Project Canterbury

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

London: SPCK, 1929.

Chapter VI. Church and State

WE have had some difficulty in dating Thorndike's third treatise on The Right of the Church in a Christian State. It cannot have been written before 1647, for it contains a reference to Hammond's Power of the Keys, which appeared in that year. That there were earlier notes and drafts can hardly be doubted, but nothing of the kind seems to have found its way into the press. He therefore refrained his pen from public controversy during the civil war, and for some time after its first period was closed. During these five or six years events had brought him to a new standpoint. There was no longer a settled order, venerable for the most part and established by law, to be defended against a continuous attack proceeding from an equally settled though illegal opposition. The opposition had succeeded, not indeed in altering the established order by due process of law, for that could not be done without the King's assent, but in making it unworkable. The Parliament had, in fact, usurped the power of the Crown, and set up a provisional Presbyterian establishment, holding this firmly under its own control. A question was thereby raised which pressed hard on all who had previously stood by Hooker's theory of the Commonwealth-church, and the corresponding practice alike of legislation and of administration. They had to ask whether these changes were, in fact, the work of the Commonwealth-church of England. If so, they were bound by their own principle to accept them; if not, there was anarchy. They might object that the proceedings were abortive for lack of the royal assent, but that could not be a permanent attitude; anarchy does not endure, men will always find a social order of some kind, and Sanderson had taught from his professorial chair at Oxford, while the war was still raging, that successful usurpers could claim obedience by divine right as "the powers that be." There can be no doubt that most Englishmen subscribed in practice, if not by mental assent, to this teaching. Fanatical legitimists, to use a modern term, were not numerous; and we know that even fanatical legitimists can adjust themselves with remarkable ease to adverse circumstances.

Thorndike, as we have seen, sat very loosely to Hooker's theory, even while he was defending its practical application. With some of the Puritan objectors to it he had perhaps more affinity than he was aware of. From them, as from the other Puritans, he was separated by convictions which he shared with Hooker, Bilson, and Field. He thus inevitably occupied a middle position with all its precariousness. In the new conditions of disorder he found a need, and an opportunity, for clearing his ground.

The result is seen in the very title of his new treatise. He here uses the word "State," which had usually meant the working organization of Government, as equivalent to "Commonwealth." [The earliest citation in O.E.D. of the word clearly so used is taken from Bacon's essay, Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates.] The whole argument bears this out, though he was not endowed with great precision of language; but it is most succinctly put in the third section of the Review appended to the treatise at the time of publication. There we read: "If there be no difference between the society of the Church, and that of the state when it professes Christianity, but that both make one community, corporation, or commonwealth, as that of the ancient people of God under the law; then is there no society of a Church when the state is Christian, seeing it is agreed upon all hands that there is one of the state, and this opinion enforces that there is no more but one." In short, he has come to see that Hooker's theory extinguishes the Church, making it no more than a mode of the commonwealth or kingdom, as it was indeed treated in the Tudor legislation. This discovery makes it natural for him to speak of Church and State as co-ordinate, or indeed as mutually exclusive. For he will soon be showing that it is only in a geographical sense that any part of the Christian Church is within a State, in whatever degree that State itself may be Christian. He had defended in his previous writings the intrusion of the State into ecclesiastical affairs, as practised by the English kings; he now finds it necessary to put strait limits on that kind of intrusion, if anything is to remain deserving the title of a Christian Church.

The first three chapters contain little more than a repetition of his argument about the government of Churches, reviewed in the light of this new understanding, and I shall concern myself only with modifications which ensue. He begins with a glance at the events which make a further treatment necessary in supplement of what he had written before: "Since that time congregations have been erected, and presbyteries ordained, though with some tincture of Erastus's doctrine, which dissolveth all ecclesiastical power into the secular in states that are Christian. Here I thought it worth the while to try how the reasons heretofore advanced might be improved, not only to establish the society of the Church upon the power of the keys granted by our Lord, or to declare what persons, and upon what terms, it is entrusted with on behalf of the Church, and every part of it, which I had begun to do afore, but in what right and interest the secular power concurs to the effect of it, in establishing or reforming the Church of any Christian state." [Not bettered, but, as we should now say, applied. To improve, in the language of the day, was to appropriate, as in the improvement of common-land by enclosure, whence the modern use of the word seems to have been derived.] The "congregations" here and throughout this treatise are not necessarily those of the Independents, though always including them, for the reference is to the ordinance made by Parliament for the administration of parish churches on a model intended to be Presbyterian; the mention of an Erastian "tincture," which soon grows to something more, glances at the control retained by Parliament, and shows what he is now chiefly engaged in combating.

