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Can Individual Believers Question the Creeds?

Do Preterists have the right to judge Futurist creeds by the Scriptures
and to leave churches which are dogmatically Futurist?

All should agree that the creeds are not infallible. Some errors in the creeds are seen in this discussion of Ken Gentry's article on preterism

The following quotes are taken from Appendix G of The Covenanted Reformation Defended by Reg Barrow. No assumption should be made as to Barrow's views on prophecy. The reader is encouraged to peruse his fascinating web site. Barrow's arguments and historical quotations are valuable in the current controversy over whether believers have a right to question creeds which erroneously teach that Matthew 24 (and other passages) have yet to be fulfilled.

George Gillespie comments:

The subordinate judgment, which I call private, is the judgment of discretion whereby every Christian, for the certain information of his own mind, and the satisfaction of his own conscience, may and ought to try and examine, as well the decrees of councils as the doctrine of particular pastors, and in so far to receive and believe the same, as he understands them to agree with the Scriptures (George Gillespie, A Dispute Against The English Popish Ceremonies, pp. 364­365, emphases added).

The prelates did not allow men to examine, by the judgment of Christians and private discretion, their decrees and canons, so as to search the Scriptures and look at the warrants, but would needs have men think it enough to know the things to be commanded by them that are in places of power. Presbyterial government doth not lord it over men's consciences, but admitteth (yea commendeth) the searching of the Scriptures, whether these things that it holds forth be not so, and doth not press men's consciences with sic volo, sic jubeo, but desireth they may do in faith what they do (George Gillespie, Aaron's Rod Blossoming, 1646, reprinted by Sprinkle Publications, 1985, pp. 83, 84, emphases added).

Francis Turretin:

Rather we hold only that private believers gifted with the Holy Spirit are bound to examine according to the Word of God, whatever is proposed for their belief or practice by the rulers of the church; as much as by individuals separately as by many congregated in a synod. Also they are to believe that by the guidance of the Spirit, by pious prayers and diligent study of the Scriptures, they can better find out the meaning of Scripture in things necessary to salvation than whole synods receding from the Word of God and than a society which claims for itself (but falsely) the name of the true church. Therefore, the examination which they are bound to make is not made for the purpose of correcting the meaning of the true church and of finding out a better (as if they were wiser), but to investigate and follow it. Nor is the right of examination founded in this ­ that we ought to believe ourselves wiser and more sagacious than entire synods and the whole true church; but in this ­ that since the privilege of infallibility has been granted by God to no church or pastor, nor are we certain whether they who compose ecclesiastical assemblies are members of the true church and faithful servants of God, who are partakers of the Holy Spirit and follow his guidance; nay, it can happen (and it has too often happened) that such assemblies have erred in their decisions. Hence no other means is left for the believer to know the legitimate authority of these assemblies and the decisions made by them with the certainty of faith, than a comparison and examination of them with the Word of God, which he not only permits as possible and lawful, but commands a just and necessary. That cannot, therefore, be considered rashness or pride which belongs to the execution of an indispensable office imposed upon all believers. Nor under the pretext of avoiding pride ought believers to blind themselves and to divest themselves of their right in order that their consciences by a blind obedience may be reduced to bondage (Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1696, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1997, p. 84, emphases added).

Notice the language of Turretin. We are to believe that individual believers, "can better find out the meaning of Scripture in things necessary to salvation than whole synods receding from the Word of God and than a society which claims for itself (but falsely) the name of the true church... Hence no other means is left for the believer to know the legitimate authority of these assemblies and the decisions made by them with the certainty of faith, than a comparison and examination of them with the Word of God." It must not be considered, "rashness or pride which belongs to the execution of an indispensable office." Undeniably, Turretin is arguing that Protestants MUST APPEAL to a conscience that is submitted to the Scripture and enlightened by the Holy Spirit. The last and highest court of the church is ultimately based upon the Spirit of God speaking through the Word of God, and not the opinions of corrupt assemblies. Truth is ultimate and that should never be forgotten.

