By Dr. William Young
I have taken this title rather than the shorter one that has been suggested, i.e. the Establishment Principle, because it avoids certain misleading suggestions. The notion of an established church is commonly taken to mean or at least imply financial support of a church by the state, including the payment of the salaries of the clergy from public funds. On the one hand, I do not see that this is necessarily implied by the statements in the Westminster Confession, and on the other, the doctrine of Reformed theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has sometimes been rejected by men like Abraham Kuyper, who nevertheless admitted such support to be allowable. As a matter of fact, in our own nation the separation of church and state is taken in practice to be consistent with the chaplaincy in the armed forces and the tax exemption of churches. It is also important to notice the difference between the situation presented by Scottish Church history and that which we face in this country. When the established church in Scotland was disrupted in 1843, Thomas Chalmers—who had officially defended an established church in Great Britain, and others of like mind, continued to defend the principle although they were willing to forego the privileges they had previously enjoyed. In the United States we do not have the historical background of the Free Church of Scotland, but the Presbyterian Reformed Church does have the same confession of faith, and it is with the teaching of that document that this paper is concerned.
The purpose of the present paper is not to propose a program of action, but simply to state and defend a doctrine. I for one would insist that it would be a disaster if our government—federal, state or local—were under the present circumstances to exercise fully the rights that are allowed even by the modification of the Confession adopted by a number of Presbyterian churches in this country. Either to discriminate by way of favoring some churches over others, or to act as a nursing father to all alike would mean in practice to give substantial support to unbelief beyond what is the case at present. I should like to remark in this connection that the issue ought not to be exaggerated, as if a central truth of the faith were at stake. While every peg of the temple is precious, yet in matters in which there is no or little difference in practice, I believe there is room for difference of opinion in theoretical matters. In this matter I deplore the attitude of some reconstructionists who would make the duties of the civil magistrates in minute details to be a major issue, when in fact the claims alleged have no prospect of realization before magistrates and people bow before the authority of the Word. And the great task of the church is to proclaim faithfully the Word of Law and Gospel.
In treating the topic of the civil magistrate in his relation to the church, I would first wish to state the doctrine, second to clear away some misunderstandings, and finally to present some reasons for the position. No better formulation is known to me than that of the Westminster divines in the Confession of Faith, chapter XXIII, article 3, which reads, “The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them is according to the mind of God.” And chapter XXXI article 2, reads, “As magistrates may lawfully call a synod of ministers, and other fit persons, to consult and advise with about matters of religion; so if magistrates be open enemies to the church, the ministers of Christ, of themselves, by virtue of their office, or they, with other fit persons upon delegation from their churches, may meet together in such assemblies.” Also the provision of chapter XX, article 4, as to the power of the civil magistrate to proceed against persons publishing opinions contrary to the known principles of Christianity, etc.
In the first place it should be observed that the Church of Scotland on August 27, 1647 approved the Confession of Faith with the following proviso: “It is further declared, That the Assembly understandeth some parts of the second article of the thirty one chapter only of kirks not settled, or constituted in point of government: And that although, in such kirks, a synod of Ministers, and other fit persons, may be called by the Magistrate’s authority and nomination, without any other call, to consult and advise with about matters of religion; and although, likewise, the Ministers of Christ, without delegation from their churches, may of themselves, and by virtue of their office, meet together synodically in such kirks not yet constituted, yet neither of these ought to be done in kirks constituted and settled; it being always free to the Magistrate to advise with synods of Ministers and Ruling Elders, meeting upon delegation from their churches, either ordinarily, or, being indicted by his authority, occasionally, and pro re nata,” etc. To my knowledge every Presbyterian church that has subscribed to the Confession of Faith has understood the right of the church to hold synods independently of any summons from the civil magistrate, and has so read the statements in the Confession.
