RICHMOND, May 22, 1852.
Rev. and Dear Sir:
Very many who heard the Sermon which you delivered at the opening of the Convention, desire for their own satisfaction, and for the benefit of others who were not present, to see it in print. We take pleasure in acting as their organ in soliciting a copy for publication.
WILLIAM MEADE, JOHN JOHNS.
Rev. Dr. Sparrow.
ACTS XV. 6: "AND THE APOSTLES AND ELDERS CAME TOGETHER FOR TO CONSIDER OF THIS MATTER."
The subject presented to us in these words--which are somewhat applicable to our present meeting, and to every other ecclesiastical assembly met together for legislative and administrative purposes--will be considered, at this time, in the form of answers to sundry distinct questions.
1. The first which I shall ask, and attempt to answer, is, "What was the occasion of this gathering mentioned by St. Luke in the text?" Mankind were divided, at the Christian era, so far as related to religion, into two great classes, namely, Jews and Gentiles; those to whom a previous revelation had been granted, and those who had been left to the never wholly reliable, and the often grotesque and absurd teachings of tradition; or else to the scanty and insufficient and uncertain inferences which reason, aided by the natural conscience and our religious instincts, might draw from the constitution and course of things. Now it is an interesting inquiry, how Christianity was likely to fare at the hands of each of these classes when received among them. Would it continue in all the stainless purity of doctrine and morals, in which it [3/4] came down from heaven, or would it become, in some measure, marred and distorted by contact with the earth? Admitted that those who received the new religion were honest and good men; still is it not obvious, on a very little reflection, that, unless they were changed by it in a sense which society does not authorize us to expect--with a suddenness which would set all mental and social laws at defiance, and to a degree which we are expressly told not to look for this side of heaven; they must all retain, even to the end of life, visible traces, in mind, and heart, and manners, of their heathen origin and training? Whilst as sincere men they meant to receive all the articles of the Christian faith, without addition or abatement, still they must necessarily look at many of them from their old religious stand-point. Though acknowledging fully the divine authority of the apostolical writings and teachings, they must read, and hear, and interpret them, under the bias of their early education and habits. In the nature of things they could not be entirely uninfluenced by these causes. Fallen creatures, in general, cannot, under any circumstances, read the revelation of God's will, through the colorless and transparent medium that unfallen beings do: neither in like manner should a community, born and bred in the midst of heathen influences, be expected to receive the Divine teachings, as they would be received by those born and bred under Christian influences more or less pure, whose first impressions were gathered from the Bible, who had always been taught by Christian teachers, and always breathed a Christian atmosphere.
All this we would expect beforehand, and sad facts confirm the expectation. In spite of the instructions and example of the apostles, and of the influence which the savor and remembrance of their holy living and dying [4/5] left after them, history tells us that Christianity suffered much by contact with the world. It was like the limpid and sparkling waters of the Rhone, meeting and mingling with the turbid waters of the Arve: the former purifies the latter, but the latter defiles the former. Christianity reformed, elevated, and blessed the mass of humanity with which it mingled; but it stained its own garments in visiting the abodes of sin. (I mean, of course, Christianity, not in the abstract but the concrete; not in the idea of it, but in the realization of that idea; not in its inspired records, but in the human exhibitions of the contents of these records.) That you make a great transition when you lay down the volume of the New Testament, and take up any of the early Christian writings, even those of the Apostolical Fathers--those five noted worthies who enjoyed personal intercourse with the apostles--is manifest to all; and equally certain is it, that it is a change from good to not so good. There is a difference in moral tone, in style of thought and expression, in dignity and elevation, in short in every form of mental movement. The testimony that proves the New Testament canon inspired, proves, of course, that it must needs be superior to every other composition; and actual inspection gives us to see that it is so. To any one whose senses are even a little exercised to discern and to distinguish, the transition from the New Testament to these other writings, is like passing from a clear and bracing summer's morning on the mountains, to a confined apartment, lighted, indeed, but artificially. We would not disparage the contemporaries of the apostles: God forbid: What Christian would? They were the first-fruits of Christianity. They were trophies of Divine grace. They lived piously, labored hard, and died valorously, in testimony of Jesus. Still they did not grasp Christianity as [5/6] did the apostles: the theory of it did not lie in their minds, as it lay in the minds of the apostles. Indeed it was not to be expected. They were mere men. Their capacity was not enlarged, nor were their powers directed, by inspiration. Besides this, they were men of most unfortunate early training; and far less prepared rightly to apprehend the theory of our religion, than one brought up, say as we have been, in the midst of Christian influences, and with constant reference to the Christian Bible. They stood, moreover, at a point of time when a largely developed theory of Christianity was not to he looked for. Christianity was, as yet, as has been well said, in the form of a life, rather than of a doctrine. All that was needed in that stage of the church's history, "was those simple truths, in their most concrete form, immediately connected with personal conduct in doing and suffering. Should it be said, as an offset to these considerations, that the uninspired writers of the first century had the apostles for their living teachers; two particulars should be borne in mind. It is not by any means certain, in the first place, that the apostles stood ready to answer every question which might be put to them in private by the curious; or that they carried their disciples one thought beyond the amount of knowledge which has been left us, in the good providence of God, in their collected writings; nor that their inspiration, itself, was an unlimited, exhaustless fund of Divine knowledge. It is more natural to suppose, that the Spirit was given with "measure" to them; that in whatever measure it was ministered to them, it was ministered by them; and that in the possession of verbal statements of the truth as it is in Jesus, we stand on higher vantage-ground than the great body of their contemporaries. In the second place, supposing the oral communications of the apostles to [6/7] their contemporaries more abundant than the written instructions we possess, is it certain they were prepared fully to profit by the opportunity? What boots it to have Newton or Leibnitz, La Place or Humboldt, for the teacher, if the pupil wants only to learn the elements of mathematics, or the simplest facts of the true solar system? The mere circumstance, therefore, that they had personal access to the apostles, one to this apostle and another to that, is no proof that they had more outward facilities for knowing what is true Christianity, than we, who possess all the writings of all the evangelists and apostles; whilst, on the other hand, their inward condition, the habits of thinking and acting which they had formed under the influence of heathenism, indisposed them, disqualified them to apprehend and receive it, in the simplicity, and singleness, and sincerity, which are possible to those whose early life was different--who have never partaken in heathen rites, or seen a heathen temple, or been acted on by heathen society, opinions, and manners; but, on the contrary, have spent all their days in a land of Bibles and Bible-influence.
