OF THE BISHOP, ON
"If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" CORINTHIANS, XIV. 8.
THE text is one of the many striking allusions of St. Paul, to customs well known to the persons whom he addressed, by which he illustrates his meaning with great clearness. The trumpet served important ends in directing and regulating the movements of military bodies. This was done by sounding certain signals, the purport of which every soldier could at once understand. The necessity, therefore, of having each of these signals distinct and characteristic, with no confused intermingling of one with another, is quite evident; for otherwise, not only various, but even opposite, evolutions would be made, at the same time, by different parts of the army; and instead of alacrity and strength, the result of regular and combined effort, there would be nothing but disorder, dismay, defeat.
 The Apostle's immediate design in the text, is to illustrate the unprofitableness of speaking, in the Christian assemblies, in an unknown tongue. For, however edifying the speaker's words might be to himself, they would fall on the listener's ear like the uncertain sounds of the trumpet on the soldier's, giving him no warning nor direction for the guidance of his life.
I trust it will not be deemed a perversion of the Apostle's illustration, to take it as suggestive of a subject, of far wider scope and more lasting consequence, than the particular point considered in the context,--namely, the importance of well-defined explicit teaching concerning the Christian Church.
In a field so vast, it would be mere presumption to attempt to do more than either develop some single point, or else, briefly state one or two fundamental principles, and then exhibit their practical bearing on the plan of human redemption. It is proposed on this occasion to follow the latter course.
Whoever duly considers, and rightly estimates the relation which the Christian Church holds to the Gospel; how closely interwoven the two are represented to be in Scripture, the one being the embodiment of the other, without which, the latter could have no practical existence with us as a [4/5] system of grace, will see that the Church is a subject of the highest importance at all times; because in it is wrapped up everything pertaining to our highest interests for time and eternity; since by the Church the work of saving men's souls is to be carried on, and God's manifold wisdom made known. And whoever considers the direction which error in religion specially takes in our day, that it is to disinstitutionalize Christianity, to divorce it from all outward forms by which it operates and manifests itself, and reduce it to a vague inward sentiment, -- in other words, to dispense with, and obliterate the Church,--will see that it is a subject which peculiarly demands attention at the present time. For, it is that stronghold, against which the enemies of the Gospel are arraying their mightiest forces, and which, it is to be feared, many friends of the Gospel do not appreciate, as to its true character and position; and thus they are unconsciously playing into the enemies' hands.
It is true, the Church is much talked about: hardly any word is so common: heard everywhere and upon all occasions; and men, with it upon their lips incessantly, have shown such unchristian tempers, and stirred up so much strife and bitterness, that many have become utterly wearied, not to say disgusted, with the whole subject; insomuch [5/6] that the mere mention of the word is repulsive to them; and they take up the cry, "Give us the Gospel, not the Church." Now, all this, it must be well noted, is one of the effects of wrong, or defective views of the Church. The disputes, which thus engender bigotry and bitterness, and become so distasteful, are almost wholly of a sectarian character; the contests of mere denominationalism, in which the true principles of the Body of Christ are lost sight of; and the whole question looked upon, only as a matter of individual opinion or party rivalry. For, were those principles clearly understood and embraced, men would see that the Gospel without the Church is a logical, as well as an historical, absurdity; and that when they reiterate the cry, "the Gospel, not the Church," they are making use of popular cant words and phrases, not ideas and facts. And this misapprehension, or, on the part of some, perversion, of the real nature of the question, is itself sufficient evidence of the necessity for treating of this subject again and again, and setting forth the Church as the formal institution, the external embodiment of Christianity. The more clearly we perceive the ground on which the Church stands, as, in its essential constitution, God's creation and not man's, the less controversy will there be on this subject and on multitudes of others involved in it; and certainly, the less [6/7] narrow-minded intolerance, the less uncharitableness, among brethren of the Household of Faith.