Secondly, the fundamental thesis here presented is what William Cunningham termed “the lawfulness of some union or friendly connection between church and state” (Presbyterian Reformed Magazine, volume VI, number 1, p. 25). The thesis is a purely abstract one. To be realized in practice, there must be presupposed a Christian state, with Christian magistrates ruling over a substantially Christian body of subjects. Where such an ideal state does not exist, the question of the union of the state with the Christian church does not arise. This is obvious in the case of an anti Christian government that persecutes those who profess loyalty to Christ. It is also true that the principle in question does not mean that a nominally Christian state may establish a church, to be used as an instrument to further its secular purposes. Under such circumstances, faithful servants of the Head and King of the Church have preferred to operate as a Free Church, independent of the state. This does not imply a renunciation of the principle under discussion. In this matter Chalmers and Cunningham were wiser than Dr. Abraham Kuyper. Furthermore, in a truly Christian state, there need not be a preference granted to one denomination over others. In this matter I find the change made by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in the Confession’s chapter XXIII, article 3, to have been unnecessary. The modified form of the Confession adopted by several Presbyterian denominations in this country still maintains the fundamental principle of the right and duty of the civil magistrate in religious matters, and contemplates in fact a predominantly Evangelical Christian nation. The original Confession may, I believe, be fairly understood as applicable to that situation, although the Westminster Assembly in the nature of the case did not contemplate the plurality of denominations of Evangelical Christians. What is implied is that a Christian government will employ its legitimate authority in furthering the interests of Christianity, in restraining public blasphemy and Sabbath desecration, as well as gross evils by way of violation of the second table of the decalogue. The confessional doctrine does imply that the civil magistrate is the guardian of both tables of the law. The sense of the doctrine will be clarified by the removal of misunderstandings that prevail among many who maintain opposing views.
The charge has been brought against the Westminster Confession that its teaching on church and state is Erastian, i.e., that it ascribes to the civil magistrate the right to interfere in the internal activities of the church. This criticism displays enormous ignorance of the Westminster Confession. The very section to which exception is taken (chapter XXIII, article 3), opens with the emphatic anti Erastian statement: “The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” The following passage was not designed to contradict this fundamental position, but was carefully formulated with full awareness of the issues in controversy with Erastians like Selden. George Gillespie’s speech in reply to Selden is clear evidence of the anti Erastianism that prevailed among the divines, and that is formulated in the Confession. That there should be a contradiction so flagrant in a single sentence is implausible to the extent of absurdity, in view of the fact that champions on both sides had entered minutely into the issues involved in the controversy. The alleged contradiction is resolved by the distinction of the authority of the magistrate CIRCUM SACRA (“about sacred things”) and his authority IN SACRIS (“in sacred things”). The former is asserted and the latter denied. The magistrate may enact and enforce laws about religious practice, always subject to the teaching of the Word of God, but he may not in any way take to himself the authority of officially expounding the word or exercising church discipline. His authority in the matter is on the level with that of the Christian individual or head of a family, not the authority that Christ has delegated to his church.
The apparent contradiction between the magistrate’s duty toward the church, and the denial that he has jurisdiction in religious matters is dissolved when attention is paid to the language of the Confession of Faith. “He hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace is preserved in the church,” etc., simply states what he may and ought to aim at as an end. Every Christian ought to aim at the preservation of the unity and peace of the church. Hence this should also be the end envisaged by the Christian magistrate in the exercise of his office. The Confession of Faith says nothing at this point as to the means to be employed to accomplish this end, except for the previous denial of the specific functions of preaching, administering the sacraments, and exercising church discipline. The matter of calling synods will require separate consideration. It should be clear that, thus understood, chapter XXIII, article 3, is consistent with itself, and exemplifies the caution with which the Westminster divines skillfully avoided disputable points, while they firmly and clearly set forth the whole counsel of God in all things necessary.
