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Testimony of the Fathers.
In my former volume, while I insisted that the cause in question should be tried at the bar of Scripture alone, and utterly protested against the jurisdiction of the Fathers, I still consented to examine their testimony, and devoted two long Letters to that examination. In those Letters, if more impartial judges, as well as myself, are not deceived, there is abundant proof, that the Fathers of the FIRST TWO CENTURIES, do not contain a sentence that can be justly construed in favour of Prelacy; but that, on the contrary, their testimony is decisively favourable to Presbyterian parity. Dr. Bowden, indeed, is of a different opinion, and speaks with great confidence and asperity in a different strain. But after the specimen which has been given of the manner in which that gentleman can treat demonstrative proof, and even plain declarations of Scripture, we need not wonder that, in his eyes, every argument is “ frivolous," and even “ contemptible cavilling," which opposes his Episcopal creed.
I have neither the leisure nor the patience again to go over the whole ground of the testimony of the Fathers on this subject. My only design in the present Letter, is, with great brevity, to examine a few of the strictures of Dr. Bowden ; to confirm some of my statements which have been most confidently and boldly called in question; and to supply some of the defects of my former Let. ters on this part of the controversy.
Suffer me, my brethren, again to remind you of the principle on which we proceed, in this part of our inquiry. If it could be demonstrated from the writings of the Fathers, that, in one hundred, or even in fifty years, after the death of the last Apostle, the system of Diocesan Episcopacy had been generally adopted in the Church, it would be nothing to the purpose. As long as no traces of this fact could be found in the Bible, but much of a directly opposite nature, we should stand on a secure and immoveable foundation. To all rea. sonings, then, derived from the Fathers, I answer with the venerable Augustine, who, when pressed with the authority of Cyprian, replied, “His wri. “ tings I hold not to be canonical, but examine " them by the canonical writings: And in them, “ what agreeth with the authority of Divine Scrip“ ture, I accept, with his praise ; what agreeth “ not, I reject with his leave*."
But our refusal to be tried by the Fathers, is
Contra Crescon. 11. Cap. 32.
founded on principle, and not upon any fear of the result of such a trial. We know what their wri: tings contain ; and are sure that our Episcopal bre. thren would lose instead of gaining, by an impartial examination of their testimony. We are perfectly ready, then, to meet Dr. Bowden or any other man, and to hear what he has to say on this department of evidence.
In entering on this branch of the controversy in my
former Letters, I made the following remarks: “ Before we proceed to examine the testimony of the Fathers, let us be careful to recollect precisely, what our Episcopal brethren contend for, and what they are bound to prove by these witnesses, in order to make good their claims. When they show us passages in which these early writers merely speak of Bishops, they seem to imagine that their point is gained : but such passages are, in fact, nothing to their purpose. We do not deny that there were Bishops in the Primitive Church : on the contrary, we contend that the word Bishop was a title given, in Apostolic times and long afterwards, to every pastor of a particular congregation. Again, when they quote passages which barely enumerate Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons, as distinct officers in the Church, they can derive no assistance even from these ; because there were, doubtless, Presbyters, at that time, as well as now, who, though in full orders, were not invested with a pastoral charge; and who must, therefore, be distinguished from such as were literally Overseers
or Bishops of particular flocks. Besides, we know that there were Ruling Elders in the primitive Church; a class of Presbyters confessed to be inferior to Bishops in their ecclesiastical character. In enumerating Church officers, then, there was frequently a necessity for making the distinction above stated, without in the least favouring the pretended superiority of order among those who laboured in the word and doctrine. No; the advocates for diocesan Episcopacy, if they would derive any support to their cause from the writings of the Fathers, must do what they have never yet done. They must produce, from those venerable remains of antiquity, passages which prove, either by direct assertion, or fair inference, that the Bishops of the Primitive Church were a distinct order of Clergy from those Presbyters who were authorized to preach and ad. minister sacraments, and superior to them; that these Bishops, when they were advanced to this superior office, had a new and distinct ordination ; that each Bishop had under him a number of congregations, with their Pastors, whom he governed; that these Bishops were exclusively invested with the right of ordaining, and administering the rite of confirmation, and that this kind of Episcopacy was considered, by the whole primitive Church, as an institution of Jesus Christ. When any one of these facts is fairly proved, from early antiquity, the friends of Presbyterian Church Government will feel as if they had something like solid argument to contend with ; but not till then. Now, after having given much close and serious attention to this subject, I can venture to assure you, that in all the authentic writings which have come down to us, of those Fathers who lived within the first two hundred years after Christ, there is not a single sentence which can be considered, by an impartial reader, as affording the least support to any one of these positions."
Of these remarks I cannot find that Dr. Bowden has taken the least notice. He goes on, fall. ing into the very errors, against which he was thus explicitly warned; and confidently urging the very arguments which are here shown to be worthless. For instance, when he finds one of the early Fa. thers speaking of a, particular person as Bishop of a certain Church, he immediately takes for granted that a Prelatical Bishop was intended, and declaims accordingly with all the parade of complete triumph. But this is a gross and most unwarrantable begging of the question. The word Bishop unquestionably decides nothing in his favour; for Dr. B. and all our opponents, acknowledge, what we know to have been the fact, that this title was applied, in the days of the Apostles, and is expressly used by the inspired writers, to designate the Pastors of single Congregations. Nay, they acknowledge, that for near an hundred years after the Apostolic age, the titles of Bishop and Presbyter were often interchangeably applied to the same persons.
When we attempt to derive an argument from the application of the title Bishop to