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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 18 — History of Protestantism in the Netherlands

Chapter 27 — Order and government of the Netherland church

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The Spiritual Movement beneath the Armed Struggle – The Infant Springs – Gradual Development of the Church of the Netherlands – The "Forty Ecclesiastical Laws " – Their Enactments respecting the Election of Ministers – Examination and Admission of Pastors – Care for the Purity of the Pulpit – The "Fortnightly Exercise " – Yearly Visitation – Worship and Schools – Elders and Deacons – Power of the Magistrate in the Church – Controversy respecting it – Efforts of the States to Compose these Quarrels~Synod at Middelburg – It Completes the Constitution of the Dutch Church.

The development of the religious principle is somewhat overshadowed by the struggle in arms which Protestantism had to maintain in the Low Countries. But; the well-defined landing-place at which we have arrived, permits us to pause and take a closer view of the inner and spiritual conflict. Amid the armies that are seen marching to and fro over the soil of the Netherlands; amid the battles that shake it from side to side; amid the blaze of cities kindled by the Spaniard's torch, and fields drowned in blood by the Spanish sword, we can recognize the silent yet not inefficacious presence of a great power. It is here that we find the infant springs of a movement that to the outward eye seems so very martial and complex. It is in closets where the Bible is being read; it is in little assemblies gathered in cellar or thicket or cave, where prayer is being offered up and the Scriptures are being searched; it is in the prison where the confessor languishes, and at, the stake where the martyr is expiring, that we find the beginnings of that impulse which brought a nation into the field with arms in its hands, and raised up William of Orange to withstand the power of Spain. It was not the old charters that kindled the fire in the Netherlands. These were slowly and silently returning to dust, and the Provinces were sinking with them into slavery, and both would have continued uninterruptedly their quiescent repose had not an old Book, which claims a higher than human authorship, awakened conscience, and made it more indispensable to the men of the Netherlands to have freedom of worship than to enjoy goods or estate, or even life itself. It was this inexorability that brought on the conflict.

But was it not a misfortune to transfer such a controversy to the arena of the battle-field? Doubtless it was; but for that calamity the disciples of the Gospel in the Netherlands are not to blame. They waited long and endured much before they betook them to arms. Nearly half a century passed away after the burning of the first martyrs of Protestantism in Brussels till the first, sword was unsheathed in the war of independence. During that period, speaking generally – for the exact number never can be ascertained – from 50,000 to 100,000 men and women had been put to death for religion. And when at last war came, it came not from the Protestants, but from the Spaniards. We have seen the powerful army of soldiers which Alva led across the Alps, and we have seen the terrible work to which they gave themselves when they entered the country. The Blood Council was set up, the preaching of the Gospel was forbidden, the ministers were hanged, whole cities were laid in ashes, and, the gibbets being full, the trees of the field were converted into gallows, and their boughs were seen laden with the corpses of men and women whose only crime was that they were, or were suspected of being, converts to Protestantism. As if this were not enough, sentence of death was passed upon all the inhabitants of the Netherlands. Not even yet had a sword been drawn in opposition to a tyranny that had converted the Provinces, recently so flourishing, into a slaughter-house, and that threatened speedily to make them as silent as a graveyard. Nor did Philip mean that his strangling, burnings, and massacrings should stop at the Netherlands. The orders to his devastating hordes were to follow the steps of Protestantism to every land where it had gone; to march to the shores of the Leman; to the banks of the Thames; to France, should the Guises fail in the St. Bartholomew they were at that moment plotting: everywhere "extermination, utter extermination," was to be inflicted. Protestantism was to be torn up by the roots, although it should be necessary to tear up along with it all human rights and liberties. It is not the Netherlands, with William at their head, for whom we need to offer vindication or apology, for coming forward at the eleventh hour to save Christendom and the world from a catastrophe so imminent and so tremendous; the parties that need to be defended are those more powerful States and princes who stood aloof, or rendered but inadequate aid at this supreme crisis, and left the world's battle to be fought by one of the smallest of its kingdoms. It is no doubt true, as we are often reminded, that the great Defender of the Church is her heavenly King; but it is equally true that he saves her not by miracle, but by blessing the counsels and the arms, as well as the teaching and the blood of her disciples. There is a time to die for the truth, and there is a time to fight for it; and the part of Christian wisdom is to discern the "times," and the duty which they call for.

