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Herbert Thorndike, 1598-1672
by T.A. Lacey

London: SPCK, 1929.

Chapter III. The Primitive Government of Churches

A BRIEF abstract of Thorndike's first theological treatise will put us in possession of his mind on the controversies of the day. We shall not find it controversial in form, but almost entirely constructive, side glances only being cast at errors that called for combat. Brief as the tractate is--astonishingly brief according to the standards of the time--it is largely conceived. Its scope is accurately indicated by the title, Of the Government of Churches; a Discourse pointing at the Primitive Form. It is to be historical, and the investigation is to be close. "He that desireth to espy light at a narrow hole," it begins, "must lay his eye near, if he mean to discover at large. So must he be curious in considering the Scriptures, that meaneth to discern those things that are not declared there at large, but are collected by circumstance, or consequence; especially in matters which we view at this distance of time, which representeth to us things done then through a mist of succeeding custom." Here he strikes at the two great faults which vitiate such investigations: the narrowness of vision which will not look beyond the letter of what is written, and the habit of reading into the records of the past familiar features of the present. Narrowness of vision produced the schemes of Calvin, of Beza, and of Cartwright; casual references to current practice, found in the occasional writings which make up the body of the New Testament, were extracted, tabulated, and digested into the Ordonnances of Geneva; these were then declared to be the first and final ordering of the Christian Church, fixed in perpetuity by the Word of God, from which no divergence was to be tolerated. Hooker and Field, on the other hand, were so convinced of the rightness of the ecclesiastical order in which they lived, and which they were called upon to defend against the onslaughts of Calvinism, that they could hardly fail to discern in the sacred writings adumbrations of that order which in truth were not there to be found; the mist of succeeding custom confused their vision. It was Thorndike's intention to avoid these faults, and to an astonishing extent he succeeded.

Other prejudices he could not escape. A tendency to see the Primitive Church in the flat beset him, as it has beset others. He seems not to have made sufficient allowance for the developments of the first century after the preaching of the Gospel, and he could speak of Ignatius or Irenaeus as if they were contemporaries of the Apostles. I have remarked above that as yet he knew only the interpolated Ignatian epistles, but he might have been expected to detect in some of his quotations a savour of a later age. That he read carefully is shown by his correction of one phrase in the current Greek text on the authority of the rough Latin version preserved at Caius College. He also doubted the authorship of one of the spurious epistles, but brushed aside the doubt as irrelevant, since in any case "it is ancient enough to speak to our purpose." [He afterwards, in The Right of the Church, iii, 49, acknowledged the text of Isaac Voss as alone genuine.] A modern critic may think that he took the Church too much for granted, not probing deeply enough into its beginnings. It was everywhere so taken for granted in his day, and polemical prudence, if nothing else, forbade him to move Camarina without necessity. Nor is there any reason to suppose that he ever suspected the foundations. The Church was a patent fact in the world, not emptied of reality by the divisions of Christendom, nor severed from the Church of the tenth or the first century. This was common ground. There was not yet, unless in the most insignificant quarters, a way of thinking which postulated a multitude of Churches, springing up as separate growths from seeds of the Gospel or formed anew by the working of the divine Spirit. George Fox had not yet denounced a general apostasy, and even those who believed the Pope to be Antichrist supposed him to be waging war through the ages on a recognizable Church of Saints. It must not be forgotten that the reformers of the sixteenth century never thought of themselves as founders of new Churches; they were out for the deliverance of the one Church of Christ from false pastors and internal oppressors, and in the first generation at least they did not limit their objective to anything short of an undivided Christendom. There was no need to go behind the earliest records of this institution, where its essential features, unencumbered by accidental accretions, might be studied with sufficient detachment. Thorndike intended this and felt himself capable of it; without transcending the scholarship of his time, he was sufficiently near its highest level to indulge himself in much independence of judgment.

He goes straight to the point. The Apostolate is what matters. The Apostles had a double function. They were witnesses to the Resurrection, and in the light of the Resurrection to the whole message of the Gospel; they were also rulers of the disciples gathered to their teaching. The first function was personal, and required personal endowments to which no man could succeed; he seems to have avoided the thought of the Church continuing the apostolic witness. The second function they had to perform "according to the exigence of their several opportunities," and so we find them "dividing their care between the Jews and the Gentiles," as mentioned by St. Paul in writing to the Galatians.

