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1 Tim. iii. 15.- The Church of the living God, the pillar and ground
of the truth.
In entering, my beloved brethren, upon the course of lectures to which I pledged myself, under favour of Divine Providence, in my last discourse, the first subject which demands our attention is the fundamental question of the RULE OF FAITH; or, in other words, by what authority our faith must be governed; whether by the Holy Scriptures, or by the tradition of the Church. This forms the leading topic of the Roman controversy in our own day, as it did at the period of the Reformation.
Perhaps no question has ever given rise to more argument than this, or has been liable to more ingenious sophistry and mystification, on account of the various senses in which its terms have been understood, and the skill with which the ad. vocates of the Church of Rome have mingled truth and error. In order, therefore, that we may form a clear conception of the whole argument, it will be necessary, as a preliminary, to fix in our minds a distinct idea of what we mean by the Holy Scriptures and the Church.
By the Holy Scriptures, or the Bible, we understand a collection of sacred books, put forth from the days of Moses until the latter years of the apostle John, at the suggestion or command of God himself, by various holy men, whom the Spirit of God guided and superintended in such wise, that the writings thus produced were perfectly free from all error, and therefore were justly entitled to be received, not as the work of man, but as the recorded WORD of God. In this state. ment there is an universal agreement amongst all Christians ; and the only point of serious difference between the Church of Rome and ourselves, is confined to the question, whether certain books, which we esteem of doubtful inspiration, should have been included with the rest in the sacred Canon, by the Council of Trent which sat in the sixteenth century, against the authority of the ancient fathers and councils of a much earlier day.
The other term, Church, is not susceptible of being de. fined with equal simplicity. The word itself, in the original languages in which the Bible is written, signifies the assembly, or the congregation; and it is applied to the same subjects in various relations, two only of which, however, it will be necessary to set forth on the present occasion.
The first of these is the Church Catholic, or Universal, being the whole body of the professed people of God, from righteous Abel down to the last believer, who shall be alive when the trumpet of the Archangel summons the entire family of man before the judgment seat of Christ. Of this Church we read, under many dispensations; the patriarchal, the Mosaic, and the New Testament, or Christian dispensation as it is commonly called, although, in fact, these three are only the stages of its development; the successive unfoldings of the truth, manifested in the beautiful order established by the divine wisdom, while the substance of that truth was still the same. To satisfy the reflecting mind of this substantial unity, it is only necessary to remember, that the promise of Christ, and the institution of sacrifice as a type of the Lamb of God which should take away the sins of the world, were given immediately after the fall. Hence the Redeemer is called, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Abel, the son of Adam, is adduced by St. Paul as an example of faith. Enoch was translated in proof of a higher and immortal state, and prophesied, according to St. Jude, of the future judgment. Noah was a preacher of the righteousness of faith, and the ark that saved him from the waters of the deluge was a symbol of the Church of God; while Melchisedec was an emi. nent and peculiar type of the eternity, sovereignty, and priesthood of Jesus Christ, and Abraham was called the friend of God and the father of the faithful. Throughout the subse. quent, or the Mosaic dispensation, all was arranged with reference to Christ. Israel was the Church, and the prophets foretold, with increasing clearness, the calling of the Gentiles at the coming of Him who was to be the Light of the Gentiles and the glory of his people Israel. And, therefore, in strict accordance with this unity, St. Paul tells the Romans that they were grafted on the stock of Abraham, that Israel was the root, that the Gentiles were grafted upon that root instead of the natural branches, and that the time should come when those natural branches, which had been cut off by reason of unbelief, should be grafted in again, and all be one in the Redeemer. Hence the phrase Catholic Church, or Universal Church, taken in its widest latitude as comprehending the body of Christ, includes, properly, all who embraced the covenant of grace, under each successive dispensation, from the beginning of the world : and although, for ordinary purposes and in common parlance, it is usual to apply this phrase to the whole Church under the present dispensation only, since the former dispensations, having fulfilled their part, are done away, yet there are many passages of the Book of God, and many doctrines and usages of the Church, which cannot be properly understood, without a clear idea of its real and comprehensive signification.
The second application of the word Church, is to a part of the universal body, whether that part be greater or less.
A few examples of both these significations will explain the distinction clearly.
Thus, for instance, our Saviour saith, (Matt. xviii. 15–17) “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the Church ; but if he neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” Here it is evident that our Lord does not mean, that the Universal or Catholic Church was to be told of every offence which an individual might commit against his brother, for this would be equally absurd and impossible. But the word Church means the assembly or congregation to which the parties belonged; that is, a very small, but yet distinctly organized fraction of the whole.
On another occasion, however, our Lord saith, (Matt. xvi. 18) “On this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Now here we are bound to give to the word that wide scope of meaning, which comprehends the final victory of the Universal or Catholic Church over the powers of darkness.
Again, when St. Stephen, (Acts vii. 38) in his last disputation with the Jews, just before his martyrdom, saith ; “This is that Moses that was in the Church in the wilderness with the
" angel which spake to him in Mount Sinai and with our fathers,” it is manisest that he applies the word Church to ancient Israel, the Church under the Mosaic dispensation. But when St. Paul saith, (Eph. v. 25) that “Christ loved the Church, and gave himself for it,” and again, (Col. i. 18) that “ He is the head of the body, the Church,” and again, in the words of our text, when he speaks to Timothy of “the Church of the living God, which is the pillar and ground of the truth,”
we are to understand the whole Church, the Church Catholic or Universal.
From this necessary latitude in the meaning of the word Church, we should expect to find it often mentioned merely in respect to its locality. Thus we read, in the first epistle of St. Peter, (v. 13) of the Church at Babylon. St. Paul speaks of the Church of Laodicea, (Col. iv. 16) the Church at Cenchrea, (Rom. xvi. 1) the Church of God at Corinth. (1 Cor. i. 2.) Nay, he diminishes the term so far as to address himself to the Church in the house of Philemon. (Phil. 2.) In like manner, we find the Spirit of God in the Book of Revelations, addressing the Church of Ephesus, of Smyrna, of Pergamus, of Thyatira, of Sardis, of Philadelphia, of Laodicea. And it is, accordingly, the current style of the apostles to speak of Churches in the plural number. “The Churches of Christ salute you," saith St. Paul. (Rom. xvi. 16.) “So ordain I," saith he elsewhere, (1 Cor. vii. 17) “in all the Churches.” He speaks of the Churches of Asia, (1 Cor. xvi. 19) the Churches of Galatia, (1 Cor. xvi. 1) the Churches of Macedonia, (2 Cor. viii. 1) the Churches of Judea. (Gal. i. 22.) And in the same strain we road, (Rev. ii. 7) “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the Churches.” It may perhaps seem to you, my brethren, that I am taking needless trouble to prove a very simple proposition. But you will find, before the conclusion of these discourses, that the sense in which this word is to be understood, has a very important bearing, not only on the doctrine of our rule of faith, but on many other points involved in the Roman controversy.
Having thus shown the meaning of the terms employed in the statement of our rule of faith, I shall now proceed to the rule itself, as it is expressed in the Articles of the Church of England, and in those of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States.