element of worship to be truly defined as indifferent it must (1) “be only a circumstance of divine worship; no substantial part of it; no sacred, significant and efficacious ceremony.” (2) “That which the Church may lawfully prescribe by her laws and ordinances, as a thing left to her determination, must be one of such things as were not determinable by Scripture.” And (3) “If the Church prescribe anything lawfully... her ordinance must be accompanied with some good reason and warrant given for the satisfaction of tender consciences.” 

            In other words, nothing should be practiced which is understood to be a means of grace and yet is an addition to what Christ has clearly commanded and delineated in His word (think here of the many Roman Catholic additions that are thought to “communicate grace” or even many modern evangelical additions like the “sinners’ prayer” or an alter call, both not found in Scripture). But if a thing is added to a church’s order of worship it must be done so in such a way that the Scriptures still rule its use and limit its abuse, since commanding it could be (and often was) an added burden to the freedom obtained by Christ – or in the words of chapter 20 of the Westminster Confession, “The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law... the liberty of Christians is further enlarged in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace.” Hence, Murray concludes that “Christian liberty cannot be preserved without the maintenance of the regulative principle.”[8]

            This may seem like a striking statement, but it is one which Murray takes seriously. In fact, for Murray, he sees the regulative principle as not only conducive to true freedom but also to a broad ecclesiastical unity. “The regulative principle is essentially a uniting principle amongst Christians, for as far as it is truly applied, it puts away all man-appointed practice and promotes a common concern to give allegiance to Scripture alone. [It is] far from being a divisive principle.”[9]

            In an article written for the Banner of Truth (link: https://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2010/sensual-worship-a-s...) in 2010, Murray makes a standard Reformed argument (indeed, quoting from Calvin, Owen, and Lloyd-Jones) about the sensual nature of Old Covenant worship but which became vastly simplified in Christ under the New Covenant. His article is not strictly historical-theology for the sake of historical-theology but an argument taking aim at what he sees as possible apostacy in much of today’s church with its ever increasing return to the smells and bells and sensualness (or sensuality) of Temple worship – a problem, of course, which Murray sees as a pillar within Roman Catholicism. In other words, if today’s church doesn’t take seriously the older Reformed reasoning for why their worship was simple, then it is inevitably doomed to return to apostacy of Rome. Whether he knows it or not, Murray has taken the role of a modern-day Puritan heralding a call for continued reformation within Christ’s church today. A call for which this writer is grateful.

            This helps explain Murray’s publishing of a collection of Reformed and Puritan texts concerning ecclesiology and worship (first published in 1965) under the title of The Reformation of the Church. Though this book might not seem immediately appealing to a broad audience – it really is just a collation of varying letters, treatises, and excerpts from Reformers, Puritans, and a few others sympathetic to the regulative principle - nonetheless it is has become an essential volume in recovering a truly reformed ecclesiology. I have sat in (as an onlooker) on not a few “intern discussions” under Capitol Hill Baptists pastoral internship where Murray’s book is being read and discussed, and time and time again I have witnessed young men who would self-identify as reformed and yet who have assumed and accepted a broad normative principle (more aligned with Catholic and Anglican assumptions), suddenly change course and adopt a regulative principle of worship. In other words, Murray’s curated collection of documents – again, published in 1965 - is having wide-ranging effect today on church polity and church worship!

            To think of Iain Murray as morosely consumed with only and always a particular kind of reformed heritage would miss the mark of his writing. He’s written on men like John Wesley (certainly not someone considered within the bounds of reformed theology) and J.C. Ryle (himself, no fan of the Puritan regulative principle). But even still, Murray manages to sneak in his convictions on worship when the moment allows. In his 2011 biography of John MacArthur, of whom Murray admits a friendship, he still brings critique to MacArthur and his church’s worship through the lens of the regulative principle.

            Admitting that MacArthur is no friend to pragmatism, nonetheless he understands MacArthur to believe that “the church should not impose limitations where Scripture itself allows liberty.” But Murray allows himself and his readers a moment of critique when he writes, “Personally I hope the argument that liberty is permissible, when it comes to the use of musical instruments, is one to which Dr MacArthur may give more attention. I believe the defense of musical instruments rests on the same argument that was used by opponents of the Reformers to defend the continuance of practices prevalent in the Church of Rome – from musical instruments to vestments. The defense was that if the Old Testament sanctioned these, why should they now be put aside? The answer of the Reformers and Puritans was to affirm the great change introduced by the work of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The temple in old Jerusalem is no longer a model for an age when everywhere there is worship ‘in spirit and truth.... The New Testament church knows nothing of temple choirs, incense, and musical instruments, because it has no need of them. To bring them back, the Reformers agreed, was to take the church back to infancy... I entirely agree with MacArthur’s statement: ‘I believe worship is the church’s highest priority.’ But, as the use of instruments is so much involved in the contemporary change taking place in the worship of many churches, I do not think it can be passed over.”[10]

            Whether one agrees with Murray on the use of instruments as being essential to worship or indifferent and adiaphora, the larger theme of Murray’s commitment to the regulative principle is what I want to highlight. It’s clear that this is a conviction which Murray has always held dear, a conviction which Murray sees as essential to the health of Christ’s church today, and a conviction which Iain Murray has seen fit to write upon in almost every decade of his career. Perhaps those who read his books will heed his call, perhaps many wont. But I am thankful that, at the very least, Iain Murray has kept this seemingly old and outdated conversation alive and well and at the forefront of our theological and historical reading.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.


[1] For instance, his little booklet The Psalter: The Only Hymnal? which addresses some themes of the regulative principle.

[2] Puritan Papers, Volume Three 1963-1963, ed. by J.I. Packer (P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ. 2001).

[3] Ibid., pp. 26.

[4] Ibid., pp. 24.

[5] Ibid., pp. 27.

[6] Ibid., pp. 27.

[7] Ibid., pp. 37.

[8] Ibid., pp. 48.

[9] Ibid., pp 49.

[10] Iain H. Murray, John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock (The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 2011), pp. 190-191.


Stephen Unthank