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CHAPTER IV.: OF THE ECCLESIASTICAL PRESBYTERY. - John Robinson, The Works of John Robinson, vol. 3 
The Works of John Robinson, Pastor of the Pilgrim Fathers, with a Memoir and Annotations by Robert Ashton, 3 vols (London: John Snow, 1851). Vol. 3.
Part of: The Works of John Robinson, Pastor of the Pilgrim Fathers, with a Memoir and Annotations by Robert Ashton, 3 vols.
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OF THE ECCLESIASTICAL PRESBYTERY.
we do so acknowledge, and approve of, as divinely instituted, the presbyteries of the particular churches, as with all we judge them sundry ways defective. As first we require, that all received into the college, and company of elders, even those which are called governors, should be “apt to teach,” 1 Tim. iii. 2, and “able to exhort with sound doctrine,” and “convince gainsayers,” Tit. i. 5, 7, 9, and that not only privately, or in the consistory, but in the public assembly also, as the nature of their public office requireth. I am not ignorant, what that learned man Gersom Bucer-† in his late treatise hath published about this matter, neither do I unwillingly assent the reunto: provided only, that what he requires in those elders, that they be able to perform publicly, and in the church-assembly, if not exactly, yet competently.
A second defect, which we wish supplied is, that of annual or triennial or temporary, they might be perpetual, and for life, (except by some casualty, or occurrence they be disabled) as the pastors themselves. This term of years for the elders’ administration in the reformed churches, the forenamed author in the same place doth not so much defend, as excuse; but it seemeth rather needful to haw it reformed, which is also the desire of the said learned man, and that for these reasons.
Lastly, the apostle Paul instructing the church, in Timothy, to keep the commandment of Christ unrebukable until that his glorious appearing, doth not permit, no, not to the widows and deaconesses to relinquish the office once taken upon them, 1 Tim. v. 9–12, 21; vi. 14; 1 Cor. xiv. 37; unto whom for that very cause he forbids marriage itself, otherwise permitted to all, and to some enjoined. How much less lawful is it for the elders, or deacons of the church, whose both condition and ministry is far more excellent, for far lighter causes, to look back, and relinquish their vocation, wherein Christ hath in such sort placed them!
A third thing there is, and that of most moment, viz. that the elders do not administer their public office publicly, as they should, but only in their private consistory. And first, the administration of every office doth in right follow the nature of the same; whether domestical in the family, or civil in the commonwealth, or spiritual in the church: the elders’ office then being public, requires answerable and public administration. Not that it is unlawful for the elders to convene, and meet apart from the body, and to deliberate of such things as concerns the same, and so to do sundry things by virtue of their office; but because that is not sufficient, neither do they indeed fulfil their public and church-office, which in the Lord they have received, Col. iv. 17; except as privately, and in their consistory, so also (and that specially) publicly, and in the face of the congregation, they execute the same.
2. The apostle beseecheth them of Thessalonica that they would in love highly esteem for their work's sake, not only them which laboured among them, to wit, in doctrine; 1 Thess. v. 12, 13; but them also, which were over them in the Lord, and admonished them. 1 Tim. v. 17. But of the work -of their elders which govern, the reformed churches must needs be ignorant; neither do, or can they know, whether they be good, or bad. Their pastors they do prosecute with due love, and honour, out of their own certain knowledge of them and their work, but their elders only by hearsay.
Lastly, The same apostle warneth the elders of Ephesus, that they attend and take heed to the whole flock, in which they were made bishops. Acts xx. 17, 28. But it cannot be, that he should ministerially, as he ought, feed the whole church, whose voice the greatest part thereof never so much as once heareth. To lead, or receive a sheep now and then into the sheepfold, to confirm one that is weak, or correct one that strayeth, and that apart from the flock, is in no wise to feed the whole flock, as the apostle requireth.
And that this point may be made the more plain, let us descend unto some such particulars, as in which the elders’ office seemeth specially to consist. And they are, the admitting of members into the church, upon profession of faith made; and the reproving and censuring of obstinate offenders, whether sinning publicly, or privately with scandal. As we willingly leave the execution and administration of these things to the elders alone in the settled and well-ordered state of the church, so do we deny plainly, that they are, or can be rightly, and orderly done, but with the people's privity and consent.
