The Reformers and the Regulative Principle by William CunninghamArticles on Puritan Worship and the Regulative Principle
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[The early nineteenth century Scottish theologian John Dick wrote concerning the Church in his Lectures on Theology (vol. 4, p. 324, 1838): ‘Some have supposed that the government of the Church is ambulatory; by which they mean, that no precise form has been prescribed, and that it is left to the wisdom of men to vary the form according to circumstances; to adapt it to the genius, and habits, and civil constitution of different nations. This is a summary mode of terminating all disputes about the subject.’ Although this latitudinarian way of dealing with Church issues had found many supporters in England since the decline of Puritanism, it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that a widespread attempt was made in Scotland to abandon the historic position that Scripture alone is the rule of the Church.
One of the leading popularizers of this new view was Dr. John Tulloch, who in his Leaders of the Reformation, published in 1859, made the following statement: ‘The Christian Scriptures are a revelation of divine truth and not a revelation of church polity. They not only do not lay down the outline of such a polity, but they do not even give the adequate and conclusive hints of one; and for the best of all reasons, that it would have been entirely contrary to the spirit of Christianity to have done so; and because, in point of fact, the conditions of human progress do not admit of the imposition of any unvarying system of government, ecclesiastical or civil.’ This earned from William Cunningham, Principal of New College, Edinburgh, a trenchant reply in The British and Foreign Evangelical Review and the article was reprinted in a posthumous volume of his writings, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, 1862. It is from this reply to Tulloch that the following statement of the regulative principle of Scripture is taken.]
The Reformers and the Regulative Principle by William Cunningham
Of the views generally held by the Reformers on the subject of the organization of the Church, there are two which have been always very offensive to men of a loose and latitudinarian tendency — viz. the alleged unlawfulness of introducing into the worship and government of the Church anything which is not positively warranted by Scripture, and the permanent binding obligation of a particular form of Church government. The second of these principles may be regarded, in one aspect of it,” as comprehended in the first. But it may be proper to make a few observations upon them separately, in the order in which they have now been stated.
The Lutheran and Anglican sections of the Reformers held a somewhat looser view upon these subjects than was approved of by Calvin. They generally held that the Church might warrantably introduce innovations into its government and worship, which might seem fitted to be useful, provided it could not be shown that there was anything in Scripture which expressly prohibited or discountenanced them, thus laying the onus probandi, in so far as Scripture is concerned, upon those who opposed the introduction of innovations. The Calvinistic section of the Reformers, following their great master, adopted a stricter rule, and were of opinion that there are sufficiently plain indications in Scripture itself, that it was Christ’s mind and will that nothing should be introduced into the government and worship of the Church, unless a positive warrant for it could be found in Scripture. This principle was adopted and acted upon by the English Puritans and the Scottish Presbyterians; and we are persuaded that it is the only true and safe principle applicable to this matter.
The principle is in a sense a very wide and sweeping one. But it is purely prohibitory or exclusive; and the practical effect of it, if it were fully carried out, would just be to leave the Church in the condition in which it was left by the apostles, in so far as we have any means of information — a result, surely, which need not be very alarming, except to those who think that they themselves have very superior powers for improving and adorning the Church by their inventions. The principle ought to be understood in a common-sense way, and we ought to be satisfied with reasonable evidence of its truth. Those who dislike this principle, from whatever cause, usually try to run us into difficulties by putting a very stringent construction upon it, and thereby giving it an appearance of absurdity, or by demanding an unreasonable amount of evidence to establish it. The principle must be interpreted and explained in the exercise of common sense. One obvious modification of it is suggested in the first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith where it is acknowledged ‘that there are some circumstances, concerning the worship of God and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed’. But even this distinction between things and circumstances cannot always be applied very certainly; that is, cases have occurred in which there might be room for a difference of opinion, whether a proposed regulation or arrangement was a distinct thing in the way of innovation, or merely a circumstance attaching to an authorized thing and requiring to be regulated. Difficulties and differences of opinions may arise about details, even when sound judgment and good sense are brought to bear upon the interpretation and application of the principle; but this affords no ground for denying or doubting the truth or soundness of the principle itself.