Again, Turretin comments:

The obedience which he [i.e. Christ ­ GB] wishes to be rendered to teachers must always be understood with the condition ­ in as far as the teachers do not prescribe to us another thing than what Christ gave to us in his commands (which they do not do, who arrogate to themselves the right of making new laws) (Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1696, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1997, Vol. 3, p. 288, emphases added).

Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the Word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation. (Hebrews 13:7, AV).

For although no one denies that we ought to hold in great esteem the pastors and faithful ministers of God who watch for our souls and that we ought to obey them according to the direction of Paul (Heb.13:17); still it is certain that that obedience and dependency is not absolute and unlimited (which belongs to God and Christ alone), but circumscribed within certain limits (i.e., as far as it promotes the glory of God and our safety and as far as it can consist with the fidelity and obedience due to Christ) (Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1696, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1997, Vol. 3, p. 244, emphases added).

From Heb.13:17, nothing else can be gathered than that obedience is due to teachers, as long as they hear Christ themselves and speak the words of God. Otherwise if they lead us away from Christ, they ought to be anathema to us (Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1696, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1997, Vol. 3, p. 289, emphases added).

The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1:10).

But in affairs of conscience which have reference to faith, piety and the worship of God, no one can usurp dominion over the conscience; nor are we bound to obey anyone, because otherwise we would be bound to error and impiety and thus we would incur eternal punishment and our consciences would be stained with vices without criminality because we would be bound to obey superiors absolutely (Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1696, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1997, Vol. 3, p. 287, emphases added).

George Gillespie also responds:

Howbeit, even in such cases, when the consent of the church cannot be had to the execution of this discipline [i.e. excommunication ­ GB], faithful pastors and professors [i.e. professing Christians ­ GB] must, every one for his own part, take heed that he have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but even reprove them. Yea, they ought, in sensu negativo [in a negative sense], excommunicate those who should be (but are not) excommunicated positively, which negative excommunication is not an ecclesiastical censure, but either a bare punishment, or a cautel [caution ­ GB] and animadversion [warning ­ GB]. And so says the Archbishop of Spalato, not only one brother may refuse to communicate with another, but a people, also, may refuse to communicate with their pastor, which he confirms by certain examples. But the public censure of positive excommunication should not be inflicted without the church's consent, for the reasons foresaid (George Gillespie, A Dispute Against The English Popish Ceremonies, p. 382, emphases added).

If Futurists will not allow private individuals to search the Scripture and ultimately appeal to their own judgment of discretion, to whom does he turn to as a final court of appeal?

Mr. Bacon says,

But it is neither the duty nor the right of private Christians to make determinations of who is ignorant or scandalous. Christ has left this authority in His church ­ in the hands of church officers (The Visible Church and the Outer Darkness, p. 11).

Alas, is this not the teaching of Rome? Individuals do not have the duty nor the right to use the judgment of discretion? What did Turretin just say? What did Gillespie just say? While it is true that Christ has left a judicial authority in his church which is to be used by faithful and qualified officers (for edification, not destruction, 2 Cor. 10:8), that does not alter the fact that the people of God must use their private judgment of discretion to scripturally determine whether or not those officers are faithful or qualified. While private individuals have no ordinary power to authoritatively judge or determine matters of faith on behalf of the church, they are duty bound to examine whether the determinations and decisions of church courts are agreeable with Scripture. Even the Apostles themselves came under such scrutiny.

And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so (Acts 17:10­11, AV).

For Mr. Bacon to assert that, "it is neither the duty nor the right of private Christians to make determinations of who is ignorant or scandalous," is to leave that duty to the ministry alone. If the private Christian does not have the "right" to make such a determination, what is to be done when the greater part of the ministry is corrupt or when their determinations do not agree with the Word of God? Are private Christians to ignore the truth because, according to Mr. Bacon, they don't have the "right" to judge who is ignorant or scandalous? Mr. Bacon's teaching leads directly to the conclusion that the authority of the ministry is above the authority of the truth. Such a view is a Popish heresy and a denial that God alone is Lord of the conscience.

Mr. Bacon says,

Independents invariably elevate the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer to a sort of papacy of the believer (The Visible Church and the Outer Darkness, p. 15).