Our conclusion, therefore, is, that Christianity must have suffered from the hands of men from the very beginning; and that beyond the pages of the New Testament we are not to look for a true exhibition of its nature, except in regard to the most obvious facts; no, not even among the contemporaries of the apostles. The assertion, indeed, is virtually St. Paul's own. He declares, that "the mystery of iniquity"--the secret poison of false doctrine--had begun to work already in his day. Alas! the stream of error springs up hard by the fountain of truth; just as Eden was scarce planted, before briers, and thorns, and weeds began to grow.
These statements have had reference to Christianity [7/8] in the midst of heathenism: its lot among the Jews was no better; though the assertion may sound harsh, perhaps even worse. If the heathen were disqualified by grosser errors to receive Christianity aright, the Jewish mind, on the other hand, was more sophisticated, their prejudices were of a more positive kind, and they were more proudly pertinacious in their errors. The gentiles must have been, comparatively speaking, conscious of their ignorance, and ready to receive such representations of the character of Messiah, and of the nature of his kingdom, as their inspired teachers might communicate. But the Jews had prejudged the whole matter, and were altogether wrong-headed and perverse. Naturally proud and stubborn, this spirit was most criminally aggravated by the very honors which God had heaped upon them. His mercies led them not to repentance, nor to a meek and obedient temper. They were full of prejudices of the most stiff-necked kind, and in the light, or rather the twilight, of these, they looked at everything Christian. Among these prejudices was the notion that the Mosaic rites were all of perpetual obligation and paramount importance. Even when brought theoretically to admit that we are justified by faith only, without any works of law of any kind, they seem still to have felt persuaded that, somehow or other, such faith would necessarily bring after it the observance of the ceremonial law. This feeling went specially far among some converts from among the Pharisees, a class of men whose ritualism, we all know, was particularly intense; and it grew to such a height in Antioch, that even Paul and Barnabas could not repress it. These people were not content that the Jewish converts were allowed to continue in the observance of all their national rites; the gentile converts also must submit to them. In vain [8/9] did Paul and Barnabas endeavor to show them their mistake--they were not to be so convinced. To settle the controversy, therefore, it was deemed expedient by the church in Antioch to send a deputation, including these two, up to Jerusalem, that the matter might be thoroughly considered, and that it might be known what the great body of apostles and elders and brethren, those of the circumcision especially, would judge right in the premises. Such was the occasion of this gathering at Jerusalem; a fact which shows that Christianity as a doctrine or principle, like its Divine Author as a person, suffered from the very beginning from contact with human nature and the world.
2. The next question we would consider is, What was the authority of this gathering at Jerusalem, first as regards their right to meet, and then as regards their power to decide. On the first of these points there can be little difficulty in any mind. It does not seem to have been mooted among themselves at all. They appear spontaneously to have regarded it a Christian right to act for Christ in concert, even as individually. Their whole previous experience would lead them to this conclusion. Christianity had been an eminently social thing with them. They had been in the habit of common prayer, and the only form the Master had given them was a social one. They had been kept together with their Saviour while he was on earth, for worship and for instruction. When sent forth to teach, they were sent two and two. They were told to wait together for the promise of the Holy Ghost. A substitute for Judas was appointed when the hundred and twenty disciples were together in one place. In short, they had continually consulted together, and acted together, for the remedy of evils and the furtherance of the general good. But [9/10] surely nature itself teaches that men, as men, have a right to meet together and consult on matters of common interest, and that, unless it has been taken away by positive law, it must ever remain. But this has not been done. Christ has enjoined upon his people associated action, in certain particulars and in certain ways; but this does not forbid it in other particulars and in other ways. This position it is which furnishes the impregnable basis of what are called voluntary associations, in the church and of the church. On this basis, the Christians mentioned in the passage before us seem to have gone forward with an unquestioning and unquestioned feeling of liberty and right. The members of the church in Antioch seem to have acted in the matter just as we do when we form a voluntary association, or consult together in some meeting of a more temporary and occasional kind.
The right by which they met, then, is plain enough: the authority by which they decided, however, is, perhaps, not quite so manifest. Was it inspired, or uninspired? In favor of the latter view, is the consideration that in some respects they do not seem to act in this matter like inspired men: they lean upon one another, which hardly seems consonant with our ideas of inspiration. Inspiration, in the miraculous sense of the term, would seem to be, not a gift to human nature but human beings not to the apostolic college as such, but to the individual apostles. Each must have direct communication with God through the Spirit. Each must have all the knowledge which is needful in teaching the people. The truth and force of their decisions, in such cases, must rest on something higher than the vote of a majority. Each one speaks as the mouth-piece of God, and proves his own plenary and definitive authority by his miracles. But if this [10/11] be so, why this deputation to Jerusalem? "Why consult with James, and Peter, and John? Furthermore, it is observable, that the elders take part in the proceedings of this body, as well as the apostles, and the brethren as well as the elders. The brethren seem to have occasioned the discussion in the first instance; they and the elders delegated Paul and Barnabas to go to Jerusalem about the matter; their assent was sought, in the assembly, to the decisions reached; and their name, and that of the elders, appear, with the apostles', in the circular, which, as the conclusion of the whole matter, was issued to the gentile converts in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. In short the uninspired " elders and brethren" seem to have had a substantive and essential part in all the doings of the assembly. Now these things might lead us, as they have led some, to think that the apostles did not act in this affair as inspired men, but as do ministers, at the present day, when they consult with their lay brethren about the interests of Christ's kingdom, and with them decide, according to the matured and well-considered conclusions of a sanctified judgment. According to this view, the assembly in Jerusalem, in the authority of its decisions, would not essentially differ from one of our general or diocesan conventions. We should feel, indeed, more respect for it, because there sat in it men whom God had inspired and miraculously endowed, though not for that particular emergency; but our deference for their decisions would, after all, be respect for the opinions of good men, not submission to the peremptory decrees of Heaven.