But further, these few men had need of assistants in the various places where they planted the Church. So in the second chapter he inquires what they did "in the first Church--the Church of Jerusalem, mother of all Churches." It is characteristic of him not to worry the distinction, so pressing to-day, of the Church and the Churches. That also was an empirical fact, to be taken for granted. At Jerusalem, then, he finds James in charge, with a number of presbyters, "no doubt by consentment and appointment of the Apostles," and these he is soon calling a College. He is sure, as few moderns are, that James is one of the Twelve, the son of Alphaeus, being doubtful whether he could otherwise be called an Apostle as in the Epistle to the Galatians, a doubt which seems to bear hardly on the claims of Paul and Barnabas; but he is unwilling to "build upon uncertainties," and is therefore content to conclude that "whosoever this James of Jerusalem was," he exercised apostolic authority in and over the Church there locally organized.

"Let us now go abroad with the Apostles, and see how they followed this pattern in the Churches which they converted to the faith." He notes Paul and Barnabas on their apostolic tour, ordaining presbyters in every Church, and Titus afterwards directed to constitute presbyters in every city of Crete. He emphasizes the city, thus mentioned, as equivalent to the local Church, concluding that the faith was first planted in populous places, whence common sense will serve to show that it was "propagated through the countries that lay to those cities, which therefore in time became and were called the territories, parishes, or dioceses of such or such Churches." This appeal to common sense is characteristic, showing how he could refuse to be tied down to the bare letter of the record. It is clear, also, that he argues back from the consequence, familiar in later history, to the obvious cause, refusing to isolate the evidence of the first century. He then identifies the "bishops" of the Epistle to the Philippians with these presbyters, and observes that the "bench of elders" called from Ephesus to meet Paul at Miletus was told that the Holy Ghost has made them "Episcopos, Bishops, or Overseers." The next question is whether any chief was appointed to preside over such a college or bench of presbyters, and he argues reasonably that if such there had been the Apostle could hardly have failed to mention him, as he does mention the inferior order of deacons; "but of any other rank, not a syllable." A reference to the recently edited Epistle of Clement shows this state of things continuing some years later. It is easily accounted for. The Apostle "chargeth himself with the oversight of those Churches wherein he had planted the colleges of presbyters aforesaid." There is a bold exegesis of the words in the First Epistle to the Corinthians "when ye are gathered together, and my spirit." This means "his spirit, which ruled there in chief for the time." He remarks in sum, "to my apprehension, all his epistles are nothing else but so many acts of this government spiritual in chief, which the Apostle reserved himself in the Churches of his own planting." And further, lest this should seem peculiar to St. Paul, he notes that in the Epistle of Peter also the exhortation to feed the flock is addressed to presbyters alone, whence "we have cause to conceive that those Churches to whom he writeth--and whom we shall hear Epiphanius say anon that he went sometimes from Rome to visit--had as yet no Bishops over their presbyters."

So far Thorndike says nothing but what the Calvinists would say, studiously avoiding any reference to them. What was true in their contention he lays down not as a concession but as indisputable truth. But now, in the fourth chapter, he parts company with them. "The Apostles began to wear out," he remarks, and provision had to be made for the continuance of their work. Here again he follows the dictates of common sense; "reason required . . . some heads of these companies of presbyters." The reason is stated: there must be something corresponding to "the state of government that had hitherto rested in some Apostle and the presbyteries of particular Churches." He does not postulate an abrupt change, but is content to suppose a gradual and piecemeal development. The Epistle of Clement has shown a lingering survival of the earlier state of things. In nothing does Thorndike differ from the abstract theorists and scheme-makers of his day more admirably than in this recognition of a possibly sporadic growth of institutions; he demands only truth to type, the fulfilment of a stable purpose. But he does not omit to observe that even in the letter of the apostolic record the beginning of the development can be traced. Timothy at Ephesus, Titus in Crete, are put in charge over local presbyters. Here he comments, "This was not done till it was revealed to the Apostle that from thenceforth the Lord would employ him in the western parts of the world," and argues the point with an exhaustive study of St. Paul's movements during the months preceding his last voyage to Jerusalem. It is very well done, if superfluous, but involves some critical assumptions which would not be allowed at the present day. But the employment of Timothy at least, if not of Titus, will hardly be questioned, though we might think of him rather as an apostolic legate than as a local president. Thorndike insists that he was what would afterwards be called a diocesan Bishop, and here he first comes into contact with the Calvinists. "Smectymnuus" had childishly argued that Timothy could not be a Bishop because he was called an Evangelist. Thorndike brushed that aside with the sort of answer that it deserved, asking whether Philip, then, could not be a deacon. But the Puritan controversialists were nearer the mark when they observed that these two assistants of the Apostle had but a temporary mission from which they returned to wait on him in person, a charge quite unlike that of the historic episcopate. To this he had no satisfactory answer, and fell back on a saying of Epiphanius that "the Apostles could not settle all things uniformly at once," as the Calvinist argument supposed. It would have been wiser not to lay too much stress on these particular commissions, and to rely on the common-sense argument, as he proceeds to do when he uses them to illustrate the necessity which the Apostles must have felt of "settling the government of those Churches in the presbyteries of them, and in their heads, which themselves were for the time." He finds these "heads" of the next generation in the Angels of the Seven Churches of Asia. The conclusion is: "So often as we find mention of government in particular Churches in Scripture, so often we meet with presbyteries, or the heads of presbyteries, Apostles themselves, or deriving their charge from the Apostles." This alone he presses, "not pretending that Bishops came on otherwise than to be instead of the Apostles over particular Churches."

