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THE DISCRETIONARY POWER OF
Matt. xxviii:20. “Teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you.”
There are certain utterances which, though brief, are comprehensive and regulative. They enounce principles, or inculcate duties, which involve all minor and dependent ones, and stamp a moulding influence upon thought and action. Such are those contained in the text. So far as any words of the Lord Jesus can derive a peculiar interest from the impressiveness of the circumstances in which they were spoken, these possess that quality. They constitute a part of what is usually termed the great commission,—that last brief, but affecting and momentous charge which Jesus delivered to the apostles and, through them, to the church, while ten thousand of His holy ones waited to escort Him to the gates of glory and the mediatorial throne. An apostate or declining church may be insensible to their power, but they burn like fire in the consciousness of one which is vitalized by the breath of the Holy Ghost. They speak to us this day with the same freshness and emphasis with which they fell from the lips of a triumphant Savior upon the listening ears of the apostles of His extraordinary call.
NOTE.-This is not the most eloquent, but it is the most valuable and the most timely sermon in this volume. It was preached before the General Assembly, at St. Louis, May 20, 1875. The author called it a testimony.
There are two supreme obligations which this final charge of the Lord Jesus lays upon the heart of the church. The first is the transcendent duty of universal evangelization. The second is the inculcation and maintenance of the truth which Christ, the prophet of the church, has taught, and the commands which Christ, the king of the church, has enjoined. The call of the gospel is to be addressed to all the sons of men, and when they accept it, and are gathered into the fold of the church, she is to teach them all things whatsoever Christ has commanded. There are obviously a positive and a negative aspect of this charge to the church,-positive, in that she is directed to teach all that Christ has commanded; negative, in that she is implicitly prohibited from teaching anything which He has not commanded. The negative duty is a necessary inference from the command which enforces the positive. Here, then, we have the principle tinctured with the blood of our Puritan, Covenanter and Huguenot forefathers—that what is not commanded, either explicitly or implicitly in the Scriptures, is prohibited to the church. She can utter no new doctrine, make no new laws, ordain no new forms of government, and invent no new modes of worship. This is but a statement of a fundamental principle of Protestantism, contra-distinguishing it from Rationalism on the one hand and Romanism on the other,--that the Scriptures, as the word of Christ, are the complete and ultimate rule of faith and duty. They
They are complete, since they furnish as perfect a provision for the spiritual, as does nature for the physical, wants of man, and, therefore, exclude every other rule as unnecessary and superfluous. They are ultimate because, being the word of God, they must pronounce infallibly and supremely
upon all questions relating to religious faith and practice. The duty of the church, consequently, to conform herself strictly to the divine word, and her guilt and danger in departing from it would seem to be transparently evident. But the clearest principles, through the blindness, fallibility, and perverseness of the human mind, frequently prove inoperative in actual experience; and the history of the church furnishes lamentable proof that the great, regulative truth of the completeness and supremacy of the Scriptures constitutes no exception to this remark. Because we are Protestants, and Presbyterian Protestants, because the doctrine of the perfection and ultimate authority of the word lies at the root of our system and is embodied in our standards, we are not, therefore, free from the peril attending the failure of the church to conform herself in all things to the revealed will of Christ, and her tendency to rely upon her own folly instead of His wisdom.
It is designed, in these remarks, to direct attention to the subject of the discretionary power of the church; and in the discussion of that question, logical fitness requires that the great Protestant principle of the completeness and supremacy of the Scriptures be premised. That being admitted, the Rationalist hypothesis of the final authority of reason in matters of religious faith and duty, and the Romanist, which affirms the ultimate rule to be the Scriptures and tradition, as expounded by an infallible human head of the church, are effectually discharged. To establish this fundamental assumption, recourse need be had but to a single short but conclusive argument. Those who appeal to the Scriptures as possessing any authority at all must admit them to be true. They are a veracious witness.
But they affirm themselves to be inspired: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God;" and as inspired they farther assert that they are a complete standard of faith and (lirectory of practice. They claim to be “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” Either we must deny their truthfulness in this instance, or admit it. If we deny it, then their character for veracity breaks down in all respects, in accordance with the maxim: "false in one point, false in all.” They are suited to be no rule at all. If we admit their truthfulness, then, as they declare themselves to be complete, we must believe that they are; and so every other rule is excluded, and they stand alone, without a rival, either as a co-ordinate or a supplementary standard of faith and duty.
But, although the Scriptures are the supreme rule, they are not alone the supreme judge of faith and practice. The question being as to the final judge whose expositions of the rule are ultimate, the answer is given with equal sublimity and accuracy in the Westminster Confession of Faith: “The supreme Judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” From the nature of the case, the only competent judge of a divine rule is a divine judge. Let us pause a moment that we may estimate the force of this mighty collocation. The grand principle of Protestantism is not that the supreme judge is the Word alone, nor that it is the Spirit alone; but that it is—the Word and the Spirit.
This little coupling and, which brings together and indissolubly unites the two great terms—the Word, the Spirit, effects the junction with a thundering clank which should ring in the ear of the church, and penetrate into her innermost heart. The copulative here has a significance akin to that which expresses the substantial unity of the three distinct subsistences in the adorable Trinity—the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, one God over all blessed forever. It is like that between justification, sanctification, and the personal experience of both,—not the water only, not the blood only, not the Spirit only; but the Spirit and the water and the blood, one in the unity of the Word, and one in the concrete unity of the believer's experience. God, all-wise, has put together these two terms of the grandest of all Protestant canons—the Word and the Spirit, the supreme judge of controversies; and what God hath joined together let not man put asunder! Their divorce is sure to result in slavery to the letter on the one hand, and on the other, in wild hypotheses as to human rights and needless schisms which rend the unity of the church in pieces.
Neither, then, is the conscience of the individual, nor that of the church in her organic capacity, possessed of ultimate authority in matters of faith and duty. Both, in the noble language of Luther, himself the intrepid defender of the right of private judgment, in his final reply at the Diet of Worms, both are "bound captive by the Scriptures." And, as the Word is interpreted by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, human wisdom is to be guided by that infallible authority. In the grand words of the same distinguished reformer: "Obedience is to be preferred to the gift of miracles, even if we possessed that gift.” Yes;