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An examination of the general principles of Dr Stillingfleet’s book of the “Unreasonableness of Separation.”
The differences and contests among professed Christians about the nature, power, order, rule, and residence of the gospel church-state, with the interest of each dissenting party therein, have not only been great and of long continuance, but have also so despised [defied?] all ways and means of allaying or abatement, that they seem to be more and more inflamed every day, and to threaten more pernicious consequents than any they have already produced; which yet have been of the worst of evils that the world for some ages hath groaned under: for the communion so much talked of amongst churches is almost come only unto an agreement and oneness in design for the mutual and forcible extermination of one another; at least, this is the professed principle of them who lay the loudest claim to the name and title, with all the rights and privileges, of the church. Nor are others far remote from the same design, who adjudge all who dissent from themselves into such a condition as wherein they are much inclined to think it meet they should be destroyed. That which animates this contest, which gives it life and fierceness, is a supposed enclosure of certain privileges and advantages, spiritual and temporal, real or pretended, unto the church-state contended about. Hence, most men seem to think that the principal, if not their only concernment in religion, is of what church they are; so as that a dissent from them is so evil as that there is almost nothing else that hath any very considerable evil in it. When this is once well rivetted in their minds by them whose secular advantages lie in the enclosure, they are in a readiness to bear a share in all the evils that unavoidably ensue on such divisions. By this means, among others, is the state or condition of Christian religion, as unto its public profession, become at this day so deplorable as cannot well be expressed. What with the bloody and desolating wars of princes and potentates, and what with the degeneracy of the community of the people from the rule of the gospel, in love, meekness, self-denial, holiness, zeal, the universal mortification of sin, and fruitfulness in good works, the profession of Christianity is become but a sad representation of the virtues of Him who calls out of darkness into his marvellous light. Neither doth there seem at present to be any design or expectation in the most for the ending of controversies about the church but force and the sword; which God forbid.
It is, therefore, high time that a sober inquiry be made, whether there be any such church-state of divine institution as those contended about; for if it should appear upon trial that indeed there is not, but that all the fierce digladiations of the parties at variance, with the doleful effects that attend them, have proceeded on a false supposition, in an adherence whereunto they are confirmed by their interests, some advances may be made towards their abatement. However, if this may not be attained, yet directions may be taken from the discovery of the truth, for the use of them who are willing to be delivered from all concernment in these fruitless, endless contests, and to reduce their whole practice in religion unto the institutions, rules, and commands of our Lord Jesus Christ. And where all hopes of a general reformation seem to fail, it savours somewhat of an unwarrantable severity to forbid them to reform themselves who are willing so to do; provided they admit of no other rule in what they so do but the declaration of the mind of Christ in the gospel, carrying it peaceably towards all men, and firmly adhering unto the faith once delivered unto the saints.
To make an entrance into this inquiry the ensuing discourse is designed. And there can be no way of the management of it but by a diligent, impartial search into the nature, order, power, and rule of the gospel church-state, as instituted, determined, and limited by our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles. When we depart from this rule, so as not to be regulated by it in all instances of fact or pleas of right that afterward fall out, we fall into the confusion of various presumptions, suited unto the apprehensions and interests of men, imposed on them from the circumstances of the ages wherein they lived. Yet is it not to be denied but that much light into the nature of apostolical institutions may be received from the declared principles and practices of the first churches, for the space of two hundred years or thereabouts. But that, after this, the churches did insensibly depart in various degrees from the state, rule, and order of the apostolical churches, must, I suppose, be acknowledged by all those who groan under the final issue of that gradual degeneracy in the papal antichristian tyranny; for Rome was not built in a day, nor was this change introduced at once or in one age. Nor were the lesser alterations which began this declension so prejudicial unto the being, order, and purity of the churches, as they proved afterward, through a continual additional increase in succeeding ages.
Having affirmed something of this nature in my brief “Vindication of the Nonconformists from the Guilt of Schism,” the Rev. Dr Stillingfleet, in his late treatise, entitled “The Unreasonableness of Separation,” doth not only deny it, but reflects with some severity upon the mention of it, part 2 sect. 3, pp. 225, 226, etc. I shall, therefore, on this occasion, resume the consideration of it, although it will be spoken unto also afterwards.
The words he opposeth are these:— “It is possible that an impartial account may, ere long, be given of the state and ways of the first churches after the decease of the apostles; wherein it will be made to appear how they did insensibly deviate in many things from the rule of their first institution; so as that though their mistakes were of small moment, and not prejudicial unto their faith and order, yet occasion was administered unto succeeding ages to increase those deviations until they issued in a fatal apostasy.” I yet suppose these words inoffensive, and agreeable unto the sentiments of the generality of Protestants; for, —
1. Unto the first churches after the apostles I ascribe nothing but such small mistakes as did no way prejudice their faith or order; and that they did preserve the latter as well as the former, as unto all the substantial parts of it, shall be afterwards declared. Nor do I reflect any more upon them than did Hegesippus in Eusebius, who confines the virgin purity of the church unto the days of the apostles, lib. iii. cap. 29. The greater deviations, which I intend, began not until after the end of the second century. But, —
2. To evince the improbability of any alteration in church rule and order upon my own principles, he intimates, both here and afterward, that “my judgment is that the government of the church was democratical, and the power of it in the people, in distinction from its officers:” which is a great mistake; I never thought, I never wrote any such thing. I do believe that the authoritative rule or government of the church was, is, and ought to be, in the elders and rulers of it, being an act of the office-power committed unto them by Christ himself. Howbeit, my judgment is, that they ought not to rule the church with force, tyranny, and corporal penalties, or without their own consent; whereof we shall treat afterward. There are also other mistakes in the same discourse, which I shall not insist upon.
3. This, therefore, is that which he opposeth, — namely, that there was a deviation in various degrees, and falling of from the original institution, order, and rule of the church, until it issued in a fatal apostasy. This is that which, on the present occasion, must be farther spoken unto; for if this be not true, I confess there is an end of this contest, and we must all acquiesce in the state, rule, and order that was in the church of Rome before the Reformation. But we may observe something yet farther in the vindication and confirmation of this truth, which I acknowledge to be the foundation of all that we plead for in point of church reformation; as, —
(1.) That the reasons and arguings of the Doctor in this matter, — the necessity of his cause compelling him thereunto, — are the same with those of the Papists about the apostasy of their church, in faith, order, and worship, wherewith they are charged, namely, when, where, how was this alteration made? who made opposition unto it? and the like. When these inquiries are multiplied by the Papists, as unto the whole causes between them and us, he knows well enough how to give satisfactory answers unto them, and so might do in this particular unto himself also; but I shall endeavour to ease him of that trouble at present. Only, I must say that it is fallen out somewhat unexpectedly that the ruins of the principal bulwark of the Papacy, which hath been effectually demolished by the writings of Protestants of all sorts, should be endeavoured to be repaired by a person justly made eminent by his defence of the protestant religion against those of the church of Rome.
(2.) But it may be pleaded, that although the churches following the first ages did insensibly degenerate from the purity and simplicity of gospel faith and worship, yet they neither did nor could do so from an adherence unto and abiding in their original constitution, or from the due observation of church order, rule, and discipline, least of all could this happen in the case of diocesan episcopacy. I answer, —
[1.] That as unto the original of any thing that looks like diocesan episcopacy, or the pastoral relation of one person of a distinct order from presbyters unto many particular complete churches with officers of their own, with power and jurisdiction in them and over them, unto the abridgment of the exercise of that right and power unto their own edification which every true church is intrusted withal by Jesus Christ, it is very uncertain, and was introduced by insensible degrees, according unto the effectual working of the mystery of iniquity. Some say that there were two distinct orders, — namely, those of bishops and presbyters, — instituted at first in all churches planted by the apostles; but as the contrary may be evidently proved, so a supposition of it would no way promote the cause of diocesan episcopacy, until those who plead for it have demonstrated the state of the churches wherein they were placed to be of the same nature with those now called diocesan. Wherefore, this hypothesis begins generally to be deserted as it seems to be by this author. Others suppose that immediately upon, or at, or after the decease of the apostles, this new order of bishops was appointed, to succeed the apostles in the government of the churches that were then gathered or planted; but how, when, or by whom, — by what authority, apostolical and divine, or ecclesiastical only and human, — none can declare, seeing there is not the least footstep of any such thing either in the Scripture or in the records that remain of the primitive churches. Others think this new order of officers took its occasional rise from the practice of the presbyters of the church at Alexandria, who chose out one among themselves constantly to preside in the rule of the church and in all matters of order, unto whom they ascribed some kind of pre-eminence and dignity, peculiarly appropriating unto him the name of bishop. And if this be true as unto matter of fact, I reckon it unto the beginnings of those less harmful deviations from their original constitution which I assigned unto primitive churches; but many additions must be made hereunto before it will help the cause of diocesan episcopacy. What other occasions hereof were given or taken, what advantages were made use of to promote this alteration, shall be touched upon afterwards.
[2.] Why may not the churches be supposed to have departed from their original constitution, order, and rule, as well as from their first faith and worship? which they did gradually, in many successive ages, until both were utterly corrupted. The causes, occasions, and temptations leading unto the former, are to the full as pregnant as those leading unto the latter; for, —
1st. There was no vicious, corrupt disposition of mind that began more early to work in church-officers, nor did more grow and thrive in the minds of many, than ambition, with desire of pre-eminence, dignity, and rule. It is not to be supposed that Diotrephes was alone in his desire of pre-eminence, nor in the irregular actings of his unduly assumed authority. However, we have one signal instance in him of the deviation that was in the church with him, from the rule of its original constitution; for he prevailed so far therein as, by his own single episcopal power, to reject the authority of the apostles, and to cast them out of the church who complied not with his humour. How effectually the same ambition wrought afterward, in many others possessing the same place in their churches with Diotrephes, is sufficiently evident in all ecclesiastical histories. It is far from being the only instance of the corruption of church order and rule by the influence of this ambition, yet it is one that is pregnant, which is given us by Ambrose; for, saith he, “Ecclesia ut synagoga, seniores habuit, quorum sine consilio nihil agebatur in ecclesia; quod quâ negligentiâ obsoleverit nescio, nisi forte doctorum desidiâ, aut magis superbiâ, dum soli volunt aliquid videri,” in 1 ad Timoth. cap. 5. It seems there was some alteration in church rule and order in his time, whose beginning and progress he could not well discover and trace, but knew well enough that so it was then come to pass. And if he, who lived so near the times wherein such alterations were made, could not yet discover their first insinuation nor their subtle progress, it is unreasonable to exact a strict account of us in things of the same nature, who live so many ages after their first introduction. But this he judgeth, that it was the pride or ambition of the doctors of the church which introduced that alteration in its order. Whereas, therefore, we see in the event that all deviations from the original constitution of churches, all alterations in their rule and order, did issue in a compliance with the ambition of church-rulers, as it did in the papal church, — and this ambition was signally noted as one of the first depraved inclinations of mind that wrought in ecclesiastical rulers, and which, in the fourth and fifth centuries, openly proclaimed itself, unto the scandal of Christian religion, — there was a greater disposition in them unto a deviation from the original institution, rule, and order of the church, no way suited unto the satisfaction of that ambition, than unto a defection from the purity of faith and worship; which yet also followed.
