Historical Introduction by David C. Lachman, Ph.D.

Naphtali Press - James Durham on Scandal

Extracts from Durham on Scandal

Copyright (c) Naphtali Press 1996

A Treatise Concerning Scandal Historical Introduction by David C. Lachman, Ph.D.

An old book with a quaint title. Yes, but more than that, an old book by an author whose writings Charles Haddon Spurgeon characterized as always good and very precious. Spurgeon is not alone. Durham’s writings have been greatly esteemed from their first publication and most were frequently reprinted. Indeed, his commentary on the Song of Solomon is currently in print and his various other works are prized by those who can find them.

The author, James Durham, was born about 1622 of an ancient and honorable family; he studied at the University of St. Andrews, but, without obtaining a degree, left to pursue the life of a country gentleman. Overhearing him praying with his troops during the civil war, David Dickson mistook him for a chaplain rather than the captain he was. On learning the truth Dickson solemnly charged Durham to devote himself to the ministry when the war was over. This he did, studying divinity at Glasgow under Dickson. He was then called successively to two charges in Glasgow. In 1650 he was chosen by the General Assembly as chaplain to the King’s family and was subsequently called (but not admitted) to teach divinity at Glasgow. His surviving colleague in the charge spoke very highly of Durham’s ministry, describing him as a very candid and searching preacher who in an instant was in the inmost corners of your bosoms, though with the utmost caution and meekness, without giving any of his hearers the smallest ground to fret and repine at his freedom in dealing with them. His pastoral work was characterized by wholesome instructions, faithful and free admonition and frequent prayer. Privately he was described as exemplifying the truth of the gospel, and the genuine spirit of religion in his own personal walk and behavior. Durham’s death in June 1658 came after a long, painful illness.

But what of this work? Although the second of his works to be published (all of his works were published posthumously and all but the first two and the last were prepared for the press by his friend and colleague John Carstairs), this was the last work he composed. By the testimony of Robert Blair, the fellow minister to whom he sent it, he not only wrote it when on his death bed, but dictated the final portion when too weak to write.

What drew Durham’s attention to this subject in the final months of his relatively short life? Certainly the subject is always relevant, at least the first three parts of the work, which cover scandal in a general way. What period of the church has not known offenses between individual Christians and a need for public church discipline or has not been afflicted with doctrinal error? Durham’s treatment of these matters reflects the consummate wisdom and prudence attributed to him by Carstairs. It requires some effort to follow Durham thoughtfully through his distinctions and all the various cases he considers; but it is effort which carries with it considerable reward. For who among us and what church would not be profited if both we ourselves and others were to study carefully how we might live so as to avoid giving offense — and, more, not to take offense where none is intended? Surely any who care for the peace of the church, not to mention their own personal well-being, would do well to consider these things. Further, such questions as how an offender is to be regarded after a rebuke has been administered and when an offense should be made public are always pertinent. These matters are food for profitable reflection and Durham is a helpful guide. Again, Durham asserts that never has the church been so defaced, nor so many souls destroyed by any scandalous practice as by corrupt or erroneous doctrine. How both seducers and seduced are to be treated, admonished and rejected or reclaimed is helpful, perhaps particularly in our time when such offenders are more commonly ignored or even encouraged than treated harshly.

But the fourth part is that which Blair particularly describes as Durham’s last labor, his final word to the Church of Scotland. Some, in retrospect, have looked on the 1650’s as a time of peace and prosperity for the church in Scotland. The actual situation was far otherwise. Those who from 1638 had labored cheerfully together, in one heart and one way, were, when Durham wrote, long since divided, sub-divided, weakened, disjoynted and broken…. And the church which was sometime a praise in the earth, was now a hissing, a by-word and reproach to all around. What happened? And why did Durham spend his dying days dictating the fourth part of this book, `Concerning Scandalous Divisions’? The answer to this question requires some explanation of the history of the period.

