committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs

 

CHURCH POLITY

CHAPTER II
SOURCES OF PROOF

As the kingdom of Christ is a subject of pure revelation, it may justly be expected that every thing pertaining to its nature, and to the external organizations by which its principles are to be diffused among men, will be found in the inspired volume, in which that revelation is deposited. But in opposition to this obvious and rational inference, it is asserted by many that the Scriptures contain no specific directions with respect to the outward development of Christ?s kingdom?no form of Church government.27 If this assumption were correct, if neither Christ nor his apostles had left anything determinate, with respect to the earthly relations of his church, but committed its organization and management entirely to fallible men, we should feel bound humbly to submit to his will, and acquiescing in the wisdom of the arrangement, should do whatever human sagacity and prudence might suggest, to discharge the delicate and momentous trust committed to us. But happily for us and for the interests of his kingdom, he has not imposed upon us this fearful responsibility. The Scriptures are a sufficient rule of faith and practice. The principles of ecclesiastical polity are prescribed in them with all necessary comprehensiveness and clearness. The founder of the Church has provided better for its interests, than to commit its affairs to the control of fallible men. "Whatever ways of constituting the church may to us seem fit, proper, and reasonable, the question is, not what constitution of Christ?s church seems convenient to human wisdom, but what constitution is actually established by Christ?s infinite wisdom."28

It would have been happy for the world if men had been satisfied with the simple form of ecclesiastical polity contained in the New Testament. Rejecting this, or proceeding upon the assumption that the New Testament contains none, they have attempted to trace analogies between Christ?s church and the defunct forms of Judaism, or engrafted upon it rites and ceremonies borrowed from Heathenism. From the close of the second century down to the present time, a considerable party have derived their notions of ecclesiastical polity from the Jewish temple and priesthood.29 And even a late writer has supposed that its rudiments may be discovered in the Jewish sacerdotal institute.30 A more gross misconception of the genius of Christianity than is implied in this Judaizing system, can scarcely be imagined. No two persons can be more unlike than a Jewish priest and a Christian minister; and to argue from the prerogatives and duties of the one to those of the other is a gross paralogism.

To model the church of Christ after the Jewish temple is to abjure our liberty in the Gospel, and to relapse into the weak and beggarly elements of Levitical bondage. "To argue from a Levitical priesthood to a Christian ministry, and to prove the validity of the latter institution by an appeal to the former, and specially to compare the official duties of the two respective classes, with an assumption that they are parallel, is out of all question."31

The unscriptural notion of a human priesthood in the church of Christ, is fraught with pestilent error, and has led to the most enormous abuses. It has substituted a new class of mediators between God and man, to the exclusion and dishonor of the one Mediator, the man Christ Jesus; for, as Dr. Arnold has observed, "the essential point in the notion of a priest is this: that he is a person made necessary to our intercourse with God, without being necessary or beneficial to us morally. His interference makes the worshipper neither a wiser man, nor holier than he would have been without it; and yet it is held to be indispensable. This unreasonable, unmoral, unspiritual necessity, is the essence of the idea of priesthood." Viewed in its relations to the cardinal truths of Christianity, no error can be more utterly subversive of the Gospel. We are not, therefore, surprised at the earnestness with which he combats it, and the indignation with which he denounces it, as "the worst and earliest form of Anti-Christ."32 It was this human priesthood "bedecked in deformed and fantastic dresses, in palls and mitres, gold and gewgaws, fetched from Aaron?s old wardrobe, or the flamen?s vestry,"33 that for ages presented Christianity to the world, under the motley image of resuscitated Judaism amalgamating with Paganism. Rearing its colossal throne upon the earth, and stretching its powerful sceptre over the flames of purgatory and the prisons of hell, it robbed life of its last joy, and death of its only hope.

