William Cunningham's comments on the
Apostolic, Presbyterian general assembly held in Acts 15 follow, excerpted from
his Historical Theology (volume
one, pp.43-47). "Although our review of Theological Discussions properly
begins at the close of the apostolic age, yet there is one transaction recorded
in the New Testamant to which it may be proper to advert to, from its intimate
connection with the whole subsequent history and government of the church, and
with the controversies to which they have given rise, many of them continuing
down to the present day. I allude to what is commonly called the Council of
Jerusalem, recorded in the fifteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.
There has been a very great deal of discussion about the true character of this transaction, and the lessons, if any, which it is fitted to suggest respecting the government of the church in subsequent ages. Papists, Prelates, and Presbyterians have usually held that it was fitted and intended to convey some instruction as to the way and manner in which the government of the church should be permanently conducted, and have all professed to find in it something to favour their respective systems; while the Congregationalists, not being able to find in it anything to favour their views of church government, have generally contented themselves with maintaining that it does not afford any clear or certain materials for determining in what way the government of the church should be conducted in subsequent ages. Papists, finding it recorded here that Peter took a prominent part in the discussion which arose upon this occasion, adduce the narrative as a proof that he acted then, was entitled to act, and was recognized as entitled to act, as the vicar of Christ and the head of the church. Prelatists, finding that, several centuries afterwards, the notion was broached that James was appointed by the apostles Bishop of Jerusalem, profess to get scriptural evidence of this fancy in the prominent part which he took in the discussion. There is not in the narrative a trace of any superiority in office or jurisdiction on the part of Peter or James; so that the substance of the Popish argument is virtually this,-Peter spoke first, and therefore he was superior in authority and jurisdiction to the other apostles; while the Prelatic argument is,-James spoke last, and gave shape to the decision of the council, and therefore he was diocesan bishop, and, as such, superior in some respects even to the apostles. This of course, is sheer trifling; and the only question of real importance or difficulty connected with this matter, lies between the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists or Independents.
The Congregationalists usually contend that this transaction was so peculiar and extraordinary as to afford no pattern or precedent for the disposal of theological controversies, and the regulation of ecclesiastical affairs in subsequent ages, and in ordinary circumstances; while Presbyterians deny this, and allege that it affords a warrant for the general substance of some of the leading features of Presbyterian church government. The question whether or not the transaction was so peculiar and extraordinary as to afford no model or precedent for the subsequent government of the church, is virtually identical with this one,-whether the apostles acted in this matter as inspired and infallible expounders of the will of God, or simply as the ordinary office-bearers of the church, using the ordinary means of ascertaining the divine will, and enjoying the ordinary guidance and influences of His Spirit.
Presbyterians contend that there are plain indications in the New Testament that the apostles sometimes acted in the administration of ecclesiastical affairs, not as inspired men directed by the infallible guidance of the Spirit which they enjoyed in declaring truth and in organizing the church, but simply as ordinary office-bearers in co-operation with other elders, and more especially that they acted in this capacity merely in this case; and Congregationalists, not absolutely denying, and yet not prepared to admit, that they never acted in the administration of ecclesiastical affairs without infallible guidance, strenuously contend that in this case they acted under the influence of immediate supernatural inspiration, which infallibly guided them to a right decision, and that therefore it affords no model or precedent for the church in future times. It seems very manifest, from the whole scope and strain of the narrative, that the apostles did not act here as inspired and infallible men, but simply as ordinary ecclesiastical office-bearers, in conjunction with the elders and ordinary pastors. Had it been the purpose of God to settle the controversy which arose about the necessity of circumcision by an inspired infallible decision, the apostles might have at once decided it without meeting, and without discussion of any kind; or any one of them might have done so in the exercise of his apostolic authority, and confirmed his decision by the "signs of an apostle." Paul himself might have done so at Antioch, without the matter being brought up to Jerusalem at all. This was not done; the matter was brought up to the church at Jerusalem. The apostles and elders assembled to deliberate upon it publicly in the presence of the people; and we are expressly told that much disputing took place regarding it, when they were assembled to decide it. The apostles who took part in the discussion, in place of at once declaring authoritatively what was the mind and will of God regarding it, formally argued the question upon grounds derived at once from God's providential dealings, and from statements of scripture. In this way, and by this process, they carried conviction to the understandings of all who heard them, so that they concurred at length in an unanimous decision. Here everything plainly indicates, and seems to have been obviously intended to indicate, that inspiration was not in exercise, but that the matter was decided by means accessible to men in general under the ordinary guidance of the Spirit.
