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THE COLLATERAL TOPICS INTRODUCED BY MR. KINGHORN CONSIDERED.
The Charge of dispensing with a Christian Ordinance considered.
AMONG the various objections to the system we wish to see universally adopted in our churches, there is none more frequently insisted upon than that of its implying a right to dispense with a command of Christ.* Though the treatise on the Terms of Communion contains a clear answer to this accusation, yet, as it is again brought forward by our author with unabated confidence, a fuller reply may be deemed requisite.
This writer supposes that the expression "dispensing power," so often used in this controversy, was first suggested by the conduct of Charles the Second, in granting indulgence to the dissenters beyond the allowance of law, a measure which was afterward adopted for similar purposes by James, his successor. It is surprising a person of Mr. Kinghorn's acknowledged learning should fall into such an error; that he should not know that the doctrine of dispensation was familiar to preceding ages, and was the subject of much subtle disquisition and of many refined distinctions among legal writers. It is impossible but that he must have read in ecclesiastical history of the power of dispensation assumed by the pope, which formed a principal branch of the papal revenue, and the exertion of which was regulated by the dictates of the most artful policy. He cannot, surely, have forgotten that the refusal to exercise this prerogative, when it was demanded in order to gratify the capricious passions of Henry the Eighth, was the immediate occasion of the Reformation in England.
The power of dispensation is the power of setting aside the law in a particular instance. It may be exerted by the legislature or by the executive branch of government, under certain regulations, and to a certain extent, previously settled and provided for by the original constitution of the state. As the operation of law is general, and the actions to which it applies are susceptible of endless modifications and varieties, some such power may be occasionally requisite to adapt it more perfectly to unexpected emergencies, and, by a deviation from the letter, to secure its spirit and design. There is one circumstance, how
Here the following question deserves our serious regard, first, "Have we any right to dispense with a clear command of Christ ?"-Baptism a Term of Communion, p. 90.
ever, which is invariably attached to the exercise of this prerogative, which shows the impropriety of making it the ground of accusation in the present controversy. It always implies a known and conscious departure from the law. He who claims a dispensing power asserts his right to deviate from the letter of legal enactments; but whoever merely misinterprets their meaning, and on that account applies them to a case which they were not designed to comprehend, or neglects to carry them into execution within their proper sphere (as his conduct is consistent with the utmost reverence for the law), is at a great remove from exerting a dispensing power. He betrays his ignorance, but usurps nothing.
When the pope granted a dispensation, enabling certain persons to marry within the prohibited degrees, he sanctioned an acknowledged violation of the ecclesiastical canons; just as Charles the First and James the Second, in their respective proclamations of indulgence to tender consciences, proceeded in direct opposition to existing statutes. But we are conscious of no such procedure; if we err, we err from ignorance. We contend that the law is in our favour, and challenge our opponents to prove the contrary; we ask what prohibition we violate by the practice of admitting good men to communion, though they are not supposed to be baptized? This writer acknowledges there is none, but attempts to supply the defect by general reasoning, which appears to us inconclusive. Such is precisely the state of the dispute; not whether we have a right to depart from the law, but whether there be any law to which our practice is opposed. We acknowledge the immersion of believers in the name of Christ is a duty of perpetual obligation; we are convinced of the same respecting the commemoration of our Saviour's passion. Both these duties we accordingly urge on the followers of Christ, by such arguments as the Scriptures supply; but when we are not so happy as to produce conviction, we admit them, without scruple, to the fellowship of the church; not because we conceive ourselves to possess a dispensing power, a pretension most foreign from our thoughts, but because we sincerely believe them entitled to it, by the tenor of the Christian covenant, and that we should be guilty of highly offending Christ by their refusal. The law which we are supposed to violate in this instance we affirm is a mere human invention, a mere fiction of the brain, entirely unsupported by the word of God, which distinctly lays down two positive institutes, baptism and the Lord's Supper, but suggests nothing from which we can conclude that they rest upon each other, rather than that the obligation of both is founded on the express injunction of the legislator. It is our opponents, we assert, who, in the total silence of Scripture, have presumed to promulgate a law, to which they claim the submission due only to the voice of God. Hence the charge of usurping a dispensing power is most preposterous, since it is incapable of being sustained for a moment, until it is demonstrated that the law is in their favour; and when this is accomplished, we pledge ourselves to relinquish our practice immediately; but till it is, to assume it as a medium of proof is a palpable petitio principii,—it is begging the question in debate.
