Occasionally the original Westminster Confession of Faith is accused of “Erastianism” (for example, William Evans refers to “Erastian elements” in the 1646 Confession–albeit in a post that challenges overhasty revision of creeds and confessions) 1 because of its insistence that the civil magistrate has a role to play in the cura religionis; any cooperation between magistracy and ministry is dismissed out of hand in the American context as something that compromises the independence of the church and prevents the maintenance of a purer religion.
But we need to be careful not to play fast and loose with terminology: the original WCF, even in the chapters that are usually seen to be most offending (ch. 23, “Of the Civil Magistrate,” and ch. 31, “Of Synods and Councils”) are not, in fact, “Erastian” as the term is usually (if not perhaps quite correctly) understood, by which I mean that they do not advocate a complete supremacy of magistracy over ministry. One might say more: they are neither “Erastian” nor separationist nor do they advocate a clerical supremacy, but are a fourth alternative altogether. To illustrate, I’d like to take a look at the analysis of the original ch. 31 in Scottish theologian David Dickson‘s (1583?-1663) Truth’s Victory over Error.
First, the text of ch. 31 from the 1646 Confession, with the section especially distasteful to the American palate in bold:
I. For the better government and further edification of the Church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called synods or councils.
II. As magistrates may lawfully call a synod of ministers and other fit persons to consult and advise with about matters of religion; so, if magistrates be open enemies to the Church, the ministers of Christ, of themselves, by virtue of their office, or they, with other fit persons, upon delegation from their churches, may meet together in such assemblies.
III. It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially, to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission, not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in his Word.
IV. All synods or councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both.
V. Synods and councils are to handle or conclude nothing but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or by way of advice for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.
Dickson draws attention to the fact that ministers can meet in assembly whether the magistrate wishes them to or not–in other words, a Christian magistrate is not necessary for the church to do the church’s business. Hence, in his view, the “Erastians” err in denying that ministers have the right and power in themselves to meet in synod or council. He says this because it is what the church did in primitive times and because such power and right are “intrinsic” to the church.
At the same time, the magistrate may call a council to deal with matters of religion. Dickson argues that this is in contradistinction to the “Papists,” “who maintain, That the civil Magistrate hath no Right or Power to convocate Synods or Councils, but that it belongs to the Bishop to convocate diocesan synods: to the Metropolitan to convocate Provincial Synods: to the Primate and Patriarch to convocate National Synods: to the Pope only to convocate and call Oecumenic and General Synods.”
Dickson gives three reasons for opposing this latter view. The first is scriptural: in the Old Testament, godly kings called councils (e.g. 1 Kings 8:1; 2 Kings 23:1). The second has to do with the magistrate’s duty as a Christian: “Because it is the Duty of the civil Magistrate, being born within the Church, to take Care that Peace and Unity be preserved and kept in the Church, that the Truth and Word of God be entirely, and soundly preached and obeyed: that Blasphemies and Heresies be kept under and supprest, that all Corruptions in Worship and Discipline be reformed: that all God’s Ordinances be lawfully established, administered and preserved.” This undoubtedly sounds heavy-handed to modern ears. I’d like to focus for the moment not on the details of magisterial suppression, but on the principle underlying his having a role at all.
This right of the magistrate, personified especially in the figure of the king, preserves a safeguard in case of the defection of the church from the faith, insofar as the king is responsible for the good of the commonwealth and the question of religion touches on the good of the commonwealth: “And if it should happen, that both Church and State Judicatories, should make an Universal Defection from the Purity of Doctrine and Worship received and acknowledged, it is the Duty of a godly King, by Virtue of his regal Power and Authority, to set about a Work of Reformation, and to call and command all Ranks of People to return to the true Worship and Service of God.” He makes reference to a number of scriptural passages in support of this claim, all from the Old Testament; but one could note that this was also the practice in the Magisterial Reformation.
Finally, the third reason is historical precedent. All of the most important councils in the early church were called by Roman emperors: “From the Example of Constantine, that did convocate the first Nicene Council: from Theodosius the Elder, that did call the first Council of Constantinople: from Theodosius the Younger, that did call the first Council at Ephesus; from Martianus, that did call the Chalcedon Council.”
In Dickson’s view, the Reformed Protestant position is superior to both the state-over-church view and the church-over-state view and preserves cooperation and mutual benefit between the two while keeping their spheres distinct. It is worth pointing out that this formulation is flexible enough to deal both with non-Christian and with Christian magistrates. The difference, as Dickson sees it, comes when the magistrate is himself a Christian and part of the body of the church, in an arrangement in which the same people underlie both church and society–in other words, as a mode of organizing and governing a societas christiana. Thus his formulation of the magistrate’s role in the church has nothing to do with the essence of the church (esse) but rather with its well being (bene esse) in certain circumstances. If nothing else, it is salutary to recall that there are more options for the relationship in civil society between ministry and magistracy than “Erastianism,” papalism, and strict separationism.