[The Free Church Declaratory Act of 1892/93 purported to explain the meaning of the Westminster Confession of Faith. What it really did was very different. It contradicted, not clarified, the Confession. The Free Presbyterian Church was formed to protest against that. The first volume of the Free Presbyterian Magazine ran a series of articles, from August to December 1896, exposing the pernicious and dangerous nature of the Declaratory Act. This is the sixth post and is taken from the last of those articles. Truly there was a need in 1893 for the Free Presbyterian Church – and there still is, in 2017.]
The fourth and last section of the Declaratory Act now falls to be examined. It is expressed as follows:
IV. That while diversity of opinion is recognised in this Church on such points in the Confession as do not enter into the substance of the Reformed Faith therein set forth, the Church retains full authority to determine, in any case which may arise, what points fall within this description, and thus to guard against any abuse of this liberty to the detriment of sound doctrine, or to the injury of her unity and peace.
This section of the Act, though last, is not least in importance. It is probably the most important section of all. The matter with which it is concerned is the relation of the Church to the opinions on points of doctrine held within her pale, and it is manifest that serious issues must depend upon the nature of that relation. If that relation is one of antagonism to every view that is contrary to the Word of God, then all is well. But if, on the other hand, it consists in the permission or approval of unsound doctrine, then all is not well. A door is opened that may admit heresy without end. We have good reason to fear that such a door has been opened in this section of the Declaratory Act.
The first statement that calls for our attention is that contained in the words, “While diversity of opinion is recognised in this Church”. Here there are at least three things taken for granted which may be called in question.
The first is that diversity of opinion was recognised in the Church before this Act was passed. That diversity of opinion existed for a number of years no one will dispute, but that this diversity was formally recognised by the Church as such – and without formal recognition there was no real recognition – is a pure assumption, devoid of foundation in fact. The framers of this Act, however, are experts at unwarrantable assumptions. But, if there was no formal recognition of the diversity of opinion before now, this statement by the Church gives to that diversity all the necessary recognition. The Church has now given it her final seal. At one time all office-bearers were agreed in accepting the doctrines of the Confession without reservation, and any signs of divergence from this form of acceptance were regarded as the beginnings of heresy. Now it is decided that diversity of opinion shall be recognised once and for all in the Church, and so heresy and sound doctrine are awarded an equal platform.
The second thing taken for granted in the above statement is that diversity of opinion is quite an ideal or perfect standard of opinion in a Church. This might be good enough theology if there was no Bible, or no infallible guide to truth, but with such a book as the Bible in our hands, it is impossible to hold this view. The Bible makes the well-established claim that it contains a perfect standard of truth. “The law of the Lord is perfect” (Ps. 19:7). “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). These and other passages might be quoted to show that the Scriptures are capable of leading men to perfection, and therefore that they present a perfect standard of truth.
The persons, however, who suppose that diversity of opinion is an ideal or perfect standard of opinion in a Church, plainly set aside the Bible as an infallible and authoritative standard of belief, and in fact deny that any such standard is to be found. This erroneous view leads both to Romanism and Rationalism. It was therefore a prominent part of the work of our great reformers to enunciate and establish the important doctrine of the perfection and sufficiency of the Scriptures as the Word of the living God. This doctrine is fully asserted in the first chapter of the Confession of Faith. It guards on the one hand against the arrogant claims of the Pope of Rome to be an authority above the Bible, and to possess power to add to its precepts, while, on the other hand, it provided a bulwark against Rationalism which also profanely asserts the imperfection of the Scriptures, and sets up human reason as the supreme court of appeal. The Free Church, by this clause in her Act, impugns the perfection and authority of the Bible and opens a door for Romanism and Rationalism, the two greatest enemies of mankind.
The third thing here unwarrantably taken for granted is that unity of opinion in matters of religion is unattainable. Witness, in disproof of this, the unity that prevailed among the early Christians. Witness also the comparative unity of belief that prevails in the creeds of the Reformation. This assumption is further disproved by the experience of the Church in 1643 when the Confession of Faith was framed. There was then practical unity of doctrinal belief among Protestants in England, Scotland, and Ireland. The unity of belief extended to the manner of worship. The Psalms were exclusively used and instrumental music was renounced. The main difference of opinion was in regard to church government. A few held to Congregationalism, but the larger number was united in support of Presbyterianism. Again, at the Disruption of 1843, there was unity of opinion on the part of a large body of professing Christians. The Free Church was then of one mind as to the principles of the Confession of Faith.