The more clearly to distinguish Church and State he boldly avows that all sovereignty is "resolved into the power of the sword." Any man of ordinary understanding, he says, can perceive this "after the miserable disputes which this civil war hath advanced." It is significant, for it shows him prepared to accept the legitimacy of the results achieved by the war; he adds that all such powers "are by the Gospel maintained in those hands that have them by just title of human right." So he approves the condemnation of Wickliff's teaching that temporal dominion is founded in grace, and incidentally guards himself against any suspicion of claiming for the Church a right to dictate secular policy. Carefully choosing his terms, he shows that the Church is not endowed by God with any "coactive" power, but goes on to make good his former argument that "by divine right, and by patent from God, it is endowed with a power of holding assemblies for the common service of God, before any grant of the powers of the world, and against any interdict of them, if so it fall out." He insists broadly, on Aristotelian grounds, that the human race has a natural power of association, and "so must we understand the Church to be a human, though not a civil society, corporation, or commonwealth." It is therefore of God as the Author of Nature, but there is also a divine charter implied in the obligation of Christian believers to hold communion with one another. As this obligation is universal, how can there be national Churches? The Independents have begun to challenge the idea; he allows the impropriety of the term, but affirms the necessary existence of what it stands for.

Another question emerges, arising out of the emphasis laid both by himself and by his Presbyterian opponents on precedents drawn from the Old Testament. The Independents are denying their validity, and he is impressed. "The Church of England," he says, "giveth to the King that power in Church matters which the Kings of God's ancient people, and Christian Emperors after them, always practised." But by what right did this power exist? Not by the Law of Moses, for that law did not contemplate kingship, which came in by a transfer of "the common power of the people." This was in effect to allow the largest claims of the revolutionary party in Parliament, and perhaps also the coming transfer to Cromwell. Another matter to be cleared up is the question "Whether civil societies, and the sovereign powers of them, are to be called Christian, as such, and not only as particular persons." This was to look still farther ahead, and his own definition of a Christian seems to demand a negative answer. He fences with the question; thinks it the manifest will of God "that civil societies, and the powers of them, should maintain Christianity by their sword." But since the Christianity of the one Church extends through several sovereignties, "the power which each one of them can have in Church matters must needs be concluded"--that is to say, circumscribed--"by that power which God hath ordained in His Church, for the determining of such things the determining whereof shall become necessary to preserve the unity of it." In the Review he adds a further remark on the possibility that "the subjects of a state be concluded in conscience by strangers to that state, as they are members of the Church." It is part of the argument of Bellarmine against James I and an argument that few reasonable persons would now contest; but it was a deadly thrust at the general English opinion of his day. We need not wonder that some people began to suspect him of pointing to the supreme authority of the Pope. But where is even this limited authority of Kings or republics indicated in Scripture? There is some special pleading about the apostolic direction to make supplication for Kings, "that we may live a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness," as if this were a prayer for the conversion of the Empire and its subsequent patronage of the Church. But he relies chiefly on the interpretation of the Apocalyptic reign of the saints on earth as nothing else but a prophecy of that conversion. Elsewhere he puts the matter on the more reasonable basis of the natural interest of rulers in the spiritual well-being of their subjects. The recognised safeguard he finds in an equally reasonable contention that the power of the secular authority to deal with matters of religion, alike in the Old Testament and in the New, is "cumulative," something added to the primary authority of the Church, and not competent in any way to supersede this.

