A Response to R. Scott Clark
R. Scott Clark, prolific blogger at Heidelblog and professor at Westminster California, recently addressed a new overture from the Evangel Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) to the General Assembly (GA) of the same denomination.
The overture implores the GA to petition the federal and state governments to “renounce the sin of all medical and surgical sex change procedures in minors by the American healthcare system because they result in irreversible harm.”
To be clear, Clark considers transgenderism and all its socio-political baggage to be a moral crisis. His position cannot be equated with the lackadaisical, limp-wristed account provided by other evangelical “thought leaders.” I do not mean to disparage Clark’s character. He is not liberal or progressive in this way, though he is a civil libertarian. He is not capitulating directly on the moral challenge at hand. The disagreement explored below has to do with the relationship between church and state within the bounds of the Westminster Confession and Reformed orthodoxy, plain and simple.
Nevertheless, Clark questions, indeed objects to, the overture on the grounds that it violates Westminster Confession of Faith 31.4.
Now, Clark shows his hand. The version of the Confession that he cites is not the original 1647. He appeals to the later eighteenth-century revisions wherein 31.2 was eliminated. He makes no note of this in his post. The original Article 31 included a provision empowering the magistrate to call synods thereby severing the proper relation between the civil and ecclesial powers. Clark’s version omits that prerogative. Recall too that Dr. Clark’s own Belgic Confession underwent similar, later revisions to much the same effect.
In any case, Clark invokes 31.4—the original 31.4 would not apply—as it stands, to smack down the Evangel Presbytery’s overture. It is an example of the church, the ecclesial power, overstepping into “civil affairs,” with which it is not to “intermeddle” except in “cases extraordinary.” Or, the church may request advisory opinions, of sorts, to satisfy its conscience.
For Clark, the entire inquiry centers on the definition of “cases extraordinary,” or “highly unusual.” By his lights, the onslaught of transgenderism does not yet qualify as such a case. Currently, it is a commonwealth or civil matter over which the church exercises no jurisdiction and possesses no right of comment or appeal. To submit the overture in question, then, would constitute a violation of the Confession because the “interests of the Church are [not] immediately concerned.”
For support, Clark marshals A. A. Hodge’s commentary on the Confession, an indispensable resource to be sure. Hodge, however, is not a commentator at all proximate to the Westminster Assembly itself. It is curious that Clark does not explicitly rope in any seventeenth-century sources he summarily claims are on his side but rather settles for a nineteenth-century expositor. Of course, said expositor is working with the same later edition that Clark favors. The analysis of both Hodge and Clark is, therefore, necessarily distanced from the intentions and assumptions of the Assembly itself.
This matters because even though the late eighteenth-century American revisions to the WCF eliminate the magistrate’s synod-calling prerogative and certain other concerns for the church (e.g., Chapter 23), the article in question is not altered in the same revisions. Accordingly, interpretive fealty suggests that a true understanding of what is now 31.4 must be derived from its original context.
Both Hodge and Clark insert their own assumptions anachronistically into the text of 31.4 to make “cases extraordinary” those situations wherein “the interests of the Church are immediately concerned,” as quoted already. That is not in the text of the 1647 or the 1787/88 editions. Nor does it paint an accurate picture of the theory and practice behind the text.
The real question is not as Clark would have it, viz., the nature or scope of “cases extraordinary.” Rather the instructive inquiry is the nature or scope of “civil affairs which concern the commonwealth” with which synods or councils are not to pontificate or “intermeddle” except in extraordinary circumstances. Obviously, the extreme or extraordinary always constitutes an exception to the general rule and so evades precise definition. It is therefore inappropriate to construct a general rule around the “extraordinary” clause. Although, we could ask what the reaction of delegates to the Assembly would be if confronted with transgenderism. I would wager their heads would explode and they would pronounce our polity beyond repair if it wasn’t able to address something as dire as transgenderism.
More helpful is the explication of the typical and ordinary boundaries between the ecclesial and the civil vis-à-vis governance (i.e., church-state relations). The answer to that inquiry will more readily show whether the overture in Clark’s crosshairs has overstepped the church’s proper jurisdiction or not. Stated differently, the boundary between “civil affairs” and church affairs—or the relationship between the temporal and spiritual powers—must be explicated before “cases extraordinary” can be properly understood. In other words, the question raised by Dr. Clark is not simply a recreational exercise in textual parsing. At issue are questions more fundamental, and the overture under review is merely an occasion to flesh them out. Simply put, how deep and wide must the chasm between church and state be?