2dly. As the inclination of many lay towards such a deviation, so their interests led them unto it, and their temptations cast them upon it. For, to acknowledge the truth unto our author and others, the rule and conduct of the church, the preservation of its order and discipline according unto its first institution, and the directions given in the Scripture about it, are, according unto our apprehension of these things, a matter so weighty in itself, so dangerous as unto its issue, attended with so many difficulties, trials, and temptations, laid under such severe interdictions of lordly power, or seeking either of wealth or dignity, that no wise man will ever undertake it, but merely out of a sense of a call from Christ unto it, and in compliance with that duty which he owes unto him. It is no pleasant thing unto flesh and blood to be engaged in the conduct and oversight of Christ’s volunteers; — to bear with their manners; to exercise all patience towards them in their infirmities and temptations; to watch continually over their walkings and conversation, and thereon personally to exhort and admonish them all; to search diligently and scrupulously into the rule of the Scripture for their warranty in every act of their power and duty; under all their weaknesses and miscarriages, continuing a high valuation of them, as of the flock of God, “which he hath purchased with his own blood;” with sundry other things of the like kind; all under an abiding sense of the near approach of that great account which they must give of the whole trust and charge committed unto them before the judgment-seat of Christ: for the most part peculiarly exposed unto all manner of dangers, troubles, and persecutions, without the least encouragement from wealth, power, or honour. It is no wonder, therefore, if many in the primitive times were willing gradually to extricate themselves out of this uneasy condition, and to embrace all occasions and opportunities of introducing insensibly another rule and order into the churches, that might tend more unto the exaltation of their own power, authority, and dignity, and free them in some measure from the weight of that important charge, and continual care with labour, which a diligent and strict adherence unto the first institution of churches, and rules given for their order and government in the Scripture, would have obliged them unto. And this was done accordingly, until, in the fourth and fifth centuries, and so onward, the bishops, under various titles, began by their arbitrary rules and canons to dispose of the flock of Christ, to part and divide them among themselves, Without their own knowledge or consent, as if they had conquered them by the sword. “This bishop shall have such a share and number of them under his power, and that other so many; so far shall the jurisdiction of one extend, and so far that of another,” was the subject of many of their decrees and laws for the rule of the church. But yet neither did they long keep within those bounds and limits which their more modest ambition had at first prescribed unto them, but took occasion from these beginnings to contend among themselves about pre-eminence, dignity, and power; in which the bishop of Rome at length remained master of the field, thereby obtaining a second conquest of the world.
3dly. That there was such a gradual deviation from the original institution of churches, their order and rule, is manifest in the event; for the change became at length as great as the distance is between the gospel and the rule of Christ over his church on the one hand, and the canon law with the pope or antichrist set over the Church on the other. This change was not wrought at once, not in one age, but by an insensible progress, even from the days of the apostles unto those dark and evil times wherein the popes of Rome were exalted into an absolute tyranny over all churches, unto the satiety of their ambition; for, —
4thly. This mystery of iniquity began to work in the days of the apostles themselves, in the suggestions of Satan and the lusts of men, though in a manner latent and imperceptible unto the wisest and best of men; for that this mystery of iniquity consisted in the effectual workings of the pride, ambition, and other vices of the minds of men, excited, enticed, and guided by the craft of Satan, until it issued in the idolatrous, persecuting state of the church of Rome, wherein all church rule, Order, and worship of divine institution was utterly destroyed or corrupted, we shall believe, until we see an answer given unto the learned writings of all sorts of Protestants, whereby it hath been proved.
These things are sufficient to vindicate the truth of the assertion which the Doctor opposeth, and to free it from his exceptions; but because, as was observed before, the supposition hereof is the foundation of all our present contests about church order and rule, I shall yet proceed a little farther in the declaration of the way and manner whereby the apostasy asserted was begun and carried on. And I shall not herein insist on particular instances, nor make a transcription of stories out of ancient writers giving evidence unto the truth, because it hath been abundantly done by others, especially those of Magdeburg in the sixth and seventh chapters of their Centuries, unto whose observations many other learned men have made considerable additions; but I shall only treat in general of the causes, ways, and manner of the beginning and progress of the apostasy or declension of churches from their first institution, which fell out in the successive ages after the apostles, especially after the end of the second century, until when divine institutions, as unto the substance of them, were preserved entire.
Decays in any kind, even in things natural and political, are hardly discernible but in and by their effects. When an hectic distemper befalls the body of any man, it is ofttimes not to be discerned until it is impossible to be cured. The Roman historian gives this advice unto his readers, after he hath considered the ways and means whereby the empire came to its greatness: “Labente deinde disciplinâ velut dissidentes primo mores sequatur animo; deinde ut magis magisque lapsi sint, tum ire cæperint præcipites, donec ad hæc tempora, quibus nec vitia nostra, nec remedia pati possumus, periculum est,” Liv. Præfat. His words do not give us a more graphical description of the rise and decay, as unto virtue and vice, of the Roman empire, than of the Roman church, as unto its rise by holiness and devotion, and its ruin by sensuality, ambition, the utter neglect of the discipline of Christ, and superstition. But yet let any man peruse that historian, who wrote with this express design, he shall hardly fix upon many of those instances whereby the empire came into that deplorable condition whereto it was not able to bear its distempers nor its cure, such as was the state of the church before the Reformation. But besides the common difficulty of discovering the beginnings and gradual progression of decays, declensions, and apostasy, those which we treat of were begun and carried on in a mysterious manner; that is, by the effectual working of “the mystery of iniquity.” As this almost hid totally the work of it from the ages wherein it was wrought, so it renders the discovery of it now accomplished the more difficult. Passengers in a ship setting out to sea ofttimes discern not the progressive motion of the ship, yea, for a while the land rather seems to move from them than the vessel wherein they are from it; but after a season, the consideration of what distance they are at from their port gives them sufficient assurance of the progress that hath been made: so this declension of the churches from their primitive order and institution is discoverable rather by measuring the distance between what it left and what it arrived unto, than by express instances of it. But yet is it not altogether like unto that of a ship at sea, but rather unto “the way of a serpent on a rock,” which leaves some slime in all its turnings and windings, whereby it may be traced. Such marks are left on record of the serpentine works of this mystery of iniquity as whereby it may be traced, with more or less evidence, from its original interests unto its accomplishment.
The principal promoting causes of this defection on the part of men were those assigned by St Ambrose, in one instance of it, — namely, the negligence of the people, and the ambition of the clergy. I speak as unto the state, rule, discipline, and order of the church; for as unto the doctrine and worship of it, there were many other causes and means of their corruption, which belong not unto our present purpose. But as unto the alterations that were begun and carried on in the state, order, and rule of the church, they arose from those springs of negligence on the one hand, and ambition on the other, with want of skill and wisdom to manage outward occurrences and incidences, or what alteration fell out in the outward state and condition of the church in this world. For hence it came to pass, that in the accession of the nations in general unto the profession of the gospel, church-order was suited and framed unto their secular state, when they ought to have been brought into the spiritual state and order of the church, leaving their political state entire unto themselves. Herein, I say, did the guides of the church certainly miss their rule and depart from it, in the days of Constantine the emperor, and afterward under other Christian emperors, when whole towns, cities, yea, and nations, offered at once to join themselves unto it. Evident it is that they were not wrought hereunto by the same power, nor induced unto it on the same motives, or led by the same means, with those who formerly under persecution were converted unto the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. And this quickly manifested itself in the lives and conversations of many, yea, of the most of them. Hence those which were wise quickly understood that what the church had got in multitude and number it had lost in the beauty and glory of its holy profession. Chrysostom in particular complains of it frequently, and in many places cries out, “What have I to do with this multitude? A few serious believers are more worth than them all.” However, the guides of the church thought meet to receive them, with all their multitudes, into their communion, at least so far as to place them under the jurisdiction of such and such episcopal sees; for hereby their own power, authority, dignity, revenues, were enlarged and mightily increased. On this occasion, the ancient, primitive, way of admitting members into the church being relinquished, the consideration of their personal qualifications and real conversion unto God omitted, such multitudes being received as could not partake in all acts and duties of communion with those particular churches whereunto they were disposed, and being the most of them unfit to be ruled by the power and influence of the commands of Christ on their minds and consciences, it was impossible but that a great alteration must ensue in the state, order, and rule of the churches, and a great deviation from their original institution. Men may say that this alteration was necessary, that it was good and useful, that it was but the accommodation of general rules unto especial occasions and circumstances; but that there was an alteration hereon in all these things none can with modesty deny. And this is enough unto my present design, being only to prove that such alterations and deviations did of old fall out. Neither ought we to cover the provoking degeneracy of the generality of Christians in the fourth and fifth centuries, with those that followed. The consideration of it is necessary unto the vindication of the holy providence of God in the government of the world, and of the faithfulness Of Christ in his dealing with his church; for there hath been no nation in the world which publicly received Christian religion, but it hath been wasted and destroyed by the sword of pagan idolaters, or such as are no better than they. At first, all the provinces of the western empire were, one after another, made desolate by the Pagan nations of the northern countries; who themselves did afterward so turn Christians as to lay among them the foundation of Antichristianism, Rev. xvii. 12, 13. The eastern empire, comprehending the residue of the provinces that had embraced the Christian religion, was first desolated in the chief branches of it by the Saracens, and at length utterly destroyed by the Turks. And I pray God that the like fate doth not at this day hang over the reformed nations, as from their profession they are called. Do we think that all this was without cause? Did God give up his inheritance to the spoil of barbarous infidels without such provocations as the passing by whereof was inconsistent with the holiness and righteousness of his rule? It was not the wisdom, nor the courage, nor the multitude of their enemies, but their own sins, wickedness, superstition, and apostasy from the rule of gospel order, worship, and obedience, which ruined all Christian nations.
