Voices from the Past: David Demarest on the General Synod’s Power of Constitutional Interpretation (1896)

There are many excellent works of church polity that have been written over the years, many of which are long out of print and forgotten, except for the dusty corners of libraries and the shelves of church polity scholars. Many of these have relevance into today, even though they were written for a church that no longer exists. So from time to time I like to bring some of these from the corner to the front, for they are instructive for us today.

One excellent volume was the first commentary on the church order of the Reformed Church in America, Notes on the Constitution by David D. Demarest. This volume shares a name with one by D.D. Demarest’s son, William H.S. Demarest who continued this tradition and wrote a commentary on the church order, the younger Demarest’s being more well known, even into this generation. Of particular note, is an introductory essay in the elder Demarest’s work, laying down the foundation of all that is to follow. Within this essay he expounds, inter alia, the nature of the church, the definition of a constitution, the authority of the constitution, and the interpretation of the constitution. In this essay, Demarest casts a meaningful vision of church polity as a serious discipline of study and practice, not simply a hobbyhorse that someone rides when they want to control things.

The selection below comes from the section on the interpretation of the constitution, and it speaks to many of the tensions experienced today in the Reformed Church. Nota bene: This was published in 1896, and so the language uses the generic masculine.

Have we in any officer or court an authorized interpreter to which we may refer a doubtful point and get an explanation that shall settle it without appeal? Or is every one obliged to interpret for himself, exercising the right of private judgement, just as he does in the study of the word of God? When one would satisfy himself about the meaning of a passage in the word fo God, he does not go directly to some scholar, divine, or church court, and accept unquestioningly what he is told; that is, he ought not to do so. Popes, Fathers, Councils, Synods cannot interpret scripture authoritatively for him, but he must get all the light he can and pray for light from God and so decide. So in regard to a doubtful constitutional question; he must get all the light on it that he can and accept the responsibility of determining and acting for himself. Why not? May he not be able to understand the constitution itself quite easily as an offered interpretation?

But it may be claimed that the General Synod, which is the highest of our judicatures, and which represents the whole church, must be such an authoritative interpreter of the rules of government. We say No—the General Synod is the creature of the constitution, and has no powers but those given to it by this instrument, and we do not find this authority of interpretation among them. The Synod is not a standing tribunal to which constitutional provisions may be referred abstractly, or in thesi for authoritative explanation.

Yet it is a court of final appeal, and in the review of cases that come before it regularly, it is often obliged to interpret constitutional questions as they pertain to the cases under review. … The functions of the General Synod are in this respect analogous to those of the Supreme Court of the United States, which never gives a decision on any constitutional question in thesi, but only as it is connected with some case before it. It would never listen to a petition for an interpretation without a case, no matter from what source it should come.

Suppose that a minister has done some act which some of his brethren deem unconstitutional. Is it competent for the classis to say, We will not take up and decide this case, but will petition the General Synod to interpret for us the article in dispute, and so the matter will be determined and we be at the same time relieved from the vexatious proceedings. The Synod cannot comply with such request. The classis must accept its own responsibility as an interpreter of the constitution in the case and for the time. If the brother be justified in his course, the matter ends there, unless a dissenting minority complain and carry the matter up to the synods. It is then his right to carry his case by appeal until it reaches the General Synod, when the judgement of that body will be given, necessarily embracing its view of the provision that is in question.

The view of some that the General Synod has very large independent powers, and is well nigh omnipotent in church affairs, is unwarranted and full of danger. Jealously guard the rights of the lower bodies and of the membership of the churches. The General Synod is not supreme; it is not the fountain of church power. It has not the functions of the consistory or the classis. It cannot originate a case of discipline except of a professor of theology, who is made directly amenable to the synod by the constitution. A classis once asked the synod to interpret for it the section of the constitution that requires the pulpit explanation of the Heidelberg Catechism. The General Synod inadvertently, doubtless, complied and the result was an interpretation less clear and simple, less broad and liberal, and less careful of the individual liberty of the pastor than the constitution itself. The synod should have dismissed the overture on the ground that it was not within is province to give an interpretation.

David D. Demarest, Notes on the Constitution R.C.A. New Brunswick, NJ: J. Heidingsfeld’s Press, 1896, 19–22.

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