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Lecture XVI: The Government of the Church

(Art. 18b–20)

And sik kirks, we the inhabitantis of the Realme of Scotland, professoris of Christ Jesus, professis our selfis to have in our citties, townes, and places reformed, for the doctrine taucht in our Kirkis, conteined in the writen Worde of God, to wit, in the buiks of the Auld and New Testamentis, in those buikis we meane quhilk of the ancient have been reputed canonicall. In the quhilk we affirme, that all thingis necessary to be beleeved for the salvation of mankinde is sufficiently expressed. The interpretation quhairof, we confesse, neither appertaines to private nor publick persone, nether zit to ony Kirk, for ony preheminence or prerogative, personallie or locallie, quhilk ane hes above ane uther, bot apperteines to the Spirite of God, be the quhilk also the Scripture was written. When controversie then happines, for the right understanding of ony place or sentence of Scripture, or for the reformation of ony abuse within the Kirk of God, we ought not sa meikle to luke what men before us have said or done, as unto that quhilk the halie Ghaist uniformelie speakes within the body of the Scriptures, and unto that quhilk Christ Jesus himselfe did, and commanded to be done. For this is ane thing universallie granted, that the Spirite of God, quhilk is the Spirite of unitie, is in nathing contrarious unto himselfe. Gif then the interpretation, determination, or sentence of ony Doctor, Kirk, or Councell, repugne to the plaine Worde of God, written in ony uther place of the Scripture, it is a thing maist certaine, that there is not the true understanding and meaning of the haly Ghaist, although that Councels, Realmes, and Nations have approved and received the same. For we dare non receive or admit ony interpretation quhilk repugnes to ony principall point of our faith, or to ony uther plaine text of Scripture, or zit unto the rule of charitie.


As we beleeve and confesse the Scriptures of God sufficient to instruct and make the man of God perfite, so do we affirme and avow the authoritie of the same to be of God, and nether to depend on men nor angelis. We affirme, therefore, that sik as allege the Scripture to have na uther authoritie bot that quhilk it hes received from the Kirk, to be blasphemous against God, and injurious to the trew Kirk, quhilk alwaies heares and obeyis the voice of her awin Spouse and Pastor; bot takis not upon her to be maistres over the samin.


As we do not rashlie damne that quhilk godly men, assembled togither in generall Councel lawfully gathered, have proponed unto us; so without just examination dare we not receive quhatsoever is obtruded unto men under the name of generall Councelis: For plaine it is, as they wer men, so have some of them manifestlie erred, and that in matters of great weight and importance. So farre then as the councell previs the determination and commandement that it gives bee the plaine Worde of God, so soone do we reverence and imbrace the same. Bot gif men, under the name of a councel, pretend to forge unto us new artickles of our faith, or to make constitutionis repugning to the Word of God; then utterlie we must refuse the same as the doctrine of Devils, quhilk drawis our saules from the voyce of our onlie God to follow the doctrines and constitutiones of men. The cause then quhy that generall Councellis convened, was nether to make ony perpetual Law, quhilk God before had not maid, nether zit to forge new Artickles of our beleife, nor to give the Word of God authoritie; meikle les to make that to be his Word, or zit the trew interpretation of the same, quhilk wes not before be his haly will expressed in his Word: Bot the cause of Councellis (we meane of sik as merite the name of Councellis) wes partlie for confutation of heresies, and for giving publick confession of their faith to the posteritie following, quhilk baith they did by the authoritie of Goddis written Word, and not by ony opinion or prerogative that they culd not erre, be reasson of their generall assemblie: And this we judge to have bene the chiefe cause of general Councellis. The uther wes for gude policie, and ordour to be constitute and observed in the Kirk, quhilk, as in the house of God, it becummis al things to be done decently and in ordour. Not that we think that any policie and an ordour in ceremonies can be appoynted for al ages, times, and places: For as ceremonies, sik as men have devised, ar bot temporall; so may and aucht they to be changed, when they rather foster superstition then that they edifie the Kirk using the same.


