by the late F.Maxwell Bradshaw, MA, LLM
Former Procurator of the The Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia
The Second Book of Discipline was drawn up by a committee of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to serve as a statement of polity for that Church. It was approved without a dissenting vote by the Assembly of April, 1578, was ordered to be engrossed in its records by that of April, 1581, and, by necessary implication although not by express reference, in June, 1592, obtained parliamentary approval in the Act for abolishing of the Actis contrait the trew Religioun.
Historically it stands between the First Book of Discipline 1560 and the Westminster Form of Presbyterial Church Government 1645. Its standpoint is that polity is no mere matter of expediency, but a matter of faith: God's Word is its rule. The First Book was of necessity somewhat experimental. It also introduced superintendents and readers to meet a temporary situation. The Second Book of Discipline on the other hand, while still manifesting the vital dynamic of the Reformation era, in so far as it gives expression to the position of Andrew Melville shows also the maturity of the second generation of Scotland's reformers. At the same time modern research suggests this book is still very much the production of those leading the Church at around the date of the earlier work, for nineteen of the twenty-two committee members responsible for it were in that category. It's framers had learnt by trial and error, and now, with a clear vision of their objective, at one and the same time laid down the basic principles of their Presbyterian system and provided for the dangers and problems of their immediate situation.
The work is divided into 13 chapters comprising 135 numbered sections and 4 unnumbered paragraphs. At the outset it asserts the status of the Church by declaring that Church and State each derives its authority directly from God. Neither Church nor State may invade the other's preserves. Nevertheless they are not unrelated to each other: instead there are mutual rights and duties. For the Church there is to be "no meddling with the civil jurisdiction." The civil magistrate is not "to usurp dominion" in the Church, to which he is subject "spiritually and in ecclesiastical government," and which he is to maintain and defend (Chaps. I and X.)
Doctrine, discipline and distribution are declared to be three divisions of the polity of the Church. Accordingly there is a threefold division in the Church's office-bearers, namely, ministers or preachers (to whom is annexed the administration of the sacraments), elders or governors, and deacons or distributors (Chap. II. 2). Vocation is necessary for all who hold office. This is not merely to be a subjective test, but requires an outward calling to be manifested by the choice of the eldership made with the concurrence of the congregation. Thus the right of the people to a voice in the election of ministers and elders is not a matter of democracy; but election and ordination are directed to a true call, that the purity of the Church may be preserved (Chap. III.).
It is very definitely asserted that there is only one order of the ministry, whether styled pastor, bishop or minister (Chaps. IV. 1: XI. 9-13). The temporary office of Superintendent which had become a source of grave danger to the Church, is abolished by implication, through no provision being made for its existence. Other ecclesiastical titles not included in those of the regular offices of the Church are formally condemned (Chap. XI.)
The office of elder is declared to be perpetual and always necessary in the Church (Chap. VI., 2). The ministers are also elders (Chap. VI. 3). It was possible, on account of the unanimity of the Scottish Church at the time, to produce a fuller and more definite statement on the eldership than in the Form of Presbyterial Church Government. (For there was a difference of opinion in the Westminster Assembly between the Scots Commissioners, supported by some English Presbyterians in the tradition of Cartwright, on the one hand, and the Independents and many English Presbyterians on the other). In Scotland, by the time the Second Book of Discipline was adopted, the eldership had proved its usefulness, and that book substitutes life tenure for annual election (Chaps. VI. 2; VII. 17).
Development in the Church's ideas on polity since the First Book of Discipline is seen with regard to the office of deacon, "the last ordinary function in the Church," in that the deacons are no longer to sit in the consistories (Chap. VIII. 3).
It may well occasion surprise that in so famous a statement of the Presbyterian polity the radical court of the system, the presbytery, is substantially omitted. There is no real ground for saying that by "the elderships" is meant presbyteries. The elderships are the sessions. When the Second Book of Discipline was prepared the courts of the Church were sessions (or consistories), General Assemblies, and, since 1562, synods, and the book limits itself to dealing with them. At the same time the presbytery fits naturally into the polity depicted. The basis of its composition is provided by Chapter VII. The abolition of superintendents would make it necessary that some body should assume their functions, and this the presbytery was able to do. In any case there was a gap between sessions and synods. Further, we have presbyteries foreshadowed in certain provisions; thus there is the fact that "landward" congregations ( meaning country congregations outside the towns) might be grouped under one eldership (Chap. VII. 10), and also what is said about visitation (Chaps. VII. 5; XI. 11). Probably these tendencies show the influence of the weekly assembly for the interpretation of Scripture ("the exercise") established by the First Book of Discipline, or its Swiss counterparts. "Presbyteries" appears in Chapter VIII. 3, and "presbytery" in Chapter XI. 11; but in neither case does it necessarily connote the true presbytery. That we are not reading too much into the text, if we regard the presbytery as a natural development of the polity there set forth, is suggested by the fact that the Second Book of Discipline was adopted in April, 1578, and in October of that year an Act of Assembly declared that bishops should not usurp the powers of presbyteries; while at the Assembly of April, 1581, which gave definitive approval to the work, an Act was also passed for erecting 50 presbyteries of which 13 were to be formed forthwith. The legislation of 1592, which gave it statutory authority, gave approval to the whole conciliar system of Presbyterianism including specifically the presbytery.
The foregoing comments cannot cover every aspect of this document, but should suffice to indicate that it is of great importance in the development of the Presbyterian polity.