Peace And Purity Provided By Authority: John Thomson’s Defense Of Presbyterian Church Polity (Part 8): Authority In Principle And Practice

As a gathered body of ministers united to govern, Synod’s ability to make decisions for the better governing of the church was fundamental to the characteristics and nature of this authority. The discrepancy between the two groups was the difference between how rules were derived from Scripture. The Apology accused the synod of claiming a legislative power by making and imposing new laws not founded on Scripture. Thomson, however, argued that church officers had the power to determine “circumstances” which must always be subordinate to the Scriptures and conform to them. The nature of the power of keys granted to these Presbyters, or officers in the church, was “declarative, subordinate, and executive,” not a “legislative, supreme or dictating” power. This distinction would be the main thrust of Thomson’s argument in contrast to the argument made in The Apology that synod was assuming a legislative power,

The Lord Jesus Christ hath invested his church with authority to make orders, acts, or didactic rules, for the regulating of circumstances of ecclesiastical matters, which are not, nor possibly could be all condescended upon in scripture, for preventing disorder and confusion; only these rules must be conform to and bear a subordination to the general rules of the word. This authority of the church is only declarative, subordinate, and executive, but not legislative, supreme or dictating.[194]

These new rules were only new applications of “the old infallible standing rule of the word” to the proper circumstances and issues.[195]

By this ministerial power granted to the officers of the church, they had the duty to both teach and rule according to Scripture and this duty consisted in expounding the Scriptures and explaining their meaning. Thomson applied this line of argumentation to the creation and use of confessions and creeds. He argued that interpretation and application of the Scriptures to individual cases by the Church officers was necessary because it would be impossible for Scripture to address every case individually that would arise.[196] As a part of this process, they composed confessions and creeds that interpreted and explained the precepts found in the Scriptures. He argued that by this process, the Westminster Assembly had not acted in a legislative power, but had applied “the general rule of the word.”[197] 

Likewise, they in turn “apply these laws or rules to particular cases” and, as a judicatory body, make determinations about the interpretations and apply these rules to cases that come before them. Since they only interpreted the rules found in Scripture and applied them to particular cases, their applications were “only a ministerial authoritative declaration of the Lord’s intent in the general rule.”[198] These interpretations were justified only if their “just consequence is deducible” from Scripture.” If Church judicatories assumed the power to create rules and laws not founded upon Scripture, then they would be assuming this legislative power. Thomson, however, argued that even though the rules and laws are not “particularly expressed” in Scripture they are derived from the intended meaning of Scripture.[199] The Westminster assembly, for example, made rules for ordination and required the education of the ministry by applying principles found in Scripture for the preservation and preparation of the ministry.

According to The Apology in their first objectiononly those rules expressly given in Scripture could be binding. Thomson argued that this went against the directory of worship and the government of the Presbyterian Church, “these brethren are against all ecclesiastical rules, yea, all authority to make ecclesiastical rules for managing church-matters, which are not expressly contained in the scriptures; and so at one blow to knock our whole directory for worship and government on the head.”[200] Thomson turns this argument on itself, “But our brethren qualify this, by adding these words, except in cases wherein God hath plain obvious directions in his word. But surely all the directions of God’s word are general, so as to take in all cases of a like nature, so that in this sense there can be no direction in the whole word of God that is particular.”[201] The problem that Thomson perceived was that there were very few instances where Scripture was considered specific enough to be applicable. He and his colleagues were already operating under this principle, but their applications of Scripture were not considered to be the “plain obvious directions” of it.