But to give farther evidence hereunto, I shall consider the causes aforementioned distinctly and apart. And the first of them is the negligence of the people themselves. But in this negligence I comprise both the ignorance, sloth, worldliness, decay in gifts and graces, with superstition in sundry instances, that in many of them were the causes of it. Dr Stillingfleet pleads that “it is very unlikely that the people would forego their interest in the government of the churches, if ever they had any such thing, without great noise and trouble. For,” saith he, “government is so nice and tender a thing, and every one is so much concerned for his share in it, that men are not easily induced to part with it. Let us suppose the judgment of the church to have been democratical at first, as Dr Owen seems to do; is it probable that the people would have been wheedled out of the sweetness of government so soon and made no noise about it?” p. 226. His mistake about my judgment herein hath been marked before. No other interest or share in the government is ascribed by us unto the people, but that they may be ruled by their own consent, and that they may be allowed to yield obedience in the church unto the commands of Christ and his apostles, given unto them for that end. This interest they neither did nor could forego without their own sin and guilt, in neglecting the exercise of the gifts and graces which they ought to have had, and the performance of the duties whereunto they were obliged. But for any engagement on their minds from the “sweetness of government,” wherein their concern principally consists, in an understanding, voluntary obedience unto the commands of Christ, they had nothing of it. Take also, in general, government to be, as the government of the church is, merely a duty, labour, and service, without those advantages of power, ease, dignity, and wealth, which have been annexed unto it, and it will be hard to discover such “a nicety” or “sweetness” in it as to oblige unto pertinacy in an adherence unto it. If the government of the church were apprehended to consist in men’s giving themselves wholly to the word and prayer; in watching continually over the flock; in accurate carefulness to do and act nothing in the church but in the name and authority of Christ, by the warranty of his commands; with a constant exercise of all gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit, which they have received, in these and all other duties of their office; and that without the least appearance of domination, or the procuring of dignity, secular honours, and revenues thereby, — it may be, a share and interest in it would not be so earnestly coveted and sought after as at present it is. Nor is there any more pertinency in his ensuing supposal of a “change in the government of the congregational churches in London, in setting up one man to rule over them all and to appoint their several teachers,” etc., p. 227, “which could not be done without noise.” It is in vain to fear it, —
― “Non isto vivimus illic
Quo tu rere, modo,”
and impertinent in this case to suppose it; for it speaks of a sudden total alteration in the state, order, and rule of churches, to be made at once, whereas our discourse is of that which was gradual in many ages, by degrees almost imperceptible. But yet I can give no security that the churches of our way shall not, in process of time, decline from their primitive constitution and order, either in their power and spirit, in faith and love, or in the outward practice of them, unless they continually watch against all beginnings and occasions of such declensions, and frequently renew their reformation; or if it be otherwise, they will have better success man any churches in the world ever yet had, even those that were of the planting of the apostles themselves, as is manifested in the judgment that our Lord Jesus Christ passed on them, Rev. ii., iii. The negligence of the people, which issued in their unfitness to be disposed of and ruled according to the principles of the first constitution of church-order, may be considered either as it gave occasion unto those lesser deviations from the rule, which did not much prejudice the faith and order of the churches, or as it occasioned greater alterations in the ensuing ages. And, —
1. The great, and perhaps in some things excessive, veneration which they had of their bishops or pastors, did probably occasion in them some neglect of their own duty; for they were easily induced hereon, not only implicitly to leave the management of all church affairs unto them, but also zealously to comply with their mistakes. The church of Smyrna, giving an account of the martyrdom of holy Polycarpus, tells us that when he ascended the pile wherein he was to be burned, “he pulled off his own clothes, and endeavoured to pull off his shoes, which he had not done before, because the faithful strove among themselves who should soonest touch his body,” Eusebius lib. iv. cap. 15. I think there can be no veneration due to a man which was not so unto that great and holy person. But those who did so express it might easily be induced to place too much of their religion in an implicit compliance with them unto whom they were so devoted. Hence a negligence in themselves as unto their particular duties did ensue. They were quickly far if rein esteeming it their duty to say unto their pastor or bishop that he should “take heed to the ministry which he had received in the Lord, to fulfil it,” as the apostle enjoins the Colossians to say to Archippus their pastor, chap. iv. 17, but began to think that the glory of obsequious obedience was all that was left unto them. And hence did some of the clergy begin to assume to themselves, and to ascribe unto one another, great swelling titles of honour and names of dignity (amongst which the blasphemous title of “His Holiness” was at length appropriated unto the bishop of Rome); wherein they openly departed from the apostolical simplicity and gravity. But these things fell out after the writing of the epistle of Clemens, and of those of the churches of Vienne and Smyrna, wherein no such titles do appear.
2. Many of the particular churches of the first plantations increasing greatly in the number of their members, it was neither convenient nor safe that the whole multitude should on all occasions come together, as they did at first, to consult about their common concerns, and discharge the duties of their communion; for by reason of danger from their numerous conventions, they met in several parcels as they had opportunity. Herewith they were contented, unless it were upon the greater occasions of choosing their officers and the like, whereon the whole church met together. This made them leave the ordinary administration of all things in the church Unto the elders of it, not concerning themselves farther therein; but still continuing members of the same particular church. It is altogether improbable what Platina from Damasus affirms, in the Life of Euarestus, about the end of the first century, that he distributed the faithful at Rome into distinct titles or parishes, with distinct presbyters of their own; for it is apparent that in those days, wherein persecution was at its height, the meetings of believers were occasional, with respect unto their security, ofttimes by night, sometimes in caves under the earth, or in deserted burial-places, at best in private houses. And they had for what they did the example of the apostolical churches, Acts i. 13, 14, ii. 46, iv. 23–31, xii. 12, xviii. 7, xx. 8, xxi. 8. Instances of such meetings may be multiplied, especially in the church of Rome. And to manifest that they took this course upon necessity, when peace began to be restored at any time unto them, they designed temples that might receive the whole multitude of the church together. The distribution mentioned into titles and parishes began a long time after, and in very few places within three hundred years. In this state it is easy to conceive what alterations might fall out in some churches from their primitive order, especially how the people might desert their diligence and duty in attending unto all the concerns of the church. And if those things which the apostles wrote unto them in their epistles, the instructions, directions, and commands how in all things they should act and deport themselves in the church, be esteemed to be obligatory in all ages, I cannot see how, after the second century, they were much complied withal, unless it were in the single instance of choosing their own officers or rulers.
But, secondly, After these there ensued greater occasions of greater variations from the primitive institution and order of the churches on the part of the people; for, —
1. Such numbers of them were received into a relation unto particular churches as was inconsistent with the ends of their institution and the observance of the communion required in them; as will afterward appear. And the reliefs that were invented for this inconveniency in distinct conventions, supplied with the administration of the word and sacraments from the first church, or by stated titles, did alter the state of the church.
Among those multitudes which were added unto the churches, especially in the fourth century, many, if not the most, did come short inexpressibly in knowledge, gifts, grace, holiness, and uprightness of conversation of the primitive Christians, as the writers of that age complain. And being hereby incapable of walking according unto the order, rule, and discipline of the apostolical churches, there seemed to be a necessity of another rule, of other ways and means for their government, without their own concurrence or consent, than what was at first appointed, which were gradually introduced; whence the original of a multitude of those canons, which were arbitrarily invented afterward for their rule and government, is to be derived. And it may be made to appear that the accommodation of the rule, yea, and of the worship of the church, in the several ages of it, unto the ignorance, manners, and inclinations of the people, who were then easily won unto the outward profession of Christian religion, was one means of the ruin of them both, until they issued in downright tyranny and idolatry.
But much more of the cause of the deviation of the churches from their primitive rule and order is to be ascribed unto the ambition and love of pre-eminence in many of the clergy, or rulers of the churches; but this is no place nor season to manifest this by instances, besides it hath been done by others. I shall therefore inquire only into one or two things in particular, which are of principal consideration in the declension of the churches from their primitive institution, order, and rule; and, —
(1.) It is evident that there was an alteration made in the state of the church as to its officers; for it issued at last in popes, patriarchs, cardinals, metropolitan and diocesan bishops, who were utterly foreign unto the state and order of the primitive churches, and that for some ages. Nor were these officers introduced into the church at once, or in one age, nor with the powers which they afterward claimed and assumed unto themselves. It was done gradually, in many succeeding ages, working by design to accommodate the state of the church unto the political state of the empire in the distribution of its government.
(2.) The beginnings of this great alteration were small, nor at all perceived in the days wherein they were first acted. Nor is it agreed, nor, as far as I see, will it ever be agreed among learned men, when first a disparity among the ordinary officers of the church, in order, degree, or power, did first begin, nor by what means it was brought about. The apostles were all equal among themselves; no one had either office or office-power above others. So were all the ordinary bishops and presbyters mentioned in the Scripture, as shall be proved afterward. No intimation is given of any pre-eminence or superiority amongst them of one over others. Yet afterward, in the third and fourth centuries, much of that nature appears. It begins to be granted that the bishops and elders mentioned in the Scripture were the same, and that there was no difference in name, office, or power, during the apostles’ times; which was the judgment of Jerome, and our author seems to me to be of the same mind, p. 267. But they say that after the decease of the apostles, there were some appointed to succeed them in that part of their office which concerned the rule of many churches. And this, they say, was done for the prevention of schism, but with ill success; for as Clemens affirms that the apostles foresaw that there would be strife and contention about episcopacy, even when it was confined unto its original order, because of the ambition of Diotrephes and others like him, so it became much more the cause of all sorts of disorders, in schisms and heresies, when it began to exalt itself in dignity and reputation. The first express attempt to corrupt and divide a church, made from within itself, was that in the church of Jerusalem, made by Thebuthis, because Simon Cleophas was chosen bishop, and he was refused, Eusebius, lib. iv. cap. 22. The same rise had the schisms of the Novatians and Donatists, the heresies of Arius, and others. Neither is there any thing certain in this pretended succession of some persons unto the apostles in that part of their office which concerns the rule of many churches by one overseer. No intimation of any such appointment by the apostles, or any of them, — no record of the concurrence of the churches themselves in and unto this alteration, — can be produced. Nor is there any analogy between the extraordinary power of every apostle over all churches and care for them, and the ordinary power of a bishop over a small number, which lot or accident disposeth unto him. Besides, it cannot be proved, no instance can be given, or hath been, for the space of two hundred years, or until the end of the second century, of any one person who had the care of more churches than one committed unto him, or did take the charge of them on himself. But whereas this change did fall out, and appears evidently so to have done, in the fourth century, we may briefly inquire into the causes and occasions of it.
Churches were originally planted in cities and towns for the most part; not absolutely, for the word was preached and churches gathered by the apostles κατὰ πόλεις καὶ χώρας, as Clemens testifieth. In such cities there was but one church, whereunto all believers did belong. I mention this the rather because our present author, who is pleased frequently to mistake my words and principles, affirms “that the thing which I should have proved is, that there were more churches at first planted in one city than one.” I know not why I should be obliged to do so, because I never said so. I do believe, indeed, that there may be more particular churches than one in one city; and that sometimes it is better that it should be so than that all believers in the same city should be kept up unto one congregation, to the obstruction of their edification. But that there were originally, or in the days of the apostles, more churches than one, in any one city or town, I do wholly deny; though I grant, at the same time, there were churches in villages also, as will appear afterward. But though there was one church only in one town or city, yet all the believers that belonged unto that church did not live in that city, but sundry of them in the fields and villages about. So Justin Martyr tells us, that on the first day of the week, when the church had its solemn assemblies, all the members of it, in the city and out of the country, the fields and villages about, met together in the same place. In process of time these believers in the country did greatly increase, by the means of the ministry of the city church, which diligently attended unto the conversion of all sorts of men, with some extraordinary helps besides. But hereon the example of the apostles was overseen; for on this account of the conversion of many unto the faith in the towns and villages of any province, they erected and planted new churches among them, not obliging them all unto that first church from whence the word went forth for their conversion. But those who succeeded them, being hindered by many reasons, which may be easily recounted, from thoughts of the multiplication of churches, chose rather to give the believers scattered up and down in the country occasional assistance by presbyters of their own, than to dispose them into a church-state and order. But after a while, their number greatly increasing, they were necessitated to supply them with a constant ministry, in several parcels or divisions. The ministers or elders thus disposed amongst them for their edification, in the administration of the ordinances of the gospel, did still relate unto and depend upon that city first church from whence they came. But the numbers of believers daily increasing, and a succession of presbyters in their distinct assemblies being found necessary, they came to be called churches, though continuing in dependence, both for a supply of officers and for rule, on the first or city church, whereunto they esteemed themselves to belong. This was the way and manner of the multiplication of Christian assemblies throughout the Roman empire; and hereby all the bishops of the first churches became, by common consent, to have a distinction from and pre-eminence above the presbyters that were fixed in the country, and a rule over those assemblies or churches themselves. And, therefore, when they met together in the council of Nice, among the first things they decreed, one was to confirm unto the bishops of the great cities that power over the neighbouring churches which they had enjoyed from this occasional rise and constitution of them. Hereby was a difference and distinction between bishops and presbyters, between mother and dependent churches, introduced, equally almost in all places, without taking any notice of the departure which was therein from the primitive pattern and institution. But these things fell out long after the days of the apostles, — namely, in the third and fourth centuries, there being no mention of them before.
