Friday, March 20, 2009

The roots of Erastianism: Property disputes

Erastianism is the idea that there is no distinction between the church and state in a Christian state but that the head of the state is the visible head of the church also. Besides the Westminster Standards, George Gillespie showed convincingly in his writings that there were distinct ecclesiastical courts in the Old Testament which were not subject to the king. The other significant point that refutes Erastianism is that there can be only one head of the Church.

How did Erastianism begin?
Erastianism began after the time of Constantine and became established in the Byzantine empire. The church was controlled by the Emperor, a phenomenon known as “caesaro-papalism".

This position took a while to establish itself and met with some understandable resistance. It gained its foothold, however, through church splits and resulting property disputes. It was the Donatist schismatics who in 313 appealed to the emperor Constantine in a property dispute and asked him to turn the case over to the bishops of Gaul for determination. This was ironic because their leader Donatus had once himself said: “What has the Emperor to do with the Church?”

The emperor Constantine had a certain reluctance to be involved but turned the case over to the bishop of Rome Miltiades, instead and arranged the detail of who should attend. Miltiades reinforced the secularisation of the church by conducting the case according to Roman civil law and the outcome was not favourable to the Donatists.

The Donatists then complained once more to the emperor and Constantine summoned the Council of Arles. This was the first time that a civil ruler had taken the initiative in convening a church council. The Council ruled against Donatists and they appealed once more to the emperor. This time Constantine agreed to hear them himself. This was the most ominous step because it was not simply the state instructing the church to try the case but the state assuming the power of settling church issues. It meant of course, that the emperor had to enter into matters of doctrinal dispute

Perhaps realising how far things had gone the Synod of Antioch in 341 ruled that ‘direct recourse to the emperor is forbidden’. It was too late, however, and gradually the imperial power over the church became too much to resist. The Synod of Antioch had some experience of this. There had been something of a precedent before the time of Constantine when the Roman Empire was still heathen. It was in the case of the heretic Paul of Samosata. Paul taught that Jesus Christ was born a mere man, but that at his baptism he was infused with the divine Logos or Word of God.

In 269, the Synod of Antioch deposed Paul as bishop and elected Dominus as his successor. Despite being deposed, Paul refused to acknowledge this and continued to function as before and continued to occupy the bishop's house in Antioch. Paul held the civil office of Procurator ducenarius, and was protected by Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra but when she was defeated in battle in 272 events changed. Appeal was made to Aurelian the Emperor who who ejected Paul of Samosata from the house handed the matter of who should occupy it over to the Bishops of Italy. It was an ominous step for Christians to appeal to a heathen Emperor because the basis upon which the emperor claimed his right to accept judicial appeal in a religious matter was as Pontifex Maximumus or Chief Priest of all cults or religions right. Aurelian was a pagan and later persecuted Christians.

There was discussion at various times as to how the situation could be managed and contained. It was considered by some that ecclesiastical courts' decisions, viz. of a final authoritative synod, must not be appealed to the emperor since such appeals gave the emperor important opportunities to interfere in church affairs. The flood gate once opened, however, was not easily held back.

The origins of Erastianism are instructive for this very reason. It may find a foothold even in a presbyterian nation and church that historically oppose it by the same means that we have noted above. For instance, the Free Church of Scotland constituted in 1843 in protest against Erastianism, state interference in the Church and the civil courts reviewing the decisions of Church courts. In 1900, the minority Free Church took the matter of determining which was the true Free Church to the civil courts in order to claim the material assets, particularly property, of the Free Church. Part of the reason that they remained within the Church after the Declaratory Act had been retained in its constitution was that the Constitutionalists had consulted eminent legal opinion about property in the winter 1892-3 in Scotland and England but it was not favourable to their retaining property unless Union came about. According to Free Church Counsel Mr Johnson in the 1904 case, it was a case of waiting till the best legal grounds for contesting the property came up - "We have certainly resisted, and when it comes to touch property, then is our opportunity". Ultimately, the case was successful at the House of Lords who seemed to be some toehold in determining the finer points of Calvinism. Yet the churches still required the State to establish a Royal Commission in order to determine how the property should be divided. To allow the State the right to review the civil consequences of the decisions of church courts appears to give it the role of a court of appeal from any decision of a church court, particularly in the light of the State's obsession with discrimination legislation.

