A couple of friends have replied to my earlier post suggesting that I’m begging the question by assuming a definition of the church before I’ve adequately made my case. There may be several ways that charge is meant, but I’d like to appeal to at least one historical authority for the right to claim what I claimed. Phillip Schaff was no historical slouch, and therefore I give you in his own words the same basic point I was making:
[Speaking of Romanism and Puseyism], “… there is wanting the true idea of development altogether. It regards the Church as a system handed down under a given and complete form, that must remain perpetually the same. It confounds with Christianity itself, which we may never and can never transcend, and which is always equally perfect, the measure of its apprehension on the part of mankind, or its appropriation into the consciousness of the Church, which like the life of the Spirit universally, from first to last, has the character of a genesis or process, and passes through different stages of growth. With all their historical feeling, the Puseyites [anglo-catholics] show themselves with regard to the Reformation absolutely unhistorical. They wish to shut out of view the progress of the last three centuries entirely; to treat the whole as a negation, if possible; and by one vast leap to carry the Church back to the point where it stood before the separation of the Oriental and Western Communions, when however the tendencies were already at work which led with historical necessity afterward to the popish system in its worst form.
Turn and twist as they may, with their external, mechanical conception of the Church and episcopacy, the Reformation can be to them properly an apostacy only from the truth Church, and they must unchurch entirely all those Protestant bodies that have parted with the episcopal constitution. Their doctrine of episcopal succession, with its denial of the universal priesthood of all believers, the episcopal and apostolic character of every inwardly and outwardly called minister of Christ, involving the papistical idea of clerical mediatorship between God and man — this is the old leaven of the Pharisees, which has never been thoroughly purged out of the Anglican Church, and that may be said now to offend Protestant feeling in the writings of the Oxford school in particular, from beginning to end.
If this succession were taken as one simply of doctrine and ministry, successio Spiritus Dei, doctrinae evangelii and ministerii divini, it would carry a perfectly rational meaning, necessarily included in the conception of the Church, as the abiding and indissoluble communion of believers in Christ; and in this view it might be confidently claimed by the whole orthodox Protestant interest, with which both word and sacrament, ministry and ordination, are continued, and the founders of which derived their own ordination regularly from the Catholic Church. But instead of this, the idea is limited to the order of bishops, unscripturally sundered from the laity and lower clergy, as though they were specifically different in their nature, and were alone competent to transmit ministerial power. All ends in a personal, outward, mechanical succession.
The Spirit of God, whose very nature it is to be free, is thus bound to a particular ecclesiastical structure, for which no sure authority can be found in the New Testament; and apostolical legitimacy of a Church is made to turn upon a question of history, in the case of which besides by reason of the darkness that hangs over certain periods, during the earlier part especially of the Middle Ages no satisfactory result is possible. Altogether a most crazy foundation on which to build so momentous an interest. According to this theory, Paul was illegitimate fully, because he had his ordination neither from the Lord nor from an apostle, but from a simple presbyter in Damascus. His judaizing adversaries, who had already in substance the puseyite view, were right then in divesting him at once of all apostolical credit.
How monstrous again is the position, necessarily involved in the same theory, that the dead Armenian and Greek denominations, because they have bishops, belong regularly to the Holy Church Catholic, while German Reformed, Lutheran, and Presbyterian bodies, with all their religious life, are flatly denied any such character, and even their most godly and successful ministers are branded as ecclesiastical bastards, or mere hirelings privily smuggled into the sanctuary. God be praised, for that word of the Lord, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them,’ and that love is made, in another place, the criterion of discipleship.
I have all respect for the episcopal system. It possesses in fact many undeniable advantages, and by its antiquity besides must command the veneration of all who have any right historical feeling. But the thought must be utterly rejected, that it carries in its constitution as such the proper and only remedy, for the existing wounds of Protestantism. Does it offer any sure guaranty for union? The contests with which the English Episcopal Church has been torn, especially for the last ten years, (to say nothing of the American Episcopacy at this moment,) sufficiently show the contrary. Or does it furnish more efficient means for the promotion of true inward piety? Let the state of the Greek Church, always true to the episcopal succession, be taken in reply; or the Roman Church as it stood towards the close of the Middle Age, and as it stands still in entire countries; or the Church of England itself, as it appeared under the Stuarts and during the eighteenth century.
No, we need something higher and better than anointed lords and consecrated gentlemen. Such aristocratic hierarchs and proud bearers of apostolic succession precisely, like the pharisees and highpriests of Judaism, have themselves again and again secularized the Church, rocking it into the sleep of lifeless formalism or religious indifference. Timeo Donaos et dona ferentes. Little children, keep yourselves from idols, be afraid of false gods even under episcopal attire! It is the Spirit that makes alive; the letter killeth.
The Principle of Protestantism, 123-124, [the paragraph breaks are my own].