A most serious charge against the confessional teaching is that it is guilty of propounding intolerant and persecuting principles. Before reply is given to the allegation, an observation should be made as to the character of the language commonly used. Here is an unhappy instance of emotive language being used to excite prejudice, rather than a serious cognitive formulation serving to clarify the difficult issues that are involved. It is necessary first of all to dispose of the ambiguity found in the charge of intolerance and persecution. These words call up frightful images of the Spanish Inquisition, the fires of Smithfield and the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. It might be simply asked in reply where in the history of Scottish Presbyterianism has there been a parallel to such atrocities, except in the treatment of the Covenanters by the Prelatists? The doctrine of the Reformers and the Puritans has never borne such gruesome fruit. The substantial element underlying the charge concerns the principle that the civil magistrate may and should adopt the entire divine law as the norm to which he must conform in making and enforcing laws. His actions should be directed toward the public observance of the precepts in both tables of the decalogue. The specific means to be used are not prescribed by the general principle, but they must fall within the limited province of the authority delegated by the sovereign God to human governments. Laws with respect to the Sabbath involve nothing of intolerance or persecution more than laws prohibiting murder, adultery or theft. The limits of the authority of the civil magistrate require a restriction with respect to the second table of the law as well as the first. The government cannot enforce the tenth commandment, for the duties required and the sins forbidden are purely spiritual, being located in the inner recesses of the heart, over which no human government, not even the visible church has jurisdiction. It goes without saying that the spiritual or inward requirements of the first table of the law fall outside the province of the civil magistrate. But outward displays of idolatry, public blasphemy and Sabbath desecration may be subjects of legislation, and will be in a Protestant nation.
One question must be faced in this connection that may not simply be dismissed on the ground that it merely concerns the means of implementing the principle. May the death penalty be employed in the case of heresy and other infractions of the first table of the law? Enough has already been said to show that an affirmative answer is not required when the Confession teaches that order be taken that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed. I believe that the doctrine of the Confession favors a negative answer. The death penalty for heresy has been justified by an appeal to the judicial law of the Mosaic economy. The force of Deuteronomy 13:5as a proof text in chapter XXIII, article 3, must be estimated in connection with the Confession’s explicit teaching with respect to the gift to the people of Israel of “sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require,” chapter XIX, article 4. To justify on Scriptural grounds the death penalty for heresy would require not only the confessional teaching as to the civil magistrate, but also the assumption of the theonomists that the punishments for crimes under the Jewish theocracy are still to be maintained by Christian governments. If Scripture is seen to restrict the permanent application of capital punishment to murder, as alone not limited to the temporary judicial law, then the argument for such a punishment of heresy collapses.
The Confession of Faith is not to be interpreted in this matter by an appeal to the writings of Rutherford and Gillespie. The severity of their views has been exaggerated. Gillespie in Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, p. 2, states that some divines hold these penalties to be a rule to the Christian magistrate, and remarks by the way, “For my part, I wish more respect were had to it, and that it were more consulted with.”* In any case, the views of these men are neither the norm for our own employment of Scripture, nor for the interpretation of the Confession of Faith. Consider this parallel. The Confession, chapter X, article 3, speaks of the salvation of elect infants dying in infancy. Opponents of the Confession like Dr. C.A. Briggs have quoted from Twisse and Rutherford to support the charge that the Confession teaches at least by implication the damnation of non elect infants dying in infancy. Dr. W.G.T. Shedd and Dr. Benjamin B. Warfield have properly objected to this method of interpretation. Views held by some members of the Westminster Assembly are not to be read into the Confession, but the document must be read in terms of its own statements. Other members of the Assembly, the Independents in particular, held views on toleration other than those ascribed to the Scottish commissioners, but there was no divergence in their position from the confessional teaching as to the civil magistrate. This would indicate that the interpretation of chapter XXIII, article 3, which we have been defending is correct. The section has been so understood by M’Crie, Shaw, Cunningham and Bannerman.
The charge has also been made that the teaching of the Confession, chapter XXXI, article 2, is Erastian in allowing the magistrate to call synods. In an otherwise helpful commentary on the Confession of Faith, we read the astounding misinterpretation, when speaking of chapter XXIII, article 3, it states: “It would then mean that the President of the United States could call a meeting of the General Assembly, decide what is the mind of God, and approve or veto the acts of the Assembly” (Clark, What Do Presbyterians Believe?, p. 212). Neither the chapter on the civil magistrate nor that on synods and councils teaches any such thing. The anti Erastian writings of Gillespie explicitly deny any such interference of the civil magistrate in the internal decisions of church assemblies. He clearly states: “But we deny that (in a well constituted church) it is agreeable to the will of Christ for a magistrate either to receive appeals from the sentence of an ecclesiastical court, or to receive complaints…so as by his authority, upon such complaint, to nullify or make void the ecclesiastical censure” (Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, p. 118). Much less would any Westminster divine countenance an effective veto by the magistrate of a decision by a church court. The limitation placed by the Church of Scotland on the magistrate’s authority to call synods has already been observed. The difference should be held in mind that is to be made between a church regularly constituted and one in which the situation is abnormal. The Westminster Assembly was itself called by the English Parliament to consult and advise. And the exercise of lawful authority by the magistrate was instrumental in the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The Westminster Confession simply acknowledges the conformity of such actions of civil government with the revealed will of God.