But these plausibilities to the contrary notwithstanding, it may be readily seen, I think, that inspiration presided in this meeting in Jerusalem. If the apostles were inspired messengers of God at all, as we believe, the anterior probability is, that that divine gift was brought [11/12] into play on this occasion: there were several apostles present; the question considered was important to the well-being of religion; and their doings are found recorded in the canon of the New Testament. As to the arguments which would seek to set aside this antecedent probability, they vanish before one or two considerations. The gist of the difficulty lies in this, that Paul and Barnabas had given their judgment on the controverted question, and yet the members of the church in Antioch were still divided! But how, it is asked, was this? Christians not submit to their inspired teachers in a matter where they spake as inspired men? Deference is shown to the opinions of fallible teachers, often too much deference: how then came these Christians to hesitate a moment to bow to the decision of Paul and Barnabas, if they professed to speak as they were moved by the Holy Ghost? That they hesitated is certain; but, after all, perhaps there was not so much inconsistency in their hesitation, as may at first appear. Be it remembered that the malcontents were Jewish Christians, and that the question, in their view of it, was not between their own private and independent opinions, and the authority of the apostles, but between the prophets of the old religion and these teachers of the new. Moses and David on the one hand, and Paul and Barnabas on the other, seemed in open conflict. These Judaizing disciples had unhappily become fixed in an erroneous interpretation of the language of the Old Testament about the law, its obligation and perpetuity; and when these two apostles would release the Gentile converts from all observance of it, they seemed to them to be setting themselves in direct opposition to those seers of old, who by Divine commission had taught their fathers. Their expectation doubtless was that it would be found, when they all met [12/13] in Jerusalem, that Paul and Barnabas were singular in their views upon the point, and that the other apostles held the same opinion with themselves.
Taking this view of the matter, we can readily see why there should be a sending up to Jerusalem; why Paul and Barnabas should consent to go; and why the elders and brethren are associated with the apostles in the matter. These converted Pharisees, in the honest, though unspiritual perplexity of their minds, wish to know what is thought upon the subject in the parent church of Christendom, the Jewish church, the church over which James, the kinsman of our Lord, presides. We see, too, why to the movement Paul and Barnabas are not opposed. These Christians had not set themselves against them as apostles, but as apostles in supposed opposition to other apostles, and indeed to our Lord also, and to the prophets of old. This view explains, also, why St. Peter was the chief speaker on the occasion, for he was the acknowledged apostle of the circumcision. It enables us, lastly, to see how St. James was so very prominent, and why he puts forward his individual opinion so strongly, "Wherefore my sentence is." He knew that all Jewish Christians would look and defer to him, as at once apostle and bishop of Jerusalem.
But how is this formula, in the use of which this mixed assembly delivers its judgment, to be interpreted: "it seemeth good to the Holy Ghost and to us?" These words, like a great many others in the Bible, are complex and concrete, and to be interpreted aright, must be distributed and appropriated to the several subjects involved, under the diverse circumstances of these subjects, and modified and understood accordingly. Thus, in reference to the apostles, they mean: "It seemeth good to the Holy Ghost, speaking through us;" or else, "It [13/14] seemeth good to the Holy Ghost, speaking directly to us, and it seemeth good to us, meekly and thankfully receiving his intimations." But in reference to the other members of the body, the words must mean, "it seemeth good to the Holy Ghost, who has converted the Gentiles before our eyes, even as he has converted the Jews, and has not only granted them new hearts, but miraculous gifts also; and it seemeth good to us, humbly drawing a natural inference from the fact." Thus did it seem good to all, clerical and laic, inspired and uninspired, not to lay the ceremonial yoke of the law upon any coming over from heathenism to the church of Christ.
We conclude, then, that this assembly spake as it was moved by the Holy Ghost; from which it follows, that a broad line of separation is to be drawn between it and every other which has since met for the purpose of legislation in the church. We make a distinction between the Bible and all other books, however pious and good. The one commands our assent simply in view of its origin: the rest, in that view, are only entitled to our respect. Both alike may contain the truth; but in the case of the Bible we know this beforehand, and not necessarily because we have examined it: in all other cases, we must examine in order to know. The Bible comes as presented to us out of the clouds of heaven, by that Hand which is the seat of all authority for men and angels and every other creature: other books come from the hands of men, and men are frail and fallible. So is it with this assembly in Jerusalem, and all other ecclesiastical synods; the essential difference between them should be carefully observed. Our church has done so. The Church of England before us has done so, both explicitly and by implication. As Protestant, they must needs do so. They would not have been Protestant had [13/15] they done otherwise. The very first feature of Protestantism is, the exaltation of Divine, and the depression of human authority, till each occupies its proper relative position. Were the decrees of this Jerusalem council now for the first time put into our hands sealed, before we broke the seal, knowing from whence they came, we would cheerfully bind ourselves to receive the whole. The spirit of God cannot err from ignorance, nor mislead for want of veracity or benevolence. But could we thus uninquiringly receive the behests of any mere human being or number of human beings? To say nothing more, it would be an insult to God, and a degradation to our nature, to do so. The honor of God requires that his supremacy be everywhere and every way maintained; that he be recognized as sovereign over men both collectively and individually. But in order to this we must hold his communion and connection with each soul to be so intimate, that nothing claiming to be an ultimate, and so a virtually Divine authority, can stand between him and it. The jealousy of God will not allow that either men or angels, either the whole church on earth or the whole company in heaven, interfere with this prerogative. So, on the other hand, it is the highest glory of man that he lean--but not on man. The strength of an arm of flesh is not in the help of another arm of flesh. The safety and perfection of human reason are found only in the infinite reason. Whence should the streams supply themselves but from the fountain? Any other dependence must soon leave their channels dry. Man lowers himself when, in things pertaining to God, he makes absolute submission to any person but the Divine person; for God says to every man, "in me is thy help." In conformity with these views we recognize the authority of the council mentioned in the [15/16] text as inspired, infallible, and Divine; and therefore, and therefore only, we submit to it implicitly and without question.