There is no more certain fact in the history of our religion, than that Christianity first began and manifested itself, became objective to men's senses and apprehensions, in and by a distinct body of visible, living persons; which body was not so much created by Christianity as a theory, as coeval with it, as every body is coeval with the spirit which it encloses. By this body or society, the Gospel, as a theory or philosophy of grace, was spread abroad; and in formal union with it, men individually were made partakers of its benefits. This body, concerning whose formation as such, very little is said, because its palpable existence sufficiently indicated the peculiarities of its formation, and because it was a natural growth and not a manufacture,--this body contained within itself the means for its own propagation in its peculiar identity. . That these were to be effectual, so that at no time it should ever be extinct, we have the word of its Head out of Whom it sprang and grew; and that they have answered this end, we have the testimony of history, and the evidence of our own senses, at the present moment. Now, if we carefully observe this visible body, or Church, beginning with its foundation, studying its early pattern history, and tracing it onward in its [7/8] continuance and spread in the world ever since, we cannot but notice one or two very important and very striking characteristics or peculiarities, as belonging to it, at all times and under all circumstances.
First. It is an organization of parts held together by certain laws which its Creator has provided, and animated by the life which the same Creator has infused into it. We are apt to regard organization in its literal meaning, as pertaining only to material substances and their relations, and applied to immaterial things only in the way of lively metaphor; but as there is a spiritual body, no less truly than a natural body, so there is an organization in spiritual structures, no less real and literal than in material. Now, an organic being or body, created for the purpose of manifesting, maintaining, and developing life, whether physical or spiritual, differs as widely from a mere aggregation, or arbitrary collection of parts, as God differs from man. The former is the work of God alone; organization is His great law; exhibited in His kingdom of Nature, in the myriad forms of animal and vegetable life; exhibited no less in His kingdom of grace. Aggregation, or the combination of things which do not necessarily grow out of each other, is man's law; and his highest efforts in this respect [8/9] are, in comparison, as a heap of sand, blown together by the wind, having no internal cohesive principle, and therefore as easily blown asunder.
God made man an organic being, endowing him with capabilities for the transmission of his being; and so intimately did He join soul and body that the two parts, and not either separately, constitute man. Destroy the body, and the being, with whom we have to do here in this world, no longer exists. But still we may do something: we may get up, so to speak, a fictitious man. We may portray the human form "on canvas or in stone;" we may make it more beautiful and perfect as a form than any one specimen of the human race. We may go further; we may take the frame of what was once a living active body, and fit it together so that it shall seem to play like life: what is it, however, but a ghastly skeleton? We may go still further, at least in idea; with anatomical and physiological eclecticism we may take the most perfect parts of the bodies of sundry men, -- a head from one, a chest from another, and a limb from a third --and thus gather together every part which enters into man's outer structure. But is that thing of our making, immortal man? Is it an organized being, endowed with life, and capable of reproducing itself? We may perhaps preserve it for a time, and galvanize it into a mockery of life; but [9/10] the inevitable fate of such a thing is, sooner or later, decay and dissolution.
We would not assert that the analogy here suggested is perfect in every respect; but it may serve, perhaps, to illustrate what we hold to be the essential principle of the Church's existence, that it is not a mere combination or voluntary association of individuals, however excellent in their individual character, but an organization of God's own making to carry out the principles and purposes of vitality which He designed. It may, perhaps, serve to explain why we attach so much importance to the Church, not as an invisible abstraction, but as an actual Divine institution; because we hold it to be as intimately connected with the Gospel salvation, and as essential to its being carried out, as the body is connected with, and essential to, the soul., in fulfilling the purposes of human life. Did we consider, as many do, that the Church had no formal and specific type which was to be perpetuated age after age; but, on the contrary, that it was the creation of man, an association or society like any other, save in its objects, we should be justly chargeable with impudent intolerance and bigotry, in thus arrogating to one set of men or society, features which, by our own confession, belong, equally and in common, to every other. And while we are willing that others shall be consistent with [10/11] their assumed position, of regarding all religious associations on the same level, we ask to be consistent with ours. And we are at a loss to discover, why our doctrine on this point, is more open to the charge of intolerance and exclusiveness against those who deny it, than our doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture, is against the infidel; or our doctrine of the Holy Trinity, against the Socinian.
