J. N. Darby.
You abandon then, sir, as it appears, what lies at the bottom of the controversy, to embarrass your adversary with a question which you think he will find unanswerable. Nothing in fact remains for you to do but that you have nothing more to say on what lies at the bottom of the question. The controversy is exhausted and one sees clearly where the truth lies. This being the case, I assure you, sir, that I trouble myself very little about the success you may have in your effort to shew that I have exposed myself by some inaccurate expression to your attacks against me. I should have preferred co-operating with you, if that had been possible, in some good thing, to meeting you as a volunteer in a controversy of which, for my part, I regret the necessity.
The fact is, sir, you do not understand what lies at the bottom of the truth to which these questions are attached. Nevertheless, I will answer your question. The observations by which you introduce it bear on what God ought or ought not to do. It would be sufficient for me to say that there is very little reverence in this manner of treating the question, and that you, sir, are absolutely incompetent to decide it in putting it thus.
When you say, "Therefore God would have founded and regulated the institution of elders, to suppress it necessarily at the end of thirty years"; these words have no force whatever unless it be this - we cannot suppose that God could have done such a thing. I do not hold you, sir, capable of saying what God could do. You are not at the height of His thoughts or of His wisdom. I keep to the word, which reveals to me on His part what He has done and what He intends to do.
Besides, there are all sorts of suppositions in your argument. For example, it is essentially founded on this one: That God had formed an economy with the design of causing it to continue such as it was for a very long time. Where do you find this? As a matter of fact, this has not taken place in the very case in question: and you know it, or else you are too ignorant of the facts to occupy yourself with this subject. Since the end of the apostolical century, it is this succession, of which you are afraid, and by which you think I am seduced, which has prevailed. It is a fact which cannot be denied. You do not approve of the episcopal system, you do not believe it to be that which the apostles, which God Himself, established. Now, in that case, the economy has not continued in its normal condition. This therefore is how you must turn your arguments: Either God had no thought of causing the condition of the economy here below to continue such as it was according to the principles on which He founded it; or His designs have been frustrated. Now this latter supposition is false and impossible: consequently, it did not enter into His designs to maintain the economy on the footing on which He had placed it in founding it. I say "your arguments," for I can assure you I should not allow myself any such.
340 Your reasoning has an unsound foundation, or rather none at all. You have taken for granted, without any proof, a great general principle, of which the thing you have to demonstrate is only a particular case. That which you have first to shew is what you assume, namely, that God's designs were to maintain the economy as it was.
You do not succeed better as to the points of the dilemma on one of which you wish to catch me. As regards the accusation of suppressing a portion of scripture, it has nothing to do here. The part of the word which treats of the innocency of man remains absolutely without direct application now, as there is not an innocent man. Has this part lost its value? The argument, in assuming such to he the case with three whole epistles, could have no force whatever. Now I do not in any way admit that such was the case with regard to these epistles. Moreover, it is not a question of the value of institutions, but of the power to ordain other persons as elders with the same authority as the first, so as to be able to say, "The Holy Spirit has ordained you." At all events, the institutions must have preserved their apostolical force, as long as persons nominated by the apostles or by their deputies lived. Now, if God foresaw that, by the malice of men, the true spiritual value of these institutions would be lost at that time, or when the oversight of the apostles should be wanting; and that by remaining silent He avoided maintaining unto them this authority, when the spiritual qualifications which should have made its exercise profitable had ceased, and when consequently it would no longer be wise to invest men with such authority - would there be anything strange, inconsistent, or imprudent in this silence; or would it be profoundly wise? I do not here pretend to affirm that what I suppose was true, but what I have said about it entirely takes away all foundation for your arguments. The fact is, sir, that the decline to which I allude happened before that time. Why should I suppose that God took care to invest men with the authority which is attached to those who (thus says the apostle) were ordained by the Holy Spirit Himself, when these men should no longer be in the condition to use it according to the wisdom and according to the thought of the Spirit?
341 You will have it that God had provided for a nomination of elders in the future, and a nomination made with the authority of God Himself, and this you do not prove. Now without this, neither one side nor the other of your dilemma has any force whatever. My natural answer is that there is no such ordinance or arrangement in scripture.
You tell me, "Then God would have founded and established," etc. I blame such reasoning à priori with regard to the ways of God; but as an argument, I ask if it would be wise to invest man, on the part of God, with a complete authority, with an official authority, who would take advantage of the assertion that the Holy Spirit had conferred it on them - a true assertion in the case which you suppose - when the qualifications which made this authority profitable to the Church should no longer be there?
