Friday, January 25, 2013

A Quote from Rev. John Black on the Early Reformers and Worldwide Church Unity

The Reformed churches have always taught that the church ought to be united in formal unity throughout the world.  All congregations, presbyteries, synods, etc., ought to be united, formally, in one worldwide catholic church.  See here for more evidence of this.  See also this great article by Matthew Vogan, a ruling elder in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, on the unity of the church, and another great article from the OPC.

However, it is a fact that the Reformed churches have not always done as good a job as they ought in explicitly acknowledging the truly universal character of catholic unity and in acting accordingly.  I mention one example of this lack  historically in my article linked to above.  One of the main reasons for this lack, I think, has to do with the difficulties faced by the early reformers in establishing Reformed churches in various nations.  They often faced a great degree of persecution and other trials in their work.  Also, communication across national lines (especially when messages had to cross areas not friendly to the Reformation) was not always convenient or easy.  In this situation, the tendency for the reformers was to focus their efforts in their own areas or nations, without a great deal of practical consideration for how concretely to preserve biblical unity internationally.  We need to do better at this today.

I came across a quotation today from Rev. John Black, a nineteenth century Reformed Presbyterian minister, in a sermon titled Church Fellowship, where he articulates much the same sentiments.  I thought it would be worth quoting here:

Still it is urged, that the reformed churches, notwithstanding their different confessions of faith, held occasional communion with each other; and consequently, if we withhold communion from christians differing from us, we contradict their practice.
But still the cases are not parallel—nor were the reformers correct in every thing. The reformed churches were generally, what were called National churches, and acted upon the ground of civil establishments of religion.—The principle of the church’s unity in all the nations of the earth, was not duly appreciated, by the majority of the early reformers. The struggle in which they were engaged—the difficulties they had to encounter—the dangers to which they were exposed—the want of opportunities for mutual consultation; together with the worldly policy of the civil rulers who joined them, and by whom they were in some measure protected, had a tendency to divert their minds from sufficiently attending to this principle, in the formation of their ecclesiastical systems. Happy would it have been for the church, had all the reformers possessed such accurate views of her unity as did the great John Calvin. His comprehensive mind embraced this subject in all its bearings. But his excellent plan for consolidating all the friends of the reformation, in every country, into one church, was unhappily frustrated.—The great body of the reformers, confined their views of uniformity to their own country. In concert with the civil authorities, the officers of the church laboured to obtain a uniformity in religion, in the kingdoms or nations to which they respectively belonged, as if the church in their district had been the whole church of Christ on earth.
The ministry were too inattentive to the church’s independency of the civil governments; while the civil rulers, taking advantage of this, endeavoured to make the church, in her external form, a creature of state policy, and but too far succeeded. Hence their ecclesiastical constitutions, and confessions, instead of preserving that unity which ought to subsist, among the different branches of one great family—were, in a great measure, moulded into the frame of the respective civil governments where they were made. Their ecclesiastical standards respectively, became the bond of their own internal communion—while, as separate and independent governments, they held a friendly correspondence. They did not condemn each other’s establishments, nor did they view their respective confessions of faith as erroneous. They admitted also an occasional communion with each other, according to circumstances. This communion, however, was rather external than internal.

UPDATE 5/10/13:  The FPCS has recently released a new catechism of its distinctive principles that deals with the subject of the international catholicity of the church.

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