Leaving the armed struggles that are seen on the surface, let us look at the under-current, which, from one hour to another, is waxing in breadth and power. Protestantism in the Netherlands does not form one great river, as it did in some other countries. For half a century, at least, it is a congeries of fountains that burst

out here and there, and send forth a multitude of streamlets, that are seen flowing through the country and refreshing it with living water. The course of Netherland Protestantism is the exact reverse of that of the great river of the land, the Rhine, which long keeping its floods united, divides at last into an infinity of streams, and falls into the ocean. Netherland Protestantism, long parted into a multitude of courses, gathers at length its waters into one channel, and forms henceforth one great river. This makes it somewhat difficult to obtain a clear view of the Netherland Protestant Church. That Church is first seen in her martyrs, and it may be truly said that her martyrs are her glory, for they are excelled in numbers, and in holy heroism, by those of no Church in Christendom. The Netherland Church is next seen in her individual congregations, scattered through the cities of Flanders, Brabant, and Holland; and these congregations come into view, and anon disappear, according as the cloud of persecution now rises and now falls; and last of all, that Church is seen in her Synods. Her days of battle and martyrdom come at length to an end; and under the peaceful scepter of the princes of the House of Orange, her courts regularly convene, her seminaries flourish, her congregations fill the land, and the writings of her theologians are diffused through Christendom. The schools of Germany have ceased by this time to be the crowded resort of scholars they once were; the glory of the French Huguenots has waxed dim; and the day is going away in Geneva, where in the middle and end of the sixteenth century it had shone so brightly; but the light of Holland is seen burning purely, forming the link between Geneva and the glory destined to illuminate England in the seventeenth century.

The order and government established in the Church of Holland may be clearly ascertained from the "Forty Ecclesiastical Laws," which in the year 1577 were drawn up and published in the name of the Prince of Orange as Stadtholder, and of the States of Holland, Zealand, and their allies. The preamble of the Act indicates the great principle of ecclesiastical jurisprudence entertained by the framers, and which they sought to embody in the Dutch Church. "Having," say they, "nothing more at heart than that the doctrine of the holy Gospel may be propagated in its utmost purity in the towns and other places of our jurisdiction, we have thought fit, after mature deliberation, to make the following rules, which we will and require to be inviolably preserved; and we have judged it necessary that the said rules should chiefly relate to the administration of Church government, of which there are to be found in Holy Scripture four principal kinds: 1. That of Pastors, who are likewise styled Bishops, Presbyters, Ministers in the Word of God, and whose office chiefly consists in teaching the said Word, and in the administration of the Sacraments. 2. That of Doctors, to whose office is now substituted that of Professors of Divinity. 3. That of Elders, whose main business is to watch over men's morals, and to bring transgressors again into the right way by friendly admonitions; and 4. That of Deacons, who have the care of the sick."

According to this programme of Church government, or body of ecclesiastical canons, now enacted by the States, the appointment of ministers was lodged in the hands of the magistrates, who were to act, however, upon "the information and with the advice of the ministers." Towns whose magistrates had not yet embraced the Reformed religion, were to be supplied with pastors from a distance. No one was to assume at his own hands an office so sacred as the ministry: he must receive admission from the constituted authorities of the Church. The minister "elect" of a city had first to undergo examination before the elders, to whom he must give proofs that his learning was competent, that his pulpit gifts were such as might enable him to edify the people, and, above all, that his life was pure, lest he should dishonor the pulpit, and bring reproach upon "the holy office of the ministry." If found qualified in these three particulars, "he shall be presented," say the canons, "to the magistrate for his approbation, in order to his preaching to the people," that they, too, may be satisfied as to his fitness to instruct them. There still awaits him another ordeal before he can enter a pulpit as pastor of a flock. He has been nominated by the magistrate with advice of the ministers; he has been examined by the elders; he has been accepted by the people; and thus has given guarantees as to his learning, his life, and his power of communicating instruction; but before being ordained to the office of the ministry, "his name shall be published from the pulpit," say the canons, "three Sundays successively, to the end that if any man has aught to object against him, or can show any cause why he should not be admitted, he may have time to do it." We shall suppose that no objections have been offered – at least none such as to form a bar to his admission – the oath of allegiance is then administered to him. In that oath he swears obedience to the lawful authorities "in all things not contrary to the will of God." To this civil oath was appended a solemn vow of spiritual fidelity, in these words: "Moreover, I swear that I will preach and teach the Word of God. after the purest manner, and with the greatest diligence, to the end it may bring forth much fruit in this congregation, as becomes a true and faithful shepherd..... Neither will I forsake this ministry on account of any advantage or disadvantage." It was to the ecclesiastical authorities that this promise was comnonly given in other Presbyterian