3. The third inquiry in regard to this gathering in Jerusalem is, "Of whom--of what classes of men was it composed?" But the answer to this question we have already had. It plainly appears, not indeed from the text but the context, that apostles, elders, and brethren were associated in it; and that while the infallible, absolute authority was all with the apostles, because they were inspired, the human, ecclesiastical authority was fully shared with them by the elders and brethren.
Now it is pleasing to us, as Protestant Episcopalians, to see how exactly the fathers and founders of our church, in this country, in all their arrangements, followed the model thus set them in the New Testament. The laity have with us an integral and prominent part to act, in all our parochial, diocesan, and general church concerns. The church with us is not the clergy; nor is it an appendage to the clergy. Nay, rather--if we must look at it in that comparative way at all, the clergy are an append age to the church--in strict conformity with the letter and spirit of the New Testament. We have all, doubtless, noticed how the Epistles of St. Paul are for the most part addressed to the "brethren," the "saints," the "elect," the "church" in this or that city, sometimes with the addition "with the bishops and deacons" and sometimes without it. Indeed, two verses immediately preceding the text, St. Luke speaks of the messengers from Antioch being received "of the church and of the apostles and elders." The subordinate position of the laity in the church of Christ, during the Middle Ages, and at other times; or, to speak more accurately, their total exclusion from all share in its legislation and administrative [16/17] control; was a gross departure from New Testament principles, occasioned by the indifference of the people on the one hand, and the ambition of ministers on the other. These two causes concurred in the result. When religion sinks to a low ebb among a people, they do not much like to be troubled with its concerns--they have no heart for them. But since, on the other hand, as is implied in a mere decline, they have not renounced it altogether; on the contrary, it may be, still feel it to be vastly important both for time and eternity; they would fain, of course, have it attended to for them by others. A personal religion being distasteful, the next thing is a proxy religion. Ceasing to feel a spiritual interest, they begin to take a ceremonial interest in it. In this state of mind they would call in the clergy as their substitutes, factors, and agents, and delegate to them the care of their souls, and the procuring of God's favor for them. And when the laity are found thus prepared, virtually, to approve of such an arrangement, the clergy, in like manner, arc just in the condition to assent to it with readiness. When religion is very low among the people, as a general rule, it is not high among the ministry; and when religion is not high among the latter, then ambition is, and they are prepared to receive from the former all the power and prerogative which they are willing to bestow. And in this mutual arrangement, whenever or wherever it takes place, it is not necessary to suppose that there is a conscious, deliberate renunciation of laic duties on the one side, or a conscious deliberate assumption and usurpation of laic privileges on the other. The whole affair may be a process, silently begun, insensibly continued, and gradually consummated; each of a series of generations having a share in the result, no one much more than another. Spiritual declension, superstitious feeling [17/18] and ambition, constituted, in former centuries, the secret elements which at length leavened the whole mass, and brought about the sad spectacle which Christendom presented to the eye of the few Bible Christians that remained at the era of the Reformation.
Against the renewal of such a state of things, our church has been fully on her guard. She has called back the laity, and bid them stand in their lot. She has put them into vestries, thereby devolving on them, not only the secular duty of holding church property, taking care of the church edifice, providing for the support of the minister, and the like; but the spiritual duty of calling him who is to break to the people the bread of life; and, in some cases, sharing, as is most fit, in the discipline of communicants. She has put them into standing committees, and thereby given them a voice in the recommendation of every one ordained, whether deacon, presbyter, or bishop; and with the clerical members she has made them a council of advice to the highest officer of the church. Lastly, she has made them legislators in her diocesan and general conventions. The benefits of this arrangement, judging by human criteria, and aside from the Divine precedent before us in the Acts of the Apostles, are manifold and most important. It gives the laity to feel that religion is their own concern, as much as of any other class of men. It helps to keep alive their personal and experimental interest in it. It brings talents into play that would otherwise be lost to the cause. It leads to more general study of the Scriptures as the proper and ultimate rule of faith and the constitution of the church. It helps to keep ecclesiastical legislation in a healthy state, by securing full and diversified discussion. It prevents religion from being narrowed down into the feelings of a class or a clique. It checks any disposition [18/19] in the clergy to transcend the limits assigned them in Scripture; and it tends to secure the world against a return to that fearful perversion of Christianity, in which all the powers of the church, and even free access to God's revelation, are supposed properly to belong to one order.
For this arrangement of our church institutions, we are chiefly indebted, under God, to the commanding influence, in the beginnings of our history, of Bishop White--a man who, whatever may be that of some of his theological opinions, in wise ecclesiastical legislation, as in general integrity of character and innocency of life, has had no superior among us. The school of ecclesiastical politics, so to say, in which he had studied, his own practical sagacity, and his cool common sense, made him a most safe and judicious counsellor in those critical times. Had the counsels of Bishop Seabury (and we would speak most respectfully of him as a man of acquirements and worth) prevailed at the founding of our church system, we should hardly perhaps now deserve the name, according to the New Testament, so much of a Christian church as of a close clerical corporation. The Episcopal Church of Scotland, from which he derived his views of doctrine and discipline, and which had only then just ceased to be non-juring, even to this day does not admit the laity to any share in its legislative acts; and the diocese of Connecticut, which received its first impress from him, at first followed his views and acted on the same exclusive plan. But for Bishop White, it is not improbable some such state of things might be now prevailing throughout all our borders; and our conventions, one of the most excellent features of our system, would, at least in a chief peculiarity, be unheard of and unknown. We should not be coming up, clergy and laity alike, as did the tribes of old to Jerusalem, to [19/20] the place annually appointed, to mingle in friendly Christian converse; to hear and take an interest in the doings of every part of the diocese; to confer together for the general good; to unite our hearts in public and social prayer; and to hear the Gospel, which is our life, preached with frequency, and with divers gifts. Instead of such a gathering, in harmony with Jewish practice and the New Testament precedent now before us, and with the comprehensive and spiritual nature of Christianity, we should see a few clerics (and they would in such case be but few) moving about the streets of the city, like aliens rather than like natives, having little sympathy with the people; not seeking to collect and exhort them on the great interests of eternity; holding their meetings with closed doors, as though religion were a private concern; and acting in all respects under the influence of a clannish spirit, a professional feeling, a powerful esprit du corps. The Lord be thanked that this is not the state of things with us; but that as our church, in her general organization, is like the apostolic church, so our church legislatures are composed, like this council in Jerusalem, of "apostles, and elders, and brethren."