In regard to questions of this sort there are two opposite extremes, into which one-sided minds are apt to fall, and both of which ought to be guarded against. The one is to stick rigidly and doggedly to a general principle, refusing to admit that any limitations or qualifications ought to he permitted in applying it; and the other is to reject the principle altogether, as if it had no truth or soundness about it, merely because it manifestly cannot be carried out without some exceptions and modifications, and because difficulties may be raised about some of the details of its application which cannot always be very easily solved. Both these extremes have been often exhibited in connection with this principle. Both of them are natural, but both are unreasonable, and both indicate a want of sound judgment. The right course is to ascertain, if possible, whether or not the principle be true; and if there seem to be sufficient evidence of its truth, then to seek to make a reasonable and judicious application of it.
With regard to the Scripture evidence of the truth of the principle, we do not allege that it is very direct, explicit, and overwhelming. It is not of a kind likely to satisfy the coarse, material literalists, who can see nothing in the Bible but what is asserted in express terms. But it is, we think, amply sufficient to convince those who, without any prejudice against it, are ready to submit their minds to the fair impression of what Scripture seems to have been intended to teach. The general principle of the unlawfulness of introducing into the government and worship of the Church anything which cannot be shown to have positive Scriptural sanction, can, we think, be deduced from the Word of God by good and necessary consequence. We do not mean at present to adduce the proof, but merely to indicate where it is to be found. The truth of this principle, as a general rule for the guidance of the Church, is plainly enough involved in what Scripture teaches concerning its own sufficiency and perfection as a rule of faith and practice, concerning God’s exclusive right to determine in what way He ought to be worshipped, concerning Christ’s exclusive right to settle the constitution, laws, and arrangements of His kingdom, concerning the unlawfulness of will-worship, and concerning the utter unfitness of men for the function which they have so often and so boldly usurped in this matter. The fair application of these various Scriptural views taken in combination, along with the utter want of any evidence on the other side, seems to us quite sufficient to shut out the lawfulness of introducing the inventions of men into the government and worship of the Christian Church.
There is no force in the presumption, that, because so little in regard to the externals of the Church is fixed by Scriptural authority, therefore much was left to be regulated by human wisdom, as experience might suggest or as the varying condition of the Church might seem to require. For, on the contrary, every view suggested by Scripture of Christianity and the Church, indicates that Christ intended His Church to remain permanently in the condition of simplicity as to outward arrangements, in which His apostles were guided to leave it. And never certainly has there been a case in which it has been more fully established by experience, that the foolishness of God, as the apostle says, is wiser than men; that what seems to many men very plausible and very wise, is utter folly, and tends to frustrate the very objects which it was designed to serve. Of the innumerable inventions of men introduced into the government and worship of the Church, without any warrant from Scripture, but professedly as being indicated by the wisdom of experience, or by the Christian consciousness of a particular age or country, to be fitted to promote the great ends of the Church, not one can with any plausibility be shown to have had a tendency to contribute, or to have in fact contributed, to the end contemplated; while, taken in the mass — and of course no limitation can be put to them unless the principle we maintain be adopted — they have inflicted fearful injury upon the best interests of the Church. There is a remarkable statement of Dr. Owen’s on this subject, which has been often quoted, but not more frequently than it deserves; it is this — ‘The principle that the church hath power to institute any thing or ceremony belonging to the worship of God, either as to matter or manner, beyond the observance of such circumstances as necessarily attend such ordinances as Christ Himself hath instituted, lies at the bottom of all the horrible superstition and idolatry, of all the confusion, blood, persecution, and wars, that have for so long a season spread themselves over the face of the Christian world.’ It is no doubt very gratifying to the pride of men to think that they, in the exercise of their wisdom, brought to bear upon the experience of the past history of the Church, or (to accommodate our statement to the prevalent views and phraseology of the present day) in the exercise of their own Christian consciousness, their own spiritual tact and discernment, can introduce improvements upon the nakedness and simplicity of the Church as it was left by the apostles. Perhaps the best mode of dealing with such persons, is to call upon them to exemplify their own general principle, by producing specific instances from among the innumerable innovations that have been introduced into the Church in past ages, by which they are prepared to maintain that the interests of religion have been benefited; or, if they decline this, to call upon them for a specimen of the innovations, possessed of course of this beneficial character and tendency, which they themselves have devised and would wish to have introduced; and then to undertake to show, what would be no very difficult task, that these innovations, whether selected or invented, have produced, or would produce if tried, effects the very reverse of what they would ascribe to them.
