12 July 2005

the keys of the kingdom

An email correspondent recommends James L. Ainslie's study, The Doctrines of Ministerial Order in the Reformed Churches of the 16th and 17th Centuries (T&T Clark 1940) as an interesting overview of the role and theology of ordained office within historic Reformed ecclesiology.

Reformed ecclesiology is, of course, a wide-ranging topic, encompassing a variety of matters: not only the ordained ministry as such, but also the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, church life and the communion of saints, the nature of the church in its visible and invisible aspects, the doctrine of the covenant, and so on. Moreover, recent Reformed figures (Kuiper, Clowney, Berkouwer, Barth, Newbigin, etc.) have developed the tradition in various ways and their contributions need to be critically evaluated.

With regard to the "power of the keys," Ainslie's study includes transcriptions of French and a Scots Reformed rites or forms for excommunication, as well as a Scots form of absolution from a sentence of excommunication. From the French Reformed Synod of Alai in 1620 we receive the following rite that would have been used in a public declaration of excommunication:

We Ministers of the Word of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom God has given power on earth to bind and to loose...do cut off N and hereby aforesaid from the Communion of the Church, do excommunicate him, and do cast him out from the Society of the Faithful, that he may be to you as a "heathen man and a publican," and that among true believers he may be Anathema and a Curse...Which sentence of excommunication the Son of God will ratify and make efficacious to him, until the sinner, confounded and abased before God, glorifies Him by his return, and freed from the bonds of Satan, mourns over his sin with tears of penitence. Beloved Brethren, pray God that He may have mercy on this poor sinner, and that this fearful judgment which with regret and great sadness of heart we by the authority of God’s Son pronounce against him, may serve to humble him, and bring him back to the Way of Salvation, a soul that has wandered from it. Amen.

Going back further, the 1571 version of the Scottish Reformed Book of Common Order a similar rite which reads, in part:

We farther give over into the hands and power of the devil the said N, to the destruction of the flesh...And his sin (albeit with sorrow of heart) by virtue of our Ministry we bind and pronounce the same to be bound in heaven and earth...Thy Church from which this day (with grief and dolour of our hearts he is ejected.

The ritual forms used to absolve an individual of the sentence of excommunication are quite similar. One example, again, from the Book of Common Order, will suffice:

In the Name and Authority of Jesus Christ, I, the minister of His blessed Evangel, with the consent of the whole Ministry and Church, absolve thee, N, from the sentence of Excommunication, from the sin by thee committed, and from all censures laid against thee for the same before, according to the repentance; and pronounce thy sin loosed in heaven, and thee to be received again to the society of Jesus Christ, to His Body and Church, to the participation of His Sacraments, and finally to the fruition of all His benefits: In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

We can make several obvservations regarding these rites. First, they show the utmost seriousness with which Reformed churches have taken church discipline and the sentence of excommunication. One must also remember than in the Scottish and French contexts, unlike modern America, the excommunicant had little relief from his sentence and couldn't simply slip off to the next church down the street with impunity. This was due to the pervasive role the church held within society, the continuation of the local geographical parish system, and the virtual monopoly that the Reformed churches held ecclesiastically, unless the excommunicant were willing to turn to the Roman Catholic church.

Second, these exhibit a strong understanding of the ministerial exercise of the keys. While, for the Reformed tradition, the preaching of the Gospel itself is the primary form in which the keys are exercised - opening the kingdom to sinners through the free offer of the Gospel - there is no neglect of other ways in which the keys are exercised, whether through teaching, the administration of the sacraments, pastoral oversight, and, indeed, excommunication and absolution.

In the ritual forms above, for instance, we see [a] the ministry of discipline understood in terms of the authority to bind and loose sins and [b] the expectation that the ministerial exercise of the keys is "ratified and made efficacious" by Jesus in heaven. As such, these historic forms are significantly more strongly worded and represent a more highly developed understanding of ministerial authority than those currently in use in most Reformed denominations, at least in America.

Recent years have brought attention to the recovery and development of a biblical and Reformed ecclesiology and a historical perspective will have an important role to play in such a project.