A second peculiarity noticeable of the Church is, that He who called it into being, impressed upon its very constitution, certain laws, by which it was to be sustained and perpetuated to the end of time; which laws are sufficiently discoverable in the organization itself, as seen in its spontaneous action, even if nothing had been directly said concerning them. Our Creator has left no organized living being, without fixed means for its maintenance and propagation. It is quite otherwise with mere aggregations: they may be gathered, now in one way, now in another; they may cease to be, altogether, and then begin again: they are, in short subject to no fixed rule. And yet the laws, which God has established for the preservation of any living thing, are clearly distinct from the being itself: they derive all their importance from subserving a given important end. To illustrate: we can conceive that the human race might have been [11/12] sustained and propagated by other methods than those which actually obtain; but he, who should despise those methods, and attempt to supplant them, would be justly reckoned insane; for his attempts, if carried on, must end in the extermination of mankind.
So, with regard to the Church. The laws or means of its continued existence, given by its great Head, had no importance antecedent to His appointment; but being appointed, they are of the highest importance. Thus Episcopacy, or the Apostolical Succession, is not the Church, but the law of the Church's continued existence. And were its advantages less perceptible than they are, and were schemes put forth which, in the opinion of never so many, were better calculated to meet the intended design,--all this could make no difference with our obligation and safety to observe that law as it is. The Apostolical Succession is, therefore, to be insisted on; but, at the same time, with a clear perception of its relation and bearing upon the Church. The Church was not instituted to keep up Episcopacy, any more than man was made for the mere purpose of eating and drinking. The end of the ministry is not priestly pride: but, as the Word itself denotes, to serve in manifesting to men, generation after generation, the great, living, operative Body of Christ, in and by which He graciously works upon [12/13] them, for their salvation. On the other hand, for want of this clear perception of the Apostolical Succession, as the law of the Church's continuity as an organic body, many regard it as a mere incidental matter of history; and look upon it no otherwise, than they would, upon the historical fact of a long line of hereditary kings in some old monarchy. The actual existence of a successive three-fold ministry in all ages of Christianity may be proved to a demonstration, but it has no binding force upon them. It may be true or false, they care not plainly because their previous notions and practices, which they consider the standard of truth, have unfitted them to read, in this very fact, if there were no other evidence, the fixed law of the Church's maintenance and perpetuity.
Another particular, to be named of the Church as a visible body, is, that it has certain accidental properties, which, though of great advantage, are to be clearly distinguished from the Church itself, and from the appointed law of its continuity. These are matters of ornament, ecclesiastical propriety, and convenience; such as the particular forms laid down in a precomposed Liturgy and Ritual. They are things in their own nature indifferent. And the Church has always held, and exercised, the authority to alter or abolish them, according as in its wisdom, the various exigencies, [13/14] of times and circumstances required, for the edification of its members, and the glory of its Lord. And yet, strange to say, it is in these very accidental properties, appealing to good taste, refined sentiment, and reverent propriety, that many persons seem to regard the whole character and claims of the Church upon their attention; as if its only pretension, to notice and favor above mere religious associations, consisted in its fair adornments. The Church's clothing is indeed of wrought gold but the clothing is not the body. However much we may prize our Liturgy, yet that alone is but a weak and shallow ground of allegiance. The claims of the Church rest not on these accidental properties, but on those immutable principles of organic life which make it in very deed the Body of Christ our Saviour.
It will be seen, that thus far we have spoken of the Church, mainly under the aspect of an organized, actual body, having within itself the means for its perpetuation in its identity, through all ages: coeval with Christianity itself; and in such a sense, one and the same with it, that there could be no Christianity without it.
The necessity for putting the Church on this broad foundation is apparent in many ways; but in none so much as in the almost universal tendency to "Individualism" in religion. There can scarcely be conceived two more opposite theories, in the [14/15] application of the Gospel, than the theory of the Church, and that just named. And while all means are made use of,--and with a success that is fearful to contemplate,--to uphold and spread the latter, are we not recreant to our trust, if we fail to meet it, as alone it can be met, by the steady, reiterated, well-defined inculcation of the former? On the one hand, our theory is, that the Gospel from first to last is institutional; embodied in symbols of Faith, in a living Ministry, in appointed Sacraments; that the Holy Scriptures were committed to the Church as a visible, organic body, and not to men as isolated individuals; that by the Church alone is the Gospel, as a formal scheme, manifested to the world, and that, in living union with it alone, is salvation applied and assured. The other theory looks upon religion as exclusively a matter between man and his Maker; recognizes no fixed Creeds, no Sacraments, no Ministry, no Covenant Body, as of explicit Divine institution, and therefore of binding authority. These it regards, so far as it regards them at all, as things of expediency only, subject to every one's own opinion, but having nothing in them essential to individual salvation. Hence, it is always drawing a very wide distinction, between what it calls the spirit of Christianity and the forms of Christianity; and, placing the two in a position of antagonism to each other, continually depreciating the one, under pretence of exalting the other.
