WHY IT IS NECESSARY TO DISCUSS THIS
Because divided denominations (understanding a presbyterian system of church government) reject each others' de jure legitimacy and authority, it is necessary for us to examine the various denominations that exist to determine who truly has the right of separate existence. If Denomination A and Denomination B are separate, and the separation is because Denomination A has introduced impurities into its worship (such as uninspired hymns) that officers in the church are not permitted to oppose, then Denomination B has a right and a duty to remain separated from Denomination A but not vice versa. Denomination B is justified in rejecting Denomination A's de jure authority. This implies a duty, all other things being equal, for all people to remain in formal communion with Denomination B but to leave formal communion with Denomination A. Therefore, we cannot simply look around us and feel justified in being members of any fairly orthodox denomination we can find. We must examine the historical and doctrinal reasons for separation, so far as these are accessible to us, and decide who has the better claim to de jure legitimacy, and then we have a moral obligation to join that denomination and no other. To do otherwise, under normal circumstances (recognizing situations where practicality makes this difficult and even sometimes impossible), is to abet schism in the Body of Christ.
So let me lay out my reasons why I think the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (FPCS) is the right denomination to join. I do not intend to go through each issue I will raise point by point and prove the validity of my position in each instance. For example, part of my reasoning will include a commitment to exclusive psalmody. I do not intend to provide an argument for exclusive psalmody in this post, but I will simply note my position on it and how it impacts my thinking on the topic under discussion. I will do this with many other issues as well. If I tried to prove everything I will claim in this article in this one post, it would quickly turn into a rather large book! All I intend to do here is provide a basic, informal outline of why it is that I favor the FPCS's claim. Also, I will focus on some issues and areas of history more than others in my outline.
I should add here that, at the present, I am very distant from the nearest FPCS congregation, and so am somewhat isolated (although I and my family are now adherent members of the church). I have done a thorough study of the church, including a great deal of interpersonal interaction with lots of people (members, friends, and enemies), and I am convinced that my conclusions here are the best reading of the objective evidence. Is it possible that I might find, in the future, that there is something about the FPCS which de-legitimates its claim to be the right denomination to join? Certainly. But, as of now, I have no reason to think that will turn out to be the case. Human knowledge often has a certain tentativeness to it, particularly when it involves an examination of complex theological, philosophical, historical, and social matters. And yet, having acknowledged that tentativeness, we often have good reason to go ahead and draw conclusions. That is my position here.
THE EARLY CATHOLIC TRADITION THROUGH THE REFORMATION
I think it most helpful to approach this topic historically, because part of the claim to be the proper de jure denomination rests on historical factors. Going back through church history, we start with the church of the apostles. I am convinced that the early, mainstream catholic position is the rightful heir to the apostolic church--as opposed to, say, the gnostic heretics. I'm not going to go into my reasoning here, but if you want to see a great case for this, I would highly recommend reading Irenaeus's book Against Heresies, especially starting in Book 3. Iranaeus does a great job showing the historical and Scriptural pedigree of the catholic churches as contrasted with the horrible pedigree of the gnostics.
I also favor the catholic line in its rejection of various Trinitarian and Christological heresies that rose up in the early church--such as Arianism, Nestorianism, and Eutychianism--and in its rejection of Pelagianism. In short, I favor the catholic faith of the church fathers. I believe that faith is true, and the heresies that opposed it are false, and thus that the catholic churches maintained the proper de jure line during those early years (though not without some imperfections of their own, particularly as the centuries rolled along).
I find the eastern-western schism of 1054 difficult to evaluate. I think that both sides were right and wrong about different things. Certainly the eastern churches were right not to accept the growing power of the Roman papacy, but the eastern churches were also riddled with a strong semi-Pelagian theology, among other errors, while the western church better preserved Augustinianism. As I consider the Augustinian as opposed to semi-Pelagian view to be central to the gospel itself, I take this very seriously. On the whole, right now, my inclination is to go with the western church, in that it better preserved the gospel at that time, all things considered (though not necessarily hugely better). Another possible way of looking at this is to say that as there were attempts to patch up the schism over the next few centuries after 1054, the schism wasn't fully completed until close to the time of the Reformation, after which time the issue of who was more right becomes moot for reasons we are about to address.
Note that being the proper de jure church for the time period does not at all necessarily imply that a church is anywhere close to perfection. It is admitted on all hands that the late medieval western church was a huge mess in many ways, and yet I would still locate the line of de jure authority through that church during that time on the grounds that an alternative denomination had not yet been established to repudiate the Roman errors. There were, certainly, small groups here and there that opposed the Roman errors, such as the Waldenses, the Hussites, the Lollards, etc. But during the time between 1000 to 1500, these groups remained so relatively unestablished, scattered, small, and not always orthodox in every matter, that I do not count them as constituting a clear, world-wide alternative to the church in communion with Rome in the west (though I may count these groups as having de jure legitimacy along with the larger Roman church on a small scale and provincially). When a church falls into constitutional error in such a way that officers cannot protest against it and avoid sin themselves by being complicit with it, those officers have a right and a duty, after pursuing first all ordinary channels of reform as much as reasonably possible, to leave the larger body and continue the true de jure church in separation from it. However, until something like this happens, we should consider lawful authority to continue to reside with the existing body. We see these procedural principles outlined in Matthew 18, for example, where Christ tells us to deal with problems in the church through formal channels of authority. We do not have the authority to excommunicate people by ourselves as members, or even as individual officers. We must pursue discipline through the proper courts of the church. Only if this fails can we sometimes take extraordinary action, and until such action is formally taken, we cannot act as if the deed has already been done.
