I need not say, to any attentive observer of passing scenes, that the subject of faithful adherence to our doctrinal standards is another point which stands essentially connected with the peace of the Presbyterian Church. On this subject, therefore, it is of the utmost importance that there be a concurrence of sentiment in favor of some rational and scriptural principles.
On the one hand, if such absolute uniformity in the mode of explaining every minute detail of truth is contended for, with the rigor which some appear to consider as necessary; if men are to be criminated, and subjected to discipline, for not expounding every doctrine contained in the Confession of Faith in the same precise manner with every other subscriber who has gone before him; the church must inevitably be kept in a state of constant mutual crimination and conflict. Quietness and peace will be out of the question. On the other hand, if all sorts of unscriptural opinion, except the extreme of heresy, should be freely countenanced by any of our judicatories; if that refusal to censure any form of doctrinal error, short of palpable Unitarianism, which would seem to be the plan of some brethren, should be adopted as the prevalent policy; it will be impossible much longer to keep the church together. Or rather, it will not, much longer, be worth keeping together. For it will cease to be what the church was constituted and intended to be, from the beginning: a "witness for God" (cf.Isa. 43:10-12; Acts 1:8), in the midst of a corrupt and ungodly world a witness for the truth as well as the order of his family.
If we cannot adopt some course between these ruinous extremes, and with a spirit of mutual affection and accommodation walk in it, there is an end of our long cherished union. We must be torn in sunder scattered to the winds.
On this deeply interesting, this vital subject, allow me, then, to offer a few fraternal remarks. If I do not entirely mistake, they are conceived, and will be expressed, in that spirit of conciliation and Christian love which it is my wish to cherish, and to recommend to all whom I address.
It is well known, that when ministers are ordained in the Presbyterian Church or when those who are already ordained are received into our body, from other denominations they are called upon to give their formal and solemn assent, among others, to the following questions.
1. "Do you believe the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice?"
2. "Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith of this church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the holy scriptures?"
Here, it will be observed, the Bible is declared to be the only infallible rule of faith, and the Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church is recognized as only a summary or compendious view of the manner in which the members of that church agree in interpreting the scriptures. In this sense only are we in the habit of calling our Confession of Faith, and Form of Government, our ecclesiastical standards. Not ultimate standards of faith and practice; but standards or tests, for ascertaining the manner in which we, as a church, profess to interpret the Bible. If there be any individuals, then, in our body, capable of saying or thinking that the Confession of Faith "is the Presbyterian's Bible," let them seriously pause, and ask, whether they have ever seen and read this formula? and if they have, whether the charge of deliberate slander does not justly lie at their door?
But the great practical question which I wish now particularly to discuss is, "How isthis public subscription, or assent to the Confession of Faith, to be understood?" Is it to be considered as precluding all variety of opinion whatever, as to the mode of explaining any of the doctrines of the Confession? Is it the design of this subscription to secure such entire and perfect uniformity in the manner of construing every minute article, as to censure and exclude every possible diversity of exposition on any point? To expect such perfect uniformity, among two thousand ministers of the gospel, is a chimera. It never was or can be realized. And to attempt to enforce such a principle, would be worse than useless.
It is well known that the divines of the Westminster Assembly, who framed and adopted the Confession of Faith which we receive, had minor differences among themselves. Some of them were Supralapsarians, others Sublapsarians, and a third class had their peculiar views respecting reprobation, and also respecting the place which the active as well as the passive obedience of Christ holds in the gospel system. Still they were all substantial and sincere Calvinists, and framed the Confession in such a manner as that those who differed, in respect to these minor shades of opinion, might all honestly adopt it. It is notorious, too, that the Calvinistic members of the Synod of Dort differed among themselves in regard to some minor points, particularly with regard to the extent of the atonement; but they were unanimous in that thorough condemnation of Arminianism which their canons contain. It is also equally well known that a similar diversity of views, in relation to the modes of propounding and explaining some doctrines, existed in the old Synod of Philadelphia, at the date of the "Adopting Act," in 1729. Still, as in the case of the Westminster Assembly, and Synod of Dort, they were all substantial, sincere Calvinists; and, therefore, unanimously, and with good faith, subscribed the creed which had been framed by their fathers in Europe, more than seventy years before.
But if some degree of diversity in the modes of representing gospel truth must be expected and tolerated in a large ecclesiastical connection, the question arises, "How far can this diversity be allowed with safety to proceed?" This is, undoubtedly, a question of great delicacy, and of very difficult solution; but not more difficult than many other practical questions relating to morals and religion. We all grant that even real Christians, though sincere, are imperfect. But if it were asked, "What degree of moral imperfection may be considered as consistent with Christian character?" I presume every thinking man would find himself embarrased by the attempt to draw a precise line; but would feel quite sure, at the same time, that there are certain forms and degrees of moral delinquency which must inevitably exclude him in whom they are found from the ranks of professing Christians. So, in regard to the form of subscription to the Confession of Faith, it is believed that few fair and candid minds can be at a loss to decide how it ought to be interpreted.
If the question, "What is the meaning of the words, 'the system of doctrines taught in the holy scriptures,' as they occur in the formula which makes a part of the ordination service?" were submitted to any intelligent and impartial jury in the country to twelve men of plain common sense, who had never heard of the subterfuges and refinements of modern subscribers to creeds I cannot doubt that they would be unanimous in their verdict without quitting their seats. They would naturally decide thus: "Since the primary object of subscribing an ecclesiastical creed is to express agreement in doctrinal belief; since the manifest design of the Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church is to maintain what is commonly called the Calvinistic system, in opposition to the Socinian, the Arian, the Pelagian, and the Arminian systems; since almost every point which distinguishes these several forms of error are specifically exposed, disproved and rejected, under one or another of its several articles; and since this has notoriously been the universal understanding, ever since that Confession was formed, we judge that no man who is not a sincere Calvinist, that is, who does not ex animo [from the heart; sincerely] receive all the distinguishing articles of the Calvinistic system, can honestly subscribe it.
"We do not suppose, indeed, that among those who subscribe that formulary, it is necessary, in order to a candid subscription, that there should be entire agreement as to 'every jot and tittle' in the mode of explaining every doctrine which the Confession contains. But we cannot resist the conclusion, as fair and honorable men, that unless a candidate for admission does really believe in the doctrine of the Trinity; the incarnation and true Deity of Jesus Christ; the personality and Deity of the Holy Spirit; the fall and entire native depravity of man in virtue of a connection with Adam, the progenitor of our race; the vicarious atoning sacrifice of the righteousness of Christ, set to our account, and made ours by faith; sovereign and unconditional personal election to eternal life; regeneration and sanctification by the power of the Holy Spirit; the eternal punishment of the impenitently wicked, etc., etc.; unless he sincerely believes all these, and the essentially allied doctrines which have ever been considered as the distinguishing features of the Calvinistic system, and believes them in substance, as they are laid down in the Confession, our verdict is that he cannot honestly subscribe it.
"We suppose, indeed, that among many hundred sincere and candid Calvinists on earth, there will ever be found some diversity in their manner both of explaining and defending these doctrines, while they all truly and steadfastly hold them. But as long as none of them embrace any of the errors to which reference has just been made, and which it was the special design of the Confession to exclude, we judge that they may all adopt it without any breach of good faith."
Such, I do believe, would be the verdict of any candid impartial jury, who had any tolerable acquaintance with the facts in the case, and whose minds were entirely unsophisticated by party polemics on this subject. And such, I am equally persuaded, is the conclusion to which Christian fairness and honor ought to conduct us. There is a manifest difference between the essential nature of a Christian doctrine, and the different modes of representing and expounding it which have been resorted to by divines, on the whole equally sound and pious. To depart from the former is to abandon the doctrine; but with respect to the latter, some variety of views must be expected and allowed.
To illustrate my meaning: The doctrine of the vicarious atoning sacrifice of Christ is regarded, by all who are entitled to the Christian name, as a fundamental doctrine of the gospel. The essential nature of this doctrine I suppose to consist in the fact that the Redeemer laid down his life as a covenanted substitute and surety for sinners. In other words, that "though he knew no sin, he was made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him" (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21). Those who adhere to this leading idea, and consider the sacrifice of Christ as strictly vicarious, must be considered as adhering to all that is radical and indispensable in the doctrine, whether they explain it on what has been called the Gethsemane theory, the infinite value scheme, or the plan of universal applicability. As long as any one holds the true scriptural nature of the atonement, he may be allowed some latitude in his mode of explaining its extent, without being considered, in reference to this article, as recreant from the standard which he has subscribed. And so of other leading doctrines.
While, therefore, some diversity, in the explanations adopted of an extended series of doctrines, must be expected among the teachers in every church, and has been ever found to exist; there cannot, it appears to me, be a plainer dictate of common sense, and common honesty, than that a Pelagian, a Semi-Pelagian, or Arminian to say nothing of more radical errorists cannot possibly, with a good conscience, subscribe the Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church. That this Confession was originally drawn up by men decisively and warmly opposed to these errors, is universally known. Nay, to erect a barrier against the encroachments of those errors, which were then coming into England "like a flood" (Isa. 59:19), was, notoriously, one main object in the construction of this formula.
Again, the private writings of those who first formed and adopted it all speak the same language, and establish, beyond a doubt, the quo animo [intention] of its original authors. Further, it is equally well known , to all who are acquainted with the history of those times, that our own church, in this country, when by her "Adopting Act," in 1729, she received this Confession of Faith as her ecclesiastical "form of sound words" (2 Tim. 1:14), had a main reference to Semi-Pelagian or Arminian errors, as those to which she was most exposed, and against which it behooved her to be especially on her guard.