The charge that liberty of conscience rules out the power given the magistrate in chapter XX, article 4, is easily answered. Chapter XX actually deals with the subject of liberty of conscience, and contains the classical formulation of article 2: “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” etc., words often appealed to as if inconsistent with the teaching of article 4. But it must be confessed that liberty of conscience is not that license to act contrary to the moral law. It is admitted that the civil magistrate may proceed against those who violate the prohibitions of murder, adultery and theft, and that there is no infringement of liberty of conscience in his doing so. Moreover, church censures are in order against sins forbidden in the first table as well as the second. It is the fallacy of begging the question to raise the above mentioned as an objection against the confessional doctrines; the real issue is whether the civil magistrate has authority with respect to both tables of the law, or is limited to dealing with offenses against the second table.
That the civil magistrate has a concern with religious matters is witnessed by nature itself. Not only is it a matter of fact that human governments have in all times and places exercised authority in religious matters, but it is inherent in the nature of the state that this should be the case. Since the persons over whom the civil magistrate has authority are also those who engage in religious activity, that authority is not relaxed when they perform acts of a religious nature. The thugs of India cannot justify robbery and murder on the ground that these acts are part of their religion. The civil magistrate must condemn their religion in condemning the crimes involved in it. Neither an atheistic government nor one professing religious neutrality is a counter example. Atheistic governments plainly deal with religion in opposing it, while the government that professes a separation of church and state is either inconsistent, as our government was through the early decades of this century, or increasingly opposes the Christian Church while inculcating contrary religious views, as the present tendency is. Willy nilly the civil magistrate involves himself in matters covered by the first four commandments, and it is the part of wisdom to recognize the fact, while pointing out the limits of the magistrate’s authority—which he tends to ignore in a democracy as well as in a monarchy or aristocracy. Governments may either in Erastian fashion take to themselves the specific functions of the church, or under the appearance of religious liberty pass laws which in fact lead to the restriction of the Christian’s freedom to worship God. The latter is seen in the repeal of laws prohibiting Sabbath desecration.
Crucial in the present topic as in all matters of faith and practice is the revelation that has been given us in the propositions of Holy Scripture. The ultimate appeal must be to the teaching of the Word of God. It is a mistake to base one’s doctrine of the relation of church and state upon the changing historical and political situation. This is not to deny that the application of the doctrine to the actual state of affairs at any time must take into account the realities of the situation. But the doctrine to be applied may not be derived either from the facts of the present or from the history of the past. The sole source of the doctrine must have no inferior authority than “Thus saith the Lord.” The methodological error of Dr. Abraham Kuyper was that, while granting this principle in theory, his defense of the Free Church in the Netherlands rested in practice on historical and political considerations.
The most striking passage that enunciates the general principle is Isaiah 49:23: “And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers: they shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am the Lord: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me.” The evangelical prophet has predicted the conversion of the Gentiles in the preceding verse and now foretells the care that the magistrates of those nations will have for the church. The passage cannot be set aside as referring to the Old Testament theocracy, but, like much in Isaiah’s prophesies, envisages the New Testament church, particularly in the time the Lord has set to favor Zion. As Calvin observes, “Something remarkable is here demanded from princes, besides an ordinary profession of faith; for the Lord has bestowed on them authority and power to defend the church and to promote the glory of God.” The general principle revealed in this verse makes it possible to determine in what respects the practice of godly kings in the Old Testament provides an example to be followed by Christian magistrates in the gospel economy. The various proof texts to the Confession’s chapter XXIII, article 3, on this subject are not to be read with the assumption that the punishments prescribed in the judicial law are to be executed by the Christian magistrate. It is only if the mistaken premise of the theonomists is adopted in the way these texts are applied to the New Testament order, that the conclusion may be drawn that the death penalty for heresy should be now in effect. This conclusion does not follow from the teaching of the Confession of Faith.
