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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Judgment, Right of Private.

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The Church of Rome denies the right as claimed by Protestants on the following grounds: that the Church, being assisted by the Spirit of God in searching the Scriptures, having the promise of the presence of Jesus to the end of the world, and having the possession of the unwritten word as a commentary on the written, is the only safe interpreter of holy Scripture, and the supreme judge by whose definitive sentence all controversies with regard to the meaning of particular passages or the general doctrine of holy Scripture must be determined. It makes a distinction, however, between the learned exegesis, as applied to the sacred writings, and that interpretation which emanates from the Church. The interpretation of the Church does not descend to the details which must claim the attention of the scientific exegetist. Thus, for example, she does not hold it her duty, nor include it in the compass of her rights, to determine when, by whom, and for what object. the book of Job was written; or what particular inducement engaged St. John to publish his Gospel, or St. Paul to address an epistle to the Romans; in what order of time the epistles of the apostle followed each other, etc. As little does she undertake to explain particular words and verses, their bearings one on the other, or the connection existing between larger portions of the sacred book. Antiquities, in the widest sense of the word, fall not within the domain of her interpretation; in short, that interpretation extends only to doctrines of faith and morals. Within these limits she declares it to be the duty of Christians to acquiesce in this infallible determination, and that it is presumption and impiety, and a sin for which they deserve everlasting punishment, to oppose their own private judgment, which cannot of itself attain the truth, to the decision of the Church, which cannot err.

To this extraordinary claim Protestants agree in opposing this principle, that the holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith. But, while there is a general agreement as to this, i.e. to receive the Scriptures as a sufficient rule of faith, and as the only authoritative rule, there are wide diversities of opinion concerning the power reserved to the Church as to the doctrines of religion. The extreme view is that the Church at no time possesses the right of intermeddling in articles of faith. The essential articles of faith are so few, so simple, and so easily gathered out of clear and explicit passages, that it is impossible for any man who has the exercise of his reason to miss them; that no harm can arise from allowing any man to interpret the Scriptures as he pleases; and that, as Scripture may be sufficiently understood for. purposes of salvation without any foreign assistance, all creeds and confessions of faith composed and prescribed by human authority are an encroachment upon the prerogative of the supreme Teacher, and an invasion of the right of private judgment. Such furthermore maintain that all divisions among Christians have grown out of the attempt of the Church to force upon Christians uniformity of belief as to the doctrines of holy Scripture.

This view of the right of private judgment is generally held by the followers of Socinus, and among its ablest champions at the present day are some of the leading minds of the Church of England, who, on account of their peculiar views, are denominated Moderate, Catholic, Broad Church, by the friends of that party; Latitudinarian, or Indifferent, by its enemies. Believing that the superficial differences between Christians are as nothing in comparison with their essential agreement, they are willing that the portals of the Church should be flung as wide open as the gates of heaven. This is clearly set forth by the late Dr. Arnold: "All societies of men, whether we call them states or churches, should make their bond to consist in a common object and a common practice rather than in a common belief; in other words, their end should be good rather than truth. We may consent to act together, but we cannot consent to believe together; many motives may persuade us to the one: we may like the object, or we may like our company, or we may think it safest to join them, or most convenient, and any one of these motives is quite sufficient to induce a unity of action, action being a thing in our own power. But no motives can persuade us to believe together; we may wish a statement to be true, we may admire those who believe it, we may find it very inconvenient not to believe it; all this helps us nothing; unless our own mind is freely convinced that the statement or doctrine is true, we cannot by possibility believe it.

"Such a union of action appears historically to have been the original bond of the Christian Church. Whoever was willing to receive Christ as his Master, to join his people, and to walk according to his rules, was admitted to the Christian society. We know that in the earliest Church there existed the strangest varieties of belief, some Christians not even believing that there would be a resurrection of the dead. Of course it was not intended that such varieties should be perpetual; a closer union of belief was gradually effected; but the point to observe is that the union of belief grew out of the union of action; it was the result of belonging to the society rather than a previous condition required for belonging to it, for no human power can presume to inquire into the degree of a man's positive belief. A general, hearty belief in Christianity is to be regarded by the Church, not as its starting point, but as its highest perfection. To begin with a strict creed and no efficient Christian institutions is the sure way to hypocrisy and unbelief; to begin with the most general confession of faith imputed, that is, as a test of membership, but with vigorous Christian institutions, is the way most likely to lead not only to a real and general belief, but also to a lively perception of the highest points of Christian faith. In other words, intellectual objections to Christianity should be tolerated when they are combined with moral obedience; tolerated, because in this way they are most surely removed; whereas a corrupt or disorganized Church, with a minute creed, encourages intellectual objections; and if it proceeds to put them down by force, it does often violate the right of conscience, punishing an unbelief which its own evil had provoked, and, so far as human judgment can see, has in a great measure justified. In primitive usage, a heretic was not properly he who did not believe what the Church taught, but he who willfully withdrew himself from its society, refusing to conform to its system, and setting up another system of his own."

To most Protestants, however, this plan seems very defective. Regarding the Christian Church as a society created by divine institution, it possesses all the authority which Christ meant to convey through his apostles to their successors, and of the exercise of which the apostles have left examples. They deem it to be incontrovertible that these successive teachers in the Christian Church were intended to be interpreters and expounders of the sacred book; that they are invested with authority in relation to the doctrines of holy Scripture; and that, as a mere acknowledgment of the truth of Scripture is not a sufficient security or soundness of faith, it is lawful for the Church to employ additional guards to that "form of sound words" which it is required to hold fast and to defend. It is one thing to say that the Bible is the rule of faith, and another to say that it is the judge to determine what that rule is. The latter it can as little be as the code of civil law can exercise the functions of the judge; it forms indeed, the rule of judgment, but it does not itself pronounce judgment. Hence the twentieth article of the Church of England declares that "the Church hath authority in matters of faith." So the Westminster Confession "It belongeth to synods and councils ministerially to determine controversies of faith." See Rogers. Reason and Faith; Wilson, Apostolic Fathers; Elliot, Delineation of Romanism (see Index); Litton, Church, of Christ, p. 7 sq. (E. de P.)


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Judgment, Right of Private.'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/j/judgment-right-of-private.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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