We repeat again, what was observed in the former treatise, that this charge owes its plausibility entirely to the equivocal use of terms. As we do not insist upon baptism as a term of communion, we may be said, quoad hoc, or so far, to dispense with it; just as our opponents may be said to dispense with that particular opinion, the doctrine of election, for example, which, while they firmly adhere to it themselves, they refrain from attempting to force on the consciences of others; on which occasion, a rigid Calvinist might, with the same propriety, exclaim that they are guilty of dispensing with the truth of God.
So remote is our practice from implying the claim of superiority to law, that it is, in our view, the necessary result of obedience to that comprehensive precept, "Receive ye one another, even as Christ has received you to the glory of the Father." If the practice of toleration is admitted at all, it must have for its object some supposed deviation from truth, or failure of duty; and as there is no transgression where there is no law, and every such deviation must be opposed to a rule of action, if the forbearance exercised towards it is assuming a dispensing power, the accusation equally lies against all parties, except such as insist upon an absolute uniformity. In every instance, he who declines insisting on an absolute rectitude of opinion or practice as the term of union is liable to the same charge as is adduced against the indulgence for which we are pleading. If the precise view which each individual entertains of the rule of faith and practice is to be enforced on every member as the condition of fellowship, the duty of "forbearing with each other" is annihilated: but if something short of this is insisted on, what is wanting to come up to the perfection of the rule is, in the sense of our opponents, dispensed with. Behold, then, the dispensing power rises in all its terrors; nor will it be possible to form a conception of an act of toleration where it is not included. Such is the inevi table consequence, if the charge is attached simply to our not insisting upon what we esteem a revealed duty; but if it is sustained on the ground of the necessary dependence of one Christian rite upon another, it is plainly preposterous, since this is the very position we deny; it forms the very gist of the dispute, the proof which will at once consign it to oblivion. The objection, in this form, is nothing more than an enunciation, in other terms, of our actual practice.
In every controversy, the medium by which a disputed point is attempted to be disproved should contain something distinct from the position itself, or no progress is made. There may be a show of reasoning, but nothing more. It is also necessary that the medium of proof, or confutation, should contain some proposition, about which both parties are agreed. But what is the case here? Our opponents object that we exercise a dispensing power. How does this appear? Because, while we acknowledge baptism to be a duty, we do not invariably demand it as a preliminary to church-fellowship. Now let me ask, is this statement any thing more than a mere definition, or description, of the practice which is the subject of debate; so that if an inquiry were made, what we mean by open communion, in what other terms could the answer be couched? The intelligent reader will
instantly perceive, that the medium of proof involves neither more nor less than the proposition to be refuted. Perhaps they will reply, No; you are guilty of dispensing with the law, not merely because baptism is a duty, but because the Head of the church has made it an indispensable prerequisite to Christian fellowship. Here the medium is indeed sufficiently distinct from the proposition which it is intended to confute, but it is so far from being agreed upon between the parties, that it forms the very subject of debate. In other words, they take for granted the very position on which the controversy turns, and then convert their arbitrary assumption into an argument. Thus, in whatever light it is viewed, the odious imputation with which they attempt to load us falls to the ground; and merely shows with what facility they can dispense with the rules of logic.
