The Scottish Reformed on the “Marks of the Church”

Since we covered Calvin Friday, it’s only right to cover John Knox. Knox, along with five others, drafted the Scottish Confession of 1560. Like the other confessions we’ve examined so far, it’s Reformed, and much of the language tracks very closely with the previous two, particularly with the Confession of the English Congregation at Geneva from 4 years prior. Unfortunately, it’s also very hard to read due to its age. Helpful guide: kirk = Church/church:

This kirk is invisible, known only to God, who alone knows whom he has chosen,[2 Tim. 2:19; John 13:18] and comprehends as well (as said is) the elect that are departed (commonly called the kirk triumphant), as those that yet live and fight against sin and Satan as shall live hereafter.[Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:20; Heb. 12:4].

This is the most blatantly wrong of all the confessions, because it outlines exactly where the logic goes askew. It argues (before this) that:

(a) there is no salvation outside the Church ; therefore
(b) all the elect are in the Church in some way;
(c) we don’t know who all the elect are; and thus,
(d) the Church is invisible because we don’t know who the elect are.

Catholics and Reformed Christians agree on the first three points, and the only Scriptural support offered by the Scots Confession affirms these three proposition. The fourth is logically deduced, not directly supported by Scripture — and it also happens to be incorrect. The reason Knox, et al, arrive at the false conclusion (d) is because they assume that because all the saved are somehow within the Church, that the Church is the same thing as “all the saved.” As seen before, all the parables in Matthew 13 flatly refute this.

In fact, one of the verses cited refutes this as well — John 13:18 includes Jesus’ recitation of Psalm 41:9 in regards to Judas: “He who shares my Bread has lifted up his heel against me.” By Knox’s logic, Judas was not really a Disciple. This interpretation, of course, would render lots of Biblical texts nonsensical. Peter in Acts 1:17 quotes more OT prophesy regarding Judas: “he was one of our number and shared in this ministry.” Even though there is no salvation outside the Church (or perhaps said better, there is no salvation exception through the Church), there are the damned even within Her on Earth. So here all the two things we know about the Church:

(1) She contains all of the saved;
(2) On Earth, She contains some who are ultimately damned.

Knox, et al, in their attempt to understand how the first of these two points can be true [with (a), (b), and (c), above] leads them to a de facto rejection of the second, yet the Bible is as clear (if not more so) on this second point. If the Church is “invisible, known only to God,” then it’s nonsense to say that there are members of the invisible Church who are damned. To affirm, as Matthew 13 does repeatedly, that some in the earthly Church are ultimately damned is to affirm that the Church is a visible and tangible thing — this is not to deny an invisible connection of sorts between all the saved and this visible Institution, but it is to deny that “this ‘Kirk’ is invisible, known only to God.”

The notes, signs, and assured tokens whereby the immaculate spouse of Christ Jesus is known from that horrible harlot, the kirk malignant; we affirm are neither antiquity, title usurped, lineal descent, place appointed, nor multitude of men approving an error for Cain in age and title was preferred to Abel and Seth;[5] Jerusalem had prerogative above all places of the earth,[6] where also were the priests lineally descended from Aaron; and greater multitude followed the scribes, Pharisees, and priests, than unfeignedly believed and approved Christ Jesus and his doctrine;[7] and yet, as we suppose, no man (of whole judgment) will grant that any of the forenamed were the kirk of God.

On the basis of Old Testament lineage, and the creation of a New Testament to fulfill and replace the Old, the Scots Reformers come to the faulty conclusion that “antiquity, […] lineal descent, place appointed, nor multitude of men approving” are not ways of determing the authentic Church. So even if the Church could prove beyond doubt that She could trace Her origins back to Christ, and even if She had an overwhelming majority of believers in wholehearted consent, this wouldn’t prove Her to be the True Church. The fact that such dangerous logic is supported only by OT genetic lineage (and the favoring of sons, tied to specific tribes and nations) and the replacement of the OT with the NT, should be worrisome. After all, the Reformers can’t authentically claim that they’re a Newer Covenant, so the parallel makes no sense.

And even if the Old Testament Aaronic priesthood wasn’t a valid part of the New Covenant, it was a valid part of the Old Covenant. Christ acknowledged this explicitly in Matthew 23:2-3. So lineage has always been very important to the Church. In the Old Testament, it was a physical lineage; in the New, it’s a spiritual lineage, and the mode of conveying this authority is through the Holy Spirit in the laying on of hands. (Acts 8:17 describes this for general believers; for investing Christians with specific offices, see Acts 6:5-6). In short, the early Church placed a lot of emphasis on the lineage of a teaching, and its antiquity. That is, the ECFs constantly would emphasis that a particular teaching was not their own, but was taught to them by an Apostle, or a student of an Apostle — this was to avoid novel interpretations. It also placed a lot of authority upon Rome’s primacy (one might dispute what this primacy entailed, but can hardly dispute that some sort of primacy was recognized).

Within recognizing an appeal to antiquity, to a teaching’s lineage, or to its source in a long-recognized Authority, the Scottish Reformers left themselves no way of preventing novel teachings, and novel interpretations of the Bible. So how do they plan on resolving controversy? Easy – the Bible admits only one solution in any controversy, no matter what, and the Scots Reformers just know the Holy Spirit will clue them into which solution that is.

When controversy then happens, for the right understanding of any place or sentence of scripture, or for the reformation of any abuse within the kirk of God, we ought not so much to look what men before us have said or done, as unto that which the Holy Ghost uniformly speaks within the body of the scriptures, and unto that which Christ Jesus himself did, and commanded to be done.[16] For this is a thing universally granted, that the Spirit of God (which is the Spirit of unity) is in nothing contrary unto himself.[17] If then the interpretation, determination, or sentence of any doctor, kirk, or council, repugn to the plain word of God written in any other place of scripture, it is a thing most certain, that there is not the true understanding and meaning of the Holy Ghost, supposing that councils, realms, and nations have approved and received the same. For we dare not receive and admit any interpretation which directly repugns to any principal point of our faith, or to any other plain text of scripture, or yet unto the rule of charity.

In fairness, the final sentence of this chapter is valid: an interpretation of one passage which contradiction with the rest of the Bible is an invalid interpretation. But upon this basis, they arrive at a radically unsound conclusion: that if “any doctor, kirk, or council” has an interpretation of the Bible which contradicts their interpretation of the Bible, the Church Doctor, Church, or Church Council is wrong. And why? Because the Holy Spirit cannot contradict Himself.

The problem with this theory is that it assumes that the Doctors, churches, Church Councils are fallible, while their own reading of “the plain word of God” is not. This teaching, itself, is repugnant to the word of God. Here’s an example. The Council of Jerusalem is a Church Council which the Apostles declare speaks with the Authority of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28), even though, in its abrogation of the necessity of circumcision, it might seem to violate “the plain word of God” found in the Old Testament (where God says that His covenant with Abraham will be “everlasting,” Genesis 17:7, and will be marked by circumcision even unto future generations, Genesis 17:10).

While it is true that the Holy Spirit cannot contradict Himself, an individual reading the Bible can misunderstand it. And while ecumenical Church Councils have, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem forward, been understood to speak with the authority of the Holy Spirit, private interpretation has never been understood or believed to operate in that way. So the Scots Reformers are here choosing to favor a known-fallible method, even when that method contradicts every other known authority capable of interpreting Scripture.

What’s worse, they’re willing to “redecide cases,” so to speak. When identical moral issues come before them, they’re willing to decide them differently than they’ve been historically decided. Although they realize this would create an impossible contradiction, they assume that the authority who wasn’t them must be the one who was wrong, and not guided by the Holy Spirit. The arrogance of this assumption has been disasterous for everyone who has attempted to divine what Scripture really means, contra the Church.

In short, when the Church becomes “all those who hold my interpretation of the Bible,” there are bound to be countless “churches.” The individual becomes their own Magisterium. We see elements of this tendency both here, and elsewhere. To wit:

The notes, therefore, of the true kirk of God we believe, confess, and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the word of God, into the which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles do declare; secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, which must be annexed unto the word and promise of God, to seal and confirm the same in our hearts; last, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed, and virtue nourished.

The three marks of the Church asserted here are very similar to the other two Confessions we’ve looked at so far. But this one takes the cake for arrogance. The first mark, “the true preaching of the word of God, into the which God has revealed himself to us” really does mean just them, because when authorities closer to the time of Christ, or better informed, or employing countless minds and centuries of study and deliberation, come to a conclusion they don’t agree with, they assert that it can’t be right, because it would contradict the Holy Spirit (when really, they mean, it would contradict their own beliefs). The view that these self-appointed men can speak on behalf of the Holy Spirit to decide all issues and determine wherein the true Church lies, is something to the right of “brash.”

And such [true] kirks we, the inhabitants of the realm of Scotland, professors of Christ Jesus, confess ourselves to have in our cities, towns, and places reformed; for the doctrine taught in our kirks is contained in the written word of God: to wit, in the books of the New and Old Testaments: in those books, we mean, which of the ancient have been reputed canonical, in the which we affirm that all things necessary to be believed for the salvation of mankind are sufficiently expressed.

So after pulling out all the stops, rejecting the authority of “antiquity, title usurped, lineal descent, place appointed, nor multitude of men approving” a position they disagree with, how do they justify their use of Scripture? By appealing to antiquity!

It’s clear, in retrospect, that by pulling out all of the stops, it was only a matter of time before people started to say, “and why should we believe the ancients on the canon of Scripture?” (in fact, by 1560, this had already been done in the rejection of the Deuterocanon). And the next step was simply, “why believe the Bible at all? Because the ancients say it’s true?” Hilarie Belloc, with particular insight, drew a line connecting these doctrines of the Reformation with what he saw as a rising tide of secularism and modernism in Europe in his 1938 book The Great Heresies. (Fascinatingly, he also suggested, even then, that a modern Islam with adherents who believed their faith would be an almost unstoppable force for a half-hearted Christian Europe: this prediction, at a time when almost all of the Islamic world was under colonial rule, seemed absurd and paranoid.)

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