“But who doesn’t love learning about church polity (government)?” asks the Presbyterian minister. The answer: Everyone. Well tough cookies. Joking aside, this does highlight the inner-workings of denominations that are barely known. How does a minister become a minister? How do you get the 375,000+ members along with 4,000+ ministers to work together (my denomination’s stats)?
The excitement of Presbyterian church history
So chapter one is probably the most difficult as Ferguson gets into a bit of church history. But it also addresses one of the most common questions I get: “What is the difference between Baptists and Presbyterians?” and the like. First, we should make clear that we are brothers and sisters in Christ. That said, one of the key differences is the form of government.
There are three basic forms of church government:
1) Episcopal (Hierarchical): There is an established hierarchy of various offices which provide authoritative oversight to the church.
Examples: Catholic, Anglican, Episcopal, Methodist
2) Congregationalist (Independent): The local church functions independently of other churches. If they do gather together it is only in an association which is not an authoritative body.
Examples: Baptist churches, independent churches, Non-Denominational churches.
3) Presbyterian (Representative): The church is ruled by elders with local congregations gathered together into geographic districts called presbyteries. The best form of church government (wink)!
Examples: Presbyterian Church in America, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Associate Reformed Presbyterian
This is not the place to advocate for being Presbyterian. It is helpful so you can track with what Ferguson is talking about. He writes how the Presbyterian church is led by teaching elders (ministers) and ruling elders (lay elders). A minister would be selected by a church to be the pastor, but then must be approved at the gathering of the presbytery which occurs several times a year. That is when teaching and ruling elders representing the churches of that region get together. One of their jobs is to vet new and incoming ministers to make sure they are fit to serve their congregation. This is the setting for the “Marrow Controversy.”
Fighting about a book?
How did a bunch of guys get fighting about a book found in some dude’s cabin? Well, the old adage “ideas have consequences” remains true. Providentially, this book touched upon a tension (problem) in the denomination.
Here is what happened: a candidate for the ministry named William Craig was being examined at a presbytery meeting in 1717. One of the elders asked him a question. As Ferguson says, certain questions can become litmus tests for the group or for that individual. Sometimes they are helpful, sometimes they are just someone’s pet peeve they want to address. Craig was asked if he agreed with the following statement: “I believe it is not sound and orthodox that we forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ, and instating us in covenant with God.”
This came to be known as the Auchterarder Creed named after the presbytery. So what’s the big deal? We will get into that below. For now we need to understand that the debates of presbytery over this creed were only symptoms of a problem that lay within.
Present at the meeting was Thomas Boston, a seasoned minister, who 17 years earlier had discovered a book while visiting a member of his church. This book was called The Marrow of Modern Divinity. Boston had been deeply affected by this book and told another minister about it at the meeting. That minister got a copy and told another who got the book reprinted within the same year. Within the 3 years the book had spread and began to influence ministers and the denomination passed an act prohibiting ministers from having anything to do with the book publicly.
What is this book? Ferguson recounts the books contents:
The book itself is a series of dialogues. The participants at various points are: Neophytus, a young Christian who is troubled about the basic elements of gospel truth; Evangelista, the pastor who counsels him; and two others, Nomista, a legalist; and Antinomista, an antinomian. Part 1 deals with theological issues in the relationship between law and gospel. Part 2 contains an exposition of the Ten Commandments.Page 33.
Wait, wait wait…are we reading a book that talks about the impact of a book on a Presbyterian denomination? That is the very definition of boring. Well, that ain’t wrong! It is misguided though. What we have here is the historical setting of an important issue which countless Christians and churches have wrestled with. It is helpful and humbling to look back and see how men fought over these issues. This isn’t the color of the carpet or which kind of music to use in service. The Marrow of Modern Divinity is a GOOD book. It is a correct book. In God’s providence he used this book to bring about gospel renewal in a denomination that had begun to lose its way.
The Real Issue: The Gospel
Let’s begins by defining a few terms. Most people know what legalists are. They are those who believe that explicitly or implicitly that they are accepted by God due at least in part to their obedience to God’s law. Anti-nomians are lesser known. They are essentially the exact opposite. They believe that because of grace we are free from any obligations or commands in scripture (though this is more implied rather than explicitly stated).
Boston’s fear was that a subtle form of legalism had come into the Presbyterian church. In fear of anti-nomianism many had come to a position of “moderation” that was quietly corrupting the nature of grace and how the gospel was preached (35).
The heart of the controversy is our understanding of the gospel itself. Are there preconditions to grace? Can we offer the gospel to all? Must we forsake sin prior to coming to faith in Jesus? What is the gospel apart from legalism and anti-nomianism? That is what this book is about.
One of the reasons I love this book is that it testifies to the struggles of Christians throughout time to get the gospel right. The times of the past are not to be whitewashed or forgotten. They are to be learned from as much as we can.
The issues here are still relevant today. We have different versions of these debates in all types of churches. What is the gospel? How do I stay in grace? Does God still love me? What about the commands in scripture? Where does repentance fit in? Am I a legalist or a pharisee? Am I a lawless Christian? How can I tell?
So many Christians struggle with these questions. These are questions about the nature of the gospel and grace. They are questions of assurance and eternal security. They are questions wrestling with doubt and faith. They are struggles with our failures. Are we the first to deal with these? No and I am grateful to those who fought for the sake of the gospel from the Apostles to the present day.
But what about all this fighting? In an age of outrage we might roll our eyes to hear about a group of Christians fighting about doctrine. But that is how we got to our understanding of all the basic truths of scripture. We got the creeds of the first 500 years as Christians searched the scriptures to understand what was revealed there about God, the Trinity, Jesus, the gospel, and the church. And while we certainly want to avoid unnecessary conflict, we had need to be grateful for those who came before who fought for things that do matter. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Let us not dismiss, but learn from them.
As I said at the beginning this chapter is one of the hardest for non-Presbyterians to get into. Take heart dear reader! Climb over this wall and join me for the next chapter that gets into the grace of the gospel and the challenges we face in our understanding of it.
So what do you think? Can we learn from those who came before us? How should we go about doing that? How do we avoid falling into “the good old days” or acting as if they never happened? You can contact me here. Thanks for reading!