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Paradigms in Polity: Classic Readings in Reformed and Presbyterian Church Governments

by David. W. Hall, Joseph H. Hall, editors. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994. pp. xiii-621. $29.99. (paper). [Reviewed by Prof. Robert D. Decker.]

This book ought to be in every minister’s library. The two introductory essays by the editors are must reading especially in our day. David Hall writes,

As most quickly recognize, unfortunately many of us are led to our positions in church government not with forethought but in a posture of reaction. We often learn government only when threatened. It would be much better if we would study the Word bf God and come to our values in biblical conclusions not as reactionaries but as positive Protestants seeking to hold forth the whole counsel of God in matters of government as well. James Henley Thornwell is helpful again. Responding to those who allege that church government and restraint is an unlawful imposition, Thornwell wrote, “Is the law of God tyranny? And does man become a slave by being bound to obey it? Is not obedience to God the very essence of liberty, and is not the Church most divinely free when she most perfectly fulfills His will? What is it that has made this free, exultant Church of ours, but the sublime determination to hear no voice, but the voice of the Master? And what made the mummied forms of medieval Christianity, but the very principle . . . that the Church has a large discretion? She claimed the right to command where God had not spoken; she made void His law, and substituted her own authority and inventions…. It is because we love the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, that we renounce and abhor the detestable principle of Prelatists, Popes, and loose Presbyterians, that whatever is not forbidden is lawful. The Church may be very wise, but God is wiser” (p. 33, 34).

A paradigm is an outstandingly clear example or pattern of something. The bulk of the book (pp. 55- 602) consists of an anthology of what the editors consider to be the best writings of the church fathers, as well as excerpts from the confessions on the subject of church polity or government. Each of these is preceded by a brief, very helpful biographical/ historical introduction. The editors believe, and rightly so, that these writings are paradigms of what a Reformed/Presbyterian church polity ought to be. They urge us not to, “. . . ‘reinvent the wheel.’ The biblical aspects of government need not be ignored by each successive generation, nor rediscovered by the alternating generations. We could profit much by studying the ancient paths’ (Jer. 6:16Jer. 18:15) and attempting to mold our inchoate governments after the progress of our spiritual ancestors. That, far from being a pharisaic expression of traditionalism, is the better part of wisdom, as we seek to rule out those inefficacious modes of governing” (p. 20). If nothing else, this anthology will guide the serious student of Reformed/Presbyterian church polity to the primary sources.

The anthology is divided into five sections treating “The Historical Foundation of Church Polity,” “Continental Europe and Reformation Polities,” “Dutch Reformed Polities,” “Scottish and British Polities,” and “North American Polities.” The anthology is introduced by two excellent essays by the editors. Joseph Hall writes on the “History and Character of Church Government”; and David Hall’s essay is entitled “The Pastoral and Theological Significance of Church Government.”

Joseph Hall’s thesis is that the marks of the church (pure preaching of the Word, administration of the sacraments, and biblical discipline) are the “essential ingredients of true church government” (pp. 3-4). Moreover, both editors insist that church polity ought to be biblical in its origin. Joseph Hall sees congregational/independent churches and the prelactic (Anglican and Roman Catholic systems of church government) as “aberrational forms of government” denying one or more of the fundamental characteristics of the church. The former denies her catholicity and the latter her Scriptural foundation (p. 4).

Hall contends that the main principles of the presbyterian form of government derived from Scripture are: “the rule of a plurality of elders in the local church, the submission of the local governing body to a higher governing body, and the unity of churches finding its most concrete representation in the connection of the churches and their elders in regional bodies, sometimes called ‘courts’ when discipline is undertaken” (p. 5). Both editors assert that these fundamental principles are evident from Acts 15—the “Jerusalem Council” which dealt with the question of circumcision (pp. 5, 17-19). The decisions of the elders and apostles at that council in Jerusalem applied to all the churches. “Strangely absent from this record is the thought that each church, on this question, would do just as it pleased. These (the decisions of the council in Jerusalem) were standards by the whole church for the whole church. It was one church with the same beliefs and practices, not just a consortium of loosely affiliated churches. The decision of the Assembly of Jerusalem was for all churches” (p. 17). According to Acts 16:4 these decisions (“decrees,” according to the Greek) were delivered by Paul and Silas to the churches and received by them with joy!

Both editors are convinced that the biblical principles of church government as enunciated by the apostles and early post-apostolic Church, and as restored by the Reformers of the sixteenth century (notably Calvin) are the principles of Reformed/Presbyterian church polity. This reviewer agrees! What is missing, however, is a recognition of and an explanation of the important and fundamental principle of the autonomy of the local church as so beautifully woven into the Church Order of Dordt. In addition to this, David Hall’s position that “All government is necessitated by human depravity and the Fall and, as such, is necessarily a mechanism of response to that fallen condition” simply is not true. Government finds its origin in the will of the Sovereign God who created the heavens and the earth. Adam had dominion, rule, in paradise. Christ is God’s King and will certainly rule in the New Creation.

Both introductory essays, but especially is this true of the second by David Hall, are characterized by highly technical, unfamiliar, and obscure terminology which makes them difficult for anyone lacking a college or seminary education. Among these are terms like “repristinator of presbyteriansim,” “recrudescence of the presbyterian system,” “praxis,” “harmartiology,” and “heuristic value.” But if one has a dictionary at his elbow he should be able to make his way through the essays.

Joseph Hall was formerly professor of church history and librarian at Know Theological Seminary, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and currently teaches at Mid-America Seminary. His son, David Hall, is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

The book is greatly enhanced by a “Bibliographical Essay” by David Hall and an index.