There is an old Reformed tradition we have somehow forgotten called “The Exercise”. Never heard of it? Don’t be alarmed, your not alone.
Under the heading, ‘For Preaching, and Interpreting of Scriptures, etc’, the Scottish First Book of Discipline (1560) states,
To the end that the church of God may have a trial of men’s knowledge, judgments, graces, and utterances; and also, that such as somewhat have profited in God’s word may from time to time grow to more full perfection to serve the church, as necessity shall require: it is most expedient that in every town, where schools and repair of learned men are, that there be one certain day every week appointed [to] that exercise which Saint Paul calls prophesying. The order whereof is expressed by him in these words: Let two or three prophets speak; and let the rest judge.
The famous Cripplegate Lectures preached in London, and recently republished in six large volumes followed the pattern of The Exercise. Here, one minister expound on a topic or text, and the rest would judge. There are several points of comparison between this phenomenon and the Question Meetings held in many traditional Reformed Churches. In the Question Meetings, after the Lord’s Supper, time would be given to the discussion of the means of grace, repentance, and holy living. The men of the congregation (be they layman or minister), would expound on some aspect of these truths in an informal setting. However, this is where the similarities end. The aim of the Question Meeting was to open up to the inquisitive, the marks of grace in the life of the believer, thus promoting good direction in self examination. The aim of the exercise was the reverse. Scripture itself was to be expounded without any application. This is why it was an exercise.
First Book of Discipline,
The interpreter in that exercise may not take to himself the liberty of a public preacher, yea, although he is a minister appointed; but he must bind himself to his text, that he enter not by digression in explaining common-places. He may use no invective in that exercise, unless it is with sobriety in confuting heresies. In exhortations or admonitions he must be short, that the time may be spent in opening of the mind of the Holy Ghost in that place.
After the exposition, a short debate would ensue discovering the merits of the exposition, “So every man must be given his censure” (This does not mean anything more that constructive criticism). If there was fault to be found, the exponent would be encouraged with the corrections.
Perhaps our hide is too thin today to revive this old practice among our men? Perhaps the roll of the Classis or Synod has functionally replaced this rendering it needless. But for the sake of discussion, let me give several reasons why it might be a good idea to revive this practice in some way.
The first reason this exercise was beneficial was to ensure that the minster could adequately analyze a text. Here lay the cardinal difference between the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformers- scriptural scruples. I think what can be said of the ignorance of the Roman Priests can be reasonably transferred to the shoulders of the modern neo-evangelical preacher, who’s emphasis is more on sense than of truth. Modern Christian culture has lost the art of “rightly dividing the word of truth” because we have not “Studied to shew ourselves approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed” (2 Tim 2:15) Even in many Reformed Churches, sense has replace sensibility, and a text is isegetically forced instead of organically rendered. The Exercise would help curtail this perennial problem.
A second reason for this exercise was to bring into the open those men who had the gift of expounding Scripture. John Knox was discovered in such a fashion. Knox, much like Calvin was not pursuing the ministry, but was laid hold of by people who discovered his ability to expound the Word. For Calvin this was Farel, for Knox, it was John Rough. To corner Knox, Rough went so far as to declare that the congregation had the powers of election over anyone they deemed had the gifts of the office of teacher. Like Farel, Rough proceeded to address Knox on behalf of the people, charging him not to refuse the calling. How many in our number have this untapped gift of exposition in our Churches? Perhaps not many. The Exercise would be one way to find out. This, of course would only apply to confessing, baptized male members of a congregation.
A third function of this exercise was public instruction and edification. The First Book of Discipline sates, “the simple, and such as have somewhat profited, shall be encouraged daily to study and proceed in knowledge; the church shall be edified (for this exercise must be patent to such as list to hear and learn). The task of instruction could be distributed in the congregation creating several avenues of instruction. Often these men became elders or catechists (another forlorn tradition), edifying the people and helping the ministry of the Word.
From 1560-1570 there was no move to bring The Exercise within the conciliar structure of the Church. In 1779 an overture from the Synod of Lothian requested that the order of presbyteries (Classis) be erected “in place where public exercises is used, until the time the policy of the Kirk be established by law”. This meant that The Exercise as a function of discovery within the local setting was no longer used for its intended purpose. One could argue that the natural fertile ground of the local Church was usurped by policy, whereby organic cultivation of gifts were now given over to the ivory towers of academia. One might wonder if this is a biblical model at all and if we have not lost a scriptural avenue of discovering gifts among men? But that is for another posting.
Exercises, it could be said, have run their course. As the Second Reformation dawned in Scotland, and greater formularies and Confessions were written, our fathers quietly passed over “The Exercise” in the First Book of Discipline. Perhaps this was for the best. However we still have this interesting anomaly in the Cripplegate Lectures of 1659-1686, well after the formal inclusion of The Exercise had been discarded. The Second Reformation divines still practiced it albeit in a modified form. Perhaps we should do the same?