Friday, April 27, 2007

Was Matthew Henry a Presbyterian?



As I read Daniel’s recent post on 1 Timothy 5:17 with much positive interest, it becomes apparent to me that more and more Reformed Christians today are willing - and out of their own free will - to adhere to the principle of Sola Scriptura. I profess that I am Reformed according to the definition of the Five Solas and the Canons of Dordt. I adhere to a Reformed hermeneutics of the analogy of faith and the principle of progressive revelation. I believe in comparing Scripture with Scripture, and the general good sense of not deriving a major doctrine out of a single verse of Scripture. Whenever a single verse of Scripture seems obscure for whatsoever reason, it is a Reformed principle to refer to the clearer verses within the Bible. I believe in the Regulative Principle of Worship, and head-coverings for ladies during worship. I believe in complementary roles for men and women within the Church and the home. I believe that the Bible is inspired, inerrant and infallible, and that Scripture can never err on science, geography or archaeology. I believe in the rule of the church with a plurality of elders, and the ministry to the saints by the diaconate. Therefore, I believe I am a conservative, Reformed, evangelical Christian.

Nevertheless, I am beginning to reconsider the matter of Reformed church government with much urgency. Church history has shown that there had always been doubts with regard to the veracity of the “office” of “ruling elder” within Scripture. From the perspective of the Church of Scotland, Professor Torrance argued that the office of “ruling elder” was in fact performing the duties of the New Testament deacon. This is especially true if “ruling elders” were not allowed to teach or preach authoritatively in any capacity. Prof Torrance wrote,

“It was inevitable that in Scotland, as in the U.S.A., the theory of 'the ruling elder' would prove troublesome and indeed that the whole concept of the eldership should be reopened. That is what happened in the nineteenth century after the publication in 1831 of the book by Samuel Miller of Princeton on The Ruling Elder. The case for the theory that ministers and elders were both 'presbyters', differing only in respect of their particular functions, was now subjected to a thorough examination, if only because it was held to have associations with 'Brownist' or 'Congregationalist' notions of the Church and Ministry. In the U.S.A. this theory of the eldership was demolished by Smyth of Charlston [sic] and Hodge of Princeton with immense learning, but the same thing was done much more lucidly and succinctly by Peter Colin Campbell of Aberdeen, to name only one of those who entered the debate.

Clearly the biblical grounds for the conception of elders in the Reformed Church had to be examined more thoroughly than before. As a result Reformed scholars found themselves forced more and more to the conclusion that there is no clear evidence in the New Testament for what we call 'elders', let alone the theory that there are two kinds of presbyter. The biblical passages to which appeal is made, when objectively considered, cannot be taken to bear the interpretation Presbyterians put upon them. Moreover, they were never understood in this sense by any of the Church Fathers, not even by Pseudo-Ambrose who did not make use of 1Tim. 5.17 in the way that was sometimes alleged. It is also the case that outside Presbyterian Churches, there is no Church that interprets the New Testament passages adduced by them in this way. Hence Presbyterians are isolated from the rest of Christendom past and present in claiming that these biblical texts provide evidence for 'elders' in their sense. The conclusion seems inescapable: Presbyterians adduced this 'biblical evidence' in order to have some authoritative justification for an eldership they found, not within the New Testament itself; but within certain sections of the The 4th/5th century North African Church. And yet even there, as we have noted, there is no evidence that these 'elders' were ever called 'presbyters'.

Even if the Church were to follow Calvin and the Westminster Divines (different as they were) in their approach to the eldership, it would still not be possible for it to do more than get biblical evidence for some office similar to that of the Old Testament 'elders of the people' who served in communities of Israel in a civil capacity and thereby shared with the religious leaders responsibility for governing the public life of the people of God. Calvin himself; however, never advanced biblical evidence for what we call 'elders', but only, and then very tentatively, for what he called 'elders'. He was definitely not a Presbyterian! In Scotland, with the Melvillean revolution, the Church embarked upon a course in which it was to substitute elders, set apart for life, in place of Calvin's deacons, transferring to them the functions ascribed to deacons in the New Testament, and detailed by Calvin in his description of their office in the Early Church, while restricting the functions of deacons in the Church of Scotland mainly to the gathering and distributing of the alms of the congregation in its social care of the needy. Perhaps we may put a better gloss on this departure from Calvin's model by claiming that actually our 'elders' are the nearest thing in any Church today to what the Pastoral Epistles speak of as 'deacons'.[11] However, the fact that our elders are called 'elders' and not 'deacons' means that they cannot draw support from what the New Testament has to say about deacons, and are thus unable to find in the New Testament any description of their specific office as elders. Consequently they can only turn to Presbyterian tradition rather than to Holy Scripture for any guidance in the fulfilment of their duties.”