2. But, secondly, There was another occasion of this alteration, which took place before that insisted on; for in many of those city churches, especially when the number of believers much increased, there were many bishops or elders, who had the rule of them in common. This is plain in the Scripture, and in the ensuing records of church affairs; and they had all the same office, the same power, and were of the same order. But after a while, to preserve order and decency among themselves and in all their proceedings, they chose one from among them who should preside in all church affairs for order’s sake, unto whom, after a season, the name of bishop began to be appropriated. Whether the rule they proceeded by herein was to choose them unto this dignity who had been first converted unto the faith, or first called and ordained to be presbyters, or had respect unto the gifts and graces of those whom they chose, is not certain; but this way began in those churches wherein some extraordinary officer, apostle or evangelist, had long resided. It cannot, therefore, be doubted but they had some design to represent hereby somewhat of the dignity of such an officer, and a resemblance of the continuance of his presence among them; and this, I suppose, fell out early in the churches, though without ground or warrant. And the principal pastors of other churches, which had not any great number of elders in them, yet quickly assumed unto themselves the dignity which the others had attained.
Justin Martyr, in the account he gives of the church, its order, rule, worship, and discipline in his days, mentions one singular person in one church, whom he calls Προεστώς, who presided in all the affairs of the church, and himself administered all the sacred ordinances, every Lord’s day, unto the whole body of the church gathered and met out of the city and the villages about. This was the bishop; and if any one desired this office, he desired a “good work,” as the apostle speaks. Whatever accessions were made unto the church, these προεστῶτες, — which were either the first converted to the faith, or the first ordained presbyters, or obtained their pre-eminence, “non pretio, sed testimonio,” as Tertullian speaks, upon the account of their eminency in gifts and holiness, — were yet quickly sensible of their own dignity and prelation, and by all means sought the enlargement of it; supposing that it belonged unto the honour and order of the church itself.
Under this state of things, the churches increasing every day in number and wealth, growing insensibly more and more (“indies magis magisque decrescente disciplina”) into a form and state exceeding the bounds of their original institution, and becoming unwieldy as unto the pursuit of their ends, unto mutual edification, it is not hard to conjecture how a stated distinction between bishops and presbyters did afterward ensue; for as the first elder, bishop, or pastor, had obtained this small pre-eminence in the church wherein he did preside and the assemblies of the villages about, so the management of those affairs of the church which they had in communion with others was committed unto him, or assumed by him. This gave them the advantage of meeting in synods and councils afterward; wherein they did their own business unto the purpose. Hereon, in a short time, the people were deprived of all their interest in the state of the church, so as to be governed by their own consent; which, indeed, they also had rendered themselves unmeet to enjoy and exercise; — other elders were deprived of that power and authority which is committed unto them by Christ, and thrust down into an order or degree inferior unto that wherein they were originally placed; — new officers in the rule of the church, utterly unknown to the Scripture and primitive antiquity, were introduced; — all charitable donations unto the church, for the maintenance of the ministry, the poor, and the redemption of captives, were for the most part abused, to advance the revenues of the bishops; — such secular advantages, in honour, dignity, and wealth, were annexed unto episcopal sees, as that ambitious men shamefully contested for the attaining of them; which, in the instance of the bloody conflict between the parties of Damasus and Ursacius at Rome, Ammianus Marcellinus, a heathen, doth greatly and wisely reflect upon. But yet all these evils were as nothing in comparison of that dead sea of the Roman tyranny and idolatry whereinto at last these bitter waters ran, and were therein totally corrupted.
I thought, also, to have proceeded with an account of the declension of the churches from their first institution, in their matter, form, and rule; but because this would draw forth my discourse beyond my present intention, I shall forbear, having sufficiently vindicated my assertion in this one instance.
It is no part of my design to give an answer at large unto the great volume that Dr Stillingfleet hath written on this occasion, much less to contend about particular sayings, opinions, the practices of this or that man, which it is filled withal. But whereas his treatise, so far as the merit of the cause is concerned in it, doth consist of two parts, the first whereof contains such stories, things, and sayings as may load the Cause and persons whom he opposeth with prejudices in the minds of others, — in which endeavour he exceeds all expectation, — and [the second] what doth more directly concern the argument in hand; I shall, at the end of the ensuing discourse, speak distinctly unto all that is material of the second sort, especially so far as is needful unto the defence of my former “Vindication of the Nonconformists from the Guilt of Schism.”
For the things of the first sort, — wherein the Doctor doth so abound, both in his preface and in the first part of his book, as to manifest himself, I fear, to be a little too sensible of provocation (for the actings of interest in wise men are usually more sedate), — I shall only oppose some general considerations unto them, without arguing or contending about particulars; which would be endless and useless. And whereas he hath gathered up almost every thing that hath been done, written, or spoken to the prejudice of the cause and persons whom he opposeth (though frequently charged before), adding the advantage of his style and method unto their reinforcement, I shall reduce the whole unto a few heads, which seem to be of the greatest importance.
I shall leave him without disturbance unto the satisfaction he hath in his own love, moderation, and condescension, expressed in his preface. Others may possibly call some things in it unto a farther account. But the first part of his book is cast under two heads:— 1. A commendation of the first reformers and their reformation, with some reflections upon all that acquiesce not therein, as though they esteemed themselves wiser and better than they. From this topic proceed many severe reflections and some reproaches. 2. The other consists in a story of the rise and progress of separation from the church of England, with the great miscarriages among them who first attempted it, and the opposition made unto them by those who were themselves Nonconformists. The whole is closed with the difference and debate between the divines of the assembly of the presbyterian way, and the “dissenting brethren,” as they were then called. Concerning these things the discourse is so prolix, and so swelled with long quotations, that I scarce believe any man would have the patience to read over a particular examination of it; especially considering how little the cause in hand is concerned in the whole story, whether it be told right or wrong, candidly or with a design to make an advantage unto the prejudice of others. I shall, therefore, only mark something with respect unto both these heads of the first part of the book, which, if I mistake not, will lay it aside from being of any use to our present cause:—
1. As unto the first reformers and reformation in the days of King Edward, the plea from them and it, which we have been long accustomed unto, is, that they were persons great, wise, learned, holy; that some of them died martyrs; that the work of the reformation was greatly owned and blessed of God: and, therefore, our non-acquiescency therein, but desiring a farther reformation of the church than what they saw and judged necessary, is unreasonable; and that what we endeavour therein, though never so peaceably, is schismatical. But, —
(1.) None do more bless God for the first reformers, and the work they did, than we do; none have a higher esteem of their persons, abilities, graces, add sufferings, than we have; none cleave more firmly to their doctrine, which was the life and soul of the reformation, than we, nor desire more to follow them in their godly design. They are not of us who have declared that the death of King Edward was a happiness or no unhappiness to the church of England, nor who have reflected on the Reformation as needless, and given assurance that if it had not been undertaken, salvation might have been obtained safely enough in the church of Rome. Nor were they of us who have questioned the zeal and prudence of the martyrs in those days of suffering. We have other thoughts concerning them, — another kind of remembrance of them.
(2.) The titles assigned unto them, of wise, learned, holy, zealous, are fully answered by that reformation of the church in its doctrine and worship which God wrought by their ministry; so that none without the highest ingratitude can derogate any thing from them in these things. But it is no disparagement unto any of the sons of men, any officers of the church since the days of the apostles, the first reformers, or those that followed them, to judge that they were not infallible, that their work was not absolutely perfect, like the work of God, whereunto nothing can be added nor aught taken away. Wherefore, —
(3.) We are not obliged to make what they did, and what they attained unto, and what they judged meet as unto the government and worship of the church, to be our absolute rule, from which it should be our sin to dissent or depart. They never desired or designed that it should be so; for to do so would have been to have cast out one Papacy and to have brought in another. And the arguments of the Papists for their absolute adherence unto the men of their veneration, those who have been formerly of great reputation in their church, for learning, holiness, and devotion, are as forcible unto them as any can be unto us for an adherence unto the first reformers in all things; but yet are they not excused in their errors thereby. Had we received a command from heaven to hear them in all things, it had altered the case: but this we have received only with respect unto Jesus Christ; and shall, therefore, in these things, ultimately attend only unto what he speaks. And we have sundry considerations which confirm us in the use and exercise of that liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, to inquire ourselves into our duty in these things, and to regulate our duty in them by his word, notwithstanding what was done by our first reformers; for, —
[1.] They did not think themselves obliged, they did not think meet, to abide within the bounds and limits of that reformation of the church which had been attempted before them, by men wise, learned, and holy, even in this nation. Such was that which was endeavoured by Wickliffe and his followers; in giving testimony whereunto many suffered martyrdom, and prepared the way unto those that were to come after. They approved of what was then done, or attempted to be done, for the substance of it, yet esteemed themselves at liberty to make a farther progress in the same work; which they did accordingly. Surely such persons never designed their own judgment and practice to give boundaries unto all reformation for evermore, or pretended that they had made so perfect a discovery of the mind of Christ, in all things belonging unto the rule and worship of the church, as that it should not only be vain but sinful to make any farther inquiries about it. Some thought they were come unto the utmost limits of navigation and discovery of the parts of the world before the West Indies were found out; and some men, when in any kind they know as much as they can, are apt to think there is no more to be known. It was not so with our reformers.
[2.] They did not at once make what they had done themselves to be a fixed rule in these things, for themselves made many alterations in the service-book which they first composed; and if they judged not their first endeavour to be satisfactory to themselves they had no reason to expect their second should be a standing rule unto all future ages. Nor did they so, but frequently acknowledged the imperfection of what they had done.
[3.] The first reformers, both bishops and others, both those who underwent martyrdom at home and those who lived in exile abroad, differed among themselves in their judgments and apprehensions about those things which are now under contest, whereas they perfectly agreed in all doctrines of faith and gospel obedience. The public records of these differences do so remain as that they cannot modestly be denied nor handsomely covered. And this must needs weaken the influence of their authority in the settlement of the church, which was an act only of the prevalent party among them.
[4.] They differed in these things from all other reformed churches, with whom they did absolutely agree in doctrine, and had the strictest communion in faith and love; for it is known that their doctrine, which they owned and established, was the same with that of the churches abroad called particularly Reformed, in distinction from the Lutherans. But as unto the state, rule, and order of the church, they differed from them all. I press not this consideration unto the disadvantage of what they attained unto and established in the way of reformation, or in a way of preferring other churches above them, but only to evidence that we have reason enough not to esteem ourselves absolutely obliged unto what they did and determined as unto all endeavours after any farther reformation.
