Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Recognizing a Real Church: Historical Attempts (Part 3)

Thomas Helwys

Thomas Helwys's view was similar to that of Smythe, with one exception. Helwys stridently differed with Smythe's cozyness toward the Anabaptists. In addition to every church that Smythe rejected as invalid, Helwys also rejected the Anabaptists. So, if John Smythe and Thomas Helwys held such a stringent view, rejecting every other church of his day as a false church, where might one go to find a more lenient approach? John Bunyan seems to be the favorite citation for those advocating a looser variant of Baptist ecclesiology these days; therefore, one might think that Bunyan would be the man to consult for the alternative view.

John Bunyan

Bunyan, like virtually every quasi-Baptist and Baptist in his day, believed strongly in the existence and prevalence of false churches. In fact, one of Bunyan's last writings, entitled Of Antichrist, and His Ruin, denounced false churches and offered analysis of the things that made them false.

Thirdly, Antichrist must be destroyed, because he hath blasphemed against the Holy Ghost, and so set himself above the Father, the Son, the Spirit; against ALL that is called God. The Holy Ghost is that Spirit of truth that Christ has promised to give unto his church, to help her in the understanding of his holy word, and to enable her to believe, and walk humbly and holily before God and man. The spirit of Antichrist is that spirit of error that hath puffed up the false church into a conceit of herself, and unscriptural worship; and that hath made this false church, which is his body, to ascribe all the horrible things and acts thereof, to the wisdom, guidance, directions or operations of the Holy Ghost: As,

1. In all her unscriptural councils, assemblies and convocations, they blasphemously father what they do upon the Holy Ghost, and make him the inventor and approver thereof.

2. She also blasphemeth the Holy Ghost, in accusing and condemning the holy scriptures of insufficiency, for that she saith, though it is a rule, yet but an imperfect one; one deficient, one that is not able to make the man of God perfect in all things, without the traditions, inventions, and blasphemous helps of antichristian wisdom.

3. She hath also blasphemed the Holy Ghost, in that she hath set up her own church-government, offices, officers and discipline: None of all which is the church of Christ directed to by the wisdom of the Spirit of God in his testament.

4. She hath also sinned against the Holy Ghost, in that she hath, as it were, turned the Holy Ghost out of doors, in concluding that he, without the works of the flesh, is not sufficient to govern the hearts of worshippers, in the service and worship of God.

5. She hath also thus sinned, in that she hath wrought many lying miracles in the face of the world, and imposed them upon her disciples for the confirming of her errors and blasphemous opinions, to the confronting of the true miracles wrought by the Holy Ghost; and also to the concluding, that there was an insufficiency in those that were true, to confirm the truth, without the addition of hers; which she has wrought by the power of Satan, and the spirit of delusion, only to confirm her lies.

6. She hath sinned against the Holy Ghost, in that she hath, with Jeroboam the son of Nebat, striven against the judgments wherewith God hath punished her; to call her back from her wicked way; and persisted therein, to the effectual proving of herself to be the lewd woman. (2 Kings 13:4-7,23,24)

7. She hath sinned, by labouring to hide all her wickedness, by lies, dissimulations, and filthy equivocations of her priests, friars, Jesuits, &c. I say, her labouring to hide the wickedness that she hath committed against kings, countries, nations, kingdoms and people. She hath hid these things by the means or persons made mention of before; as by the tail; for they indeed are the tail of the beast, that cover his most filthy parts: The prophet that speaketh lies, he is the tail. (Isa 9:15)
So, what causes does Bunyan list for church invalidity (to recast his langauge into words more fitting for modern ears)?
  • According to Bunyan, the elevation of human tradition against sacred scripture invalidates a church. See items 1 & 2 in his list above. He condemns the councils that codify church tradition and the attitudes that adjudge the Bible insufficient without such human help.
  • According to Bunyan, departure from the biblical system of church polity is sufficient grounds to invalidate a church. See item 3.
  • Like Smythe, Bunyan believed that corruptions in worship could invalidate a church. See item 4.
  • Bunyan's last three points seem to stipulate what I think is a very important point. Bunyan laid the cause of church invalidity at the feet of the church's refusal to repent more than any other factor. According to Bunyan, the false church was willing to manufacture false miracles, persecute prophetic voices, and otherwise strive "against the judgments wherewith God hath punished her" in order to deny her guilt and avoid repentance.
But who are these false churches aligned with the Antichrist? It seems pretty clear that Bunyan is at least speaking of the Roman Catholics and the Church of England. It also appears that Bunyan rejected the Quakers as invalid. In one interesting passage, Bunyan may be relegating the Baptists to the status of a false church (which would put in a difficult spot those who want to claim the Bunyan was a Baptist):
You ask me next, 'How long is it since I was a Baptist?' and then add, 'It is an ill bird that bewrays his own nest."

Ans. I must tell you, avoiding your slovenly language, I know none to whom that title is so proper as to the disciples of John. And since you would know by what name I would be distinguished from others; I tell you, I would be, and hope I am, A CHRISTIAN; and choose, if God should count me worthy, to be called a Christian, a Believer, or other such name which is approved by the Holy Ghost (Acts 11:26). And as for those factious titles of Anabaptists, Independents, Presbyterians, or the like, I conclude, that they came neither from Jerusalem, nor Antioch, but rather from hell and Babylon; for they naturally tend to divisions, 'you may know them by their fruits.'
One might naturally read, especially given the last sentence, that Bunyan is merely denying the use of labels, not denying that he is in theological agreement with Baptists. Yet three things in this quote make me wonder: 1. Bunyan correlates the name "Baptist" with the "disciples of John," who were something less than Christian in the New Testament...not bad, but not quite Christian. 2. Bunyan associates denominationalism with "hell and Babylon." 3. Bunyan wraps up his critique of denominational labels by quoting "you may know them by their fruits." That statement in the Bible deals with people, not words, and goes to the question of whether the people in view are or are not Christians.

It is entirely possible that Bunyan was merely getting caught up in his own rhetoric here. I'll reserve judgment as to whether Bunyan was really a Baptist and as to whether he considered the Baptist churches of his day to be false churches. This much is certain: If Bunyan was a Baptist, it was unintentional.

Bunyan's practice of church membership was open. He pastored an Independent church. He received into that church people from a bewildering array of church backgrounds without requiring baptism. He did so, however, not because he recognized all churches to be valid. Bunyan was a thoroughgoing Calvinist, and his exclusive concern in receiving someone into church membership was whether that person claimed and appeared to be of the elect. Bunyan's preferred label for this class of people was "visible saints." According to Bunyan, all visible saints were elegible for church membership. But also according to Bunyan, many of those visible saints were fleeing false churches in search of a true church.

To practice a little anachronism, Bunyan and J. M. Pendleton, had they been contemporaries, might largely agree as to which churches are true and which are false (although Bunyan would have been more charitable toward some pedobaptists). Their major difference would have centered around the implications of church invalidity. For Pendleton, the invalidity of the church would necessarily imply the invalidity of everything the church tried to do in the name of Christ. For Bunyan, the validity of Christian acts had more to do with whether the recipient was elect than with the status of the performing church.

Roger Williams

In a manner totally uncharacteristic of myself, allow me to be brief. Roger Williams was just as strict in his idea of church invalidity as was Smythe or Helwys.

Next time....the Baptists of the Great Awakenings.
Next time after that....the Landmark Baptists.
Next time after that....Southern Baptists in the Twentieth Century.
Next time after that....Bart Barber

No comments: