08 June 2016

Convivial Thoughts Part 3: George Carleton and the Synod of Dort

(For Parts 1 and 2 of my comments on The Davenant Trust’s Convivium Irenicum 2016 go here and here.)

It was good to see Andre Gazal again. As best as we could recall, we hadn’t seen each other since 1997 or 1998 in our Geneva School days. Andre presented his work-in-progress titled “George Carleton’s Reformed Doctrine of Apostolic Succession at the Synod of Dort.” I knew of the 1619 Synod of Dort from my days in the Christian Reformed Church; it’s the one famously identified with the so-called Five Points of Calvinism. I also generally recalled that Dort was an international synod, one in which there were Reformed delegates from nations outside the Dutch Republic. I was a blank slate, however, when it came to who those delegates were and what influence they had.

Several of the non-Dutch delegates at Dort were from England who attended at the direction of James I on behalf of the Church of England. And one of the English delegates was George Carleton, then bishop of Llandaff in Wales. James had carefully instructed the English delegates to remain firm in their advocacy for distinctively Anglican teaching and practices, which included an episcopal form of church government where bishops ruled. Thus, it should be of no surprise that Carleton and the others came in for some strong criticism on their return to England because the Synod had reaffirmed Article 31 of the Belgic Confession, which provided that the Reformed churches of the Netherlands would have a Presbyterian form of church government in which there were no bishops, and ministers and elders had equal ruling authority.

Two interesting points followed. First, Carleton protested that the English delegates had vigorously pressed the Dutch to modify their church order to provide for episcopacy and that the Hollanders claimed they wanted rule by bishops but that their civil magistrates were unalterably opposed. Such an admission by the Dutch greatly surprised me, especially when in Scotland it was the magistrate—James VI—who distrusted a Presbyterian form of church government and in England—as James I—he liked having bishops. In other words, if the English civil magistrate preferred episcopacy, why wouldn’t the magistrates in the Netherlands likewise want it?

Second, and of more general interest, was Carleton’s rational for episcopacy: only bishops could maintain a legitimate claim to authority via apostolic succession. My notes regarding Carleton’s argument as relayed by Gazal are sketchy but it went something like this: #1—Christ delegated to his apostles governing authority over (i) doctrine (i.e., creation of Scripture) and (ii) the church (guaranteeing correct teaching by ordaining clergy (presbyters) and, if necessary, removing them if they began to teach heresy); #2—this two-fold authority is perpetual; #3yet with the close of the canon, revelation of doctrine (#1(i)) is complete; #4someone (the apostles’ successors) had to have continuing jurisdiction over the church (#1(ii)) since the need for godly teachers and the danger of heresy remain; #5the clergy couldn’t have jurisdiction over themselves; thus, #6only bishops today have that residual apostolic authority.

Whatever the substantive merits of Carleton’s rationale, it suggests another question: Why don’t the bishops of the Church of Rome have this residual apostolic authority? Because, Carleton argued, they forfeited that authority by wrongfully delegating it to the Pope. According to Christ's apostolic order the Church is to be governed by a plurality of bishops, not a single “super-bishop,” and thus there had to be a “reset” after the failure of the Conciliar Movement in the 15th century.

Altogether, Gazal’s was one of the most intricate of papers presented at the Convivium and it certainly left everyone with plenty of food for thought.

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