There is a strange fallacy which seems to mislead men in forming an estimate of the soundness and importance of this principle. Because this principle has been often brought out in connection with the discussion of matters which, viewed in themselves, are very unimportant — such as rites and ceremonies, vestments and organs, crossings, kneelings, bowings, and other such ineptiae – some men seem to think that it partakes of the intrinsic littleness of these things, and that the men who defend and try to enforce it, find their most congenial occupation in fighting about these small matters, and exhibit great bigotry and narrow-mindedness in bringing the authority of God and the testimony of Scripture to bear upon such a number of paltry points. Many have been led to entertain such views as these of the English Puritans and of the Scottish Presbyterians, and very much upon the ground of their maintenance of this principle. Now, it should be quite sufficient to prevent or neutralize this impression, to show, as we think can be done, 1st, That the principle is taught with sufficient plainness in Scripture, and that, therefore, it ought to be professed and applied to the regulation of ecclesiastical affairs. 2nd, That, viewed in itself, it is large, liberal, and comprehensive, such as seems in no way unbecoming its divine Author, and in no way unsuitable to the dignity of the Church as a divine institution, giving to God His rightful place of supremacy, and to the Church, as the body of Christ, its rightful position of elevated simplicity and purity. 3rd, That, when contemplated in connection with the ends of the Church, it is in full accordance with everything suggested by an enlightened and searching survey of the tendencies of human nature, and the testimony of all past experience. And with respect to the connection above referred to, on which the impression we are combating is chiefly based, it is surely plain that, in so far as it exists de facto, this is owing, not to anything in the tendencies of the principle itself or of its supporters, but to the conduct of the men who, in defiance of this principle, would obtrude human inventions into the government and worship of the Church, or who insist upon retaining them permanently after they have once got admittance. The principle suggests no rites or ceremonies, no schemes or arrangements; it is purely negative and prohibitory. Its supporters never devise innovations and press them upon the Church. The principle itself precludes this. It is the deniers of this principle, and they alone, who invent and obtrude innovations; and they are responsible for all the mischiefs that ensue from the discussions and contentions to which these things have given rise.
Men, under the pretence of curing the defects and shortcomings, the nakedness and bareness, attaching to ecclesiastical arrangements as set before us in the New Testament, have been constantly proposing innovations and improvements in government and worship. The question is, How ought these proposals to have been received? Our answer is, There is a great general Scriptural principle which shuts them all out. We refuse even to enter into the consideration of what is alleged in support of them. It is enough for us that they have no positive sanction from Scripture. On this ground we refuse to admit them, and, where they have crept in, we insist upon their being turned out, although, upon this latter point, Calvin, with his usual magnanimity, was always willing to have a reasonable regard to times and circumstances, and to the weaknesses and infirmities of the parties concerned. This is really all that we have to do with the mass of trumpery that has been brought under discussion in connection with these subjects. We find plainly enough indicated in Scripture a great comprehensive principle, suited to the dignity and importance of the great subject to which it relates, the right administration of the Church of Christ — a principle ‘majestic in its own simplicity’. We apply this principle to the mass of paltry stuff that has been devised for the purpose of improving and adorning the Church, and thereby we sweep it all away. This is all that we have to do with these small matters. We have no desire to know or to do anything about them; and when they are obtruded upon us by our opponents, we take our stand upon a higher platform, and refuse to look at them. This is plainly the true state of the case; and yet attempts are constantly made, and not wholly without success, to represent these small matters, and the discussions to which they have given rise, as distinctively characteristic of English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians; whereas, in all their intrinsic littleness and paltriness, they are really characteristic only of those who contend for introducing or retaining them.