On the crucial question of excommunication, the one power of the Church comparable to the secular power of the sword, he found himself confronted by a new and dangerous opponent. He had been able to treat rather lightly the outworn argument of Erastus, even as restated in Parliament and elsewhere by the formidable Selden, for here his adversaries, whether Presbyterian or Independent, were with him. But now he had to meet the more trenchant restatement of that argument published by Thomas Hobbes in his recent work De Cive, the precursor of the Leviathan. In the treatise itself he boldly averred, with the example of Ambrose and Theodosius behind him, that a Christian King can be excommunicated like any other Christian man by the ordinary tribunals of the Church, and rejected Hooker's distinction that this was true only of the minor excommunication, or exclusion from the sacraments, a distinction which he held to be an invention of the canonists corrupting the simplicity of the Gospel. He allowed only two exceptions: (i) the temporal penalties attaching to excommunication obviously could not be applicable to the sovereign, since it was only by him that they were applied; and (2) acts of public government must not be made matter of excommunication, since they are not within the cognizance of the Church. It is not clear how the misdeed of Theodosius failed to come within this latter exception. He adds maliciously, for the benefit of Puritan preachers, "The same is to be said of them that make public affairs the subject of their prayers and their preaching." But when he came to write the Review of the treatise he had to deal with Hobbes, and there was something fresh to be considered. He treats the new author with grave respect, welcomes his recognition alike of Church and State as originally two distinct societies, and briefly restates the reasons for denying the merger of the former in the latter, now become Christian. Hobbes, a consummate master of convention, used, and doubtless despised in using, the argument drawn from the polity of the Old Testament; he used, and probably despised in using, all the arguments about the exercise of authority drawn from the Apostolic writings; but what he really relied on was the abstract theory of sovereignty invented by the civilians for the benefit of the Emperor, and borrowed by the canonists, to their own undoing, for the benefit of the Papacy. The sovereign, so conceived, was responsible for the whole moral well-being of the subject, and therefore, when he became Christian, was responsible for the whole conduct of the Christian religion. Bishops, who had previously exercised an abnormal authority of a consensual kind, became administrators under him; they could excommunicate the recalcitrant, but only by a power delegated to them from the sovereign, and in accordance with his directions. Thorndike, as we have seen, learnt his politics from Aristotle; he knew that this juristic absolutism was a vain dream, and that human societies are formed in divers ways, each way being "some act of God or man," and are "moral" entities; whence it follows that Church and State, even if composed of identically the same persons, are not merely distinguishable but also morally different. And so he answered Hobbes on this first occasion of meeting him.

But the State, thus distinct and morally other than the Church, is, according to him, capable of being Christian. That is a difficult proposition; for to be Christian always means for him to accept discipleship and to seal that acceptance by receiving baptism. Can the State be baptized? It can hardly be enough that it consists of baptized persons. There must be some sort of corporate acceptance; the State must be conceived as having a moral personality. In the concrete, as we have seen, he was prepared to question the efficacy of baptism ministered by the disorderly persons appointed to the charge of parishes under the ordinances of the Parliament, and consequently to doubt the Christianity of the English Commonwealth, but he must be allowed for the present to argue about an abstract State.

The State, being Christian, has some duties in regard to the Christian Church. By the conversion of the Roman Empire a persecuting power became a protecting power. Thorndike is always insisting that the power remained unalterably the same, though directed to a new end. The power of Constantine or of Theodosius was ordained of God exactly as had been that of Nero. But in accepting the duty of protecting the Church they acquired some new rights. Ecclesiastical power, properly so called, did not accrue to them; for this "arises from the constitution of the Church," and cannot be exercised by anyone except by reason of his appointment under that constitution. The wielders of the powers of the State have no such appointment, remaining exactly what they had been or ever the Church was. But though not endowed with any ecclesiastical power, they have, says Thorndike with fine discrimination, some "power in ecclesiastical matters." This he appears to ground on common sense only; in the history of Christendom they always have acted as having such power, and their action has been generally allowed. That such power has sometimes been abused is unquestionable, but it is not thereby made illegitimate. The abuse may be resisted, but not, he constantly urges, by armed rebellion, for the Church has not the power of the sword; resistance must be passive, even to the point of martyrdom. On this ground he objects to the deposing power claimed by the Popes, notably in the excommunication of Elizabeth, and justifies the severe measures taken against the Popish recusants of his youth as rebels in principle.

Both positively and negatively he has to examine the circumstances which led to this recusancy. He has no illusions about the nature of the Elizabethan settlement of religion. He knows that the Reformation was in England mainly the work of the State, and this he justifies by affirming the right of the secular government, being Christian, to put pressure on a Church suffering from corrupt practices with a view to their removal. This seems reasonable, and he might have cited the action of Sigismund and of Christian princes generally in regard to the Council of Constance. Maintaining, however, that the Christian state is entitled to act in matters of religion only on grounds determined by the Church, he is at a loss to show how the actions of the Reformers were so determined. The Conciliar party at Constance, to be sure, was in a like difficulty, and several knots were cut as by a sword. The corruptions then calling for reform were obvious, and he is inclined to regard as no less patent those at which the Reformers struck.

