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Goodwin vs. Gillespie: An Old Testament Debate for Church Polity

In recent church polity debates among Presbyterians and Particularists, the bulk of the argumentation is paid towards analysis of New Testament proof texts. Matthew 16, 18, and Acts 15 are among the most debated. Little, if not any, attention is given to Old Testament exegesis, especially concerning the nature and structure of the Jewish church. The reason being that appealing to Old Testament ecclesiastical polity in order to gain support for the purported theories of New Testament polity assumes a presupposed debated hermeneutical method. In other words, a foul is committed in the debate, since a disagreement over how one uses the Old Testament is not properly neutral. This truth, in the mind of many Presbyterians, is a strange inconsistency in the pattern of basic Reformed hermeneutic strategies. When defining and detailing any loci of dogmatic biblical religion, normally a tota scriptura methodology ensues. Granted that discontinuities and continuities have necessary nuances in every loci of Systematic theology, the basic task of teasing out these nuances will clarify certain propositions. For example, gaining clarity in the details of the Pascal Lamb, in the ordinance of the Old Testament, will ground and aid a doctrine of atonement. By parity of reason, this same exercise should be employed when wrestling with church polity, yet it rarely does.

This debate is nothing new. In fact, an argument of this mature was present on the floor of the Westminster Assembly. Session 112, December 11, 1643, records the discussion concerning the Old Testament background for elder-rule. It is a key moment in the debate on church polity because the hermeneutical dissimilarity between Particularists and Presbyterians are forced to rise to the surface. A breakdown of the debate is as follows:

– Session 112 December 11, 1643

Mr. Calamy argues for a Gillespie-like understanding of a distinction between civil and ecclesiastical courts from Deuteronomy 17:12:

Here is a distinctive that hints 2 courts. By ‘priests’ is not meant one priest but many. By “Judge” cannot be meant the high priest, for he is contradistinct from the priest. 2. Cron. 19:8-11 ther is the resistution of them by Jehosaphat. This text showes the distinction of the Judicatories. The words in the 8 v. read with a reduplication.[1]

Mr. Calamy proceeds to uses an appeal to excommunication to further his case (the same method in Aaron’s Rod Blossoming),

 They had that which was analogum at least to excommunication in the Old Testament, … ‘Uncircumcised in heart’, to be kept from the temple & holy things of God, 44 Ezek. 7,9. That phrase of ‘being cut off’ is not alwayes meant of death, but separated from the congregation of Israell, else the laws of Moses more cruell.[2]

After Calamy represents the basic Presbyterian position of Old Testament roots for elder-rule, Gillespie strengthens the argument by arguing for hermeneutical implications,

Something to strengthen what is spoken. The analogy betwixt Jewish & Christian church, little question of that little question… If this faile, the argument of Baptisme from circumcision will faile also.[3]

In the same breath he adds,

That it was an ecclesiastical meeting: we have seen on Josephus that Herod had taken away the civill Sanhedrin & it was never restored to his vigour againe.[4]

Gillespie points out two things on the floor besides the basic Presbyterian tenet of the ecclesiastical and civil divide already being an Old Testament reality. He points out that a hermeneutical method for Old to New Testament argumentation must be consistent. Case in point, he sites baptism. How can the Assembly agree to pedo-baptism by appealing to the Old Testament, without also functioning the same way for the debate on church polity? Secondly, Gillespie points to a distinctly historical argument. Gillespie is asking the Assembly to make sense of the fact that Herod took away the civil Sanhedrin, yet the commonwealth of Israel still existed.

After some reaffirmation from Lightfoot and Rutherford, Palmer moved that an agreement be made concerning the elders: that they ruled with the priests and Levites in ecclesiastical cases. It is at this juncture where Mr. Goodwin spoke into the debate before the session dispersed,

Desire to wave that till you dispute it as a church. The argument from the Sanhedrin will be not only as a church but as a national church. That it was not a mere ceremoniall thing…[5]

Goodwin, refused to move on the proposition because the national aspect of the Jewish church was not properly defined and argued. Here Goodwin seems to be smuggling in the word “national” into the debate because of all of the hermeneutical implications. If the church qua church is inherently national, then the connectionalism falls away in the New Testament, because the gospel becomes transnational.

