Page:EB1911 - Volume 22.djvu/299

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285
PRESBYTERIANISM

of teaching, administering the sacraments, visiting the flock pastorally, and taking oversight, with his fellow elders, of all the interests of the church. To share with the minister such general oversight is not regarded by intelligent and influential laymen as an incongruous or unworthy office; but to identify the duties of the eldership, even in theory, with those of the minister is a sure way of deterring from accepting office many whose counsel and influence in the eldership would be invaluable.[1]

Another subject upon which there is a difference of opinion in the Presbyterian churches is the question of Church Establishments. The view, originally held by all Presbyterian churches in Great Britain and on the Continent, that union with and support by the civil government are not only lawful but also desirable, is now held only by a minority, and is practically exemplified among English-speaking Presbyterians only in the Church of Scotland (see Scotland, Church of). The lawfulness of Church Establishments with due qualifications is perhaps generally recognized in theory, but there is a growing tendency to regard connexion with the state as inexpedient, if not actually contrary to sound Presbyterian principle. That this tendency exists cannot be doubted, and there is reason to fear that its influence, by identifying Presbyterianism with dissent in England and Scotland, is unfavourable to the general tone and character of the Presbyterian Church.

Those who favour state connexion and those who oppose it agree in claiming spiritual independence as a fundamental Spiritual independence. principle of Presbyterianism. That principle is equally opposed to Erastianism and to Papacy, to the civil power dominating the Church, and to the ecclesiastical power dominating the state. All Presbyterians admit the supremacy of the state in things secular, and they claim supremacy for the Church in things spiritual. Those who favour a Church Establishment hold that Church and state should each be supreme in its own sphere, and that on these terms a union between them is not only lawful but is the highest exemplification of Christian statesmanship. So long as these two spheres are at all points clearly distinct, and so long as there is a desire on the part of each to recognize the supremacy of the other, there is little danger of friction or collision. But when spiritual and secular interests come into unfriendly contact and entanglement; when controversy in regard to them becomes inevitable; from which sphere, the spiritual or the civil, is the final decision to come? Before the Reformation the Church would have had the last word; since that event the right and the duty of the civil power have been generally recognized.

The origin of Presbyterianism is a question of historical interest. By some it is said to have begun at the Reformation; Origin. by some it is traced back to the days of Israel in Egypt;[2] by most, however, it is regarded as of later Jewish origin, and as having come into existence in its present form simultaneously with the formation of the Christian Church. The last is Bishop Lightfoot's view. He connects the Christian ministry, not with the worship of the Temple, in which were priests and sacrificial ritual, but with that of the synagogue, which was a local institution providing spiritual edification by the reading and exposition of Scripture.[3] The first Christians were regarded, even by themselves, as a Jewish sect. They were spoken of as “the way.”[4] They took with them, into the new communities which they formed, the Jewish polity or rule and oversight by elders. The appointment of these would be regarded as a matter of course, and would not seem, to call for any special notice in such a narrative as the Acts of the Apostles.

But Presbyterianism was associated in the 2nd century with a kind of episcopacy. This episcopacy was at first rather congregational than diocesan; but the tendency of its growth was undoubtedly towards the latter. Hence for proof that their church polity is apostolic Presbyterians are accustomed to appeal to the New Testament and to the time when the apostles Historic Episcopacy. were still living; and for proof of the apostolicity of prelacy Episcopalians appeal rather to the early Church fathers and to a time when the last of the Apostles had just passed away.[5] It is generally admitted that distinct traces of Presbyterian polity are to be found in unexpected quarters (e.g. Ireland, Iona, the Culdees, &c.) from the early centuries of church history and throughout the medieval ages down to the Reformation of the 16th century. Only in a very modified sense, therefore, can it be correctly said to date from the Reformation.

At the Reformation the Bible was for the great mass of both priests and people a new discovery. The study of it shed floods The Reformers. of light upon all church questions. The leaders of the Reformation searched the New Testament not only for doctrinal truth but also to ascertain the polity of the primitive Church. This was specially true of the Reformers in Switzerland, France, Scotland, Holland and in some parts of Germany. Luther gave little attention to New Testament polity, though he believed in and clung passionately to the universal priesthood of all true Christians, and rejected the idea of a sacerdotal caste. He had no dream or vision of the Church's spiritual independence and prerogative. He was content that ecclesiastical supremacy should be with the civil power, and he believed that the work of the Reformation would in that way be best preserved and furthered. In no sense can his “consistorial” system of church government be regarded as Presbyterian.

It was different with the Reformers outside Germany. While Luther studied the Scriptures in search of true doctrine and Leaders of the Reformed Church. Christian life and was indifferent to forms of church polity, they studied the New Testament not only in search of primitive church doctrine but also of primitive church polity. One is struck by the unanimity with which, working individually and often in lands far apart, they reached the same conclusions. They did not get their ideas of church polity from one another, but drew it directly from the New Testament. For example, John Row, one of the five commissioners appointed by the Scottish Privy Council to draw up what is now known as the First Book of Discipline, distinctly says that “they took not their example from any kirk in the world; no, not from Geneva”; but they drew their plan from the sacred Scriptures.[6] This was true of them all. They were unanimous in rejecting the episcopacy of the Church of Rome, the sanctity of celibacy, the sacerdotal character of the ministry, the confessional, the propitiatory nature of the mass. They were unanimous in adopting the idea of a church in which all the members were priests under the Lord Jesus, the One High Priest and Ruler; the officers of which were not mediators between men and God, but preachers of One Mediator, Christ Jesus; not lords over God's heritage, but examples to the flock and ministers to render service. They were unanimous in regarding ministerial service as mainly pastoral; preaching, administering the sacraments and visiting from house to house; and, further, in perceiving that Christian ministers must be also spiritual rulers, not in virtue of any magical influence transmitted from the Apostles, but in virtue of their election by the Church and of their appointment in the name of the Lord Jesus. When the conclusions thus reached by many independent investigators were at length reduced to a system by Calvin, in his famous Institutio, it became the definite ideal of church government for all the Reformed, in contradistinction to the Lutheran, churches.

Yet we do not find that the leaders of the Reformed Church succeeded in establishing at once a fully-developed Presbyterian Early Hindrances. polity. Powerful influences hindered them from realizing their ideal. We notice two. In the first place, the people generally dreaded the recurrence of ecclesiastical tyranny. So dreadful had been the yoke of Rome, which they had shaken off, that they feared to submit to anything similar even under Protestant auspices. When their ministers, moved by an intense desire to keep the Church pure by means of the exercise of scriptural discipline, claimed special spiritual rule over the people, it was not wonderful that the latter should have been reluctant to submit to a new spiritual despotism. So strong was this feeling in some places that it was contended that the discipline of excommunication, if exercised at all, should be exercised only by the secular power. A second powerful influence was of a different kind, viz. municipal jealousy of church power. The municipal authority in those times claimed the right to exercise a censorship over the citizens' private life. Any attempt on the part of the Church to exercise discipline was resented as an intrusion. It has been a common mistake to think of Calvin and contemporary Reformers


  1. Report of Proceedings, Third General Council of the Alliance of Reformed Churches, &c. (1884), pp. 373 seq. and App. p. 131.
  2. Exodus iii. 16; iv. 29.
  3. St Luke iv. 16 seq.
  4. Acts ix. 2.
  5. See Lightfoot's Essay in Commentary on the Epistle to the Philippians.
  6. Knox, Winran, Spotswood and Douglas—all of them John—were the other commissioners.