[5.] In their reformation they avowedly proposed a rule and measure unto themselves Which was both uncertain and in many things apparently various from the original rule of these things given by Christ and his apostles, with the practice of the first churches; and this was the state and example of the church under the first Christian emperors, as our author confesseth. This rule is uncertain; for no man living is able to give a just and full account of what was the state and rule of all the churches in the world in the reign of any one emperor, much less during the succession of many of them, continual alterations in the state or order of the church following one upon another. And that in those days there was a prevalent deviation from the original rule of church-order hath been before declared. We dare not, therefore, make them and what they did to be our rule absolutely, who missed it so much in the choice of their own.
[6.] We may add hereunto the consideration of the horrid darkness which they newly were delivered from; the close adherence of some traditional prejudices unto the best of men in such a condition; the difficulties and oppositions they met withal as unto their whole work; their prudence, as they judged it, in an endeavour to accommodate all things unto the inclinations and desires of the body of the people (extremely immersed in their old traditions), which might not be destructive unto their salvation, in heresy or idolatry; — all which could not but leave some marks of imperfection on their whole work of reformation.
Upon these and the like considerations it is that we are enforced to assert the use of our own liberty, light, and understanding, in the inquiring after and compliance with the true original state and order of the evangelical churches, with our duty in reference thereunto, and not to be absolutely confined unto what was judged meet and practised in these things by the first reformers. And the truth is, if present interest and advantage did not prevail with men to fix the bounds of all church-reformation in what was by them attained and established, they would think it themselves a papal bondage, to be bound up absolutely unto their apprehensions; from a confinement whereunto in sundry other things they declare themselves to be at an absolute liberty. Wherefore, neither we nor our cause are at all concerned in the rhetorical discourse of Dr Stillingfleet concerning the first reformers and their reformation; neither do we at all delight in reflecting on any of the defects of it, desiring only the liberty avowed on protestant principles, in the discharge of our own duty.
2. Nor, secondly, are we any more concerned in the long story that ensues about the rise and progress of separation from the church of England, with the mistakes of some in principles, and miscarriages in practice, who judged it their duty to be separate; for as, in our refraining from total communion with the parochial assemblies of the church of England, we proceed not on the same principles, so we hope that we are free from the same miscarriages with them, or any of an alike nature. But it is also certain, that after the great confusion that was brought on the whole state and order of the church under the Roman apostasy, many of those who attempted a reformation fell into different opinions and practices in sundry things; which the Papists have made many a long story about. We undertake the defence only of our own principles and practices according unto them; nor do we esteem ourselves obliged to justify or reflect on others.
And it were no difficult task to compose a story of the proceedings of some in the church of England, with reference unto these differences, that would have as ill an aspect as that which is here reported. Should an account be given of their unaccountable rigour and severity, in that through so many years, yea ages, they would never think of the least abatement of their impositions, in any one instance, though acknowledged by themselves indifferent and esteemed by others unlawful, although they saw what woful detriment arose to the churches thereby; yea, how, instead thereof, they did to the last of their power make a progress in the same course, by attempting new canons, to inflame the difference, and increased in severities towards all dissenters; — should an account be given of the silencings, deprivings, imprisonings, by the High Commission Court, and in most of the dioceses of the kingdom, of so great numbers of godly, learned, faithful, painful ministers, to the unspeakable disadvantage of the church and nation, with the ruin of the most Of them and their families; — the representation of their names, qualifications, evident usefulness in the ministry, with the causes of their sufferings, wherein the Observance of some ceremonies was openly preferred before the edification of the church and a great means of the conversion of souls, would give as ill a demonstration of Christian wisdom, love, moderation, condescension, zeal for the propagation of the gospel, as any thing doth, on the other hand, in the history before us. It would not be omitted, on such an occasion, to declare what multitudes of pious, peaceable Protestants were driven by their severities to leave their native country, to seek a refuge for their lives and liberties, with freedom for the worship of God, in a wilderness in the ends of the earth; and if it be said that what some did herein they did in the discharge of the duties of their office, I must say I shall hardly acknowledge that office to be of the institution of Christ, whereunto it belongs, in a way of duty, to ruin and destroy so many of his disciples, for no other cause but a desire and endeavour to serve and worship him according unto what they apprehend to be his mind revealed in the gospel. Should there be added hereunto an account of the administration of ecclesiastical discipline in the courts of chancellors, commissaries, officials, and the like, as unto the authority and causes, with the way and manner of their proceedings in the exercise of their jurisdiction, with the woful scandals that have been given thereby, with an addition of sundry other things which I will not so much as mention, I suppose it would as much conduce unto peace and reconciliation among Protestants as the story here given us by our author.
But setting aside the aggravations of things gathered out of controversial writings (wherein few men do observe the due rules of moderation, but indulge unto themselves the liberty of severe censures and sharp reflections on them they do oppose), the sum and truth of the story concerning these things may be reduced into a narrow compass; for, —
(1.) It is certain that, from the first dawning of the Reformation in this nation, there were different apprehensions, among them that jointly forsook the Papacy, as unto its doctrine and worship, about the state, rule, order, and discipline of the church, with sundry things belonging unto its worship also. I suppose this will not be denied.
(2.) There doth not remain any record of a due attempt and endeavour for the composing these differences before one certain way was established by those in power. And Whereas, [from] the state and condition wherein they were at that time, from the confusions about religion that were then abroad, and the pertinaciousness of the generality of the people in an adherence unto their old ways and observances in religion, with a great scarcity in able ministers, the greatest part of the bishops and clergy disliking the whole Reformation, they found themselves, as they judged, necessitated to make as little alteration in the present state of things as was possible, so as to keep up an appearance of the same things in the church which had been in former use, — on these grounds the state and rule of the church was continued in the same form and posture that it was before under the Papacy, the authority of the pope only being excluded, and the power of disposal of ecclesiastical affairs, usurped by him, declared to be in the king; so also, in imitation of that book of worship and service which the people had been accustomed unto, another was established, with the ceremonies most obvious unto popular observation.
(3.) This Order was unsatisfactory unto great numbers of ministers and others; who yet, considering what the necessity of the times did call for, did outwardly acquiesce in it in several degrees, in hopes of a farther reformation in a more convenient season. Nor did they cease to plead and press for it by all quiet and peaceable means, abstaining, in the meantime, from the use of the ceremonies, and full compliance with episcopal jurisdiction.
(4.) Hereon those who were for the establishment, having secured their interests therein and obtained power, began after a while to oppress, excommunicate, silence, deprive, and imprison those who dissented from them, and could not come up unto a full practical compliance with their institutions and rules. Yet the generality of those so silenced and deprived abode in privacy under their sufferings, hoping for a reformation at one time or another, without betaking themselves unto any other course for the edification of themselves or their people.
(5.) After sundry years, some men, partly silenced and deprived as unto their ministry, and partly pursued with other censures and penalties, began to give place unto severe thoughts of the church of England and its communion, and, withdrawing themselves into foreign parts, openly avowed a separation from it. And if the extremities which many had been put unto for their mere dissent and nonconformity unto the established rule, — which, with a good conscience, they could not comply with, — were represented, it might, if not excuse, yet alleviate the evil of that severity in separation which they fell into.
(6.) But hereon a double inconvenience, yea, evil, did ensue, whence all the advantages made use of in this story to load the present cause of the Nonconformists did arise. For, —
[1.] Many of those who refused to conform unto the church in all its constitutions yet thought it their duty to wait quietly for a national reformation, thinking no other possible, began to oppose and write against them who utterly separated from the church, condemning its assemblies as unlawful. And herein, as the manner of men is on such occasions, they fell into sharp invectives against them, with severe censures and sentences concerning them and their practice. And, —
[2.] Those who did so separate, being not agreed among themselves as unto all principles of church-order, nor as unto the measure of their separation from the church of England, there fell out differences and disorders among them, accompanied with personal imprudences and miscarriages in not a few. Neither was it scarcely ever otherwise among them who first attempted any reformation; unless, like the apostles, they were infallibly guided. These mutual contests which they had among themselves, and with the Nonconformists who abode in their private stations in England, with their miscarriages also, were published unto the world, in their own writings and those of their enemies.
“Hinc omnis pendet Lucilius.” These were the things that gave advantage unto, and are the substance of, the history of our author concerning separation; wherein all I can find unto our present instruction is, that
“Iliacos intra muros peccatur et extra.”
There are and ever were sins, faults, follies, and miscarriages among all sorts of men; which might be farther evidenced by recounting, on the other hand, what were the ways, acts, and deeds, at the same time, of those by whom the others were cast out and rejected. And whereas it was the design of the reverend author to load the cause and persons of the present Nonconformists with prejudice and contempt, it is well fallen out, in the merciful disposal of things towards and amongst us, by the providence and grace of God, that he is forced to derive the principal matter of his charge from what was done by a few private persons, three or four score years ago and more, in whose principles and practices we are not concerned. And as for the difference that fell out more lately among the divines in the assembly at Westminster, about the ways, means, and measures of reformation and mutual forbearance, which he gives us a large account of in a long transcription out of their writings, I must have more health, and strength, and leisure than now I have (which I look not for in this world), before I esteem myself concerned to engage in that contest, or to apologize for the one side or other The things in agitation between them had no relation unto our present dissent from the church of England, being here insisted on merely to fill up the story, with reference unto the general end designed.
Neither, to my knowledge, did I ever read a book wherein there was a greater appearance of diligence in the collection of things, words, sayings, expressions, discourses unto other ends, which might only cast odium on the cause opposed, or give advantage for arguings unto a seeming success, very little or no way at all belonging unto the cause in hand, than there is in this of our reverend author; though much in the same way and kind hath been before attempted.
But separation it is and schism which we are all charged withal; and the evil thereof is aggravated in the words of the author himself, and in large transcriptions out of the writings of others. Schism, indeed, we acknowledge to be an evil, a great evil, but are sorry that with some a pretended, unproved schism is become almost all that is evil in the churches or their members; so that let men be what they will, drenched, yea, overwhelmed in ignorance, vice, and sin, so they do not separate (which, to be sure, in that state they will not do, for why should he who hath plague-sores upon him depart from the society of them that are infected?) they seem to he esteemed, as unto all the concerns of the church, very unblamable.
The truth is, considering the present state and condition of the inhabitants of this nation, who are generally members of the church of England, — how “the land is filled with sin against the Holy One of Israel,” God giving us every day renewed tokens and indications of his displeasure, no compliance with his calls, no public reformation being yet attempted, — it seems a more necessary duty, and of more importance unto them upon whom the care of such things is incumbent, to endeavour in themselves, and to engage a faithful ministry throughout the nation, both to give a due example in their conversations, and to preach the word with all diligence, for the turning of the people from the evil of their ways, than to spend their time and strength in the management of such charges against those who would willingly comply with them as unto all the great ends of religion amongst men.
But this must be farther spoken unto. I say, therefore, first, in general, that whereas the whole design of this book is to charge all sorts of Nonconformists with schism, and to denounce them schismatics, yet the author of it doth not once endeavour to state the true notion and nature of schism, wherein the consciences of men may be concerned. He satisfies himself in the invectives of some of the ancients against schism, applicable unto those which were in their days, wherein we are not concerned. Only, he seems to proceed on the general notion of it, that it is a causeless separation from a true church; which departs from that of the Romanists, who will allow no separation from the church but what is causeless. To make application hereof unto us, it is supposed, —
(1.) That the church of England is a true church in its national constitution, and so are all the parochial churches in it; which can be no way justified but by a large, extensive interpretation of the word “true,” for there is but one sort of churches instituted by Christ and his apostles, but national and parochial churches differ in their whole kind, and therefore cannot both of them be of a divine original.