The Psalms contain abundant evidence as to the rights and duties of the magistrate in a Christian state. This is a prominent feature of the messianic Psalms. Kings and judges of the earth are instructed not only to serve the Lord with fear, but also to kiss the Son, lest he be angry, Psalm 2:10 12. Psalm 22:28 assigns as the reason why all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before the Lord, that the kingdom is the Lord’s and he is the governor among the nations. The Savior, whose sufferings have been depicted in the Psalm, is here set forth as mediatorial king of the nations. The implication is that the civil magistrate in obedience to the sovereign Lord will exercise this legitimate authority in furthering the worship of God. Psalm 72:11 is explicit in its prediction of the flourishing state of Messiah’s kingdom: “Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him.” There is no reason to restrict the sense of the verse to the salvation of individuals, and to exclude a reference to the exercise of regal authority and the corporate activity of nations. Psalm 138:4 5 is another example: “All the kings of the earth shall praise thee, O Lord, when they hear the words of thy mouth. Yea, they shall sing in the ways of the Lord: for great is the glory of the Lord.” That the civil magistrate will be the voluntary subject of the King of kings is the uniform teaching of the Psalter.
With respect to the New Testament it has been objected that the Scripture no longer teaches the close connection between church and state that is so pronounced a feature of the Mosaic economy. In reply, it may be pointed out that there is a good reason why this should be the case. In the first century the Christian church faced opposition to the point of persecution from hostile magistrates, both Jew and Gentile. Divine revelation has taken account of this and has given the church direction on this subject primarily in the Scriptures of the Old Testament. The objection that the church may not adopt such a procedure in view of the progress of revelation has no more force than the parallel invalid argument against the singing of the Old Testament Psalms in the Christian church. Nor may we ignore the fact that the New Testament nowhere nullifies the principles of the order set forth in the Old Testament. The argument for infant baptism from the absence of any New Testament negation of the principle of the Abrahamic covenant is a parallel to the conclusion drawn as to the authority of the civil magistrate in religious matters.
The positive explicit New Testament teaching as to the authority of the powers that be is inRomans 13 . The source of this authority is God, who has delegated the power of the sword to authorized men. Nowhere is it suggested that the authority in view is limited to the second table of the law. Verse 9 is not to be read as implying a restriction of the authority of the state, but simply as enforcing the teaching of verse 8 as to the general obligations toward one’s fellow man. Likewise, when the Apostle Paul indicates that an end designed in the institution of civil government is “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (I Timothy 2:2), he is far from denying the obedience to the first four commandments as an important element in a godly life. The implication surely is that man’s duties to God fall within the scope of the rulers who are the objects of prayer in their official capacity, and not simply as individuals abstracted from their office.
The conclusion may be drawn that the unaltered teaching of the Westminster Confession rests on solid scriptural evidence. The contrary teaching is characteristic of the Anabaptist separation of the Spirit from the Word, and has been accentuated since the French Revolution by the humanistic ideal of liberty. The attempt made in this country to work out a synthesis of this ideal with the Christian faith appeared to be practicable as long as the great body of the American people were professing Christians, and predominated in educational and political life as well as in churches that were fundamentally sound. Today the picture has changed, and we find the principle of the separation of church and state being made a ground not for granting the church freedom to be conformed to God’s Word, but rather to be made subject to the passing political fancies of allegedly advanced thinkers. This development is no proof of any principle, but could provide occasion for Presbyterians who have adopted commonly accepted views to reconsider the original teaching of their standards.
I would conclude with the mention of a conversation of Professor John Murray with a Mennonite student at Westminster Seminary. The student had stated that he held the Anabaptist position of the absolute separation of church and state. The two had nothing in common and nothing to do with one another! Prof. Murray then asked what room would there be for the state in a community where everybody held that view. The student replied: “In South Africa we Mennonites have such a community, and there the church is the state.”
* I am not convinced that Wholesome Severity is the work of Gillespie. It seems to me to be inconsistent with the quote from p. 2 of Aaron’s Rod Blossoming. To be sure, Gillespie may have altered his position, but since there is evidently some doubt as to the authorship of Wholesome Severity, I rather share the doubt than suppose that Gillespie disagrees with himself or with Samuel Rutherford.