A 19th-Century Consensus on the Spirituality of the Church

While Europeans were figuring out what to do with Edgardo Mortara, church law, and papal power, other parts of the Christian world (okay, Protestant) were also struggling to sort out the temporal and spiritual realms. In 1834 the Afscheiding rejected the Dutch ecclesiastical establishment and opted for a church free from the constraints of political compromise. (Of course, many of these Dutch Calvinists still wanted a return to the Dutch republic of Dort’s Synod’s fame.) A similar secession occurred among the Scots when in 1843 the Free Church abandoned the comforts of the Kirk for an ecclesiastical existence free from state control. (Of course, Thomas Chalmers was loathe to call this a voluntary church – despite the name “Free” – and repeatedly affirmed that the Free Church stood for the establishment principle; this meant that the Free Church still preferred ecclesiastical establishment but only on orthodox terms.) And then there was the case of the Old School Presbyterians, who had no ecclesiastical establishment to repudiate but did reject the blurring of nationalism and Presbyterianism on display among the New School Presbyterians. This rejection involved the doctrine of the spirituality of the church – the idea that the church is a spiritual institution with spiritual means for spiritual ends.

In each of these cases, Reformed Protestants were coming to a clearer understanding of the church’s spiritual character thanks to the lessons taught by church entanglements with temporal power.

The Vatican, thanks to the case of Edgardo Mortara and a European consensus, needed also to come to grips with a church vacated of temporal power and limited to spiritual authority. Italian republicans attempted to their best efforts to teach this lesson to the papacy when in 1849 they drafted an Italian Constitution that included these articles:

1) The papacy’s rule and temporal power over the Roman State is declared over.

2) The Roman Pontiff will have all the guarantees necessary for his exercise of spiritual authority.

3) the form of the government of the Roman State will be pure democracy, and will take the glorious name of the Roman Republic. (David Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, 22)

What conservative Reformed Protetants adopted freely with some minor discomfort, the conservative papacy had imposed on it by European politics.

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Charles Hodge's Warning to Celebrity (and Rich) Pastors

I am (all about me) in the home stretch of a paper for the upcoming Bicentennial Conference at Princeton Seminary on the Princeton faculty’s coverage and estimate of the 1843 Disruption in the Church of Scotland. So far, the Princetonians were impressive in their knowledge of Scottish developments and their sympathies for the Free Church leaders. One of the articles upon which I draw was a review by Charles Hodge of Thomas Chalmers’ An Earnest Appeal to the Free Church of Scotland, on the Subject of Economics (1847). In the course of his agreement with Chalmers, Hodge writes the following which is a further wrinkle in the slovenly attire of an ecclesiastical system that rewards fame and entrepreneurialism:

Our present system is unjust, first, to the people. Here are a handful of Christians surrounded by an increasing mass of the ignorant, the erroneous and the wicked. No one will deny that it is of the last importance that the gospel should be regularly administered among them. This is demanded not only for the benefit of those few Christians, but for the instruction and conversion of the surround population. Now is it just, that the burden of supporting the ministry under these circumstances, should be thrown exclusively on that small and feeble company of believers? Are they alone interested in the support and extension of the kingdom of Christ among them and those around them? It is obvious that on all scriptural principle, and all principles of justice this is a burden to be borne by the whole church, by all on whom the duty rests to uphold and propagate the gospel of Christ. Our present system is unjust, in the second place, towards our ministers. It is not just that one man should be supported in affluence, and another equally devoted to the service of the church, left to struggle for the necessaries of life. As before stated we do not contend for anything so chimerical as equal salaries to all ministers. Even if all received from the church as a whole the same sum, the people would claim and exercise the right to give in addition what they pleased to their own pastor. We can no more make salaries equal, than we can make church edifices of the same size and cost. But while this equality is neither desirable nor practicable, it is obviously unjust that the present inordinate inequality should be allowed to continue. (Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, July 1847, 370)

Turning the Gospel Promise into a Law Threat

Speaking of matters missional. . .

