by William Cunningham
The leading general questions which have been broached in connection with the subject of church government are these: —Is the ordinary administration of the affairs of the church vested in the body of the members of the church, collectively and indiscriminately, or in a select number, who, in virtue of their office, are invested with a certain measure of authority in the management of ecclesiastical affairs, and of control over the ordinary members of the church? And if the latter be the truth, —as the Reformers in general believed it to be, —then such questions as these naturally arise: What are the different classes or divisions of the office-bearers of the church, and what are their different functions respectively? Arc there any of them priests, possessed of a proper priestly character, and entitled to execute priestly functions? Is there any divinely-sanctioned class of functionaries in the church superior to the ordinary pastors of congregations? And if not, is there any other class of office-bearers, in some respect inferior to them, but entitled to take part along with them in the government of the church? Most of these questions were fully investigated and discussed at the period of the Reformation, and were then settled on grounds which have ever since commended themselves to the great body of the Reformed churches. "With a partial exception, —to be afterwards noticed, —in the case of Luther, the Reformers generally held that the ordinary right of administering the affairs of the church was vested, not in the body of the members, but in select office-bearers.
Most of them held that the church, collectively, —which they usually defined to be coetus fideliam, —was vested by Christ with such entire self-sufficiency, such full intrinsic capacity with respect to everything external, for the attainment of its own ends and the promotion of its own welfare by means of His ordinances, as to be entitled, in extraordinary emergencies, to do anything, however ordinarily irregular, that might be necessary to secure these results. This is the great general principle that is indicated in our Confession of Faith, when it lays down the position, that, “to the catholic visible church, consisting of all those throughout the world who profess the true religion, together with their children, Christ has given the ministry, the oracles, and the ordinances of God.” The Reformers made use of this important principle to defend, against the Romanists, the validity of their own vocation to the ordinary work of the ministry, and the special work of reformation. But they did not regard it as at all inconsistent with the following truths, which they also generally maintained, as founded upon the word of God, —namely, that the church is bound, as well as entitled, to have office-bearers, and just the kinds and classes of office-bearers which are sanctioned by the sacred Scripture; that Scripture contains plain enough indications as to the way in which these office-bearers should be appointed and established, —indications which should be implicitly followed as far as possible, and in all ordinary circumstances; and that these office-bearers, so appointed and established, become, in virtue of their office, vested with authority to administer the ordinary government of the church, subject to no other jurisdiction or authoritative control than that of Christ Himself speaking in His word.
The Church of Rome had extensively corrupted the teaching of Scripture in regard to the government of the church as a society, no less than in regard to the great principles that determine the salvation of men individually. The leading features of the Romish system of government, which the Reformers assailed upon Scripture grounds, may be comprehended under the heads of the Priesthood, the Papacy, and the Prelacy. By the priesthood, we mean the ascription of a proper priestly character, anti the exercise of proper priestly functions, to some of the ecclesiastical office-bearers; or, in substance, what is sometimes discussed in the present day under the name of the hierarchical principle. The leading considerations that demonstrate the anti-scriptural and dangerous character of this principle, we have already had occasion to advert to, in discussing the sacramental principle. The Papacy and the Prelacy, —the supremacy of the Pope and the authority of diocesan bishops, —we considered in our former discussions. At present we can give only a few historical notices of the way in which they were discussed at the period of the Reformation, and of the use that has since been made of the discussion which they then received.
The Romanists contend that the government of the church, as settled by Christ, is monarchical, —one supreme ruler being set over the whole church, and being, jure divino, invested with the highest authority in the regulation of all its affairs. There is, indeed, a difference of opinion among Romanists themselves— and the point has never been settled by any authority to which all Romanists yield submission— upon this important question, Whether this supreme ruler of the church is, de jure, an absolute or a limited monarch, —some of them contending that the Pope has unlimited power of legislation and jurisdiction, and that all other ecclesiastical functionaries are merely his delegates, deriving their authority from him, and wholly subject to his control in the execution of all their functions; while others maintain that even the Pope is subject to the jurisdiction of a general council, and bound to regulate his decisions by the canons of the church, —and allege, moreover, that bishops derive their authority from Christ, and not from the Pope, though they are subject, under certain limitations, to his control in the ordinary execution of their functions. Still all Romanists acknowledge that the Pope is the supreme ruler and universal monarch of the church, while they vest the ordinary administration of the affairs of particular churches in bishops, as a distinct order from presbyters or ordinary pastors, —ascribing to them — when they are assembled in a general council, and thus represent, as they say, the universal church— the privilege of infallibility.
Luther first discovered that the Pope has no right to govern the church jure divino; and then, as he proceeded with his investigations, he found out that the Pope has no good right to the crown and the sceptre as monarch of the church even jure humano. As he continued to study the word of God, he was soon led to see that there is no warrant in Scripture for “those falsely denominated bishops”— to use his own language in the title of one of his treatises, —and became convinced that ordinary presbyters or pastors are fully competent to the execution of all the functions which are necessary in discharging all the ordinary duties, and in carrying on the ordinary operations, of a church of Christ. Neither Luther, however, nor his more immediate followers, directed much attention to the formation of a scriptural system of church government. Indeed, Luther seemed at one time to have perverted and misapplied the scriptural principle, that all believers are in some sense priests, and to have deduced from this principle the conclusion, that believers indiscriminately had a right to administer all God’s ordinances, and to take part in regulating all the affairs of His church, —the appointment and setting apart of individuals to labour in what are usually reckoned the functions of the ministry being regarded by him, at that period, rather as a matter of convenience, suggested by the obvious advantages of the plan, than as a matter of necessary scriptural arrangement. He came afterwards, however, to see more clearly the scriptural authority of a standing ministry, and of fixed office-bearers as distinguished from the ordinary members of the church; but he and his followers continued, as I have explained, to have rather loose views of the necessity of positive scriptural warrant for everything that might be established as a part of the ordinary government and worship of the church, and ascribed to the church itself a certain discretionary power of regulating these matters as might seem best and most expedient at the time. Luther himself never held or claimed any higher office than that of a presbyter; and yet he considered himself entitled to execute, and did execute, all the functions necessary for conducting the ordinary operations of a church of Christ, and preserving a succession in the ministry. Nay, on one or two occasions, he assumed and exercised the authority of ordaining a bishop or prelate,!— that is, of investing a man with a certain measure of control over other pastors; and some Prelatic controversialists, in their eagerness to get some countenance from the Reformers, have been rash and inconsiderate enough to appeal to this fact as a proof that Luther held their principles, while, indeed, it proves the very reverse. It is very certain that no mere presbyter, who held Prelatic principles, would have assumed to himself the power of making a bishop, as the assumption and exercise of such a power by a presbyter plainly involves an explicit denial of the scriptural authority of the episcopate as a distinct and higher order; and the denial or assertion of this embodies, as I have repeatedly had occasion to explain, the true status quaestionis in the controversy between Presbyterians and Prelatists. Luther’s conduct upon the occasion referred to certainly proves that he did not think it to be positively sinful, or even unlawful, for one pastor to be invested by common consent, when particular circumstances seemed to render it expedient, with a certain measure of control over other pastors. It proves this, but nothing more; while his conduct upon that occasion, the whole tenor of his life and history, and the express statements contained in his writings, all concur in proving that he held, in common with all the other Reformers, that the episcopate, as a permanent, necessary order of functionaries in the church, has no warrant or authority in Scripture.