Further still, who is ignorant that, from that day to this, the Presbyterian Church has been universally regarded, and by multitudes stigmatized, as a Calvinistic body; that on this ground, she has uniformly stood aloof from all ecclesiastical communion with confessedly Arminian bodies, of various denominations, and has borne testimony against what she considered as their serious errors; and that she has, more than once, in her highest judicatories, condemned the writings and the preaching of such of her own ministers as were found propagating those errors. And, to crown all, the whole history of the Cumberland Presbyterians, in the West, bears witness that our venerable Fathers, thirty years ago, when there was no special jealousy or prejudice excited in reference to this subject, thought the adoption of Arminian opinions altogether inconsistent with an honorable subscription to our Confession, and considered it as their duty to cast out of the church a large body of otherwise respectable ministers and members who, though they decisively preferred and still retain Presbyterian order, yet could not subscribe a Calvinistic confession.
Shall we, then, be told, at this time of day after all that has been written, and decided, and done in reference to this very subject that an Arminian, or one who, if not entirely of that creed, adopts its leading and most exceptionable principles, can yet, with entire candor, subscribe to our Confession? Just as rationally and honestly might it be contended that a zealous Remonstrant, in 1618, might have conscientiously subscribed to the "Canons" of the Synod of Dort; or an Arian to the Creed adopted by the Nicene Council.
The truth is (however the question as to the admissibility of minor differences in the mode of explaining gospel truth may be decided), no position in morals can be plainer, than that the advocate of those principles which the Confession in language directly proscribes which it was expressly and specially intended to exclude, and which the actual administration of the church under it is known to have again and again condemned and excluded cannot possibly, with a good conscience, subscribe to its articles. Such a subscription is a solemn perjury. If there be such a thing as "lying to the Holy Ghost" (cf. Acts 5:3), here it is. It is destroying the very intention of a creed: the object of which, as all allow, is to ascertain and secure concurrence in faith.
If the system of doctrine taught in the Confession be wrong, let it by all means be changed. But as long as we profess to hold certain doctrines, let us really and honestly hold them. I would unspeakably rather discard the Confession altogether, than adopt a principle which would render its use a solemn mockery. The moment this lax mode of interpreting subscription to creeds becomes general, or even frequent, we may bid farewell to their power or usefulness. They can no longer be regarded as either a bond of union, or as a fence against the inroads of error. With whatever potency or value they may have been once invested, they will soon degenerate into mere unmeaning forms.
That this view of the subject is neither novel nor extravagant, will be apparent to those who weigh the following sentiments, deliberately published, many years since, by the late Dr. Witherspoon, who was never charged either levity in forming his opinions, or with violence in maintaining them:
"I cannot forbear warning you against, and pointing out, the evil of two pieces of dishonesty which may possibly be found united to gravity and decency in other respects.... The first is a minister's subscribing articles of doctrine which he does not believe. This is so direct a violation of sincerity, that it is astonishing to think how men can set their minds at ease in the prospect, or keep them in peace after the deliberate commission of it. The very excuses and evasions that are offered in defense of it are a disgrace to reason, as well as a scandal to religion.
"What success can be expected from that man's ministry, who begins it with an act of such complicated guilt? How can he take upon him to reprove others for sin, or to train them up in virtue and true goodness, while he himself is chargeable with direct, premeditated, and perpetual perjury? I know nothing so nearly resembling it as those cases in trade, in which men make false entries, and at once screen and aggravate their fraud by swearing, or causing others to swear, contrary to truth. This is justly reputed scandalous, even in the world; and yet I know no circumstance in which they differ that does not tend to show it to be less criminal than the other....
"I have particularly chosen to introduce upon this subject upon this occasion that I may attack it, not as an error, but as a fraud; not as a mistake in judgment, but an instance of gross dishonesty and insincerity of heart. ... I must beg every minister, but especially those young persons who have an eye to the sacred office, to remember that God will not be mocked, though the world may be deceived. In his sight, no gravity of deportment, no pretence to freedom of inquiry (a thing excellent in itself), no regular exercise of the right of private judgment, will warrant or excuse such a lie for gain, as solemnly to subscribe what they do not believe."
It obviously affords no relief from this heavy charge to allege, as some have done, that they subscribed the Confession of Faith with a mental reservation, implying that they received it only so far as they considered it as agreeing with the scriptures. This, I acknowledge, appears to me a subterfuge which offers as direct an insult to common sense as it does to common honesty. Upon this principle it is plain that any man might, without scruple, subscribe any confession of faith whatever. For, surely a Socinian might, without the least hesitation, declare that he believed a rigidly Calvinistic Confession, so far as he considered it as coinciding with the word of God.
Besides, of what value is a subscription to any creed which is made upon this principle? The only object of subscribing a creed is to ascertain whether the subscriber believes a certain set of doctrines: or, in other words, whether he believes them to be taught in the Bible. But is it not evident that he who subscribes, with the mental reservation before us, entirely defeats this object; evades the only design of the whole transaction; and palms a base deception upon the body before which he stands: a deception the more criminal, and the more mischievous, because practiced as a solemn religious act, and in the name of the heart-searching God! It would be unspeakably better, in my opinion, to abandon at once all church creeds, than to continue their use upon a principle so utterly subversive of all fairness and sincerity. And it requires no gift of prophecy to foresee that any church or judicatory that acts upon such a principle is sowing the seeds of ruinous discord and corruption, and must expect the curse of a God of truth.
It has been sometimes, indeed, alleged, as a source of relief from this view of the subject, that those who are agreed in the great facts involved in Christian truth may safely subscribe the same creed, although they may differ very widely in their philosophical solution of those facts. For example, it is supposed by some, that those who agree in what are called Calvinistic facts may conscientiously subscribe our Confession of Faith, though all their philosophical explanations of those facts be thoroughly Pelagian or Arminian. Now, it is not denied that the facts of the Christian revelation may, to a certain extent, be separated from the philosophy of those facts. It is not denied that the former may, in many cases, be honestly held fast, while a considerable range of speculation is indulged with regard to the latter. But what is denied is that this principle can be admitted in the case before us, beyond very restricted limits. As applied by many modern errorists, to cover a disingenuous subscription to articles of belief, it is a subterfuge in the highest degree uncandid and dangerous; and if employed as some theologians appear willing to employ it, can scarcely fail opening the door to all the evils of perfect latitudinarianism.
Suppose one of the alleged Calvinistic facts in question to be that man is a depraved being. It is true Calvinists maintain this fact. But so do Arminians, so do Pelagians. But how is it held by each? The slightest intelligent survey will satisfy any impartial judge that the general fact may be admitted, and is admitted by thousands, upon principles, and in a form entirely subversive of the gospel plan of salvation.
Again, suppose the fact in question to be that all the sincere disciples of Christ are renewed and sanctified by the Holy Ghost. Here again, all classes of professing Christians agree in words. When many Arminians, however, accede to this fact, they mean only that the Holy Spirit operates upon all alike, where the gospel comes, just as the atmosphere presses equally upon who are immersed in it; and that the reason why one is impressed and not another, is, that the former cherishes the impression, which the latter does not. They "make themselves to differ" (cf. 1 Cor. 4:7). When the Pelagian admits this fact, it is upon principles still further removed from scriptural truth. And when the Socinian acknowledges the fact, it is often meant by him to import nothing more than that the Holy Spirit, that is a Divine influence, has revealed in the scriptures the way of salvation. I ask, is the nominal fact sufficient here? May not, nay, is not, a mode of explaining it adopted which completely nullifies it, as a ground of Christian hope? Or rather, which makes it an entirely different sort of fact from that which the Bible exhibits?
Further, suppose the fact under discussion to be that men are saved through the atonement of Christ. Almost all denominations of Christians will readily concur in this statement, as announcing a great fact. But is this enough for him who would "contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints?" (cf. Jude 3). Some mean no more by the statement just made than that Christ by his instructions has revealed to men a future life, and by his sufferings and death has procured a mitigation of the demands of the law; so that the believer can now purchase eternal blessedness by his own imperfect obedience; whereas, anterior to the atoning sacrifice of the Son of God, a perfect obedience only could avail to this end. According to these, Christ died, not to satisfy the demands of law and justice not to pay the debt of his people, and thus set them free from condemnation but simply to lower the terms of acceptance, and to bring the required payment within the reach even of sinful creatures. But a third class interpret the fact of which we speak in a totally different manner. They suppose that the sacrifice of Christ was truly and properly vicarious; that the Father "laid on him the iniquities of us all;" that he "bare our sins in his own body on the tree;" and that he delivers his people from the curse of the law by "being made a curse for them" (cf. Isa. 53:6; 1 Pet. 3:24; cf. Gal. 3:13). I ask again, is the alleged fact the same in the systems of all these people? Let the humble believer, who can find no rest for his soul but in the all-perfect and all-sufficient righteousness of his Divine Surety, answer the question.
The truth is, what is called the fact in question is, in each of these cases, an entirely different fact in the estimation of the different classes enumerated. Each erroneous theory perverts the fact as found in the Bible, and transforms it into a fact of totally different aspect and bearing. Let me entreat the friends of Bible truth, then, to beware of those who talk of Calvinistic facts explained by Pelagian, or Semi-pelagian philosophy. It is an utter and ruinous delusion. The Pelagian philosophy never fails to transform all the facts which it perverts and tortures into Pelagian facts, with this dangerous circumstance attending them, that they are really Pelagian under a deceptive name and false colors. Let Pelagian philosophy prevail in the church for a few years, and he is an infatuated man who flatters himself that Pelagian doctrines will not soon be the reigning creed.
