Faith in Focus

The Right of Private Judgement


 

Human history can be understood as a struggle both for and against authority.In man's search for authority, he has tended toward two extremes. On the one hand he has sought to establish authority in the autonomy of the individual. Our own society is an example where such libertarian ideals have long been promoted. The boundaries of morality and order have been stretched to breaking point. It is likely that this same society could soon head toward that other extreme, evident in Nazi Germany of the last century - authority handed over to one or a small coterie of powerful individuals deciding for the common herd just what constitutes truth.

This has its counterpart in the Church. On the one hand many like the Quakers, have sought the democratisation of the Church, pleading an inner light as the ultimate authority. Or alternatively authority has been focused on a Pope or powerful ruling elite in the Church. Protestants re-established the supreme of authority of the Holy Scriptures at the time of the Reformation. This authority did not negate the need for an authorised teaching ministry of godly men within the church, rather it required one. Yet at the same time, God was understood to have established, with equal clarity, the right of private judgement. Martin Luther immediately comes to mind when we think of this principle. Recall his answer in the Diet of Worms, "If the emperor desires, a plain answer, I will give it to him. It is impossible for me to recant unless I am proved to be wrong by the testimony of Scripture. My conscience is bound to the Word of God. It is neither safe nor honest to act against one's conscience. Here I stand. God help me. I cannot do otherwise."

James Henley Thornwell, nineteenth century American Reformed Theologian begins his discussion on theProtestant position on the right of private judgement in clear and unequivocal terms.

 

"To abandon the exercise of private judgement, and intrust the understanding to the guidance of teachers arrogant enough to claim infallibility without producing the credentials of a Divine commission, is to encourage a despotism which none can sanction without the express authority of God. Private judgement, indeed, can never be wholly set aside; the pretensions of an infallible instructor must be submitted to the understandings of men, and finally determined by each man's convictions of truth and justice."[1]

 

The nature of a human soul of itself demands that this Protestant principle be held inviolable by Christians. Thornwell is surely right in adding: "There can be no assurance of truth without a corresponding confidence in our faculties; the light which we enjoy, the convictions of our minds, the appearances of things to the human understanding,- these are to us the measures of truth and falsehood."[2] Of course he means in the light of Holy Scripture - the complete and perfect and only rule of faith and life. God has made us as reasoning creatures in His own image.

††††††††††† On a simple level we all live our lives according to this principle. Christians and non-Christians alike allow private judgement in all sorts of matters. Who we vote for as a politician, for example, is a matter of our own private judgement for which we alone are responsible.

††††††††††† To embrace an authority, which requires one to deny the reasoning faculty of man, and so overturn private judgement is a contradiction of man's own nature. Nevertheless, this is precisely what the Roman Church does to her own adherents. In spite of evidence to the contrary, the "believer" must accept, on the basis of the alleged infallible authority of Church and Pope, that bread and wine in the Mass become the actual body and blood of Christ. Our senses tell us that this is nonsense, and that this demand for an implicit faith is contrary to the teaching of Scripture. If an alleged "infallible" Church requires you to suspend the reasoning power that God has given you, how can you then trust that reason in any situation? To relinquish "private judgement" in this way to such a claimed authority is to introduce scepticism in all of life. It is also false to suggest that matters of faith are unreasonable. The Scriptures do not allow us to claim that religious truth is unreasonable. Certainly we cannot reason our way to the Gospel. It required a supernatural revelation if we were to know the way to God. But it is one thing to assert man's ignorance and the need of revelation and another to suggest that this revelation is unreasonable or irrational. Given our presupposition that the Bible is the infallible Word of God,sublime doctrines like the Trinity, though beyond the reasoning power of man's puny intellect to fully comprehend, does not make them irrational, but eminently reasonable, because they come from the lips of Christ in His Word.