For the first, Christ the Lord gave in charge to his apostles to preach in his name remission of sins, and, therewith, life eternal: and that such Jews, or Gentiles, as should believe and repent, viz. profess, holily, faith and repentance, (for to judge of the heart is God's prerogative), they should receive into the fellowship of the church, and baptize. And that these all and every of them were publicly, and in the face of the congregation to be administered, the Acts of the Apostles do plenteously make known. And if baptism, the consequent of the confession of faith, in them baptized, and the badge of our consociation with Christ and his church, be to be celebrated publicly, why is not the profession of faith proportionably (although by the formerly baptized through a kind of unorderly anticipation) to be made publicly also, and, therewithal, the consociation ecclesiastical, as the former? The covenant privately made, and the seal publicly annexed, are disproportionate.
I further add, that since persons admitted into the drareh, are by the whole body, if not of enemies, at least of strangers, become and are to be reputed brethren in Christ most nearly joined, and they, with whom they are to call upon one common Father publicly, to participate of one holy bread, 1 Cor. x. 17; and with whom they are to have all things, even bodily goods, after a sort, common, as every one hath need, Acts ii. 44, 45; it seemeth most equal, that not only the presbyters, the churches’ servants under Christ, but the whole commonalty also, should take knowledge in their persons, both of their holy profession of faith, and voluntary submission made, as unto Christ himself, so to his most holy institutions in his church.
To come to the second head. And 1. Those who sin, that is, with public scandal, “rebuke publicly,” saith the apostle,” that others also may fear.” 1 Tim. v. 20. And if the elders themselves, of whom he speaketh, for whose credit the greatest eare is to be taken, much more than any other, as Beza rightly observeth.* And that not for this cause alone, that when the punishment comes to one, the fear might reach unto many, which yet wise men in all public executions would have carefully provided for, but also that both he that so sinneth may be the more ashamed, and others both within and without may, withal, take knowledge, how little indulgent the church is to her own dearest ones in their enormous sins.
2. With this also it well consorteth, that Christ the only Doctor of his church, would have not only sins scandalous committed in. public, publicly reproved, and before the multitude, but even those which are private, obstinately persisted hi, when he saith, “Tell the church,” &c. Matt. xviii, 15–17.
I am not ignorant, how diversely, divers men do interpret these words: whilst some, by the church, do understand the civil court of the magistrate; others, the hierarchical bishop, with his officials; others, the senate of elders excluding the people. And thus whilst these strive for the power, and name, withal, of the church amongst themselves, the church indeed, and which Christ the Lord meaneth, is well nigh stripped both of power and name.
The first of these three interpretations I will not trouble myself with; as being almost of all, and that worthily exploded and rejected, and abundantly refuted by divers learned men:* the two latter are to be assaulted with, almost the same weapons.
The former of these two, though it be in itself the more different from Christ's meaning, yet comes it in this circumstance now in consideration, the nearer the truth in our judgment, considered in its execution: since neither the bishops, nor their officials, chancellors, commissaries, or other court-keepers, do exclude the people from their consistories and courts, but do offer themselves in their public judgments and censures to the riew of all who please to be present thereat. And I think it a course unheard of either amongst Gentiles or Jews, or Christians (be it spoken without offence) before this last age, that public judgments and other acts of public nature, as these are, should be privately exercised, and without the people's privity. It was not so in Israel of old, where by God's appointment the elders were to sit, and judge in the gates of the city: nor in the synagogues themselves, from which many are of mind, how truly, I will not say, that the Christian eldership was derived, after the Roman tyranny had confined into them the Jews’ civil conventions and judgments; nor in the primitive church, no not in some ages after the apostles, as might easily be proved out of Tertullian, Cyprian, and others, if I would try the matter in that court: but it is much more safe, as Austin saith, to walk by the Divine Scriptures.†
And first the word ἔκκλησία church, originally Greek, answering to the Hebrew πτρ, doth primarily and properly signify a convention of citizens called from their houses by the public crier, either to hear some public sentence or charge given: but translated to religious use, denoteth an assembly of persons called out of the state of corrupt nature into that of supernatural grace, by the publishing of the gospel. Now the elders, or presbyters, as such, are, and so are said to be, called, to wit, to their office of eldership, feat called out they are not, being themselves to call out the church, and unto it to perform the crier's office. Neither do I think that the name ecclesia, church, hath been used by any Greek author, before the apostles’ times, or in their days, or in the age after them, for the assembly of sole governors in the act of their government, or, indeed, before the same governors had seized into their own, and only hands the church's both name and power.