These remarks, my Christian brethren, are freely made, not for the purpose of wounding feelings, or fomenting strife; but with a sincere desire to prevent both, by preventing what must inevitably lead to both. Allowing men to subscribe to a confession which they obviously do not believe and to declare that they "approve" of a form of ecclesiastical government and discipline which they do not love, and have no disposition to support may have the appearance of great "liberality," and may seem to promise a most enviable harmony among brethren of different opinions. But the appearance is delusive. The hope is a miserable dream.
It requires no spirit of prophecy to foresee that whenever our ecclesiastical judicatories begin deliberately to admit of subscription to our public standards on any such principles, they are paving the way for troubles and dangers of the most ruinous kind. They will soon discover, either that they have introduced an enemy into the camp, who will create all the confusion of Babel, and eventually tear them in pieces; or, that indifference to truth, and that moral torpor and death, into which the Protestant churches of France and Geneva, from this very cause, and in this very way, gradually sunk down, and which was, for many years, the basis of all their tranquility. There is peace among the dead; but it is the peace of darkness, of rottenness and of desolation. From such a peace, may God of his infinite mercy preserve us.
Princeton, February, 1833
It may be asked, and probably will be asked by some, what application the subjects discussed in the preceding letter can have to the present state of the Presbyterian Church? I answer, much in variety of ways. There are, undoubtedly, circumstances, either real or supposed, in the situation of the church, adapted to excited deep solicitude in the minds of those who take an interest in her welfare; and especially in the minds of those who believe that her true interest essentially depends on her faithful adherence to those evangelical principles which our fathers laboured hard to defend and establish, which their sons have gone through many a conflict to maintain, and which the great mass of our most experienced, wise, and pious ministers and members do still consider as lying at the foundation of our real prosperity as a church of Christ.
You will, no doubt, anticipate me, when I say that the circumstance to which I allude is the painful apprehension, entertained by many, that, in some of our Presbyteries, there is not that entire adherence to our doctrinal standards which the purity of the church demands. To what extent there is real ground for this fear, I pretend not to decide. I would fain hope, as expressed in my first letter, that nineteen-twentieths of our ministry and eldership are not liable, in any considerable degree, to the charge in question. I know, however, that the apprehension (above referred to) exists in some minds; and that, in some cases, it is so deeply fixed, as materially to interfere with that cordiality of feeling, and that harmony of Christian intercourse, which are so desirable among the members of the body of Christ, and which it is the unfeigned object of these letters to promote. Many of those whom I address will be better judges both of the reality and extent of the evil in question than, in my situation, I can possibly be. Permit me, then, Christian brethren, to pour out the fulness of my heart on this important subject, with fraternal freedom.
I shall "bring no railing accusation" against any one (cf. 2 Pet. 2:11; 1 Pet. 3:9; Jude 9). I shall hold up no brother to the public gaze as a heretic. Nothing is further from my wish, than to hurl the charge of heterodoxy, or to indulge the suspicion of it in my bosom. Rather would I cherish myself, and inculcate upon all whom I address, the exercise of that Christian charity which "hopeth all things," and "thinketh no evil" (1 Cor. 13:5, 7). Still, even charity herself has eyes, and ears, and intellect, and cannot be regardless of the truth. If the evil in question exists, is it the part of wisdom to close our eyes against it? Will it not "eat as doth a canker" (2 Tim. 2:17), and be likely, at last, to produce a fatal mischief? If it produces uneasiness now, will it not be likely, if left uncorrected, to produce discord, hostility, and rupture in the end? Allow me, then, to express my feelings on the subject with all the sincerity and frankness of one who loves harmony and quietness much, but truth more; and who remembers that the inspired oracle represents that "wisdom which cometh down from above, as first pure, then peaceable" (cf. Jam. 3:17); nay who is persuaded that all that peace which rests upon indifference to the truth, or on friendship to error, must be as transient as it is false.
Let none say that uniformity of doctrinal belief, among the ministers and members of a particular church, is by no means so important as many imagine; and that to indulge uneasiness, or to give trouble respecting it, is rather a mark of prejudice and bigotry than of sound wisdom. This, I know, is the language of some. But is it the language of God's word? Has it been the language of the most faithful and eminently useful of the servants of Christ in any age?
What is to be done by those who verily believe that Christians are bound, agreeable to the inspired injunction, to "hold fast the form of sound words which they have received," and to "contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints?" (cf. 2 Tim. 1:13; cf. Jude 3). What shall be done by those who believe that one principal end for which the church was instituted, by her Divine Head, was that she might preserve in their purity, and transmit uncorrupted to future ages, the true faith and order of Christ's house? What shall we say to those humble, conscientious Christians who think they read, in every page of ecclesiastical history, that in all cases without exception, when the church has faithfully adhered to those doctrines of the Bible, and of the Reformation, which are taught in our Confession of Faith, she has been blessed and prospered; and that, just in proportion as she has departed from these doctrines, she has declined both in spirituality and peace? It is not enough to tell such persons that they are weakly prejudiced, or that they are "high church" bigots. This is, surely, not the way either to satisfy a conscientious scruple, or to promote Christian love among brethren. The stubborn facts, after all, remain: that is, by the truth alone, borne home to heart by the Spirit's power, that any of the children of men are truly sanctified; and that it is only so far as the disciples of Christ "walk by the same rule," and "speak the same thing" (Phil. 3:16; 1 Cor. 1:10), that they can be blessed with a harmony and love which are worth possessing.
The impression which has undeniably been made on the minds of some excellent ministers of the Presbyterian Church, that there are brethren in our connection who have departed from some of the important doctrines of our Confession; and that there are others who, though not chargeable themselves with this departure, in all its extent, are yet over-indulgent to it in their co-presbyters; the impression, I say, thus made, is either founded in truth, or it is false. If it be entirely false if there be no real ground for the suspicion why suffer it to be indulged for a moment? Why not remove it effectually, and at once, as might easily be done by a few candid and explicit statements? Surely to make such statements, is not too great a condescension, when the edification of brethren, and the peace of the church, are involved. But if the impression referred to is just; if the suspicion of doctrines seriously erroneous, having crept into the church, is founded in fact, can those who lament, and complain of the fact, be blamed? Ought they, as "watchmen on the walls of Zion" (cf. Isa. 62:6), to hold their peace when their Master's truth is invaded? And is it possible to hope for a sound and safe peace until the evil is, in some way, corrected; until the impression of which we speak is legitimately removed?
On such a subject, however, general remarks and suggestions will be of little value, unless followed by some distinct specifications. I will, therefore, frankly give a specimen of the doctrines to which I allude. That teaching doctrines such as I am about to mention has been often and formally imputed to ministers of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, no one who has been conversant with the religious journals of our country can fail to know. With what truth these imputations may, in some instances, have been made, I will not, at present, undertake to decide. And therefore, I do not venture to connect the specified opinions with any particular names. But I will venture to say, that if any of these doctrines are held and taught by any of the ministers connected with the Presbyterian Church, it is deeply to be deplored, and affords a painful augury of the purity and peace of the church in time to come.
The doctrines referred to are such as these: that we have no more to do with the first sin of Adam, than with that of any other parent; that he was not constituted the covenant head of his posterity, but was merely their natural progenitor; that there is no such thing as original sin; that infants come into the world as perfectly free from corruption of nature as Adam was when he was created; that to speak of innate corrupt inclinations and propensities is an absurdity; that by human depravity is meant nothing more than the universal fact that all the posterity of Adam, though born entirely free from moral defilement, will always begin to sin when they begin to exercise moral agency; that the doctrine of imputed sin, or imputed righteousness, is nonsense; that the human will determines itself; that the impenitent sinner is, by nature, in full possession of all the powers necessary to a full compliance with all the commands of God; that he is in possession of plenary ability to repent and believe, without the aid of the Holy Spirit; that if he labored under any kind of inability, natural or moral, which he could not remove himself, he would be fully excusable for not complying with God's will; that man is active in his own regeneration in other words, that his regeneration is his own act; that it is impossible for God, by a direct influence on the mind, to control its perceptions and practical choices, without destroying its moral agency; that, consequently, Omnipotence cannot exert such an influence on men as shall make it certain that they will choose and act in a particular manner, without making them mere machines; that we have no evidence that God could have prevented the existence of sin, or that he could now prevent any that exists, without interfering with the moral agency of man; that he would, no doubt, be glad to do it, but is not able; that he elected men to eternal life, on a foresight of what their character would be; and that his sovereignty is confined to the revelation of truth, and exhibition of it to the mind.
Now, let any man take these doctrinal propositions, and compare them with the spirit and language of our Confession of Faith; and if he can lay his hand on his heart and say, with an honest conscience, that they agree with that formulary, and that the same individual can sincerely assent to both, he will furnish, it appears to me, one of the most signal examples of either perverted intellect, or moral obliquity, that can easily be found. If I really adopted the foregoing doctrines, I should certainly consider myself as guilty of the grossest perjury in subscribing the Confession of Faith.
If Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian sentiments existed in the fifth century, here they are, in all their unquestionable and revolting features. More particularly, in regard to the denial of original sin and the assertion of the doctrine of human ability, Pelagius and his followers never, certainly, went further than some of the advocates of the doctrines above recited. To attempt to persuade us to the contrary is to suppose that the record of the published language and opinions of those ancient heretics is lost or forgotten. And to assert that these opinions are reconcilable with the Calvinistic system is to offer a poor compliment to the memory of the most acute, learned, and pious divines that ever adorned the church of God, from the days of Augustine to those of the venerable band of Puritans who, after bearing a noble testimony against surrounding errors on the other side of the Atlantic, bore the lamp of truth, and planted the standard of Christ in this western hemisphere. Were they entirely mistaken in all their able and heroic testimony against Pelagian and Arminian errors? Did they spend their breath, and give up all that was dear to them in this world, in vainly contending against a mere imaginary discrepancy? My Christian friends, if we are prepared to admit this, we are indeed the degenerate offspring of a noble race of men. Let us no longer claim them as our sires. Let us withdraw the memorials of their exalted virtues, piety and services, which we have so often thought ourselves honored in erecting. Let us no more repeat that almost hallowed aspiration: Sit anima mea cum Puritanis! [Let my soul be with the Puritans!]