Of course, an exhaustive demonstration by Clark is not expected, and nor will we impose such a high bar on ourselves here. But unlike Clark—I recognize we are dealing with a blog post, not a peer-reviewed article in this instance; expectations will be moderated accordingly—we will appeal to sources chronologically closer to the Assembly and their intellectual-theological milieu.
George Gillespie’s CXI Propositions Concerning the Ministrie and Government of the Church (1647) is particularly relevant here. Gillespie, of course, was a Scottish delegate to the Assembly and unquestionably the most brilliant and forceful defender of Presbyterian polity over and against, inter alia, the Erastians, especially William Prynn, Thomas Coleman, and John Selden. He’s surely an authority on the questions at hand and wrote ably on them contra Baptists and other tolerationists—the crowd Clark and, to be fair, most American Presbyterians, would more readily align with today in this regard. (See Gillespie’s Wholesome Severity on this point.)
In conventional fashion, Gillespie distinguishes between civil and ecclesial government and charges the civil with keeping both tables of the Decalogue and to “preserve Religion when pure, and to restore it when decayed and corrupted.” Moreover, the magistrate is to punish atheism, blasphemy, and heresy, as well as schism within the church on a civil basis. That is, “as the violators of Justice and Civil Peace.”
What distinguishes the two powers, in part, is their source of grounding, their standard of action and authority. The civil power is grounded in the “Law of Nature itself,” and the ecclesial power is predicated on the “positive Law of Christ alone.” The civil or temporal power is primarily but not exclusively concerned with the outward man whereas the church is dedicated most directly to the soul. And yet, the magistrate possesses a duty to the “external state and condition,” or the “temporal necessities,” of the church.
The immediate ends of the two powers differ as well. The civil power is concerned with the peace of the commonwealth even as its last or final end is the glory of God. The ecclesial power, for its part, is directly concerned with the soul of man and shares the final end with its civil counterpart.
From this formula, Gillespie devised a conception of mutual subjection or coordination between church and state, between civil and ecclesial realms. The “distinct and divided exercise in authority” between the two did not sever the relationship between them. (All this is more fully explained in Aaron’s Rod Blossoming.)
Neither does any of this imply a conflation or merger of the civil and ecclesial, but, again, coordination and mutual help (and mutual accountability). If you wanted to be cheeky, you could call this political complementarianism.
Indeed, just as the civil power is concerned with the “outward things” of the inward power (i.e., spiritual power), so too the spiritual power is concerned with the “inward or spiritual part of civil Government, that is about those things which in the government of the common-wealth belong to the conscience.”
It is one thing to govern the common-wealth, and to make political and civil Laws; another thing to interpret the Word of God, and out of it to shew to the Magistrate his duty, to wit, how he ought to govern the common-wealth, and in what manner he ought to use the sword. The former is proper and peculiar to the Magistrate (neither doth the Ministry intermeddle or entangle it self into such business). But the latter is contained with the office of the Ministers.
For to that end also is the holy Scripture profitable, to shew which is the best manner of governing a common-wealth, and that the Magistrate as being God’s Minister may by this guiding Star be so directed, as that he may execute the parts of his office according to the will of God, and may perfectly be instituted to every good work; yet the Minister is not said properly to treat of civil businesses, but of the scandals which arise about them, or of the cases of conscience which occur in the Administration of the common-wealth: So also the Magistrate is not properly said to be exercised about the spiritual things of the church, but rather about those external things which adhere unto and accompany the spiritual things.
Mutual subjection according to legislative or juridical competency also entails mutual resistance—more positively, mutual accountability—in extreme circumstances, a standard which prudence must determine and execute. Or we might say, mutual correction:
If any man should again object that the Magistrate is not indeed to resist Ecclesiastical Government, yet that the abuses thereof are to be corrected and taken away by him: The answer is ready, in the worst and troublesome times, or in the decayed and troubled estate of things, when the ordinance of God in the Church, is violently turned into tyranny, to the treading down of true Religion, and to the oppressing of the Professors thereof, and when nothing almost is sound or whole, divers things are yielded to be lawful to godly Magistrates, which are not ordinarily lawful for them, that so to extraordinary diseases, extraordinary remedies may be applied. So also, the Magistrate abusing his power unto tyranny, and making havoc of all, tis lawful to resist him by some extraordinary ways and means, which are not ordinarily to be allowed.