To illustrate, in some degree, the working of this theory, and intimate its mischievous results, and thus point out the need of counteracting it, by setting forth the Church, as the Divinely-constituted embodiment of Christianity, I must trespass somewhat further upon your attention; for it is in this way, that I shall attempt to exhibit the practical bearing of what has been already advanced.
The theory of " Individualism," or, the popular notion of religion, assumes that the Bible is placed in every man's hand, without any kind of guide or outward institution to regulate him; and that from this alone, he is to select and compile for himself, such a religious system as commends itself to his mind. And thus while it does not directly deny the authority of Scripture, it does what amounts to the same thing in the end, by placing that authority in every man's individual interpretation of Scripture. Such an assumption is false in fact; for the Bible is not placed in any man's hands, except through the instrumentality of the Church, whose treasure it is; and, humanly speaking, there could be no Bible without the Church. But, beside this, the Scriptures themselves not only presuppose, but explicitly assert the antecedent existence of the Church.
 The first unavoidable result of this assumption is, difference of religious belief. And the greatness of this difference can only be measured, by the variousness of human minds, under all the variety of influences to which they are subjected. And certainly no one has a right to call in question the decisions of any other, although flatly contradictory to his own, so long as both start from the same premises with equal liberty of conclusion. One has no right to assert his own way to be true, in opposition to, and exclusion of another man's way, unless, indeed, he is willing to make the leap at once, and admit that that is the truth, which every man honestly thinks to be true for himself. That this is the impression widely spread abroad," we have too many sad proofs. And those who are not restrained from its enunciation by the force of education and Christian sentiment, make no scruple at the obvious conclusion, that there can be no such thing as truth external to the mind which is to receive it; that there can be no fixed standard, no authority, which ought to control the natural intuitions; that there is what they call the " Absolute Religion," underlying all forms and expressions; that this alone, divested of outward accident, is true; is compatible alike with forms of Mohammedanism, Hindooism, Heathenism, Christianity; and acceptable to the Almighty whether invoked as Brahma, Pan, or Lord.
 The tendency towards this undisguised infidelity, may be seen in the prevailing tone of thought and expression among the young, especially those of an intellectual and reasoning turn of mind; in the disposition to exhibit their superior wisdom, and freedom from superstition and bigotry, by disputing and often ridiculing this or that point of the established faith and order of the Church; and in an assumption of largeness of mind, which dwells upon the "genius" and the "spirit of Christianity," and looks very elevated and charitable, and despises "sectarianism," and wonders how people can so belittle themselves, as to contend for such trifling matters, as the mere forms of religion.
How can this be otherwise? They see that the Bible, the mere printed book as it comes from the press and the bindery, is professedly taken as the starting point; although they know well enough, that there is not one of those who thus professes, who has not already the outlines at least of his religious notions, settled in his mind without reference to the Bible; but they see the printed Volume taken as the starting point, and, remembering that it is the Word of Him Who is the Author of order, not of confusion, what do they see to be the result of this course? They see every variety of opinion and doctrine advanced, often contradictory to each other, and defended with an exclusiveness and bitterness which [18/19] are strangely at war with that individual liberty of interpretation, boasted of as the glory, of what some are pleased to call the only Scriptural religion. Who can wonder, then, that, seeing the contradictions and controversies, the disputes and hostilities, springing professedly from the same source, many should be inclined to think the contending parties more zealous for their personal opinions and prejudices, than for any universal truth of God's Word, or individual freedom of inquiry. Seeing every notion, however absurd and monstrous it may seem to others, propagated under the name of truth--who can wonder, that, bewildered amid such a Babel of advocates, they should be tempted to cry out with scornful Pilate, "What is truth?"