These things work differently where there is an established connexion between Church and State so that the latter, in George Gillespie's words, “taketh care also for maintaining the ministers and schools, and supplieth the temporal necessities of God's servants”. In this case, however, the property and emoluments belong to the State and not the Church.

Gillespie's One hundred and eleven propositions concerning the ministry and government of the church defines clearly the role of Church and State and were approved by the Church of Scotland at its General Assembly. Gillespie says that the Scriptures forbid “the Christian magistrate to enter upon or usurp...the judicial dispensing of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, to invade the church government” “but if any magistrate (which God forbid) should dare to arrogate to himself so much, and to enlarge his skirts so far, the church shall then straightway be constrained to complain justly, and cry out, that though the Pope is changed, yet popedom remaineth still”. Doctrinal determination of the principles of a church appears to involve the invasion of church government. As Gillespie goes on to say: “It is unlawful, moreover, to a Christian magistrate to withstand the practice and execution of ecclesiastical discipline (whether it be that which belongs to a particular church, or the matter be carried to a class or synod)”. Gillespie qualifies this to allow for absolute extraordinary emergencies when the Church has collapsed morally and in “the worst and most troublesome of times”, “when nothing almost is sound or whole”. There is also the qualification that civil laws are not to be disobeyed as far as obedience is consistent with obedience to God – likewise the Church has no business in “disturbing the peace and order of the commonwealth”.

The most telling proposition, however, is number 85.

“85. Yet ordinarily, and by common or known law and right in settled churches, if any man have recourse to the magistrate to complain, that, through abuse of ecclesiastical discipline, injury is done to him, or if any sentence of the pastors and elders of the church, whether concerning faith or discipline, do displease or seem unjust unto the magistrate himself, it is not for that cause lawful to draw those ecclesiastical causes to a civil tribunal, or to bring in a kind of political or civil popedom.”

Proposition 85 speaks of a situation where processes and procedures have not been followed correctly in that it speaks of where "through abuse of Ecclesiastick Discipline, injury is done". I would emphasise the word abuse, if Gillespie wished to refer to injury incurred by the proper or lawful exercise of church discipline he would not have needed to insert the word "abuse".

The same principle of no appeal beyond the supreme court of the church to the State is asserted by the Covenanter James Durham. "If all that [steps of Matt. 18] does not prevail, private persons may communicate it to other church officers; and no redress following, it is their duty to follow it before the competent superior judicatories. For Christ's directions, Tell the church, imports, and warrants the same.If it is asked, 'What further is to be done, if that fails?' ANSWER. We know no other public redress. Christ has left it there, and so may we also…That it is thus necessary for private persons to acquiesce in the church's determination, in manner as has been said, may appear from the unsettledness and confusion, both in private and public, which would otherwise follow. For either there must be a sisting in this determination of the church or there must be some other period to fix at, or there must be no fixing at all. Neither of the two last can be said, therefore etc. Not the last, to wit that there is no fixing at all; for so a particular person that was offended, would not know what was duty, or what to follow, and it would infer a defect in the Lord's ordinance in reference to his people's direction and peace in such cases, which is most absurd. If the second is said, viz. that there is some other thing to fix on for quieting of consciences in such a case, as to their exoneration beyond that public decision, we desire to know what that is which is called for, and by what rule we are to proceed in it?" p.116 James Durham, A Treatise Concerning Scandals.