The evils of attempting to graft Christianity upon Judaism, and effect an unnatural amalgamation between carnal ordinances and a spiritual religion, appear, although in a mitigated form, in some of the practices which have crept into use since the age of the apostles. Infant baptism is, in its essential idea, alien to the spirit of Christianity. Whether it be considered the condition, or the privilege of church membership (according to the discrepant views of its supporters), it involves the glaring absurdity of making carnal descent the condition of admittance to spiritual blessings. How futile the effort to effect a coalescence between a right conferred by hereditary transmission and the privileges of a kingdom, in which citizenship is determined by entirely different qualifications, the subjects of which are "born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." "How unwary are many excellent men," says Prof. Stuart,34 "in contending for infant baptism, on the ground of the Jewish analogy of circumcision? Are females not proper subjects of baptism? And again, are a man?s slaves to be all baptized because he is? Are they church-members of course, when they are so baptized? Is there no difference between engrafting into a politico-ecclesiastical community, and into one of which it is said that "it is not of this world?"

Where this practice is combined with the priestly dogma of baptismal regeneration, it conduces equally to sacerdotal power and spiritual delusion. Among the great majority of Protestants, its tendency is, to a great extent, neutralized by the assertion of the necessity of the new birth. This salutary truth extracts the poison from the opposite error. Infant baptism possesses no natural affinity for the evangelical scheme. Appended to it, it is a mere heterogeneous addition, which refuses and defies vital incorporation; and its only effect is to mar the heavenly beauty of Christianity by an unnatural and earthly encumbrance. Carnal rites combined with a spiritual religion are as unseemly as would be wings of wax upon the angel Gabriel.

Another class of writers find the original pattern of the Christian church in the polity of the synagogue,35 and affirm that the Apostles did not introduce new organizations, but converted these Jewish assemblies into Christian churches. A fatal objection to this theory is, that we have not the slightest intimation of it in the New Testament. If it had been the design of the Apostles to present the synagogue as the model of Christian churches, it is incredible that they would have omitted to say so. It may further be urged that the synagogue was not a divine institution,36 and could not therefore be adopted as the exemplar of Christian churches, without express divine authority. This authority Christ has not given; the apostles nowhere assert it. We objected to the notion which transfers the Levitical priesthood to the Christian church, that it is a virtual repeal of the Gospel; we object to this scheme, that it exalts a human institution into an institution of Christ. Neither of them derives any warrant from the word of God.

We look in vain for the model of a church among the Jews. It was foreign to their modes of conception; nor is there a word in their language by which the idea can be expressed. They had words, or phrases, designating an assembly for religious purposes, and the place or house where such an assembly was convened, but none which embodied the conception of a church as distinguished from a congregation, of an organized body composed of professedly pious persons, professing spiritual qualifications, and combined for the promotion of purely spiritual purposes.37 The idea of a church is peculiar to Christianity. "This system presents the only true form of a church. The Jews had no distinct organization which could, with propriety, be denominated a church. Much less is any association under other forms of religion, entitled to this appellation."38

It is well known to all who have examined the subject of ecclesiastical polity, that the testimony of the Fathers has been appealed to as competent authority. But if the Bible be our directory, in faith and practice, why need we apply to other sources for information? Should it be found, upon examination, that the testimony of the Fathers conflicts with the practice of the Apostles, it must be rejected. The form of church government, taught in the Scriptures, must be ascertained, before we can determine how far this testimony is entitled to credit. Upon Protestant and Scriptural principles, no other course is admissible.

The advocates of tradition proceed upon the assumption that the Scriptures do not contain a revelation of all that is necessary for "doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works;" and in support of it they refer to doctrines and practices which have been very generally received, but are not taught or enjoined in the word of God. Thus, Klee, a Roman Catholic, says "that many things in the ethical and liturgical practice of the church are retained which rest only on traditional grounds, as the lawfulness and necessity of infant baptism, the validity of heretical baptism, &c."39 When we consider how far the Puseyites have advanced in their approach to Rome, we are not surprised to find one of them denouncing, as "a shallow and irreligious assumption," the cardinal principle of Protestantism, "that whatever God designs his creatures to believe or perform, he has plainly taught and declared."40 A more learned and candid advocate of Episcopacy has said: "The claim of Episcopacy to be of divine institution, and therefore obligatory on the church, rests fundamentally on the one question?Has it the authority of Scripture? If it has not, it is not necessarily binding."41