4. A fourth question we have to answer, is, "Should this assembly in Jerusalem be called a general council?" If by "general council" we understand a body having authority to meet and ability to decide with absolute and infallible truth and justice, then indeed it was a general council; but such an one as the world has never seen since, and will never see again. The Spirit was in the midst of it, lifting it above all religious error. Its decisions were inspired as certainly as St. Paul's predictions of the Man of Sin, or St. John's prediction about Babylon, the mother of abominations; and being embodied [20/21] in the written Word of God, they constitute to us a criterion, so far as they extend, by which to try all doctrinal statements and creeds, extraneous to the Bible, whether the Apostles' creed, so called, the Nicene, the Athanasian, or any other. But if we understand by the terms "general council" a representative body, of which the whole church, omitting no part whatever, is the constituency--representative according to acknowledged principles of equality and fairness, and therefore authorized and qualified to legislate for the general good, under Scripture as the constitution, and according to its principles--then, with this meaning of the words, this meeting in Jerusalem was not a general council. It does not appear that all the apostles were present; the probability is that they were, some of them, far enough away, on the errand which the Master gave them when he said, "Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature." It does not appear that all the churches were represented: the probability, yea, the certainty is, that they were not. The Gospel had now been preaching nearly twenty years, and in that space of time churches must have been formed and established in parts of the world far separated from one another--too far to admit of their attending at so extemporaneous a meeting. It does not appear that there was even a universal citation of either apostles or churches; the contrary may be safely assumed.
And as we believe this was not a general council, according to any correct idea of the thing, so we must believe there never has been one, indeed and in truth. There would be no occasion for recalling this fact to mind, if the authority of these ancient synods had been left, as common sense would regard it; if they had not arrogated a power and infallibility which did not belong [21/22] to them, to the dethronement of Scripture and the enslavement of the church. As matters are, it is very necessary to remember that the name is not the thing; that assumption does not create it; that the principles for the organization of general councils are not laid down in Scripture, and if not laid down there, that councils are human institutions; that, if human, they cannot be infallible; and that supposing them fallible, in order even to be right representatives of the whole church, true exponents of its sentiments, whatever they may be, they should be constituted on principles equitable in themselves, and recognized as such by all. The representation should be perfectly equal. There should be no sectional preponderance of influence. Every part of the church should appear by its delegates. No order should be deprived of its full share of control. The clergy should be there, in their several orders, by their representatives, no one omitted; and the laity should be there none the less; nay, reason would say, perhaps--and we are thrown back on reason here--rather the more.
But according to these conditions--and these might be carried out into many most important details--when and where did a true general council ever meet? Where--when? Never--nowhere. Not in Nicaea, not in Constantinople, not in Ephesus, not in Trent.
Much less is any likely to meet hereafter. Since the separation of the Greek and other oriental churches from the Church of Rome, and the separation of Protestant churches from both of these, it is Utopian to expect it; and the expectation that if one should meet, it would prove a remedy for the ills of the church, is yet wilder still. What Protestant could anticipate good from its assembling? Some few, indeed, bearing that name, [22/23] have talked as though it would prove a perfect ecclesiastical panacea; but surely they cannot fully know what they are about, or else they are prepared for results to prevent which a true Protestant would be ready to go to the stake. As Christendom now is, and is likely to be for many generations, any council, representing with tolerable fairness the whole visible church, would inevitably lend its sanction to the most unscriptural doctrines and the most superstitious practices. Those persons who long to see one, are yearning after a catholicity which the New Testament knows nothing of, and which in the eye of God has no value. When God looks down from heaven, it is to see if men seek after Him--to discover truth and holiness in them--to see his own kingdom of righteousness set up in their hearts. Let it not be supposed that he delights in external similitude or sameness for its own sake, as men are pleased with uniform in armies; or that he values it at all, except as the spontaneous, outward expression of an inward unity with himself in Christ, in whom all true believers are "gathered together in one." When we have the latter, we shall have the former, and in the same proportion; and it is vain and pernicious to strive, as some do, after uniformity, in direct violation of the principles of unity, and of the proportion of all religious truth. It is only putting a new patch on an old garment--the rent is made worse. When Christians more fully "hold the faith, in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace and in righteousness of life," they will, in all probability, be more externally united. The latter will be the effect; the former must be the cause.
We see, therefore, the true mode of procedure for the attainment of that external unity, which councils, especially general councils, so called, profess to seek. Some [23/24] men seem to think, that if you can force the external, you secure the internal; and that the true way, where physical pains and penalties are not allowed, to force the one is to press it with the same arguments and urgency with which you would press the other. They perceive not that this disposition springs from the same root with persecution. They are not sensible, as they should be, that the tenor of the Scriptures, and the genius of true religion are opposed to it. They are not aware that the legitimate effect, under such a mode of operation, is not to secure unity, but to resolve it into uniformity, i.e. to substitute the form of religion for its power. The true method is not to use a pressure from without, but to put an attractive principle within. It is to go forward and preach the whole gospel, according to the strict proportions of truth; being far more anxious to see men converted, than catholicized; to behold them as such, working the works of God in their several ecclesiastical enclosures, if it must be so, rather than forced together by the authority of some synod, in which might overrules right, and truth and holiness, according to the Scriptures, are whelmed by error and superstition. No; a general council would not, if practicable, be in the present state of things productive of good; but practicable it is not; and therefore, instead of straining after an unattainable remedy for existing evils, let us employ those within our reach, patiently awaiting God's time and mode of blessing our endeavors: let us live more holily, pray more unceasingly, preach more scripturally and zealously.