It is to Calvin, however, that we are indebted for the fullest and most accurate exposition of the scriptural scheme of government, as well as of the scriptural system of doctrine. His leading principles were these: That a separate ministry is a standing ordinance appointed by God, provision being made in His word for preserving and perpetuating it in the church in a regular manner; and that ministers who have been duly and regularly set apart to the work are alone warranted, in all ordinary circumstances, to administer God's ordinances of public preaching and the sacraments; that presbyters, or ordinary pastors of congregations, are fully authorized to discharge all the ordinary duties necessary in the administration of the affairs of the church, —including, of course, the ordination of other pastors; that the episcopate, as a permanent necessary institution, is wholly unsanctioned by Scripture, and is therefore, upon principles formerly explained, by plain implication forbidden; and, finally, that a distinction between the office-bearers and the ordinary members of the church is established by Scripture, and ought to be permanently observed, while, at the same time, the power of ruling in the church, or presiding in the administration of its affairs, as connected with the holding of office, is not limited to pastors as the authorized administrators of solemn ordinances, but ought to be exercised by them in common with the office-bearers duly chosen and set apart for that purpose. It was chiefly in denying the lawfulness of the assumed jurisdiction of the Pope and of bishops, and in asserting the parity of all ministers of the word or pastors of flocks, and the propriety of others, not pastors, taking part along with them in the administration of the ordinary affairs of the church, that Calvin set himself in opposition to the scheme of ecclesiastical government that existed in the Church of Rome. And his doctrines upon these subjects were adopted, and in substance acted upon, by almost all the Reformers, and in almost all the churches of the Reformation, with the limitation which has been already explained in the case of the Lutheran churches, and with a somewhat similar, though rather greater, limitation in the case of the Church of England. I cannot at present enter upon an exposition of the scriptural grounds by which Calvin’s scheme of church government can be established, but must content myself with adverting to a few historical circumstances connected with the discussions to which it has given rise.
As the whole Popish scheme of church government, including the offices and functions of popes and prelates, was assailed by the Reformers, this subject came under discussion in the Council of Trent, which was held for the professed purpose of giving an authoritative and infallible decision upon all the various questions raised by the Reformers; and in the proceedings of the council, and, indeed, in Popish works generally, it is taken up, so far at least as Prelacy is concerned, under the head of the “Sacrament of order.” On this, as on many other subjects, there were considerable differences of opinion among the members of the council, and great difficulty was experienced in drawing up the decrees. A very interesting account of these difficulties, of the discussions and intrigues to which they gave rise, and of the views of the different parties concerned in them, is to be found in the seventh book of Father Paul's History of the Council of Trent. The leading points decided by the council in their decrees and canons upon the sacrament of order, so far as we are at present concerned with them, are these: that there is a proper visible priesthood under the New Testament, or a distinct body of men who are truly and properly priests, and whose special characteristic is, that they have the right to consecrate and offer the true body and blood of the Lord, and of retaining and remitting sins; that there are other orders of clergy in the church besides the priesthood, both major and minor, through the latter of which men rise to the priesthood; that there is a hierarchy appointed by divine ordination, consisting of bishops, presbyters, and deacons; and that bishops are superior to presbyters, and have the exclusive power of confirming and ordaining. This is the substance of the authorized doctrine of the Church of Rome upon this subject, as settled by the Council of Trent; and it will be observed that, in addition to what is peculiar to Romanists, it contains an explicit assertion of the leading distinguishing principles of Prelatists, —indeed, a much fuller and more explicit assertion of Prelatic principles than has ever been given by the Church of England. It is true that there was much discussion in the Council of Trent upon the question, whether the superiority of bishops over presbyters, at least as to the potestas juried id ionis, was jure divino or not; and that, through the strenuous exertions of the Pope and his creatures, the council abstained from declaring formally and expressly that it was. As some Episcopalian controversialists endeavour to draw from this circumstance a presumption in favour of their views, and as the fact itself is curious, it may be proper to give some explanation of it.
Presbyterians have been accustomed to assert that the views and practice of Episcopalians upon the subject of the hierarchy are the same as those of the Church of Rome, and to regard this, when combined with the fact that they were rejected by the great body of the Reformers, as a strong presumption against their truth. That the views of Prelatists are identical with those of the Church of Rome, is too plain to admit of any doubt; for what is Prelacy, as a doctrine, but just the maintaining that the hierarchy consists of three distinct orders, —bishops, presbyters, and deacons, —and that bishops are superior to presbyters, being possessed of the exclusive power of confirming and ordaining? And all this is explicitly asserted, totidem verbis, by the Council of Trent as the doctrine of the Church of Rome. Prelatists, indeed, do not regard confirmation and ordination as sacraments, as the Church of Rome does; but they agree with Romanists in holding that the administration of both these ceremonies forms a necessary part of the ordinary business of the church, and one which cannot be transacted by presbyters, but only by bishops. But notwithstanding this clear and full accordance, some Prelatists have alleged that the Church of Rome is no friend to Prelacy, and have brought forward the fact already referred to in proof of this. Now, it is quite plain that no such fact as this can in the least invalidate or neutralize the manifest accordance between the decisions adopted and promulgated by the Council of Trent, and the principle held by Prelatists, —especially as it is certain that all Popish writers, ever since the Council of Trent, have been zealous supporters of the leading views for which Prelatists, as such, contend.
There were two causes, of very different kinds, that produced division and disputation in the preliminary discussions in the Council of Trent on the subject of the jus divinum of the superiority of bishops over presbyters. As there were a few men in the council who seem to have honestly held scriptural views upon the subject of justification and predestination, so there appear to have been some who honestly doubted whether the superiority of bishops over presbyters, as a distinct higher order of functionaries, could be fully established from Scripture or the traditions of the early church. It was openly asserted by one of the most eminent theologians of the council, that not AErius alone, as Prelatists commonly allege, but also that Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, Sedulius, Primasius, Chrysostom, Theodoret, OEcumenius, and Theophylact, —all of them eminent fathers, —had maintained, more or less explicitly, the identity of bishops and presbyters. Many plain traces and testimonies of this original identity were to be found, as Presbyterians have often proved, down till the period of the Reformation. It may be sufficient, as a specimen of this, to refer to the important facts, that the original identity of bishop and presbyter is expressly asserted both in the Decree of Gratian, and in the Sentences of P. Lombard, who both flourished in the twelfth century, —the one the great oracle of the Church of Rome in canon law, and the other in theology'. It is a curious indication of the same general state of sentiment, combined with the results of the revived study of the Scriptures, that in the books put forth by public authority in England, in the reign of Henry VIII., and under the superintendence of Archbishop Cranmer, —after the authority of the Church of Rome had been thrown off, but before the Protestant system was very well understood, —it should be declared that the New Testament makes explicit mention only of two orders of ecclesiastical office-bearers, —namely, presbyters and deacons. Prelacy had universally prevailed for many centuries in the Church of Rome; but a latent and probably unconscious regard to scriptural authority and early tradition had still so much influence, that some eminent writers, of almost all periods down till the Reformation, were disposed to look upon the episcopate and the presbyterate not as two distinct orders, but merely as two different degrees (gradus) in one and the same order, and to regard the great difference between them, which was exhibited in the actual government of the church, as based only upon comparatively modern practice and ecclesiastical law, —views, in substance, the same as those held by the generality of the English Reformers.