But who were the persons executing true ecclesiastical powers on whom this salutary pressure was brought to bear? Here he becomes, perforce, less abstract, and argues with careful prevision. He has been saying that on no account must the secular power interfere with the native right of the Church to hold "assemblies," the right which he makes the fundamental principle of the divine ordering of the Church; on the contrary, it is the first duty of a Christian state to safeguard that right in every possible way. How was this duty performed in the first year of Elizabeth?

It has always been a primary function of such assemblies to provide for the continuance of the episcopate, which can be secured in no other way, and not otherwise is it possible to "keep the visible communion of the whole Church in unity." On this ground he states the objection to the procedure of the Reformation very fairly, and with some prolixity, which I will slightly reduce. "Though it is true that the order of Bishops hath been propagated in this Church, at and since the reformation, by ordinations made according to the form of that Apostolical canon, 'that a Bishop be ordained by two or more Bishops,' yet if we judge of the original intent of that canon by the general practice of the Church, it will appear that it is but the abridgment of the fourth canon of the Council of Nice, which requireth that all Bishops be ordained by a council of the Bishops of the province: which, because it cannot always be had, therefore it is provided that two or three may do the work, the rest consenting and authorizing the proceeding. [He silently retracts this criticism in Epilogue, I. viii. 8, making the "Apostolic" canon anterior, and apparently of more permanent authority.] . . . And therefore, though the Canon of Nice be no part of divine right, yet seeing the precept of the unity of the Church--being the end which all the positive laws of Church government aim at--obligeth before any positive precept of the government thereof ... it seemeth that there can no valid ordination be made where the greater number of the Bishops of the province dissent. . . . Now it is manifest that the ordinations by which that order is propagated in England, at and since the reformation, were not made by consent of the greater part of Bishops of each province, but against their mind, though they made no contrary ordinations. [Observe that he is concerned with validity, not of "order "but of "jurisdiction."] And by the same means it is manifest that all those ecclesiastical laws by which the reformation was established in England, were not made by a consent capable to oblige the Church, if we set aside the secular power that gave force unto that which was done, contrary to that rule wherein the unity of the Church consisteth."

The case could hardly be stated more strongly. It may be observed that he makes light of the neglect of the majority to provide "contrary ordinations," on which some modern apologists have laid great stress; neither does he attempt to argue that Elizabeth's revival of her father's legislation, which certainly had the almost unanimous consent of the episcopate, could rest upon the abiding effect of that consent; nor yet to disable some of the bishops in possession at her accession by reason of flaws in their promotion under Mary. All these adventitious ameliorations of the position he puts aside, and braces himself "to resolve this difficulty." But before doing this he finds it necessary to enter on a digression concerning the privileges and penalties which a Christian state may rightly use in order to "enforce religion."

It is an amazing phrase to come from a writer who is always insisting, and here also again insists, that Christianity must not, and cannot, be propagated by force. "As it is contrary to the nature thereof to be forced, seeing the service of God which it requireth is not performed by any man that is not willing to do it, nor the faith believed but by them that are willing to believe it . . . therefore can no human power force any man to be a Christian." Digression within digression follows: about the death penalty for idolatry in the Old Testament, about the abrogation of this so far as the Christian Church is concerned, about the right of the State to suppress religions which are contrary to the fundamentals of civil society--and then suddenly something which may be to the point appears. "Seeing that all religion, excepting true Christianity, is a most powerful means of disturbing the public peace of civil societies ... it follows by consequence that all powers that are entrusted with the preservation of public peace are enabled to forbid that which is not true Christianity." But the clue is at once lost again, and we wander among the advantages and disadvantages of penalties, the privilege of clergy, the case of Abiathar, the employment of the clergy in offices of State and consequent evils of non-residence which can be remedied by a proper use of cathedrals. Then, again quite abruptly, we return to "the great difficulty proposed." The apostolate and its continual succession in the episcopate are ordained for the unity of the Church, "so that no part of the whole can stand obliged by any act that is not done by the council and synod of Bishops respective to that part of the Church which it pretendeth to oblige." But there are also rules which "proceeding from the same, if not a greater power than the succession of the Church, are to be retained, all and every one of them, with the same religion and conscience." In respect of all these, "if by injury of time the practice become contrary to the law, the sovereign power being Christian, and bound to protect Christianity, is bound to employ itself in giving strength, first, to that which is ordained by our Lord and his Apostles." So, if the ordinary ecclesiastical authorities "hinder the restoring of such laws," the secular power "may and ought, by way of penalty to such persons, to suppress their power, that so it may be committed to such as are willing to submit to the superior ordinance of our Lord and his Apostles." Then may the civil power, in such a case at the worst, suppress the entire episcopate? That, he says elsewhere, is a mere impossibility. Here he is content to show that there was no call for anything so drastic in England. In the following way he will "resolve the difficulty."