As seems to be his usual practice, Mr. Bacon accuses people of "papacy and independency" right before he presents his most serious errors. As we have seen, Turretin proves that examination of churches and synods by private individuals is an indispensable right afforded to Christians by God. This right is designed to protect a believer from blindly and implicitly following the dictates of a corrupt majority.

Noble martyr of God, James Renwick explains:

If this [the right of private judgment ­ GB] belongs not to the people they have nothing but blind implicit faith; and what better are they than Papists, who must believe as the church believes? Yea, hath not every Christian a judgment of discretion, even in reference to actions of others? seeing they are to do nothing doubting but to be fully persuaded in their own minds, Rom. 14:23. But some (I know) say, that withdrawing from a scandalous person is a censuring of a scandalous person, and to withdraw from a scandalous minister is to depose him, and make him no minister. But this I deny; for simple withdrawing is not the inflicting of a censure, but only the believers testifying their sense, that a censure should be inflicted (to wit) by such as are competent: and this is warranted by Scripture, Rom.14:17, Eph.11:2, 2 Thess.3:14, and many such like places. Also, Rutherford saith, in his Peaceable Plea, chap 4, p. 25, "that the law of nature will warrant a popular and private subtraction and separation from the ministry of a known wolf and seducer," and alloweth what Parker saith, from Saravia, Licet tetula inculpata uti si malus rector ab ecclesia deponi nequit, "it is lawful to use that blameless and just defense if the bad church­guide cannot be deposed. "Any private person may take that care for the safety of their souls, that they may do for the safety of their bodies. For a son may defend himself by flying from his distracted father coming to kill him; and none will call this an act judicial of authority, but only an act natural. Now, I say private separation from scandalous persons is not depriving of them, if they be pastors; nor excommunicating of them, if they be professors. For the latter is an act of authority, belonging to those to whom Christ hath given the keys; but the former is an act natural, belonging to every believer. Likewise, if withdrawing from a scandalous person be a censuring of scandalous persons, then the professors, who withdraw from the curates, do censure the curates, which I hope no sound presbyterian will say. Howbeit, I distinguish betwixt a person scandalous really, and a person scandalous judicially; and between a church in a settled state, and a church in a broken state. So, I say, when a church is in a settled state, a person really scandalous cannot be withdrawn from, until (at least) he be judicially, by two or three witnesses, convicted, before the church, Rutherford's Peaceable Plea, chap. ix. p. 171. seeing that the brethren offended have church judicatories to appeal unto, for taking order with offenders. But when the church is in a broken state, and "every man (as the children of Israel, when they wanted Governors) "doing that which is right in his own eyes," there may and should be withdrawing from a person scandalous really, though he be not scandalous judicially; because then ecclesiastic judicatories, for censuring of him, cannot be had. Otherwise, all must go into a mixed confusion together, the faithful must become partakers of other men's sins, private and popular means of reclaiming offending brethren shall be stopped, and the testimonies of the faithful shall fall to the ground (W. H. Carslaw, The Life and Letters of James Renwick, The Last Scottish Martyr, 1893, SWRB bound photocopy reprint, 1997, p. 139, emphases added).

According to Mr. Bacon, we as individual believers must not take our Bibles and prayerfully determine where we can worship with a clear conscience. Instead, we are told to accept the fact that churches (such as the Presbyterian Church in America, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America [pretended covenanters], and the Reformation Presbyterian Church), where error in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government is established by ecclesiastical law, cannot be privately judged as unfit to join. We are told to keep our families in these institutions for years while we "fight for reform" with church courts who have already made up their mind and historically ruled contrary to Scripture. During these years our children become used to false doctrine and practice. As we wait for reform, they learn by example how to bury the truth for the sake of unity. The hands of compromisers are strengthened, and while we wait for some sub­committee to admonish us on a technicality, we pour all our resources into their treasury. Compromised pastors are exalted and faithful ministers are pushed aside. When have such churches ever shown signs of reform? They have slid backwards for so long that they think they are going forward. Truly God has judged our land with blindness when the sentiments of The Visible Church and the Outer Darkness are accepted as truth! When such folly is well received by the general Christian population, it becomes a sad commentary upon the fact that the darkness is no longer only outside of the visible church. Undeniably, it has pervaded the interior as well. As Jim Dodson cleverly noted, the refutation of Mr. Bacon's book entitled, The Visible Church and the Outer Darkness, would be aptly entitled, The Visible Church and the Inner Darkness.