It was a great service, then, that Calvin rendered to the Church when he brought out and established this principle, in correction of the looser views held by the Lutheran and Anglican Reformers. If all the Protestant churches had cordially adopted and faithfully followed this simple but comprehensive and commanding principle, this would certainly have prevented a fearful amount of mischief, and would, in all probability, have effected a vast amount of good. There is good ground to believe, that, in that case, the Protestant churches would have been all along far more cordially united together, and more active and successful in opposing their great common enemies, Popery and infidelity, and in advancing the cause of their common Lord and Master.
There is another principle that was generally held by the Reformers, though not peculiar to them, which is very offensive to Dr. Tulloch and other latitudinarians, — viz. the Scriptural authority or jus divinum of one particular form of Church government. This general principle has been held by most men who have felt any real honest interest in religious matters, whether they had adopted Popish, Prelatic, Presbyterian, or Congregational views of what the government of the Church should be. The first persons who gave prominence to a negation of this principle, were the original defenders of the Church of England in Queen Elizabeth’s reign, Archbishop Whitgift and his associates, who scarcely ventured to claim a Scriptural sanction for the constitution of their Church. They have not been generally followed in this by the more modern defenders of the Church of England, who have commonly claimed a divine right for their government, and not a few of whom have gone the length of unchurching Presbyterians and Congregationalists. But they have been followed by some men in every age who seemed anxious to escape from the controlling authority of Scripture, that they might be more at liberty to gratify their own fancies, or to prosecute their own selfish interest.
From the time of Whitgift and Hooker down to the present day, it has been a common misrepresentation of the views objure divino anti-prelatists to allege that they claimed a divine right — a positive Scripture sanction — for the details of their system of government. Dr.. Tulloch seems to have thought it impossible to dispense with this misrepresentation; and accordingly he tells us that Presbyterianism ‘not merely asserted itself to be wise and conformable to Scripture, and therefore divine, but it claimed the direct impress of a divine right for all its details and applications’. This statement is untrue. There may be differences of opinion among Presbyterians as to the extent to which a divine right should be claimed for the subordinate features of the system, and some, no doubt, have gone to an extreme in the extent of their claims. But no Presbyterians of eminence have ever claimed ‘the direct impress of a divine right for all the details and applications’ of their system. They have claimed a divine right, or scriptural sanction, only for its fundamental principles, its leading features. It is these only which they allege are indicated in Scripture in such a way as to be binding upon the Church in all ages. And it is just the same ground that is taken by all the more intelligent and judicious among jure divino Prelatists and Congregationalists.
Dr. Tulloch, in the last of the quotations we have given from his book, endeavours to prove that no form of Church government was or could have been laid down in Scripture, so as to be permanently binding upon the Church. His leading positions are embodied in this statement:
The Christian Scriptures are a revelation of divine truth, and not a revelation of church polity. They not only do not lay down the outline of such a polity, but they do not even give the adequate and conclusive hints of one. And for the best of all reasons, that it would have been entirely contrary to the spirit of Christianity to have done so; and because, in point of fact, the conditions of human progress do not admit of the imposition of any unvarying system of government, ecclesiastical or civil.
Dr. Tulloch admits that the Scriptures are ‘a revelation of divine truth’; and since the truth revealed in them is not the theology of the Reformation, we hope that some time or other he will enlighten the world as to what the ‘divine truth’ is which they do reveal. As to the position that ‘the Scriptures are not a revelation of church polity’, we venture to think, that it is possible that something may be taught in Scripture on the subject of Church polity for the permanent guidance of the Church; and if there be anything of that nature taught there, then it must be a portion of the ‘divine truth’ which the Scriptures reveal. Whether anything be taught in Scripture on the subject of Church polity, must be determined, not by such an oracular deliverance as Dr. Tulloch has given, but by an examination of Scripture itself, by an investigation into the validity of the Scriptural grounds which have been brought forward in support of the different theories of Church government. Dr. Tulloch will scarcely allege, that there is nothing whatever taught in Scripture as to what should be the polity of the Church; and if there be anything taught there upon the subject, it must be received as a portion of divine truth. He is quite sure, however, that the sacred Scriptures ‘not only do not lay down the outline of such a polity, but they do not even give the adequate and conclusive hints of one’. Here we are directly at issue with him. We contend that not merely ‘hints’, but what may be fairly called an ‘outline’ of a particular Church polity, are set forth in Scripture in such a way as to be binding upon the Church in all ages.