Near akin to this is the charge of "sanctioning" a corruption of a Christian ordinance. But how the mere act of communion with a Christian brother, whose practice we judge to be erroneous in a certain particular, can be justly considered as conferring a sanction on his error, is not a little mysterious. If this is a fair construction, it must proceed upon the general principle that communion sanctions all the imperfections, speculative and practical, of the members whom it includes; and thus our opponents must be understood to approve all the perverse tempers and erroneous views of the individuals whom they receive into fellowship. Will they abide by this consequence? But how is it possible to escape it, if to tolerate and to sanction, to forbear and to approve, are the same thing? Will they assert that St. Paul was prepared to exclude the members of the church at Corinth, against whose irregularities he so warmly protested; or affirm, that by deelining such a step, he sanctioned the schisms and tumults, the backbitings, whisperings, and swellings, which he reproved with so much severity? The idea is too ridiculous to be entertained for a moment, but not more than the present allegation.
Were an impartial spectator to witness the celebration of the sacrament by persons of different denominations, what would he infer? That they considered each other as beings "without fault before God," with nothing in their sentiments liable to correction, or in their characters susceptible of improvement? No; the only conclusion which he could consistently draw would be, that they looked upon each other as pardoned sinners, washed in the same fountain, sanctified, though imperfectly, by the same Spirit, and fellow-travellers to the same celestial city.
We must either seek a church such as is not to be found upon earth, or be content to associate with men compassed with infirmities; prepared to exercise towards others the forbearance and indulgence which we need, and to exhibit on every occasion the humility becoming those who are conscious that in "many things we all offend."
Besides, as our author acknowledges that baptism is not to be "compared in importance with the least of Christ's moral precepts," against which men of unquestionable piety are perpetually offending, to a greater or less extent; where is the consistency of being more
taken in their whole extent, form a more important object than the single observation of the Eucharist?
Mr. Kinghorn himself deprecates the very suspicion of placing even baptism, in point of importance, on a level with the least of the moral precepts of Christ. But with respect to the whole of these, they allow themselves to depart as far from scriptural precedent, in its literal interpretation, as ourselves. In the affair of communion, they boast of adhering to "that plain rule of conduct" (to adopt my opponent's words), "so did the apostles, and therefore so do we."* But here their conformity stops; in every other branch of social religion, in whatever respects the interior of the kingdom, they claim the liberty of treating the unbaptized in precisely the same manner with members of their own denomination, wherein they pronounce their own condemnation ; for what should prevent us from retorting, "so did not the apostles, but so do ye?"
The distress and embarrassment which the consciousness of this glaring inconsistency occasioned the venerable Booth are sufficiently depicted in his Apology. The sturdy saint perfectly reels and staggers under its insupportable weight: which, to use the language of Archbishop Tillotson, is a millstone round the neck of strict communion, which will inevitably sink it into perdition; an incongruity which the most obtuse understanding perceives, and no degree of acumen can defend; and which so totally annuls the plea of original precedent, which is their sheet-anchor, as to leave it doubtful whether its advocates are most at variance with the apostles or with themselves. The venerable apologist has recourse to the same distinctions with the present writer, but with so little success, and, apparently, with so little satisfaction to himself, that if the spirit of controversy did not blunt our sensibility, we should sincerely sympathize with his distress. It is humiliating to see the manly and majestic mind of a Booth stooping to such miserable logomachies.
The advocates of the restrictive system must change their ground; they must either go forwards or backwards. They have already conceded so much to the members of other denominations, that, if they would preserve the least show of consistency, they must either concede more or withdraw what they have granted. They have most unreasonably and capriciously stopped, and fixed their encampment where no mortal before ever thought of staying for a moment. They have already made such near approaches to the great body of those whom we deem unbaptized, as places them at an unmeasurable distance from the letter of the apostolic precedent, though in perfect harmony with its spirit; while they preposterously cling to that letter, as the reason for refusing to go an inch farther. They remain immoveable (to change the figure), not because they rest on any solid basis, but because they are suspended between the love of the brethren and the remains of intolerance; just as Mahomet's tomb is said to hang between two magnets of equal powers, placed in opposite directions.
* Baptism a Term of Communion, p. 98.