It is quite manifest, therefore, that unity of opinion is attainable. What is possible for a smaller is also possible for a larger body of people. Principles are not affected by the numbers that espouse them, so that in the future a time may arrive when the greater part of mankind may accept and maintain the same principles of belief. If the doctrines of the Bible are to prevail at last, and truth must and shall prevail, then we are certain that diversity of opinion will pass away and unity will take its place.
The idea that unity is unattainable not only impugns the perfection of the Scriptures, but also sets a limit to the power of the Holy Spirit, who is able to lead into all truth. He is certainly sovereign in His operations, and has not as yet been pleased to secure unity among Christians, but who is bold enough to say that He cannot and will not? Far from it. The Apostle declares in Ephesians 4 that there is “one body, and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism”, and adds that the Lord gave gifts, such as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers “for the perfecting of the saints” till they should “all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ”. When these words are fulfilled in their most extensive application, there will be unity and not diversity of opinion among believers. It is certainly their duty now to seek this standard of unity. They who are satisfied without it have not the mind of Christ. They who have the mind of Christ will pray for and strive after it. They will seek unity, not in error, but in truth; not in unbelief, but in the faith. All other unity will be esteemed falsehood and delusion. Diversity of opinion, however, is not the ideal. The Church that formally recognises it as such sanctifies division and puts its seal upon that which dishonours the Word and Spirit of God.
The second statement that calls for attention relates to the points on which diversity of opinion is said to be recognised in the Church. These are declared to be “such points in the Confession as do not enter into the substance of the Reformed Faith therein set forth”.
Here we take objection, first to what may be described as an unlawful distinction. Certain points are said not to enter into the substance of the Faith. No one, we maintain, has a right to cut and carve the Faith in this fashion. We are bound to receive and profess the whole revealed will of God, and to receive and profess less is sin and error. What creature then has a right to give to his fellows a dispensation in the things of God? It is plainly presumption for any person or Church to do so. We hold, therefore, that the above distinction is presumptuous, and therefore unlawful.
It may be further remarked that this distinction supposes that a man may be a good enough Christian though he only accepts a part of the Faith. We do not deny that there have been and are Christians eminent for personal piety in Churches, such as the Episcopal, where views are held that are contrary to the Word of God. But, we are not aware that any Church has a right on this account to set a lower standard before her people than the Word of God sets. We have also to learn that it is not the function of the Church of Christ to produce members lame, maimed, and diseased in the faith, and stamp them as good and exemplary Christians. It is rather her duty to heal the lame and diseased, and to teach the ignorant the Word of God more perfectly, as Aquila and Priscilla did to Apollos. But the Free Church is quite prepared to accept as satisfactory and exemplary such as are defective in the Faith, and thus, with presumptuous daring to lower the standard God has set up in His holy Word.
It may be also added that the Confession was always believed to contain the substance of the Reformed Faith, and no more. But it seems the framers of this Act have discovered a substance within a substance. Their wisdom resembles that of one who would affirm that, because the arms and legs are not essential to the life of a man, the persons who lack these members are as capable of physical work as others. This idea would be treated as absurd in the ordinary business of life. In the religious world nowadays it is regarded as a fruit of progress and light. The Free Church has welcomed and adopted the idea, for she is prepared to accept and honour as even more capable Christians than others men who have thrown aside some of the most precious and health-giving doctrines of the Gospel. She recognises diversity of opinion on points that do not enter into the substance of the Faith. She approves of men with limbs, and men without limbs. It is the latter chiefly that fill the places of authority and learning, and their work must be necessarily defective and maimed like themselves.
It becomes us, further, to enquire as to the special points in the Confession on which the Church recognises diversity of opinion, and which she affirms “do not enter into the substance of the Reformed Faith therein set forth”. Now, these points are not specified here where they ought to be, so that full liberty is given to individuals to consider any points they please to fall within this description, until the Church makes a particular pronouncement on them. We are, at any rate, warranted in concluding that such points as the Church has left open questions in the past are here referred to.
It therefore follows that uninspired hymns and instrumental music in the worship of God are things in regard to which diversity of opinion is recognised, and that the mode of divine worship is not a point which enters into the substance of the Faith. The principle of national religion which has been set aside by the great majority in the Free Church must be relegated to the same category.
But more serious questions even than those occupy the same position. The infallibility of the Word of God, we are bound to conclude, is one of the points here enumerated. Dr. Marcus Dods declared that there were “errors, inaccuracies, and immoralities” in the Holy Scriptures. The Free Church did not bring him to the bar of the Assembly, nor did she make him retract this pernicious error. She left the infallibility of the Word of God an open question. Professor A. B. Bruce also charged the Scriptures with imperfections, and the Church acted similarly in his case. Dr. Dods was made a Professor in the New College not long after he made the above statement, which shows the Church had no dislike to his views, but rather approved of them.