Churches, but in Holland it was tendered to the nation through the magistrate, the autonomy of the Church not being as yet complete. The act of ordination was to be preceded by a sermon on the sacred function, and followed by prayers for a blessing on the pastor and his flock. So simple was the ritual in studied contrast to the shearings, the anointings, and the investitures of the Roman Church, which made the entrance into sacred orders an affair of so much mystic pomp. "This," the canons add, "we think sufficient, seeing that the ancient ceremonies are degenerated into abominable institutions," and they might have added, had failed to guard the purity of the priesthood. [1]

In these canons we see at least an earnest desire evinced on the part of the civil authorities of Holland to secure learned and pious men for its pulpits, and to provide guarantees, so far as human foresight and arrangement could do so, against the indolent and unfaithful discharge of the office on the part of those entrusted with it. And in this they showed a wise care. The heart of a Protestant State is its Church, and the heart of a Church is its pulpit, and the centuries which have elapsed since the era of the Reformation furnish us with more than one example, that so long as the pulpit retains its purity, the Church will preserve her vigour; and while the Church preserves her vigour, the commonwealth will continue to flourish; and that, on the other hand, when languor invades the pulpit, corruption sets-in in the Church, and from the Church the leprosy quickly extends to the State; its pillars totter, and its bulwarks fall.

Following an example first originated at Geneva, the ministers of a city and of the parishes around met every fortnight to confer together on religious matters, as also on their studies, and, in short, on whatever concerned the welfare of the Church and the efficiency of her pastors. Every minister, in his turn, preached before his brethren; and if his sermon was thought to contain anything contrary to sound doctrine, the rest admonished him of his error. In order still more to guard the purity and keep awake the vigilance of the ministry, a commission, consisting of two elders and two ministers of the chief town, was to make a yearly circuit through the dependent Provinces, and report the state of matters to the magistrate on their return, "to the end," say the canons, "that if they find anything amiss it may be seasonably redressed." Not fewer than three sermons a week were to be preached "in all public places," and on the afternoon of Sunday the Heidelberg Catechism was to be expounded in all the churches.

Baptism was to be administered by a minister only; it was not to be denied to any infant; it was "pious and praiseworthy" for the parent himself to bring the child to be baptised, and the celebration was to take place in the church in presence of the congregation, unless the child were sick, when the ordinance might be dispensed at home "in presence of some godly persons." The Lord's Supper was to be celebrated four times yearly, care being taken that all who approached the table were well instructed in the faith. The canons, moreover, prescribe the duty of ministers touching the visitation of the sick, the care of prisoners, and attendance at funerals. A body of theological professors was provided for the University of Leyden; and the magistrates planted a school in every town under their jurisdiction, selecting as teachers only those who professed the Reformed faith, "whose business it. shall be to instil into them principles of true religion as well as learning."

The elders were chosen, not by the congregation, but by the magistrates of the city. They were to be selected from their own body, "good men, and not inexperienced in the matters of religion;" they were to sit with the pastors, constituting a court of morals, and to report to the Government such decisions and transactions as it might concern the Government to know. To the deacons was assigned the care of the poor. The State arrangements in Holland for this class of the community made the office of deacon well-nigh superfluous; nevertheless, it was instituted as being an integral part of the Church machinery; and so the canons bid the magistrates take care "that fit and godly stewards be appointed, who understand how to assist the poor according to their necessities, by which means the trade of begging may be prevented, and the poor contained within the bounds of their duty; this will be easily brought about as soon as an end shall be put to our miseries by peace and public tranquillity." [2]

This first framework of the Netherland Reformed Church left the magistrate the highest functionary in it. The final decision of all matters lay with him. In matters of administration and of discipline, in questions of morals and of doctrine, he was the court of last appeal. This presents us with a notable difference between the Protestant Church of the Netherlands and the Churches of Geneva and France. Calvin aimed, as we have seen, at a complete separation of the civil and the spiritual domain; he sought to exclude entirely the power of the magistrate in things purely spiritual, and he effected this in the important point of admission to the Communion-table; but in Geneva, the Church being the State, the two necessarily touched each other at a great many points, and the Reformer failed to make good the perfect autonomy which he aimed at conferring on the Church. In France, however, as we have also seen, he realized his ideal fully. He established in that country an ascending gradation of Church courts, or spiritual tribunals, according to which the final legislation and administration of all spiritual affairs lay within the Church herself. We behold the French