The classification of the different orders of the clergy still common, or rather universal, among Romish writers, may be fairly regarded as affording a sort of involuntary and unintentional testimony to the same general idea. When it is found that Romish writers make no fewer than seven different orders of clergy, —all of them clerici, as distinguished from laid; some authorities, like Bellarmine, making the ordination of each distinct order a sacrament, —it might, perhaps, not unnaturally be supposed, that these seven orders are popes, cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, presbyters, and deacons. This, however, would be an entire mistake. The priesthood is the highest of the seven orders of clergy, and comprehends presbyters and bishops, and all the various ranks above them. The other six orders of the clergy are all inferior to the priesthood, and go down through the various gradations of deacons, sub-deacons, acolytes, exorcists, and readers, to doorkeepers (ostiarii) inclusive. Now, this universal practice of the Romish writers in making the priesthood or presbyterate the highest of the seven orders of clergy, may be fairly regarded as something like an unintentional admission of there being some foundation in Scripture and primitive antiquity for the great doctrine of the Reformers upon this subject, —namely, that presbyters, or pastors, are really competent to execute all, even the highest, functions necessary in the ordinary business of the church. And there is no reason whatever why we may not legitimately attach some weight, in this as in other matters, even to the faint indications of primitive doctrine and practice preserved in the Church of Rome, —indications which are just entitled to the more weight, because they point to a state of things opposed to what is now, and has long been, the authorized doctrine and practice of the church which has preserved them.
The few more honest men, however, who were somewhat influenced by these considerations, would not have been able to have thrown any serious difficulty in the way of the Council of Trent deciding more fully and explicitly in favour of the jus divinum of Prelacy, more than the few men who held sounder views upon other points were able to prevent the council from condemning them, had not another influence come into play. Those members of the council, chiefly Spanish bishops, joined afterwards by a few French ones, who pressed for an explicit decision in favour of the jus divinum of Prelacy, were men who were anxious to see a thorough reformation of abuses, —disposed to curb the power of the Pope, —and likely to employ whatever authority might be assigned to bishops in prosecuting objects, and in effecting results, to which the Pope was decidedly opposed. This, of course, was quite a sufficient reason why he should resist a formal declaration of the jus divinum of the episcopate, in order, if possible, to keep the bishops more dependent upon his own control in the ordinary execution of their functions. And this result, accordingly, was effected by a vigorous application of the ordinary system of fraud, intrigue, and intimidation, by which, in almost every instance, the Court of Rome contrived to manage the council at its discretion, and at least to prevent the adoption of any deliverance to which it was opposed.
It ought to be observed, also, what was the exact position taken by the generality of those in the council who opposed a formal declaration of jus divinum of Prelacy. They did not deny the jus divinum of a superior potestas ordinis, —that the episcopate, in general, as a distinct superior office or class of functionaries, rested upon a jus divinum, —but merely that individual bishops held their office, and possessed an inherent right to execute all its functions, jure divino. The office of a bishop or prelate, they admitted, was established by Christ, and could not be abrogated or abolished even by the Pope; but they contended that each individual holding the office derived his personal authority from the Pope, and was wholly subject to his control in the execution of his functions, —that he held this jure pontificis, and not jure divino. Νολυ, all this might be held without affecting the fundamental principle of Prelacy, —without leading to a denial of the jus divinum of Prelacy in the sense in which it forms a subject of controversy between Presbyterians and high church Prelatists. The Pope did not urge the Council to decide explicitly in favour of his view upon the point, and contented himself with preventing an explicit denial of it.
This is the whole history of the matter, and it is plainly quite inadequate to serve the purpose for which it is sometimes adduced by Episcopalian controversialists. It remains unquestionably true, that the Church of Rome holds, as a fundamental part of her system of church government, —which she maintained in opposition to the scriptural arguments of the Reformers, —all the leading principles of Prelacy, and that she has asserted them much more fully and explicitly than the Church of England has ever done. The Council of Trent has established it as an article of faith, that bishops are superior to presbyters, and possess the exclusive power of confirming and ordaining; while the utmost length which the Church of England has ventured to go on the subject, is exhibited in the following declaration, contained in the Preface to the Ordinal: “It is evident unto all men, diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient authors, that from the apostles’ time there have been these orders of ministers in Christ’s church, —Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.” Now, this declaration is very vague and ambiguous. It contains no explicit assertion of the superiority of bishops over presbyters, as a distinct higher order. It assigns to bishops no peculiar functions necessary in the ordinary administration of the affairs of the church, which presbyters are incompetent to perform. It does not assert that these orders existed in the apostles’ time, but only that they existed from the apostles’ time; and the general reference to the holy Scripture, as concurring with ancient authors in affording materials for establishing the general conclusion of the existence of these orders as a matter of fact, is very far from amounting to an assertion of a proper jus divinum in favour of each of the orders, as distinct from the others. This is the only thing like a doctrinal deliverance the Church of England has ever given on the subject of Prelacy, —the great distinctive feature of its form of government, —and it comes far short, in point of clearness and fulness, of that given by the Council of Trent. The cause of this great vagueness and ambiguity in the only thing like a doctrinal deliverance the Church of England has ever given on the subject of Prelacy, is the same in substance as that which prevented the Council of Trent from explicitly deciding in favour of the jus divinum of the superiority of bishops over presbyters, in the sense in which we have explained it. The leading men connected with the reformation of the Church of England did not believe or maintain the jus divinum of Prelacy. The original defenders of the Prelacy of the Church of England took, on this subject, much the same ground as they did in vindicating the rites and ceremonies which they retained, —namely, that there was nothing unlawful or sinful about it, and that when it was established by the concurrence of the civil and ecclesiastical authorities it was right to submit to it. There is then, at least, as good ground for alleging of the Church of England as of the Church of Rome, that it is no good friend to Prelacy; and it is hopeless for Prelatists to escape, by this or by any other process, from the odium of concurring in the doctrine and practice of the great apostasy upon this subject.
It is not enough, however, as we have had occasion to explain, to warrant us in designating any doctrine or practice as Popish, in any sense which affords a legitimate presumption against its truth, unless we can show that, besides being taught and maintained by the Church of Rome, it was always condemned and rejected by the great body of those whom, at the era of the Reformation, God raised up and qualified for restoring His truth; and to the testimony of the Reformers we must now proceed to advert.
