The Discretionary Power of the Church | Willem Apollonius

William Apollonius (1602-1657)
A Consideration of Certain Controversies (1644), pp. 130-143.

Whether it be lawful for churches to prescribe to themselves constituted laws and forms, and certain canons, by ecclesiastical authority, wherein articles of faith, and things necessarily required by God for the government and discipline of the churches, are out of the holy Scriptures ex­pounded and determined; and things not ne­cessarily required are by ecclesiastical power prescribed, according to the general rules of Scripture, from the precepts of the law of Na­ture and holy prudence, for the edification of the church, and the order and decency of God’s worship; and imposed on particular churches, and church governors, as bonds of peace and unity?

We grant in this controversy:

1. That these forms are not abso­lutely necessary to the constitution of a church. For we know that the ancient church of the Jews wanted such forms; when as being collected in one people, they had express ritual laws, and the prophets frequent directions. Nor did the Christian Church want its being or well-being before such time as the branches of the Apostles’ Creed, gathered out of several places of Scripture, were in a brief abstract joined together in one.

2. We deny that these forms or declarati­ons of faith and church government are to have that authority and authenticity, attributed to them, which belongs only to the Word of God, as that they should be obtruded as a rule of faith, and that in the examination of doctrines, and of church di­scipline, judgement should be made, ex formu­larum terminis (as they speak) by the letter of such forms. We approve not the judgement of those, nor would have their practice to be imitated, of whom our divines did hereto­fore justly complain in that writing which Zacharias Ursinus in the name of the University of Neostad, opposed to the Bergenses Con­cordistae, who would obtrude the words of the Augsburg Confession and the writings of Lu­ther as a rule of faith and ecclesiastical pro­ceedings. See chapter 4 of that book, where much is said concerning the use and abuse of confessions.

3. We judge forms of confessions, and ca­nons of ecclesiastical government, to be de­clarations of the true faith and discipline, bad­ges and tokens of union and communion in the Church, collected in the meetings of the godly learned, and ratified by an unanimous consent after a diligent inquiry out of Scrip­ture. Wherein those things which are in diverse places of Scripture pertaining to the sum of Christian faith and discipline, ga­thered as it were into a bundle, are together and at once proposed to a few eyes. And by the comparing of all places wherein mention is made of one and the same article, the wholesome truth in each one is expressed and explai­ned.

That the controversies arising concerning the doctrines of faith and discipline, and the sense of Scripture, being examined by ordi­nary ministerial knowledge, may by com­mon consent be explained and decided. That there may be an agreement also about the proper form of speaking and proceeding, agreeable to the phrase and sense of the holy Scrip­ture and of the Church. And that it may appear what those churches hold which set forth those confessions and canons, and what they judge out of Scripture that all those or­thodox, with whom they will keep com­munion, should hold. That there may be a restraint of licentiousness in inventing new o­pinions and orders to distract and trouble the Church. And lastly, that there may remain a testimony to posterity of the faith and doctrine of their ancestors. That vicious, or unnecessary and unprofitable innovations may be avoided, and the purity of doctrine and discipline, the concord and peace of the churches the better preserved.

They are useful therefore for the understanding of divine Scripture, as handmaids with due subjection, without any absolutely necessary prescription of using them, so that there be an agreement in one and the same true sense. But are impediments and hinderances to those only, who with licentiousness rather than liberty endeavor to overthrow—and fear not to call in question—those principles which are as the foundations of our faith and Christian discipline. And who assume to them­selves a power to think and even to speak what they list, which the Scripture doth everywhere reject, as being far from Christian modesty.

4. We attribute therefore to these forms only an hypothetical necessity. For we ac­knowledge that necessary occasions of these kind of writings arise only from the reformations of churches, heretics and erroneous persons, contentions or sophistications, fraudulent ex­pressions and interpretations, or the adversa­ries’ calumnies, or the necessity of instructing the ignorant, or the testification of a consent with other churches both ancient and present, or a necessary declaring the union of concord and consent.

5. Therefore these forms of faith and dis­cipline are to be composed by the gift of prophecy [i.e. preaching], out of all places of Scripture com­pared. And cannot be prescribed to chur­ches but by colleges of prophets [i.e. preachers], to whom ecclesiastical power of government is com­mitted. Hence the meeting of Apostles and Elders did by common consent compose ex­plications out of Scripture, of opinions in con­troversy (Acts 15) and set out an epistle, wherein by a form of confession concerning the question in controversy, it was decided, and a canon prescribed to other churches.