That the distressing apprehensions of error just expressed are not confined to "Old School" Presbyterians is well known to those who have attended to the popular publications of the day. One of the most acute, profound, and cautious theologians of New England, the venerable Professor of Christian Theology at Andover, in speaking of the precise opinions above recited, and others of allied character, represents himself and his friends as filled with anxious fears respecting the nature and tendency of these opinions; and considers their advocates as "making an attack on several important articles of the orthodox faith; and as employing language on the subject of moral agency, free will, depravity, divine influence, etc., which is so like the language of Arminians and Pelagians, that it would require some labor to discover the difference." And one of the most enlightened and respectable divines of Connecticut, in terms of still more unqualified reprobation, denounces the same opinions, as Arminian in their character; directly adapted whatever may be the intention of their advocates to make all who believe them Arminians; and tending to undermine, at once, the purity and peace of the church.
But the question, whether the doctrinal opinions alluded to are reconcilable with the received Confession and Catechisms of the Presbyterian Church is of small importance compared with another, "Are they reconcilable with the scriptures?" What is their bearing on that great system of "grace and truth which came by Jesus Christ?" (cf. John 1:17). And here the unavoidable answer appears to me to be of the most painful kind.
I am aware, indeed, that the respected brethren who are said to be the advocates of these opinions are said also to believe and insist that they consider them as peculiarly benign in their aspect and influence. They assure us that these doctrines afford great advantages over all others, in addressing both saints and sinners; in making men feel their deep responsibility, and in moving them to immediate and vigorous effort in the great work of salvation; that they are the most efficient promoters of revivals, and eminently adapted to build up the church of God. I have no doubt they believe all this. And those who, with me, deplore the reception of these opinions by any, might believe it too, if the opinions themselves had now, for the first time, been known in the Christian church. But they are old opinions. There is scarcely any thing new about them, even in their dress. An ample experiment has been made of their effects in different ages, and in various parts of the world; and these effects have always been deplorable, especially in reference to the spiritual interests of the church. The very same plea was made in behalf of the same doctrines, by their original advocates in the fifth century, and has been urged by their followers ever since. Yet nothing is more plain than that all the principles of evangelical truth, and all the lessons of Christian experience, must be reversed before such a plea can be admitted.
In fact, the whole tendency (of the system of doctrines just detailed) is to exalt the creature, and depress the Creator; to give us less humbling ideas of the moral disease under which we labor, and a diminished sense of obligation to the grace of Christ, and to the power of the Holy Spirit; to make the impenitent believe that conversion is a small and easy thing, and that they can accomplish it in their own strength, whenever they please. If men come into the world as free from all moral taint as Adam was in his state of primitive rectitude, and yet never fail to commence a course of sin the moment their moral agency begins, is not the doctrine of depravity, on this plan, encumbered with new difficulties, and placed on a footing far more perplexing and objectionable, than the old system of orthodoxy ever placed it? If there be no such thing as innate depravity, what is the real source of the sinful series of actions which never fails to commence with the commencement of moral agency? Is God the source of it? There is nothing, it seems, in man, by nature, to which it can be traced. Besides, if this be so, in what can regeneration consist? If there be no native tendency or disposition of the soul to be corrected, what does the Holy Spirit do to or for a man when he regenerates him? Does he only break the force of a few successive sinful acts, without any agency on the heart which will render it less liable, or less disposed to sin in future?
Further, if God cannot control the volitions of men without destroying their moral agency, then all certainty that his purposes will be accomplished, his predictions fulfilled, and the perseverance of his people in holiness secured, is, at one stroke, subverted. If God wills to save man, and yet cannot save him, unless man wills to help him, though at the same time, man, (according to this system) can will to be saved independently of any agency or will of God to that end; what security is there that any will be saved? If man be active in his own regeneration in other words, if the agency by which he is "brought out of darkness into the marvellous light" of the gospel is his own (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9) in what rational or scriptural sense can he be said to be "born of the Spirit;" to be "born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God?" (John 3:6; 1:13). If the wills of men are always governed by a "self-determining power," how can all glorying be taken away from the creature, and ascribed to almighty, sovereign, self-moving grace? Is it indeed so? Then I see not notwithstanding all the solemn, and I doubt not, sincere protestations of the abettors of these doctrines to the contrary I see not how we can avoid the conclusion, that the character of God is dishonored; that his counsels are degraded to a chaos of impotent wishes, and abortive endeavors; that his promises are the fallible and uncertain declarations of circumscribed power, and endless doubt; that it is impossible to guard the best hopes of the Christian from the constant liability to be blasted, unless by reducing him to a mere machine; that the whole plan of salvation is nothing better than a system of probabilities and peradventures, in which nothing can be made certain but at the expense of destroying the moral agency of the creature; and that it is nearly, if not quite, as likely to land the believer in the abyss of the damned, as in the paradise of God!
I know that these consequences are neither recognized nor admitted by the respected brethren who entertain the opinions under consideration. On the contrary, they think they see consequences flowing from them of the most favorable and inviting character. Nay, I believe they have been led, in some instances, to embrace and to preach these doctrines, by a sincere wish to avoid certain evils which they saw, or thought they saw, to arise from the exhibition of what they called the "Old Orthodoxy." They have heard, perhaps, some who professed to be advocates of "Calvinism," represent some of the features of that system, and especially the subject of human inability, in a manner rather adapted to diminish a sense of responsibility, and lull to sleep, than rouse and alarm the impenitent sinner. They have thence hastily concluded, that the fault was in the system itself, and not in the preacher. And in their ardent zeal to do good, instead of only rectifying the mode of presenting truth, which was all that needed rectification, they have been allured into the opposite error, by an honest desire to make a strong and salutary impression. This, I have no doubt, is a real statement of facts; and that we have, of course, to thank the occasional mistakes of "Old School" preaching for some of the most serious departures of "New School" champions from the simplicity of Bible truth. This, however, while it accounts for the fact before us, by no means justifies it. Some of the worst heresies that ever infected the church have arisen from a similar source.
As to the alleged peculiar tendency of these doctrines, to make men feel their responsibility, and to promote revivals of religion, it is, I am constrained to believe, altogether delusive. The preaching of these opinions may promote, as I am persuaded it has promoted, revivals of a spurious kind, in which temporary excitement strong animal feeling and vows and resolutions made on the spur of the moment, and in human strength, were the sum and substance of what was accomplished by them. Or they may exceedingly rouse the public mind, by being connected with novel devices and movements. Thus, it is well known, that strongly marked and extensive religious excitements have often occurred, both in former and latter times, under the ministrations of those who denied every fundamental doctrine of the gospel. But surely no one ever considered this as any evidence that the sentiments, on which the whole rested, were either sound in their character, or salutary in their influence. I defy the most diligent student of ecclesiastical history to produce a single instance in which the interests of vital piety, and of genuine revivals of religion, have not utterly perished in Pelagian hands.
O how different, my Christian friends, is this scheme of doctrine, from that humbling, yet elevating, and glorious plan of salvation which shines so clearly in the Bible, and which appears to me to be so exactly and happily copied into our Confession of Faith! A system which represents man as universally fallen, depraved and guilty, in virtue of his covenant connection with "the first Adam" (cf. 1 Cor. 15:22, 47); which exhibits him as an active, sentient, moral being, endowed with all the faculties which constitute a free, responsible moral agent; yet destitute of all holy dispositions, "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1) that is, insensible to the glory of God, and to all holy taste and enjoyment; which describes him as wholly unable to recover himself from this state of moral pollution and alienation, yet entirely to blame for this inability (to blame, nay, wholly inexcusable, for every moment of its continuance, the inability being altogether moral, and consequently, rather aggravating than excusing the spirit and conduct of the sinner); a system which, while it represents man as in these deplorable circumstances, holds forth to him a dispensation of rich and wonderful mercy, through "the second Adam, the Lord from heaven" (cf. 1 Cor. 15:47); which proclaims, to a guilty world, a divine, almighty, all-sufficient Saviour, who as the covenant Head and Representative of his chosen, laid down his life as an atoning sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and reconcile us to God; a sacrifice abundantly sufficient for the whole world, but according to the gracious purpose and sovereign wisdom of God, made efficacious only to those who believe; which, on the ground of this all-sufficient sacrifice, sincerely makes an offer of the Saviour, with all his benefits, to every one who hears the gospel (and that not on the ground that those who make the offer, thus general, do not know who are chosen, and who are not, but because the provision made by the sacrifice of the Redeemer is abundantly adequate, and in its nature, perfectly adapted to the case of all); a plan which represents the pardon and acceptance of the sinner as founded solely on the perfect satisfaction and righteousness of the Redeemer, received by faith, and imputed to the believer; and his regeneration and progressive holiness, as produced entirely by the power of the Holy Spirit, on whose gracious power the Christian is entirely dependent, for the commencement and continuance of every holy exercise. In short, [it is] a system, which represents the moral ruin and impotence of man by nature as entire; which maintains from the beginning to the end, his perfect dependence, and at the same time his perfect freedom and responsibility; and which also, from the beginning to the end, holds forth the Saviour, his love, his atoning blood, his justifying righteousness, his life-giving spirit, as the only hope of the sinner as the Alpha and the Omega, the first and last of the whole plan.
