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The Reformation and Church Polity - RW Dale

The Magisterial Reformation - Post Tenebras Lux - Out of Darkness Light

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History of Congregationalism, 1907 edition by R.W. Dale D.D., LL.D.




THE Protestant Reformation, whatever else it may have been, was a great and successful revolt against that conception of the Church which had maintained its authority in Western Christendom for more than a thousand years. The Catholic Church, according to that conception of it, consisted of those—and of those only—who were in communion with duly appointed bishops. For Christ Himself had constituted the apostles the rulers, teachers, and priests of the Church to resist their authority was, therefore, to resist the authority of Christ; and the apostles had transmitted to bishops the august powers which they had received from their Lord. It was the function of bishops to preserve the tradition of apostolic doctrine, to administer the sacraments, to absolve from sin, to govern the Church. They delegated some of these duties to priests, but the fountain of authority was in themselves. It was through the bishops that Catholic Christendom was held together, and was constituted one mystical and glorious society; it was through the bishops that the Church of later centuries inherited the grace and blessedness of apostolic times. But the bishops were confederate under the Pope; and for several centuries before the time of Luther the Pope had been usurping the powers and prerogatives of the episcopate, as the bishops had already usurped the powers and prerogatives of the commonalty of the Church.

The place of the Christian people in the apostolic polity had been lost; and the loss was something far graver than a mere loss of ecclesiastical authority—of the power to elect their own ministers, to control their own worship, and to determine the general policy of the corporate body to which they belonged. The disappearance of the organisation of the apostolic Churches was the visible sign of the disappearance of some of the characteristic ideas of the Christian Gospel. The Christian commonalty had lost their original position in the Church because their true relation to God was denied or obscured. For their certain knowledge of the contents of the Christian Gospel, Christian people had to depend on the priests, whose commission to teach was derived from the bishops. The Scriptures were withheld from the laity; and even those laymen who had access to them were under religious compulsion to receive the interpretation which had been imposed on the words of Christ and of the apostles by the great Councils which represented the bishops of Catholic Christendom. “The faith,”—so it was supposed—had been “once for all delivered” to the bishops, not to “the saints.” The episcopate—not “the Church of the living God”—was “the pillar and ground of the truth.”1 No man was permitted to listen to Christ for himself. The holiest women could no longer understand what Christ said to the woman of Samaria at the well, nor the most saintly men what He said to the crowd that heard the Sermon on the Mount. The definitions of Councils were necessary to prevent the words of Christ from leading unwary souls to perdition.

For the grace of pardon, and for that eternal life which was supposed to be given and sustained through the two great sacraments of the Gospel, the Church was also dependent on the bishops, and on the priests whom the bishops authorised to absolve from sin, to baptize, and to celebrate the mass. The Christian salvation was accessible only through the appointed ministers of the Church. God was afar off from common men: He came near to them through the sacraments administered by the priesthood.

Against these pretensions the Reformers asserted (1) the supremacy and sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures as the final authority in all questions of religious faith and practice; and (2) the doctrine of Justification by Faith.


1. But how are ordinary Christian people to know that the Holy Scriptures contain a divine revelation? How can they tell what books are properly included in the Canon, what books are properly excluded from it? Have not these questions been settled by the authority of the Church—or, in other words, by the authority of the bishops? And if the decisions of the Church with regard to the Canon of Scripture are infallible, may not its decisions with regard to the meaning of Scripture be also infallible?

Or, if the Canon is not accepted on the authority of the Church, must not ordinary Christian people accept it on the authority of theological scholars? How can a merchant, a tradesman, a mechanic, master the evidence which proves that the Book of Jonah was written by an inspired prophet, that the Epistle to the Romans was written by an apostle, that the Gospel of John contains an authentic record of the discourses of Christ? Must not unlearned men depend for the settlement of these questions on the authority of scholars? What is to be done if the opinions of scholars vary? And may not the tyranny of scholars be as grave an interference with Christian liberty as the tyranny of bishops? If devout men and women can never be sure that they have a divine revelation in their hands until learned men have agreed that every book that is bound up in the Bible has a right to be there, the faith of the Church, instead of resting on the strong foundation of the divine Word, rests on the uncertain supports of human learning.