I certainly believe that the Protestant Reformation was justified in its break from Rome. Rome was given hundreds of years to reform, and it refused to do so. I consider the full break to have occurred at the time of the Roman Council of Trent. After this time, I trace the de jure line of the church through the Reformation churches rather than through Rome (or through the eastern churches).
THE REFORMATION AND THE REFORMED TRADITION
There are various branches of the Reformation. I favor the line of the magisterial Reformation of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli over the Anabaptists and other sectarian groups. The Zwinglians and the Calvinists were able to come to agreement and unite in a unified Reformed faith, but the Lutherans and the Reformed were never able to come to full unity. The distance between them only grew wider over time. I would probably place the final Lutheran and Reformed division somewhere in the latter-half of the sixteenth century (at the point where it became clear the two groups were going to continue to go their separate ways), and I favor the Reformed side of the split. The Lutherans were compromised on the regulative principle of worship as well as on central features of predestination and salvation by grace, among other issues.
From the middle of the sixteenth century until about 1690, I think of all the Reformed churches as being basically united. Certainly, during this time, differences were emerging, such as the solidification of the practice of celebrating extra-biblical holidays in the continental Reformed churches, but things were still fluid enough that I don't count any finalized breaks until the end of the seventeenth century. The Church of England, as well, was in flux during this time. It never reformed to the degree of the continental or Scottish churches, but there were ongoing attempts to reform it. The ongoing attempts to preserve unity with all the Reformed churches as well as with the Church of England are exemplified, I think, by the Synod of Dordt, which maintained an international character (at least in terms of its condemnation of Arminianism), and by the Second Reformation period in Britain. There were delegates from many national Reformed churches at Dordt. During the Second Reformation period, there was an attempt to reform the Church of England to bring it in line with Scotland and other Reformed churches, and there were attempts to preserve bridges with the continental churches as well.
However, things changed at the end of the seventeenth century. The latter-half of the seventeenth century saw the rise of the popularity of the idea of toleration. For really the first time, it began to be conceivable to Europeans that nations might allow multiple competing churches to exist together. At this point, also, the idea first begins to enter the church that multiple churches could exist side by side in the same nation. In short, the end of the seventeenth century saw the rise of the idea of multiple disestablished denominations existing together in the same nation. Before this time, such a thing was nearly literally unthinkable to most people. I call the period from 1517 to 1690 the Age of Reformation, and I call the period from 1690 to the present the Age of Denominationalism. When William of Orange took over Britain, he restored Presbyterianism to Scotland, but preserved Episcopalianism in England. At this point, I think we see a change in practical attitudes towards the unity of the church. The Church of Scotland, for example, is no longer as active in attempting to promote an international Presbyterianism among all the Reformed churches. Instead, she turns inward and begins to deal more and more with internal disagreements and divisions. In 1690, the Reformed Presbyterians split off from the Revolution Settlement Church of Scotland, creating the first split in the Scottish Presbyterian ranks to last down to the present day. From 1690 on, instead of an international Reformed movement, we see all the national Reformed churches split into more and more rival sects, to the point where the idea of multiple denominations to choose from has become a natural part of our environment.
I think of 1690, with the Revolution Settlement in Britain, as being the time when the continental churches and the Church of England can be considered to be fully separated from the Church of Scotland, because after this time there is no real attempt to bring unity in practice between the different groups and thus no possibility for the groups to be in full communion. I favor the Church of Scotland over the others, and consider it to have preserved from that time on the true de jure line of legitimacy and authority. The continental churches have remained very close to the Scottish tradition, but they have come to tolerate and even to enforce the practice of churches observing extra-biblical holy days--such as Easter and Christmas--as a part of the ongoing worship of the church. I believe that this is a violation of the regulative principle of worship. I agree, rather, with the Scottish position on extra-biblical holy days, as expressed in the Westminster Directory for Public Worship: "THERE is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord's day, which is the Christian Sabbath. Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued. Nevertheless, it is lawful and necessary, upon special emergent occasions, to separate a day or days for publick fasting or thanksgiving, as the several eminent and extraordinary dispensations of God's providence shall administer cause and opportunity to his people." Of course, anyone may focus on the birth of Christ on December 25, etc., if he so wishes, but we are not free to view the observance of such holy days as a required and necessary thing--in other words, as part of the prescribed worship of the church--nor are we free to enforce these festivals on others (as is done when they are made a part of the church's corporate worship and life). The Church of England has maintained many more extra-biblical traditions in its practices. So our focus from here on out narrows to the history of the Church of Scotland from 1690 onwards.
To be continued in Part II . . .