HOME | contents | continental reformation ministry | its nature | preaching ministry needs no succession | Presbyterian succession | Difference: Roman-Anglican priesthood, Anglican-Presbyterian ministry | effectiveness of reformed ministry | confusion of some Anglican doctrinal teaching | difference of doctrine
[It is never easy to describe fairly a religious system to which one does
Presbyterianism is, in my opinion, more difficult to understand than any other kind of Christianity, and I am not alone in my opinion.
This chapter is an attempt to state the conclusions that I have reached after reading many Presbyterian books and after discussion with Presbyterian friends.
If I still fail to understand, I can only plead that it is not because I have not tried.]
The Continental Reformers were confronted with a clergy,
universally admitted to be corrupt,
which had for centuries dominated the laity by means of a doctrine of sacrifice
that the Reformers believed to be blasphemous.
The Lutherans accepted the existing Church organization where they could.
Where it was impossible, a temporary organization was set up;
and since they never won a complete victory,
what was intended to be temporary became permanent.
But the followers of Zwingli and Calvin rejected the existing Church and her ministry.
In the new organizations, which they set up wherever they could in place of the ancient Church, there was a new kind of ministers.
They were not priests but preachers.
They did not represent the people of God at the altar,
but God to the people in the pulpit.
Calvin established at Geneva a ministry, which was an imitation
of what he believed the ministry in the apostolic age to have been.
There were no apostles in it.
Calvin held that the apostolic office had ceased when the apostles died,
and that they had left no successors.
There were ministers, elders, and deacons:
the ministers to preach, the elders to rule with the ministers, the deacons to serve.
They did not receive their authority from the former clergy.
Calvin had been a sub deacon before the Reformation, but he never received any other ordination, nor did his successor, Beza.
John Knox had been a priest (though it seems to be unknown when, where, or by whom he had been ordained), but his habitual language about the pre-Reformation clergy shows that he did not claim his authority as a Reformed preacher from his Episcopal ordination, but from the call that was given him by the congregation when he began his career as a Reformed preacher.
Two features of the practice of the first generation of the Reformed Church show clearly that the ministry did not pretend to derive its authority from the old priesthood.
Both in Scotland and other countries the laying on of hands at ordination was temporarily abolished.
It was only a generation later, when there was no longer any fear that it would be connected with the "unreformed" rite, that laying on of hands was restored because it was Scriptural.
And bishops and priests of the old Church who joined the Reformed Church, as many did both in France and Scotland, were not accepted as ministers.
After a period of testing they were given a fresh ordination.
[The English Puritans complained bitterly that "mass priests" were accepted by the English church without ordination. See also p. 276, note.]
To have been a "mass priest" did not qualify a man for the Reformed ministry.
On the contrary.
But the Calvinists did not believe that their ministry was completely new.
It had existed, they said, ever since the apostolic age and would continue till the end of the world.
No doubt it was held to include such men as St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, John Huss, Savonarola.
But it was believed to be a ministry of preachers, not of priests,
with a succession that did not include the transmission of authority.
Ordination to this ministry is admission to an office, not to an order,
and is in no sense a sacrament.
The essence of the ordination is the Divine call internally to the candidate himself and externally through some congregation (that is why Presbyterians were so much opposed to private patronage).
The laying on of hands is the recognition by the ministers of the call that the people have given.
It does not bestow ordination but seals what has already been bestowed.
As we have seen, it is not absolutely necessary, for Calvin himself was never ordained.
It is a matter of order, not of faith.
The administration of the sacraments, Baptism and the Lord's Supper (Calvinists recognize no other sacraments), is one of the functions of the minister; but it was also regarded as a form of preaching and had to be accompanied by a sermon.
For this reason private baptism and private communion were entirely forbidden by the Reformers, even for the sick, and were only restored in Scotland with difficulty by the Assembly of Perth in 1618.
In exceptional cases a licensed probationer, not yet ordained, may perform all the functions of a minister including the administration of the sacraments.
[This was apparently the position of Reuben Butler, in Scott's Heart of Midlothian, who was none the less called a "clergyman" and treated as one.]
Calvin did not object to Episcopal government, which is found in the Reformed
Church of Hungary.
What he objected to was priesthood, the true meaning of which he misunderstood.
The Reformed Churches have their own rules for admission to the ministry,
but those rules are local, not universal.