We admit, indeed, that when this position is discussed in the abstract as a general thesis, a good deal of the argument often adduced in support of it is unsatisfactory and insufficient, as well as what is adduced against it. When the position we maintain is put in the shape of an abstract proposition, in which the advocates of all the different forms of Church government — Papists, Prelatists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists — may concur; in other words, when the general position is laid down, that a particular form of Church government, without specifying what, is sanctioned by Scripture, we admit that the materials which may be brought to bear in support of this position are somewhat vague and indefinite, and do not tell very directly and conclusively upon the point to be proved. The strength of the case is brought fully out only when it is alleged that some one particular form of Church government specified, as Prelacy or Presbyterianism, is sanctioned and imposed by Scripture. The best and most satisfactory way of establishing the general position, that the Scripture sanctions and imposes a particular form of Church government, is to bring out the particular principles, rules, and arrangements in regard to the government of the Church which are sanctioned by Scripture, and to show that these, when taken together, or viewed in combination, constitute what may be fairly and reasonably called a form of Church government. By this process not only is the general proposition most clearly and directly established, but, what is of much more importance, the particular form of Church government which Scripture sanctions, and which, therefore, the Church is under a permanent obligation to have, is brought out and demonstrated.
Attempts, indeed, have been made to prove and to disprove the general thesis in the abstract by a priori reasonings, but most of these reasonings appear to us to possess but little force or relevancy. It is contended on a priori grounds, on the one hand, that there must have been a particular form of Church government laid down in Scripture; and it is contended on similar grounds, on the other hand, that this could not be done, or that it was impossible consistently with the general nature of the Christian Church, and the circumstances in which it was, and was to be, placed. But the truth is, that nothing which can be fairly regarded as very clear or cogent can be adduced in support of either of these abstract positions, unless the idea of a form of Church government be taken, in the first of them, in a very wide and lax, and in the second, in a very minute and restricted sense. On the one hand, while there is a large measure of a priori probability, that Christ, intending to found a Church as an organized, visible, permanent society, very different in character from the previously subsisting Church of God, especially in regard to all matters of external organization and arrangement, should give some general directions or indications of His mind and will as to its constitution and government, we have no certain materials for making any assertion as to the extent to which He was called upon to carry the rules He might prescribe as of permanent obligation, or for holding that He might be confidently expected to give rules so complete and minute as to constitute what might with any propriety be called a form of Church government. And, on the other hand, while it is evident that the Christian Church was intended to be wholly different in external organization from the Jewish one, and to have no such minute and detailed system of regulations, as being intended for all ages and countries; and while on these grounds, but little, as compared with the Jewish system, was to be subjected to precise and detailed regulations, and something might thus be left to the Church to be determined by the light of nature and providential circumstances — there is no antecedent improbability whatever, arising from any source or any consideration, in the idea that Christ might give such general directions on this subject as, when combined together, might justly have the designation of a form of Church government applied to them. On these grounds we do not attach much weight to those general a priori considerations, by which many have undertaken to prove, on the one hand, that Christ must have established a particular form of government for His Church, or, on the other hand, that He could not have done so; and we regard the case upon this whole subject as left in a very defective and imperfect state, until the advocates of the principle of a scripturally sanctioned or jure divino form of Church government, have shown what the particular form of Church government is which the Scripture sanctions, and have produced the evidence that Scripture does sanction that form, and, of course, a form — which will be a sufficient answer to the allegation that He could not have done so.
We think we can prove from Scripture statement and apostolic practice, the binding obligation of certain laws or rules, and arrangements, which furnish not only ‘hints’, but even an ‘outline of church polity’, and which, when combined together, may be fairly said to constitute a form of church government. In this way, we think we can show that there is a particular form of church government which, in its fundamental principles and leading features, is sanctioned and imposed by Scripture, viz. the Presbyterian one.