There is no evidence, indeed- and the Congregationalists found much on this consideration-that any of the apostles were, even at the first, of a different mind from that in which the whole assembly ultimately concurred, or that they had any disputing among themselves; but it is certain-and this is sufficient to warrant our conclusion-that there was much disputing, i.e., argument on opposite sides, in the assembly in their presence; and that they did not put an end to this disputing by an immediate and infallible declaration of the mind of God upon the point, in the exercise of their apostolic authority, but by ordinary arguments derived from admitted principles, and addressed to the understandings of those who heard them. The only thing that appears to contradict the conclusion to which the whole scope and strain of the narrative obviously points, is the fact that the decision to which the assembly ultimately came is announced in these words: "It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us." Now, this statement certainly implies that they were confident that the decision was de facto in accordance with the mind of the Holy Ghost, but it does not necessarily imply more than this; and therefore it should not be held to imply more, as it would then contradict the general scope and strain of the narrative, which are plainly fitted to teach us that Christ, the Head of the church, determined the disposal of this matter, not by direct and infallible inspiration, but by a general meeting of apostles and elders seeking and attaining the truth upon the point, by means accessible to men in general with the ordinary influences of the Spirit. Not only does the expression, "it seemeth good to the Holy Ghost and to us," not necessarily imply more that the certain accordance de facto between the decision given by them and the mind of the Spirit, but it seems of itself to indicate that there was something in the case different from a mere declaration of what they knew simply as inspired men. It seems much more natural that if they had been simply declaring what they had been miraculously and supernaturally taught upon the point by the Spirit, they would have said only,"it seemeth good to the Holy Ghost;" the addition,"and to us," having the appearance of intimating that they did not act in the matter merely and solely as the inspired declarers of His mind, though confident that their decision was accordant with His.
We hold it, then to be clear, that while the apostles ordinarily had the gift of supernatural infallible inspiration in the discharge of their public duties, in declaring the truth and in organizing the church, yet on this occasion they did not, in point of fact, exercise this gift, but left it as it were in abeyance, and acted in the matter just as uninspired men might and could have done. Now, these two facts taken in combination, not only prove that this transaction may afford a pattern and precedent for the proceedings of the church ordinarily in similar circumstances, but also warrant us to believe that it was expressly arranged in this way for that very purpose, and that therefore it is the church's duty to apply it for the regulation of her conduct. We assume now, then, that the view generally taken by Congregationalists, as to this controversy having been decided by a supernatural exercise of infallible inspiration, is erroneous. We assume that the whole transaction must have been intended and fitted to convey instruction to the church as to the management of its affairs."
Dr. Reg Barrow comments: Scriptural uniformity can easily be seen in the "apostolic" Presbyterian general assembly at Jerusalem (cf. Acts 15). In fact, this general assembly "delivered decrees" that were binding on all the individual churches that were part of the one visible church which adhered to apostolic doctrine. The Greek word used in Acts 16:4 for "decrees" is "dogmata." Compare this with the word "decree" used in Luke 2:1. This same word as used in Luke 2:1 is referring to the decree of Caesar Augustus regarding his call for an empire wide census. This was not a suggestion given by Caesar, nor was it just advice that could be ignored without penalty -- it was law! In the same way the decree sent down by the general assembly that took place in Acts 15 was to be held as law for the church. Furthermore, these pronouncements (because in keeping with the mind of the Spirit) held sway over all the churches. These decrees were carried out from Jerusalem to the churches in the cities of Asia Minor, as well as Antioch, indicating that the scope of the synod's authority extended not only over the church at Antioch which made the initial request, but over ALL THE CHURCHES! (Adapted from "Presbyterianism and Independency" in British Reformed Journal, No. 11, July-Aug. 1995, p. 10n; write: "Bromstone" Stonehaven, Aberdeen AB3 2QB Scotland UK). It is also interesting to note the comments found in this same Journal comparing the Presbyterian's Westminster Confession (1647) with the Independent's Savoy Declaration (1658). The British Reformed Journal points out: "A perusal of the twin columns on the page opposite will yield a direct contrast, highlighted at apposite critical points by the words in heavy type. One sees Westminster's decree (31:3), which corresponds to the Greek dogmata of the Textus Receptus in Acts 16:4, juxtaposed with advice given in the Savoy article XXVI, which latter corresponds with nothing anywhere in the Textus Receptus with respect to the matters of Synodical Church Government" (p. 17). Later this Journal asks: "Does this Scriptural Synod issue decrees or advice? Scripture says decree, Westminster says decree, Savoy says advice. Which Confessional standard is therefore Scriptural?"
