The subject of the Declaratory Act has been so often before the public during the last few years that some may think that it has been quite sufficiently discussed. We feel, however, that the Act, as to its standing in the Church, and the serious consequences it entails, has been so much misrepresented and minimised that our readers cannot be too well informed about it. In our introductory article we made reference to the Act as the formal reason of our separation from the Free Church. At present we shall endeavour to show:
- First, that by the adoption of this Act the constitution of the Free Church is now changed, and
- Secondly, that no one who holds the principles of this Church as settled in 1843 can consistently remain in fellowship with the body that now bears that name.
1. The Constitution of the Free Church changed by the Declaratory Act
Our first proposal is to show that an essential change has been made in the constitution of the Free Church. In order to do so we require to state in what that constitution consisted. The constitution in the past mainly consisted in unreserved adherence to the principles and doctrines embodied in the Confession of Faith as the chief subordinate standard of the Church. Her relation to the Confession was that of entire acceptance of its contents. Nothing was to be preached, taught, or practised but that which was in accordance with the Confession. But now, by the passing of the Declaratory Act, that relation has been changed into a modified acceptance of confessional doctrine. In fact a new standard of doctrine has been set up, and if a man preaches or practises up to this measure nothing further is demanded. This change of standard we hold is an obvious change in the constitution.
Many think that because the Confession itself has not been interfered with, nor formally declared to be no longer a standard in the Church, that the constitution is yet intact. But this is a great mistake. The Confession of Faith, as a historical document drawn up in 1643, will remain the same to the end of time, and no one can add to it or take from it in that respect. Churches, however, while still professing adherence to its doctrines, may so alter their relation to it that it will become ineffectual for the end for which it was framed, and may be lost for all spiritual good to these churches. It is absurd, therefore, to suppose that because the Confession is not in so many words wholly thrown aside, or a new Confession on every point drawn up, that the constitution of the Free Church in relation to the Confession is the same as ever it was. That constitution, we believe, is now to all intents and purposes essentially changed by the adoption of the Declaratory Act. That a change in the Church has taken place no one will deny, but many refuse to admit that the constitution has been affected. Some who at one time made this admission are by their action doing their utmost to withdraw it.
In order, however, to prove a change in the constitution, we shall now show that the Church as a body has changed her relation to the Confession of Faith by the Declaratory Act.
(1) We shall refer first to what the Declaratory Act says of its relation to the Church and the Confession, and thus provide one step in our proof.
The preamble of the Act contains these words: “The General Assembly, with consent of Presbyteries, declares as follows.” This sentence tells us that the Act is a declaration of the Assembly, the supreme court of the Church, with the consent of Presbyteries. When the supreme court receives the consent of Presbyteries, it speaks or acts in the name and with the authority of the whole Church. But we are not left to draw our conclusions from the preamble only, for the Act runs in such terms as the following: “That this Church also maintains, holds, disclaims, retains, etc.” These expressions, which are frequent, unmistakably prove that the Act is a declaration of the Church’s mind as to particular doctrines, and that the Church now maintains the views embodied in this Act as certainly and surely as ever it held the doctrines of the Confession of Faith. The Act is in reality a new creed, and by its own terms is evidence that the Church has now changed her constitution. It is not our present purpose to enter formally into the views of doctrine set forth in the Act. We have on a preceding occasion pointed out that these views are not expository of, but subversive of, the doctrines of the Confession. We may say, however, in confirmation of this, that ministers and office-bearers still in the Free Church, who were foremost in holding by the principles of 1843, also condemned the Act as containing unsound doctrine throughout.
On the other hand, religious bodies that hold the doctrines of Arminianism are well pleased that the Free Church has taken such a step in their direction. Besides, it is sufficiently well-known that many ministers and office-bearers in the Free Church who have given up what is called the rigid Calvinism of the Confession, and are ready to advocate the more palatable Arminian doctrines that God loves all, Christ died for all, and that there is something good in man by nature, are highly satisfied with the Act. These also for most part scout as intolerance the doctrine of an Established Church in the interests of what is called religious equality. We also observe that the Act in its closing section gives the Church the authority to determine what is and what is not to be held as “the substance of the Reformed Faith”, and this is now the undefinable standard of doctrine that obtains in the Free Church. In view of all these things it is clear that the Act’s relation to the Confession is one of antagonism, and not of harmony; that by the passing of this Act the Church has changed her relation to the Confession, and therefore has changed her original constitution.
(2) Let us notice secondly that the procedure by which the Act was passed proclaims that it is now a standing law and constitution in the Church.