In the course of the English Civil War, Charles I, having been handed over by the Scots to the English Parliamentary army in early 1647, decided to attempt to make an alliance with some of his more moderate foes. This culminated in December 1647 in `The Engagement’ between Charles and several Scottish nobles, binding him to limited support of the Covenants and Presbyterianism, with the suppression of the Independents and Sectaries (including Oliver Cromwell), and them to restore the King to power, using whatever means — or force — necessary. This agreement was endorsed by the Scottish Estates (comprised of representatives of Lords, commissioners of shires and burgesses), but was condemned by the General Assembly of the Church as unlawful and sinful. Those who favored it were to be excommunicated or deposed. The Scottish army which invaded England, having been sent by the government on behalf of Charles, was routed by Cromwell at Preston in August 1648 and its leaders executed. Following promises made to Cromwell, the Scottish Parliament — with the leaders who had endorsed the Engagement out of power — condemned the Engagement in early January 1649. Later that month it took action against those involved, passing an `Act of Classes’ (similar to one passed three years earlier in another context), grouping offenders in four levels of punishment: the leaders who had plotted against the government by promoting the Engagement and general officers in the army were barred for life from public office; the malignants who had in some lesser way supported the Engagers were subject to ten or five years exclusion from office, depending on the severity of the offense; finally, frail brethren guilty of some moral offense were to be excluded for a year. Restoration to office at the end of the prescribed period was only permitted after appropriate repentance.

Still later that same month Charles I was executed in London. Most Scots were horrified. Few wished to abolish the monarchy, as the English proceeded to do. Indeed, most Scottish Presbyterians looked on the English Independents and Sectaries as the precursor of virtual anarchy in church as well as state. They had long sought a uniformity in religion in the two kingdoms, not only believing it most in accord with God’s Word, but also the most likely means of preserving Presbyterianism in Scotland.

The Scottish Parliament quickly proclaimed Charles II King and sent commissioners to him offering to allow him to assume the throne if he subscribed the Covenants and agreed to establish Presbyterianism throughout his kingdoms. Charles was unwilling to commit himself to these terms, but, after the defeat of those attempting to regain his crown by military means, and after prolonged negotiations, he sailed for Scotland and complied `for the outward part’ with most of the demands made upon him. But his compliance was clearly (to all but the most naive) a forced compliance and his concessions certainly did not represent his convictions.

While the Scottish actions were a natural enough result of Scottish nationalism and Presbyterian convictions, the English Parliament was not willing to allow this threat to its existence gather power without taking measures against it. An army, under Cromwell, was duly sent. Reflecting the divisions among themselves, the Scottish army was partially purged of malignants (those who were not well-affected to the Covenanting cause): Royalists, Episcopalians and other enemies of the Covenant and Reformed religion, as well as the profane and immoral. The Scottish army was routed at Dunbar on 3rd September 1650.

The Scots, though defeated, did not give up, but were of differing minds as to the appropriate course of action. Those in the church to whom patriotism was a primary consideration and who were willing to exercise a considerable amount of credulity in regard to Charles’ expressions of good will, began to rethink the exclusion of virtually all of those who had been excluded from the government and army by the Act of Classes, thinking that after the English Sectaries were driven out perhaps Charles would be more amenable to Presbyterianism. Others, either from having the concern of the church primarily at heart or else believing the English Sectaries a lesser danger to the church (and state) than Charles and all that his rule implied, were more inclined to see the recent defeat as a result of a want of God’s favor due to compromises already made than as an excuse for a yet more consistently worldly policy.

In this context, with Cromwell in Edinburgh and Charles II in Perth (at the mouth of the Highlands), first the King made an abortive attempt to shake free entirely from the control of the church and the Scottish Parliament and then an association of `gentlemen, commanders and ministers attending the forces in the West’ (of Scotland) presented a Remonstrance to the Committee of Estates, then meeting in Stirling. They deplored the hasty admission of Charles to the Covenant, when every evidence pointed to his insincerity, the toleration of malignants, backsliding from the covenant, etc. (A similar Remonstrance was presented to the Commission of the General Assembly by the Synod of Glasgow and Ayr at about the same time.) The Committee of Estates saw the Remonstrance as being divisive in a time in which Scotland needed to unite to repel the English invasion and so condemned it. The Commission of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (which met and acted for the General Assembly between meetings, in much the same way as did the Committee of Estates for Parliament) acknowledged the Remonstrance contained some sadd trueths, but, in view of the great and evident necessity occasioned by the presence of enemy troops in the kingdom, could not oppose the raising of all but the excommunicated, the notoriously profane and those who continuously have opposed and still oppose the Covenant and cause of God. In the ensuing months the Commission urged the church not to give comfort to the enemy by speaking disrespectfullie of the public, just, and necessarie Resolutions and justified their support of allowing all but a few to join in the defense of the kingdom by various arguments from Scripture and sanctified prudence.