Who governs the church? To this question the Scottish Confession gives the clear answer that the church is on no account called, and in no sense qualified, to govern herself. In her human, historical form the church is no less free and alive than she is in the mystery of her Divine Lord. The church may and should speak and act. She may and should make decisions. But in all this the church can only be a servant. She cannot reform herself by her own power, she can only acknowledge the reformation which she undergoes at the hand of her Lord. Her life and her freedom consist in her doing that. Here the Scottish Confession is speaking in contrast to the Roman Catholic system, whose essence consists in the church governing herself by means of an ecclesiastical order, represented by the whole body of bishops in their virtual unity with the would-be vicar of Christ, as the holder of what is claimed to be the Apostolic see. But this implies that the Confession has already rejected in advance a modern conception also. This, in distinction from the aristocratic and monarchical idea mentioned above, corresponds somewhat to the democratic idea of the state and looks upon the whole body of believers or the majority of believers as the possessors of sovereign power in the church. But the government of the church does not take place through men in either the monarchical or the democratic way. It takes place through the Word of God. By the Word of God the Scottish Confession and the whole Reformed church means the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, in so far as these Scriptures are the concrete form of Jesus Christ, His attestation and explanation through the prophets and apostles, the place where He Himself can be sought and found by any man at any time, the Voice of God's Holy Spirit which can be heard by any man at any time and therefore the source from which faith ever anew draws its knowledge of Jesus Christ and thus its knowledge of God. When the Reformed Confession acknowledges Holy Scripture alone to be the Word of God, it does so not because of some curious partiality for the literature of the Bible, but because of the simple consideration that while both the ancient and modern worlds certainly provide us with good literature of every kind, dealing with what men believed they should feel and think about God and gods, there exists only one testimony to Jesus Christ, in which God Himself has spoken about Himself. According to our reading of Article 19 of the Confession it is for this reason that the Scriptures have the authority of God Himself, not because of any human liking or judgement nor because the church considers it correct, but because according to the content of the Scripture it is the case that God Himself has here spoken of Himself. The other literature, ancient and modern, of which we have spoken, may also have religious value for those who think they ought to take an interest in religion. But the church does not take the slightest interest in religion; on the contrary, she takes an interest only in God Himself and in His voice and therefore in human testimony in which the voice of God Himself is to be heard and so in the testimony of the Bible. Consequently it is this testimony alone which the church calls the Word of God. She does not mean by this the book, as a book, or the opinions and lines of thought of its authors; she knows that these men who wrote the Bible were fallible men like all of us. She means by the Word of God Him to Whom this book and this book alone bears testimony. It is in this sense that she says that neither angel nor man, but Holy Scripture alone has the right to possess and exercise sovereign power in the church. The church can and should expound Holy Scripture and by doing so proclaim Jesus Christ. But all exposition is subject to Holy Scripture itself as to a judge who is to be appealed to at all times, in the same way as faith is subject to Jesus Christ as its object and as the church is subject to Him as the mystery of her true nature. Because this is so, neither an ecclesiastical order nor the whole body or the majority of believers can undertake the government of the church. The King's throne is already occupied, and He who occupies it is already in command, and has already undertaken the reformation of the church. Everyone who desires to be more in the church than a servant, His servant, could only be a stranger, desiring to rob the church of her freedom and vitality, and to take her prisoner under the dominion of one of the gods of this world. The church may not listen to the voice of such a stranger or come under the Lordship of a god of this world. He who is great in the church cannot be a ruler, but, whether he holds an office or not, can only be a servant of the Divine Word—minister verbi divini.


The way taken by the church, the history of the church in time is the history of the exposition of Holy Scripture. Exposition of Scripture is not merely what we understand by the word in its narrower sense, i.e. the direct explanation of the words and substance of the Bible text in the form of commentaries. Preaching, if good preaching, is also exposition, and so is instruction, if it is good instruction. If it were not, it would be bad instruction. The church's special science of dogmatics is also exposition. If it is not, it is bad dogmatics. Morality and art are also exposition. The church's internal and external politics are also exposition. Church history is a long series of variations on the one theme, which is given to it by its charter Holy Scripture, in and with its foundation. The church has, with success or otherwise, constantly had to come to terms with the fact that such is her origin, namely, the testimony of the prophets and apostles. What ensues from constantly coming to terms with this is what forms church history. If the church did not possess this theme, we would have no right to separate her history from the general history of the world and of culture. It is this theme, which raises the history of the church, certainly in the midst of all other history, into prominence in a very definite way, making it special history.