If the general a priori considerations which have been frequently brought into the discussion of this subject are insufficient to establish the true position, that Scripture does sanction one particular form of church government, much less are they adequate to establish the false position that it does not. Dr. Tulloch, as we have seen, asserts that we have ‘the best of all reasons’ to show that the Scriptures do not lay down even an ‘outline’ of a Church polity. But his ‘best of all reasons’ are not likely to satisfy any but those who are determined beforehand to be convinced. His reasons are two: 1st, ‘It would have been entirely contrary to the spirit of Christianity to have done so’; 2nd, ‘The conditions of human progress do not admit of the imposition of any unvarying system of government, ecclesiastical or civil.’ This is the whole proof which he adduces; and these he calls ‘the best of all reasons’. This, forsooth, is to prove that it is impossible that even the ‘outline’ of a Church polity could have been set forth in Scripture as permanently binding. Even Divine Wisdom, it would seem, could not have devised an outline of a Church polity which would have been accordant with ‘the spirit of Christianity and the conditions of human progress’. Our readers, we presume, will not expect us to say anything more for the purpose of refuting and exposing this. ‘The spirit of Christianity and the conditions of human progress’ might have had some bearing upon the question in hand, if there had been on the other side the maintenance of the position, that the Scriptures imposed upon the Church a full system of minute and detailed prescription of external arrangements, similar in character and general features to the Jewish economy. But when it is considered how entirely different from everything of this sort is all that is contended for by intelligent defenders of the divine right of a particular form of Church government, most men, we think, will see that Dr. Tulloch’s appeal, for conclusive evidence against its possibility, to the spirit of Christianity and the conditions of human progress, is truly ridiculous.
The disproof of the position, which has been received so generally among professing Christians, that Scripture does sanction and prescribe the outline of a Church polity, cannot be effected by means of vague and ambiguous generalities, or by high-sounding declamation. It can be effected, if at all, only by the method of exhaustion; that is, by the detailed refutation of all the different attempts which have been made to establish from Scripture the divine right of a particular form of Church government. And this species of work is much more difficult, requires much more talent and learning, than declaiming about ‘the spirit of Christianity and the conditions of human progress’.
At the same time, we must admit that it has become somewhat common and popular in modern times, to scout and ridicule the advancing of a claim to a divine right on behalf of any particular form of Church government. This has arisen partly, no doubt, from the ignorant and injudicious zeal with which the claim has been sometimes advocated, even by those whose views upon the subject of Church government were, in the main, sound and Scriptural; but principally, we are persuaded, from certain erroneous notions of the practical consequences that are supposed to follow necessarily from the establishment of this claim.
All Papists and many Prelatists, in putting forth a claim to a divine right on behalf of their respective systems of Church government, have openly, and without hesitation, deduced from their fancied success in establishing this claim, the conclusion that professedly Christian societies which had not their form of government were, for this reason, to be refused the designation and the ordinary rights of Christian Churches, or even to be placed beyond the pale within which salvation is ordinarily possible. This mode of procedure, in applying the claim to a divine right, universal among Papists, and by no means uncommon among a certain class of Prelatists, must appear to men who know anything of the general genius and spirit of the Christian system, and who are possessed of any measure of common sense and Christian charity, to be absurd and monstrous; and by many the disgust which has been reasonably excited by this conduct, has been transferred to the general principle of claiming a jus divinum on behalf of a particular form of Church government, from which it was supposed necessarily to flow. All this, however, is unwarranted and erroneous. Presbyterians and Congregationalists have as generally set up a claim to a divine right on behalf of their systems of Church government as Papists and Prelatists have done; but we do not remember that there has ever been a Presbyterian or a Congregationalist of any note who unchurched all other denominations except his own, or who refused to regard and treat them as Christian Churches merely on the ground that they had adopted a form of government different from that which he believed to have, exclusively, the sanction of the Word of God.