But you will say, as learned men use to do, that these elders sustain the person of the whole multitude, and supply their room, for the avoiding of confusion; and so are rightly, as commonly called the church representative.
In answer, First, No godly, no, nor reasonable man will affirm, that this representation is to be extended to all the acts of religion, or indeed to others, than these, which are exercised in the governing of the church. What is it then? The elders in ruling and governing the church must represent the people, and occupy their place. It should seem, then, that it appertains unto the people, unto the people, primarily and originally, under Christ, to rule and govern the church, that is, themselves. But who will so say of a government, not personal but public, and instituted as the churches’ is?
2. If the elders in their consistory represent the church, then whatsoever they either decree or do, agreeing to the Word of God, whether respecting faith or manners, that also the church decreeth and doth, though absent, though ignorant both what the thing is which is done, and upon what grounds it is done by the elders; this being the nature of representations, that what the representing doth within the bounds of his commission, that the represented doth primarily, and much more, as but using the other for his instrument. Now how dissonant this is to true faith and piety, how consonant unto the papists’ implicit faith, no man can be ignorant; and I had rather wise men should consider, than I, aggravate.
3. The constant and universal practice of the apostles and apostolic churches, do quite cross this consistorian. course. The apostle Paul, well acquainted with the mean ing of Christ, doth, 1 Cor. v., so reduce into practice the rule and prescript of his Master, Matt. xviii., or to use the words of the Bishop of Chichester,* “there commands to bring into practice this power, in the name of Christ, with his Spirit,” as he seems to leave no place for doubting to him who with diligence, and without prejudice, will compare together these two places: what the Lord mean-eth when he saith, “Tell the church.” This our apostle doth in that place reprove, not the elders or governors alone, but with them also the whole commonalty and body, for tolerating the incestuous person amongst them. Which therefore, accordingly, as his authority apostolical and care for all the churches, 2 Cor. ii. 28, did require; he admonisheth and directeth, that as mindful both of the sinner's repentance and salvation, and therewith of their own purity, they would exclude, by due order, that wicked man from their holy fellowship. And that by these words, “When ye are come together,” the whole church is to be understood, many but heavy friends to the people's liberty, Jesuits, Prelatists, and others, do grant. But we will annex certain reasons for the further clearing of the thing.
Many more arguments, and the same very clear, might he drawn to this end, out of the text itself; but for brevity's sake I will omit them, and annex this only one which followeth, from the second chapter of the second epistle. The same apostle, writing to these same Corinthians, about the same incestuous person, but now penitent, as before delinquent, seriously exhorts them, that look what severity they had formerly showed in censuring him for his sin, the like compassion they would now show, in receiving him again upon his repentance: therein plainly insinuating, that this business was not in the hands of the elders alone; except we will say, that they alone were made sad by the apostles’ reproof, that they alone by their study, defence, indignation, zeal, &c., testified that they were pure in the thing, and except it belonged to them alone to pardon and comfort the repentant sinner, and to confirm their love unto him. 2 Cor. ii. 7, 8; vii. 9, 11.
And whereas some would inclose this whole power within the apostle's circuit, as if he alone, bishop-like, had passed sentence judiciary upon the offender, and only committed the declaration and publication of it in the church to some his substitute, I deem it not lost labour briefly to show how erroneous this opinion is of external, monarchical government, yea, power also which is more, in the church of Christ.
And, first, one alone, how great soever, cannot suffice to make the church, or a congregation, which Christ hath furnished with the power of binding and loosing, Matt. xviii 17 — 19,* both reason and Scripture teaching, that for an assembly and congregation, at least, two or three are required. “The Church, which name signifies a multitude, designing by a new trope one alone singular person,” as saith D. Whitaker against Stapleton.† going about to prove that “the name of the church belongs to the pastors, or bishops, or pope alone.”
2. It is expressly affirmed, 2 Cor. ii. 6, that the incestuous person was censured by many: which many or more, the apostle opposeth to himself alone, as appeareth by the context, and not to all as some erroneously think.”