"If then the laws given by our Lord and his Apostles be restored by consent of some part of the council and synod requisite to oblige any respective part of the Church, and the succession of the Apostles propagated by them alone, in opposition to the rest that consent, not unto them, the cause of schism cannot lie on this side, which concurreth with the primitive succession of our Lord and his Apostles, but upon them that violate the communion of the Church by refusing such laws and the right of such persons as acknowledge the same, the condition of the unity and communion of the Church consisting as much in the rest of laws given by our Lord and his Apostles as in that of the succession and power of the Apostles: which is the case of the Church of England."

The argument is more ingenious than convincing. It comes to this, that in the first year of Elizabeth a small minority--how small, the reader is left to understand--of the English episcopate was resolved to set aside mediaeval corruptions, and to revive the uncontaminated observances of the first six centuries of the Church; the majority, seriously depleted, it is true, by death, but still the majority, opposed this reform; the secular power suppressed the opponents in a severely practical way by forcibly removing them from their sees; all vacant sees, including those thus vacated, were filled by capitular election; a new Archbishop of Canterbury, so elected to an unquestionably vacant see, was consecrated by four bishops representing in some way the reforming minority; and thus the episcopal succession was carried on.

At the present day we are rather disposed to "resolve the difficulty," as St. Augustine resolved one rather similar: "Fieri non debuit, factum valet." But Thorndike could not do this. "Factum valet" was a phrase which would hardly suit the conditions of the time in which he was writing, for the successors of Matthew Parker and the other reforming bishops had in their turn been driven by the secular power from their sees, forbidden to execute their office, imprisoned, or put to death. Facts were rather against him, and he had to make his argument as abstract as possible. The Long Parliament was claiming, without the assent of the Crown, the same reforming power over the Church which the first Parliament of Elizabeth had exercised in subservience to the Crown. Why not? He had to show a difference, and he was not disposed to find it in the lack of royal assent. Indeed, he may have feared that royal assent would not always be lacking. What he showed, however inadequately, was that the reformation of 1559 conserved the episcopate, whereas the reformation attempted from 1643 onward purported to abolish the episcopate. This, he declared, no power on earth could do, for the episcopate was constituted by a divine ordinance, being nothing else but a perpetuation of the apostolate. Under that ordinance the Church had an inalienable right to assemble for the conduct of its proper functions, including the consecration of Bishops, and a State pretending to be Christian, but attempting to violate that right, was in rebellion against God. Other rights also the Church has in a Christian State, which he cannot with his discursive habit refrain from mentioning, but this right stands in the forefront, and on it all depends.

He had many grievances against the victorious Puritans, but this intrusion of the Parliament seems to have been the greatest. It is significant that at the end of the treatise the Independents, whom he began by banning more entirely than the Presbyterians, have come to seem rather less open to objection. Of the two ways of setting up a new ecclesiastical power, "that of the congregations is more suitable to Christianity." Two reasons are given for this preference. In the first place, "that of the presbyteries is more forcible." In the second place, "the proceeding of the congregations, when they separate from the Church of England by a right founded upon the constitution of the Church"--namely the right of Christians to assemble themselves together--"is more agreeable to Christianity than the proceeding of the presbyteries, when they pretend to reform the Church of England by the power of the Parliament," It is interesting to see where his argument has driven him, nothing loth. If it drives him into inconsistencies, he lets himself be driven to freedom, and will not be enslaved by forensic sophistries used in defence of the Elizabethan reformation.

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