I am struck by the motivation that missions proponents sometimes use to justify their efforts. Having grown up in a faith mission environment, I have some familiarity with the ploys designed to generate gifts for missions and even cajole youth into full-time Christian service. As a kid even I thought some of the tactics were manipulative. But recent reading in the work of Alexander Duff (1806-1878), who was the first modern Presbyterian missionary, the Church of Scotland’s own ambassador to India — Presbyterianism’s William Carey as it were, has prompted me to think that much of the modern movement for overseas evangelism has employed what appear to be dubious arguments. The following comes from Duff’s Missions The Chief End of the Christian Church (1839):

It thus appears abundantly manifest from multiplied Scripture evidence, that the chief end for which the Christian Church is constituted—the leading design for which she is made the repository of heavenly blessings—the great command under which she is laid—the supreme function which she is called on to discharge—is, in the name and stead of her glorified Head and Redeemer, unceasingly, to act the part of an evangelist to all the world. The inspired prayer which she is taught to offer for spiritual gifts and graces, binds her, as the covenanted condition on which they are bestowed at all, to dispense them to all nations. The divine charter which conveys to her the warrant to teach and preach the Gospel at all, binds her to teach and preach it to all nations. The divine charter which embodies a commission to administer Gospel ordinances at all, binds her to administer these to all nations. The divine charter which communicates power and authority to exercise rule or discipline at all, binds her to exercise these, not alone or exclusively, to secure her own internal purity and peace, union and stability; but chiefly and supremely, in order that she may thereby be enabled the more speedily, effectually, and extensively, to execute her grand evangelistic commission in preaching the Gospel to all nations.

If, then, any body of believers united together as a Church, under whatever form of external discipline and polity, do, in their individual, or congregational, or corporate national capacity, wilfully and deliberately overlook, suspend, or indefinitely postpone, the accomplishment of the great end for which the Church universal, including every evangelical community, implores the vouchsafement of spiritual treasures—the great end for which she has obtained a separate and independent constitution at all,—how can they, separately or conjointly, expect to realize, or realizing, expect to render abiding, the promised presence of Him who alone hath the keys of the golden treasury, and alone upholds the pillars of the great spiritual edifice? If any Church, or any section of a Church, do thus neglect the final cause of its being, and violate the very condition and tenure of all spiritual rights and privileges, how can it expect the continuance of the favour of Him from whom alone, as their Divine fount and springhead, all such rights and privileges must ever flow? And, if deprived of His favour and presence, how can any Church expect long to exist, far less spiritually to flourish, in the enjoyment of inward peace, or the prospect of outward and more extended prosperity? (pp. 13-14)

I am not convinced, as valuable as foreign missions are, that threatening the church with a revocation of God’s favor is wise. Worse, I don’t believe it is true. But it is curious to see how old this kind of appeal is.

What is also worth highlighting is Duff’s account of Reformed Protestantism several pages later, since he has to acknowledge that the Reformation did not show an interest in non-European pagans and so did not measure up to the ideal of the true church. Because the Reformation was “itself a grand evangelistic work” by which the Spirit “put it into the hearts of an enlightened few, to arise and make an ‘aggressive movement’ on the unenlightened many, by whom they were every where surrounded,” Duff is at liberty to approve of sixteenth century Protestants. But when it comes to efforts of the Covenanters and the remnant of Presbyterians who tried to avoid compromise with the politics of episcopacy, the crown, or parliament, Duff (who was a student of Thomas Chalmers and would take sides with the Free Church during the Disruption of 1843) is not so approving:

When, after the Reformation, the Protestant Church arose, as by a species of moral resurrection, with newborn energies, from the deep dark grave of Popish ignorance and superstition,—then, was she in an attitude to have gone forth in the spirit of her own prayers, and in obedience to the Divine command, on the spiritual conquest of the nations,—and, in the train of every victory, scatter as her trophies, the means of grace, and as her plentiful heritage, the hopes of a glorious immortality. But instead of thus fulfilling the immutable law of her constitution,—instead of going forth in a progress of outward extension, and onward aggression, with a view to consummate the great work which formed at once the eternal design of her Head, and the chief end of her being :—the Church seemed mainly intent on turning the whole of her energies inward on herself. Her highest ambition and ultimate aim seemed to be, to have herself begirt as with a wall of fire that might devour her adversaries—to have her own privileges fenced in by laws and statutes of the realm—to hare her own immunities perpetuated to posterity by solemn leagues and covenants. (p. 22)

I’m not sure what the point of this is other than to suggest that since 1800 we have always had the missionally minded and manifesto affirming with us. But because of the ways in which proponents of missions can threaten by inducing guilt, those with questions about the methods, if not the content, of foreign missions (especially non-denominational kinds) have to prove their innocence before raising their concerns.