II. Testimony of the Reformers as to Presbyterianism
Episcopalians are in the habit of boasting, that for the space of fifteen hundred years, from the time of the apostles till the Reformation, Prelacy prevailed over the whole Christian church; and they adduce this as a very strong presumption in its favour; nay, they sometimes represent it as a proof that it was established by the apostles themselves. There are ample materials, as I have had occasion to show, for cutting off at least the first two of these centuries; and these are by far the most important, —indeed, the only ones that are possessed of any real importance. It is an important fact, that ought never to be forgotten, that the only two productions we have of men who personally associated with the apostles, the genuineness and integrity of which is free from reasonable suspicion, are, the epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, and the epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians; and that these epistles contain satisfactory evidence that, in the age immediately succeeding that of the apostles, the churches of Corinth and Philippi, at least, —and we have no reason to suppose that there was anything peculiar in their case, —were governed upon Presbyterian, and not upon Prelatic, principles. But even if Prelatists could justly boast of the consenting practice of the whole church after the age of inspiration and infallibility, we would not hesitate to oppose to it, upon the field of human authority, —for in neither case does it rise higher, —the unanimous testimony of the Reformers.
We ascribe authority, properly so called, in religious matters, only to God, who is Lord of the conscience. We submit implicitly to men only when they can prove that they speak in His name, and under His guidance. We receive nothing as certainly coming from Him, and therefore imperatively binding upon us, except what is found recorded in His written word. And it is of the last importance to distinguish accurately at all times between what is properly authoritative and what is not, —between what at once imposes an obligation upon our understanding, and what merely affords a presumption or probability. But there is a reasonable deference due to the opinion of men, in certain circumstances, which may be regarded as affording some presumption, or indicating some probability, in favour of the scriptural truth of the views which they profess. And estimated by the dictates of right reason upon this point, we have no hesitation in regarding as superior in weight and value to that of any other body of men who could be specified, the testimony of those whom God, at the era of the Reformation, honoured as His special instruments, in bringing out and pressing upon the attention of the world the scriptural method of salvation revealed in His word. Everything about the men, —their general character and history, —the mode in which they ground their opinions, —the source from which they derived them, —and the gifts and graces which God bestowed upon them, —the success He vouchsafed to them in bringing out and diffusing the fundamental doctrines of Christian theology, —all combine in giving probability to the conclusion, that the doctrines which they taught concerning the constitution and government of the church of Christ are in accordance with the sacred Scriptures. It is well known, that most of those men whom God raised up during the middle ages, as witnesses for Himself and His truth, amid the deep darkness of Popery, derived from the study of the Scriptures the leading principles of Presbyterianism on the subject of church government. And if, in addition to this, we find that the great body of the Reformers deduced Presbyterian principles from the same source, —and if this, again, be confirmed by the fact, that the Council of Trent condemned them, and that they now stand anathematized in the Church of Rome, —we have the largest accumulation of probabilities in their favour that can be derived from any mere human testimony. Now, all these positions can be conclusively established; and they form a much stronger presumption in favour of Presbyterian, than can be adduced in favour of Prelatic, principles.
With respect to the first of them, it may be sufficient at present to mention, that when Archbishop Bancroft published, in 1588, the sermon which, from its high Prelatic strain, gave so much offence to the Reformed churches, an answer to it was written by Dr John Reynolds, who was regarded at that time as the most learned man in the Church of England, in which, among other things, he asserted and proved, u that all they who have for five hundred years last past, endeavoured the reformation of the church have taught, that all pastors, whether they be called bishops or priests, are invested with equal authority and power.” It is perfectly certain, from the quotations formerly given, that the Council of Trent explicitly condemned the Presbyterian principles which they ascribed to the Reformers, and explicitly asserted, in- opposition to them, the fundamental principles of Prelacy. And we have now to add, with reference to the remaining one of these three positions, that the Council of Trent were right in ascribing Presbyterian principles to the Reformers, and in regarding them as doctrines of the Reformation.
It cannot, indeed, be proved, that all the Reformers held that it was sinful or unlawful to introduce into, or to continue in, the church, all pre-eminence or superiority of one pastor over another. But the toleration which some of them manifested upon this point, did not arise from their holding anything like the proper principle of Prelacy; but solely from their not having, as I have shown was the case with Luther and his immediate followers, any clear perception of the unlawfulness of introducing, as a permanent arrangement, into the government of the church, anything which has not the positive sanction of Scripture. It can be proved, however, that the great body of the Reformers, including Luther and his followers, denied the fundamental principle of Prelacy, and maintained that there is nothing in Scripture which requires or sanctions the permanent existence in the church of a distinct order of functionaries higher than ordinary' pastors, —nothing which proves that there is any ordinary function of the church, anything ordinarily necessary to be done in the administration of its affairs, to the execution of which presbyters are not fully competent. The Reformers were unable to find any evidence in Scripture of the apostles having indicated any intention that they should have successors in the apostolic office, though this is the position which many Episcopalians assign to their prelates, and though this idea is perhaps their most plausible mode of accounting for the non-appearance of prelates in the New Testament. The Reformers could see no trace in Scripture of the apostles having made, or enjoined, or sanctioned the appointment of any regular permanent order of functionaries for the service of the church, except presbyters and deacons. And they thought it perfectly certain, and beyond the reach of all reasonable doubt, that the New Testament uniformly ascribed the same names, and the same functions or duties, to those whom it calls indiscriminately bishops and presbyters. They professed themselves utterly unable to account for this remarkable fact, so different from anything to be found in the writings of more modern times, except upon the assumption, that the inspired writers used bishop and presbyter as two different names for one and the same class of functionaries; and that by this practice they intended to indicate to us in what way, and by what orders of persons, the government of the church was to be permanently administered. That these were the views which were deduced from Scripture, with respect to the government of the church, by the great body of the Reformers, Lutheran and Calvinistic, can be easily and conclusively established from their writings. And, indeed, I think there is no impropriety in saying, that this is a question on which there is not room for an honest difference of opinion among men who have really examined it.
Yet it is well known that it is the general practice of Episcopalian controversialists, to assert that the Reformers in general, and even Calvin and Beza, were favourable, or at least were not unfavourable, to Prelacy. The process by which they usually attempt to establish this position, is in substance this: they overlook or conceal all those parts of the writings of the Reformers in which they discuss the subject of church government formally and of set pur- se; and then they lay hold of incidental expressions, which, taken by themselves, may be somewhat ambiguous, and present them in a garbled and mutilated form, and without the light which the context and scope of the passage cast upon the meaning. Abundant illustrations of these statements might be easily produced from the writings of Episcopalian controversialists. The only excuse— and it is a very imperfect one— for the unwarrantable and discreditable course which many of them have pursued in this matter, is, that they have just copied their extracts from their predecessors, without taking the trouble of examining them in the writings of the authors from whom they were quoted. And I could produce, were it worth while, some curious instances, in which this long continued process of successive copying at second hand has worn away the traces of Presbyterianism which attached to some even of those passages when they were first brought forward for Prelatic purposes. The first collection of these garbled extracts to prove that the Continental Reformers were not unfavourable to Prelacy, was made by Archbishop Bancroft, who, as we have seen, was the first to break the peace among the Reformed churches. This he did chiefly in a very insolent and dishonest book, published in 1593, and entitled, “Survey of the Pretended Holy Discipline,” — that is, of course, of the Presbyterian views of government and worship advocated by the Puritans of that period. The book is intended and fitted merely to excite prejudice— without fairly discussing the subject upon its merits. The leading object is, by misrepresentation and garbled extracts, to create an impression, that the leading defenders of Presbytery were dishonest, ignorant, and inconsistent, —that they had no fixed principles, and were at utter variance among themselves, as to the grounds on which their cause should be defended. He does not, indeed, deny that Calvin had advocated and established Presbyterianisin; and he pretends to give a minute account of the invention of Presbyterian church government by Calvin, and openly asserts that Presbyterianism was the mere result of external circumstances, or rather that it was fabricated by Calvin for selfish and ambitious purposes. But then he asserts that the chief impugners of bishops had begun to relent; and in proof of this position he adduces most of those passages from Calvin, Beza, and other Reformers, which the generality of Episcopalian controversialists have ever since, down even to the present day, been accustomed to quote, for the purpose of proving that they were favourable to Prelacy.