 

Intolerance

A parallel matter, which comes up for discussion when we consider the right of private judgement, is the use of coercion to compel acquiescence to a point of view. R.L. Dabney another important Reformed Theologian of nineteenth century America, discusses the false path of persecution and coercion as a means of faith.

 

"All acts of religious intolerance are inconsistent with the relations which God has established between Himself and rational souls. Here is the main point. God holds every soul directly responsible to Himself. That responsibility necessarily implies that no one shall step in between him and his God. No one can relieve him of his responsibility, answer for him to God, and bear his punishment, if he has betrayed his duty. Therefore no one should interfere to hinder his judging for himself...Each man is directly bound to his God to render a belief and servicehearty; proceeding primarily from a regard to Godís will, not manís. Else it is sin. Now, how impious is he, who, professing to contend for God, thus thrusts himself between God and His creature? Substitutes fear of him for fear of God? Thrusts himself into Godís place? He that does it is an anti-Christ. Manís belief is a thing sacred, inviolable.Ē[3]

 

One of the most important reasons for the reading of Scripture by the individual is that we may compare that Scripture to the opinions of mere men. It is not only Romanism who seeks to overthrow the Protestant principle. Charles Hodge, another important American Reformed Theologian, reminds us that Protestants as well as Papists can resort to imposing opinion in the place of Scripture. Emphasising the completeness of the Scriptures, he notes:

 

"It [the completeness of the Scriptures] is not by Romanists only that it is denied, practically at least, if not theoretically. Nothing is more common among Protestants, especially in our own day, than the attempt to coerce the conscience of men by public opinion; to make the opinions of men on questions of morals a rule of duty for the people, and even for the Church. If we would stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, we must adhere to the principle that in matters of religion and morals the Scriptures alone have authority to bind the conscience."[4]

 

If we compromise the principle of the right of private judgement, and fail to emphasise both the completeness of Scripture and the personal responsibility each has to read it, we are no different than Rome. We also trample on the noble spilt blood of many a Protestant martyr, who gave a life because he or she held this principle dear.

The Romanists, both at the time of the Reformation and subsequently, have ridiculed this right of private judgement, which was in a sense the principle on which the Reformation itself was founded. Yes it was Scripture alone, but it was Scripture interpreted with the claim to the right of private judgement and not the enforced interpretation of a corrupt "infallible" Church.

Jesuit theologians, in particular, used all their rhetorical skills to attempt to undermine the Reformation theologians at this point. They argued that to allow private judgement in matters of faith was tantamount to anarchy and the approval of heresy. Many able Protestant controversialists showed that this seemingly plausible attack was flawed through and through. If, as the Protestants urged, men were assured of the true and correct doctrine in matters of faith and morality or duty, by the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture, there should be a basic agreement about such fundamental matters. And it is true that those who take the Scriptures as the infallible and inerrant word of God, discover a common doctrinal understanding. The Protestants pointed out that Rome itself had more diversity in her views than Protestantism. Even today modern evangelicalism, which accepts the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, is far less diverse in its theology than Romanism. Rome today allows the most crass syncretism and superstition to outright theological liberalism which teaches that all religions lead to God and salvation. The present Pope is a strange mixture of both these extremes.

 

The right of private judgement presupposes Perspicuity.

The Protestant doctrine of the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture is a corollary of the right of private judgement. Reformed Theology has always stressed the clarity of Scripture when it comes to the way of salvation. Hodge summarises the Protestant doctrine of the right of private judgement, in the light of its perspicuity, in this way:

 

"The Bible is a plain book. It is intelligible by the people. And they have the right, and are bound to read and interpret it for themselves; so that their faith may rest on the testimony of the Scriptures and not on that of the Church."[5]

 

But it has also been stressed that this clarity does not exist in every part of Scripture. The Westminster Confession put it like this in Chapter 1:VII. "All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all..." It is this acknowledgement of the lack of clarity of some of the teaching of Scripture that provides a caution for the Church and its teaching ministry in demanding agreement to every insight or exposition.

