Presbyterianism and Episcopalianism (II)

In the editorial paragraphs of last month we briefly outlined the argument of Prof. J. Plomp in his inaugural address. As we saw, Prof. Plomp believes that we should accept an “element” of episcopacy in our presbyterial system. He discussed the matter under three headings: Is it permitted? Is it desirable? Is it possible? All three questions are answered in the affirmative. I must immediately add that Prof. Plomp rejects the hierarchical bishop. Such a bishop “can in no way be fitted into the presbyterial-synodical church order.” He himself is thinking of another possibility, namely, that of the “SYNODICAL BISHOP” or the “BISHOP-IN-PRESBYTERY.”

I believe that this is a rather important matter, not only because it is being raised in one of our sister-churches, but because it is one of the most burning problems in the ecumenical discussions of our day. In many countries, including Australia, episcopacy is proposed as the most suitable structure for uniting churches. When this matter is discussed in union negotiations, usually the same three arguments of Prof. Plomp are used.

Now let me state at the outset that I am not anti-episcopal, in the sense that I “get the shivers, when I hear the word “bishop.” In fact, I do not find it difficult to see the good points of an episcopal structure. Yet taking everything into consideration I must say that I am not yet convinced that this is the real solution for the problems mentioned by Prof. Plomp.

Let us first have a look at the SCRIPTURAL ASPECT of the matter. Prof. Plomp, as we have seen, does believe that there is a considerable amount of agreement between our presbyterial system and the New Testament, but he also believes that the New Testament does not altogether exclude an episcopal element.

It is remarkable, however, when one reads Prof. Plomp’s arguments for this thesis, that he never shows the presence of such an episcopal element in the New Testament. His main point is rather negative. It cannot be proved from the New Testament that the presbyterial structure is the only possible one. Prof. Plomp believes that the New Testament does not prescribe one particular structure as binding upon the church of all ages. Yet he does admit that most of the evidence points in the direction of a presbyterial system. “On the ground of many considerations which are truly biblical, the presbyterial-synodical system is preferred” (p. 13). But then he immediately. adds that such a preference does not exclude the introduction of an episcopal element into the presbyterial church order.

Personally I cannot find this kind of argument very convincing. It is based on an argument “from silence” rather than on positive scriptural evidence. To be honest, it would be rather difficult to produce the latter. Most Protestant scholars, including many episcopalians, and even some R.C. scholars are convinced that the New Testament shows a presbyterial pattern of church organization. Prof. W. Stanford Reid puts it thus: “If there is one thing that Christ and the apostles never seem to have contemplated, it is bishops. They thought in terms of the Jewish synagogue organization, much like our presbyterian structure, but bishops came in later as a result of Greek influence upon the Church.” Although the last statement of Prof. Reid might be questioned, there is in my opinion no doubt about the correctness of the first statement. The NEW TESTAMENT speaks quite often of “ELDERS” (“presbuteroi,” presbyters). This term goes back to the Old Testament, where we read of the elders of Israel and to the synagogue, which was normally governed by a council of elders, under the chairmanship of a “ruler of the synagogue.” Next to the term “presbyter” we also find the term “EPISKOPOS” (literally: overseer; bishop) in the New Testament. Most scholars, including many R.C. scholars, agree that “it appears to be virtually certain that the terms ‘bishop’ and ‘presbyter’ are synonymous in the New Testament, with the proviso that, while a bishop should be apt to teach, not all elders actually laboured in the word and doctrine” ( New Bible Dictionary, p. 158). It is further clear from the New Testament that there was a GROUP of bishops in the SINGLE congregation (Phil. 1:1) and that they governed the congregation in a CORPORATE CAPACITY. If at times a certain bishop or elder had a rather predominant position, this was never a matter of a special office, but rather of seniority and of the special gifts he had received from the Lord. We never read of the authority of one bishop or elder over the other. “But influence is a different thing from office.”

But if there is no trace in the New Testament of government by a single bishop, how then did the so-called “monarchical” (= rule by one) episcopacy arise? It may be partly a natural development: gradually one of the presbyters became the “leader,” probably the one who laboured in the word and doctrine (I Tim. 5:17) and the name “bishop” was restricted to them. This process most likely took place in the beginning of the second century. Later on in the same century the process was hastened by the need for a strong centralized church organization to deal with heresies and persecutions. But all this is a post-biblical development, which has no foundation whatever in the New Testament itself. Some scholars have pointed to the position held by Timothy and Titus, but it is noteworthy that these men are never called “bishops.” Apparently they had a special, charismatic office, which gave them a certain leadership in the congregations, but which by its very nature of being charismatic (i.e., a gift of the Spirit) was not continued in the church.

On the basis of these facts and data we cannot see how one can introduce an episcopal element into the church’s structure, without introducing something that is foreign to the basic structure as indicated in Scripture itself.

Next, Prof. Plomp points to the attitude of CALVIN and the CHURCHES OF THE REFORMATION.

As to Calvin we must admit that he never made any issue of it, for example, in his contacts with the Church of England. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that he himself organized the Church of Geneva according to the presbyterial pattern. Calvin himself believed that in his Word God has given us a pattern of church government.