Another expedient that has been extensively employed by Episcopalian controversialists to neutralize the testimony of the Reformers in favour of Presbyterian, and in opposition to Prelatic, principles, is to represent them as setting up Presbyterian government from necessity, and as apologizing for their conduct in doing so by pleading the difficulties of their situation, —the great difficulty, if not impossibility, of doing anything else in the circumstances in which they were placed. In connection with this topic, some of them have made a very becoming display of their great charity, by pleading this excuse of necessity in behalf of the Continental Reformers; taking good care, at the same time, to aggravate by the contrast, the conduct of those unreasonable Nonconformists in our own country, who, without the plea of necessity, have refused to embrace and submit to the apostolic form of government, as it is called, which is established among them.
This notion is very often brought forward in Episcopalian works. This mode of treating the subject may be admitted to indicate a somewhat kindlier spirit and temper than the course adopted by those sterner Episcopalians, who really unchurch all the churches of the Reformation. But the only thing that can be said of it with truth is, that it is a pure fabrication, without any evidence whatever to rest upon. The Reformers never pleaded necessity in their own behalf, and they never condescended to apologize on that, or on any other, ground, for their approving and establishing Presbyterian church government. They always believed, and they openly and unhesitatingly maintained, that in doing so they were following the guidance of the sacred Scriptures, —that, in the arrangements they adopted and established with regard to the government of the church, they were only removing the corruptions which had been introduced into it, and were regulating it according to the mind and will of God revealed in His word. This is the uniform and consistent testimony which/ the Reformers gave on the subject in their writings; and there is not the slightest ground, in anything they ever said or did, for doubting its sincerity. Nay, several of the Reformed churches have introduced into their Confessions of Faith an explicit assertion of the fundamental principles of Presbyterianism, as a portion of the unchangeable truth of God revealed in His word, and imposed by His authority upon the faith and practice of the church. This attempt, then, to neutralize the testimony of the Reformers upon the subject of church government, —though in some respects well meant, —is altogether unsuccessful.
The only thing else of any moment which Episcopalians have brought forward in order to break the force of the testimony of the Reformers against Prelacy, and to soften the singularity of the position of the Church of England among the churches of the Reformation, is the existence of bishops in the churches of Denmark and Sweden, and of superintendents in some other Lutheran churches. The Episcopacy of Denmark and Sweden is but a slight deviation from the general uniformity of the Reformed churches as a whole; and, besides, the Protestant bishops set up in these countries at the Reformation were not the regular successors of men who had been consecrated to the episcopal office, but derived their ordination and authority from Luther, and the presbyters who were associated with him, —so that they were incapable of maintaining proper Prelatic principles, and thus resembled very much the present bishops of the Methodist Church in the United States, who derive their authority from John Wesley, and two other presbyters through Dr Coke, whom Wesley and his associates appointed a bishop. As to the superintendents in other Lutheran churches, this institution affords no testimony in favour of proper Prelacy. These superintendents are not regarded as holding a distinct higher office, superior to that of presbyters, and investing them simply as holding that office with jurisdiction over ordinary pastors, but merely as presbyters raised by the common consent of their brethren to a certain very limited control for the sake of order. This institution is no proof that the Lutheran churches hold the doctrine of Prelacy, but merely that they hold the lawfulness of a certain limited pre-eminence or superiority being conferred by presbyters upon one of themselves. Indeed, the doctrine of Presbytery, as opposed to Prelacy, was not only held, as we have seen, by Luther and his associates, but was distinctly declared in the articles of Smalcald, which is one of the symbolical books of the Lutheran church. There it is set forth, that all the functions of church government belong equally of right to all who preside over the churches, whether called pastors, presbyters, or bishops; and this general principle is expressly applied to ordination, as proving that ordination by ordinary pastors is valid.
The whole doctrine of the Lutheran church upon this subject is thus laid down by Buddaeus, —and there cannot be a doubt that his statement fairly embodies what has always been held by the generality of Lutheran divines: “Si jus divinum spectes, ministri ecclesiae omnes inter se, intuitu dignitatis et officii, sunt aequales. Discrimen enim, quod deinceps inter episcopos et presbyteros intercessit, tempore apostolorum ignotum fuit. Interim nihil obstat, quo minus ecclesia muneris et dignitatis quandam inaequalitatem introducat, modo non ex docentibus imperantes fiant, et, quod humana auctoritate factum est, jure divino constitutum credatur.” It has always been one of the leading general arguments which Romanists have adduced against the Reformers and their successors in the Protestant churches, that, though mere presbyters, they assumed functions which belonged only to bishops, —and especially that, as mere presbyters, they were incapable of preserving a succession of pastors in the church, since bishops alone had the power of ordaining to the ministerial office. And this, of course, is the same objection which is commonly adduced against us by Prelatists. The substance of the answer which has always been given by Presbyterians to this objection, whether adduced by Romanists or by Prelatists, is this, —that, according to the standard of God's word, there is no higher permanent office in the church of Christ than the presbyterate, and that presbyters are fully competent to the execution of all necessary ecclesiastical functions. These two positions confirm and strengthen each other. If Christ has not appointed any higher permanent office in the church than the presbyterate, then presbyters must be competent to the execution of all necessary ecclesiastical functions; and, on the other hand, if they are competent to the execution of all necessary ecclesiastical functions, this is, at least, a very strong presumption that no higher office, with peculiar and exclusive functions, has been established. The functions which are assigned exclusively to the episcopate by the Council of Trent, and by Prelatists in general, and represented as at once its distinguishing characteristics, and the proofs of its necessity, are confirmation and ordination; and with respect to these two functions, the Reformers, and Protestants in general, have maintained and established these two positions: first, that confirmation is not a necessary ecclesiastical function, —not a process which there is any reason to believe that Christ intended to be carried on wherever he has a church, in the ordinary administration of affairs; and, secondly, that though ordination, or the solemn setting apart of men to the pastoral office, is necessary, and forms an indispensable part of the ordinary permanent business of the church, there is nothing in Scripture which throws any doubt upon the perfect competency of presbyters to ordain, —nay, that there is quite enough to establish positively, not only the validity, but the regularity, of the ordination which is performed, as Timothy’s was, by the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.
These were the leading doctrines deduced from the sacred Scriptures by the whole body of the Reformers upon the subject of the government of the church; and their most unequivocal and decided testimony in favour of Presbyterian principles may well enable us to regard with perfect indifference the anathemas of the Council of Trent, and the denunciations of high church Prelatists, who stigmatize Presbyterian ministers as unwarranted and profane intruders into sacred offices and functions, and who consign the members of Presbyterian churches to what they call “uncovenanted mercies.”
III. Popular Election of Office-bearers
While the Papists contended that the government of the church was monarchical, in this sense, that it had permanently a visible head upon earth, vested jure divino with a right to govern it in all its affairs, —namely, the Bishop of Home as the successor of Peter, —the Reformers maintained that it was monarchical only in this sense, that Christ was its head and ruler, —its only head and ruler, —and contended that it had no visible head upon earth. And with reference to the administration of the affairs of the church as a visible organized society existing upon earth, the Reformers were accustomed to contend, in opposition to the Romanists, that the government which Christ had appointed for His church was a combination of aristocracy and democracy. The aristocratic principle in the government of the church— taking the word, of course, not in the popular sense in which it is commonly employed among us, but in its proper philological meaning, as denoting the exercise of the power of government, by a comparatively small and select body of those who are regarded as best fitted for the discharge of the duty— is based upon the clear distinction made in Scripture between the rulers or office-bearers and the ordinary members of the church, —the warrant given to the former to exercise a certain kind and decree of authority, and the obligation imposed upon the latter to render a certain measure of obedience and submission to those who are set over them. The nature and extent of this authority, and of the correlative submission, —the principles by which they are regulated, and the classes or orders of persons in whom the authority is vested, —we have already considered. We have now to advert to the views maintained by the Reformers, in opposition to the Church of Rome, with respect to the democratic element, as embodied to some extent in the constitution of the church of Christ.
The position maintained by the Reformers, —that the democratic principle was exhibited in the constitution of the Christian church as well as the aristocratic, —involved this general idea, that the ordinary members of the church had some standing or influence, greater or less, direct or indirect, in the regulation of its affairs; and this general position they thought fully warranted by what is said in Scripture concerning the church of Christ. The church, in its strict and proper sense, they were unanimous in defining to be the coetus fidelium, —the company of believers in the Lord Jesus Christ; and the visible church they regarded as comprehending all these, though containing also usually many who, while professing to believe in Christ, were believers only in name. The church, most strictly and properly so called, consisted of converted men, —of men, every one of whom had been elected from eternity to everlasting life, and every one of whom had been born again by the mighty power of God, —created again in Christ Jesus unto good works; and the catholic visible church comprehended in its embrace all the persons to whom this description applied existing at any one time upon earth. Now, this church is represented in Scripture as the spouse of Christ, the bride, the Lamb’s wife; and glorious things are spoken of her. The great object of Christ’s assuming human nature, and suffering and dying, was, that He might purchase to Himself this company as His peculiar property, and that He might make full and effectual provision for gathering them out of the world, and preparing them for sitting down with Him on His throne in heaven. It was for the purpose of calling these persons out from among the mass of men, and fitting them for the enjoyment of eternal blessedness, that He established a visible church upon earth, —appointed ordinances, —and made all the other arrangements of an external kind, by which His visible church is characterized. These arrangements were all directed to the welfare of His church, —they may be all regarded as privileges which He has conferred upon it; and they are so regulated, that the manner in which the visible church— including the various sections and divisions of which it may consist— discharges its duties and executes its functions, exercises the powers and improves the privileges He has conferred upon it, affects materially the great end of His coming, and suffering, and dying.
Papists are accustomed to identify the church on earth with Christ, its head, in the sense of its being not merely His representative, but clothed with all His power and authority, and entitled to act— especially through its visible head— as He might and would have acted had He been present. Protestants see no warrant in Scripture for this mode of representing the church, and are always careful to distinguish between the head and the body. The church is not Christ, but only the Lamb’s wife, invested with no discretionary power over the house, but bound to be guided in all things by the commands and directions of her Lord. Still the company of believers, and the catholic visible society, which contains or includes them, is invested with great dignity, and with exalted privileges. Even the ministry was appointed and established for its sake, and with a view to its welfare; and is, therefore, to be regarded as, in a certain sense, occupying a place subordinate to the church. The whole Popish system of doctrine, upon the subject of the government of the church, is based upon the opposite idea, as if the establishment of a church was intended for the object of providing subjects for ecclesiastical rulers; while Protestants have always regarded the ministry but as a means to an end, appointed and established for the sake of the church.
It is this great principle of the Reformation that is indicated, as I formerly mentioned, in the statement of our Confession of Faith, —namely, that to this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, the ordinances, and the oracles of God. Christ has given these things to the visible church, and, therefore, they belong to it, —occupying thus, according to their respective natures and objects, a place, in some sense subordinate, as property is to its possessor. It was upon this general idea of the church, as represented to us in Scripture, —the place it occupies, and the powers and privileges conferred upon it, —that the Reformers pleaded the general sentiment of there being something democratic in its constitution, —that is, of the great body of the members composing it being entitled to exert some influence in the regulation of its affairs. They held, indeed, that the church was bound, by a regard to Christ’s authority, to have office-bearers, and could not lawfully or beneficially continue without them, if it was possible to get them; and they held, also, that the ordinary exercise of the power of the keys— the right of ordinarily administering the necessary business of the church— was vested in these office-bearers. Still they also held, in general, that all the power and authority necessary for the church executing its functions and attaining its objects, lay radically and fundamentally in the church itself, —in the company of believers; so that, when necessity required, churches might provide and establish office-bearers for themselves, and do whatever might be needful for securing all the objects connected with their own welfare, which they were bound to aim at, and the enjoyment of all the ordinances which Christ had appointed. It was upon this ground that the Lutherans laid down, in the Articles of Smalcald, —one of their symbolical hooks, —the following positions: “Ubicunque est Ecclesia, ibi est jus administrandi Evangelii. Quare necesse, est Ecclesiam retinere jus vocanch, eligench, et ordinandi ministros. Et hoc jus est donum proprie datum Ecclesiae, quod nulla human a auctoritas Ecclesiaa eripere potest. Ubi est vera Ecclesia, ibi necesse est esse jus eligench et ordinanch ministros.”
These are positions which Calvin and the other Reformers would not have disputed in the abstract, though Calvin, with his usual comprehensive wisdom, was more careful, in expounding this subject, to lay down, at the same time, the doctrine which he believed to be also taught in Scripture as to the necessity of ministers and other office-bearers, ex necessitate praecepti, though not ex necessitate medii, —the obligation of every church to have ministers and office-bearers, to leave to them the ordinary administration of all divine ordinances, and to submit, with the limitations formerly explained, to the exercise of their authority in the execution of the functions of their office. The great general principle taught by the Reformers upon this subject, and generally held by Presbyterian divines, is thus expressed by Turretine: “Ecclesiis data est potestas clavium. . . . Christus dat Ecclesiie potestatem ligandi et solvendi. . . . Fateor Ecclesiam hoc jus exercere per Rectores suos. Sed in eo Pastores exercent jus quod competit corpori, tanquam illud reprassentantes, ita ut jus illud radicaliter pertineat semper ad corpus, et illi proprium sit; ad Pastores vero quoad usum et exercitium, quod nomine corporis fieri debet.” Notwithstanding the general admission of this principle, there are indications among the Reformers of differences of opinion as to the way in which the practical application of it ought to be followed out, —some applying it more democratically than others, —just as men have differed, and may honestly differ, in some of their views upon this subject, who concur in holding the general principle laid down in our Confession, that Christ has given the ministry, ordinances, and oracles to the catholic visible church.