­– Session 113. December 12th 1643

The next day the assembly readdressed the distinction between civil and ecclesiastical courts and whether or not there was a real distinction between the two. Not much was added to the discussion. Gillespie was the last to speak on the floor:

Nothing yet brought to make us change our opinion of a distinction. A man might be separate from the holy meetings, not a church member, & yet sis not cease … A distinction of the rulers of the synagogue. Ther is noe such name given to civil judges.

Christ makes a distinction, 10 Math. 17. Some interpret is of s distinction of civill and ecclesiastical censures.

66 Esa. 5 expounded of excommunication – a seperation of their brethren from the people of God. [6]

Session 114. December 13th 1643

In this session Goodwin had more of a hearing. He debated whether or not there were two courts at Jerusalem, and he questioned the court appeal structure implied by the synagogue argument from the Presbyterians. In questioning the often-used Deut. 17: 8-9 and 2 Chron. 35:8 texts posed by Gillespie, where Gillespie demonstrated a distinction between church and state in the Old Testament, Goodwin showed himself to be functioning from a different hermeneutical angle. An angle that disagreed on the status and nature of the Jewish church in the Old Testament,

That which belonged to this Sanhedrin at Jerusalem, it was either matters Judiciall, therefore called ‘matters of the Lord’ because God had given expresse … Or matters of the king, the things of his revenew, or perhaps matters of warre and peace, yet soe as they did not … The church & state ware involved in one. Their lawes ware the lawes of God. Their judicialls had spirituals in them. [7]

Goodwin along with Phillip Nye challenged the distinction between civil and ecclesiastical. Yet in doing so they only answered to a few of the proof-texts warranted by Gillespie and others. What they never answered was Gillespie’s hermeneutical warning (How does this affect our view of baptism?) and his historical argument (Did the Jewish state cease to exist under the exile and Rome?). They stuck to arguing the validity of the Deuteronomy 17 text instead.

Phillip Nye contended,

A hard thing to find any matter purely ecclesiasticall of forensicall cognizance. Nothing of excommunication in the Jewish church as all.[8]

After this, Sir Benjamin Rudyard questioned the entire methodology of using Old Testament ground to back up church polity,

Strange that we should seeke for officers of the church in the New Testament out of the Ould.[9]

It was ordered that the debate was to proceed tomorrow.

Session 115, December 14th 1643

This date marked one of the most fascinating letdowns in the history of church polity debates. One could argue that if the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists could get on the same hermeneutical ground in this very issue then the distinctions in the rest of their church polity could be hammered out smoothly and appropriately. The debate mainly centered whether Deuteronomy 17 implies two distinct courts or one court.

After some brief reiterations of the same arguments, Phillip Nye launched into a long speech attempting to disprove the civil and ecclesiastical distinction made from Deuteronomy 17:8-9.

The matter before us is about the validity of this place of scripture to prove that besides the priests an addition of elders. My concievements are that the totum totalum of the common wealth ware of a mixt nature … Ther is no such a perpetuall intermixture throughout all as in the Jewish church.[10]

Nye is unwilling to agree with the Presbyterians on the two distinct courts, and the nature of excommunication being an ecclesiastical reality. If there was a due process in court procedure, it was of civil essence as much as it was spiritual essence. For Nye, the court connectionalism was tied to the Jewish nation, not the Jewish church; likewise for excommunication. Bathurst quickly rebutted Nye’s position,

“In his first breath he gave up the proposition: he saith mixt government & mixt governours.”[11]

Bathurst’s point being that if one held to a mixture, this implied a distinction. The Congregationalists could not come to an agreement with the Presbyterians on a distinction in the courts from the Deuteronomy 17 text.