This, as I read the Bible, is the great evangelical system. And as David said concerning the sword of Goliath, so say I of this system, "There is none like it, give it me" (1 Sam. 21:9). This is " the glorious gospel of the blessed God" (1 Tim. 1:11). It may, no doubt, be preached unfaithfully, or unskillfully, as it has often been by its professed friends; but, when proclaimed in its genuine character, it is "the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth" (Rom. 1:16). Some, I know have said, that to exhibit the gospel thus is to give it a "discouraging" aspect. But I know of no "discouragement" with which it is chargeable, except it be that it discourages in the sinner all hope of being his own savior. And this, I acknowledge, is, to me, one of its strongest recommendations. It humbles the sinner. It exalts the Saviour. It warms, consoles, and edifies the believer. This is that "sword of the Spirit" (Eph. 6:17), which, accompanied with the mighty power of him who gave it, is destined to accomplish the conquest of the world.
I do not forget that some of the respected and beloved brethren, who are regarded as the advocates of the doctrines alluded to, tell us continually that they believe substantially as we believe; that the difference between them and us is chiefly, if not entirely, a difference of words. And is it possible, if this is the case, that they will allow so much anxiety and noise to be created by a mere verbal dispute? Is it possible that they are so intent on a set of terms, as to grieve multitudes of the pious, and run the risk of breaking the peace of the church, for the sake of maintaining a mere phraseology? Surely they cannot so lightly esteem the harmony and edification of the body of Christ!
But whatever may be the understanding and the intention of leading preachers of the doctrines referred to, the question is, "How are they understood by others?" What impression, when preached as they are, will they be likely, and are they found in fact, to make? Nothing can be more certain than that the language of some of these doctrinal statements is palpably Pelagian, and some others of them Semi-Pelagian; and even if those who (after all they have heard of the uneasiness of their brethren, still insist upon employing this language) do not themselves embrace the errors with which it was once connected, there is the utmost danger that others (not so discerning or so pious) will be led astray by the language in question, and really embrace, in all their extent, the errors which it was originally employed to express. I am persuaded that ecclesiastical history furnishes no example of such theological language being obstinately and extensively used, without being found in fact connected with Arminian and Pelagian opinions, or at least ultimately leading to their adoption.
Besides, all experience admonishes us to be upon our guard against those who, in publishing erroneous opinions, insist upon it that they differ from the old orthodox creed "only in words." This plan has been often pursued, until the language became familiar, and the opinions which it naturally expressed, current; and then the real existence of something more than a verbal difference was disclosed in all its extent and inveteracy. Such was the course adopted by Arius, in the fourth century. He and his followers strenuously maintained that they differed in no material respect nay in terms only from the orthodox church. But how entirely was their language changed when they had gained a little more power and influence! The same plea precisely was adopted by Pelagius, and his leading adherents in the fifth century, and also by Cassian, and other advocates of the Semi-Pelagian cause, about the same time.
When Arminius arose toward the close of the sixteenth century, he veiled his opinions by the very same plea, and by this means succeeded, for a number of years, in eluding ecclesiastical discipline. Such also was the allegation of Cameron and Amyraut, of France, in the seventeenth century, when they commenced that corrupting process in the doctrine of the French churches, which at length issued in their deplorable degeneracy from the truth, and, indeed, in their final ruin.
And, to mention but one example more: All the world knows that a similar plea was confidently urged by our Unitarian neighbors of Massachusetts, when more than twenty years ago, they were charged, by some faithful watchmen on the walls of Zion, with holding Arian and Socinian opinions. They denied and resented the charge; denounced those who brought it as malignant slanderers; and warmly contended that they differed from the mass of the Massachusetts clergy chiefly in "words." If my memory does not deceive me, only one man in the whole commonwealth was candid enough, when the charge was first published, to acknowledge its truth. But we all know how the affair issued. The worst predictions of the advocates of truth were seen realized; and proof of the most unequivocal kind produced, that while the truth of the charge was loudly and indignantly denied, it had a deep-seated and growing foundation in fact. Shall these instructions of experience be lost upon us? Shall examples so numerous and decisive be contemplated in vain?
I am very far from imputing to the respected brethren, to whose alleged opinions I now refer, the insidious aim to conceal and deceive, which appeared but too plainly in the long line of errorists to which I have referred. On the contrary, I am bound to take for granted, and do really believe, that the greater part of them have completely succeeded in persuading themselves that the doctrines specified are truly, for substance, those which are found in our public formularies. Yet it is impossible for me to doubt that these brethren are laboring under an entire mistake; that they are really, without being aware of it, teaching dangerous errors; and, like men of excellent intentions who have gone before them, are laying a foundation for still more serious departures from the purity of gospel truth.
I am not unacquainted with the ingenious and plausible efforts of distinguished brethren, who advocate these speculations, to reconcile them with the simple truths of the gospel; and to show that they do not differ from the doctrines taught on the same subjects by President Edwards, by Witherspoon, and by other venerated fathers whose praise is in all the churches. But the more I read of such efforts, the more I am amazed and dissatisfied. By a similar process I could prove that President Edwards and John Taylor, of Norwich, did not materially differ! Either language has lost its meaning, or these brethren differ essentially from the excellent men whose authority they plead. I can confidently say, that I have heard preachers of my own denomination, with my own ears, deliver sentiments (and have seen, in print, tenets which others, of the same class, publicly avowed), which constrained me and not me only, but some of the wisest and most moderate ministers in the Presbyterian Church to say "that we had rather, much rather, sit habitually under the ministry of a pious Methodist brother, with all his avowed Arminianism, than under that of the Presbyterian brethren alluded to." My deliberate judgment is in favor of this decision. I verily think that the former would approach much nearer to the spirit of the Bible than the latter; and be, in every respect, a more sober, safe, and edifying guide to us and our children.
Our church, as such, professes to be a Calvinistic church. This name and this character she has long borne. She is descended from a church which, for a series of generations, deserves to be called one of the noblest witnesses for "the truth as it is in Jesus" (cf. Eph. 4:21) that ever adorned the annals of reformed Christendom. And ever since her organization in this country, the daughter has acknowledged and gloried in the faith of her transatlantic mother. She has been distinguished as Calvinistic; reproached as Calvinistic; and, as Calvinistic, has suffered, on some occasions, every thing short of martyrdom from an ungodly world, and from professing Christians, who misunderstood and maligned her tenets. Under this "flag" she has bravely and successfully fought. Shall she now "change her colors?" Or shall she retain them ostensibly, only to dishonor and betray them? Every principle of fidelity to the God of her fathers, and of regard to Christian truth, and Christian honor, ought to forbid this. If her public "Standards" have not been hitherto correct, let them be openly and frankly altered. But as long as she professes to maintain them, let them be maintained in sincerity and good faith. Let not her Confession of Faith speak one language and her pulpits another. Let the world be honestly informed what, as a church, she really holds. I venture to predict that, whenever we abandon our doctrinal testimony, God will abandon us.
No instance, I repeat, can be produced, in all the records of ecclesiastical history, in which a church, once firm and zealous in maintaining the Calvinistic system, gradually relaxed from her testimony, and deviated into Pelagian or Arminian errors, without, in a great measure, losing her spirituality, and manifesting that her strength had departed from her. It is true the influence of Arminian doctrine has not always been such in churches originally founded and nurtured in its belief. But never, as I believe, has the adoption of this system succeeded to the light and the influence of a more scriptural faith, without being marked, very distinctly and mournfully, as a descent, rather than a rise in the scale of Christian prosperity.
This was exemplified in England, in the early part of the seventeenth century. Precisely in proportion as Arminianism gained ground in the established church, in the time, and under the influence of Laud, spirituality declined, and remained in a deplorable state for more than a hundred years. And the return to spirituality, at a later period, in that church, was notoriously attended with a corresponding return to Calvinistic opinions. The same general principle is strikingly illustrated, and mournfully confirmed by the history of the French Protestant churches in the same century. Just in proportion as they relaxed from the original doctrines of the Reformation, and extensively embraced opinions nearly allied to the Semi-Pelagian system, they declined in harmony and piety, and manifested that their glory was departed. The same fact notoriously appeared in the churches of Massachusetts and Connecticut when, more than a century ago, a number of their ministers manifested a tendency toward the adoption of Arminian opinions. Who does not know that, in almost every such case, coldness, formality, and spiritual barrenness were, constantly, the ultimate result? To speak of an Arminian, at that time, and in that country, was to speak of one opposed to close and faithful preaching, and to all fervent zeal for the conversion of souls.
It may be imagined by some to be a sufficient answer to this position, that the very reverse is now alleged to be the fact; that those who are charged with Arminian tendencies in doctrine are among the most fervent preachers in the country. But we have not seen the end. Let us wait a few years, and see what the result will be. It is yet to be decided whether they will sink down into the coldness and death-like formality of the Whitbyan school, as a great majority of Arminians, in every age, have done; or take the position of the Cumberland Presbyterians, with their unscriptural creed, and their fanatical, revolting irregularities. Either result, I am sure, is now regarded, by those worthy brethren to whose opinions I allude, as equally unwelcome and improbable.