(2.) That we are members of this church by our own consent. How we should come to be so otherwise, I know not. If we are so by being born and baptized in England, then those who are born beyond sea and baptized there are made members of this church by an act of Parliament for their naturalization, and no otherwise.
(3.) That we separate from this church in things wherein we are obliged by the authority of Christ to hold communion with it; which neither is nor will ever be proved, nor is it endeavoured so to be by any instances in this treatise.
(4.) That to withhold communion from parochial assemblies in the worship of God, as unto things confessedly not of divine institution, is schism, — that kind of schism which is condemned by the ancient writers of the church. Upon these and the like suppositions it is no uneasy thing to make vehement declamations against us and severe reflections on us; all is schism and schismatic, and all of the same kind with what was written against by Cyprian, and Austin, and others a great many.
But the true state of the controversy between him and us is this, and no other, — namely, Whether a dissent in, and forbearance from, the communion of churches, in their state and kind not of divine institution, or so far as they are not of divine institution, and from things in other churches that have no such divine institution, nor any scriptural authority to oblige us unto their observance, be to be esteemed schism in them who maintains and professedly avow communion in faith and love with all the true churches of Christ in the world? This is the whole of what we are concerned in; which, where it is spoken unto, it shall be considered. But because there were in the primitive churches certain persons who, on arbitrary principles of their own, consisting for the most part in gross and palpable errors, which they would have imposed on all others, did separate from the catholic church, — that is, all other Christians in the world, and all the churches of Christ, condemning them as no churches, allowing not the administration of sacraments unto them nor salvation unto their members, — whom the ancient church condemned with great severity, and that justly, as guilty of schism, their judgment, their words and expressions, are applied unto us, who are no way concerned in what they speak of or unto. We are not, therefore, in the least terrified with what is alleged out of the ancients about schism; no more than he is when the same instances, the same authorities, the same quotations, are made use of by the Papists against the church of England, as they are continually: for, as was said, we know that we are no way concerned in them. And suppose that all that the Doctor allegeth against us be true, and that we are in the wrong in all that is charged on us, yet I dare refer it to the Doctor himself to determine whether it be of the same nature with what was charged on them who made schisms in the church of old. I suppose I guess well enough what he will say to secure his charge; and it shall be considered when it is spoken.
But, as was said, the great and only design of the author of this book is to prove all Nonconformists to be schismatics, or guilty of the sin of schism. How he hath succeeded in this attempt shall be afterward considered. And something I have spoken in the ensuing discourse concerning the nature of schism, which will manifest how little we are concerned in this charge. But yet it may not be amiss in this place to mind both him and others of some of those principles whereon we ground our justification in this matter, that it may be known what they must farther overthrow, and what they must establish, who shall persist in the management of this charge; that is, indeed, through want of love, in a design to heighten and perpetuate our divisions. And, —
The first of these principles is, That there is a rule prescribed by our Lord Jesus Christ unto all churches and believers, in a due attendance whereunto all the unity and peace which he requireth amongst his disciples do consist.
We acknowledge this to be our fundamental principle. Nor can the rhetoric or arguments of any man affect our consciences with a sense of the guilt of schism until one of these things be proved; namely, either, first, That the Lord Christ hath given no such rule as in the observance whereof peace and unity may be preserved in his church; or, secondly, That we refuse a compliance with that rule in some one instance or other of what therein he hath himself appointed. Unless one or the other be proved, and that strictly and directly, not pretended so to be by perpetual diversions from the things in question, no vehement assertions of any of us to be schismatics nor aggravations of the guilt of schism will signify any thing in this cause.
But that our principle herein is according unto truth we are fully persuaded. There is a rule of Christ’s given, which whosoever walk according unto, “peace shall be on them, and mercy, and upon the whole Israel of God,” Gal. vi. 16. And we desire no more, no more is needful unto the peace and unity of the church; and this rule, whatever it be, is of his giving and appointment. No rule of men’s invention or imposition can, by its observance, secure us of an interest in that peace and mercy which is peculiar unto the Israel of God. God forbid we should entertain any such imagination! We know well enough men may be thorough conformists to such rules, unto whom, as unto their present state and condition, neither peace nor mercy do belong; for “there is no peace to the wicked.” He who hath directed and commanded the end of church unity and peace hath also appointed the means and measures of them. Nothing is more disagreeable unto, nothing more inconsistent with, the wisdom, care and love of Christ unto his church, than an imagination that whereas he strictly enjoins peace and unity in his church, he hath not himself appointed the rules, bounds, and measures of them, but left it unto the will and discretion of men. As if his command unto his disciples had been, “Keep peace and unity in the church, by doing and observing whatever some men, under a pretence of being the guides of the church, shall make necessary unto that end;” whereas it is plainly otherwise, — namely, that we should so keep the peace and unity of the church by doing and observing all whatever that he commands us. And, besides, we strictly require that some one instance be given us of a defect in the rule given by Christ himself, which must be supplied by human additions, to render it complete for the end of church peace and unity. In vain have we desired, in vain may we for ever expect, any instance of that kind.
This principle we shall not be easily dispossessed of; and whilst we are under the protection of it, we have a safe retreat and shelter from the most vehement accusations of schism for a non-compliance with a rule, none of his, different from his, and in some things contrary unto his, for the preservation of church peace and unity. All the dispute is, whether we keep unto this rule of Christ or no; wherein we are ready at any time to put ourselves upon the trial, being willing to teach or learn, as God shall help us.
Secondly, we say, That this rule in general is the rule of faith, love, and obedience contained and revealed in the Scripture; and in particular, the commands that the Lord Christ hath given for the order and worship that he requires in his churches. It may seem strange to some that we should suppose the due observance of the rule of faith, love, and obedience, — that is, of faith real and unfeigned, love fervent and without dissimulation, and of universal, gracious, evangelical obedience, — to be necessary unto the preservation of church peace and unity; but we do affirm, with some confidence, that the only real foundation of them doth lie herein, nor do we value that ecclesiastical peace which may be without it or is neglective of it. Let all the Christian world, or those therein who concern themselves in us, know that this is our principle and our judgment — that no church peace or unity is valued by or accepted with Jesus Christ that is not founded in, that doth not arise from, and is the effect of, a diligent attendance unto and observance of the entire gospel rule of faith and obedience. In the neglect hereof, peace is but carnal security, and unity is nothing but a conspiracy against the rule of Christ. Add hereunto the particular, the due observation of what the Lord Christ hath appointed to be done and observed in his churches, as unto their order, rule, and worship; and they who walk according unto this rule need not fear the charge of schism from the fiercest of their adversaries. Wherefore we say, —
Thirdly, Those who recede from this rule, in any material branch of it, are guilty of the breach of church-unity, according to the measure of their exorbitancy; — as suppose that any preach, teach, or profess doctrines that are contrary to the form of wholesome words, especially with reference unto the person, offices, and grace of Christ, which are the subject of doctrines purely evangelical, they break the peace of the church, and we are bound to separate or withdraw communion from them; which is a means of preserving the true peace and unity of the church. “Speciosum quidem est nomen pacis, et pulchra opinio unitatis, sed quis ambigat eam solam, unicam, ecclesiæ pacem esse, quæ Christi est,” saith Hilary. Suppose that men retain a form of godliness in the profession of the truth, but deny the power of it, acting their habitual lusts and corruptions in a vicious conversation; they overthrow the foundation of the church’s unity, and we are obliged from such to turn away. The like may be said of those who live in a constant neglect of any of the commands of Christ with respect unto the order, rule, and worship of the church, with a contempt of the means appointed by him for their edification. All these, according unto the measures of their deviations from the rule of Christ, do disturb the foundation of all church peace and unity. And therefore we say, —
Fourthly, That conscience is immediately and directly concerned in no other church unity, as such, but what is an effect of the rule of Christ given unto that end. We know what is spoken concerning obedience unto the guides and rulers of the Church; which is a part of the rule of Christ. But we know withal, that this obedience is required of us only as they teach us to observe and do all that he hath commanded; for other commission from him they have none. When this rule is forsaken, and another substituted in the room of it, as it quickly diverts the minds of men from a conscientious attendance unto that rule of Christ as the only means of church-unity, so that other doth either proceed from men’s secular interests or may easily be accommodated thereunto. And whereas the lines of it must be drawn in the fields of pretended indifferences and real arbitrariness, it will be the cause of endless contentions, whilst whatever some think themselves to have power to appoint, others will judge themselves to have liberty to refuse.
Fifthly, It is unity of Christ’s appointment that schism respects as a sin against it, and not uniformity in things of men’s appointment. And, —
Lastly, Those who charge schism on others for a dissent from themselves, or the refraining of total communion with them, must, —
1. Discharge themselves of the charge of it, in a consistence with their charge on them; for we find as yet no arrows shot against us but such as are gathered up in the fields, shot at them that use them out of the Roman quiver. Neither will it avail them to say that they have other manner of reason for their separation from the church of Rome than any we have for our withdrawing communion from them; for the question is not, what reasons they have for what they do? but, what right and power they have to do it? — namely, to separate from the church Whereof they were, constituting a new church-state of their own, without the consent of that church, and against the order and authority of the same.
2. Require no communion but by virtue of the rule before declared. In no other are we concerned, with respect unto the peace and unity of the church.
3. Give a farther confirmation than what we have yet seen unto the principles or presumptions they proceed upon in the management of the charge of schism; as that, — (1.) Diocesan bishops, with their metropolitans, are of divine institution; (2.) That the power of rule in and over all churches is committed unto them alone; (3.) That the church hath power to ordain religious rites and ceremonies nowhere prescribed in the Scripture, and impose the observation of them on all members of the church; (4.) That this church they are; (5.) That no man’s voluntary consent is required to constitute him a member of any church, but that every one is surprised into that state whether he will or no; (6.) That there is nothing of force in the arguments pleaded for non-compliance with arbitrary, unnecessary impositions; (7.) That the church standeth in no need of reformation, neither in doctrine, discipline, nor conversation; with sundry other things of an alike nature that they need unto their justification.
But yet, When all is done, it will appear that mutual forbearance, first removing animosities, then administering occasion of inoffensive converse, unto the revival of decayed affections, leading unto sedate conferences and considerations of a more entire conjunction in the things whereunto we have attained, will more conduce unto universal peace and gospel unity than the most fierce contentions about things in difference, or the most vehement charges of schism against dissenters.
But I must return to the argument, and shall add something giving light into the nature of schism, from an instance in the primitive churches.
That which is first in any kind gives the measure of what follows in the same kind, and light into the nature of them. Whereas, therefore, the schism that was among the churches about the observation of Easter was the first that fell out unto the disturbance of their communion, I shall give a brief account of it, as far as the question in hand is concerned in it.