A committee was appointed on the Confession of Faith in 1889. The Declaratory Act, as the result of their labours, was presented to the Assembly in 1891. This Assembly on the motion of Principal Rainy approved of the work of the committee, and according to the terms of the Barrier Act, sent down this Act to the Presbyteries that it might receive their consent. The Barrier Act makes provision that no proposal of the Assembly shall be regarded as a standing law and constitution in the Church without the consent of a majority of the Presbyteries. In this case the Declaratory Act was approved of by a large majority of the Presbyteries. The Assembly of 1892, therefore, finally passed the Act into law. Resolutions in favour of hymns and instrumental music had on former occasions been adopted by the General Assembly, but were never sent down to Presbyteries under the Barrier Act. But the Declaratory Act has passed through all the forms of procedure necessary to make it a law in the Church. It therefore forms a part of the constitution, and if so, the constitution of the Free Church is now essentially changed.
But some raise the objection to this conclusion that the Act has not been put into the Questions and Formula which office-bearers require to subscribe. No one is formally asked to accept the Declaratory Act. These are vain objections. It is not the putting of the Act into the Questions and Formula that would constitute it a law. It would require to be made a law before any one would be asked to subscribe to it. That it has received already the Church’s sanction through her courts, and is thus fitted for a place in the Formula, no one denies. It stands therefore, as it does at present, a law in the Church. The reason the Act is not in the Formula is the policy of the majority, who are anxious to keep the minority at ease while at the same time they accomplish all that is necessary by passing the Act. All are now at full liberty to accept the doctrines of the Declaratory Act without hindrance. It is the Church’s Act, and every one is at liberty to accept what the Church as a body has already accepted. We hold, therefore, that the constitution of the Free Church is essentially changed when this Act that opposes and sets aside the Confession is a standing law and constitution in the Church.
(3) The third thing which proves that this Act is a law in the Church, is that protests against the Act found in the minute books of northern Presbyteries were declared null and void by the Assembly.
However laudable the object of these protests may have been, they were, in form, contrary to the law of the Church. The fact that they were declared null and void is unanswerable proof that the Declaratory Act is a law. It is vain to say that this was the work of an unjust Assembly, for if it had been a good Assembly, and the Act had been a good Act, similar protests would have been treated in the same way. The Declaratory Act has evidently all the authority of the Church behind it, and, therefore, no one can deny that it is a law, and that its adoption has changed the constitution of the Free Church.
2. No one holding to the 1843 Free Church principles can consistently remain in the body now calling itself the Free Church
Let us now prove the second proposition that no one who holds the principles of the Free Church as settled in 1843 can consistently remain in fellowship with the body that now bears that name.
(1) We observe, first, that it is inconsistent for such persons to remain in fellowship with the present Free Church because they adhere to Presbyterianism.
Members of Presbyterian Churches are not Congregationalists. They are not only in communion with their own particular congregation, but also with the whole Church. This relationship to the whole body certainly does not make them responsible for the actions of every member, but it makes them responsible for any step that the Church as a whole may take. If the step be good, each member shares the benefit; but if the step be bad, each shares the dishonour, guilt, and loss. In this way when a Presbyterian Church by a competent majority changes its creed and constitution, the party opposed to this change has no alternative but to separate from the majority and set up a distinct jurisdiction in order to maintain the creed and constitution intact. If this party chooses to remain in fellowship with a backsliding majority, it incurs the dishonour, guilt, and loss that inevitably attaches to unfaithfulness. The Free Church, as a body, has adopted the Declaratory Act and its doctrines, whereby the creed and constitution of the Church are seriously changed. We therefore hold that it is inconsistent for anyone who professes faithfulness to the original constitution to remain in fellowship with the present Free Church.
(2) We hold, secondly, that it is inconsistent for such persons to remain because the Declaratory Act, as a law and constitution in the Church, effectually prevents them from the faithful discharge of their vows.
Every member and office-bearer is bound to maintain the doctrines to which he has sworn, not only as a private individual or as a member of a Presbytery, but as a member of a Church. The Free Church, as a body, has renounced the principles of 1843, and, therefore, the members of the minority have no Church. They are part of a Church that is not theirs. Christ expects to have a Church on earth that will maintain His truth. The Free Church, according to the opinion of the minority, does not maintain that truth, and they therefore prefer that Christ should be without a true Church on earth, rather than that they should maintain their vows and constitute a separate Church. We say that they have vowed to maintain the doctrines of truth as members of a Church, and the Free Church has so far departed from these doctrines that the minority are effectually prevented from the discharge of their vows.
Further, the Church, by the Declaratory Act, gives liberty to all who hold the views contained therein to become office-bearers in the Church. It is one part of the duty of all to commit the truth to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2). The minority have vowed to do this, and how can they do so when the Church gives liberty to candidates for office to believe the doctrines of the Act? No office-bearer or Presbytery can take away the liberty which the whole Church as a body gives. The vows of every office-bearer demand that he commit the truth to none but those who he is sure, as far as human judgment can go, will prove faithful. Northern Presbyteries license men to preach, and they have no guarantee whatever, but the candidates, while answering the usual orthodox questions, may hold the doctrines of the Declaratory Act. It is surely quite plain therefore that this Act interferes with their discharge of their vows, which certainly require that they should be thoroughly acquainted with the views of candidates before licensing them to preach. How can men say that the Declaratory Act is to them a dead letter? Is it nothing to their consciences that they have lost the power to discharge their vows? They cannot ask candidates any question about the Act, and they are bound to admit them to office whether they accept its doctrines or not. It is therefore unmistakably clear that all throughout the Church, minority and majority, are under obligation to acknowledge the Act as a law and constitution in the Church.