Luther’s method of dealing with these difficulties was singularly courageous. It consisted in a bold application of the principle underlying our Lord’s account of the relations between the Shepherd and the sheep. “He goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him for they know not the voice of strangers.”2 God’s word—this was in substance Luther’s contention—is not so like man’s word that it is possible to mistake the one for the other. The Scriptures shine in their own light. Their authority, like the authority of conscience, is its own evidence and needs no support or confirmation either from scholars or bishops. Every true and honest man may know the voice of God when he hears it. If the books of Scripture are bright with a divine glory, why need we ask any man whether the books are divine? If they break the heart to penitence, if they inspire faith in the divine love and righteousness, if they actually reveal God, what further proof do we need that they contain a divine revelation? Who asks for the decree of a council or the judgment of scholars to assure him that the fires of the sun were kindled by a divine hand? To Luther it was equally unnecessary to ask for any external proof that the writer of the Epistles to the Galatians and the Romans was taught of God: Luther saw for himself that the teaching was divine. He carried his principle to dangerous lengths. Where he himself could not see the direct evidence that the contents of a canonical book were divine, he had no scruple in challenging its authority. He called the Epistle of James “an epistle of straw.” This was presumptuous. Other men might find God where Luther could not. He was too peremptory and too self confident. But the principle of his method was in harmony with the whole contents of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. They assume that when God speaks, devout hearts will recognise His voice.

2. In asserting the supreme authority of the Holy Scriptures the Reformers asserted what has been called “the right of private judgment.” By this is not meant the right of every man to think as he pleases, which indeed is a right that no serious and rational person ever claimed either for himself or for other men. The moral and religious obligation to do our best to make our thought true to the fact is just as strong as the moral and religious obligation to do our best to make our word true to our thought. No man claims the right to “think as he pleases” in the investigation of historical events: it is his duty to submit his judgment to the evidence and to find all the evidence he can. In scientific investigation there is a similar obligation. No man claims the right to “think as he pleases” about the laws of electricity or of light; what he claims is the right to adjust his theory to the phenomena without interference on the part of “authority”; and the right to make his theory known without fear of penalties. Where we are ignorant we can “think as we please”; where we have knowledge thought ceases to be free; it must yield to the compulsion of fact.

And the right of private judgment in religion, as the Reformers understood it, was not the right of every man to form a religion according to his own fancy, but the right of every man to listen for himself to the voice of God. In the Scriptures, which contain the record of divine revelation, there is an appeal to the whole human race. It is every man’s right, it is every man’s duty, to consider that appeal for himself. The Scriptures were, therefore, translated into the language of the common people; tradesmen and peasants must be free to read them. Scholars and preachers may be of service in illustrating their meaning; but the final appeal is to the heart, the conscience, and the judgment of the individual man. It is to him that God speaks, and neither bishop nor pope has a right to stand between him and God. This was destructive of that episcopal usurpation which had suppressed the vigour of the religious life of Christendom for more than a thousand years. It reinvested the commonalty of the Church with the august responsibilities of freedom.


The doctrine of justification by Faith worked in the same direction. The Christian Gospel, according to the Reformers, is a revelation of the infinite grace of God. God makes no terms, prescribes no conditions, but offers the remission of sins and eternal life to every man. To meet His wonderful revelation with faith secures redemption; sin is forgiven; the sinful man is justified, and is made one with God through Christ. The intervention of the priest is unnecessary. Preaching and the sacraments have their place; but the offer of eternal salvation is made to the individual man, and it is for him to make it his own by faith. No excommunication can prevent the salvation from being his. He may be cursed by the Church, but if he has faith in Christ the curse cannot harm him. On the other hand, in the absence of faith all the blessings of the Church are unavailing. Bishops and priests had ceased to be necessary in order to open the channels of divine grace.

“All Christians are priests,” said Luther; “all may teach the Word of God, may administer baptism, may consecrate the Bread and the Wine; for has not Christ said— (Do this in remembrance of Me.’All we who are Christians have the power of the Keys. Christ said to the apostles, who were the representatives about Him of mankind at large, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.’”

Again,—“The priest should be elected by the suffrages of the people and afterwards confirmed by the bishop; that is to say, after the election, the first, the most venerable among the electors should lay his hands on the elected.”3

When the Calixtines of Bohemia found that the bishops of their country refused them ministers, they had gone so far as to take the first vagabond priest.

“If you have no other means of procuring pastors [wrote Luther to them, in 1523], rather do without them, and let each head of a family read the Gospel in his own house, and baptize his children, sighing after the sacrament of the altar as the Jews at Babylon did for Jerusalem. The consecration of the Pope creates priests—not of God, but of the devil,—ordained solely to trample Jesus Christ under foot, to bring His sacrifice to naught, and to sell imaginary holocausts to the world in His name. Men become ministers only by election and calling, and that ought to be effected in the following manner: First, seek God by prayer; then, being assembled together with all those whose hearts God has touched, choose in the Lord’s name him or them whom you shall have acknowledged to be fitted for this ministry. After that, let the chief men among you lay their hands on them, and recommend them to the People and to the Church.”4


The two central principles of the Reformation—the principles which gave inspiration, dignity, and passion to the whole Protestant movement—were fatal to the Catholic theory of episcopacy. The new faith could not tolerate the old polity. In whatever Church the supremacy of the Holy Scriptures and the doctrine of justification by Faith were frankly adopted, “bishops” with the powers and prerogatives which had been claimed for them since the time of Cyprian were impossible.