Further, in terms of mutual accountability,
For either power ceasing from its duty, or remitting punishment, that doth not (surely it ought not) prejudice the exercise of the other power; namely, if the Magistrate cease to do his duty, or do neglect to punish with secular punishment, those malefactors which by profession are Church Members: Nevertheless, it is in the power of the Governors of the Church, by the bridle of Ecclesiastical Discipline, to curb such men; yea also, by virtue of their office they are bound to do it; and on the other part, the Magistrate may, and ought to punish in life and limb, honors or goods, notwithstanding the offenders repentance, or reconciliation with the Church… Therefore the one sword being put up in the scabbard, it is free, and often necessary to draw the other.
What Gillespie envisions is the two powers acting according to their immediate ends in concert, and also exhorting the other to do so per the same standard. If the church becomes corrupt and tyrannical, the magistrate is to reform it. Likewise, if the magistrate is derelict in his duty unto the first and second table of the Decalogue vis a vis true religion, the church is, by its prophetical power and witness, required to call him to task. Thus, there would be harmony within the commonwealth.
Returning to the overture from the Evangel Presbytery, if it is the nature and duty of the magistrate to punish evil, and evil includes blasphemy etc., then is it not simply calling the magistrate, through prophetic witness which belongs uniquely to the ecclesial power, to his proper role when the church implores the magistrate to suppress great evil? Evil such as predation upon children? Evil such as the chemical castration of minors, such as the defiance of God-given human anthropology? If the civil power is predicated on the natural order, is the overture not merely an appeal to said basis when the church decries the subversion of the natural order?
Is not the overture simply calling the civil magistrate to his proper duty within the scope of juridical competence that God has placed upon him? This is surely a moral case of the type Gillespie says the church should comment on. Transgenderism violates both the book of nature and the book of Scripture. And albeit the temporal power is primarily dependent on the revelation of the former in terms of its interpretive competency, it cannot ignore the force of the latter as propounded by the church, for God is the source of each mode of revelation and the power of government itself. The overture is no overreach, nor a “case extraordinary.” It is the exercise of mutual accountability and subjection between the civil and ecclesial power. The church is immediately or directly concerned with societal, moral collapse, surely. As Camille Paglia has pointed out, embrace of the androgynous at scale precipitates the end of a civilization.
Briefly, what of the extraordinary cases clause? What does that mean, exactly? I am not as confident as Clark that such a term of art is easily definable, for reasons already stated. But to stick with Gillespie for a moment longer, we can identify one use.
In the second digression of the eighth chapter of the third part of A Dispute Against the English-Popish Ceremonies (1637), Gillespie designates it an “extraordinary case” when “the Magistrate will not concurre not joyne with the Church,” that is, when he will not exercise his proper, ordinary power to convene synods. In the extraordinary case, the church may assemble herself “beside his knowledge,” or without his directive,” and form a council when deemed needful by the presbyteries. For “extraordinary evils must have extraordinary remedies.” Simply stated, Gillespie expected the magistrate to call or at least concur with the gathering of synods. In the exceptional case, however, the church could do so herself without civil approval.
How quaint. How depressing. From this perspective, the absence of a godly magistrate attending to synodical activity places us in a sort of perpetual extraordinary case. But that does not quite get at what Clark is discussing. Gillespie’s comments do, however, recall the range of the use of the terms in question and how far removed we are from their original intellectual home of the Constantinian order wherein not only can the magistrate call synods but also participate in them.
More importantly, Gillespie’s church-state model provides the precedent for the overture in question as a rather conventional plea by the spiritual power to the temporal power on a moral question—not pure civil policy—for the latter to fulfill its role according to the bare minimum basis of its own moral authority, viz., the light and law of nature. Basically, the Evangel Presbytery is imploring the state to be the state. Is that so odd?
*Image Credit: Unsplash