Your argument supposes that the Church would continue in a state to profit by such an investiture; and that its entire moral condition would render it desirable. Your supposition is in itself untenable. You have no right to attribute these thoughts, this supposition, to Him who alone has authority in this case, who alone can foresee what is about to happen. Besides, facts do not help to support your irreverent argument. You know that the declension of which I have spoken has taken place; the apostles themselves predicted it, and more than predicted it; for they declared that it had already begun during their lifetime. You cannot reply "this is exactly why the apostle exhorts the elders to watch over the flock!" Quite true, when he could add, "over which the Holy Ghost has made you overseers"; but he did not tell them "for this reason fill up the vacancies that occur in your body"; nor "have others chosen by the assembly." He did say "I commend you to God and to the word of his grace." Where is the place in which a fresh nomination is presented as the resource of the Church? I could shew you several which send you back to the written word, the contents of which, inasmuch as they are above the fallibility of men, are the rule and resource of the Church in all ages. In a word, you assume the perpetuity of institutions (vested in the persons of those who were to fulfil the functions), with the authority of an appointment coming from God. Without that, there is no need of apostolic succession. Now you have not the authority of the word for the assertion that God intended to perpetuate them in this way. You have, moreover, the fact that they have not continued in that manner.
342 Allow me, sir, to tell you, without bitterness, that it is you who, I will not say, detract from, but who lay aside, the authority of the Epistles to Timothy and Titus, because you pretend to ordain elders otherwise than the Holy Spirit orders it to be done. This was why it was insisted on at Geneva that, in ordering it to be done so, the word has not said "and not otherwise."
I have now answered you, in the main, in a more true and sincere manner than if I had only attached a consequence to your limited question. But I understand, sir, that this is worth nothing in my case. I therefore come in a formal manner to the categorical question, which, however, is a very small one. I said I "believe - not exactly in the impossibility of ordaining elders after the death of the apostles, but - in the incompetency of those who now pretend to do so," because I did not wish to pronounce on an abstract question, without being sure of the thought of God in His word; nor to accept the version which my opponents made for me, when the practical question was clear as daylight according to this word, namely, that those who have pretended to do so, at Geneva and elsewhere, had no authority for it whatever. Their pretension was contradicted by the word. It always becomes a Christian not to affirm, and especially in the things of God, that for which he has no positive certainty in the word. One is obliged to follow this rule with still greater care, when one is in the presence of adversaries ready to take advantage. You are the proof of this, sir - of the slightest occasion to make objections which might embarrass the simple in the reception of the truth. The only true conclusion is that I have not wished to affirm anything on this point. If you want a more formal answer, I will tell you I do not think it true that it is necessary to be an apostle in order to ordain elders, but I have not pretended to say, whether, or not, the persons individually appointed by the apostle were able to nominate such, after the death of the apostles who confided to them this authority. I have not wished to assert anything about the abstract question of impossibility, nor do anything else than judge what in fact was proposed to me by the word. We were accused of disobeying the word, because we did not submit to their elders at Geneva, and because we did not nominate any. My answer was, not to say what was impossible after the death of the apostles, but that you have not the authority of the word for what you have done. If one does not think of nominating them, one has no need of apostolic succession. The persons whom you blame have not had the pretension to nominate any. The idea of apostolic succession is a consequence which you deduce from your pretension, linked with the supposition that it was in God's thoughts that the Church should continue in its normal condition, and that He knew that it would be thus. Now it has not thus continued, and your pretension is irreverent and presumptuous.
343 Notice, sir, that it is not the Epistles to Timothy and Titus which have conferred on these apostolical delegates the authority to establish elders. These inspired letters, given to the Church for all times, remind one of the fact that this authority had been confided to them, so that, for my part, I do not dare to say what was the extent of the power of establishing elders on the part of the apostles. It is by no means impossible that Paul may have sent several delegates. It is possible that he may have commanded them to do so after his death. The word tells us what he did, so far as that is profitable for the Church at all times, and not all that he did - far from it. What I believe therefore is not precisely that it was impossible to ordain elders after the death of the apostles.
To sum up. Your assertion that God would not have founded and established institutions, knowing that they would fail directly, is entirely without foundation. The principle is shewn to be false by the history of man, of the Jews, of the priesthood in Israel, of the kingly power in this people - by the whole history of the Bible. At the same time this manner of reasoning on your part is a confession that the word is entirely silent with regard to the appointment of elders after the apostolic times, because you are forced to have recourse to an argument, and to allege that God would not have founded else.
344 Your second point, namely, that it is not a question of man's failure, but of a necessity which is connected with the death of the apostles, is only a denial of the omniprescience of God; since, if God foresaw the spiritual declension, He might very well not make mention of an institution which would invest with a positive and scriptural authority from Himself that which would be in this moral state of declension, although He might have given authority for a nomination as from Him to those who were the suitable instruments of His grace, before the Church had declined. Now this declension is stated in the word. There is an appointment of the first elders in the Gentile churches, but no decree for so doing continuously, so that you are forced to argue on a supposition of what God ought to have done.
In fact, your question is founded on the supposition that one must be an apostle in order to appoint elders. "If it is true that one must be an apostle," etc. Your supposition is still false. Timothy and Titus were not such. It is possible that others were employed to appoint elders. It is not impossible that they were so employed after the death of the apostles.
So that the conclusion we must come to is this, that you are incorrect in what you say; that I have been very scrupulous not to assert more than the word authorizes me to say; and the necessity of apostolic succession is a dream on your part.
I leave to you, sir, the choice of continuing the discussion, or of remaining silent. The discussion will only make truth more evident, and your silence will only be the proof that you have nothing more to object to what I put forth.
I am your very devoted brother and servant in Christ,
J. N. DARBY.