In December Parliament asked the General Assembly’s Commission what persons were to be admitted to join in the defense of the kingdom and in March sent the Commission a letter inquiring if the Act of Classes, which obstructed unanimity in defense of the kingdom, might not be rescinded. The Commission answered that they could not be against raising all fencible persons and agreed the Act of Classes might be repealed. Their approval of these `Public Resolutions’ of the Estates of Parliament led them to advise the presbyteries to censure any who persuade or preach contrary to them and to summon any such to appear before the next General Assembly. They argued that with a king sworne to and offering his life for all the ends of the Covenant the duty of the church was to support him. Acknowledging the need for caution against the malignants, they believed the Sectaries the main threat. That some who joined in the cause were malignants did not, they urged, make them sinful in doing their duty.

The General Assembly met in July at St. Andrews, adjourned hastily after two days, met again briefly in the relative safety of Dundee (north of the Tay) and then dispersed lest all be captured by the advancing English army (as some, including the moderator and the clerk, in fact were). It was a badly attended meeting from the start; the English occupied considerable portions of the country and travel to the General Assembly was difficult for many and impossible for some. From the start of the Assembly there were disagreements, particularly about contested elections, about the approval of the Commission’s actions and even about the legality of the Assembly itself, granted the instructions of the Commission to presbyteries that any who opposed the Public Resolutions should not be elected, but rather censured. These differences issued in a Protestation handed in shortly before the Assembly left St. Andrews. Signed at first by twenty-two ministers, including James Guthrie and Samuel Rutherford, it complained against the validity and constitution of this Assembly, as not being free and lawful, of the allowing and carrying on of a conjunction with the Malignant Party contrary to the Word of God and the Covenant, and protested that any actions taken by such an Assembly were void and null.

When the Assembly reconstituted itself at Dundee more than half did not appear, including all of those who had signed the Protestation. Although the Protestation was at first committed, lest unripe thoughts should be vented concerning it, the decision was to cite five of the signers to appear and to commend highly the actions of the preceding Commission. The Assembly further called on presbyteries and synods to censure them [the signers] according to the degree of their offense and obstinacie to the Acts of this Assembly and to remove all privileges from such candidates for the ministry as opposed the Public Resolutions and declined the authority of the Assembly.

Although shortly after this the Scottish army was destroyed by Cromwell at Worcester, Charles II went into exile and Scotland was incorporated into the Commonwealth, the breach in the church was not to be healed. The balance of the 1650’s saw rival Assemblies, presbyteries and even rival ministers in the same parish. Friends and co-workers, even of many years standing, were separated, never to be reunited in this life. The presbyterian Church of Scotland which was thus split was suppressed after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 and was not re-established until 1690, after the Glorious Revolution and the accession of William and Mary. And even then there were some who did not join it. Indeed, the church in Scotland has not been one since.

It is distressing even at this point in time to think that men like David Dickson, Robert Baillie and George Hutcheson, on the one hand, and Samuel Rutherford, James Guthrie and Patrick Gillespie, on the other, should thus separate. There was no doctrinal difference between the parties, no question of heresy; but the division once made proved impossible to heal. Some, including James Durham and Robert Blair, did their best to reconcile the opposing parties. The chief aim of this book, Durham’s `Dying Testament’, was the reconciliation of those thus divided. It was particularly designed to urge the good and duty of union, particularly on those separated, and to remove all obstacles and difficulties which might intervene.

Defining schism as the breaking of the union of the church, and that communion which ought to be among the members thereof,… either in government or worship, Durham clearly had in view the then current situation in the presbyterian Church of Scotland. But his remarks apply in considerable measure to the church universal, even to those Independents who consider fellowship between (by definition, local) churches purely spiritual and not at all organizational. For even they are subject to a breaking of fellowship and separation in the ordinances. Durham urges the absolute necessity of uniting upon the church, such that it ought not be more a matter of debate than whether there should be preaching, praying… or any other commanded duty. It is as unwarrantable for men to agree to continue division and forgo union as it would be for them to agree not to preach or pray.

The union Durham is advocating is not that of the modern Ecumenical movement. He repeatedly says that he is not speaking of union where there are differences on the fundamental things. We are not here speaking of such matters as are fundamental, but such as are consistent with soundness of judgment in the main, and piety in these who may be upon either side. He opposes amnesty in points fundamental as being hurtful, because thereby the foundation was struck at and error in fundamental things got equal footing with truth. He does urge that union take precedence over the removal of corrupt unfaithful ministers, whom he describes as the greatest plague of a Church next to division. But he makes it clear that such removals should follow union and should not be long deferred.

