At this year’s Conference on Conservative Christianity (which concluded yesterday), Steve Thomas of Huron Baptist Church made a point in one of his sessions that I found remarkably insightful. Most of those attending the conference would either embrace the regulative principle of worship outright, or would advocate something very much like the regulative principle. The contrasting position (the normative principle) would be viewed by most conservatives with some suspicion, as it is typically defended as the basis for allowing innovation in the church.
And yet, as Pastor Thomas observed, the original impetus for Luther’s advocacy of the normative principle was actually a conserving, traditional impulse. Luther did not endorse the normative principle because he wanted to innovate; he endorsed it because he saw wisdom in maintaining the not-specifically-authorized-in-Scripture worship practices that had become common in the Roman church. Because such practices were not forbidden in Scripture, Luther did not see the need to terminate them immediately and risk alienating those for whom such practices had become normal.
Thus, modern advocates of the normative principle, who find in it license to add elements to the liturgy and task of the church that are not authorized in Scripture, still violate the spirit of the normative principle.