"And as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem. And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily" (Acts 16:4-5).
William Cunningham's classic two volume set, Historical Theology, is available at http://www.puritandownloads.com/ for $US1.98 and free shipping. James Bannerman's classic two volume set on the church, The Church of Christ, is also available at http://www.puritandownloads.com/ for $US1.98 and free shipping.
FOR FURTHER STUDY
Shows, based on six Scriptural and Apostolic principles, which system of governing the church [Independent, Prelatical or Presbyterian] is pleasing to God. Concludes that Presbyterianism is set forth in Scripture as of divine right. Joe Morecraft calls this book "irrefutable." See Rutherfurd's Due Right of Presbyteries or his Divine Right of Church Government for more advanced treatment of this subject. Easy reading, engaging, and a good textbook for Bible study classes. 91 pages.
This book is also available on Reformation Bookshelf CD volume 23 (CD SUPER SALE) at: http://www.swrb.com/Puritan/reformation-bookshelf-CDs.htm
Two large volumes totalling just under 1300 pages. The definitive work on doctrinal history. Compares the truth to the three major heretical system: Romanism, Socinianism (an old form of liberalism) and Arminianism. Covers the most important disputes, focusing in on significant points of controversy in each. The value of this set should not be underestimated, for it is an antidote against much of the innovative folly so prevalent in our day. As Iain Murray, concerning human pride and scriptural interpretation, succinctly points out,
Instead of beginning with a realization that God in His providence had already caused His Church to investigate and settle at least the great majority of Biblical doctrines, the Church, flattered by the supposed possession of superior light, began to despise the old doctrinal standards and to construct a 'creed' anew, as though the faith of the previous eighteen centuries counted for nothing. Nor were the evangelicals free from this plague; even they took up the slogans that 'Christianity is not a doctrine but a life' and that to express the truth systematically is an abuse of logic -- as though to think illogically was a mark of true spirituality!
J.J. Bonar stated that Cunningham's "grasp and vantage of the field of theological discussion" was "of inestimable value." This set is certainly one of the most useful items we carry and is much needed in our day.
book is also available on Reformation Bookshelf CD volume 16 at:
The Divine Right of Church Government (Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici), Wherein it is Proved that the Presbyterian Government, By Preaching and Ruling Elders, in Sessional, Presbyterial, and Synodical Assemblies, May Lay the Only Lawful Claim to a Divine Right, According to the Holy Scriptures, c. 1646, 1844 ed.
This is one of the all time classic defenses of the divine right of Presbyterianism. It also gives us a clear picture of the original intent of the English Presbyterians working at the Westminster Assembly (and is therefore very useful in determining the original intent of the Westminster Confession itself). It can be seen here that it was the strong conviction of the majority of English divines at Westminster that Presbyterianism is the only form of church government that is instituted by God in His Word. David Hall, (the editor of the NP edition), states, the book "was not written as a polemical tract, as if to prop up some moribund tradition; rather it is an exemplar of gentle and reasoned discourse." Published anonymously, during the sitting of the Westminster Assembly, because of the Erastian leaning Parliament's "gag rule," this work is considered by some as "an even truer record of the Westminster divines' views of government than the final (politically suppressed) standards" (Coldwell, NP edition). Moreover, Hall goes so far as to state that "perhaps no single work is as illuminating for original intent [of the Westminster Standards] as this rare work printed contemporaneously with the meeting of the Assembly;" and that "acquaintance with the political and ecclesiastical events of the time narrows down the possible authorship of this (book, RB) to either (the) Westminster divines themselves, or sympathizers of the Westminster Assembly of divines (p. xvi). Hall also notes that Hetherington (in his masterful History of the Westminster Assembly, p. 270) asserts that this book was the Westminster divine's answer to the English parliament's "nine queries" that were intended "to discourage their thoroughly Presbyterian views." Hall continues, "In the first comprehensive Scottish history of the Assembly, William Hetherington concludes safely: 'Judging from internal evidence, in matter, manner, and style, it appears most certain that this work at least embodies the substance of the answer prepared by the Assembly, somewhat enlarged and modified by the city ministers in whose name it was published.' Although Hetherington (who in a footnote wished for the reprinting of this very work as 'a very valuable contribution to the Presbyterian cause in the present day') initially infers that the work of the Assembly and the London ministers was merged, such that 'so much of the one was transfused into the other as to render then to all practical intents one work,' at the conclusion