Although from his illustrations it is clear that he construes matters `fundamental’ as encompassing far more than do 20th century `Fundamentalists,’ he leaves substantial room for diversity of judgment. He observes that if no diversity of judgment were allowed, peace and union would never have been possible in the church from the beginning of the world. Instead of demands by one side that those who have acted corruptly should repent, there should be large mutual condescending and forbearance and abstaining from anything which might further or heighten a breach. He urges that union does not make agreement necessary in all matters of judgment and practice. Indeed there may be a variety of disagreements and even defects. In this context Durham recommends all concessions short of involving oneself in sin, or in the approving thereof in others. It is the side which seems to be most right or have the most authority on its side which should go the farthest and be the most tender and understanding.

He reminds us that division often is over very small matters. He deplores doctrinal division when the matter is not fundamental, observing that this sort of division occurs among godly and orthodox men in some points of truth, when they too vehemently press their own opinion to be received with a kind of necessity, or load the other with too many absurdities beyond what will follow from the nature thereof. And division once begun is frequently continued for insubstantial and unworthy reasons: uncharitable judgments, particularly concerning persons, heart-burnings at the credit and reputation of others (springing from the root of pride and envy), focus on the infirmities of others, a carnal and factious pleading for truth in matters not fundamental or necessary, and even the introduction of new manner of expressions,…different from what has been formerly delivered…. These and the like engender dissension and division and destroy the peace of the church.

Durham never makes light of truth, and indeed asserts that there is truth upon the one side of every debate. But, granting that there are in fact different apprehension of truths not fundamental (such as meats, genealogies and the external circumstances of worship), he is against absolute decisions in such matters and particularly against those who would press them to the point which would cause a breach in the unity of the church. He cautions against those who would coerce the consciences of their brethren in doubtful matters and clearly lays the obligation on those who would force their brethren to comply (against their consciences) or be expelled. Such were the Donatists, and they were, as Durham demonstrates, clearly guilty of disturbing the peace of the church. Surely it is a great sin to divide the church over such matters.

He warns that matters of government are the most difficult to resolve because there men’s own particular interest is more concerned than [it is when] points of truth are at stake and because there are fears that if, as a result of union, certain men come to power in the church, various evils might result. Appeals to an honored tradition or claims that a particular witness or work would be lost in no way exempts any from a duty to union; much less do unworthy motives such as fears one will not be as influential or important or even just as comfortable in a larger church. Durham reminds us that it is Christ’s church and that we are not given the liberty so to pervert it to our own concerns or interests.

He offers a series of rules for discerning what defects are not proper impediments to union. His first rule is most pertinent: What cannot warrant a breach where there is union, that cannot warrantably be the ground to keep up a division. If the matter is not serious enough to bring about a split in the church, surely it cannot be judged sufficiently serious to continue separation. Again he says, such defects as do not make communion in a Church and in its Ordinances, sinful, will not warrant a separation or division from the same. More wise observations follow: he assures us, for example, that if there is no bar to personal duty as a result of union, we may proceed without guilt. Despite all inconveniences, union is a commanded means to edification and next to heresy in doctrine one of the greatest hurts that can come to a church is division.

Lest any should be so bold as to take Durham’s suggestions for peace and unity as absolute prescriptions for procedures without which union ought not be consummated, Durham clearly describes his suggestions as just that. He cautions that there is no peremptoriness urged in any of the former helps or remedies, but if other means may be found more effectual, any or all of those he has suggested are to cede to them. Anything which leads to union is to be done; anything which impedes union is to be foregone or avoided. Nothing would please Durham less than to find someone pleading against union because all of the procedures he has suggested have not been followed!

Anyone who wishes to take Durham’s work to heart should particularly attend to the preparatory endeavors to uniting, not only looking at division as a plague and a snare, but looking to his own spiritual condition, both with a view to see if there is anything in his own life which impedes union and, particularly, with the understanding that it is preposterous to meddle in removing public difficulties without self-examination and repentance suitable to what is found…. If these and the following preparations Durham suggests were diligently pursued, how easily union would be achieved among those of otherwise like mind.

Durham should be followed through his full argument as he tries to remove impediments to union and dissuade from separation. Surely if his work had been carefully read and equally carefully taken to heart, not only in the mid-17th century situation for which he primarily wrote, but in a succession of separations and proposed (but not always consummated) unions up to the present day, there would be far greater unity in the church of Christ, both in formal organization and in oneness of mind and heart. May the republication of this book lead many to rethink the whole subject of scandal, both personal and corporate. If many Christians were to act on the principles here enunciated, who of us can tell what blessings God might bestow on his church.

David C. Lachman, Ph.D.

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