3. The apostle plainly and sharply reproveth the Corinth ians for that, before his writing, they had not voided that sinful man their holy fellowship, and so prevented the report by which such a crime, and the same unpunished, came to his ears. This their power, then, the man of God doth not seize into his own hands, as forfeit by their default in not using it, but vehemently, and as became a faithful minister, exhorts and admonishes them to use it, as they ought, in the judging, purging out, and taking from among themselves that wicked man, and so any other within, or called a brother, sinning in the like manner.
4. If the apostle Paul, being absent from Corinth, had excommunicated this sinner, then had he judicially condemned and judged a man unaccused, unconvicted, and unreproved, at least face to face and before his judge,* than which what more unjust can be imagined of, or ascribed unto, the holy apostle? I conclude, therefore, with Peter Martyr on 1 Cor. v., “The apostle, as great as he was, doth not so far usurp to himself power, as that he one and alone by himself should excommunicate: which yet the Pope and many bishops (both Romish and English) dare do; in judging he goes before others, as it is meet the chief in the church should do, that so the less skilful multitude might be directed in judging by their voting before them.”
Thus much of this place. The next followeth, which is Acts i. 30–26. When another was to succeed in the room of Judas the traitor, not Peter alone, or the apostles with him, but, that the ordination might be just and lawful, being made with the knowledge of the people assistant, and examined by the verdict and judgment of all.* the multitude of the disciples together did substitute two, whom they deemed most excellent, that of them the Lord, who knew the hearts of all men, Acts i. 24, might take unto himself the man which he knew most fit. Gal. i. 1. That which belonged unto God, namely, to design an apostle immediately, was left unto him; the disciples also, in this work, retaining what might be their liberty, which Calvin notes upon this place, to have been a kind of middle temper.
The third place followeth, which is Acts vi. I—8, handling the choice of deacons, and that by the same church in Jerusalem, not now small, as before, but (which I wish may be marked to stop the passage, which some think lies open for escape through smaller assemblies) now become great and populous. In this business the apostles inform the church what kind of men they ought to choose: the multitude chooseth whom they judge fit and meet accordingly, and the same present to the apostles; upon whom, so chosen by the people, the said apostles impose hands as a solemn symbol of their consecration, joining therewith common prayer. Now if the deacons only be trusted with the church's money, were not to be made but by the people's suffrage and election: much less pastors and elders, unto whose fidelity under Christ the same church doth commit the incomparable treasure of their souls.
To the same purpose, in regard of the matter in hand, serveth that which we read, Acts xiv. 23, where “Paul and Barnabas do ordain elders in every church, by suffrages,” not their own, as some fancy, unto whom to lift up and to lay on hands is all one, but the people's; or “by the lifting up of hands,” by which sign the Grecians, as appears in Demosthenes and others, the people's vote or voice giving in their popular assemblies was wont to be made. I add, which is especially to be observed, that the apostles, in doing their part in the ordination of elders, did what they did as it were by the way; staying only, most like, two or three days in a place: so as they could not possibly by their own experience take sufficient knowledge, what persons in the church were apt to teach or govern: who able to exhort with sound doctrine, and to convince the gain-sayers: how unblameable they were, how watchful, given to hospitality, temperate, &c., and with, these, how mannered wives and children they had. I Tim. iii. 1–7; Tit.
i. 7. These things only, the brethren, which conversed with them publicly and privately, could sufficiently take knowledge and experience of. Upon their electing them, did the ordination conferred by the apostles, as the hands of the church, depend. By election, the persons elected have right to their offices; into the actual possession, whereof they are solemnly admitted by ordination.
This troop of proofs, that known and notable place, Acts xv., shall shut up: in which we have the people's liberty in the churches, both of Antioch and Jerusalem, plentifully confirmed and commended by apostolic practice to ensuing churches, and times.