Our Confessions and Creeds are summaries of the fundamental or basic doctrines. These are considered articles of faith Ė articles which cannot be overturned by any individual. But these articles are comparatively few, and are well understood and known. When a local Church, Pastor, Elders, or denomination seeks to override the conscience of the individual in the exercise of private judgement, on matters not commonly and non-controversially embraced by the wider international or Catholic church, we stand on dangerous ground.

Assuming we make decisions according to the general rules of Scripture, where we choose to live, what employment we engage in, how we educate our children, how we spend our money, what sport we play, and what we do for vacations, are not articles of faith. Directions in these areas can only be insisted on if the wider true Church has reached a common position. If there are minority views that are taken as articles of faith, at the very least the individual member should be apprised of this at the point of joining that local church or denomination. The Exclusive Brethren were wrong, when some years ago, they notoriously required all their members to up-roots and move to live within a certain radius of the local Church hall.

 

A Rule of Thumb

Articles of faith concluded from good and necessary consequence are just as true, and clear as those declared by positive precept (WCF 1:6). But there are some matters that are more unclear. Francis Turretin says, "Some [consequences] are proximate, necessary and plain; others are remote, probable and obscure."[6] In the matter of marriage and divorce, some Christians dismiss the position of the Westminster Confession, denying the right to divorce and remarriage in all circumstances, the death of a spouse excepted. Church Officers have an awesome responsibility when making these sorts of judgements. Hodge is helpful again when he puts it like this:

 

"What Protestants deny on this subject is, that Christ has appointed any officer, or class of officers, in his church to whose interpretation of the Scriptures the people are bound to submit as of final authority. What they affirm is that He has made it obligatory upon every man to search the Scriptures for himself, and determine on his own discretion what they require him to believe and to do."[7]

 

This is a salutary reminder of the limits of church power. Office bearers must keep in mind that Protestantism stands or falls on the maintenance of the right of private judgement. The Protestant Church and its Officers lay no claim to infallibility.

A personal example might help here. It is my firm conviction that television and the internet are avenues used by Satan to inveigle his way into the hearts and lives of the vulnerable, and in particular covenant children. I have stated my view that Christian parents of young children especially should not have a television for this reason. But to make that an article of faith, something that could mean that a member was brought under Church discipline if they owned a television, for example, would be to deny the right of private judgement.

While I might quite legitimately draw such an application of the evils of TV from Scripture and impress my view upon others, I must insist at the same time that the right and the responsibility of private judgement belongs to them.

 

The Bible's teaching on the Right of Private Judgement.

The Scriptures teach that each individual is responsible for himself. The Scriptures explain that man is judged on the basis of his works, not that of others. All men are urged to listen and attend to the Scriptures, not just the Office Bearers. Israel is often addressed as a nation in the Old Testament just as the Saints corporately are addressed in New Testament Letters. When Paul writes his Letter to the Romans, perhaps the weightiest and most complex theological writing in Scripture, the individual Saints there are expected to both understand it and apply its lessons in their own lives. The Oracles of God were entrusted to the Jews (Romans 3:2), not just the Priests. In both the Old and New Testaments God's people are instructed as individuals to search the Scriptures. In Deuteronomy 13:-3 we read,†† If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder,And the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them; Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the LORD your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Hodge makes the point, that this meant that their very salvation depended upon the right of private judgement. "For if they are allowed these false teachers, robed in sacred vestments, and surrounded by the insignia of authority, to lead them from the truth, they would inevitably perish."[8]

This requirement to judge Prophets presupposes the right and duty to search the Scripture for oneself. In Galatians 1:8,9 Paul authorises the ordinary Church members to reject the teaching of an Apostle or an Angel if it contradicts Scripture. In Acts 17:11, Luke writes of the Bereans,These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.

If the words of Apostles and Angels are to be checked against Scripture by the individual, how much more should we be diligent in examining the teaching of uninspired Ministers and Elders.