But there was one point on which the Reformers were of one mind, and on this mainly they usually rested their general position, that the government of the church exhibited a combination of the democratic principle with the aristocratic; and it was this, —that the ordinary members of the church, or Christian congregations, had a right to choose their own pastors and other office-bearers; and that, of course, a fortiori, they were fully entitled to prevent any pastor from being intruded upon them, —that is, placed over them without their consent, or against their will. This doctrine was taught by all the Reformers; and it was based by them, not only upon those portions of the New Testament which bear directly upon the election of ecclesiastical office-bearers, but also upon all the general views taught there concerning the functions and privileges of the church, and the rights and duties of individual Christians. This position, as to the views of the Reformers, has been disputed; but I have no hesitation in saying, as I said in regard to the subject formerly discussed, that this is not a question where there is room for an honest difference of opinion among competent judges, and that those who deny the position may, without injustice, be regarded either as asserting what they do not believe, or as being, on some ground or other, —whether it be ignorance, or want of sense or sobriety of judgment, —incompetent to form an opinion upon the point, i do not mean to enter into a detailed exposition of the evidence which might be adduced upon the subject: but I must make a few observations upon the import of the doctrine, and the general grounds on which we ascribe the maintenance of it to the Reformers, and regard the denial of it as Popish.
The Reformers were Presbyterians, and, of course, understood the position in a Presbyterian, and not in an Independent or Congregational, sense, —that is, they understood it with a due regard to the scriptural distinction between the position, powers, and functions of the rulers, and of the ordinary members of the church, —in other words, they did not exempt the people, in exercising the power of election, from the ordinary control and censure of the church courts; they ascribed to the ordinary office-bearers the right of presiding and moderating in elections, with full power to prevent faction, confusion, and tumult; and they ascribed also to those in whom the right of ordaining was vested ordinarily the right of judging for themselves whether or not the person chosen by the people should be ordained, and, of course, of refusing to ordain when they thought the choice a bad one. All this their principles as Presbyterians required of them to maintain; and all this they openly asserted; and when these considerations are kept in remembrance, no person of ordinary intelligence and discernment will find any difficulty in disposing of the evidence that has sometimes been produced to show, that some of the Reformers denied the right of the Christian people to the election of their own office-bearers, and sanctioned the right of their ecclesiastical rulers to intrude pastors upon them against their will.
There is one other consideration to be kept in view in judging of the meaning of their statements, —namely, that they often used the word election in the wider sense of vocation, as comprehending the whole process by which men were made ministers, and became qualified and authorized to execute the functions of the ministry; and, accordingly, they sometimes ascribed the election of pastors to the office-bearers, and sometimes to the ordinary members, since both had a share in it; and as the most important departments of the general subject of the vocation of pastors, —including the process we commonly call licensing, the whole judgment on qualifications, and the ultimate ordination, —belonged, upon Presbyterian principles, to the office-bearers, it was not unusual to ascribe the election to them, and to speak of the place and function of the congregation in the matter— though it really comprehended the whole of what we commonly understand by election in the more limited sense— under the names of their consenting or approving. All this is conclusively established by an examination of the First Book of Discipline of our own church, and it is in full accordance with the sentiments and language of the Reformers in general.
It is also to be remembered, that the question is not, What was the mode of appointing ministers that actually prevailed in the Reformed churches? but, What were the doctrines and opinions of the Reformers as to the way and manner in which they ought to be appointed? It is not to be assumed that the Reformers always succeeded in getting their views on these points fully carried into effect. The Church of Scotland, though from the beginning decidedly opposed to lay patronage, never succeeded— except during the few years between 1649 and the Restoration— in getting it entirely abolished; and we have complaints from some of the Continental Reformers of the civil authorities interfering unwarrantably in this matter, and depriving congregations of their just and scriptural rights. To ascertain the doctrines of the Reformers on this point, we have to examine their confessions, and those portions of their writings in which they formally expound and discuss the subject, —especially their commentaries upon those passages of Scripture which have been usually regarded as bearing upon it; and a careful and deliberate examination of these establishes beyond all reasonable or honest doubt, that the Reformers maintained, as a scriptural principle, in opposition to the Church of Rome, the right of the Christian people to the choice of their own pastors and office-bearers. The doctrine of the Lutheran churches is explicitly declared in the extract we have quoted from the Articles of Smalcald. That of the Reformed churches is set forth with equal clearness in the following extract from the Second Helvetian Confession, which was formally approved by most of them: “Vocentur et eliguntur electione ecclesiastica et legitima ininistri ecclesiai: id est, eliguntur religiose ab ecclesia, vel ad hoc deputatis ab ecclesia, ordine justo, et absque turba, seditionibus et contentione.” These are statements which can have but one meaning, which by no process of trickery can be evaded or explained away. Calvin’s views upon the subject are embodied in the following explicit and emphatic declaration: “Est unpia ecclesiae spoliatio, quoties alicui populo ingeritur episcopus, quem non petierit, vel saltern libera voce approbarit.” It is utterly impossible to explain away this statement, and it is in full accordance with the uniform and consistent teaching of Calvin upon the subject in all his works. Not a single sentence has ever been produced from him which contradicts, or seems to contradict, the principle which is here so explicitly and emphatically declared; and no evidence has ever been produced, that on this, or on any other, occasion he has used, or seemed to use, the principal words which occur in this sentence in any other sense than that which they naturally and universally bear.
The sum and substance of all that has been alleged in order to prove that the Reformers did not teach, as a scriptural principle, the right of the Christian people to choose their own office-bearers, just amounts to this, —that by election and consent they did not mean election and consent, but something totally different; and that, in discussing this subject, they used these words in a sense in which they never were used by any other writers, or upon any other occasion. As this is really the sum and substance of the only artifice by which it has been attempted to evade the testimony of the Reformers upon this subject, it ought, in common fairness, to be laid down as a distinct and definite proposition, and proved by suitable and appropriate evidence. If this were attempted, —as it ought to be, but as it never has been, —the deplorable deficiency of the proof would become palpable to every one; and no man of ordinary intelligence and integrity would be able to resist the conclusion, that, if it be possible to embody in words an unequivocal assertion that the Christian people are entitled, upon scriptural grounds, to choose their own pastors, the Reformers have done so, and have held up this as an important truth, in opposition to the doctrines and practices of the Church of Rome.