It will be seen, from the foregoing representation, that my opinion decisively is that, unless there can be some fraternal understanding and co-operation, in both sides, in adhering to our doctrinal standards, our beloved church must long continue to be a stranger to peace. It is, indeed, very important that the brethren of what is called the "Old School" should not be, as to this matter, captious, or over rigorous in their demands; that they should not be perpetually and vexatiously occupied in the work of "heresy hunting;" that they should not indulge the disposition to make a brother "an offender for a word" (Isa. 29:21). But it is evident that this will not be enough. If the brethren of the "New School" will persist in the public, habitual use of a theological language which impartial judges consider as Pelagian in its obvious import; if they will pay no regard to this subject; if they will venture, notwithstanding all the irritability of the public mind in relation to the matter, to license and ordain men who give too much reason to fear that they do not, ex< animo [from the heart; sincerely], receive the doctrines and order of our church; and if, whenever a question arises, in our higher judicatories, respecting doctrinal soundness, they will always sustain and acquit lax theology, to whatever extreme it may go; I say, if they will pursue this course, it requires no spirit of prophecy to foresee, that growing alienation, strife, and eventual rupture must be the consequence. It is, indeed, an easy thing for a minister accused of heresy, and affording too much evidence of the fact, by ingenious refinements, and plausible protestations, to render it difficult, if not impossible for a judicatory to convict him. And it is easy for such of his brethren as resolve to screen him from censure, so to varnish over his opinions as to hide, for the present, most of their deformity. But is this the policy of Christian fidelity and candor? Will such a curse be likely to taste favorably to either party? I trow not. It will be to no purpose that we call ourselves the Presbyterian Church in the United States, if we cannot be really united in cordial attachment to the faith as well as the order publicly adopted by that body. To retain our name, while we desert our standards, will not long be possible; and would be neither honest nor useful even if it were possible.
My further remarks, on the importance of adhering to our doctrinal standards, will be dispatched in one or more letter.
Princeton, February, 1833
Before I take leave of the subject of adherence to our doctrinal standards, allow me to advert to one or two points, closely connected with the general subject, in relation to which I cannot resist the impression that sentiments and practices of more than doubtful character have been repeatedly indulged in several of our judicatories. No one, I trust, will suspect me of a disposition so far to travel out of my province as to arraign and censure ecclesiastical bodies with which I have nothing immediately to do. Far from it. My only object is to remark on some principles which, however they are assumed, and acted upon, cannot fail, in my opinion, to lead to mischief.
The first of the points to which I refer is one which appears to me to have a very portentous bearing on the doctrinal purity and peace of our church. I mean the disposition which has been avowed, and acted upon, of forming new Presbyteries upon the plan of what has been called "elective affinity" or, in other words, where there is a large Presbytery, comprising brethren who differ very materially in their doctrinal belief, and who find it difficult to act with harmony together, on account of that difference, of forming the members who constitute one of the parties into a new Presbytery, by themselves, thus enabling them to indulge their doctrinal peculiarities, and to pursue their favorite policy without control. In the remarks which I have to offer on this subject, I beg to be considered as having no special reference to the act of the last General Assembly, by which a certain Presbytery seems to have been confessedly divided upon this very principle. If I had been a member of that Assembly, I am inclined to think I should have given my vote for the division which was made; not, however, by any means on the principle which was avowed by many of the advocates of the measure; but on an entirely different ground, hereafter to be stated. My sole object is, without any reference to particular cases, to offer some general remarks by which I hope you will be satisfied, that the whole scheme of forming new Presbyteries on the principle of "elective affinity" involves an essential departure from the spirit of our constitution; and, if freely pursued, must very speedily issue in a painful and fatal division of the Presbyterian Church.
The theory of our ecclesiastical constitution, as every one who reflects on the subject will immediately perceive, is that the Presbyterian Church, though composed of many parts, is one body. It supposes a number of individual churches and judicatories all embracing the same faith; walking by the same rules; and agreeing to be governed by the same principles of truth and order; thus forming one harmonious community, in which every part is presumed to agree with every other part, and one law, spirit, and counsel to pervade the whole. "Things equal to one and the same thing are equal to one another." Of course, if every minister, and elder, and deacon, of the Presbyterian Church, on becoming such, subscribe a certain formulary, the whole body is to be considered as according with that formulary, which each individual part has formally adopted; and, consequently, every part as in harmony with every other part. In this sense, the Presbyterian Church, in a manner somewhat peculiar to herself, is one: not merely composed of a number of religious bodies, or worshipping assemblies, bearing the same name, and a general resemblance to each other; but every member and judicatory being integral parts of the same compact and organized body, and each part exercising its appropriate and definite share of government, over itself and over the whole.
This is the theory. Now it is evident that if there is not real harmony, real unity of spirit among all these several parts, the principle on which the body is constituted, is, precisely to the extent to which this want of harmony exists, really abandoned. If even a single subordinate part, or judicatory, does not believe, and refuses to act, in accordance with the rest, it is plain that the beauty, the purity, and even the safety of the whole, may be invaded by that one. And if a few more parts become erratic and impure, their influence may soon become, not merely unhappy, but fatal. This principle is not as applicable to various other denominations. If a single Independent or Congregational church, or even a single Congregational Association, should depart from the general faith or order which it has been wont to receive, it would, of course, be regretted by the wise and the good. But as that church, or that association, is an independent and insulated body has only an advisory power, and can take no part in governing the rest of her sisters the mischief of her aberration might by no means be widely extended; at any rate, the mischief attendant upon it might not necessarily be great.
But suppose the case to be, as it actually is, and must be, when a similar occurrence takes place in the Presbyterian Church. Suppose a Presbytery to be set off on the principle of "elective affinity:" that is, on the principle that the members who compose it were not able to agree with their brethren, in doctrinal sentiments; suppose that they differed so widely in this respect, not only from their brethren, but also from some very material articles in the Confession of Faith, as to be no longer able to act together with comfort and peace; and suppose that they wished for a separate organization that they might be free to indulge their doctrinal peculiarities in licensing and ordaining candidates, etc., without restraint or conflict. This may appear, to superficial thinkers, a very reasonable demand, and a very feasible expedient for terminating the evils of ecclesiastical controversy. But let us, for a moment, pursue this expedient to its natural results.
Suppose this newly organized Presbytery to follow out the principles of its solicitude and, eventually granted this organization, into a regular system of corresponding acts. Suppose it immediately to go to work, and to be a kind of mint, for manufacturing and sending forth among the churches an abundance of coin bearing the same stamp with itself. Suppose, further, that the principle recently contended for is also adopted and acted upon, viz., that whenever either a licentiate or an ordained minister comes from any Presbytery with regular testimonials, declaring him to be in good standing with that body, he must, of course, be received by any and every Presbytery to which he may present himself, without a word of examination or inquiry. Suppose these things, and is it not manifest, that it would be in the power of a single Presbytery of this character, in a few years, to ruin the Presbyterian Church.
Let such a Presbytery be regarded by the public, generally, as the center and patron of lax theology. Let it be understood that its members, though not all, or perhaps any of them, Pelagians themselves, will not hesitate a moment to license or ordain a Pelagian! Let every individual in the land who dislikes the rigid plan of subscription to the Confession of Faith and who wishes for the privilege of declaring his solemn assent to a system of doctrines without believing them flock to that Presbytery for license and ordination. Let a score of candidates from that mint be emitted into the church every year, and by certificates be distributed about among the more orthodox Presbyteries, as inclination or policy might dictate; and let the doctrine be adopted that no Presbytery must hesitate about receiving such candidates as come with "clean papers," whatever degree of painful suspicion respecting their soundness in the faith may be entertained. Let this course be pursued, and it is plain that no long time would be requisite to inoculate the whole church with the views of this single Presbytery, and that all faithful adherence to our public formularies would be at an end. I do not say, for I do not believe, that there is a single Presbytery in our church which is now capable of acting in this manner. But a supposition has been made for the purpose of showing the natural tendency, and indeed the unavoidable operation, of the general principle of setting off new Presbyteries on the ground of incompatibility of doctrinal belief. And if I do not deceive myself, it is clearly and directly adapted to destroy the purity of the whole body.
There is an incompatibility, indeed, which I can readily recognize as a valid reason for dividing a Presbytery, and erecting a new one with a part of its members. I mean such an incompatibility of temper: such an alienation of feeling among the members as renders it difficult, if not impossible for them to transact the business of the church with mutual confidence and affection. For this reason that is on account of an evident incompatibility of feeling which rendered it wholly impossible for the members to act together with edification, as well as on the account of the extraordinary and unwieldy size of the Presbytery which was divided by the last General Assembly I think I should have concurred in the general measure of division, if it had been my lot to give a vote on that occasion. There was evidently a state of feeling in the body, which, as it respected some of the members, at least, had no immediate connection with doctrinal discrepancy. To divide them into two distinct bodies, for the purpose of affording relief from this unhappy state of feeling, was in my apprehension no way inconsistent with correct and safe principle, and really seemed to be the only mode of affording the necessary relief.
But to divide, and to erect new Presbyteries on the ground of the existence of such doctrinal diversity as that brethren cannot live and act together, is in my opinion, high treason against the first principles of Presbyterianism. It is to poison the very fountains of our ecclesiatical purity, and, for the sake of avoiding a little present inconvenience, to lay a train for an explosion which must, at no great distance of time, rend the church in pieces. I contemplate the subject, my Christian brethren, I repeat, not at all with feeling excited by the case which occupied so much of the time and attention of the last Assembly. Of these I have none; having before intimated that, if I had been a member of the body, I should probably have yielded my assent to the general measure which was adopted. But upon the most impartial and dispassionate view that I am able to take of the essential characteristic of a Presbyterian Church as made up of many members, all subject to the same rules, and bound together in truth, love and authority by one common Head the idea of expressly providing for the encouragement and perpetuation of diversity of faith in her bosom is deliberately to conspire against her unity, and to take counsel for introducing into her very system a principle of disease and self -destruction.