He continues,

“The kind of ministry exercised by [ruling] elders in the Reformed Church does not seem to be inconsistent with the outlook we find in the New Testament, but there is no explicit evidence for the eldership as such. On the other hand, the nature of the office [ruling] elders hold and the kind of functions they perform bear a close resemblance to the office and functions of the deacon described in the Pastoral Epistles and Early Church documents.[18] There we learn that deacons fulfilled an important assistant ministry in the Church in association with bishops and presbyters, and had particularly to do with ministry of the divine mercy and with seeking the fruit of it in the life and mission of the community, and that they assisted Presbyters or Bishops in serving communicants at the Lord's Supper. Thus it would seem to be the case that our elders now fulfil a ministry which in the New Testament itself is ascribed to deacons. In other words, the best, and indeed the only, biblical evidence for the ministry fulfilled by our elders is found in New Testament teaching about deacons, supplemented by what we learn from Early Church documents.”


He concludes his study as such:

“The [ruling] eldership in the Reformed Church, like the diaconate in the Early Church, is essentially a sacramental office closely associated with the celebration and administration of the Lord's Supper or Eucharist. … That is to say, while elder-deacons are not to be regarded as included within the order of those ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, nevertheless they are to be regarded among those who have been solemnly set apart and sanctified for holy office within the corporate priesthood of the Church.”


Professor Iain Murray, a Reformed Minister, likewise questions the 2.5 office view in his treatise on “The Problem of the Eldership and its Wider Implications,”

“In the case of the first, the view which says that the one office of the eldership is made up of two distinct groups of men, its most serious weakness lies in its ability to offer only one proof-text to support a division in function. The text is 1 Timothy 5:17, 'Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine'. The NIV translation of that verse reads: 'The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.'

According to the NIV the meaning is plain. All elders 'direct the affairs of the church', or rule, but of that number it is only some 'whose work is preaching'. But the original is by no means so clear and the NIV translators are doing here what they appear to do too often, namely, interpret rather than translate. The words 'whose work' does not accord with the original. Other versions stay close to the KJV's 'especially they who labour in the word and doctrine'. On the latter wording, which stays closer to the original, the meaning can well be, 'All elders who do well as leaders are worthy of double honour, especially those who are painstaking in preaching, who "toil" (kopiao) unweariedly "in the word and in teaching".' On this understanding, the difference is not between elders who only rule and others who preach, it simply urges special commendation and support for those who are outstanding in their efforts in the preacher's calling. The text gives no leave to some elders not to preach at all.

The fact is that there is no unanimity among the exegetes on 1 Timothy 5:17 and it has to be hazardous to use it as a proof-text for divided functions in the absence of supporting evidence.”


Although I can co-labor with brethren who adhere to the 2.5 office view (i.e. with teaching and ruling elders within the church), this is not the matter of concern in this post. All I am asking is this: Are we following the commands of Scripture, or are we following some prescribed ecclesiastical order out of piety to learned men before us? I confess that I adhere to the novel "pi minus 1" office view (i.e. the 2.14159 office view). It must also be emphasized that this is distinct from the Brethren’s 2 office view, which prefers an absolute distribution of responsibilities - both teaching and ruling - between elders.

I am glad that I am not alone. Thomas Witherow, who once held to the classic Presbyterian view of church offices, seems to defend the "pi minus 1" office view in his later life, which was not the most popular of views amongst Reformers.

Although Matthew Henry was a minister of a Presbyterian congregation at Chester - removing in 1712 to Mare Street, Hackney - I am wondering if he was a Presbyterian at heart. At the very least, his commentary on 1 Timothy 5:17 does not advocate classic Presbyterianism. He wrote,

“I. Concerning the supporting of ministers. Care must be taken that they be honourably maintained (v. 17): Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour (that is, of double maintenance, double to what they have had, or to what others have), especially those who labour in the word and doctrine, those who are more laborious than others. Observe, The presbytery ruled, and the same that ruled were those who laboured in the word and doctrine: they had not one to preach to them and another to rule them, but the work was done by one and the same person. Some have imagined that by the elders that rule well the apostle means lay-elders, who were employed in ruling but not in teaching, who were concerned in church-government, but did not meddle with the administration of the word and sacraments; and I confess this is the plainest text of scripture that can be found to countenance such an opinion. But it seem a little strange that mere ruling elders should be accounted worthy of double honour, when the apostle preferred preaching to baptizing, and much more would he prefer it to ruling the church; and it is more strange that the apostle should take no notice of them when he treats of church-officers; but, as it is hinted before, they had not, in the primitive church, one to preach to them and another to rule them, but ruling and teaching were performed by the same persons, only some might labour more in the word and doctrine than others. Here we have, 1. The work of ministers; it consists principally in two things: ruling well and labouring in the word and doctrine. This was the main business of elders or presbyters in the days of the apostles. 2. The honour due to those who were not idle, but laborious in this work; they were worthy of double honour, esteem, and maintenance (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible : Complete and Unabridged in One Volume).”


Just some food for thought, my Reformed brethren!

2 comments:

Jenson said...

I was under the impression (as with another friend of mine) that Matthew Henry was a Congregationalist. But we may be wrong. Whatever... he was a Christian.

Zane Anderson said...

Hi Vincent, I returned again hoping to find many replies concerning the important matter. This is one issue that led me into the house church movement.

I would just add that Matthew Henry did not live to complete several of his NT commentaries. They were finished by others. What 'finished' exactly means, I do not know. 1 Tim. is in that category.

Keep up the drumbeat!

Zane, House Church Network