Nadab, Abihu, and the Regulative Principle of Worship

The Normative Principle of Worship is that we may worship God in any way He has not forbidden. In contrast, the Regulative Principle of Worship is that we may only worship God in the ways He has specifically commanded. Reformation-era theologian John Calvin used this doctrine to make the case for only singing Psalms and against using instruments in worship. The New Testament doesn’t command us to use instruments, and while it does command us to sing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, he must have overlooked that detail. (We all miss things.)

Sometimes theologians advocating the Regulative Principle of Worship cite Nadab and Abihu:

And these are the names of the sons of Aaron; Nadab the firstborn, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the priests which were anointed, whom he consecrated to minister in the priest’s office. And Nadab and Abihu died before the Lord, when they offered strange fire before the Lord, in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children: and Eleazar and Ithamar ministered in the priest’s office in the sight of Aaron their father (Numbers 3:2-4, KJV).

It is argued that they got creative and come up with a new idea for incense, and God killed them for it. Some theologians who advocate the Regulative Principle use this as a foundational argument. There are two reasons why this is not a good idea.

First, Narrative is not Imperative

Hermeneutics is the broad study of properly interpreting Scripture as a whole, in its broader context. (Exegesis is properly interpreting the passage at hand.)

One of the central principals of Biblical Hermeneutics is that “narrative is not imperative.” In plain English: Do everything that the Bible commands us to do. But don’t do everything we see in the Bible’s stories (narratives).  For instance, Jesus walked on water, this doesn’t mean we have to. Abraham misled Pharaoh into thinking his wife was only his sister, but we certainly should not do that. Abraham and Jacob both had children by female slaves of their wives, and that’s also something we shouldn’t do.

Whatever doctrine we might advocate, we should use the Bible’s commands (imperatives) as our foundation and use the stories (narratives) to illustrate the consequences of following or not following the imperatives. Narratives are not imperatives.

Second, This is actually a Normative issue

God gave the specific formula for incense:

And the Lord said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight: And thou shalt make it a perfume [NKJV: incense], a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy: And thou shalt beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation, where I will meet with thee: it shall be unto you most holy. And as for the perfume [incense] which thou shalt make, ye shall not make to yourselves according to the composition thereof: it shall be unto thee holy for the Lord. Whosoever shall make like unto that, to smell thereto, shall even be cut off from his people (Exodus 30:34-38, KJV).

Just a few verses earlier, after describing the Altar of Incense, He said:

And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even, he shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations. Ye shall offer no strange incense thereon, nor burnt sacrifice, nor meat offering; neither shall ye pour drink offering thereon (Exodus 30:8-9, KJV).

He gave the exact specifications for the altar and for the incense that would be burnt on it. Nadab and Abihu disobeyed these specific commands.

Revisiting the initial point: Violating a specific commandment is a Normative issue. Innovating in an area where God left no specific commandments is a Regulative issue. Nadab and Abihu’s strange fire is unmistakably a Normative issue.


Of course, this is not the only argument made for the Regulative Principle of Worship. The doctrine doesn’t rise or fall on this one argument.

This article is not intended to make a broader case for or against the Regulative Principle. Its point is simply that, if you advocate this doctrine, use other arguments.