Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
October 13th, 2014 by Joel Watts

William Law on the Authority of the Church – almost sacramental… #UMC

St Peter in Penitence

St Peter in Penitence (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m almost convinced that William Law is one of the greatest unsung theological heroes of the past 500 years. Here, he is urging something… using something else…

Remember, he is Anglican. Also, This entire 9 vol set is available on Logos.

I hope, my Lord, it may be allowed, that the Sacraments are Real Means of Grace: But it is certain they are only conditionally so, if those that partake of them are endowed with suitable Dispositions of Piety and Virtue. Glorious Means of Grace of the Sacraments, which is only obtained by such pious Dispositions; and then it is owing to the Dispositions, and not the Sacraments. Now, my Lord, if there can be such a thing as instituted Real Means of Grace, which are only conditionally applied, I cannot see, why there may not be an instituted Real Authority in the Church, which is only to be conditionally obeyed.

Your Lordship has written a great many Elaborate Pages to prove the English Government Limited; and that no Obedience is due to it, but whilst it preserves our Fundamentals; and, I suppose, the People are to judge for themselves, whether these are safe, or not. Glorious Authority of the English Government, which is to be obeyed no longer than the People think it their Interest to obey it!

Will your Lordship say, There is no Authority in the English Government, because only a conditional Obedience is due to it, whilst we think it supports our Fundamentals? Why then must the Church-Authority be reckoned nothing at all, because only a Rational Conditional Obedience is to be paid, whilst we think it not contrary to Scripture? Is a Limited, Conditional Government in the State, such a Wise, Excellent, and Glorious Constitution? And is the same Authority in the Church, such Absurdity, Nonsense, and nothing at all, as to any actual Power?

If there be such a thing as Obedience upon Rational Motives, there must be such a thing as Authority that is not absolute, or that does not require a Blind, Implicit Obedience. Indeed, Rational Creatures can obey no other Authority; they must have Reasons for what they do. And yet because the Church claims only this Rational Obedience, your Lordship explodes such Authority as none at all.

Yet it must be granted, that no other Obedience was due to the Prophets, or our Saviour and his Apostles: They were only to be obeyed by those who Thought their Doctrines worthy of God. So that if the Church has no Authority, because we must first consult the Scriptures before we obey it; neither our Saviour, nor his Apostles, had any Authority, because the Jews were first to consult their Scriptures, and the Heathens their Reason, before they obeyed them. And yet this is all that is said against Church-Authority; That because they are to judge of the Lawfulness of its Injunctions, therefore they owe it no Obedience: Which false Conclusion I hope is enough exposed.

If we think it unlawful to do anything that the Church requires of us, we must not obey its Authority. So, if we think it unlawful to submit to any Temporal Government, we are not to comply. But, I hope, it will not follow, that the Government has no Authority, because some think it unlawful to comply with it. If we are so unhappy as to judge wrong in any Matter of Duty, we must nevertheless act according to our Judgments; and the Guilt of Disobedience either in Church or State, is more or less, according as our Error is more or less voluntary, and occasioned by our own Mismanagement.

I believe I have shown, First, That all your Lordship’s Arguments against Church-Authority, conclude with the same Force against all Degrees of Authority: Secondly, That though Church-Authority be not Absolute in a certain Sense; yet if our Saviour and his Apostles had any Authority, the Church may have a Real Authority: For neither he, nor his Apostles, had such an Absolute Authority, as excludes all Consideration and Examination: Which is your Notion of Absolute Authority.1

  1. William Law, The Works of the Reverend William Law (vol. 1, 9 vols.; London: J. Richardson, 1762), 14–16.
Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

5 Responses to “William Law on the Authority of the Church – almost sacramental… #UMC”
  1. Know More Than I Should says

    Because the laws of mankind are largely a product of whim, and the laws of ancient divinity sometimes conflict therewith, that which is “lawful” is often in the eyes of the beholder. Another quirt if law is that it often constitutes rule by dead men!!!

  2. Joel, William Law was a Nonjuror who indeed had a high sacramental view of the church — on in which adherence to rightful bishops was sign of its truthfulness. On Nonjurors see: http://www.cromohs.unifi.it/seminari/cornwall_nonjuror.html?a?a

  3. Joel, I should add as a Nonjuror, Law did not consider the Georgian government of England to be legitimate. Instead, he placed his allegiance with the Stuarts in exile.

  4. Alas, the Stuarts died out. The last Stuart claimant died in the early 19th century — a Cardinal in the Catholic Church — self proclaimed Henry iX.. They didn’t do very well with having legitimate children. Hanoverians had problems as well, but not as many — and now we’ve got lots of possibilities!!

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