6. We consider these forms, either as touching the matter of them (which is divine, being deduced from Scripture) which we make use of as indices in explaining and deter­mining dubious senses of Scriptures and con­troversies. For being searched out by so great diligence of godly teachers, and approved by their consent, and received by those churches wherein we live. We cannot see that there is too much attributed to these forms, being examined and tried by Scripture, if they be looked upon as indices of some controverted doctrine, or sense of Scripture, of which the meditation even of a private Christian, much more of a numerous company of prophets, may be an index.

Or they are considered formally, as they are synodical determinati­ons duly concluded, confirmed with ecclesiastical authority, carrying in them the una­nimous consent of the prophets as a badge of ecclesiastical union and communion. And thus we make use of them as ecclesiastical judges in deciding and explaining ecclesiastical controversies, in preserving the purity of doctrine and the peace of the churches.

And when we consider them jointly, we attribute to them this authority, which we propose in Ursinus’s words:

Their authority is shewed in that it is not lawful for anyone to recede from those doctrines which they recite out of the Word of God; nor is anything to be innovated in form of exposition or speech without just and ne­cessary causes. Yea and if they either have indeed, or seem to have, anything blameworthy, nothing yet is to be attempted in a rash, disorderly, and turbulent manner, nothing to be spread abroad to the contrary, without a previous communicating of opinions with such as are teachers, and others able to judge of doctrines, and the common know­ledge and consent of those churches wherein those forms of confessions are received and approved. Though therefore the authority and power of Sy­nods, which prescribe those forms, be not of itself infallible, nor instituted by God to be the supreme and infallible rule of our Faith, and therefore can­not by itself and its own authority oblige believers to believe that which is determined in those forms, yet we acknowledge in Synods which constitute those forms, the supreme power of ecclesiastical judging and determining controversies, given by God for avoiding confusion and rending of chur­ches. Whereby they may inflict ecclesiastical cen­sures on such as openly oppose their decrees. Hence have those forms an excellent force and efficacy to beget in the minds of all, a persuasion of the true doctrine therein contained.

For, (as the Learned Camero well noteth (tom. 1. Prelect. de Eccle­sia), in that discourse concerning the infallibility of the Church) so often as anything is decreed by an Assembly of those who are placed in au­thority in the Church, it makes that this is not rashly and without accurate and grave observati­on to be rejected. For a Synod hath a peculiar as­sistance of the Holy Ghost and so a greater than that which belongs to teachers judging singly and apart. They have also more certain means of finding out the truth, to wit, the prayers, fastings, and dis­putations, etc. of the principal pastors of the whole church. They have also a better course to know what is the opinion of the whole church concerning a controversy raised, and what course the chur­ches observe therein. So that they who doubt of the truth of the forms constituted in a Synod, or upon light and probable reasons judge them to be false, and so do not certainly know them so to be, are bound so far to yield obedience to the forms decreed, as may be agreeable to order and decency in that case. Which obedience is an observance of Christian humility and mo­desty, whereby the faithful in such cases ab­stain from public or open profession of their opinion, and condemnation or confutation of the opi­nion determined in those forms.

And this evi­dent, because for giving obedience to the decrees of churches, we have the certain and manifest au­thority of God, commanding to obey them (Heb. 13.17). But for opposing them, we have only uncertain and probable conjectures. And in such a case the common rule is to be followed: ‘hold that which is certain, and leave that which is uncertain.’ Again, to oppose openly the forms of churches upon arguments but probable and less evident, gives an unbridled and endless license of contradicting any ecclesiastical decrees whatever. Yea, when there is anything of falsehood prescribed in those forms of churches, and that golden rule is to be followed: ‘To obey God rather than men.’ Yet a pious son of the church will not rudely insult on them, but with a reverential bashfulness avoid them, as Waldensis elsewhere speaks. But when forms are composed and established by Synodical authority, for the promoting and deciding of truth, the establishing integrity and order in church government, they have then ecclesiastical and defi­nitive authority, whereby they may be imposed on particular churches in doctrinal causes, and ecclesiastical affairs, under the penalty of ecclesiastical censure. For the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets (1 Cor. 14.32), and all the sons of the church are to be subject to the discipline of the Church (Mat. 18.17-18).”

We hold therefore that to churches congregated in Synods, there belongs power by the Word of God that they may by ecclesiastical au­thority prescribe and impose forms both of confession of faith, and ecclesiastical go­vernment, which particular churches, and their governors and private members are bound to confess and receive under pain of ecclesiastical censure.

This assertion is pro­ved:

1. Because the Synod at Jerusalem, by an or­dinary power ecclesiastical, did prescribe and impose such a form to other churches in a question in controversy (Acts 15.22, 29 and 16.4).