Protestant Churches might consistently adopt either the Presbyterian or the Congregational polity; the Episcopal in the Catholic sense—was necessarily excluded. Early in the history of the Reformation a scheme of polity for the Protestant Churches—Congregational in its essential principles, with some Presbyterian modifications was drawn up by Francis Lambert,5 and was formally adopted as the organisation of the Church in Hesse at a conference held in the Castle of Homberg in August, 1526. Ranke has given an admirable account of its central principle.

“The idea was formed of constituting a Church consisting solely of true believers. The following was the scheme drawn up to that effect. It was proposed that, after a sermon, a meeting should be held, and every one should be asked whether he was determined to submit himself to the laws, or not. Those who refused should be put out and regarded as heathens. But the names of those who chose to be in the number of the saints should be written down; they must not be troubled if, at first, they should be few, for God would soon increase their number: these would constitute the congregation [i.e. the church]. The most important business of their meetings would be the choice of their spiritual leaders [here simply called bishops]. For this station any citizen of irreproachable life and competent instruction should be eligible, whatever his profession; but he should be allowed to retain it only so long as he preached the genuine Word of God.”6

The local Church was also to appoint deacons and officers charged with the care of the poor. It was to have the power of deposing as well as appointing all its officers. And it was to have the power of excommunicating any of its members. Church meetings were to be held every Sunday.

So far the scheme was purely Congregational. But a general Synod was to be held every year at which each Church was to be represented by its pastor and an elected layman. The Synod was to appoint Visitors, whose term of office was apparently to be annual, and who were to visit the Churches, to examine those who had been elected bishops, to confirm the bishops they approved, and to provide for the execution of the decrees of the Synod. The Synod was to be governed by the Word of God; for “the Word of God outweighs a majority. Its decisions were not to be ‘decrees’ or ‘statutes,’ but simply ‘the answer of the Hessian Synod,’” and they were to be supported by Scripture. For the first year the Visitors were to be appointed by Philip of Hesse.

There was also to be a permanent Committee for the general superintendence of the Churches. The Committee was to consist (1) of thirteen persons appointed by the Synod; and the princes and nobles present at the meeting of the Synod were to have the right of voting with the pastors and lay representatives of the Churches; (2) of the three Visitors; (3) of special representatives of the Church at Marburg. At the meetings of the Committee the Landgrave was to have the right to be present.

It is obvious that the power entrusted to the Committee, the Visitors, and the Synod could not be exercised without limiting and repressing that independence of the separate Churches which Lambert was anxious to assert. He may have hoped that after a period of transition, during which the separate Churches might give sufficient proof of their strength to satisfy those who regarded the scheme with distrust, the functions of the Synod would naturally cease. But the scheme was never carried out. In Hesse, as elsewhere, the ecclesiastical authority assumed by the Civil Power suppressed the freedom of the Church.7

Luther’s own position in relation to the questions raised by Lambert’s proposals is interesting and characteristic. In his German Order of Divine Service, which he declares is not to be regarded as “a compulsory law,” but is to be used at the good pleasure of the Churches, and “where, when, and as long as circumstances favour and demand it,” he speaks of three different forms of divine service. He is willing that the service should be conducted in Latin: “and if the Greek and Hebrew tongues were as familiar to us as the Latin, and pos¬sessed as great store of fine music and song as that does, were I able to bring it about, mass should be celebrated, and there should be singing and reading in our churches on alternate Sundays, in all four languages—German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.” The Latin service was to be for educated people—“for the sake of the simple laymen” he proposed that divine service should be in German. His conceptions of the nature and objects of the German service illustrate his estimate of the actual congregation for which he had to make provision. “There are many,” he says, “who attend upon the public worship of God who are not yet believers or Christians; the greater part stand and gape, that they may see something new; and it is just as though wee celebrated the service of God on an open square or field among Turks or heathens.” The German service was to be an evangelical service; not a service for the complete expression of the life of the Church.8
But he thinks that the true type of evangelical order should include a third service. This should not be celebrated “pub¬licly among all the people,” but—

“Those who are desirous of being Christians in earnest, and are ready to profess the Gospel with hand and mouth, should register their names and assemble in some private house to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and practise other Christian works. In this order, those whose conduct was not such as is befitting Christians might be recognised, reproved, reformed, rejected, or excommunicated, in accordance with the rule laid down by Christ. (Matt. xviii. 15 seq.). But I cannot and would not order or arrange such a congregation or assembly at present. I have not the requisite persons for it, nor do I see many who are urgent for it. But should it come to pass that I must do it—that I am so pressed upon as to be unable with a good conscience to leave it undone—then will I gladly do my part to secure it, and will assist it as best I can . . . . In the meantime, I would abide by the two aforesaid methods, and publicly among the people and in the promotion of such divine service, besides preaching, as shall exercise the youth, and call and incite others to faith, until those Christians who are thoroughly in earnest shall discover each other and cleave together, to the end that there may be no faction forming (sectional partyism), such as might ensue if I were to take the management of the whole matter upon myself; for we Germans are a savage, rude, tempestuous people, not lightly to be led into anything new, unless there be most urgent occasion.”9