And first, It is evident, that in the Church of Antioch, together with the elders, which, it appears then it had, Acts xiv. 21, 23, the brethren were admitted into the fellowship of the business, and disquisition made about circumcision:* Paul and Barnabas, with the rest of the delegates, then sent, being “brought on their journey by the church,” ver. 3, the letters also being written back from Jerusalem “to the brethren which were at Antioch,” ver. 23, and which is specially to be noted, then, and not before, “delivered when the multitude were come together,” ver. 30. So in the church at Jerusalem the messengers from Antioch were received not only “of the apostles and elders,” but of “the church,” with them, ver. 4. And as the question was propounded so was it discussed before the whole church by “the apostles and’ elders coming together to look unto that business,” ver. 6, yet not so as the brethren were wholly bound to silence, seeing that ver. 11, the whole multitude is said to have, held their peace; that is, to have yielded to Peter's speech, and reasons. Lastly, As “Silas and Judas” were sent with Paul and Barnabas, “by the apostles, and elders, with the whole church,” unto Antioch, ver. 22, so were the letters written back in the name of them all “to the brethren at. Antioch,” ver. 23. And although the decrees to be observed by the churches of the Gentiles, whereof no one, excepting Antioch, had any delegates present, which were also part of the Word of God, and holy canon, could come from none other than the apostles, immediately inspired by the Holy Ghost, they notwithstanding in the publishing of the same, did not disdain the consenting suffrage of the brethren of that particular church of Jerusalem, -where the assembly was.*
And surely, if it ever did, or could appertain to any church officers or governors whatsoever to represent the church assemblies, in elections, censures, and other ecclesiastical judgments, and occurrences; then without doubt unto the apostles in an eminent, and peculiar manner, especially living in that rude, and childish state of the church, considering both how superlative their office was, and how admirable their gifts, and endowments of the Holy Ghost, together with their incomparable both piety, and prudence; by which they were both most able, and willing, to promote the Christian faith in holiness. And although this constant and uniform both practice and institution of the apostles unto divers politic persons, swelling with pride of fleshly reason, despising apostolical simplicity, and who, as Ireneus speaks, illegible would be rectifiers of the apostles, seem worthy of light regard, yet to us, who believe with Theodoret, that we “ought to rest in the apostolical and prophetical demonstrations;”;‡ and who, with Tertullian, do adore the fulness of the Scriptures‡ they seem of singular weight and moment.
And whilst I consider with myself, in the fear of God, how it was the apostles’ duty to teach the disciples of Christ “to observe whatsoever he commanded them,” Matt xxviii. 20; and how the apostle Paul testifieth, that even the things which he wrote, touching order and comeliness to be observed in the church exercises, were the commandments of the Lord, 1 Cor. xiv. 37; as also how the same apostle clearly professeth, that he and his fellow-officers were only to be reputed as ministers and ambassadors of Christ, 1 Cor. iv. 1; 2 Cor. v. 20; to whom therefore in the execution of their office, it was not permitted to do, or speak the least thing, which they had not in charge from him; it is unto me a matter of great scruple, and conscience, to depart one hair-breadth, (extraordinary accidents ever excepted) from their practice, and institution, in anything truly ecclesiastical, though neyer so small in itself; —whatsoever, by whomsoever, and with what colour soever is invented, and imposed;—touching the government of the church, which is the “house and tabernacle of the living God.” 2 Tim. iii. 15. And a partner in this faith I do hope to live, and die, and to appear before Jesus Christ, with boldness in that great and fearful day of his coming.
I add, that seeing the Christian congregation, as the spouse of Christ, free and ingenuous, hath the church officers whosoever, as Christ Jesus her husband's, so also her servants for Jesus’ sake, whom, under Christ, she trusteth with her eternal salvation, and unto whom for their labour she oweth wages for relief and maintenance, 2 Cor. iv. 5; 1 Tim. iv. 16; v. 17, 18; considering also how much it makes both to whet on the diligence of the ministers, and to enforce the diligence of the people, whilst these on the one side consider with themselves, how they have them set over them, whom above others themselves have liked, and made choice of; and they on the other side, that they are set over those by whom they before others were made choice of, and elected: that which Cyprian hath,* seemeth most equal, and of institution moral, and unchangeable, that “the commonalty fearing God and keeping his commandments, should have the special hand either in choosing of worthy priests, or ministers, or of rejecting the unworthy: which also,” saith he, “we see to be founded upon Divine authority.”