Since the essential function of the ministry is preaching, it needs no succession;
and the word "valid" is not properly applied to it.
A sacrament that is invalid and is known to be invalid is of no use at all;
for it is the recognition of the Church,
which assures us that we really receive sacramental grace.
But a sermon cannot be invalid.
At most the preacher may lack the authority of the Church to preach,
but the sermon may be none the worse for that.
Apostolic Succession is necessary for the validity of the Eucharist and, therefore, for its effectiveness, for a sacrament known to be invalid cannot be effective.
But Apostolic Succession cannot make a bad preacher into a good one.
A preaching ministry which requires no succession fits in with the general
scheme of "Reformed"
The universal Church, as we have seen, is believed to be invisible.
Therefore it does not require a universal ministry.
Each visible society of Christians is to make its own rules for its own ministry.
It is regarded as impertinence for one society to reject the ministry of another.
Moreover, history is of secondary importance for this kind of Christianity.
What happened between the apostolic age and the Reformation matters little.
The Reformers who were held to have restored the true Gospel to the world neither had nor needed any succession derived from their predecessors.
The Calvinist has his Bible, and he has his trained minister to explain it to him.
He is a member of the invisible Church, the company of the elect.
He thinks that since he has direct access to Christ and to His Gospel,
he needs no priest.
The ministry established by Calvin is the ministry of the Presbyterians,
the Congregationalists, and the Baptists.
They differ widely from one another in order, but they recognize one another.
Ministers and lay people pass from one to another without difficulty or blame.
Their whole outlook is so different from that of the ancient Church that it is extremely difficult for one side to understand the other.
Some Presbyterians claim a PRESBYTERIAL SUCCESSION.
This claim cannot be traced farther back than about 1650 and seems to be due to controversy with the Church of England.
They assert that bishops and "presbyters" were originally one order,
that bishops gradually acquired the exclusive right to ordain,
and that at the Reformation the presbyters reasserted their original right,
and that the present ministers derive their authority from the medieval priesthood by transmission through the Reformers.
The belief that bishops and presbyters were originally one order has some
historical support, though in the fourth century Aerius, who held it, was
condemned as a heretic.
But the Presbyterian claim ignores the difference between a presbyter in the Catholic and in the Calvinist sense.
The Catholic presbyter is a priest.
His essential duties are to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice, or "say Mass",
and to give absolution.
The Calvinist presbyter is not a priest and neither performs any such duties nor claims to do so.
It cannot be shown that the first Reformers claimed any kind of transmission of authority, that the Reformed Churches on the Continent make any such claim now, or even that the British Presbyterians make it officially.
Certainly the Methodists, the Congregationalists, and the Baptists make no such claim;
but the Presbyterians do not regard their rejection of succession as any hindrance to the most complete mutual recognition, or even, as in Canada and South India, to amalgamation.
There is a superficial resemblance between the Roman attitude towards the
Anglican ministry and the Anglican (and Roman) attitude towards the Calvinist
But there is a fundamental difference.
The Anglican Communion claims that its bishops, priests, and deacons are
bishops, priests, and deacons in the sense in which the ancient Church used
those words and in the way the Roman Communion uses them today.
The Archbishop of Canterbury is a bishop in the same sense as the Pope.
Every Anglican priest is as much a priest as any Romanist priest.
It is his duty and his privilege to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice,
to give absolution, and to bless in the name of the Church;
and this claim is supported by the Prayer Book.
Presbyterian and Congregationalist ministers make no such claim.
They are not and do not claim to be priests.
Most of them reject the very idea of apostolic succession.
The word "valid" has little or no meaning for them.
They are pastors, preachers, perhaps prophets, not priests.
The point may be illustrated from secular history.
The Jacobites held that William III was not really a king (as the Roman Communion holds that Anglican priests are not really priests).
But the supporters of William III held that he was as truly a king as any of his predecessors.
George Washington did not claim to be a king any more than Presbyterians claim that their ministers are priests.
He did not believe in kingship.
The kingship of William III was invalid from the Jacobite standpoint.
But Washington had not an invalid kingship.
He was not a king but a president.
The duties of a king and of a president overlap in some respects,
but a king is not the same as a president.
It might even be possible to devise a constitution that possessed both.
Similarly the apostolic ministry
commonly known as "Holy Orders" and conveyed by a sacrament is one thing.