This is, in substance, the same artifice by which Popish writers have attempted to evade the evidence adduced to prove that the early church adopted and acted upon the principles of popular election and non-intrusion; but the artifice is less discreditable when attempted in the case of the early church than in that of the Reformers. The evidence that the early church held the same views upon this subject as the Reformers did, is satisfactory and conclusive; and the Reformers were accustomed to appeal to this evidence in opposing the Romanists upon this point, just as we do. But the evidence of the doctrine of the early church, at least upon the point of election, —for the proof that, even so late as the fifth and sixth centuries, the principles of non-intrusion in the natural, legitimate, and honest sense of it was the law of the church, is altogether beyond the reach of cavil, and has accordingly been admitted both by Papists and Episcopalians, —is less explicit than that of the Reformers; and the reason is, that in the early church the subject was not discussed, just because no controversy had arisen regarding it; whereas the Reformers had to oppose and refute the doctrine and practice of the Church of Rome upon the subject, and were thus led to be more full and explicit in their statements. Indeed, even if their particular statements had been much less explicit than they are, no one who has an intelligent acquaintance with the status quaestionis in the controversy between them and the Romanists on the subject, can have any doubt that they maintained the principle of popular election and non-intrusion. It is perfectly certain, and does not admit of any dispute, that the Church of Rome conceded then, and concedes still, in doctrine and argument, as large an amount of influence to the people in the appointment of their pastors as is at present enjoyed by congregations in the Established Churches of this country; and that the grounds taken in argument by the defenders of the state of things which prevails in these institutions, are precisely, in all respects, those which have been taken by Popish writers, at least in defending intrusion. This being the case, it is plain, that if the Reformers had held the views which have been sometimes ascribed to them, there would not, and could not, have been any controversy between them and the Church of Rome upon this point. It is utterly impossible for the defenders of these views to point out any material distinction between them, and those which are held by the Church of Rome, and have been defended by all Popish writers. And yet we not only know that there was a controversy between the Reformers and the Romanists; but we can easily prove that the views which we hold were those maintained by the Reformers in this controversy, and that the views of the Romanists were precisely, and in all respects, those held by our opponents.
It is true of this subject of election and consent, as of the identity of bishop and presbyter formerly discussed, and perhaps still more fully in this case than the former, that traces and evidences of the scriptural primitive practice continued to subsist, and subsist still, in the Church of Rome, very much in the same way as the form of a call subsists in the Established Church, where the reality is gone. The doctrine of the necessity of the election or consent of the people in the appointment of ministers, as a doctrine unquestionably taught by the Reformers, was taken up in the Council of Trent, and discussed, and condemned there; and F. Paul has recorded a very curious speech made there on that occasion by a canon of Valentia, in which— after admitting that popular election prevailed in the early church, but alleging that this was merely a special indulgence granted for a time, and afterwards very properly taken away by the Popes; and after denouncing the audacity of the modern heretics, —that is, the Reformers, —in reviving this most dangerous heresy, which was fitted to ruin the church— he not only urged that the council should condemn it, but, further, that they should erase from their liturgical books a number of passages which had been handed down from ancient times, and which plainly suggested and proved the ancient practice of the election and consent of the people, and thus afforded a strong handle to heretics. The council adopted the first part of his proposal, and anathematized the Protestant heresy of the necessity of the people’s consent; but they did not venture to adopt the second. They would, no doubt, have been very glad to have got quit of the passages which the worthy canon quoted from the Pontificale, and which afforded clear indications of the ancient practice, and plainly condemned their own; but they thought it more prudent to let the passages stand, and to leave to the heretical defenders of the necessity of the people’s consent, the handle of having these passages to quote, than the handle of their having been erased.
The only thing possessed of plausibility that has been produced in opposition to the assertion, that the Reformers held the doctrine of popular election, is a letter of Beza’s, which has been subjected of late to a good deal of discussion; and I refer to it at present, not because I can discuss its meaning, —this I have done fully in another form, —but because it is connected with the important historical fact, that in 1562, and again in 1572, these views of church government, which have since been called Independent or Congregational, having been broached by Morellius, or Morely, were brought under the cognisance of the Protestant Church of
France, and were condemned by its supreme judicatory, with the general concurrence of the Reformed churches. Beza, like Calvin, has most unequivocally and explicitly asserted the right of the Christian people to choose their own pastors; but one or two vague and ambiguous expressions occur in this letter, and in another passage of his works, which have been eagerly laid hold of as grounds for evading his express declarations, and ascribing to him the doctrine of the Church of Rome, as opposed by Calvin and himself and the other Reformers. Some importance has been justly attached, in examining the statements produced from this letter of Beza, to the question, Whether the direct and primary subject of the letter was the election of office-bearers, or the whole power and authority ascribed to the people in the regulation of ecclesiastical affairs by Morellius and the Independents. It is only upon the supposition that the proper primary subject of the letter is popular election, and not the whole power ascribed to the people by the Independents, —including, of course, popular election, —that the arguments of those who would represent Beza as sanctioning the Popish principle of intrusion, are possessed of anything like plausibility. Now, the evidence is perfectly conclusive, and cannot fail to be seen and felt by any one who is at all acquainted with the nature of the controversy which Morellius excited in the Reformed Church of France, that Beza’s letter was directed not against the principle of popular election, in the sense in which it has been generally held by Presbyterians, but against the whole power ascribed by the Independents to the people in the regulation of all ecclesiastical affairs, —including, of course, the election of office-bearers, but comprehending a great deal more. And this affords a satisfactory explanation of one or two vague and ambiguous expressions in the letter, which might otherwise have had the appearance of being scarcely reconcilable with the clear and explicit declarations made by Beza, when treating of the subject of election, formally and of set purpose. The assertion which has been recently made, that u the problem there mooted is limited exclusively to the share which the congregation at large ought to have in the election of pastors,” and that “all has reference to this single point alone,” is one of those astounding declarations of which one does not know well what to say, and which almost compel us, whether we will or not, to doubt either the common sense or the common honesty of the men who make them.
But the important point to which I wish to direct attention, is, that the Protestant Church of France— and the Church of Geneva and the other Reformed churches cordially concurred with them in the matter— did, while condemning the Independent views of Morellius, as involving an extension of the democratic principle beyond what the Scripture warranted, continue to assert and maintain, as a scriptural doctrine, the principle of popular election, and the necessity of the people’s consent. The principle of non-intrusion, in the natural and legitimate sense of it, was set forth in the discipline of the Reformed Church of France, both before and after their condemnation of Morellius, so clearly and explicitly as to preclude the possibility of an honest attempt to dispute it. And, what is peculiarly important, the right of the people to choose their own pastors is openly maintained in a work written for the express purpose of refuting Morellius, at the command of the National Synod, and published in their name by Sadeel or Chandieu. This fact is perfectly conclusive upon the question, and lies altogether beyond the reach of cavil or evasion. And this important general consideration holds true equally of the Scottish Presbyterians at the time of the Westminster Assembly, —namely, that while strenuously opposing the views of the Independents in regard to the general subject of church government, they continued to assert the great Reformation principle of the scriptural right of the people to the election of their own office-bearers. Some of the English Presbyterians, indeed, of that period yielded to the perverting influence of their controversy with the Independents, and of the circumstances of their country, and gave some indications of sacrificing or compromising this doctrine of the Reformation. But the Scotch Commissioners in the Westminster Assembly, and the Church of Scotland in general, acted a steadier and more consistent part, —adhering faithfully to the scriptural views of the Reformers, and transmitting them to us, to be asserted and maintained, as a portion of God’s revealed truth, and intimately connected— as experience has abundantly proved— with the best interests and the real welfare of the church of Christ.
From Historical Theology, vol. 2 by William Cunningham