This is one of the outstanding differences between Luther and Calvin. For LUTHER the ecclesiastical organization depended entirely upon time and circumstances. CALVIN deduced it from the New Testament. In the Institutes he wrote: “I do not mean to approve any other constitutions but those founded by the authority of God, and derived from the Scriptures, so that one may call them altogether divine.” This does not mean that Calvin believed to find every detail prescribed in Scripture. He added to the words just quoted: “As for the external disciplines and the ceremonies, God has not chosen to prescribe for us in particular, and as it were word for word, how we must be governed, for as much as that depended upon the diversities of the times.” Here Calvin comes very close to the position of Luther. Yet there is the difference that Calvin believed that the GENERAL PATTERN was GIVEN IN SCRIPTURE, and it cannot be denied that the ecclesiastical organization as developed by Calvin and his followers is distinguished by its fidelity to the data of Scripture.

Prof. Plomp further points to the fact that Calvin himself was virtually a kind of bishop in Geneva. He was permanent president of the meeting of ministers and vice-president of the consistory (one of the mayors, who was also an elder, was the president). All this is true, but this was a matter of Calvin’s special place in Geneva rather than a matter of principle. When in a country (as in Poland or England) there are already bishops, Calvin is not trying to disrupt the existing order in a revolutionary manner. But nowhere does he advocate the episcopal system as the scriptural one. For Calvin this is and remains the presbyterial-synodical system.

In defense of his thesis Prof. Plomp also mentions the first Reformed Church Order of SCOTLAND, the so-called “FIRST BOOK OF DISCIPLINE” (1560). This is an interesting reference, because it was also used as an argument for the introduction of “bishops-in-presbytery” by the Joint Commission on Church Union in Australia (in its second report “The Church, its nature, function and ordering,” p. 38). It is true that this First Book of Discipline speaks of superintendents who, having a congregation of their own, were also charged to visit other congregations.

The main question, however, is: What did the Scottish Church mean by this office? Was it meant as a TEMPORARY or as a PERMANENT office? The evidence seems to be clear. “The superintendents were appointed when the Reformed Church was being ‘planted.’ It was explained that ministers were few in number and that ‘if the ministers whom God has endowed with his singular graces amongst us’ were appointed to large towns, then “the greatest part of this realm should be destitule of doctrine.’ It was therefore thought a thing ‘MOST EXPEDIENT FOR THIS TIME’ that ‘twelve or ten godly and learned men’ should be given ‘charge and commandment’ to plant and erect churches and to set order and appoint ministers, ‘where none are now.’”

In addition, the Reformed Church of Scotland fully accepted the idea of the PARITY OF ALL MINISTERS, i.e., that all ministers are of equal rank and none of them has authority over his fellow-ministers. The General Assembly of 1566 accepted the SECOND HELVETIC CONFESSION, whieh stated in Chapter 24: “There has been given to all ministers of the church a like and equal power or function. Certainly, from the beginning, bishops or elders have governed the church in a service shared together; nobody has set himself before another, or has usurped for himself an ampler power or dominion among his fellow bishops.” That this was the common teaching of the Reformed Churches in Europe appears from the fact that similar statements arc found in many other confessions. Chapter 30 of the FRENCH CONFESSION (for which Calvin himself prepared the draft!) reads: “We believe that all true pastors, wherever they may be have the same authority and equal power under one head, one only sovereign and universal bishop, Jesus Christ.” Art. 31 of the BELGIC CONFESSION reads: “As for the ministers of God’s Word, they have equally the same power and authority wheresoever they are, as they are all ministers of Christ, the only universal Bishop and the only Head of the Church.” The Dutch Church Order, which afterwards became known as the CHURCH ORDER OF DORT, as early as 1581 adopted as one of its articles: “Among the ministers of the Word, equality shall be maintained with respect to the duties of their office and also in other matters as far as possible according to the judgment of the consistory, and if necessary, of the c1assis; which equality shall also be maintained in the case of the elders and the deacons.”

I do not mention these things, because I believe that Prof. Plomp docs not know them. Of course. he knows them just as well as I do, or perhaps even better. Yet he seems to give them less emphasis. According to him they do not exclude the possibility of a kind of “synodical bishop.” I wonder whether this is correct. I believe that all these quotations point in one and the same direction: NEITHER THE REFORMERS, NOR THEIR FOLLOWERS FAVOURED EPISCOPACY AS THE PERMANENT FORM OF THE CHURCH. In the fluid situation immediately after the Reformation the Reformers may have adopted a very cautious attitude and have refrained from openly attacking episcopacy where it was present (as, for example, in England and Poland), yet their own position is quite clear and the formulations in confessions and church orders accepted by them or their successors clearly show that they believed the presbyterial-synodical system to be the proper and scriptural system.

On purpose we have given so much space to the biblical and historical aspects, because we believe that our readers should be informed about these matters. Prof. Plomp’s plea for the introduction of an episcopal element into our system of church government is not an isolated case. The whole matter of episcopacy plays a tremendous part in the ECUMENICAL DISCUSSION of our day. In increasingly more union plans episcopacy is introduced as THE solution of the problem of church government. Again and again an appeal is made to the New Testament and to the Reformers, and everywhere one hears the argument that both the New Testament and the Reformers do not rule out the possibility of episcopacy. Personally I am convinced that this can only be said on the basis of a biased reading of the New Testament and the history of the Reformation. Certain subordinate aspects are overemphasized, while the main line of thought is under-emphasized. In my opinion this is not only unscientific, but it is unfair. ALL THE EVIDENCE POINTS IN ONE DIRECTION, the basic conception both in the New Testament and in the Reformed Reformation is that of a presbyterial-synodical form of church government.

Dr. Klaas Runia is Professor of Theology at the Geelong Theological Seminary, Geelong, Australia.