But we must go still further. Who expounds Scripture? Who is therefore the real subject of church history? Is it the human commentators, teachers and preachers in the church, even her great heroes of faith, or is it the councils and synods, or is it the infallible Pope or the whole line of the Popes together, or is it the theological faculties, or is it perhaps the religious genius, or perhaps the Christian peoples as such? The Scottish Confession safeguards itself against all such views and explains that “the interpretation [of Scripture] neither appertaines to private nor publick persone . . . bot apperteines to the Spirite of God, be the quhilk also the scripture was written.” In fact, if Scripture as testimony to Jesus Christ is the Word of God, and if it is therefore neither a book of religion nor of magic, whose contents could be mastered and professed by certain men with a gift for such study, who then can expound Scripture but God Himself? And what can man's exposition of it consist in but once more in an act of service, a faithful and attentive following after the exposition which Scripture desires to give to itself, which Jesus Christ as Lord of Scripture wishes to give to Himself? But if that is so, then church history, i.e. the history of the church's coming to terms with the theme given her in Scripture, cannot primarily be understood as the history of the human opinions, resolutions and actions which have emerged in the course of her coming to terms with her theme. It cannot primarily be understood as the history of the men, whether pious or impious, intelligent or foolish, good or less good, who in the course of the centuries have sought directly or indirectly to understand Scripture. Church history must rather be understood primarily as the history of the government of the church by the Word of God, the history of the exposition of Scripture accomplished by Scripture, i.e. by Jesus Christ Himself in the church. Scriptura scripturae interpres—Scripture is the interpreter of Scripture. Of course we know this self-interpretation of Scripture at all times and in all places only as it is reflected in the human exposition visible in human opinions, resolutions and actions of every kind. But everything depends on our recognising this latter as something secondary, as the reflection of that real and genuine exposition, as the multiplicity of the attempts more or less successful to follow in the steps of that self-exposition of Scripture. That means that church history can never be viewed, presented or judged as church history in the abstract, but always only along with a simultaneous investigation of Scripture and attention to its self-exposition. And where the speech and action of the church of to-day is concerned—and this is especially important—the human opinions and resolutions which are indispensable here can never be brought up for discussion in the abstract as human opinions and resolutions, but the opinion and the action of the Word of God which governs the church must be brought up for discussion simultaneously—indeed previously when we consider the matter objectively. There cannot but be a secondary subject of church history and who else could that be at any time but man with his human opinions and resolutions? But it is just man who must learn to understand himself not as the primary subject but as this secondary subject; he must learn to follow, not to take the initiative. And if he wishes to learn to think and act as a member of the church—and this takes a long time to learn—he will have to learn to think and speak as one who follows after and obeys the Word of God.


What we have just said cannot be understood as meaning that there cannot or may not be concrete decisions or obligations in the church. There must be such decisions and obligations. Where the church was afraid of forming decisions and obligations she would not be free or alive, nor would she be serving her Lord. The Scottish Confession has no intention, even in Article 20, of denying authority to the Councils and so to the human instruments for church government generally. The Word of God which governs the church requires her to justify her actions again and again to it. The temptation, caused by error, and the consequent danger that the church could become a false church, requires her to affirm the truth and deny error. In what other form could this take place than in the shaping of definite human opinions and resolutions? Every sermon and ultimately every expression of the church's life is as such a decision taking that particular form; it is a confession. The decrees and explanations of a Council or Synod also can only be decisions taking that particular form—Confessions of Faith. What we hear in them is not a voice speaking from heaven, but only one speaking on earth. None the less they must venture to speak and when they venture to speak by faith they can lay claim to authority. If the church makes a confession of her faith, makes an affirmation in one direction and a denial in another, she is doing something enjoined upon her, not something forbidden. In that case her decision will certainly not lack authority and may count on gaining attention and obedience. The Scottish Confession also is itself such a decision, such a Confession of Faith, made at a time of special confusion in the church, but at a time, too, of special attentiveness to the Word of God which governs the church. And it is obvious that the Confession is not table talk, the mere voicing of opinions, nor edification which imposes no obligation, the expression of nice religious sentiments, nor is it religious journalism. The Confession is speaking under a sense of responsibility and therefore with authority also. But just because the matter concerns it itself, the Scottish Confession has been careful in expressing its opinion as to what authority such a decision by the church can and cannot have. Such a decision or confession of faith, as the Scottish Confession, cannot under any conditions wish to usurp the place of the Word of God. It cannot claim a validity which is absolute and obligatory for all time. It cannot set up any new doctrine or ordinance which goes beyond the Word of God. Nor can it either diminish or increase the authority of the Word of God, cancel or confirm it, limit it or extend its influence. It cannot bind men's consciences, it is not in principle free from error. It is and remains simply a human decision. If it wished to be more, it would be less, for it would then be a hindrance to the Word of God. In that case it could not be obeyed and its assumed authority would have to be defied in the name of faith, in the name of Jesus Christ. But within its own limits the Confession can be a human decision of such a kind, that through it the way will not be blocked but rather opened up for the Word of God. Through the Word of God itself it can become necessary. It can keep error within its bounds. It can be a worthy sign and instrument to remind future generations also of the truth once known. It can serve the Word of God, not as a law to which faith is subject, but as genuine reiteration of the testimony of the prophets and apostles. In the measure in which it does this, it possesses validity and power. The church cannot profess faith in herself. And her confessions may not be understood or treated as confessions of faith in herself, as the rendering absolute of the piety and the “Weltanschauung” prevailing in her at any given time. This is what happens whereever the Confessions are either over-rated or undervalued. The church in her confessions can profess faith only in her Lord, not in herself, and the church's confessions are to be understood and estimated as confessions of faith in the Lord of the church. If they are conceived in any other way, not with the respect or the freedom thereby given them, but as the law to which faith is subject, then this law may be kept or broken and may be made the object of the idolatry of the orthodox or that of the iconoclasm of the liberals, but in that case the confessions have not yet been understood as the confessions of the church. In that case the orthodox and the liberals can only be asked first of all to cleanse their hands in order that they may make a new beginning in the treatment of this problem. And this new beginning will have to consist in listening with the obedience of faith to what the Fathers have said by faith and to venture to say ourselves in our turn, in the obedience of faith, what one day our children and children's children may hear by faith—i.e. to utter in weak, fallible, human words, humbly but joyfully, a confession of faith in the Word of God.


We shall close with a brief note on the question of Church government, mentioned at the beginning. We have established that the government of the church is neither the concern of a particular ecclesiastical order nor that of the whole body or majority of believers. Holy Scripture itself governs the church. The ecclesiastical order and the congregation are not lords over it but organs serving it. If this is acknowledged it may now be said for the advancement of peace in this conflict, that within the bounds of this service to Scripture the monarchical mode of government cannot have a priority in principle over the democratic, or vice versa. It is noteworthy that a good reformed confession like the Scottish Confession has expressed absolutely no opinion on the whole problem of church government. The Reformed churches show a decided preference for a Presbyterian, synodical form of church government. But it would be historically incorrect to say that this is the Reformed system of church government. For there are also Reformed churches governed by bishops, e.g. in Hungary. But it is legitimate and necessary none the less to speak of the relative superiority of the former system. Jesus Christ is the Lord and Saviour of the congregation as a congregation. It is the congregation, as a congregation, which has to justify its activity to Him. The ecclesiastical order has its life solely in the congregation, but the congregation has not its life solely in the ecclesiastical order. The freedom of the Word of God and the legitimate authority of the decisions and obligations necessary in the church are less menaced where the constitution makes it clear that it is not some few members of the church but all of them who are called and qualified to be vigilant and faithful and, what is more, to be so with equal seriousness, and where the holders of special office have to speak and act only as primi inter pares, joint responsibility being shared by all the rest. Besides, the adherents of an evangelical episcopate have never yet made sufficiently clear what is actually to be understood by the special office of bishop in an evangelical church. I am not aware if they know in Hungary—or in England, or in Sweden, or in Denmark, where there are evangelical bishops. But I am aware that German Lutheranism, which is very keenly episcopal, does not know to this day what it means. There is certainly no reason why we should consider the episcopal solution a better one, but there is also no occasion whatsoever for the friends of a Presbyterian- synodical form of Government to believe this question to be one in which the true nature of the church is at stake. An episcopal church is, as episcopal, to be regretted. But she is not for that reason a false church.