I have said, another general council is not to be looked for: let us not be in the least degree saddened at the thought. They can never answer more, any valuable purpose. Since the art of printing has put a copy of the [24/25] Bible into every Christian's hand; since the rights of private judgment are more largely recognized; since the fallibility of man is more deeply felt; since the danger of spiritual despotism is more clearly seen; they have lost most of their applicability and use. Farther, we need not to be troubled, for this reason also: if we may no longer look for a so-called general council, assembled in this city or that century, under this Emperor or that Pope; we may look far higher, and see something far better. Were the film removed from our eye, as it was from the eye of Elisha's servant, when being in peril in the beleaguered city, he was given to see the mountains full of chariots and horsemen providentially provided for his master's protection; we should behold a general council of wider composition, of deeper wisdom, of higher authority, of mightier power, of more illustrious presidency, sitting without adjournment from the day when the Lord Jesus Christ ascended up to heaven to receive gifts for distribution among men, to the present hour of the Church's history!--Is not Christ the head of the Church? Is he not ever living, ever watchful, ever mighty? In times of peace does he not foster, by his word and holy spirit, the quiet growth of truth and holiness; and in a polemical and revolutionary age, does he not still ride on the whirlwind and direct the storm? That we experience his tender and almighty care is it first necessary that we attempt what never can be accomplished--a gathering of representatives from every quarter of the Church? Will he manifest his grace only through such a channel--a channel not of his own appointment even? Can he save only by many? Can he not save by few? Are his promises given only to the largest possible assemblies? Hath he not rather taken care to assure two or three, met together in his name or agreed [25/26] upon any thing touching the well-being of his cause, that he is in the midst of them, to guide and direct them according to their faith? Is he not the friend and counsellor and Saviour of individual minds? Are not his individual disciples made temples of the Holy Ghost by him, sanctified and cleansed, and guided into all needful truth? Yes, Christ is with the general mind of the Church, whether there be councils or whether there be not. Thus alone was he with the church for three long centuries; and thus was it brought to the conclusion of the greatest work which it ever did; namely, satisfying itself by evidence, which all men are now constrained to respect, of the authenticity, credibility, Divine authority, and inspiration of the New Testament Canon. It should ever be remembered, that before a general council had existence, the most vital and fundamental of all questions was settled by the church, i. e., the rule of faith. When the Nicene fathers met, they found the church in possession of the New Testament writings, recognized and verified as the productions of men who were qualified and commissioned as teachers sent from God. God be thanked, these writings were not collected and adopted, in the first instance, by any council, ecumenical or local; but that they came into general adoption and use, in the same way that other authentic documents do, upon evidence which was satisfactory to all men at the time, and which, for the most part, is still extant and open to the inspection of the world; lest infidels should take occasion to say, that our faith stood in the word of man, not the power of God. The general Christian mind, after long and diligent individual examination, each man contributing his quota to the evidence and the search; not by authority of any organized assembly, not [26/27] by order of any monarch, whether temporal or spiritual, but under the auspices of the primary laws of human nature, which are the laws of God, and under the sanction of the first principles of all human belief, which are also the laws of God; thus was the general Christian mind gradually and in due time brought to a fixed and unanimous conviction on this great question--a conviction for which, as already intimated, reasons were given to the world, reasons that are still extant, and which the church and the world may at any time they please review.
Having done the greater work, then, of identifying and adopting the New Testament as a revelation of God, cannot the Church do the lesser work of healing her own divisions, without that cumbrous, unfair, and dangerous instrument, called a general council? Oh, what that church really wants, is not more such councils, but simply more faith--which councils cannot give.
I have said they are impossible: if possible, would they not be superfluous at the present day? What men now want and need, is not to be overborne by authority, but to be convinced by argument; or, if overborne by authority, then by that which is manifestly divine. But the authority of general councils is not divine, but human, and they cannot, therefore, in the present condition of the world, be expected to command submission and assent.--But viewed in other lights they are equally superfluous and uncalled for. In former centuries they may have had a use, in bringing men together who would otherwise have no mutual communication, and so putting at the command of each the knowledge of all the rest. They served not only for the issuing of decrees, but for putting the different sections of the church in possession of needful knowledge, not otherwise so attainable. But in [27/28] this view their day has gone by. Such clumsy modes of accomplishing that end are now out of date. The printing press with its marvellous issues, and art with its various other aids and appliances, give a man access to a far greater audience than the primitive fathers ever dreamt of;--not to two or three hundred delegates speaking in behalf of others, but to many millions of Christians of every class, representative men, and common men. And as the audience is a hundredfold greater, so is access to them a hundredfold more facile. A word of truth or wisdom is uttered by the press, and by means of modern facilities it flies, as on the wings of the wind, to Africa, to China, to the isles of the Pacific. Mind holds converse with mind, with increasing speed and in wider circuit, each succeeding year. Every little assembly of Christians, every individual Christian now acts or may act, with a far better understanding of what other Christians think, throughout the world, than was enjoyed by the different sections of the ancient Church, or even by their representatives in council assembled. Christians can travel at home. Without moving from their hearths, they possess all the conditions of a wise judgment in the things of God, in the fullest measure--in far fuller measure than was enjoyed by the ancient Church, or by its conciliar representatives. Councils, therefore, in this view also, we need not.
And whilst the end they would aim at may be attained quite readily in another way; it does not appear that the evils incident to them could be readily avoided. Intrigue and cabal belong to all large assemblies, in all stages of social advancement. The last so-called general council was the worst. Indeed they seem to have deteriorated from the beginning. From the beginning, secular influence and authority interfered in their [28/29] proceedings, and as time advanced, the interferences did not decrease, but rather increased; till at length the very church became itself secular, and the distinction between the church and the world was little more than a name. Councils (other than those necessary for diocesan and national purposes) grew out of this tendency, and hastened this result. So must it ever be. Manoeuvring and management will creep in, where nations act together in religion, because politics will creep in; and where that is the case, theology, which properly pertains to God and the individual soul in its relations to eternity, will become a secular science.--The imposing character, too, of such a body tends to destroy in men's minds a proper deference for the supreme authority of Scripture. In such a body, moreover, the laity of the church, in their proper religious character, could never exert their proper influence. The influence which our house of clerical and lay deputies exerts in our general convention, would be unknown in such a body: one order would soon gather all power into its own lap. And what would be the effect of that power upon the holders of it? To say all in a word, to corrupt them; and through them, the whole church.--And thus the imaginary panacea would be found a real and wide-spreading poison. Bishop Burnet says, in the Hist. of his Own Times, "I was ever of Nazianzen's opinion, who never wished to see any more synods of the clergy." If the remark was natural and wise in the days of Gregory of Nazianzen and of Bishop Burnet, so is it now. But at all events, be its correctness what it may, in application to general councils; one thing is certain, we have no precedent for them in the text.