But many seem to suppose that Presbyterians and Congregationalists, in not unchurching other denominations on the ground of rejecting what they believe respectively to be the only Scripturally sanctioned form of Church government, are guilty of an amiable weakness, and fall into inconsistency, by declining to follow out their assertion of a jus divinum in judging of others, to its natural and legitimate consequences. This notion is erroneous and unjust, as will appear by attending to the true state of the case. All that is implied in claiming a divine right for Presbyterianism, for instance, is that the person who does so believes, and thinks he can prove, that Christ has plainly enough indicated in His Word His mind and will, that the fundamental principles of Presbyterianism should always and everywhere regulate the government of His Church. Prelatists and Congregationalists, professing equally to follow the guidance of the sacred Scriptures and to submit to the authority of Christ, have formed a different and opposite judgment as to the true bearing and import of the materials which Scripture furnishes upon this subject, and have in consequence set up a different form of government in their Churches. This being the true state of the case, the sum and substance of what any candid and intelligent Presbyterian, even though holding the jus divinum of presbytery, has to charge against them is just this, — that they have mistaken the mind and will of Christ upon this point, that they have formed an erroneous judgment about the import of the indications He has given in His Word, as to how He would have the government of His Church to be regulated. And this, which is really the whole charge, does not, upon principles generally acknowledged, afford of itself any sufficient ground for unchurching them, or for refusing to recognize and treat them as Christian Churches. It is a serious matter to adopt and to act upon erroneous views in regard to any portion of divine truth, anything which God has made known to us in His Word, and we have no wish to palliate this in any instance. But let the case be fairly stated, and let the principles ordinarily and justly applied to other errors be applied to this one. There can be no possible ground for holding, that the adoption and maintenance of an error on the subject of the government of the Church, by words or deeds, involves more guilt, or should be more severely condemned, than the adoption and maintenance of an error upon a matter of doctrine in the more limited sense of that word; and on the contrary, there is a great deal in the nature of the subject, viewed in connection with the general character, spirit, tendency, and objects of the Christian economy, and in the kind and amount of the materials of evidence which Scripture affords us for forming a judgment upon such questions, which indicates that errors in regard to government should be treated with less severity of condemnation, and should less materially affect the intercourse of churches with each other, than errors (within certain limits) with regard to doctrine, which are not usually considered to warrant the unchurching of other denominations, or to form an insuperable obstacle to the maintenance of friendly relations with them.
These grounds, on which we establish the unwarrantableness and unfairness of the common allegation, that claiming a divine right for one particular form of Church government, implies the unchurching of other denominations who may have come to a different conclusion as to the bearing of the Scripture testimony upon this subject, apply equally to the wider and more comprehensive principle, formerly explained, of the unlawfulness of introducing anything into the government and worship of the Church which is not positively sanctioned by Scripture. Lutherans and Anglicans generally contend that this principle is not taught in Scripture, and, on this ground, refuse to be so strictly tied up in regard to the introduction of ceremonies and regulations. We believe that, in denying this principle, they have fallen into an error in the interpretation and application of Scripture, and that the ceremonies and regulations which, in opposition to it, they may have introduced, are unlawful, and ought to be removed. But we never imagined, that because of this error in opinion, followed to some extent by error in practice, these denominations were to be unchurched, or to be shut out from friendly intercourse, especially as the Scriptural evidence in favour of the principle, though quite sufficient and satisfactory to our minds, is of a somewhat constructive and inferential description, and as differences sometimes arise among those who concur in holding it about some of the details of its application.
If these views, which are in manifest accordance with the dictates of common sense, and with principles generally recognized in other departments of theological discussion, were admitted, there would be much less disinclination to yield to the force of the Scripture evidence in support of the two principles which we have explained, and which form, we are persuaded, the only effectual security for the purity of Church administration, and the authority of Church arrangements.
But there are, in every age, some men who seem anxious to have the reputation of being in advance of all around them in the enlightened knowledge of theological subjects, and who, with this view, are very desirous to escape from the trammels of implicit deference to the authority of Scripture. The great source of error in religious matters is that men do not fully and honestly take the Word of God as their rule and standard.
Author: William Cunningham, Principal of New College, Edinburgh, from 1847 till his death in 1861, was on e of the greatest of Scottish theologians. With his breadth of learning, depth of evangelical insight, exactness of thought and vigorous stately style, Cunningham was the Warfield — one might almost say, the Calvin — of the Free Church of Scotland for the first two decades of her life.