It is evident that the apostles did with care and diligence teach the doctrine of Christian liberty, warning the disciples to “stand fast” in it, and not submit their necks unto any “yoke of bondage” in the things of the worship of God; especially the apostle Paul had frequent occasions to treat of this subject. And what they taught in doctrine, they established and confirmed in their practice; for they enjoined nothing to be observed in the church but what was necessary, and what they had the command of Christ for, leaving the observation of things indifferent unto their original indifference. But whereas they had decreed, by the direction of the Holy Ghost, some necessary condescensions in the Gentile believers towards the Jews, in case of offence or scandal, they did themselves make use of their liberty to comply with the same Jews in some of their observances not yet unlawful. Hereon there ensued in several churches different observations of some rites and customs, which they apprehended were countenanced by the practice of the apostles, at least as it had been reported unto them: for, immediately after the decease of the apostles, very many mistakes and untruths were reported concerning what they said, did, and practised; which some diligently collected from old men (it may be almost delirant), as Eusebius gives an instance in Papias, lib. iii. cap 36; and even the great Irenæus himself was imposed upon, in a matter directly contrary to the Scripture, under a pretence of apostolical tradition. Among those reports was that of the observation of Easter. And for a while the churches continued in these different observances, without the least disturbance of their communion, each One following that which it thought the most probable tradition; for rule of Scripture they pretended not unto. But after a while they began to fall into a contest about these things, which began at Laodicea; which church was as likely to strive about such things as any other: for Eusebius tells us that Melito, the bishop of Sardis, wrote two books about Easter, beginning the first with an account that he wrote them when Servilius Paulus was proconsul, there being then a great stir about it at Laodicea, Eusebius, lib. iv. cap. 26. But, as it falls out on such occasions, much talk and disputing ensuing thereon, the differences were increased, until one side or party at variance would make their opinion and practice the rule and terms of communion unto all other churches. But this was quickly condemned by those who were wise and sober; for, as Sozomen affirms, they accounted it “a frivolous or foolish thing to differ about a custom, whereas they agreed in all the principal heads of religion.” And thereon he gives a large account of different rites and observances in many churches, without any breach of communion among them; adding, that besides those enumerated by him, there were many others in cities and villages which they did in a different manner adhere unto, Hist., lib. vii. cap. 19.
At length this matter fell into the handling of Victor, bishop of Rome; and his judgment was, that the observation of Easter on the Lord’s day, and not on the fourteenth day of the first month precisely, according to the computation of the Jews in the observation of the passover, was to be imposed on all the churches of Christ everywhere. It had all along, until his time, been judged a thing indifferent, wherein the churches and all believers were left unto the use of their own liberty. He had no pretence of any divine institution making it necessary, the writers of those days constantly affirming that the apostles made no canons, rules, or laws about such things. He had persons of as great worth as any in the world, as Melito, Polycrates, Polycarpus, that opposed him, not only as unto the imposition of his practice on others, but as unto his error, as they judged, in the matter of fact and right; yet all this could not hinder but that he would needs have the reputation of the father of schisms among the churches of Christ by his impositions, and he cut off all the Asian churches from communion, declaring them and their members excommunicate, Eusebius, lib. v. cap. 23.
The noise hereof coming abroad unto other churches, great offence was taken at it by many of them, and Victor was roundly dealt withal by sundry of them who agreed with him in practice, but abhorred his imposition of it, and making it a condition of church-communion.
Among those who so opposed and rebuked him, Irenæus was the most eminent. And I shall observe some few things out of the fragment of his epistle, as it is recorded by Eusebius, lib. v. cap. 23.
And, — (1.) He tells us that “he wrote unto Victor in the name of those brethren in France whom he did preside amongst.” The custom of considering things of this nature with all the brethren of the church, and writing their determination in their name, was not yet grown out of use, though the practice of it now would be esteemed novel and schismatical.
(2.) He tells Victor that “there were great varieties in this thing, as also in the times and seasons of fasting; which did not,” saith he, “begin or arise in our days, but long before was introduced by such who, being in places of rule, rejected and changed the common and simple customs which the church had before.” The Doctor, therefore, need not think it so strange that an alteration in church order and rule should fall out in after ages, when long before Irenæus’ time such changes were begun.
(3.) He gives hereon that excellent rule: Ἡ διαφωνία τῆς νηστείας τὴν ὁμόνοιαν τῆς πίστεως συνίστησιν· — “The difference of fastings” (and consequently things of an alike nature) “commends the concord or agreement of faith.”
This was the first effect of a departure from the only rule of unity and communion among the churches which was given by Christ himself and his apostles. As hereby great confusion and disorder was brought upon the churches, so it was the first public inroad that was made on the doctrine of the Scripture concerning Christian liberty. And as it was also the first instance of rejecting men otherwise sound in the faith from communion for nonconformity, or the non-observance of human restitutions or traditions, — which had therein an unhappy consecration unto the use of future ages, — so it was the first notorious entrance into that usurpation of power in the Roman bishops, which they carried on by degrees unto an absolute tyranny. Neither was there ever a more pernicious maxim broached in the primitive times, nor which had a more effectual influence into the ruin of the first institution and liberty of the churches of Christ; for although the fact of Victor was condemned by many, yet the principle he proceeded on was afterward espoused and put in practice.
Our reverend author will hardly find an instance before this of schism among any churches that retained the substance of the doctrine of faith, unless it be in those divisions which fell out in some particular churches, among the members of them. And this we affirm to be in general the case of the Nonconformists at this day: for admitting such variations as time and other circumstances must necessarily infer, and they are rejected from communion on the same grounds that Victor proceeded on in the excommunication of the churches of Asia; neither will there be any end of differences whilst the same principle is retained. Before this, schism was only esteemed a defect in love and breach of the rule of Christ’s appointment for the communion and walking together of believers in the same church.
But this notion of schism is, in the judgment of Dr Stillingfleet, preface, p. 46, “so mean, so jejune, so narrow a notion of it, that I cannot,” saith he, “but wonder that men of understanding should be satisfied with it.” But, in my judgment, the author of it was a man of good understanding. Indeed, I have heard him spoken of as one of abstruse speculations, that did not advantage Christian religion; and one hath published in print that “he is one of the obscurest writers that ever he read;” but I never heard him before charged with mean and jejune notions. Now, this was St Paul, who expressly chargeth schism on the church of Corinth because of the divisions that were among them, — namely, the members of the same particular church, — so as they could not “come together in one place” in a due manner; nor, in all his writings, doth he anywhere give us any other notion of schism. “But,” saith he, “this is short of that care of the church’s peace which Christ hath made so great a duty of his followers.” But if there be no other rule, no other duty for the preservation of the church’s peace, but only that no separation be made from it, which is called schism, we might have been all quiet in the church of Rome. Let no man think to persuade us but that, for the preservation of the church’s peace, it is required of us that we do and observe all things that Christ requireth of us, and that we enjoin not the observation of what he hath not commanded on Victor’s penalty, of being excluded from communion: that faith, and love, and holiness be kept and promoted in the church, by all the ways of his appointment; and when these things are attended unto, St Paul’s mean and jejune notion of schism will be of good use also.
Nor was there the least appearance of any other kind of schism among the churches of Christ until that which was occasioned by Victor; of which we have spoken. The schisms that followed afterward were, six to one, from the contentions of bishops, or those who had an ambition so to be: which the apostle foresaw, as Clemens witnesseth, and made provision against it; but that no banks are strong enough to confine the overflowing ambition of some sort of persons. But saith the Doctor, preface, p. 47, “The obligation to preserve the peace of the church extends to all lawful constitutions in order to it: therefore, to break the peace of the church we live in, for the sake of any lawful orders and constitutions made to preserve it, is directly the sin of schism.”
1. Now, schism, he tell us, is “as great and dangerous a sin as murder,” p. 45; and we know that “no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him,” John iii. 15. So that all men here seem to be adjudged unto hell who comply not with, who submit not unto, our ecclesiastical constitutions or canons. God forbid that ever such doctrine should be looked on as to have the least affinity unto the gospel, or such censures to have any savour of the Spirit of Christ in them! The Lord Jesus Christ hath not cast the eternal condition of those whom he purchased with his own most precious blood into the arbitrary disposal of any that shall take upon them to make ecclesiastical constitutions and orders, for conformity in rites and ceremonies, etc. Shall we think that he who, upon the best use of means for his instruction which he is capable of, with fervent prayers to God for light and direction, cannot comply with and submit unto some ecclesiastical constitutions and orders, however pretended to be made for the preservation of peace and unity in the church, on this ground principally, because they are not of the appointment nor have the approbation of Jesus Christ, though he should mistake herein, and miss of his duty, is guilty of no less sin than that of murder, — suppose of Cain in killing his brother? for all murder is from hatred and malice. This is that which inflames the differences amongst us; for it is a scandal of the highest nature, when men do see that persons who in any thing dissent from our ecclesiastical constitutions, though otherwise sober, honest, pious, and peaceable, are looked on as bad, if not worse than thieves and murderers, and are dealt withal accordingly. Nor can any thing be more effectual to harden others in their immoralities than to find themselves approved by the guides of the church, in comparison with such dissenters.
2. But who is it that shall make these orders and constitutions, that must be observed for the preservation of the unity and peace of the church? It can be none but those who have power so to do by being uppermost in any place or time. Who shall judge them to be lawful? No doubt they that make them. And what shall these constitutions be about, what shall they extend unto? Any thing in the world, so there be no mention of it in the Scripture, one way or other. What if any one should now dissent from these constitutions, and not submit unto them? Why, then, he is guilty of schism! — as great and dangerous a sin as that of murder!! But when all is done, what if these constitutions and orders should be no ways needful or useful unto the preservation of the peace of the church? what if a supposition that they are so reflects dishonour on the wisdom and love of Christ? what if they are unlawful and unwarrantable, the Lord Christ not having given power and authority unto any sort of men to make any such constitutions? what if they are the great ways and means of breaking the unity and peace of the church? These, and other inquiries of the like nature, must be clearly resolved, not by the dictates of men’s own minds and spirits, but from the word of truth, before this intimation can be complied withal.
But that which is fallen out most beyond expectation in this whole discourse is, that the reverend author, seeking, by all ways and means countenanced with the least resemblance or appearance of truth, to load the Nonconformists and their cause with the imputation of things invidious and burdensome, should fix upon their prayers, by virtue of the grace and gift of prayer which they have received, ascribing the original of its use unto the artifice and insinuation of the Jesuits, as he doth, preface, pp. 14, 15. But because I look on this as a thing of the greatest importance of all the differences between them and us, — as that wherein the life of religion, the exercise of faith, and the labour of divine love do much consist, — the nature and necessity of that kind of prayer which is here reflected on and opposed shall, God willing, be declared and vindicated in a peculiar discourse unto that purpose; for the differences that are between us cannot possibly have any more pernicious consequence than if we should be influenced by them to oppose or condemn any principles or exercise of the duties of practical holiness, as thinking them to yield matter of advantage to one party or another.