5. One question more, and I close. "What is the spirit which was manifested in connection with this assembly?" Nothing is said upon the point by the inspired historian. [29/30] Like the rest of the New Testament writers, he very seldom indulges anywhere in comments on men and their measures. He and they confine themselves almost entirely to a simple record of what was said and done, leaving inferences and remarks to others. Still it is quite allowable for us to notice things indicative of the spirit of the body, and through that, of the genius of Christianity, and, indeed, of the genius of human nature also.
It is worth observing, that the question which called together the first ecclesiastical council was a question about ceremonies. Would to God it had been the last so called together! But ceremonies have ever been a fruitful source of controversy. They have engrossed a far larger share of attention than relatively belongs to them, when compared with other things in connection with religion; or than beforehand we should have thought they would engross. But, however improbable the fact beforehand, after its occurrence its explanation is very simple. When men are at once given to religion, and yet unspiritual; i. e., to express the idea in one word, when they become superstitious, they ever evince a strong proclivity to lay undue stress upon them, to multiply and magnify them, and to press them pertinaciously upon others. Their imagination, in which most of such men's religion lies, morbidly craves this food, and cannot be satisfied without it. They fancy, too, that a complex ritual is necessary to secure reverence on the part of the people. They are afraid that religion will lose its dignity, and fall into contempt with the many, unless bolstered up by multiplied rites and ceremonies. They perceive not that, however it may have been with Judaism--a religion of types and shadows, designed for society in its pupilage--the special power of Christianity is to be sought elsewhere. They forget that, so far as instrumentalities are [30/31] concerned, the power of Christianity lies in the truth, and that ceremonies, beyond the measure which decency and order require, tend to abate it; acting like the scabbard on the sword in the day of conflict--like muffling to the drum, in the midst of war's alarms. In the converted Pharisees mentioned in the context, we have a sample of such persons, and of the folly to which a superstitious bias leads. These men would fain impose the yoke of all Jewish ceremonies upon every Gentile convert. They insisted that every convert from heathenism should pass through Judaism to Christianity; and not only so, but also carry and keep Judaism with him, when he entered the Christian church. They had not the ability to perceive the distinctive features of the two dispensations. They were not able, even though they enjoyed apostolic teaching, to discover, that "when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part is done away."
But the point which specially concerns us is, how these persons were dealt with by the council. The apostles unanimously declare, the body of the church in Jerusalem assenting, that these devotees of ceremony are altogether unreasonable in their requirement--that they are imposing too much on their Gentile brethren. Let converted Jews, born under the law and bred to the use of it--let them be indulged in their long-established habits, if it must needs be so (provided they do not hold it, or anything else, the condition of justification, but faith only). It is an infirmity which should be patiently borne with in weak brethren, and the rather, because the practice must soon die out of itself. But let not a yoke be put, through a diseased fondness for sensuous worship, on the neck of those of whom God does not require it, and whom neither birth nor education inclines to assume it. But let us for a moment suppose these Gentile converts, [31/32] themselves, had shown a desire to destroy the beautiful simplicity of their new religion--the simplicity in which the Saviour left it, by multiplying Jewish ceremonies, or by borrowing from the imposing ritual of the heathen temples--can we, in this case, doubt that they would have been checked with equal promptitude and decision? Those apostles who taught, after similar teaching from their Divine Master, that "the kingdom of heaven is not meat and drink, hut righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost;" that "neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, hut faith that worketh by love" that baptism even, in the essence and true efficacy of it, "is not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience towards God" such men must needs have discountenanced all attempts to ceremonialize religion; and must have insisted that it be kept and continued, just as it was given to the world. Nor must it be thought that Christianity was very, and therefore sufficiently, ritual already. In that regard, if it were presented to us now, as it was then (i. e., as it was at the time when inspired men were the chief actors and directors in its management), I doubt not it would appear to many of us, plain to the degree of rusticity, simple to the degree of baldness. Yet, plain and simple as it was, the apostles encouraged no ceremonial innovations and additions. How thankfully contented, therefore, ought we to be with the chaste solemnity, and " well-ordered pomp, decent and unreproved," which mark the inherited arrangements of our own church; and with what decision should we reject those novelties with which, without authority from law or use, some would mend the handiwork of apostles and apostolic reformers; and, under cover of these external innovations, would bring in new doctrines, stealthily, and by indirection. The spirit of this council [32/33] of Jerusalem is opposed to all such doings, and all such modes of doing.
Another feature in the spirit of this body is what may be called the practicalness of its judgment. Its inferences are largely drawn from the effects which the Gospel produces on those who receive it. The question before it is, shall the Gentile converts be required to observe the Mosaic law; and it is solved in part, at least in the mind of the uninspired members, by a reference to the influence which the Gospel, without the law, has exerted upon the heathen. The members cannot bring themselves to think, yet unjustified before God--yet out of the pale of Christianity--yet strangers to the covenant of promise, men to whom God had given the Holy Ghost, even as to the Jewish converts who still observed the law; putting no difference between them, purifying the hearts of both alike by faith. They feel constrained to believe, that where the spirit of the Lord is, converting and sanctifying the soul, there are God's favor and covenant care. God cannot deny himself. Even supposing they think it would be better and more expedient that these gentiles should, like themselves, observe it; still the manifest renovation of their hearts and lives, avowedly, in and through the reception of the truth as it is in Jesus, is an evidence of their acceptance, not to be overborne by any such considerations. Such persons are known to be Christians by their fruits, i. e. facts; and a practical judgment cannot ignore plain, repeated, and uniform facts.