Thomson argued that it was their ministerial duty to both, “enforce obedience to the laws of Christ” and to “apply them, according to their true meaning, to such a particular case or cases.”[202] They could make rules about “prudentials” and “expedients,” as a declarative administration of the Word.[203]  Positively, they had the ability and duty to “judge of the meaning of Christ’s laws, as they are applicable to the cases before us; and, in the exercise of our ministerial authority, to determine how Christ’s laws, as applied to the present case, ought to be understood and obeyed.”[204] 

Since Synod was making binding acts on issues not expressly stated in Scripture, The Apology objected that legislative power was being exercised. While their argument was logically sound, Thomson considered it invalid because they used terms that erroneously described the nature of what the Synod was doing. The Apology repeatedly asserted that there was “no legislative authority in the church.”[205] Had they actually been exercising legislative power, Thomson argued that he would have whole-heartedly agreed with their sentiments. Thomson disagreed with their use of “legislative power” and “questioned the revival leader’s definition of a new religious law.”[206] Thomson described the wording they used to describe the rules imposed by synod, “religious laws,” as “an artful clothing of an innocent lamb or sheep with a wolf’s skin, and then to hunt the dogs upon it; or to cry out, a mad dog, and then be sure he must and will be killed.”[207] By calling the rules of the synod “religious laws,” they falsely ascribed something to it that evoked a negative reaction. Thomson imputed this use of loaded language to Tennent, who was notorious for, “overloading or overcharging almost all things which he speaks or writes of, with words of a stronger and heavier obvious meaning than the things which he is treating of will reasonably bear.”[208]

In their second objection, the Apology argued that making laws was a power granted to Christ alone, for he was the one lawgiver mentioned in James 4:12, Col 4:18, and Matt 23:8-10. He was also the one head and king so that the church did not become “a monstrous body with many heads.”[209] Contrary to their assertion that this power of rule making was beyond what was granted by Christ, Thomson argued that these rules were merely “declaring judicially where he hath bound; according to our Lord’s saying, ‘Whatsoever ye shall bind on Earth, shall be bound in heaven.’”[210] Thomson arranged their argument into a syllogism to expose the perceived weakness in their logic:

  1. Authority to make new religious laws is an invasion of Christ’s kingly office, like the Pharisees.
  2. To claim authority to make “rules, orders, or acts, for the regulation of the circumstantials of religion, in subordination and agreeable to the general rules of the Word, such as our synod’s act for adopting the Westminster Confession or the Act of our synod relating to the examination of candidates, is to claim such a power and authority.”[211]
  3. Therefore, the synod is guilty of the first premise.

According to Thomson, their error was their second premise. He corrected it by restating his earlier argument that these rules were not assuming a legislative power, but were merely applications of Scripture by a ministerial authority. If the second premise were granted, then they must disregard the directory, “the constitution of our Presbyterian Church contained in our Westminster Directory, is made up of such rules, and is evidently as liable to the force of this argument as our acts of synod.”[212] Ultimately, Thomson rejected their argument as a straw man argument, lacking substance, made up of merely “emphatical phrases,” namely how they use “legislative power” to describe the acts of Synod.[213] The second premise lacked substance because it falsely equated the rules that Synod was making as new religious laws.

The third objection in The Apology argued that the perfection of the Scriptures necessarily disallowed the making of added laws. They cited 2 Tim 3:16-17 as evidence, “Whatever good work there is in the whole sphere of religion, the Holy Scriptures afford sufficient laws for the performance of it; by these the man of God may be thoroughly furnished and perfect.”[214] They argued that in the love and omniscience of God’s wisdom, as the author of Scripture, He would provide all necessary laws in the Scriptures.[215] 

In response, Thomson argued that the process of explaining and applying the Scriptures in preaching was the same process that took place in synodical acts. The sufficiency of the Scriptures provided the church with broader laws that encompass a vast breadth of applications, “a perfect system of laws, which are so general and comprehensive, as to extend and be applicable to all cases that can fall out.”[216] In addition to this, Thomson argued that officers were necessary for the explication and application of these laws and were appointed for the task.[217] Neither of these things challenged the perfection or the completeness of the Scriptures,