But, perhaps, it may be said, as some alleviation of this state of things, that the great body of Christians, after all, agree in the fundamental articles of the Gospel faith. Now, it might be difficult to determine, to the satisfaction of all, who are, and who are not, included under this term; it might be equally difficult to decide what are the fundamental articles of the Gospel faith--neither less nor more, than all would unite in; but, putting aside all this, does not the statement itself imply, what we know to be true, that the practical abandonment of "Individualism" on the part of religious association or denominations, on account of its [19/20] manifold evils; although they still retain the theory, as a matter of talk, and when its logical results are not brought to bear against themselves. For why are we so often and so complacently told, even if it were strictly true, that, notwithstanding all the heresies, and schisms, and splittings up into sects and parties, the great body, the body made up of these very parties, after all, agree together in fundamentals? Is it intended that this fact, supposing it to be such, should have any influence in determining our own individual decisions on these fundamental points?--that this common consent should be used in any degree as a guide to our own private investigations? Undoubtedly it is: most justly and reasonably so; and he must have a very exalted opinion indeed of his own conceits, who should pretend to give no weight to it. And yet it is this very thing which the self-styled Bible Christians utterly repudiate, so far as they are consistent with themselves; it is directly opposed to their theory; not indeed to their practice in their associated capacity; for in this they are glad enough to avail themselves of so sound a principle, even against their own professions. It is this very thing which, under another name, they decry, as infringing on men's individual liberty and right of private judgment; as putting the traditions of men, in the place of God's commandments; and making the Church, a substitute for Christ. Again, is it intended that this agreement, so rejoiced in and magnified, should serve, in any sense, as a kind of test or standard, whereby to define the limits of the great body of Christains, sos that they who accept this common ground, (if they are fortunate enough to find out what it is) are reckoned as belonging to that body; and they who do not accept it, are not so reckoned, but must be content to occupy a position somewhere outside the pale of "Evangelical religion?" Undoubtedly it is so intended and so used. And it is a very wise rule, in fact a necessary one, if visible societies or associations are to be preserved at all; and yet it is this very thing, which, under another name, seems to stir up no little amount of bitterness and hatred, and is vilified, as arrogant domination and bigoted exclusiveness.
In other words, this supposed agreement in fundamentals, which, after all, is more of a figment than a reality, claims and exercises the right and power to guide, at least as a witness of the truth, the individual man in the inquiry and settlement of religious doctrine. And this is precisely what the divinely constituted Church of Christ was ordained to do from the first. In the former case, the agreement, at best, is a matter of accident, and far from being definite in its particulars; in the [21/22] latter, the agent is institutional, and the essential articles of faith and fellowship, are definitely arranged and explicitly set forth in the creeds, which have been the voice of the Church from the days of the Apostles themselves, and even before the New Testament was written. In the former case there is no real unity preserved; for they who are said thus to agree, are actually separated by distinct, and often opposing, associations, and the pretences of union are put on, only for the sake of gaining that power and strength which, it is well known, are the result of common consent: in the latter, while there may be many differences, there are no divisions: while there may be many sentiments, there are no schisms. The former, so far as it has been realized at all, has been the result of a round-about process, through a sorrowful experience, of the evils of their professed theory of "Individualism" when fully carried out, and of the absolute necessity, of having something, to serve as a foundation on which to teach the Gospel faith, other than every man's own private fancies and interpretations of the Bible: the latter was not invented, and resorted to, as a human device on the ground of expediency or necessity, but foreseen and provided by Him who knows our necessities before we know them ourselves.
