As we believe there still exists in many quarters much ignorance as to the exact nature of the doctrinal views embodied in the Free Church Declaratory Act of 1892, we purpose to give, in part at least, in this article an explanatory criticism of the Act, clause by clause, in as brief a manner as the extent and importance of the subject will allow.
Before doing so, we make a few observations in regard to the affirmed necessity for a Declaratory Act. We find that it has been widely proclaimed by speech and pen that a Declaratory Act was necessary for the good of the Church, as many persons had difficulty in taking office because of certain expressions of doctrine contained in the Confession of Faith. It is very apparent, however, to all observers that the present age is distinguished for great laxity of opinion on religious subjects in general, and that men from lack of reverence to any authority in heaven or earth, but their own narrow reason, are ready to kick against all fixed doctrinal standards even though these should be clearly supported by the unerring Word of God.
We, therefore, maintain that if ever there was a time in which it was necessary to hold forth in clear and uncompromising terms the great unchanging and unchangeable doctrines of the Word of God as embodied in the Confession, the time is now. Instead of this, the Free Church in order to please the fickle tastes of carnal men, has traitorously lowered the standard of accepted truth and weakened down the saving doctrines of the Gospel, so that they shall be powerless for any spiritual good to this or future generations. Instead of a Declaratory Act in favour of the weak and erroneous doctrines of Arminianism, we as a generation stood much more in need of an Act that would give forth a bold and unflinching testimony for the strong and life-giving doctrines of Calvinism. When the enemy comes in like a flood, it is not to adopt his standard that the Spirit of the Lord leads the true Church, but to raise a standard against him.
At the Disruption of 1843 great popular interest was aroused in the doctrine of Christ’s headship over His Church. The rights of the Christian people to choose their own pastors were interfered with by the State. The whole body of the people rose as one man to shake off the fetter of patronage. But what has happened now? We have fallen into such a low condition that the greatest apathy prevails even when the very life-blood of the Church – those doctrines with which are bound up the salvation of immortal souls – is being filched away. People complain they do not understand the doctrines of the Declaratory Act; but if they were truly exercised as to the foundation of their hope for eternity, they would know the difference between a false and a true doctrinal foundation.
Section I, paragraph (a)
We now proceed to consider the Declaratory Act of 1892 in its various sections. The Act opens as follows:
Whereas it is expedient to remove difficulties and scruples which have been felt by some in reference to the declaration of belief required from persons who receive licence or are admitted to office in this Church, the General Assembly, with consent of Presbyteries, declare as follows: I. That, in holding and teaching, according to the Confession, the divine purpose of grace toward those who are saved, and the execution of that purpose in time, (a) this Church most earnestly proclaims, as standing in the forefront of the revelation of grace, the love of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to sinners of mankind, manifested especially in the Father’s gift of the Son to be the Saviour of the world, in the coming of the Son to offer Himself a propitiation for sin, and in the striving of the Holy Spirit with men to bring them to repentance.
The preamble of the Act sets forth that it was framed to “remove difficulties and scruples which have been felt by some in reference to the declaration of belief required” from candidates for office in the Church. The Confession of Faith is a document of almost unparalleled merit for lucidity and fulness of doctrinal statement, and there is not the slightest doubt that the difficulties and scruples referred to have arisen, not from any ambiguity or obscurity in the Confession, but from the natural opposition of the human heart to the Gospel truths therein contained. In this assertion we are borne out by the kind of objections that have been raised during recent years to the Confession, and also by the character of the remedy provided in this Act to remove these objections.
The Act, instead of casting light upon the doctrines of the Confession, does its best to shroud them in obscure and ambiguous language. The language, however, while tending to obscure the Calvinism of the Confession, is a fit vehicle for expressing the doctrines of Arminianism. The remedy that has thus been provided for difficulties and scruples is more dangerous than the disease. Truth is the only cure for difficulties. If error becomes the cure, the individual is in a worse case than ever. That this is the nature of the remedy provided in the Declaratory Act will appear in the course of our exposition.
After the preamble, the first topics treated of are the sovereignty and love of God. These are included under the first three paragraphs of the Act, one of which we have given above. In this paragraph the framers have divorced “the purpose” from “the love” of God. They announce that in holding and teaching the purpose of grace, “this Church most earnestly proclaims, as standing in the forefront of the revelation of grace, the love of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to sinners of mankind”. The love of God to sinners of mankind is represented as something distinct from, and something more prominent than, the purpose of grace.