of his history he concludes with more certainty: "The Jus Divinum of the city ministers appears to me to be both virtually and substantially the Assembly's Answer to the Parliament, containing actually that very Answer as prepared by them; but with such additional amplifications in statement and illustrations, by the city ministers themselves, as might both render it more complete and fit for publication as a distinct work on the subject, and at the same time entitle them to publish it on their own responsibility'" (Hall, pp. xviii-xix, citing Hetherington, History of the Westminster Assembly pp. 270, 362). Furthermore, "not only do we have confirmation from numerous sources that the 2 December 1646 Jus Divinum reflects the Assembly's original intent, we also see along with that the undisputable historical notation that the Assembly considered itself bound by a jus divnum, not merely 'guided' by a nebulous jus hamanum. The difference is cataclysmic" (Hall, p. xxii). Moreover, in The Divine Right of the Gospel Ministry these same authors later give us a glimpse of how different their jus divinum presbyterianism is from much of what "presbyterians" today believe. "So strongly were they committed to this thorough-going jus divinum view that they stated the following 'four things that justly deserve to be abhorred by all good Christians: (1) An Universal Toleration of all Religions; (2) An Universal Admittance of all men to the Lord's Supper; (3) Universal Grace, that is, that Christ died equally for all, and that all men have free-will to be saved; and (4) Universal Allowance of all that suppose themselves gifted to preach without Ordination" (Hall, p. xxi). Moreover, Hall goes so far as to state that "perhaps no single work is as illuminating for original intent [of the Westminster Standards] as this rare work printed contemporaneously with the meeting of the Assembly." This photocopy edition contains the appendix which sets forth "Extracts from some of the best authors who have written on church government, concerning the scriptural qualifications and duties of church members; the sole right of gospel ministers to preach the gospel; the people's divine right to choose their own pastors; together with an abstract of the arguments of the great Dr. Owen (though a professed Independent) in favour of the Divine right of the office of the ruling elder." These appendix items are not found in the NP edition; neither is the section "The Editor to the Reader," written by the Cameronian "T.H" (Thomas Henderson) -- an Irish Reformed Presbyterian who was also the author to the forward of James Douglas' Strictures on Occasional Hearing. Henderson recommends this volume as "one of the best defences of presbytery which he has ever seen."
Other Reformation Resources:
The Covenanted Reformation Defended Against Contemporary Schismatics: A Response and Antidote Primarily to the Neopresbyterian Malignancy and Misrepresentations, and the Manufactured "Steelite" Controversy, Found in Richard Bacon's A Defense Departed; With a Refutation of Bacon's Independency, Popery, Arminianism, Anabaptism and Various Other Heresies (Including an Exhibition of His Opposition to Scripture and the Covenanted Reformation, in General; and His Opposition to John Calvin, John Knox, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland [Especially 1638-1649], Samuel Rutherford, George Gillespie, the Testimony of the Covenanter Martyrs, the Reformed Presbytery, the Puritan Reformed Church of Edmonton and a Host of Other Prominent Reformers from Past Generations, in Particular) -- With Copious Notes on Mr. Bacon's Backsliding and His Blackening of the Blue Banner; as Well as Various Replies to Other Modern Malignants by Greg Barrow (Greg Price, Reg Barrow, Larry Birger, et al.) (Though set in the context of a debate with one individual, this book addresses a number of specific problems which plague the Presbyterian and Reformed churches of our day in general. "It conclusively and irrefutably demonstrates that those churches which today call themselves Presbyterian [and even many which claim a more general Reformed heritage] have grievously departed from the Scriptural standards and principles of the previous Spirit led Reformations [of the 16th and 17th centuries]. This will become progressively [and painfully] clear as the reader witnesses evidence upon evidence of defection from biblically based Reformation attainments (Phil. 3:16) -- and the burying and/or removing of the ancient Reformation landmarks. Ultimately, when the testimony and evidence [presented in this book] is weighed in light of Scriptural verities, it is entirely safe to say that the original Reformers would not only have sought negative ecclesiastical sanctions against our modern pseudo-Reformers, but in many cases negative civil sanctions as well," writes Reg Barrow in the "Publisher's Preface." This book, of over 300 [8.5" X 11"] pages, is also offered as a cerlox bound photocopy [$14.98 US funds] or a Hardcover photocopy [$25.00 US funds]. It is also free on most of the CDs in both the REFORMATION BOOKSHELF CD set [30 CDs, http://www.swrb.com/Puritan/reformation-bookshelf-CDs.htm ] and the PURITAN BOOKSHELF CD set [32 CDs, http://www.swrb.com/Puritan/puritan-bookshelf-CDs.htm ])
Waters Revival Books, 4710-37A Ave., Edmonton, AB, Canada T6L 3T5
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