The majestic simplicity of the New Testament, its revelation of pure and lofty truths, and its entire freedom from folly and fanaticism, stamp it with the impress of divinity, and attract the admiration of minds not yet prepared to acknowledge its heavenly origin. But, in passing from its pages to those of the early Christian fathers, we are conscious of an immense descent. The transition from Paul and John to Barnabas and Hermas, is felt as a departure from the teachings of inspired Apostles to the puerile conceits of a Judaizer and the drivelling of a dotard. It would be vain, if it were necessary, to attempt to supply the deficiencies of the former by the latter. The hand of Providence has fixed a "great gulf" between the inspired and the uninspired Christian writings, and thus placed its condemnation upon those who are so "exceedingly zealous of the traditions" of the Fathers.

If the Scriptures were deficient or obscure, and the inquirer after truth were, therefore, driven to the Fathers, even that refuge would fail him. Their testimony is suspicious, partial, and contradictory; their works are corrupted and interpolated; and they themselves refer him back to the Scriptures as the only authoritative guide.42

To sustain the authority of the Fathers, and give plausibility to the scheme which rests the polity of the churches upon their testimony, it is sometimes affirmed that we are indebted to them for our knowledge and reception of the books which compose the sacred canon; and the inference thence derived, that if their testimony is valid in the one case, it is equally so in the other. But this is to confound things which are manifestly different. In settling the preliminary question, as to what books are canonical, we may refer to the testimony of the Fathers; but in order to ascertain what those books contain, we must consult the books themselves. The testimony of these early witnesses is to be calmly weighed, carefully scrutinized, and subjected to the rules which regulate our estimate of historical evidence. They are simply the media of proof, the means by which we arrive at a knowledge of the facts by which the question is to be decided. "The church of Jesus Christ, in the present day, does not believe in the divine authority of those books which it admits to be canonical, because the ancient church regarded them in the same light; but because there is satisfactory evidence that they were composed by men who wrote as they were moved by the Holy Ghost."43

The advocates of prelacy have not failed to charge upon other pedobaptists the inconsistency of admitting infant baptism upon the testimony of the Fathers, and rejecting the claims of episcopacy and the apostolical succession, although sustained upon the same foundation. >From this dilemma Dr. Woods would extricate himself, by denying that it presents a fair statement of the case. "The chief historical argument in favor of infant Baptism does not," in his view, "arise from the fact, that the practice did at length generally prevail in the early ages; but from the testimony of the Fathers, that it was received from the apostles."44 But the historical argument here is extremely defective. Origen is the first of the Fathers who uses such language,45 and he lived A. D. 185?254. His assertion, at so distant a remove from the time of the apostles, possesses little weight; especially as he ascribes to them, in the same connection, the doctrine that baptism cleanses from original sin.

I find no authority for this custom, either in the Scriptures, or the earliest Christian documents. If the baptism of infants be an ordinance of Christ, it must be plainly taught, by precept or example, in the New Testament. If it be not so taught, to attempt to sustain it by an appeal to historical evidence, is to abandon the fundamental principle of Protestantism.

The period seems to be rapidly approaching when the Christian world must choose between the Scriptures and the traditions of men. If ever the man of sin is successfully assailed in his strong hold, it must be by the sword of the Spirit. The Bible is our only reliable armory. Equipped and supplied from this source, the man of God need not fear an encounter with the hosts of darkness. But if, rejecting the panoply which divine munificence has supplied, he resorts to earthly means of defence, he will fall in the struggle, oppressed with the mortifying consciousness that his unhallowed weapons have only precipitated his defeat. Like Milton?s angels, he will be bruised and crushed beneath the weight of his own armor:

"Their armor helped their harm, crushed in and bruised
Into their substance pent, which wrought them pain
Implacable, and many a dolorous groan."

Paradise Lost, VI., 658.

 
 
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