The Protestant Reformation gave birth to several notable documents in the Kirk of Scotland. Among those documents, the First and Second Books of Discipline grew out of distinct stages in the development of the reformed Church of Scotland.
In 1560, the kirk sent forth its creedal testimony in the Scottish Confession, which was written by six ministers: John Knox, John Douglas, John Row, John Spottiswoode, John Willock, and John Winram. These ministers were also commissioned to draft "in a volume the policy and discipline of the kirk."
The ministers produced the (First) Book of Discipline. The Book was designed as a blueprint to transform the Scottish church and nation into a society which would be reformed in manners, as well as doctrine. Although many of its provisions were never adopted by the civil government, the First Book retained its ecclesiastical sanction for subsequent generations.
Nearly twenty years later, the nation of Scotland was decidedly Protestant, and the kirk had developed a regular system of ecclesiastical courts. Nevertheless, the kirk was engaged in an ongoing struggle with the civil authorities over the right of the church to govern itself without interference by the state.
Under the leadership of Andrew Melville, the general assembly approved the Second Book of Discipline. This Book treats the rightful relationship between church and state; and it gives a detailed statement of the presbyterian form of church government, as it blossomed in the Kirk of Scotland.
In the early decades of the 1600s, the Scottish Kirk faced a monumental struggle against prelacy. The English monarchy sought to impose Anglican rites of worship and ecclesiastical government upon the reclaiming Kirk of Scotland.
In this context, David Calderwood became an outspoken apologist for the original Scottish church order. Calderwood was banished from Scotland, and he went to Holland in 1619. While living in exile, in 1621, Calderwood authored a Preface to an edition of the First and Second Books of Discipline. Calderwood's fiery Preface provides an eloquent introduction to these notable monuments of the Scottish Reformation.
Although the Books of Discipline were written over four centuries ago, they contain many lessons relevant for our own time.
The First Book opens with a strong statement on the authority of scripture. The First Head, "Of Doctrine," underscores two important aspects of the doctrine of biblical authority: (1.) The Old Testament scriptures possess an abiding authority, for therein "Christ Jesus is no less contained in figure, than we have him now expressed in verity." Thus, the Book levels a decisive blow against antinomian hermeneutics. (2.) The regulative principle of worship is affirmed as an extension of the sola scriptura rule of Protestant theology. As an application of the biblical law of worship, the First Book condemns a variety of inventions in worship: liturgical apparel, vows of celibacy, holy days and ecclesiastical festivals, etc. These things are opposed, not merely because they contain certain superstitious observances, but strictly on the grounds that they lack biblical warrant: "because in God's scriptures they neither have commandment nor assurance, we judge them utterly to be abolished." This outlook, based upon the sufficiency of scripture, continues throughout the ensuing discussion on the sacraments.
The First Book of Discipline contains an extensive treatment of church polity. The principles of ecclesiastical government found in the First Book reflect the extraordinary state of the Scottish kirk, which was then in a formative period. This factor might be missed by modern readers; but it was a truth not overlooked by David Calderwood, in his Preface to the 1621 edition. It is necessary, noted Calderwood, "to consider the different conditions of the kirk in her infancy, in her growing, and in her ripe age, and accordingly to accommodate the discipline to practice, as the condition of the time permitted or required, and wisely to distinguish betwixt the kirk's purpose and intention in every particular, and their possibility to perform and practice, as circumstances concurred, or were contrary. "
Because of the irregular state of the church at the outset of the Reformation, the Scottish Kirk temporarily used superintendents, readers, and exhorters to supplement the regular ministry. Sometimes adjacent congregations were ruled by a joint session, composed of elders from a plurality of congregations.
Contrary to the assertions of some historians, the superintendents were not Scottish prelates. Indeed, they were specifically distinguished from the "idle bishops" that previously plagued the Scots. Superintendents were itinerant preachers whose purpose was to plant churches in rural communities. They were subject to the authority of the church courts, and they stood on a parity with other ministers in the judicatories. Superintendents were required to preach regularly in the regions placed under their care; they could not stay in one place for more than a month, until they had passed through their entire bounds. If a superintendent should be found negligent, "he must be deposed, without respect of his person or office. "
As for readers and exhorters, they served in local churches where there was no regular ministry. In many respects, they were treated as probationers for the ministry; by their service, their gifts and graces were tested.
Another prominent feature of the First Book is its visionary program for Christian education. The authors proposed an extensive system of schools as an essential component of national reformation. Modern readers may tire at the many details appointed for the universities; but we should not allow the plethora of details to diminish our appreciation for the comprehensive vision of the Scottish Reformers.
The First Book also displays a practical pastoral viewpoint. It discusses the offences which merit ecclesiastical discipline, and the manner in which church discipline should be conducted.
The Book also treats some interesting questions respecting marriage and divorce: (1.) How should the kirk intercede on behalf of a Christian couple which desires matrimony, but is unable to obtain parental consent? (2.) In the case of adultery, what are the rights of the innocent spouse, regarding divorce and remarriage?
The scope of the Second Book is more restricted than the First. When the Second Book was written, the church possessed a regular ministry and an ordinary system of church courts. Therefore, the Second Book focuses specifically upon matters of church polity applicable to an established and reformed church. As Calderwood summarizes, it "sets down more fully and particularly the jurisdiction of the kirk, as it agrees, or is distinguished from, the civil policy, the office bearers of the kirk with their duties, the assemblies of the kirk, and distinctions thereof; the patrimony of the kirk, and distribution thereof; the office of a Christian magistrate in the kirk; certain heads of reformation, with the utility of the said books, etc."
The Second Book gives considerable attention to the doctrine of the civil magistrate. In this doctrine, the Second Book foreshadows the teaching of the Westminster Confession. In itself, this fact is not startling, since both Books prefigure the Westminster Standards in many respects. Yet, the treatment of the civil magistrate is particularly important, because the doctrine is so often misunderstood, and because it has been openly repudiated by most American Presbyterians.
As always, the Scottish Reformed Kirk proclaims Christ's office as King. As head of the Kirk, the Lord Jesus has provided a divine pattern of government which should be received and obeyed by all.
The First and Second Books of Discipline exhibit the genius of Scottish
especially regarding the impact of the Scottish Reformation on the form of church government. Students of the holy scriptures and church history will find it especially profitable to study these noble documents.
Footnote for Publisher's Introduction
1. John Knox, History of the Reformation in Scotland, in Knox's Works (Edinburgh, 1895), Vol. 2, p.128.
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Copyright © 1993 by Presbyterian Heritage Publications