 

The guardian of true liberty

Indeed the principle of a private judgement under girds true freedom - both freedom to worship God according to his word, and democratic freedom in society generally. Philip Schaff in his History of the Christian Church, explodes the Romanist myth that Protestantism is responsible for allrecent revolutions and unfaithfulness in society. Schaffresponds:

 

"that this charge is sufficiently set aside by the undeniable fact that modern infidelity and revolution in their worst forms have appeared chiefly in Roman Catholic countries, as desperate reactions against hierarchical and political despotism. The violent suppression of the Reformation in France ended at last in a radical overthrow of the social order of the Church. In Roman Catholic countries, like Spain and Mexico, revolution has become a chronic disease."[9]

 

Schaff goes on to say: "the Reformation checked the scepticism of the Renaissance, and the anarchical tendencies of the peasants' revolt in Germany and of the libertines in Geneva. An intelligent faith is the best protection against infidelity; and a liberal government is a safeguard against revolution."[10]

††††††††††† It has been precisely when Church members have been the most theologically literate that the Church has been the strongest, and madethe greatest inroads into Satan's kingdom.

 

Taking the Protestant principle too far

Schaff also warns that the right of private judgement may be taken too far

 

"Rationalism is in the modern era of Christianity what Gnosticism was in the ancient Church-a revolt of private judgement against the popular faith and Church orthodoxy, an over estimate of theoretical knowledge..."[11]

 

Where rationalism, and a reliance upon the power of human reason divorced from a biblical faith exist, true religion is just as certainly destroyed.

 

Private judgement and progress.

Schaff also claims that a commitment to private judgment ensures the greatest impetus to mans' growth in knowledge in the natural world.

 

"The Reformation was a protest against a human authority, asserted the right of private conscience and judgement, and aroused a spirit of criticism and free inquiry in all departments of knowledge. It allows, therefore, a much wider scope for the exercise of reason in religion than the Roman Church, which requires an unconditional submission to her infallible authority. It marks real progress, but this progress is perfectly consistent with a belief in revelation on subjects which lie beyond the boundary of time and sense."[12]

 

Withoutthis principle Luther would hardly be a footnote in history, and the progress of the Christian West would have been cut off before it began.Had the medieval Roman Church held to the right of private judgement, they would not have sustained their dogmatic assertion that the Sun circled the earth.

††††††††††† Ironically, those who might appear to be at opposite extremes are really the enemies of spiritual freedom. Both modern heretical sects and modern Romanism are today's enemies of spiritual and social freedom.The Jim Jones' and the Pope John Pauls of this world are the enemies of orthodoxy precisely because they claim the right to force the consciences of men and deny the right of private judgement; and thus of salvation itself.

††††††††††† We have, therefore, this reminder. To force the consciences of our own people in our own Churches and to deny them the right of private judgement including in non-confessional areas, to which they have not subscribed, is both to destroy our liberty to worship God according to his will, and to teach aprinciple, that were it also operative in society, would produceeither a nation of passive clones or a violent revolution. This is the lesson of history.

††††††††††† Yes we must preach the Word of God in reliance upon the Holy Spirit and urgently stress the truth and its applications as we see them, but we must stress with equal vehemence the right and the necessity for the individual believer to use his private judgement as he searches the Scriptures to see if these things are so. We must therefore be very wary of forcing the consciences of our people in areas of uncertainty in the wider Church to the degree that Christians are wrongly placed under ecclesiastical discipline, or browbeaten into thinking that they have no role in confirming for themselves the truth of the claims of any man or institution.