2. Because those things which the churches of God ought to believe with the certainty of divine faith, and undoubted conscience, these may Synods also enjoin, by ecclesiastical au­thority to particular churches. For by the Word of God their power extends to require of others obedience to the Faith, and may in the name of Christ with spiritual power bring under those that are obstinate, and who stubbornly oppose themselves against the de­crees and constitutions of those that are to govern the church. They may therefore by ecclesiastical authority impose on others forms of faith, and of obedience to the faith, drawn up according to the Scriptures.

3. Churches have ecclesiastical power to prescribe just and approved means for pre­serving the purity of true doctrine, and the peace and union of churches, and for over­throwing the wicked counsels and endeavors of heretics and disturbers (2 Cor. 10.4-6, and 13.10; Gal. 5.12; 1 Cor. 4.21). But forms of service and confessions determined concer­ning questions in controversy, are approved and just means for preserving the purity of doctrine and the peace of churches, that they be not endangered by distractions and the poi­son of errors (Acts 15.23-24). They may therefore be imposed on particular churches by ecclesiastical authority.

Accordingly, in the ancient Synods of churches such symbols, ecclesiastical ca­nons, confessions and declarations of faith were set forth, that they might thereby testify not only what themselves did believe, but also what ought to be believed by others, with whom they would hold their ecclesiastical communion. As all the acts of Synods do testify, in which (where they speak concerning doctrines of faith) they do, by Paul’s exam­ple, anathematize those who think or teach otherwise. Whence also is that preface of the Athanasian Creed: “Who­soever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he believe,” etc. And Calvin rightly, Epist. 87 to the Protector of England:

It is requisite to provide against petulant wits, who assume to them­selves too great a license; and the gate is also to be shut against curious doctrines: And the ready course for this purpose is one, to wit, That there be a sum of doctrine extant, to be received by all, and this in preaching to be followed by all; and to the observance thereof all Bishops and Ministers to be bound by oath; so as none be admitted to the ecclesiastical Function, but who promiseth to retain that consent of Doctrine inviolate: That there be also a common form of Catechism for the use of children, and ignorant people; Thus will the truth be made familiar to them, and withal they will learn to distinguish it from impostures and corruptions, which are apt by degrees to creep upon the slothful. For this you must be certainly resolved of, that the Church of God cannot want Catechizing; for that therein the true seed of sound doctrine is contained, from whence a pure and good harvest is afterward to arise, and so to be multiplied more and more, etc. Nor yet doth the benefit of a Catechism consist only in the in­struction of Children; for there is withal this other benefit, that both the people being thereby instru­cted, will be better able to profit in the ordinary hearing of the Word; and also if any one being puffed up would bring in some new opinion, being called to examination by the Catechism, he will straight be discovered.” Thus Calvin.

And thus also, in our Belgic Churches, is that authority applied to our forms of har­mony, to wit, the confession, the catechism, and ecclesiastical order decreed and confir­med in Synods, that the profession, the do­ctrine, and observation thereof is by ecclesiastical authority enjoined to all, who will en­joy the dignity of the ecclesiastical ministry, and who live in the holy union of our chur­ches. See the Synod at Embden, Anno 1571, art. 2, at Dort, Anno 1574, art. 2, & Anno 1578, art. 8, etc.

We reject therefore:

The opinion of those who grant it indeed lawful for a private person, or even for a parti­cular church, yea, and for all the churches of a kingdom to make confessions and forms of doctrine and discipline; but hold it unlawful and unprofitable to prescribe them ei­ther by ecclesiastical or civil authority as binding rules of faith and practice, that men should be constrained to observe them in faith and the practice of divine worship.

But now those things that are to be retained with that firm faith and unmoved constancy and certainty of mind, as that for the profession thereof all believers should not doubt to shed their blood and suffer martyrdom, and the churches with the certainty of divine faith judge that so they ought to do. Those things surely they may, by ecclesiastical and spiritual authority, prescribe to others, and constrain men to observance thereof in faith and practice, under the penalty of ecclesiastical cen­sure. But for the profession of the pure faith, and of the spiritual government of Christ’s Kingdom, all who are faithful sons of the Church are bound to shed their blood. See Rev. 2.13, Acts 7.57-58, Luke 21.15-16. There­fore canons and rules of this profession, pre­scribed out of the undoubted Word of God, may by ecclesiastical authority be imposed on the churches of God, by those who are by of­fice to watch over the purity of Faith, and in­tegrity of ecclesiastical government.

Yea, and we may bind our souls by oath, to preserve and profess the saving truth of God in faith and the obedience of faith, that we fall not away from the holy profession and exercise thereof: See Psal. 119.106, Neh. 9.38. And if we may lawfully bind by oath our own souls and the souls of others who live under our power, to such a profession of saving Faith; we may bind them also by laws and canons to the same profession: for of like things there is like judgement.

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