This fact received abundant proof immediately after the Act was passed in 1892. The Presbytery of Dingwall, in order to satisfy their consciences, recorded a protest against the Act. When the books of the Presbytery appeared before the Synod of Ross, the Synod objected to the protest, and the members of the Dingwall Presbytery present agreed to delete the word “protest” in order to save their declaration from being deleted altogether. This shows that a protest was legally impossible, and had no standing ground in the Free Church. In this case it was admitted by minority and majority that the Act was a law and constitution in the Free Church.
We also ask this question: If duty and conscience compelled the Presbytery of Dingwall to record a protest that had no standing ground in the Free Church, how can their consciences now be satisfied without such a protest? Duty and conscience ought to have led them into a position suitable to their protest, that is, outside the Free Church. But it would appear that duty lowered its standard, and conscience relaxed its demands to suit the circumstances in which they were placed. It is quite evident that the Act interfered with the discharge of their duty, and proved that all are bound to acknowledge its authority. There were also cases at Dores and Dornoch which prove that the Declaratory Act prevents the discharge of vows. At Dores the pastor-elect was not allowed to record a statement to satisfy his conscience that he signed the Confession without any regard to the Act. Again at Dornoch a statement of this kind was recorded, but the Assembly of 1893 declared it null and void. The same Assembly declared all such protests in the books of Presbyteries null and void, and this took effect in one or two cases. It is quite evident that such attempts on the part of ministers and Presbyteries to discharge their vows by protest utterly failed. We therefore conclude that the Declaratory Act as a law in the Free Church must be acknowledged by all as such, and that it is impossible for any one faithfully to discharge his vows in this Church.
There is one objection that is frequently raised, and that is, that the Declaratory Act is permissive and that no one is compelled to accept its doctrines. This objection is generally founded on a statement of the Assembly of 1893, that the Church desired to impose no further burdens upon any, and that no one was obliged to accept the doctrines of the Act. But this objection is of little value. If the individual is not compelled personally to accept its doctrines, it is true nevertheless that the Church has already accepted them and announced them in his name. According to the rules of honesty, if the Act is a true exhibition of doctrine, everyone ought to be compelled to accept it. But the Free Church had lost all such sense of truth and consistency that it could publicly declare certain doctrines to be true, and then say to the individual member that he was not bound to accept the Church’s declaration. But if the individual is compelled to allow his neighbours to accept these doctrines, that ought to be a sufficient burden on his conscience. He is compelled by this Act to recognise as brethren those whom he otherwise disclaims as such. The Act is obligatory upon all as an act of the Church, and all are bound to recognise and acknowledge its operation. The Act as to its permissive character is also obligatory. The individual is under obligation to permit what the Church permits. The Church permits belief in false doctrine, and the individual must permit the same. It is as sinful for one to give liberty to one’s neighbour to believe false doctrine as to believe it oneself.
But some ministers assert: “I hold the principles of 1843, I am not compelled to change my principles, and I preach the same doctrine as ever I did – consistently with the Confession of Faith. Why should I leave the Free Church?” This way of speaking appears very plausible. But what is one to think of men who hold and preach the doctrines of the Confession and can, at the same time, have fellowship with others who have renounced these doctrines? It makes little difference what men may preach in their pulpits if their public testimony as a Church is against the truth, and if they can submit to sinful laws and have fellowship with others who have renounced these doctrines. The little that is built by private effort is belied and thrown down by public unfaithfulness.
Further, no one in the Free Church is bound to receive the doctrines ministers may preach further than these are embodied in the Declaratory Act. If they preach eternal election, the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity, total depravity, and the nation’s duty to support the Church of Christ, the hearers are not obliged to believe these doctrines. The Church gives liberty to believe doctrines incompatible with these. Again, the most orthodox ministers are bound to give baptism, the Lord’s supper, and to admit to office persons that may believe in the doctrines of the Act.
In a word, there is no aspect of a minister’s work or usefulness but is affected by the operation of the Declaratory Act. Time will clearly prove, by practical examples, the truth of these remarks. The fact is that the foundations of the Free Church have been taken away, and the minority are helpless amid its ruins. We have brought forth abundant evidence to prove that it is inconsistent with the claims of truth, and that it interferes with the discharge of sacred vows for anyone who holds the principles of 1843 to remain in fellowship with the present Free Church.