The only other point to which I shall refer as existing in our church, and as threatening her peace, is nearly the converse of that which was mentioned, and relates to the licensing of candidates for the ministry. I knew, not long since, a young man, who, after being for a number of months on trial for license before a certain Old School Presbytery (rather more than usually respectable for size, talents, learning and piety), was deliberately refused license, on account of alleged immaturity in theological knowledge, and unsoundness in the faith. He immediately applied to another Presbytery, of the New School, more than a hundred miles off, by whom he was promptly licensed, notwithstanding the refusal of the sister judicatory, and with a distinct knowledge of that refusal. Here, you will observe, was a departure from that doctrine contended for in the other case. There it was maintained that a minister licensed by one Presbytery, coming to another with "clean papers," as a minister in good and regular standing, must necessarily be received as rectus in ecclesia [sound in the church], upon the principle that the acts of one Presbytery must be respected and sustained by all coordinate judicatories. But here it was quite as strenuously maintained that the judgment and act of a sister Presbytery might properly be disregarded. In other words, it seems to be the doctrine of some (at least), of our respected brethren of the New School, that where the act of a sister Presbytery makes in their favor, it is to be sustained; but that where it makes against them, it is to be set at naught.
It is easy to see that these two doctrines, though diametrically opposite in principle, yet harmonize most perfectly in one respect. So far as they are acted upon, they both alike facilitate the multiplication of candidates of a particular stamp to an indefinite extent; and would enable, as was before observed, a single Presbytery, if she should be disposed, to deluge the church with unsound ministers, without her sister Presbyteries being able to interpose any adequate remedy. While the former would feel herself at liberty to act at her pleasure, the latter would be, if I may so express it, bound hand and foot; compelled to receive all who came to them with regular testimonials; and utterly unable to defend either themselves or the rest of the church from the encroachments of error. Is this right? Is it not subversive of every sound principle of ecclesiastical government? Is it not adapted to destroy mutual confidence among judicatories, who ought to feel not only that they bear the same name, but that they are in truth, "one body in Christ, and every one members one of another?" (Rom. 12:5).
But the question naturally arises, "What is the proper remedy in cases such as those of which we have been speaking?" Suppose an ordained minister, in good standing in his own Presbytery, to be called within the bounds of another, or to wish for any reason, to connect himself with that other. And suppose that, while he presents the most ample testimonials of regular official character from the Presbytery from which he comes, a majority of the members of that which he proposes to join believe him to be materially unsound in the faith. What is to be done? Has the latter Presbytery no alternative? Must we consider her as compelled to receive the candidate for admission without inquiry? If so, then, as before suggested, a single Presbytery might poison, and eventually destroy the whole church. She might soon create a majority of her own way of thinking in every Presbytery within her reach. It cannot be that this is the true theory of Presbyterian Church government. By no means.
It is evident that the Presbytery to which the candidate applies may, if she sees her way clear, receive him at once, on the faith of his testimonials, and, as soon as he becomes a member of her body, proceed to arraign and try him, as she may any other of her members, on the charge of heresy. But suppose the Presbytery to which the applicant comes to, foresees that, if she receives him at once to membership, he may, either by artfully tampering with other members render process very difficult, or by adding one more vote to a previously large minority, obstruct it altogether. Would she be doing justice to the cause of truth to receive him at once, and thus run the risk of strengthening the interests of error within her own bosom, and possibly of giving it a predominant influence? If she distinctly foresaw such a result as likely to ensue, she would be not only justifiable, but bound in duty, to decline admitting such an applicant among the number of her members. However painful such an alternative might be, it would undoubtedly comport with the strictest rules of ecclesiastical order.
Every body, ecclesiastical as well as civil, must be considered as having a right to judge of the qualifications of its own members. It ought, indeed, to exercise this right with great wisdom and prudence; and always exercise it on its own responsibility; but exercise it, it ought and must, or there is an end of all liberty. This right is inherent in our Presbyteries. When a candidate for admission stands before them, and his testimonials are produced and read, a vote is taken whether to receive him or not. If they have a right in this vote to say yes, they, surely, have quite as good a right to say no. In other words, the right of voting on the question at all, necessarily implies the right of voting either in the affirmative or negative, as they see cause. If they think proper to say no (in other words, to reject him), any one of several courses may be taken. The rejected applicant may simply withdraw his application, and take no further step in the business: or, the Presbytery which rejected him may represent the case to that from which he came, and by which he was recommended, and may request process to be commenced against him: or, the rejected candidate may complain of his non-reception to the Synod, and that body may take such order in the case as the rules and edification of the church may appear to require. Two of these courses may appear, at first view, circuitous; but when we consider the value of harmony in an extended community, and the importance, if we would attain it, of adhering to the rules agreed upon by that community, we cannot for a moment doubt that the most regular course of proceeding is always the best, and generally the most easy and expeditious.
While on the subject of the respect due from one ecclesiastical judicatory to another and the necessity of their concurrence in maintaining our ecclesiastical standards, if they would promote either the peace or the purity of the church there is a matter of so much delicacy that I scarcely know how to speak of it, and at the same time of such vital importance, that I dare not wholly refrain from speaking. I refer to some circumstances which have attended the intercourse between our church and the Congregational churches in New England. That intercourse began with the commencement of my ministerial life. I have always been a warm friend to it; and should be grieved at the occurrence of anything adapted either to interrupt it, or render it less comfortable. If no such intercourse were already constituted, it ought forthwith to be begun. Those who come so near together as the great body of the ministers of New England, and those of the Presbyterian Church, ought undoubtedly to know and love one another, and to cooperate in the great work of enlighten ing and converting the world. But while the intercourse in question is delightful to every pious heart, and has been made, I doubt not, mutually useful to the contracting parties, and conducive to the extension of the Redeemer's kingdom; both its comfort and usefulness cannot fail of being painfully interrupted, unless care be taken to guard against some of those sources of misunderstanding, which, however small they may appear in the beginning, will assuredly work wider and deeper mischief as they advance.
The articles of intercourse between the Associations of New England, and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, are to be considered as a solemn ecclesiastical compact, evidently intended to promote harmony, cooperation, and mutual strength. They secure the friendly reception of the ministers and licentiates of each party by the other; and they furnish a virtual, if not a formal pledge, that the peace, purity, and edification of each other, will be respected by both. Now the spirit of these principles seems to require that each party should abstain from such acts as manifestly militate with the object of the compact; and, of course, that candidates for the ministry, which are known to have been rejected by one party, should not be received by the other, and immediately sent back to the party which had rejected them, and there claim reception under the broad shield of this compact. Yet cases of this kind have occurred with a frequency, and painfulness, which cannot fail of being regarded with apprehension by the friends of the Presbyterian Church.
About thirty years ago, a young man presented himself to the Presbytery of New York, of which I was then a member, to be taken on trial for license to preach the gospel. In the preliminary examination as to his experimental acquaintance with religion, he by no means gave satisfaction. The Presbytery, however, determined to pursue his trials a little further, and for the purpose of obtaining more light, gave him several subjects on which to produce written compositions. When these were exhibited, it became so perfectly apparent to the Presbytery that he was destitute of every proper qualification for the sacred office, that they, unanimously, resolved to proceed no further in his trials, and advised him to turn his attention to some secular employment. He appeared to acquiesce in their decision; but in a few weeks went to Massachusetts; applied to one of the Associations in that state; was promptly licensed; and immediately returned to the bosom of the Presbyterian Church; and presented himself as a regular licentiate from New England, to the Presbytery in the immediate vicinity of that by which he was rejected. That Presbytery felt itself bound, in courtesy (although the compact between the General Assembly, and General Association of Massachusetts, now existing, had not then been formed), to receive him as a licentiate in good standing. He was received; was finally with much reluctance ordained; occupied several stations in the church, though none for any length of time; and proved as long as he lived a trouble to the judicatories with which he was connected, and a distress to all intelligent and conscientious Christians, for his gross ignorance and lamentable departure from the correctness of Christian example.
Nor does this case stand alone. Several times, since the date of that to which I have referred, candidates for ordination in our church, who refused to adopt our Confession of Faith, and, of course, were rejected by the respective Presbyteries to which they applied, have gone forthwith to New England, and there, with a distinct knowledge of their rejection in the Presbyterian Church, have been immediately ordained, and returned to its bosom, clothed with the ministerial character, and candidates for settlement in Presbyterian Churches. Now, though it cannot be said that any formal engagement was violated by these proceedings; although the Associations which acted in these cases had a perfect right, on the principles of their government, to decide and act as they did; although I am entirely satisfied that they meant to do nothing unfair or unfriendly; and although it is not known that any extensive mischief in fact resulted from more than one of the cases in question; yet it is perfectly plain that, if similar proceedings should become frequent, heart burning and impaired cordiality must be the consequence. Indeed, if such acts were to become very frequent, not to say habitual; if our beloved and respected brethren of the New England Associations were to allow themselves to license and ordain, without reserve, rejected fugitives from our Presbyteries; they might essentially weaken our hands, nay, they might absolutely destroy the discipline of the Presbyterian Church, and render the articles of agreement in question a curse instead of a blessing.
It ought to be known that this is not a new difficulty. It is not a matter of complaint to which the recent jealousies of conflicting theologians have, for the first time, given rise. More than seventy years ago, the same evil was felt and remonstrated against. The following extract from the proceedings of the Synod of New York and Philadelphia, then the highest judicatory of our church, at its sessions in 1764, will at once explain and confirm my statement.
"Though the Synod entertains a high regard for the Associated Churches of New England; yet we cannot but judge, that students who go to them, or to any other than our own Presbyteries, to obtain license, in order to return and officiate among us, act very irregularly, and are not to be approved, or employed by our Presbyteries, as hereby we are deprived of the right of trying and approving the qualifications of our own candidates. Yet if any cases shall happen wherein such a conduct may in some circumstances be thought necessary for the greater good of any congregation, it shall be laid before the Presbytery to which the congregation belongs, and be approved of by them."
