Writing to ministerial students, Samuel Miller gives the following advice:
Be careful to give clear doctrinal instruction concerning the plan of salvation to those who are anxious and inquiring. I have observed it to be the manner of some, in conversing with such persons, to deal chiefly in tender and solemn exhortation; under the belief that the grand object aimed at ought to be to impress the conscience and the heart, rather than to impart doctrinal knowledge. But it ought to be remembered that neither the conscience nor the heart can ever be suitably impressed but through the medium of truth. It is only as far as gospel truth is apprehended, that any genuine scriptural exercises with regard to it can exist.
Because genuine spiritual life is inseparably connected with gospel truth, Miller repeatedly issues calls for doctrinal integrity. His most prominent statements on doctrinal purity are found in the small book on creeds and confessions, and his open letters to Presbyterians on "Adherence to Our Doctrinal Standards." These works are primarily concerned with preserving truth, especially in times of doctrinal declension. Miller defends the use of creeds, in general; and he also defends the Westminster Standards, in particular.
Doctrinal integrity, then, must be viewed from various angles. As an individual concern, correct doctrine is essential as the basis of true conversion and personal piety. As a corporate concern, sound doctrine is necessary to establish and maintain ecclesiastical order.
Some historical information may serve as background to Miller's treatment of confessionalism. During the early days of American Presbyterianism, the structure of church government was somewhat loose. The first American Presbytery was formed in or around 1705. Styled the Presbytery of Philadelphia, this judicatory was composed initially of seven members.
By 1716, the judicatory had grown large enough that it was subdivided into four new presbyteries, the largest of which had only six ministers. These new presbyteries then composed the larger assembly, known as the Synod of Philadelphia, which met annually.
During these formative years, the Presbytery and Synod functioned without any official creed or plan of government. Doubtless, the Westminster Standards were used among the churches; and many of the ministers had immigrated to America, after previously receiving ordination abroad in which cases they subscribed the Confession prior to their arrival in America.
The Westminster Standards were officially adopted by the American Presbyterian Church in 1729. At that time, the Synod of Philadelphia was the highest judicatory in the church. The Adopting Act, which was passed on 19 September 1729, reads as follows:
Although the Synod do not claim or pretend to any authority of imposing upon other men's consciences, but do profess our just dissatisfaction with, and abhorrence of such impositions, and do utterly disclaim all legislative power and authority in the church, being willing to receive one another as Christ has received us to the glory of God and admit to fellowship in sacred ordinances, all such as we have grounds to believe Christ will at last admit to the kingdom of heaven, yet we are undoubtedly obliged to take care that the faith once delivered to the saints be kept pure and uncorrupt among us, and so handed down to our posterity; and do therefore agree that all the ministers of this Synod, or that shall hereafter be admitted into this Synod, shall declare their agreement in, and approbation of, the Confession of Faith, with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Assembly of Divines at Westminster; as being in all the essential and necessary articles, good forms of sound words and systems of Christian doctrine; and do also adopt the said Confession and Catechisms as the confession of our faith. And we do also agree, that all the Presbyteries within our bounds shall always take care not to admit any candidate of the ministry into the exercise of the sacred function but what declares his agreement in opinion with all the essential and necessary articles of said Confession, either by subscribing the said Confession of Faith and Catechisms; or by verbal declaration of their assent thereto, as such minister or candidate shall think best. And in case any minister of this Synod, or any candidate for the ministry, shall have any scruple with respect to any article or articles of said Confession or Catechisms, he shall at the time of his making said declaration declare his sentiments to the Presbytery or Synod, who shall, notwithstanding, admit him to the exercise of the ministry within our bounds, and to ministerial communion, if the Synod or Presbytery shall judge his scruple or mistake to be only about articles not essential and necessary in doctrine, worship, or government. But if the Synod or Presbytery shall judge such ministers or candidates erroneous in essential and necessary articles of faith, the Synod or Presbytery shall declare them uncapable of communion with them. And the Synod do solemnly agree, that none of us will traduce or use any opprobrious terms of those that differ from us in these extra -essential and not necessary points of doctrine, but treat them with the same friendship, kindness, and brotherly love, as if they had not differed from us in such sentiments.
Later that day, all the ministers present, except one who declared himself unprepared,
after proposing all the scruples that any of them had to make against any articles and expressions in the Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, have unanimously agreed in the solution of those scruples, and in declaring the said Confession and Catechisms to be the confession of their faith, excepting only some clauses in the twentieth and twenty-third chapters, concerning which clauses the Synod do unanimously declare, that they do not receive those articles in any sense as to suppose the civil magistrate hath a controlling power over Synods with respect to the exercise of their ministerial authority; or power to persecute any for their religion; or in any sense contrary to the Protestant succession to the throne of Great Britain.
The Synod observing that unanimity, peace, and unity, which appeared in all their consultations and determinations relating to the affair of the Confession, did unanimously agree in giving thanks to God in solemn prayer and praises.
In addition to the Confession of Faith and Catechisms, the Synod also adopted the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God in the following manner:
A motion being made to know the Synod's judgment about the directory, they gave their sense of that matter in the following words, viz: The Synod do unanimously acknowledge and declare, that they judge the directory for worship, discipline, and government of the church, commonly annexed to the Westminster Confession, to be agreeable in substance to the word of God, and founded thereupon, and therefore do earnestly recommend the same to all their members, to be by them observed as near as circumstances will allow, and Christian prudence direct.
Two aspects of the Adopting Act deserve special attention: (l) the nature of subscription; and (2) the matter of "scruples." All subsequent developments, respecting confessionalism among American Presbyterians, turn upon these two issues.
In the Adopting Act, subscription is viewed as a man's personal confession of his faith. Except for any noted "scruples," subscription is a public declaration of what each man fully believes not merely an agreement to "articles of peace." Thus, when the church adopted the Confession, she took it as a constitutional document; and when an individual subscribes this creed, he owns it as his personal confession.
With reference to "scruples," it should be observed that the ones stated in 1729 were used largely to clarify a portion of the Confession against false or vague constructions which might be forced upon it. Scruples were not blatant denials or public opposition to leading articles contained in the standards.
In the Synod of 1729, the only scruples mentioned referred to false constructions placed on isolated clauses in the 20th and 23rd chapters of the Westminster Confession. After discussion, the Synod declared that "they do not receive those articles in any sense as to suppose the civil magistrate hath a controlling power over Synods with respect to their ministerial authority; or power to persecute any for their religion; or in any sense contrary to the Protestant succession to the throne of Great Britain."
Thus, the Synod unanimously resolved its difficulty by stating the nature of these faulty suppositions which were not really part of the Confession anyhow. At no point was any obvious doctrine of the Confession called into question.
Samuel Miller's own licensure provides another illustration with reference to scruples. In a letter written in 1836, Miller describes his own history:
When I was licensed by the Presbytery of Lewes, between forty and fifty years ago, just before standing up to make the profession and engagement required of candidates for license, I informed the Presbytery, that the only article in the Confession of Faith concerning which I had the smallest doubt, was a short clause in the fourth section of the 24th chapter, which treats of "Marriage and Divorce." The clause was this: "The man may not marry any of his [deceased] wife's kindred nearer in blood than he may of his own, etc." I had happened, a few weeks before, to listen to a discussion of the question, whether a man might lawfully marry the sister of his deceased wife; and my mind was brought into a state of doubt on the subject. Of this I thought it my duty candidly to inform the Presbytery, assuring them, that I could heartily adopt every other article of the Confession. They unanimously concluded this doubt was not a valid obstacle to my subscribing in the usual form, which I accordingly did, and was forthwith licensed.
Soon afterwards my doubts were removed, and I became satisfied that the Confession of Faith, in relation to the matter in question, took the wisest, safest, and most Scriptural ground. For a number of years before I ceased to be a pastor, I thought it my duty to decline sanctioning any matrimonial connection condemned by the clause referred to, and to set my face in every proper way against it.
As an accessory to subscription, ministers (and elders) in the Presbyterian Church are required to take an ordination vow stating they "sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith of this church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the holy scriptures." This vow is designed to underscore the authority of the doctrinal standards, not relax them. Its plain import is one of an affirmation of faith, not a denial.
Yet, in one of the most perverse subterfuges of modern ecclesiastical politics, this vow is often treated as a negation. It is regarded by some as an escape clause, as if its purpose was to enable church officers to assent to the confessional "system" in general, without any implied commitment to any of the particulars. In this line of thinking, church officers are free to disregard individual articles of our creed at their pleasure, with impunity, so long as they pay lip-service to the "system" contained therein. Thus, theordination vow is turned upside down, and employed as an instrument of denial.
Samuel Miller notes the dangers of such loose subscription. He asserts that confessional subscription is "not a mere formality, but a very solemn transaction, which means much, and infers the most serious obligation." Consequently, he regards an evasive subscription as "a SOLEMN PERJURY." And he warns the church of the danger of allowing officers to adopt the confessional standards "with an avowed laxity of construction, or an evident mental reservation, altogether inconsistent with Christian probity."
The issue of subscription was crucial during the Old School/New School controversy of the 1830s. As the New School gained in influence, the practice of loose subscription became more widespread. This laxity, in turn, allowed the growth of many heresies in the church. Only the decisive measures taken in the General Assembly of 1837 provided a temporary shift toward stricter confessionalism.
"There is nothing new under the sun," and, sadly, today the practice of loose subscription is the reigning position, even within so-called "conservative" Presbyterian denominations. Under the pretext of listing scruples, while sitting under examination of Presbytery, candidates for ordination may openly state their opposition to leading articles of the Confession. The presbyters seem especially gratified if the candidate's denial is expressed in tones of regret, with a touch of esteem for the creed he has just denounced.
For example, the practice of sabbath-keeping is one of the least popular (almost non-existent) practices in contemporary culture. Further, it is not accepted by the broader "evangelical" community. Hence, it is not uncommon to hear the sabbath routinely spurned by candidates for ordination. This denial is regarded even more palatable if one makes a passing reference to Calvin, or the "continental view" of the sabbath even if the candidate has not the slightest idea of Calvin's real views on the matter, or if the candidate's practice bears no resemblance to the observance of the Lord's Day among the Reformed churches on the continent of Europe.
Likewise, candidates boast of many other departures from biblical principles of worship. Ministers and candidates alike advocate "will-worship"; liturgical practices and religious observances of human origin are adopted in clear violation of scriptural and confessional teaching. Some church officers have even advocated the use of "pictures of Jesus" and other graven images for instructing children and the unlearned which is nothing but a rehash of the old Romish contention that images serve as the "books of the laity."
Through such evasions and denials, the Westminster Standards are discredited in the church. And, what is worse, the ten commandments are abridged to eight or seven or six or whatever happens to be in vogue at the time. Even the most basic Protestant rule of biblical authority (sola scriptura) has been questioned, as some church courts will ordain men who believe in continuing revelation.
Further, the confessional doctrine of salvation which one might ordinarily assume to be basic to the whole "system" has been progressively eroded. As Presbyterian Churches have obtained more influence from broad "evangelicalism," many Presbyterians have adopted methods of evangelism and church growth which were cultivated in the fields of Pelagianism. We are now told we must adopt a more "positive" approach to evangelism; the biblical doctrines of original sin, human depravity, and human inability are thrust into the background, if not discarded altogether. "Decisionalism" prevails; and the old doctrines respecting regeneration and conversion have been laid aside. The church's mission strategy is plotted on the basis of the latest demographic studies, rather than biblical imperatives.
Added to the foregoing errors, the church now suffers from an endless series of aberrant theological fads, ranging from dispensational prophetic speculations to paedocommunion. Presbyterianism has degenerated to become, what R. L. Dabney once described as, "the Omnibus Presbyterian Church."