The same is to be held of excommunication. Seeing that it behoveth the Christian multitude to avoid the fellowship of the excommunicated, not only in the course of religion, but even in common and familiar conversation, (the rights of nature, family, and commonwealth ever kept inviolated): and that whom yesterday I was to repute a brother near and dear in Christ, to-morrow I must hold as a “heathen and publican,” and as, “for the destruction of the flesh, delivered to Satan,” Matt. xviii. 17; 1 Cor. v. 5: who is so unequal a judge as not to think it a most equal filing, that the multitude should clearly, and undoubtedly, take knowledge both of the heinousness of the crime, and incorrigible contumacy of the person, after the use of all means and remedies for reclaiming him. This, if it be not done, then doth not the church herein live by her own, but by her officers’ faith, neither are her governors to be reputed as servants, but lords unto her; neither do they exercise their office popularly in the church as they ought, but tyrannically, as they ought not, by Chrysostom's verdict. His words are these:* “He who bears himself upon an external and worldly power, because he rules legally, and that men must of necessity obey him, doth ofttimes, and that not without cause, exercise authority against the will, and well-liking of his subjects. But on the other side, he who will be over those, who voluntarily submit unto him, and can him thank, and yet will presume to do things as himself liketh, and as if he were to give account to none other thereof, that man rather exerciseth his authority tyrannically than popularly.”
The Lord God put it into the hearts of those who bear greatest sway in the reformed churches, to endeavour the furnishing of the same with such elders, as may both fully, and constantly, and popularly, discharge their place, for the peace of their own consciences before God, the edification of the churches over which they are set, as also for the abating, if not abolishing, of that contempt in which prelatists and supercilious persons use to hold these lay-elders, as they call them.
But now lest any should take occasion, either by the things here spoken by us, or elsewhere of us, to conceive, that we either exercise amongst ourselves, or would thrust upon others, any popular, or democratical church government; may it please the Christian reader to make estimate of both our judgment and practice in this point, according to these three declarations following.
First, We believe, that the external church government tinder Christ, the only mediator and monarch thereof, is plainly aristocratical, and to be administered by some certain choice men, although the state, which many unskilfully confound with the government, be after a sort popular and democratical.* By this it appertains to the people freely to vote in elections and judgments of the church: in respect of the other, we make account it behoves the elders to govern the people, even in their voting, in just liberty, given by Christ whatsoever. 1 Cor. xii. 28; 1 Tim. v. 17; Heb. xiii. 17. Let the elders publicly propound, and order all things in the church, and so give their sentence on them; let them reprove them that sin, convince the gainsayers, comfort the repentant, and so administer all things according to the prescript of God's Word: let the people of faith give their assent to their elders’ holy and lawful administration: that so the ecclesiastical elections and censures may be ratified, and put into solemn execution by the elders, either in the ordination of officers after election, or excommunication of offenders after obstinacy in sin.
2. We doubt not but that the elders both lawfully may, and necessarily ought, and that by virtue of their office, to meet apart at times from the body of the church, to deliberate of such things as concern her welfare, as for the preventing of things unnecessary, so for the preparing, according to just order, of things necessary, so as publicly, and before the people, they may be prosecuted with most conveniency, and least trouble, that may be. Acts xx. 18.
3. By the people whose liberty, and right in voting, we thus avow, and stand for, in matters truly public and ecclesiastical, we do not understand, as it hath pleased some contumeliously to upbraid us, women, and children; but only men, and them grown, and of discretion: making account, that as children by their nonage, so women by their sex are debarred of the use of authority in the church. 1 Cor. xiv. 34, 35; 1 Tim. ii. 12.
Gersom Buc. Dissert de Gubernatione Ecclesiæ, pp. 32,33,44.
Beza annot. in loc.
Beza, Zanchius, Parker, G. Bucer, in loc.
August, de Doct. Christ, lib. 3.
Epis. Cicen, ad M. Tort. lib. Resp. p. 43.
Vide. Episc. Cicen. ad Tort. pp. 41, 42.
Whitak. de Authoritate Scripturæ, lib, 1, cap. 1, 10.
∗ Gel. Snecanus, Ch. Discipl., 3 parte Meth. cap. 2.
Cyprian, 1. 1, Epist. 4.
Whitak. de Author. Scrip. lib. 1, ch. 5, sect. 1.
Johan. Wolfius, in 2 Kings xxiii.
Theodo. DiaL I.
Terul. ad Hermog.
Cypr. Epist. 4, lib. iv. 1.
Chrysost. in Epist. ad Titum.
Bodimun de Repub., lib. 2, cap. ult.