Thornwell ‘Responds’ to Concerns About Overture 14 at the PCA General Assembly

Thornwell summarized the flaw in arguing for an analogy between civil courts and spiritual courts and provided a necessary correction to those in his time as well as our own.

Quoted below is an extract from a journal article in which Thornwell discussed the revisions proposed to the Book of Discipline.  In this section, Thornwell addressed critics of the “demand and receive” language.  Not only did Thornwell make clear that the committee added the language to bring clarity to existing principle but he also expressed dismay at the way in which the matter was being characterized. 

 

In a recent article by Scott Seaton, the author wrote of James Thornwell: “Even Thornwell noted that the language of “demand and receive” invited comparisons to the abusive methods of the Star Chamber.”

It’s probably better to note that Thornwell was surprised by the comparisons.  In order to provide historical context, it must be remembered that Charles Hodge and Thornwell were both on a committee to produce a Revised Book of Discipline and were in full agreement on this principle along with the other members of the committee.

Quoted below is an extract from a journal article in which Thornwell discussed the revisions proposed to the Book of Discipline.  In this section, Thornwell addressed critics of the “demand and receive” language.  Not only did Thornwell make clear that the committee added the language to bring clarity to existing principle but he also expressed dismay at the way in which the matter was being characterized.  Thornwell aptly summarized the flaw in arguing for an analogy between civil courts and spiritual courts and provided a necessary correction to those in his time as well as our own.

Thornwell writes:[1]

But the most important implication of the old book to which the new has given a distinct and articulate utterance, is in reference to the great principle of ecclesiastical inquest; that every church court has the inherent right to demand and receive satisfactory explanations from any of its members concerning any matter of evil report.  Nothing has surprised ns more than the manner in which this doctrine has been received.  It has been branded as ” a new principle,” ” as unjust, hazardous and extra-judicial.” ”No good,” we are told, “can result from this exacting, star-chamber mode of inquiry.”  Nothing but “mischief” is anticipated “from the revised suggestion.” It has been hitherto unknown to the Presbyterian Church; and no court of law, in a free country, has ever ventured to practice upon it.”*  Now the simple question is, what is the principle in which the right recognized in ” the revised suggestion” is grounded?  Nothing more nor less than that the church courts are the spiritual guardians of the people.  Their right to institute process and to inflict censures is founded in the same relation.  The Lord has made them overseers of the flock.  They must keep their eye upon their charge, and the very nature of their trust implies that they have all the power which is necessary to execute it.  The Christian people are, in some sort, their children, and as a father has the inherent right to interrogate his children in reference to their conduct, so a church court has the right to institute inquiries, as well as to sit in judgment upon issues actually joined. It is not an inquisitorial, vexatious, star-chamber power. It is to be exercised in the spirit of love, for the glory of God, and for the honor and good repute of the Church. Every man whose good name has suffered unjustly ought to rejoice in the exercise of it, as it gives him the opportunity of vindicating his character without subjecting him to the shame of being arraigned for crime. The guilty ought to rejoice in it, as it is a means of bringing them to a sense of their sin, and of leading their minds to repentance. We were greatly astonished to find it made an objection to this power, that it might require men to criminate themselves. If they have done wrong, this is precisely what a church court ought to try to do, and it never will succeed in doing them any good until it reduces them to this point. In spiritual jurisdiction, self-crimination is no evil. In civil courts, it may be the parent of tyranny and injustice; but a spiritual court is for edification; a civil court for justice. A spiritual court aims at producing and fostering a given state of heart; a civil court is for the protection of rights. Spiritual courts are for the religious education and culture of the people—a species of moral schoolmaster; civil courts for the safety and order of the commonwealth. Spiritual courts can censure, but not punish; civil courts punish without censuring. The spiritual court is entrusted with the keys—the symbol of the power of search and investigation; the civil court is armed with the sword. To reason from the rights of one to the rights of the other is therefore absurd. Caesar is no model for Christ.

That the principle is no new one, but imbedded in the very nature of spiritual jurisdiction, will be obvious to anyone who will reflect but a moment upon the right of a church court to cite offenders before it. Whence came that right, and for what purpose does it exist? Is it not obviously one manifestation of the common life of the Church, and one form in which the interest of each in all is signalized? What is the Church but a company of brothers, and are we not our brothers’ keepers?

But it is replied, that while this common relation is admitted, the only safe mode in which the inherent right of supervision can be exercised is by regular judicial process? That remains to be proved. Indeed a species of inquest must be resorted to before a court can be put in possession of the facts which justify process. Rumor may charge a man with crime—this rumor must be investigated. Now, is it the doctrine of our brethren, that a court may question, if it chooses, every other man in the community touching the rumor except the only man who is most deeply concerned in it? Has it no right to ask and receive his explanations? Has it no right to exact of him that he shall deal honorably and frankly with it, and that if he has done wrong he shall confess it and repent; and that if he has been injured, his brethren may be placed in a condition to vindicate his name? If this is tyranny, we only wish that there was more of it in the Church; and we shall rejoice to see the day when every session and every Presbytery shall be a star-chamber after this fashion. The notion that this inquest makes an invidious distinction between the suspected man and his brethren, when they are all, in truth, on a footing of equality, overlooks the fact that the equality has been disturbed by the existence of grounds of suspicion. The parties are no longer on the same moral level, and one design of the inquest is to rectify the change.

Whether new or old, “the revised suggestion” is found almost totidem verbis in the Form of Government. In chapter IX, of the Church Session, it is said: “The Church Session is charged with maintaining the spiritual government of the congregation; for which purpose they have power to inquire into the knowledge and Christian conduct of the members of the church.” As all our courts are radically one, they all possess inherently the same powers. What the session can do in reference to its subjects, every other court can do in reference to those immediately responsible to it. If the right of inquiry is essential to spiritual government, it must inhere wherever a spiritual government is to be maintained.

If now this power is odious and tyrannical, the framers of our constitution have been guilty of a grievous injustice to the people, and our brethren who denounce the principle chime ill with the ancient enemies of Calvin in representing his discipline at Geneva as a shocking and monstrous inquisition into the privacies of individual or domestic life. The terms in which he and his system were reproached, for maintaining the very doctrine which is said to be new, are strikingly similar to those in which the revised book has been assailed — a clear proof that genuine Presbyterianism has the same difficulties to encounter in every age.

Rich Leino is a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and is a member of Hope of Christ PCA in Stafford, Va.

[1] J.H. Thornwell, “The Revised Book of Discipline,” SPR 12:3 (Oct. 1859): 378-381.