The emphasis thus laid on presbyteries was not a concession to Calvinists, or an attempt to capture their language for the purpose of argument. Thorndike had his own reason for it, as we shall see, and built upon it a scheme of practical reform which he seriously urged. But to continue, in the fifth chapter he ventures on a conjectural reconstruction of history, inferring from the Epistle to the Galatians "two congregations of Christians at Antiochia; one of the circumcision, the other converted from the Gentiles." Peter presides in the one, Paul in the other; and from an Ignatian epistle about which he is himself very doubtful--"be he what he will that wrote this"--he gathers that the two were afterwards united and put by the Apostles jointly in the charge of Euodius. Extending himself, he figures a similar state of things at Rome, and labours at an explanation of the noted difficulty about Linus and Clement. It hardly serves his purpose, but it leads up to a plea that we must "allow Irenaeus and Tertullian to be men of common sense," and therefore credible witnesses about these matters; a judgment which he gladly fortifies by a citation of Calvin, not entirely relevant. Thus we return once more to common sense.

So he lays the foundation. The rest I shall summarize very briefly. The Epistle of Clement indicates that in his time there was still no Bishop at Corinth, but the order was gradually established everywhere "by the heads of neighbouring Churches," so that every local Church came to be governed by a Bishop and presbyters. He rejects Jerome's idea of Bishops being an afterthought, a new invention for the prevention of schisms. This conclusion he proceeds to fortify by a comparison with the institutions of the Old Testament, a form of argument generally accepted in his day. The Calvinist conception of preaching as the principal function of the ministry he rebuts by showing that this function originally went by "gifts" and not by station, the conduct of public worship on the other hand being ordered by station in and under the episcopate. Thence he passes to the discipline of penance and the power of the keys. The ministers of penance are "in part judges--censors you may call them, if you please--and in part physicians." The procedure is the imposition of censures for no other purpose but to bring sinners to repentance. If any man refuse to accept such censures, or to perform the penitential acts required of him, there is nothing more to be done for him. Excommunication is the natural result. "The Church may and must put him from the Church that refuseth the medicine of penance." But this does not imply absolute exclusion from the society of Christians. In very grave cases it may be necessary to proceed so far, as when St. Paul says, "With such an one, no, not to eat," or, in terms borrowed from the Synagogue, "Let him be anathema." In other cases the exclusion was tempered to mean no more than the loss of some Christian privileges; "those which were admitted to penance being always accounted in the way of salvation, supposing the performance of their enjoined penance."

Our Lord's words "Die ecclesiae" glance at the contemporary practice of the Synagogue, but also look forward to the discipline of the Christian Church, which has power to act. "The keys of God's house are given in the Gospel to St. Peter, with the effect of 'binding and loosing,' and the same power to all the Apostles, in equivalent terms of 'retaining' and 'remitting' sins." So St. Augustine says, "Petrus, quando claves accepit, ecclesiam sanctam significavit" ("Peter, when he received the keys, represented the Church "). But it does not follow, as some at that time--a glance at the Independents--were beginning to assert, that the power of the keys was ever vested in the whole congregation of a particular Church; the meaning is that Bishop and presbyters, presiding in a solemn assembly, exercised the power with all the people as witnesses.

Having thus defined the censures of the Church, Thorndike makes the dangerous concession that "they cannot proceed with effect but by virtue of those laws that are put in force by the secular arm," and that we must not "expect at the people's hands voluntary submission to the discipline of the Church, further than it is enabled by the laws of the kingdom to exercise it." That is, in fact, precisely what was meant when the Church was said to be "established by law." He was soon to find what a broken reed was this on which he leaned; at present he was troubled only by some inadequacies in the employment of it. He had no need to mention the writ de excommunicato capiendo, for it was in regular and frequent use; but he obscurely hints at relaxations by which the civil authorities discharged the offender still impenitent, and restrained the ministers of the Church from pursuing him further. This made penance a mockery. "Just cause have good Christians to be scandalized," he complains, "when they see them admitted to communicate of whose offences they are sure, but have no cause to be sure of their amendment." Indeed, the working of the ecclesiastical courts was an offence of long standing, but he was not disposed to make an open attack on them. Here, in particular, were things easier to endure than to mend. His present task was to evoke something better out of a remoter past.