Protestant Church taking her place by the side of the French Government, and exhibiting a scheme of spiritual administration and rule as distinct and complete as that of the civil government of the country. But in the Netherlands we fail to see a marked distinction between the spiritual and the civil power: the ecclesiastical courts merge into the magistrates tribunal, and the head of the State is to the Church in room of ]National Synod and Assembly. One reason of the difference is to be found in the fact that whereas in France the magistrate was hostile, in the Low Countries he was friendly, and was oftener found in the van than in the rear of the Reform. Moreover, the magistrates of Holland could plead a very venerable and a very unbroken precedent for their interference in the affairs of the Church: it had been, they affirmed, the practice of princes from the days of Justinian downwards. [3]

This was one source of the troubles which afterwards afflicted the States, and which we must not pass wholly without notice. Peter Cornelison and Gaspar Koolhaes, ministers in Leyden, were (1579) the first to begin the war which raged so long and so fiercely in Holland on the question of the authority of the Civil Government in Ecclesiastical matters. Peter Cornelison maintained that elders and deacons ought to be nominated by the Consistory and proposed to the congregation without the intervention of the magistrate. Gaspar Koolhaes, on the contrary, maintained that elders and deacons, on being nominated by the Consistory, should be approved of by the magistrates, and afterwards presented to the congregation. The dispute came before the magistrates, and decision was given in favor of the latter method, that elders and deacons elect should receive the approval of the magistrate before being presented to the people. The States of Holland, with the view of preserving the public peace and putting an end to these quarrels, appointed certain divines to deduce from Scripture, and embody in a concise treatise, the Relations of the Civil and Ecclesiastical Powers – in other words, to give an answer to the question, what the magistrate may do and what he may not do in the Church. It is almost unnecessary to say that their dissertation on this difficult and delicate question did not meet the views of all parties, and that the tempest was not allayed. The worthy divines took somewhat decided views on the magistrate's functions. His duty, they said, was "to hinder those who corrupt the Word of God from disturbing the external peace of the Church, to fine and imprison them, and inflict corporal punishments upon them." As an illustration Peter Cornelison, the champion of the Consistorial rights, was dismissed from his charge in Leyden, an apology accompanying the act, in which the magistrates set forth that they "did not design to tyrannise over the Church, but to rid her of violent and seditious men," adding" that the Church ought to be governed by Christ alone, and not by ministers and Consistories." This looked like raising a false issue, seeing both parties admitted that the government of the Church is in Christ alone, and only disputed as to whether that government ought to be administered through magistrates, or through ministers and Consistories. [4]

The National Synod which met at Dort in 1578, and which issued the famous declaration in favor of toleration, noticed in a previous chapter, agreed that a National Synod should be convened once every three years. In pursuance of that enactment, the Churches of Antwerp and Delft, to whom the power had been given of convoking the assembly, issued circular letters calling the Synod, which accordingly assembled in 1581 at Middelburg in Zealand. The constitution of the Netherland Reformed Church – so far framed by the "Ecclesiastical Laws" - this Synod completed on the French model. The Consistories, or Kirk-sessions, it placed under classes or Presbyteries; and the Presbyteries it placed under particular Synods. The other regulations tended in the direction of curtailing the power of the magistrate in Church matters. The Synod entirely shut him out in the choice of elders and deacons, and it permitted him to interfere in the election of ministers only so far as to approve the choice of the people. The Synod likewise decreed that all ministers, elders, deacons, and professors of divinity should subscribe the Confession of Faith of the Netherland Church. In the case of Koolhaes, who had maintained against Cornelison the right of the magistrate to intervene in the election of elders and deacons, the Synod found his doctrine erroneous, and ordained him to make a public acknowledgement. Nevertheless, he refused to submit to this judgment, and though excommunicated by the Synod of Haarlem next year, he was sustained in the spiritual functions and temporal emoluments of his office by the magistrates of Leyden. The matter was abundantly prolific of strifes and divisions, which had all but ruined the Church at Leyden, until it ended in the recalcitrant resigning his ministry and adopting the trade of a distiller. [5]

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Thursday, October 29th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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