Lastly, the large missionary element in the spirit of this body, is quite observable. The facts connected with God's gracious visitation of the Gentiles are narrated by the speakers and listened to by the people, in a manner which clearly shows the deep interest they took in the [33/34] propagation of the Gospel--the propagation of the Gospel, not merely as inclosing men in an ecclesiastical fold, but rather as converting them spiritually from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God. Nor, indeed, does this spirit appear merely in the speech made by St. Peter in the council, and in the satisfaction with which it was heard; but also in the fact, that as Paul and Barnabas were on their way to this meeting in Jerusalem, wherever they stopped they occupied themselves in communicating, what we would now-a-days call "missionary intelligence;"--"declaring" as St. Luke expresses it, "the conversion of the Gentiles," thereby "causing great joy to all the brethren." The persons connected with this council had, as all Christians at all times should have, a large measure of the missionary spirit. As that spirit was the origin of Christianity, so was it the life of the apostolic church.
Now in the several features of the spirit thus described, the council at Jerusalem is a model to us, in the position which we occupy to-day, as a convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church. "We, like that council, should be distinguished by a preference of the substance to the form; by a special regard to the practical working of Christianity, so far as committed to our hands; and by a deep interest in the true conversion of men to God, and in the further advancement of those that are converted. All this becomes us, I say, as a convention. At home, as ministers in the midst of our people, we recognize these things as our proper duty and business; and as lay-communicants also, we feel that, in the parishes to which we belong we have a Christian calling to live and labor for Christ, as real and as urgent in its sphere as is the ministerial. How, then, let me ask, should it be, when we come up from the length and breadth of [34/35] this extensive diocese, and meet together in one place about the interests of Christ's kingdom? Ought there not to be a mighty concentration of holy aim and earnestness, of the Christian spirit, the ministerial spirit, the missionary spirit? Instead of yielding to the distracting and dissipating influence of a crowd, ought not the consideration of the presence of that divine Saviour, whose we are and whom we come to serve, of the large number of immortals assembled, of the impressions for good or evil likely to be made on them, of the special conspicuousness of Christ's church and people on such occasions, and of the special implication of Christ's honor in the letter and the spirit of all our doings: ought not these things cause us to come up hither and abide here, very much in the temper of the hundred and twenty disciples, who waited at Jerusalem the promise of the Father--in prayerfulness and heavenly-mindedness, and in a believing expectation of good? Yes; ought not every such occasion as this be sought to be made a very Pentecost--Pentecost, as the season of the full promulgation of "the law of faith"--Pentecost, as a time of spiritual ingathering, at least of the first fruits, the full harvest of which is afterwards to be reaped in our respective parishes--Pentecost, as the memorable festival when God opened the windows of heaven, and poured out a new and abundant blessing on both ministers and people? Oh, surely, we ought to come up here, and abide here and disperse hence, with feelings peculiarly spiritual and solemn! There ought to be a clear sense of God's presence, a deep feeling of our need and our unworthiness, a full assurance of God's love and mercy! Those who are anxious about their eternal welfare, but have not yet found peace in believing, should look on these occasions as seasons of special spiritual opportunity [35/36] --in a peculiar sense "the accepted time, the day of salvation." Professing Christians should regard them as seasons for the renewal of their spiritual strength, for pluming themselves afresh for their heavenward flight; while at the same time they are helpful to others who are striving to rise above the noxious atmosphere of a fallen world, into the region of Gospel hope and purity. Above all, there belong to us ministers, on these occasions, a special duty and a special privilege. We, above all others, should not depart hence as we came. We should light our torches anew at the altar of the Lord, and help others to kindle theirs, even, it may be, from our own. Freely have we received, if we have received at all--freely should we give. And we know, there is that giveth and yet increaseth, as there is that withholdeth more than is meet, and it tendeth to poverty. Inquirers, Christians, Christian ministers, yes, and everybody else, however undefined his character, who in any measure feels or thinks that heaven is worth the seeking of immortal creatures, should give heed to himself, that, with God's blessing, he get and he contribute his full share to the heavenly result.
In working the church of Christ as a visible society, an external institute, it should ever be borne in mind that still its chief characteristic is, that it is internal. The moment we let this truth slip, the object we aim at, and our mode of operation, are all wrong. Further, it should be remembered that these two characteristics are easily and widely separable; and that in reference to the one, the church may be fair and well-liking, when in reference to the other it is ready to perish. Further still, it should not be forgotten that the spiritual is very liable to be lost in the palpable, the invisible merged in the visible; and that such are the tendencies of our [36/37] nature, that nothing can guard us against the error, but a deeply devotional vigilance. We must, indeed, watch and pray, if we would not enter into this temptation. The temptation is, in one sense, unavoidable. As a man's table, at which he takes his necessary daily food, may prove a snare to him, so the outward engagements properly belonging to legislative gatherings of the church, may be allowed to interfere with the higher and more proper object aimed at by the very existence of the church. We have on these occasions the necessary duties of making reports, collecting statistics, paying quotas, discussing laws, electing officers: these, and other such like things, are inseparable from our meetings, and necessary to our object. But woe be to us when these things become the all-absorbing topics and the chief aim of our assembling. The glory will have departed from us, when ministers and people have got into the mental habit of regarding the church and its conventions in any other view than as a place and time of special prayer and special instruction--of special communion with God, through Christ, and by his Spirit. With any other habit of mind, the church is to us as the world, though we may not know it. We may still use spiritual terms, but the things will be secular; just as the government of papal Rome, while it affects the most unworldly titles for its officers and offices, is the most intensely worldly government on earth. Virginia has long striven to avoid this error. She has endeavored to make and conduct her conventions, not like gatherings as for the purposes of trade or science, art or politics; not even as mere ecclesiastical bodies for merely ecclesiastical purposes, but rather as solemn religious assemblies, as high spiritual festivals, at which all who are disposed shall have special opportunity for seeking and [37/38] imparting spiritual good. Is this purpose steadily adhered to? Is this idea faithfully and without abatement realized? Is this day as past days, and yet more abundant? Those who have been longest in the diocese can best judge. But be the answer what it may, in regard to former occasions, let it be the prayer and effort of every one present, that our gathering together at this time shall, through God's mercy, be for the better and not for the worse; and that on Sunday night next, when we part to meet no more forever, in the same place, numbers, and relations, our hearts may testify before God that it was good for us to have been here!