The preaching ministry of the Calvinists is another.
The word "presbyter" is sometimes applied to both, but they are not identical any more than a captain in the army is the same thing as a captain in the navy or is necessarily competent to command a ship.
The preaching ministry of the Calvinists is not invalid or defective.
It is from the Catholic standpoint irregular because it is not under Episcopal authority.
St. Ignatius would not allow so much as a love feast to be held apart from the bishop (Smyrn. 8).
But it is in many cases a true prophetic and pastoral ministry.
It is not HOLY ORDERS.
It does not convey the power to offer the Eucharist and to forgive sins, which can only be conveyed by the sacrament of ordination;
and the necessary minister of that sacrament is a bishop.
The difference between us is not concerned with Episcopal government,
which is of the bene esse but not necessarily of the esse [That is, it is desirable but not essential.] of the Church.
We could with some adjustment recognize the Presbyterian system of government just as it is.
It would not suit us, but it has served the Presbyterians well.
The real obstacle to unity is that the Presbyterians and the other bodies with this type of ministry do not believe in priesthood,
which we, with the ancient Church and the whole of Catholic Christendom,
believe to be necessary.
Behind this difference lies the more fundamental difference about the nature of the Universal Church and the necessity of baptism in all cases.
The reason for the confusion is that
there is in the Anglican Communion a considerable body of people
whose doctrine of the ministry is Calvinist rather than Catholic;
and the Presbyterians and others have been led to believe
that the teaching of this section is the real teaching of the Anglican Communion,
though it is contrary to the Prayer Book,
to our law and practice,
and to our official policy.
[The theory that ministers not ordained by a bishop were officially accepted by the English Church between the Reformation and the Restoration is refuted by A. J. Mason, The Church of England and Episcopacy.]
It would be unreasonable to insist on Episcopal ordination, and dishonest to tell other Catholic churches that our bishops, priests, and deacons are the same as theirs, which we have been doing for centuries, unless we believed that our ministry was a priesthood (sacerdotium) as theirs is.
It is only where the real teaching of the Anglican Communion is neglected
that schemes for union inconsistent with it are found.
There is quite as much need for Christian unity in Nyasaland, Madagascar, and Corea as there is in South India or in Persia;
but the South Indian solution is not proposed in these countries because both the Anglican and the Presbyterian missions know what the difference between them is, and therefore Presbyterians are not asked to accept Episcopal ordination without accepting the doctrine of priesthood which it implies.
The difference between the Anglican Communion and the "Reformed Churches" is
not about government but about doctrine.
This becomes quite clear when we think not of the Anglican Communion but of other Catholic Communions.
Presbyterians and Congregationalists are not offended because the Eastern and the Roman Communions refuse to recognize their ministers as priests, but they are offended when the Anglican Communion does the same.
The confusion and the offence can only be removed by clear and definite teaching in the Anglican Communion.
But the "Reformed Churches", powerful as they are in English-speaking
countries, are only a minority in Christendom.
By far the larger and more ancient part of Christendom believes that the Christian religion must be embodied in the universal visible Church with its threefold ministry, and must find its highest act of worship in the offering of the Eucharist at an altar by a priest ordained by a bishop.
No bishop, no priest;
no priest, no Eucharist;
no Eucharist, no Catholic Christianity.
We undervalue neither the ministry of the word nor the services rendered by the "Reformed Churches" when we say that a united Christendom without priest, altar, and Mass is inconceivable, and that there can be no official ministry recognized by all Christendom but that which derives its authority from the apostolic succession.
It is useless to press the "Reformed Churches" to accept Episcopal ordination until they feel the need for the Eucharistic worship that cannot exist without it.
The Reformed ministry is a true ministry,
which has abundantly shown that the Holy Spirit blesses it;
but it cannot be identified with the priesthood,
and some way must be found by which they may exist side by side,
as the priests and the prophets did under the Old Covenant.
Hitherto all schemes of union have failed because their authors have assumed that the fundamental difference to be overcome is a difference about government.
Those who wish to succeed in the work of reconciliation must recognize that the difference is doctrinal and must learn that it is not the Anglican Communion alone but the whole Catholic Church with which reconciliation must be made, and that no general scheme for Christian Unity is possible in which belief in the full sacramental system, and in the Universal Visible Church which alone has authority to administer it, is not accepted by all parties.