Why are the pulpits of our nation full of men who teach such hazardous error? It is because people who have fallen for this kind of Popish implicit faith are continually attending their services and giving them money.

Does not your attendance upon, and following of such a ministry, help to midwife and bring forth all those evils with which their ministry travails, and is in pain to be delivered of? Could they do any hurt, if they were generally declined and avoided? Their strength lieth in you: As the great commander once said to his soldiers, "That he flew upon their wings." ("Antipharmicun Saluberrimum," The Works of John Flavel, Vol. 4, p. 532, emphases added. Also reprinted by SWRB [1996] as "A Warning Against Backsliding, False Worship, and False Teachers).

Cease, my son, to hear the instruction that causeth to err from the words of knowledge (Proverbs 19:27, AV).

If these ministers of compromise can convince you to stay within the apostasy and fight for reform long after the issue has been decided; if you can be convinced that individuals don't have the right to judge false doctrine and superstitious practice; if they can train you to believe that separation from corrupt churches is wrong, even in the broken state of the church; then you will never leave their church and you will become like them. You will supply their error with the fuel it needs to burn up your posterity. Dear reader, do not be deceived! Their false teaching will become the substance of the thoughts which fill your children's minds ­ and the sound of your grandchildren's voices. He who teaches that individuals may not judge whether the church is in extraordinarily backslidden times is a man who is to be avoided and withdrawn from. Do not be fooled by Mr. Bacon or his quotes from George Gillespie and James Durham. He has taken their teaching entirely out of context (the settled state of a faithful church) and erroneously applied them to our contemporary context (the broken state of a corrupt church).

Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple (Romans 16:17,18, AV).

Further, Mr. Bacon ignorantly says,

Even a minister of Christ, as the one who ministers the sacraments, is not free based on his own singular judgment to exclude any person from the Lord's Supper. George Gillespie, a contemporary of Ball [an English Minister ­ GB], agreed with him on this point in his "Assertion" (The Visible Church in the Outer Darkness, p. 21, emphases added).

Again, Mr. Bacon is impersonating someone who has actually read what George Gillespie wrote. George Gillespie believed so strongly in the individual's right to private judgment that he maintained the exact opposite of what Mr. Bacon has represented. In a case where a minister is certain that a man allowed to come to the Lord's table is obstinately scandalous, he must defy the order of an eldership, classis, or synod based upon his private judgment of discretion and not serve that man.

And if it should fall out that a scandalous unworthy person should find so much favour in the higher assemblies also as that they shall judge him fit to be admitted to the sacrament; yet if the minister know him certainly to be a scandalous abominable person, and to be clear in his conscience, that the matter of scandal is sufficiently proved, he must not do an unlawful act in obedience to men, but walk by that apostolical rule, 1 Tim. 5:22, "Be not partaker of other mens sins; keep thyself pure." In doing whereof he doth not make his conscience the rule of inflicting any censure, and particularly of suspending from the sacrament (which must be done by many), but yet his conscience, so far as it is informed and illuminate by the Word of God, is a rule to him of his own personal acting or not acting, notwithstanding of which the offender stands rectus in curia, and is not excluded by the sentence of any ecclesiastical court. I confess a minister ought to be very clear in his conscience and be persuaded (not upon suspicions, surmises, or such like slight motives), but upon very certain grounds, that the sentence of an eldership, classis, or synod, is contrary to the Word of God, before he refuses to do the thing (George Gillespie, Aaron's Rod Blossoming, 1646, reprinted by Sprinkle Publications, 1985, p. 224, emphases added).

