Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Church, development and apostasy—A Reformed View.

In my last thread I presented Darby’s theory on apostasy, development and the church. In this thread, I shall do the same for the Reformed theologian William Cunningham. Though Cunningham’s position is quite close to that of Darby’s, there are some important and subtle differences. I see no need to point out the differences myself, for they are quite evident via Cunningham’s own pen. The following quotes are from Cunningham’s Historical Theology, The Banner of Truth 1979 reprint [all bold emphasis will be mine].

Romanists say the church is indefectible, or will never cease to exist. Protestants admit this; and hence Bellarmine says, “notandum est multos ex nostris tempus terere, dum probant absolute Ecclesiam non posse deficere: nam Calvinus, et caiteri hæretici id concedunt: sed dicunt, intelligi debere de Ecclesia invisibili.” It is true Bellarmine says, Calvin and other heretics concede this, but say that it is to be understood of the invisible church ; i.e., they contend that the only sense in which the indefectibility of the church can be proved from Scripture is this, that from the time when Christ ascended to the right hand of His Father, there have always been, and until He come again there will always be, upon earth, some persons who have been chosen to salvation, and who, during their earthly career, are prepared for it. More than this may have, in point of fact, been realized in providence, with respect to the standing and manifestation of the church on earth in every age ; but Protestants contend that nothing more than this can be proved to be implied in the statements and promises of Scripture upon this subject, i.e., that for aught that can be proved, all the statements of Scripture may be true, and all its predictions and promises may have been fulfilled, though nothing more than this had been realized.

The Romanists go on to assert that this indefectible church is visible, and, while it exists, must possess visibility. Protestants while conceding the existence of visible churches, not composed exclusively of elect or believing persons, and of “a catholic visible church, consisting of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children,” deny that there is anything in Scripture which guarantees the constant existence at all times, or in any one particular country, of an organized ecclesiastical society standing out visibly and palpably to the eyes of men as the true church of Christ ; and, on the contrary, they think that there are pretty plain intimations in Scripture, that in some periods the true church under the New Testament, as happened with the church under the law when there were still, though the prophet could not discern them, seven thousand men in secret, who had not bowed the knee to the image of Baal might be reduced so low as not to possess anything that could with propriety be called visibility
. (William Cunningham, Historical Theology, 1.17.)

These observations serve to explain the meaning and application, and the scriptural ground of the doctrine of our Confession of Faith [Cunningham is referring to the Westminster Confession of Faith] upon this subject, as expressed in the following words: “This catholic Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less, visible ; and particular Churches which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some of them have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to His will.” (1.18)

The corruption into which the visible church after the apostolic age so speedily and so extensively fell, and the desire to defend or to palliate all this, soon introduced very lax and erroneous views concerning the nature and objects of the church in general, concerning its constituent elements and qualities, and the standard by which it ought to be judged. (1.26.)

Protestants believe, as a matter of unquestionable historical certainty, that at a very early period error and corruption i.e., deviations from the scriptural standard in matters of doctrine, government, worship, and discipline manifested themselves in the visible church gradually, but rapidly; that this corruption deepened and increased, till it issued at length in a grand apostasy—in a widely extended and well-digested system of heresy, idolatry, and tyranny, which involved in gross darkness nearly the whole of the visible church for almost a thousand years, until it was to some extent dispelled by the light of the Reformation. (1.34.)

The Bible, and the Bible alone, is the religion of Protestants; and when the divine origin and authority of the Bible are conceded or proved, Protestants are quite able to deduce from it all the doctrines which they maintain, and to establish them in such a way that no assault from any other quarter, such as the testimony of history, could competently be brought to bear upon them. (1.39.)

There is, indeed, something dark and mysterious in the survey of the history of the church of Christ, in its so soon losing its purity, and falling into error and corruption ; and in this error and corruption gaining such an ascendency, and virtually overspreading the visible church for nearly a thousand years. (1.41.)

Though not quite as bleak as Darby’s position, (I suspect Cunningham wishes to stave off his “grand apostasy” until after the Council of Chalcedon to protect the development of the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology), Cunningham’s theory still presents quite a dark picture for the Church that our Lord instituted. Viewed from a Calvinistic position, one would have to say that God “regenerated” very few individuals for well over 1,000 years; and the Holy Spirit’s promise to lead the Church into all truth had to wait until the 16th for its fruition.

Grace and peace,



Christopher Smith said...

Hi David,

I suspect that Cunningham, as a 19th-century theologian writing in the polemical eschatological tradition of Luther and Calvin, was much more apt to see in the Middle Ages a "grand apostasy" than most Reformed theologians today would be. That is to say, his view of the medieval church may be bleak, but I do not think it is inseparable from his view of development. His view of development requires simply this: that the institutional Roman church not be coterminous with the church of Christ, and that the canon of scripture be provable by other means than appeal to the church's authority..

David Waltz said...

Hi Chris,

You wrote:

>>I suspect that Cunningham, as a 19th-century theologian writing in the polemical eschatological tradition of Luther and Calvin, was much more apt to see in the Middle Ages a "grand apostasy" than most Reformed theologians today would be.>>

Me: Agreed; but I would quickly add that most theologians of today who claim to be “Reformed” should probably be labeled “Diet-Coke Reformed”/psuedo-Reformed [GRIN].

Grace and peace,