The perfection of the Word, as a system, doth not supersede ministerial explication and application of it, so neither doth the perfection of Christ’s laws supersede the explication and application of them to particular cases, by such ecclesiastical rules, which are not new laws, but only explications and applications of the old infallible ones, which Christ’s ministers by office are obliged to explain and apply. [218]

Thomson then applied this to the act of Synod that they rejected regarding the examination of candidates for the ministry. He argued that it was an application of Scriptural teaching on the subject. [219] 

        The fourth objection, in proposition nine of The Apology, they argued that the “religious laws” made by church judicatories are problematic because they are filled with “superstition” and “uncharitableness.”[220] They referred to them as a system of “human commandments” for which they cited Eph 2:15 and Rom 14:13-14 as examples from Scripture. Thomson addressed the Scripture that they cited and argued that Eph 2:15 was only addressing the issue of the abolition of the mosaical ceremonies. For Rom 14:13-14, it was referring to “avoiding of offence in the use of indifferent things, without any regard to any ecclesiastical rules or authority at all.” He argued that laws given by lawful authorities that were not sinful, but founded on the Word, provide no offense and do not stumble. Thomson then reminded his opponents of the same passage that warned against “rash judging” for which he argued that they were guilty of.[221]

The Apology’s fifth objection in proposition ten argued that legislative power introduced in the history of the church “very great evils and mischiefs.” The authors of the Apology saw a slippery slope that ultimately once gave rise to the papacy, “We are persuaded that a claim of power made by church-rulers, to frame laws about things deemed by them to be orderly, decent, prudent, expedient, gave rise to prelacy and popery itself, and to all the burdensome train of unscriptural and ridiculous ceremonies.”[222] Thomson responded that this was only an example of the abuse of a proper authority and did not negate it.[223] Thomson admitted that no system could perfectly maintain the church either in “doctrine, worship or government,” because the church was a mix of regenerate and unregenerate. The problems that would arise, however, were when the proper government of the church was abused.[224] Thomson then gave a stern warning for the Officers of the Church to exercise their power, “Our Lord hath given his officers a power for good purposes, which if they abuse to oppression thro’ ignorance or partiality, or any other unjustifiable cause, they must answer for it.”[225]

In response to the objections of The Apology, Thomson defended the authority of church judicatories to make ministerial, declarative acts that were applications of their interpretation of Scripture. Thomson defended how the officers of the church were to exercise their authority in church judicatories. He defined the nature of church judicatories, in both a presbytery and Synod. He defended the means by which the officers arrived at the making of rules, and how they had the power to enforce them as officers of the church granted with the authority to rule according to Scripture. Further questions and objection raised by The Apology were questions of Synodical power over Presbyteries, when proper disobedience was necessary and the problem of dissenting and the threat of non-communion. In light of Thomson’s argument for the authority of church judicatories, he also argued that submission to them was necessary for participation. He also clarified when it was lawful to disobey. 

© Tricia Howerzyl. All Rights Reserved.


[194]. John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ, 60.

[195]. Ibid., 69.

[196]. Ibid., 60.

[197]. Ibid., 67.

[198]. Ibid., 62.

[199]. Ibid., 68.

[200]. Ibid., 65.

[201]. Ibid., 56.

[202]. Ibid., 74-75.

[203]. Ibid., 101.

[204]. Ibid., 74.

[205]. Ibid.70.

[206]. Milton J. Coalter, Gilbert Tennent: Son of Thunder, 86.

[207]. John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ65.

[208]. Ibid., 70.

[209]. Ibid., 73.

[210]. Ibid., 109.

[211]. Ibid., 75.

[212]. Ibid., 75-76.

[213]. Ibid., 75.

[214]. Ibid., 76.

[215]. Ibid.

[216]. Ibid., 77.

[217]. Ibid., 77-78.

[218]. Ibid., 77.

[219]. Ibid.

[220]. Ibid., 104.

[221]. Ibid.

[222]. Ibid.

[223]. Ibid., 107.

[224]. Ibid.

[225]. Ibid.108.


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