The great pains he hath taken, in this preface, to prove the Nonconformists to have been the means of furthering and promoting Popery in this nation might, as I suppose, have been omitted without any disadvantage unto himself or his cause; for the thing itself is not true. As it is utterly impossible to affect the minds or consciences of the Nonconformists with a sense of it, because they have a thousand witnesses in themselves against the truth of the charge, so it is impossible it should be believed by any who are in the least acquainted with their principles, or have their eyes open to see any thing that is doing at this day in religion. But as there are many palpable mistakes in the account he gives of things among ourselves to this purpose, so if, on the other hand, any should, out of reports, surmises, Jesuits’ letters and politics, particularly those of Contzen; books written to that purpose against them; agreement of principles; notorious compliance of some bishops and others of the same way with the Papists, some dying avowedly such; stories of what hath been said at Rome and elsewhere, which are not few nor unprovable, concerning the inclinations of many unto a fair composition of things with the church of Rome; the deportment of some before and since the discovery of the plot; with such other topics as the discourse of our author with respect unto the Nonconformists will furnish them withal; as also from the woful neglect there hath been of instructing the people in the principles of religion, so as to implant a sense of the life and power of it on their souls; with all things that may be spoken on that head with reference unto the clergy under their various distributions, with the casting out of so great a number of ministers, whom they knew in their own conscience to be firmly fixed against Popery and its interest in this nation, and could not deny but they might be useful to instruct the people in the knowledge of the truth, and encourage them by their example unto the practice of it; — if any, I say, should, on these and the like grounds, not in a way of recrimination, nor as a requital of the Doctor’s story, but merely as a necessary part of the defence of their own innocency, charge the same guilt, of giving occasion unto the growth, increase, and danger of Popery in this nation, on the episcopal party, I know not now how they could be well blamed for it, nor what will be done of that kind; for they who will take liberty to speak what they please must be content sometimes to hear what will displease. For my part, I had rather, if it were possible, that these things at present might be omitted, and that all those who are really united in opposition unto Popery, — as I am assured in particular that this reverend author and I are, — would rather consider how we might come out of the danger of it wherein we are, than at present contest how we came into it. This I speak seriously, and that under the consideration of this discourse; which, upon the account of sundry mistakes in matter of fact, of great defects in point of charity, with a design to expose others unto reproach for their great crime of being willing to be a little freed from being beaten, fined, punished, and imprisoned, by their means and on their account, is as apt to excite new exasperations, and to provoke the spirits of them concerned, as any I have read of late. However, the defence of our own innocency must not be forsaken. But, —
“Cumque superba foret Babylon spolianda trophæis,”
it is not praiseworthy to abide in these contests beyond necessity.
This discourse, indeed, of the reverend author is increased into so large a volume as might justly discourage any from undertaking the examination of it who hath any other necessary duties to attend unto. But if there be separated from it the consideration of stories of things and persons long since past, wherein we are not concerned, with the undue application of what was written by some of the ancients against the schisms in their days unto our present differences; as also the repetition of a charge that we do not refrain communion from the parochial churches on the grounds and reasons which we know to the contrary that we do; with the report and quotation of the words and sayings of men by whose judgment we are not determined; with frequent diversions from the question, by attempting advantages from this or that passage or expression in one or another; and the rhetorical aggravations of things that might be plainly expressed and quickly issued, — the controversy may be reduced into a narrower compass.
It is acknowledged that the differences which are amongst Protestants in this nation are to be bewailed, because of the advantages which the common enemy of the protestant interest doth endeavour to make thereby. Howbeit the evil consequences of them do not arise from the nature of the things themselves, but from the interest, prejudices, and biassed affections of them amongst whom they are. Nor shall any man ever be able to prove but that, on the doctrinal agreement which we all profess (provided it be real), we may, notwithstanding the differences that remain, enjoy all that peace and union which are prescribed unto the churches and disciples of Christ, provided that we live in the exercise of that love which he enjoineth us; which whilst it continues, in the profession of the same faith, it is impossible there should be any schism among us. Wherefore, whereas some are very desirous to state the controversy on this supposition, that there is a schism among us, and issue it in an inquiry on which side the blame of it is to be laid, — wherein they suppose they need no farther justification but the possession of that church-state which is established by law, — I shall willingly forego the charging of them with the whole occasion of the schism pretended, until they can prove there is such a schism, which I utterly deny; for the refraining of communion with parochial assemblies, on the grounds whereon we do refrain, hath nothing of the nature of schism in it, neither as it is stated in the Scripture nor as it was esteemed of in the primitive churches, amongst whom there were differences of as great importance, without any mutual charges of schism. Wherefore, although we cannot forego utterly the defence of our own innocency against such charges as import no less than a heinous guilt of sin against God, and imminent danger of ruin from men, yet we shall constantly unite ourselves with and unto all who sincerely endeavour the promotion of the great ends of Christian religion, and the preservation of the interest of protestant religion in this nation.
Something I judge necessary to add concerning my engagement, or rather surprisal, into this controversy, against my inclination and resolution.
The Doctor tells us, preface, p. 51, “That when his sermon came first out, it went down quietly enough, and many of the people began to read and consider it, being pleased to find so weighty and necessary a point debated with so much calmness and freedom from passion; which being discovered by the leaders and managers of the party, it was soon resolved that the sermon must be cried down, and the people dissuaded from reading of it. If any of them were talked withal about it, they shrunk up their shoulders, and looked sternly, and shook their heads, and hardly forbore some bitter words, both of the author and the sermon,” (which it seems he knows, though they did forbear to do so!) and much more to the same purpose. And, p. 53, “As if they had been the Papists’ instruments to execute the fury of their wrath and displeasure against me, they summon in the power of their party, and resolve with their force and might to fall upon me;” with more to the same purpose. And p. 59, “After a while they thought fit to draw their strength into the open field; and the first who appeared was,” etc.
I confess I was somewhat surprised, that, coming into this coast, all things should appear so new and strange unto me as that I could fix on no one mark to discover that I had ever been there before; for I am as utter a stranger unto all these things as unto the counsels of the Pope or Turk. The Doctor seems to apprehend that, at the coming forth of his sermon, at least after its worth and weight were observed, there was a consternation and disorder among the Nonconformists, as if Hannibal had been at the gates; for hereby he supposeth they were cast into those ugly postures of shrinking, and staring, and shaking, and swelling with what they could hardly forbear to utter. But these things, with those that follow, seem to me to be romantic, and somewhat tragically expressed, sufficiently evidencing that other stories told by the same author in this case stand in need of some grains of allowance to reduce them to the royal standard; for whereas I am the first person instanced in that should have a hand in the management of these contrivances, I know nothing at all of them, nor, upon the utmost inquiry I have made, can I hear of any such things among the parties, or the “managers” of them, as they are called. It is true, the preaching and publishing of the Doctor’s sermon at that time was by many judged unseasonable, and they were somewhat troubled at it; more upon the account that it was done by him than that it was done. But otherwise, as to the charge of schism managed therein against them, they were neither surprised with it nor discomposed at it. And, so far as I know, it was the season alone, and the present posture of affairs in the nation, calling for an agreement among! all Protestants, that occasioned any answer unto it.
It is, therefore, no small mistake, that we “dissuaded” any from reading his sermon; which hath been commonly objected by some other writers of the same way. But if we were enemies unto these worthy persons, we could not desire they should have more false intelligence from our tents than they seem to have. This is not our way. Those who are joined with us are so upon their own free choice and judgment; nor do we dissuade them from reading the discourses of any on the subject of our differences. The rule holds herein, “Prove all things, and hold fast that which is good.”
Nor do I know any thing in the least of advices or agreements to cry down and oppose, confute or answer, the Doctor’s sermon; nor do I believe that there were ever any such among those who are charged with them. And what shall be said unto those military expressions of “summoning in the power of the party, resolved to fall on, think fit to draw their strength into the field?” etc. I say, what shall we say to these things? I am not a little troubled that I am forced to have any concernment in the debate of these differences, wherein men’s sense of their interest, or of provocations they have received, cast them on such irregular ways of defence and retaliation; for all these things are but fruits of imagination, that have nothing of truth or substance to give countenance unto them.
The way whereby I became to be at all engaged in this contest, and the reasons whereon I undertook a harmless defence of our innocency, as to the charge of schism at this time, I shall give a brief account of:—
Some days after the Doctor’s sermon was printed and published, one of those whom he supposeth we persuaded not to read it brought it unto me, and gave it me, with such a character of it as I shall not repeat. Upon the perusal of it (which I did on his desire, being uncertain to this day whether, without that occasion, I had ever read it at all), I confess I was both surprised and troubled, and quickly found that many others were so also; for as there was then a great hope and expectation that all Protestants would cement and unite in one common cause and interest for the defence and preservation of religion against the endeavours of the Papists for its subversion, so it was thought by wise men of all sorts that the only medium and expedient for this end was the deposing of the consideration of the lesser differences among ourselves, and burying all animosities that had arisen from them. And I yet suppose myself at least excusable, that I judged the tendency of that discourse to lie utterly another way. Nor is it in my power to believe that a peremptory charge of schism upon any dissenters, — considering what is the apprehension and judgment of those who make that charge concerning it with respect unto God and men, — is a means to unite us in one common religious interest. And on this account, not knowing in the least that any other person had undertaken, — or would undertake, the consideration of the Doctor’s sermon, I thought that my endeavour for the removal of the obstacle cast in the way unto a sincere coalition in the unity of faith among all sorts of Protestants, might not be unacceptable. Neither did I see any other way whereby this might be done but only by a vindication of the dissenters from the guilt of that state, which, if it be truly charged on them, must render our divisions irreconcilable. And continuing still of the same mind, I have once more renewed the same defensative, with no other design but to maintain hopes that peace and love may yet be preserved among us during the continuation of these differences. And whereas it is a work of almighty power to reduce Christian religion unto its first purity and simplicity, which will not be effected but by various providential dispensations in the world, and renewed effusions of the Holy Spirit from above, which are to be waited for; and seeing that all endeavours for national reformation are attended with insuperable difficulties, few churches being either able or willing to extricate themselves from the dust of traditions and time, with the rust of secular interests; I would hope that they shall not be always the object of public severities who, keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of truth and peace, with all sincere disciples of Christ everywhere, do design nothing but a reformation of themselves and their ways, by a universal compliance with the will and word of Christ alone, whom God hath commanded them in all things to hear and obey.
The reduction, I say, of the profession of Christianity in general unto its primitive purity, simplicity, separation from the world, and all implication with secular interests, so as that it should comprise nothing but the guidance of the souls of men in the life of God towards the enjoyment of him, is a work more to be prayed for to come in its proper season than to be expected in this age. Nor do any yet appear fitted in the least measure for the undertaking or attempting such a work, any farther than by their own personal profession and example. And whilst things continue amongst protestant churches in the state wherein they are, — under the influence of divided secular interests, and advantageous mixtures with them, With the relics of the old general apostasy, by differences in points of doctrine in rules of discipline, in orders of divine worship, — it is in vain to look for any union or communion among them, in a compliance with any certain rule of uniformity, either in the profession of faith or in the practice of worship and discipline. Nor would such an agreement among them, could it be attained, be of any great advantage unto the important ends of religion, unless a revival of the power of it in the souls of men do accompany it. In the meantime, the glory of our Christian profession, in righteousness, holiness, and a visible dedication of its professors unto God, is much lost in the world, innumerable souls perishing through the want of effectual means for their conversion and edification. To attempt public national reformation whilst things ecclesiastic and civil are so involved as they are, the one being rivetted into the legal constitution of the other, is neither the duty nor work of private men: nor will, as I suppose, wise men be over forward in attempting any such thing, unless they had better evidence of means to make it effectual than any that do as vet appear; for the religion of a nation, in every form, will answer the ministry of it. What is the present duty, in this state of things, of those private Christians or ministers who cannot satisfy their consciences, as unto their duty towards God, without endeavouring a conformity unto the will of Christ, in the observance of all his institutions and commands, confining all their concerns in religion unto things spiritual and heavenly? is the inquiry before us.
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