In principle, this lax subscriptionism differs little from theological liberalism. Both are pious frauds, for both are exceedingly dishonest. The difference is merely found in the object of accommodation. Theological liberals accommodate to the humanistic spirit of the age, while "conservative" Presbyterians accommodate to the broader "evangelical" community. The net effect is the same: the Confession is robbed of any substantial authority in the church. The confessional standards serve simply as a window dressing, a vague link to the past.
In the present climate, Miller's writings are almost as timely as when they were first penned. Presbyterian Churches desperately need to have their doctrinal integrity restored.
During the summer of 1824, Miller addressed students on the subject of "Creeds and Confessions." That lecture formed the basis of his published work, The Utility and Importance of Creeds and Confessions (1824). In 1833, the work was revised and enlarged for publication; it was subsequently reprinted several times. Now reissued in this volume, Miller's book presents a cogent case concerning the lawfulness and usefulness of creeds.
It was also during the turbulent decade of the 1830s that Miller produced his notable "Letters to Presbyterians." As the Old School/New School conflict became more heated, Miller wrote a series of open letters which were published serially in 1833, in a periodical, The Presbyterian. Later that year, all of these epistles were gathered into one volume, Letters to Presbyterians on the Present Crisis in the Presbyterian Church. Written for the general membership of Presbyterian Churches, these letters possess more vigor and immediacy than most of Miller's seminary writings. He exhorts his readers to adhere firmly to the confessional standards, and to realize the gravity of the issues at stake.
Speaking of the Confession of Faith, Miller writes:
Will you suffer one article of it after another to be nullified, in fact, by reckless subscription, until its whole dignity and authority shall perish together? In other words, will you suffer men of coarse and ductile consciences, with the philosophy and the language of Pelagianism on their lips, to be guilty of the solemn, dishonest mockery of subscribing your Calvinistic creed, and entering your judicatories?
Such questions are still apropos, as is Miller's closing exhortation: "These questions must soon be decided. The crisis is approaching. God grant that you may decide them in such a manner as most effectually to promote his glory, and the purity and edification of our beloved Zion."
Footnotes for Introductory Essay
1. Samuel Miller, Letters on Clerical Manners and Habits (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1852), p. 124.
2. Records of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America Embracing the Minutes of the General Presbytery and General Synod 1706-1788 (l904; rpt. New York: Arno Press, 1969), pp. 94-95.
3. Miller states: "It is truly humiliating and distressing to know that in some churches it has gradually become customary to consider articles of faith as merely articles of peace: in other words, as articles which he who subscribes is not considered as professing to believe, but as merely engaging not to oppose at least in any public or offensive manner." (p. 60 below.)
4. Records, p. 95.
5. For an excellent discussion of the confessional teaching on the role of the Magistrate, consult, Thomas M'Crie, The Unity of the Church (1821; rpt. Dallas: Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1989), "Appendix," pp. 135-206. M'Crie has a superb discussion explaining what the Confession does and does not teach in the oft-misunderstood sections on the Magistrate.
Likewise, it should be noted that the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, upon adoption of the Confession, 22 August 1647, provided a word of clarification concerning the limits of the Magistrate's role in relation to the church. See the "Act Approving the Confession of Faith," in The Confession of Faith; the Larger and Shorter Catechisms (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, 1976), pp. 14-15.
6. Cited in Samuel Miller [the younger], The Life of Samuel Miller, DD. LL.D. (Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen and Haffelfinger, 1869), Vol. I, pp. 55-56.
10. Letter to Presbyterians (Philadelphia: Anthony Finley, 1833), p. 205.
11. See Life of Miller, Vol. II, pp. 325-47. A good general account of the Old School/New School conflict is found also in Benjamin Morgan Palmer, The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell (1875; rpt. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), pp. 181-209.
12. See John Calvin's Sermons on the Ten Commandments (Edited and translated by Benjamin W. Farley, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), especially, pp. 97-132.
13. R. L. Dabney, Discussions (1891; rpt. Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 1982), Vol. II, p. 472 ff.