Here, it will be perceived, the conduct censured was applying to Eastern Associations, in the first instance, to be licensed, "in order to return and officiate" in the Presbyterian Church. How much louder would have been the complaint against those Associations, if they had licensed and ordained candidates which had been rejected by our Presbyteries knowing them to have been rejected with the distinct and avowed purpose of preparing them to come back and settle, or at least to preach, in Presbyterian Churches!
It is for the purpose of averting evil, and of guarding against every feeling which may threaten mischief, that I make these remarks. It is because I wish the connection which exists to be perpetual, and, at once, more pleasant and more beneficial on both sides, that I speak thus of the dangers to which it is exposed. If there ever has been an instance in which we have failed to pay due respect to the decisions of any of the Associations with which we have a conventional intercourse, it is unknown to me. And if such a thing were to occur, I think I should be the first to condemn it, and to make a motion for acknowledging and repairing our fault. It was in connection with uneasiness arising from an event of the kind referred to, that the proposal was made, and carried into effect, several years ago, that the delegates from the several Associations to our General Assembly, and from us to them, should no longer have a vote in the decisions of those bodies respectively. The proposal came from us, and was prompted by the following considerations.
1. The system of mutual voting by these delegates appeared, on serious consideration, so far as our church was concerned, unconstitutional. The Form of Government under which the General Assembly acts makes provision for that body maintaining a correspondence with sister churches at home and abroad; but not for receiving their members into authoritative cooperation with us. It declares, very explicitly, in what manner the General Assembly shall be constituted by the ministers and ruling elders from the several Presbyteries; but opens no door for admitting to a complete membership and vote any other description of persons. It was deemed, therefore, that our fathers, in forming this agreement, had gone beyond their constitutional warrant, and that we were, of course, bound to retrace our steps.
2. Some years after our brethren of the New England Associations had established a conventional intercourse with the General Assembly, the Associate Reformed, the Dutch Reformed, and the German Reformed churches, made overtures for establishing a similar intercourse; in framing the articles of which, although those bodies are all strictly Presbyterian, yet, such was their adherence to constitutional principles, that the privilege of voting, on the part of the delegates reciprocally sent by each party, was expressly precluded. Accordingly, for some years, at the meetings of our General Assembly, the singular spectacle was witnessed of all the delegates from the Congregational churches voting on every question; while those from the Presbyterian Churches in correspondence with us were never permitted to vote. This had so strange an appearance, that the friends of impartiality and good neighborhood thought it of importance that all the delegates from the corresponding churches should be placed on an equal footing. And as our Presbyterian correspondents would not consent either to give or take the voting power, it was deemed most judicious to abolish it in regard to all.
3. In 1821, when our Form of Government was revised, it was judged best to take away even from our own corresponding members, the right of voting. As the constitution of the church had stood before, when a member of one our Presbyteries happened to be present at the session of another Presbytery, he was, commonly of course, invited to sit as a corresponding member; and, when he did so, was allowed not only to speak, but also to vote, as if he had been a stated and plenary member of the Presbytery in which he held this temporary seat. On the revision of our Form of Government, in the year just mentioned, it was judged best, for weighty reasons, to declare that such corresponding members should, thereafter, be allowed to sit and deliberate, but not to vote. In these circumstances it was surely not equal to continue to the delegates of corresponding sister churches a privilege which we had deliberately thought proper to withdraw from the corresponding members of our own denomination.
4. Finally, the General Assembly was deliberately brought to the conclusion that the voting system of the delegates from the Congregational churches ought to be abolished, because this power, as enjoyed in their bodies and ours, was by no means of equal potency. On the one hand, it is well known that our General Assembly is a judicial body: that its decisions are authoritative, and bind the churches which are represented by its members. On the other hand, it is equally well known that the General Association of the Congregational Churches have no judicial authority; that they are only advisory bodies; and, of course, that a vote given in them binds no one, not even those, strictly speaking, who concur in it. Here, then, is an immense difference in the potency of votes. In our General Assembly, if there should happen to be nearly a tie, a single delegate or two from an Association, if they enjoyed the privilege of voting, might absolutely turn the scale, and give law to the church on a most important point; or might be instrumental in deciding an interesting case of discipline in a manner contrary to the wishes of a real majority of the church. While in the Association, supposing one of our delegates to enjoy the privilege of voting, the utmost that his vote could avail would be to carry a question in favor of giving advice. It could, in no case whatever, carry with it an authoritative power. To many warm friends of the intercourse system, this difference appeared too serious to be disregarded. The truth is, that on more than one occasion, while the system of delegate voting continued, the General Assembly has been so nearly divided, that, if the votes from the Association did not decide the vote of the Assembly, they came very near it, and might have done so in reality. Can it surprise anyone that such a fact should be regarded with some apprehension? It must be acknowledged, indeed, that our New England brethren have never discovered the least disposition to take the advantage of such a power on any occasion; but we might easily conceive of a state of things in which the enjoyment of it would be by no means unattended with hazard.
My reasons for mentioning this subject, in the present connection, are chiefly two.
1. Because I am sensible that painful feelings have been excited in the minds of some by the abolition of the system of delegate voting. These feelings, I am confident, could never have been indulged, if the whole subject, in all its bearings, had been well understood.
2. Because I am more and more convinced that if the intercourse in question is to be maintained with comfort, and to edification, it will be of great importance that the rules and feelings of each party be, in all cases in which it is practical, affectionately respected. Those families which the providence of God has placed in the immediate vicinity of each other, and whose circumstances give rise to much intercourse, must habitually consult the feelings and interests of one another, if they desire to dwell together in peace. Long, very long may the correspondence between our New England brethren and ourselves continue! And, henceforth, may there be no other strife between us than who shall love one another, and our common Master with the most fervent affection, and who shall do most for the conversion of the world to the knowledge and likeness of that Master!
And, by the way, while speaking of our New England brethren, it gives me unfeigned pleasure to know, that a large portion of the most enlightened, venerable and pious of the clergy in that part of the United States, lament and deprecate, as much as any individual in our church can do, the disposition which has been manifested by some to propagate the Pelagianizing sentiments alluded to in a former letter. It will, indeed, be deeply to be deplored if, while these excellent men are frowning upon this pestiferous system within their own bosom, and regarding its patrons as dangerous corruptors of truth, it should find countenance in any of the judicatories of the Presbyterian Church!
Nothing more, I am persuaded, is necessary, under God, to save us from this calamity, than a fraternal understanding and cooperation among that large majority of the "New School" ranks in our body, who are known to reprobate the philosophical deceits in question. If they will faithfully unite in setting their faces against these erroneous opinions, and withholding their licensing and ordaining suffrages from all who avow them, they may become happily instrumental in harmonizing the church, as well as promoting its purity. It is in their power, humanly speaking, to do more for the peace and edification of our beloved department of Zion, than in that of any other equal number of individuals in our communion. If, however, these respected brethren of the "New School" who are the real friends of substantial orthodoxy should indulge their party feelings to the uttermost and feel more desirous to oppose and thwart those whom they call the "ultra orthodox," than to resist the encroachments of heresy, and the acts and inroads of real disorders the prospect is indeed gloomy. The issue must be disastrous.
And now, my Christian brethren, in regard to adherence to the doctrinal standards of our church, on which I have so long detained you, I have done. I have spoken my mind with the freedom of one who is conscious of an honest desire for peace, but who prefers truth even to peace. I have not intentionally magnified a single evil, or inconsiderately sounded a single note of alarm. If I have in the least degree overstated facts, no one will more cordially rejoice than myself, to find the overstatement proved.
And now, at the close, I ask, "What will you do? " The question is not, whether, in opposing erroneous opinions, you will patronize a system of "ultra" rigor, of inquisitorial strictness. This I have never approved, and have no wish to see applied. But the question is, whether you will honestly and with good faith maintain the system of doctrine which every minister elder of the Presbyterian Church has solemnly engaged to sustain?
Again I ask, "What will you do?" Will you keep up the "landmarks" (cf. Prov. 22:28) which your fathers with so much labor, and with so many prayers and tears erected, and bequeathed to you; or will you abandon them? Will you adhere, as faithful witnesses, to that testimony in favor of truth, which, in the old world and in the new, God has so signally blessed to the glory of his church; or will you suffer it to be trampled under your feet? Will you call a convention of the whole church, and attempt to alter your Confession of Faith, and to make its articles either so unmeaning, or so general, that persons of every grade of opinion, short of Unitarianism, may honestly subscribe it? An alteration has been publicly proposed, and is, perhaps, wished for by some. Make the attempt; and, instead of really mending this venerable and precious monument of orthodoxy, you will leave it a disfigured and mutilated carcass, less satisfactory to any party than it is at the present moment. Or, while it stands in your book, as an evidence of what the Presbyterian Church once was and still ought to be 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? If this be admitted, you will soon fill our beloved church (with anguish of spirit I write it) not merely with the elements of fearful repulsion and explosion; but, what is unspeakably more to be dreaded, with the seeds of spiritual desolation and death, with which the ears of every Christian who hears, shall tingle! Or finally, will you faithfully maintain that creed in its true spirit and meaning, and let those who cannot honestly subscribe it seek a connection with some other portion of the great Christian family?
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.
Princeton, February, 1833.
Footnotes for Adherence to Our Doctrinal Standards
1. The Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon (Philadelphia: William Woodward, 1800), Vol. I, pp. 313-14. The second evil which Witherspoon criticized was "the solemn attestation of men's characters, not only in general, but for particular qualities, without any satisfying knowledge whether the thing affirmed is true or false."
3. Letters, etc. by an Edwardean.