It appears from this that the organisation which Luther constructed was a missionary and educational agency rather than a Church. But he looks forward to the time when “those Christians who are most thoroughly in earnest shall discover each other and cleave together,” and organise them¬selves into societies which will be Christian in the true sense of the word—churches with the powers attributed by Christ Himself to those that are gathered together in His name. To Luther Congregationalism was the ideal polity; but, as he thought, the time had not come for attempting to institute it.10


Francis Lambert

This remarkable man was born in Avignon about 1487. He was the descendant of a noble family; his father was Secretary of Lega¬tion at the apostolic palace. At fifteen years of age he entered the order of the Franciscans. Having an ardent and impassioned temperament, he became a most effective popular preacher. He studied the Scriptures with great earnestness, and expounded them to the country people in the villages about Avignon. His zeal provoked irritation in his convent, and in 1522 he left it, never to return. He found his way to Zurich, and when he was preaching in the cathedral on the intercession of the Virgin and the saints, Zwingle exclaimed—“Brother, thou errest.” The opponents of Zwingle thought that Lambert might show himself a match for the great Swiss reformer, and arranged for a disputation between them. The discussion lasted four hours, and then Lambert thanked God that by the light of God’s Word he had been convinced of his error. He then gave up his monk’s dress and went to Germany, being very anxious to see Luther. After many vicissitudes he found protection and support from Philip of Hesse. He died April 18, 1530. There is an excellent account of him under his name in Haag, La France Protestante, vi. 238 243; and in Waddington, i. (1200 1557), 357 383


Congregational Ideas among Foreign Protestants

The following story from Foxe is an illustration of the extent to which some at least of the principles of Congregationalism were held by foreign Protestants.” Aymond de la Voye, a French priest, was accused of heresy at Bordeaux, in 1543. In the course of his examination the judge asked him—“Dost thou believe in the Church?”
The Martyr.—“I believe, as the Church regenerated by the blood of Christ, and founded in His Word, hath appointed.”
Judge.—“What Church is that?”
The Martyr.—“The Church is a Greek word, signifying as much as a congregation or assembly: and so I say that whensoever the faithful do congregate together to the honour of God, and the amplifying of Christian religion, the Holy Ghost is verily with them.”
Judge.—“By this it should follow that there be many Churches and whereas any rustical clowns do assemble together, there must be a Church.”
The Martyr.—“It is no absurd thing to say that there be many Churches or congregations among the Christians: and so speaketh St. Paul, ‘To all the churches which are in Galatia,’ etc. And yet all these congregations make but one Church.”
Judge.—“The Church wherein thou believest, is it not the same Church which our creed doth call the Holy Church? “
The Martyr.—“I believe the same.”
Judge.—“And who should be Head of that Church?”
The Martyr.—“Jesus Christ.”
Judge.—“And not the Pope?”
The Martyr.—“No.”


1.1 Tim, iii. 15.

2 John x. 4, 5.

3 Michelet, Life of Luther, translated by W. C. Hazlitt (Bohn), 138.

4 D’Aubigné, History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, iv. 38 39

5 See Note A on Francis Lambent.

6 Ranke, History of the Reformation in Germany (Mrs. Austin’s translation), ii. 485 486.

7 Lambert’s treatise on The Sum of Christianity was translated into English with an Epistle to Anne Boleyn. See extracts from the Dedication to “the noble prince of Lausanne “in Waddington, i. (1200 1557), 543 544 This treatise had doubtless some influence in encouraging the development of Congregational tendencies in England.

8 Another passage confirms this statement. He says, “In fine, we institute this order not for the sake of those who are Christians already, for they have need of none of these things, nor do they live for them; but they live for the sake of those who are not yet Christians, that they may make them Christians; they have their divine service in their spirits. But it is necessary to have such an order for the sake of those who are to become Christians or are to grow stronger, just as a Christian has need of baptism, the Word, and the sacrament, not as a Christian, for as such he has them already, but as a sinner. But, above all, the order is for the simple and for the young folk . . . . For the sake of such we must teach, preach, write, and devise; and if it could in any way assist or promote their interests, I would have all the bells pealed and all the organs sounded, and let everything make a noise that could.” Hagenbach, History of the Reformation, ii. 9 11.

9 Hagenbach, History of the Reformation, 12 13..

10 See Note B.

11 Foxe, Acts and Monuments (1631), ii. 131 .

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