There is still another difference, and one that [22/23] ought to have great weight, with those who rejoice that so many denominations of Christians agree in the fundamental truths of the Gospel, and who find their own individual faith much strengthened by reason of this agreement; namely, the various denominations which have arisen during the last three hundred years, constitute about one twentieth part of all Christendom. If all these, without exception, could really agree on what they might term the essential points of Christianity, who would not justly feel bound to regard so much authority, as worthy his most serious attention, and not to be gainsaid, except under the clearest and most cogent reasons? Of course, no amount of authority, as such, can set aside the exercise of a man's own judgment. I speak of it only as reasonably influencing and guiding his judgment; as not to be flippantly turned off, with a sneer of incredulity. Now, whatever may be said of this agreement or non-agreement of this one-twentieth part of Christendom, in one, or all, the essential doctrines of the Gospel, we have the unvarying witness, from age to age, of the other nineteen twentieths, to all the essential truths of Evangelical faith and Apostolic order, contained in the creeds of the Church catholic. However portions of the Church may have become corrupt, and superstitions gradually been brought in; yet the [23/24] Creeds, as the formal expression of doctrine, and the terms of admission, have always been preserved and maintained as the necessary articles of a Christian man's belief. Is all this worth nothing? Are we to feel no more confidence in the voice of the historic Church, as uttered in the Apostles' Creed, than if we had drawn the same doctrines to-day by ourselves from the Scriptures, which our next neighbour might tell us he read differently from us, and could find no such doctrines therein? If, as all experience has shown, the Bible, taken by itself alone, without any regard to the collateral institutions of Christianity, is liable to difference of interpretation by different individuals; I would leave it to the sober judgment of men, whether, in doubtful cases, to take my own previous notions and intuitions. as the sole authority and standard, or the unanimous consent of the Church in all time, on those essential points of faith on which its testimony has been explicit and uniform. And if I am called upon to respect the common consent of one twentieth part of Christendom, how much more justly am I called upon to respect the consent of nineteen twentieths. Yet we do not say how much opposed is the prevalent spirit of the age to this reasonable course; and how much it is stigmatized as wanting in manly independence and freedom of [24/25] thought. But we may rest patient under these imputations, so long as we are preserving the blessed truths of the Gospel in their original integrity. We may well bide our time, while we set our faces like a flint, against that pernicious principle, which makes every man's inward intuition the alone judge of Divine truth; and against that individual recklessness in handling the Word of God, which, if left unchecked, will reduce Christianity to a kind of Pantheism and Materialism, little better than downright Paganism.
We have fallen on times when we need to be rightly instructed respecting even the groundwork of our faith. In the upheavings of the so-called religious world, we must have something, on which to plant our feet, with a firmness and confidence not to be shaken. Nothing but the Apostolic Church, the divinely constituted Body of Christ, in its essential principle of organic spiritual life, can meet all the necessities of the case. It is the boast of the time, that, now no man's word or opinion will be taken for law; that there is a disposition to sift everything to the bottom. A good deal of this kind of talk is, of course, mere affectation; a petty desire to appear knowing and singular, as if to be singular, was to be eminent. But, after all, there is much honest inquiry. We need never fear this, but rather rejoice at it, if the [25/26] inquirer can be directed into the right Channel. Too little of this, however, is done as it ought to be done; and, in the absence of it, the periodical Press, which constitutes nearly all the reading of the present generation, and popular lecturers and preachers, are doing a world of mischief, either by instilling wrong principles, or putting right ones on insufficient grounds. Many a young man of good parts, many a scholar and man of science, has made entire shipwreck of the faith, for no other reason than simply because he never knew what the Gospel faith is. Assuming that to be the religion of the New Testament, which he hears talked of and preached as such, and which he has got implanted in his own mind, he can hardly tell how; and seeing that it cannot stand against those attacks with which he is familiar, he has abandoned it, without ever practically considering whether, what he calls religion he not in fact, the merest tissue of unsound principles, mingled with some pious sentiments, which true Christianity would be the first to expose and overturn.
To begin right, or lay a good foundation, is important in all things: in nothing so much, as in teaching the religion of Christ. And we may rest assured, that we can never do better, than to follow the example of its first teachers. With them, it was the Apostles' fellowship, no less than the [26/27] Apostles' doctrine: they knew of no separation of the two. The Scriptures and the Church, side by side, with its living Ministry, its visible Sacraments. If we attempt to do the work, intended to be done by these two collateral institutions, by either one of them alone, we shall fail most miserably.
In the one case, the result, sooner or later, will be heresy, schism, and infidelity. In the other, it will be superstition and immorality. What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.