It is for this reason that when one minister in the Reformed Church of Scotland in the 16th century appealed to the civil courts against his discipline, he was immediately deposed. The Claim, Declaration and Protest of 1843 describes this:

“The General Assembly having, in the year 1582, proceeded to inflict the censures of the Church upon Robert Montgomery, minister of Stirling, for seeking to force himself, under a presentation from the King, into the archbishopric of Glasgow, contrary to an act of the General Assembly discharging the office of Prelatic bishop in the Church, and for appealing to the secular tribunals against the infliction of Church censures by the Church Courts, and seeking to have these suspended and interdicted—and having deposed and excommunicated him, notwithstanding of an interdict pronounced by the Privy Council of Scotland, the then supreme secular court of the kingdom—and having at the same time declared it to be part of the subsisting discipline of the Church, that any ministers thereof who “should seek any way by the civil power to exempt and withdraw themselves from the jurisdiction of the Kirk, or procure, obtain, or use any letters or charges, etc., to impair, hurt, or stay the said jurisdiction, discipline, etc., or to make any appellation from the General Assembly to stop the discipline or order of the ecclesiastical policy or jurisdiction granted by God’s Word to the office-bearers within the said Kirk,” were liable to the highest censures of the Church; although their sentence of excommunication was declared by one of the Acts of Parliament of the year 1584, commonly called the “Black Acts,” to be void, yet ultimately the King and Privy Council abandoned their interference. Montgomery submitted to the Church Courts, and the statute of the twelfth Parliament of King James VI., already mentioned (1592, c. 116), cassed and annulled “all and whatsoever acts, laws, and statutes made at any time before the day and date thereof, against the liberty of the true Kirk, jurisdiction and discipline thereof, as the same is used and exercised within this realm;” since which enactment, no similar interference with the discipline and censures of the Church was ever attempted till the year 1841.”

Gillespie's following propositions clearly show his mind that Church courts are sufficient and there needs to be no appeal to the state.

87. Again, it hath been before showed, that to ecclesiastical evils ecclesiastical remedies are appointed and fitted, for the church is, no less than the commonwealth, through the grace of God, sufficient to itself in reference [pg 5-033] unto her own end, and as in the commonwealth, so in the church, the error of inferior judgments and assemblies, or their evil government, is to be corrected by superior judgments and assemblies, and so still by them of the same order, lest one order be confounded with another, or one government be intermingled with another government. What shall now the adversaries of ecclesiastical power object here, which those who admit not the yoke of the magistrate may not be ready, in like manner, to transfer against the civil judicatories and government of the commonwealth, seeing it happeneth sometimes that the commonwealth is no less ill governed than the church?

88. If any man shall prosecute the argument, and say that yet no remedy is here showed which may be applied to the injustice or error of a national synod, surely he stumbleth against the same stone, seeing he weigheth not the matter with an equal balance, for the same may, in like sort, fall back and be cast upon parliaments, or any supreme senate of a commonwealth, for who seeth not the judgment of the supreme civil senate to be nothing more infallible, yea, also, in matters of faith and ecclesiastical discipline, more apt and prone to error (as being less accustomed to sacred studies) than the judgment of the national synod? What medicines then, or what sovereign plasters shall be had, which may be fit for the curing and healing of the errors and miscarriages of the supreme magistrates and senate? The very like, and beside all this, other and more effectual medicines by which the errors of national synods may be healed, are possible to be had.

89. There wanteth not a divine medicine and sovereign balm in Gilead, for although the popish opinion of the infallibility of counsels be worthily rejected and exploded, yet it is not in vain that Christ hath promised he shall be present with an assembly which indeed and in truth meeteth in his name with such an assembly verily he useth to be present, by a spiritual aid and assistance of his own Spirit, to uphold the falling, or to raise up the fallen. Whence it is that divers times the errors of former synods are discovered and amended by the latter; sometimes, also, the second or afterthoughts of one and the same synod are the wiser and the better.

90. Furthermore, the line of ecclesiastical subordination is longer and further stretched than the line of civil subordination; for a national synod must be subordinate and subject to an universal synod in the manner aforesaid, whereas yet there is no oecumenical parliament or general civil court acknowledged, unto which the supreme civil senate in this or that nation should be subject. Finally, neither is the church altogether destitute of nearer remedies whether an universal council may be had or not.