From here, Gillespie once again argued his case, reminding the committee that the position does not stand or fall on Deuteronomy 17 alone:

The 17 Dut. seems to hold out 2. 9 v. and 12, a disjunction of the priest & of the judges, soe Caldey [the Chaldean translation] & through the Latein version was soe corrupt for the reason heard of, yet Lyra and Cajetan leave it, & take notice of a cleare distinction. The Jesuits of the Coledge of doway in their annotations of 2 Cron. confesse ther is a cleare distinction.

Instituted by God himself, 17 Dut., & this is the strength of the argument. But we need not soe much insist upon that because this place is not brought directly to prove that ther ware 2 sanhedrins. Therefore goe to those places that may prove the proposition directly.[12]

This marks one of the most impressive rebuttals on the floor this day. Not only does Gillespie argue the exegesis from more than one manuscript with an added comparative analysis, he reminds the entire assembly that all of scripture must be consulted on this issue.

Goodwin also responded by saying that every judgment in the Deuteronomy 17 passage was meant to be “before the Lord, &c. then all was ecclesiastical, for they judged in everything.”[13] Goodwin’s point was that everything given in Deuteronomy was “ecclesiastical” in a certain sense. This was because, for Goodwin, ecclesiastical and civil are one and the same in the Old Testament. To this, Lord Say added that on these grounds,

It ware much better to find out those places that established a ground for this ruling elder in the New Testament wher this constitution was.[14]

What Goodwin and Lord Say failed to recognize was that this was the exact point being debated. If one were to cut loose the Old Testament ground for elder rule, then one were to cut loose the very ground for Presbyterianism, not to mention baptism.

To this Mr. Vines pressed Goodwin and Lord Say on the exact same hermeneutical point made by Gillespie two days earlier,

For that we must not looke to the state of the Jewish church, is only a warrantableness for the analogy of the Old Testament & New, granted. The brother that spake last said before we must cut loose the argument of Jewish church; [for] but how shall we prove pedo-Baptism?

Richard Vines saw the inconsistency in hermeneutical method being deployed by the Congregationalists. If we were to cut loose the Old Testament ground for church polity, then what is to stop us from the Anabaptist tenet of cutting loose our progeny as well?

No words could better encapsulate this grave inconsistency than Thomas Goodwin’s closing remarks.

Said I argued from the Old Testament in poynt of pedo-Baptisme. I conceive the case is cleane different.[15]

In light of this hermeneutical disunity, Goodwin sought to move the Assembly on to other matters in church polity. To which the thirty-year old George Gillespie replied,

If we go on unanimously in the poynt of officers, we may agree better in the other questions. I wish controversyes of that kind be not started before the time. Rather hold only upon the poynt of officers and ruling elders. Whether we be bound to follow these things in the Jewish church which had no ceremonial reason, but a morrall equity.[16]

Unfortunately, Gillespie’s advice was not followed. The next day the session deliberated on the validity of deacons being an office devoted to the care of the poor. The issue of the Old Testament ground for church polity would never be a topic unto itself in the rest of the Assembly.

I cannot recommend Van Dixhoorn’s multi-volume work highly enough. This fascinating debate can now be read because of the laborious editing that went into such a huge project. It provides us with new insight into the minds if the divines. In doing so, it reflects the diversity among the divines who argued well on every point. It also shows how biblical saturated they were. I mean, how many of us can quote the annotations of the Jesuits of Coledge, from memory, to support our case?


[1] Van Dixhoorn, The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly 1643-1652, Volume 2, 431.

[2] Ibid. 431.

[3] Ibid. 432.

[4] Ibid. 434.

[5] Ibid. 436.

[6] Ibid. 443.

[7] Ibid. 447.

[8] Ibid. 448.

[9] Ibid. 449.

[10] Ibid, 452.

[11] Ibid. 453.

[12] Ibid. 457.

[13] Ibid. 458.

[14] Ibid. 458.

[15] Van Dixhoorn, The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly 1643-1652, Volume 2, 459.

[16] Ibid. 460.


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