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The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel

John Muether

The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel, and the Idea, Structure, and Functions Thereof: a Discourse in Four Parts, by Stuart Robinson, edited with a foreword by A. Craig Troxel. Willow Grove, PA: Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2009, 229 pages, $10.00.

Among the indirect benefits of the Ministerial Training Institute of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is that its ecclesiology course occasioned the reprinting of this classic argument for Presbyterian government in an inexpensive yet attractive, cloth-bound format. The author, Stuart Robinson (1814-1881), may be unfamiliar to most Presbyterians today. But the introduction to this book, provided by MTIOPC ecclesiology instructor Craig Troxel, apprises us of the importance of Robinson's contribution. Among great southern Presbyterian ecclesiologists, notes Troxel, "Thornwell defended church power in theory, but Robinson defines it in particulars" (5).

The provocative title of this book is sure to raise eyebrows in our anti-ecclesiastical times. Robinson defends this claim admirably. Distancing himself from Rome on the one hand and rationalism on the other, he argues that the church is anterior to Scripture but not extraneous to Scripture. Robinson's starting point is the biblical and confessional witness that Jesus Christ alone is the head and king of his church. From this premise emerges his emphasis on the church as divinely ordained and not humanly devised. Presbyterians often disadvantage themselves with a pragmatic argument for Presbyterian government, often imitating Winston Churchill's famous commendation of democracy: it is the worst form of government, except for all other forms that have been tried. Robinson's "divine right" Presbyterianism sees the church as a spiritual institution with spiritual means to accomplish spiritual ends. Because it is divinely revealed, we can just as legitimately speak of a regulative principle of government as we do a regulative principle of worship.

Robinson outlines how the spirituality of the church yields two-kingdom conclusions, characteristic of the Old School Calvinism of southern Presbyterianism. After identifying the differences between ecclesiastical and civil power, Robinson concludes: They are two great powers that be, and are ordained of God to serve two distinct ends in the great scheme devised for man as fallen" (67). God's ecclesiastical ordinances, he continues, include three ordinary and permanent offices of the church, which serve in the ministry of doctrine, discipline, and distribution (69).

Robinson's appeal to the centrality of the church is even more relevant in our day than when it was first published. Much more damaging today has been the temptation either toward an anti-evangelical churchism on the one hand or anti-ecclesiastical evangelicalism on the other. Ecclesiology, Robinson insists, is required for the coherence of Reformed theology and thus to the future of the Reformed faith: "A Calvinistic theology," he warns, "seldom remains long incorrupt except as held in connection with a Presbyterian theory of the church."

Many Reformed evangelicals today would seek to reinvent the church even while zealously defending Reformed confessions. They will defend Christ's doctrine even while denying his ordinances. Robinson writes that this inconsistency will not fly: Calvinism has ecclesiastical consequences. Consider this example: many contemporary arguments on the "doctrine of grace" from a Reformed perspective make the observation that the lower is one's assessment of humanity in the state of sin and misery, the correspondingly higher is one's estimate of the sovereign grace of God. This is true enough, but Robinson's appeal to the divine character of the church ratchets that argument up another notch: the more we are convinced of our depravity, the higher also must be our view of the church. The churchlessness of modern American Protestantism (mainline or evangelical) owes to a functional Pelagianism that lodges astonishing confidence in our individual powers to overcome the power of indwelling sin and to nurture the Christian life.

Another indication of the diminution of contemporary ecclesiological sensibilities is found in Robinson's observation that about one quarter of the seminary curriculum of his day was devoted to ecclesiology. A century and a half later, one is hard pressed to find a seminary curriculum that devotes 10 percent to the doctrine of the church. A good place to begin to overcome that deficiency is for seminaries to assign Robinson's book.

Fully half of this book it taken up with two appendices. First there is a collection of primary documents in Presbyterian polity, including the First (1560) and Second (1578) Books of Discipline of the Church of Scotland and the Form of Presbyterial Church Government of the Westminster Assembly (1645). Secondly, there is a biography of the author, penned by Thomas E. Peck, which originally appeared in the Southern Presbyterian Review (1882).

John Muether
Reformed Theological Seminary
Orlando, Florida

Ordained Servant Online, March 2011.

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