If, as Gillespie says, an individual minister may defy an eldership, classis or synod when he is certain that their ruling is contrary to the Word of God, then Mr. Bacon is clearly at odds with Gillespie's principles. Mr. Bacon maintains that such doctrine is the basis for a separatist policy that "elevates the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer to a sort of papacy of the believer." Does Mr. Bacon also call Mr. Gillespie a separatist? It appears so. The next time Mr. Bacon wishes to pretend that he believes the same thing as George Gillespie, perhaps he will remember to read his books first.

Next, grossly abusing the argument of Kevin Reed (Presbyterian Government in Extraordinary Times), and true Presbyterian principle, Mr. Bacon writes that using the right of private judgment to determine who is ignorant and scandalous is, in effect, to usurp the office of the eldership.

But it is neither the duty nor the right of private Christians to make determinations of who is ignorant or scandalous. Christ has left this authority in His church ­ in the hands of church officers (The Visible Church and the Outer Darkness, p. 11).

John Brown (of Wamphray) directly contradicts Mr. Bacon:

It is true private Christians may not set themselves up into the chair, and judge of the endowments and qualifications of ministers, and what nulleth their office and what not, yet every private Christian hath the use of the judgment of discretion, and that way may judge whether such an one appears qualified according to the rule of the word or not (John Brown of Wamphray, An Apologetical Relation of the Particular Sufferings of the Faithful Ministers and Professors of the Church of Scotland, 1660, 1845, SWRB reprint, 1996, p. 146).

Robert M'Ward adds,

What way can the practice of private persons toward others, in abstaining from some acts of church communion hic & nunc with them; because of scruple, founded upon true Presbyterian principles, be said to be, on the matter, a drawing forth of one of the highest censures... for what hath a Christians private censuring, by judgment of discretion, the practice of another, and carrying according to that other, to do with taking the government off its hinges (Robert McWard, Earnest Contendings for the Faith, 1723, SWRB reprint, 1997, p. 121)?

George Gillespie comments,

1. Separation from churches is properly a renouncing of membership as unlawful.

2. The causes and motives of separation suppose either an unlawful constitution of churches, or an unlawful government of churches, or both, so far, that they who separate hold it unlawful to continue their membership in churches so constituted and governed, or so much as to communicate with such churches though they know no scandalous person admitted to the sacrament (George Gillespie, Aaron's Rod Blossoming, 1646, reprinted by Sprinkle Publications, 1985, p. 201).

They, therefore, who give their will for a law, and their authority for a reason, and answer all the arguments of their opponents, by bearing down with the force of public constitution and the judgment of superiors, to which theirs must be conformed, do rule the Lord's flock "with force and with cruelty" (Ezek. 34:4); as "lords over God's heritage" (1 Pet. 5:3) Always, since men give us no leave to try their decrees and constitutions, that we may hold fast to no more than is good, God be thanked that we have a warrant to do it (without their leave) from his own word (1 Thess. 5:21). Non numeranda suffragis, sed appendenda [Opinions must not be counted up, but considered], says Augustine in Psalm 39. Our divines hold that all things which are proposed by the ministers of the church, yes, by ecumenical councils, should be proved and examined; and that when the guides of the church do institute any ceremonies as necessary for edification, "yet the church has the free power of judgment to give assent to or reject them"... The schoolmen also give liberty to a private man, of proving the statutes of the church, and neglecting the same, "if he see a cause for doing so, if a reason becomes evident, a man can, on his own, rightfully pass by the observance of a statute. "If any be not able to examine and try all such things, "everyone ought to be able, by the command of God: therefore they remove their own blame," says Paraeus. "If we rightly feel we are deprived of the faculty of questioning, it must be indicated by that same spirit who speaks through his prophets," says Calvin. We will not then call any man rabbi nor, "jurare in verba magistri" [to echo the sentiments of a teacher ], nor yet be Pathagorean disciples to the church herself, but we will believe her and obey her in so far only as she is the pillar and ground of the truth (George Gillespie, A Dispute Against The English Popish Ceremonies, Naphtali Press edition, pp. 29­30, emphases added).

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See also: Stevens' Response to Gentry: Creedal Failure