†††††††† Nevertheless, I conclude by reinforcing something equally true. The right of private judgement is not a licence to believe whatever takes your fancy. It is not permission to interpret the Scriptures in isolation from the Church and the teaching Ministry that God has ordained. One who takes the right of private judgement to such an extreme has obviously misinterpreted something that is very clear in Scripture (Eph. 4:11). God has ordained a gifted Ministry of teachers in the Church. While they are not infallible, they are the means that God has chosen to express His will to His people and to the rest of this world. To ignore the means of grace is a repudiation of the teaching of Scripture. Quakers, some Open Brethren, and others who would have all men and women church members be public teachers, competent to expound the Word of God, have ignored what Christ has done in instituting His Church and His Ministry. It also follows that if Christians choose to ignore the commonly received interpretation of Scripture by faithful Protestant Churches - Churches who have seen a common teaching evident in Scripture, then the Christian is not so much rejecting the teaching of the Church, but rejecting the teaching of the Bible. As Francis Turretin puts it: " The liberty of reading the Scriptures does not take away either oral instruction or pastoral direction or other helps necessary to understanding. It only opposes the tyranny of those who do not wish the darkness of their errors to be dissipatedby the light of the divine word."[13]

††††††††††† Samuel Rutherford Scottish theologian of the second Reformation and Commissioner to the Westminster Assembly explains that there is an authority structure in the Church which requires that the Church members honour the judgement of their Ministers. What the Minister teaches is not an opinion to be placed on the same level as the members own reading of the Bible.

 

"There is another judgement [than that of a private Christian] that is ministeriall, officiall, and authoritative, and this is terminated not on Christian beleeving, but supposeth a ministeriall beleeving; that what the shepheard teacheth others God revealed to him first, and is put forth in a ministeriall and officiall judging either in Synods, or in publick Pastorall Sermons and authoritative, but in ministeriall publishing the will and mind of Christ. Mal 2.7. They shall seeke the Law from his mouth. Heb. 13.7.17. That way the people depends upon the Ministeriall judgement of Synods and Pastors: but it is most false that Pastors depends on their Ministeriall judgement who are sheepe, and that there is a like and equall power in shepheards and sheepe...For Pastors and Synods teach fundamentals of faith ministerially to the people, and by hearing of them is faith begotten in the hearers, and they may command, exhort, rebuke with all long suffering, 2 Tim. 4. 1.2. 2. Tim. 2.14. stop their mouthes, Tit.1.11 and authoritatively enjoyne them silence. Acts 15.22.23,24,25. Acts 6.4."[14]

 

†††††††† While the individual has the right of private judgement, if that right is abused to defy the received doctrine of the true church, then the individual cannot expect tolerance on that point. Heresy and immorality must be dealt with by the faithful Church.

While the non-ordained individual lacks the call to preach the Word publicly, he has the right to examine that preachedWord against the written Word of God. Still - even the individual's judgements are to be subject to the Holy Spirit speaking publicly in Scripture. This is why the Westminster Confession (1:10), subjects all claims to truth, even that of private spirits (opinions and alleged revelations), to the supreme judge of religious controversies, who is no one less than the "Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture," not the private judgement of the individual.

What a responsibility this right of private judgement is for each individual. How desperately we need a Church full of Bereans, willing to submit to the Word of God. Only when we see that, can we expect the Reformation that the Catholic Church of Jesus Christ desperately needs.

 

Gary Milne



[1] J.H.Thornwell, The collected writings of James Henley Thornwell, III. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1875/1976), 493.

[2] ibid. 493,494.

[3] R.L.Dabney, Systematic Theology. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1871/1985), 877,878.

[4] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology I.(Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993 reprint), 183.

[5] ibid.

[6] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology I. (Phillipsburg: P&R publishing, 1992), 38.

[7] ibid. 184.

[8] Ibid. 186.

[9] Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1910), ß 9 The Reformation and Rationalism.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[12] ibid.

[13] ibid. Turretin, 149.

[14] Samuel Rutherford, A free disputation against pretended liberty of conscience. (London: Andrew Crook, 1650), 6.

 

Back to the Article Index 


Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / gmilne@ihug.co.nz / revised July 2000 / Copyright 2000