Shortly after he entered upon this responsible office, he affirmed in a sermon before a learned audience in St. Giles, Edinburgh, that “a man may be a true Christian and not believe in the divinity of Christ”. The Church also acted similarly here, and left that erroneous view an open question. According, therefore, to the terms of this Act such an opinion is now recognised as lawful in the Free Church, and does not infringe upon the substance of the Reformed Faith.
It is further quite clear that such doctrines as eternal election, particular atonement, total depravity, etc., already set aside in this Act, are affirmed to be no longer of the substance of the Faith.
The Free Church has, therefore, set its seal upon all the erroneous views that had up to date found entrance within its pale. Since the Declaratory Act was passed, Professor Drummond’s work on the “Ascent of Man” has appeared. In this book he virtually denies the Bible account of the creation, and unfolds the theory of evolution which affirms the ascent of man by gradual stages from the lowest forms of life, so that at one time man was a brute and a savage. The Free Church by her Assembly was in duty bound, by the authority of the Word of God and the Confession, to make Professor Drummond withdraw his book and retract his views. Nothing of the kind was done. The base and unscriptural theory of evolution is therefore a point on which diversity of opinion is now recognised, and which, according to this Act, does not infringe upon the substance of the Reformed Faith.
An enumeration has now been given of a number of the errors which this section of the Declaratory Act covers. This section, in fact, shelters all the errors that up till now have crept into the Free Church. How many more will find shelter under the ample folds of this Act we cannot say, but provision is made for just as many as the Church cares to accept. If she acts in the future as she has done in the past, and we have no reason to think she will act otherwise, especially as “the impracticable elements” are getting fewer and fewer, we tremble for the terrible effects of such conduct upon the rising generation. They will get an inheritance of evil more extensive and soul-destroying in its influence than any generation in the past.
The next clause in this section, which now calls for observation, states, that while diversity of opinion is recognised on the points described, “The Church retains full authority to determine in any case which may arise, what points fall within this description”. In these words the Church claims the authority to determine what points in the Confession enter, and what do not enter, into the substance of the Reformed Faith therein set forth. This claim is put forward as if it were a beneficial and lawful one that has always been vested in the Church. That it has not been beneficial in respect of this Church, we have already practically shown.
We also affirm that it is not a lawful claim. The Church of Christ has a ministerial, but not a judicial, function in relation to the Word of God and its doctrines. It performs the function of a minister by declaring and defending all the doctrines of the Word as revealed, but it cannot perform the function of a judge over the Word of God, and assume authority to determine what may or may not be received, or what does or does not enter into the substance of the Faith. The Church has power to act as a judge over its members, and to punish by discipline those who may depart from the faith or precept of the Gospel, but judicial authority over the Word of God it does not possess. It is this authority the Church of Rome claims, and it is a similar authority that is claimed in this section of the Declaratory Act. This makes the section essentially Popish in its character. Of course, no sooner does a church set aside the authority of the Scriptures, than it has, as a necessary consequence, to fall back upon its own authority and give it the place of supremacy. So in the case here. The Free Church claims full authority to determine the substance of the Faith. It plants itself thereby on the same pedestal of supremacy with the Pope of Rome over the Word of God. The Church or the framers of the Act may attempt to deny this, but no denial can make void what is so manifestly the truth.
The closing words of this section, which are also the closing words of the Act, seem to us the sheerest mockery after all that has been said and done by the Free Church. The words are, “And thus to guard against any abuse of this liberty to the detriment of sound doctrine, or to the injury of her unity and peace”. Sound doctrine! These words have little or no meaning in the mouth of this Church. As already remarked, Professor Drummond’s “Ascent of Man” is still uncondemned. The Church retains full authority to determine what points do not enter into the substance of the Reformed Faith so as to guard against the abuse of liberty to the detriment of sound doctrine, but its zeal for sound doctrine did not enable it to condemn the “Ascent of Man” and make its author retract his erroneous opinions. The denial of the Bible account of creation, and the consequent denial of the infallibility and authority of the Word of God, does not, in the opinion of the Free Church, touch the substance of the Faith. Can any church that rejects the testimony and authority of the Scriptures honestly claim a regard for sound doctrine or have a fair title to be esteemed a Church of Christ at all? We think not. This section of the Declaratory Act has far-reaching consequences. The creed of the Church is practically at the feet of a backsliding majority. The original standards are divested of all authority or power. No one knows where such a church may drift. She will probably land on the rocks of Romanism or Atheism, or both.