His last subject is Ordination. Here he was in close contact with the contention that all presbyters shared alike in the power of ordaining, a bishop being at most the president of a presbytery. He recognized the force of the argument resting on scriptural evidence and on the practice of most Reformed Churches, from which he was not at all disposed to break away. He contented himself with demonstrating the necessity of such a presidency for regular as distinguished from valid ordination. This for the presbyterate, which thus might have a precarious existence apart from bishops. He notes the importance attached to the attestation of the people concerning the character of persons to be promoted, making short work of theories of election by show of hands. A bishop is not in the same case; ordination by neighbouring bishops alone is shown to be the original scheme, developing into the control of provincial synods and metropolitans when the Church was "incorporated into the state of the Roman Empire," a mode of speech which he was before long to reject. The later practice of granting jurisdiction to a bishop-elect before his consecration is marked as an abuse. Ordination alone makes a bishop, and he is constituted such only by other bishops. "That course," he says, "in which the Christian emperors of ancient times interposed themselves to nominate the persons, being acknowledged to be beside the rule, did not destroy it in all, but balk it for the time." Presbyters of rural congregations were to be appointed only by the bishop of the mother Church, a procedure which he rather fancifully illustrates from the practice of Greek colonization. About rights of nomination to rural parishes, "yielded by the Church to the people or to the patron," he is obviously unhappy.

He becomes conscious of a possible charge of unpractical antiquarianism, and apologizes: "Though it is not easy for me to judge how far it concerneth the Church to retain the primitive form, yet it is easy for indifferent persons to discern how much is required to the retaining of it." And so he passes with hesitation to practical suggestion. What appears to be established by scriptural authority and the practice of primitive Christianity is the government of a Church within a city by a bishop and a presbytery which is "a bench assistant to the bishop." Nothing more in particular can be ascertained. "But what influence and effect this ought to have," he continues, "in the present state of the Church, now that dioceses are divided, churches built, and congregations assigned, is not for a private person to particularize, unless he meant to build churches--as some men do castles--in the air." So he disclaims the system-building in which the Presbyterians abounded. But one conclusion against their system seems to be imperative: "He that aimeth at the primitive form, and that which cometh nearest the institution of our Lord and his Apostles, must not think of destroying Bishops, but of restoring their presbyteries."

It is the one suggestion of reform that he will make. Looking round at what is actually in existence, he finds the chief causes of present discontent to be two in number: the lack of such presbyteries, and the committal of spiritual jurisdiction to laymen, sitting in the ecclesiastical courts. Those were, in fact, the chief complaints of Smectymnuus in the matter of Church government. Then, still considering what is actually in existence, he observes that the Chapters of Cathedrals are such presbyteries surviving in a degraded form. Here is material ready to hand. "And therefore," he says, "though as the case standeth it is neither possible nor desired to call the whole presbytery of a diocese to a share in the public government, yet let me have leave to say that the next course to retrieve the primitive form, with the wholesome grounds and consequences of it, is to re-estate these presbyteries in Cathedral Churches." He adds, with a modest "perhaps," that it might be well to establish "in other populous places seats of jurisdictions, where the diocese is great, furnishing them with number of men of abilities, and joining them with and under the Bishops, for assistance in all parts of the office hitherto proved common to both." To such presbyteries might fall "the exercise of the power of the keys in the discipline of penance, trial and approvement of persons presented to cures or assistance of cures, . . . censure of offences in doctrine or life of persons ordained, always under the Bishop and for his assistance." It is, after all, a comprehensive scheme of reform, introduced with so much diffidence and hesitation. Had this, or anything like it, been put forward a year earlier, it is probable that all but the most intransigent of the Presbyterians would have been placated, and Puritans who were not in love with Presbyterianism, such as Richard Baxter, would have been satisfied. Ussher was making proposals of a similar character. In the first session of the Long Parliament, though Laud was soon impeached and there was bitter antagonism to the working of the ecclesiastical establishment, reforms of this character were not at once put out of sight. Thorndike's old patron, the Bishop of Lincoln, procured from the House of Lords the appointment of an informal committee, on which two of the Smectymnuus group were to serve, for a full discussion of them. The outcome was a Bill--a "wild scheme "in Haddan's judgment--introduced to the House of Lords on July 1st, 1641, which was read a second time but came to nothing.

It was now too late. The policy of "root and branch" reform was in the ascendant; the Scottish army had to be humoured; the House of Commons was resolved to dominate the Church and, without acknowledging all the principles of Presbyterianism, refused to tolerate even a modified episcopacy.

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