Now we find that no such distinction is observed in Scripture. The purpose of grace and the love of God have reference to the same objects. It is they whom God the Father “predestinated to be conformed to the image of His Son that He might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29) whom, in the language of the Apostle John, He also loved. “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God” (1 John 3:1). The purpose of grace in predestination and the love of God have reference to the same blessings to be conferred, and the same objects for whom these blessings are destined. The intention of the framers of the Act was evidently to hide the decree of predestination as much as possible out of view, and to bring to the front the love of God as something more attractive in the eyes of men.
It is further evident that the love of God, of which the Act speaks, is not that love which actually stands in the forefront of the revelation of grace. The love of God which stands in the forefront of the revelation of grace is not His universal benevolence to His creatures, whereby He makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall upon the evil and the good. It is a love certainly to sinners, but it is a love to those who were “chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world”. It is the electing love of God which stands on the forefront of divine revelation. This is a love which He bears to special objects, not in virtue of any merit in them – for they equally with all other have none – but solely of His free good pleasure. We are told in Ephesians 5:25 that “Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for it”. It was the same love which was in the Son that was in the Father, and this love had special reference to the Church for whom, and not for all men, He gave Himself. We regard it therefore a serious deviation, not only from the doctrine of the Confession, but also from that of the Word of God, to declare any love as standing in the forefront of the revelation of grace, but the sovereign and electing love of God.
It is quite evident from further expressions in the Act that it is a universal love to sinners of which it speaks, for the Act goes on to say that this love is “manifested especially in the Father’s gift of the Son to be the Saviour of the world”. The emphasis in this clause rests upon the word “especially”, which we have emphasised. The use of this word clearly implies that the love spoken of is manifested in other ways besides the Father’s gift of the Son. In a word, the gift of the Son, which the Scriptures as in Romans 8:32-33 evidently declare as proceeding from the Father’s love to the elect, is set forth as proceeding from God’s general love or goodness to mankind. This latter is a doctrine which has no foundation in Scripture, but seriously affects the whole scheme of redemption as revealed.
We further take strong exception to the use of the expression “the Saviour of the world”. This expression is quite scriptural in itself, but as it stands in the Act it lacks its context. The immediate context and the analogy of Scripture explain to what extent the expression “world” may be taken – namely, not to all men, but to men in every age and country of the world, irrespective of rank or moral character. Common sense further tells us that the Lord Jesus is not the actual Saviour of the whole world, for many who heard the Gospel will be found on the left hand at last. The use of the expression, however, as it appears in the Act clearly implies that we are to take the words literally, as no explanation is appended. This gives the false impression that the Father gave the Son, not to be the Saviour of the elect only, but of the world at large.
The next clause confirms our belief in the Arminian character of this section of the Act. The love of God the Father is said to be manifested “in the coming of the Son to offer Himself a propitiation for sin”. We have here again the use of the general word “sin”, which, being given without any explanation such as the context of Scripture affords, we are fully warranted in understanding as inclusive of all sin whatsoever. On the atonement of Christ, for the Church or the elect only, the Scriptures are very explicit. He “loved the Church and gave Himself for it”. “The Church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” “Who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity” (Titus 2:14). The latter verse clearly proves that He gave Himself for special individuals, not to procure merely possibility of redemption, but actually to redeem them from all iniquity. Such passages set forth that Christ died only for the elect. The statement of the Act in the use of the word “sin”, sets aside these passages and practically affirms a universal atonement.
But the last clause of this section of the Act proves, as clear as noonday, that the love spoken of is universal in its character. The love of God the Holy Spirit is said to be especially manifested “in the striving of the Holy Spirit with men to bring them to repentance”. This is so plainly contradictory to the teaching of Scripture that it almost refutes itself. In Titus 3:4-6, the love of God is declared to appear, not in striving, but “in the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost”. The goodness of the Spirit appears in His striving with sinners, but His love, beyond all contradiction, is manifested in the work of regeneration. He strives, and yet men perish for ever in their sins. But when He regenerates the soul, He applies the redemption purchased by Christ, and the sinner is saved with an everlasting salvation. Herein verily is the love of the Spirit especially manifested. It is quite apparent that the love of the Holy Spirit, according to the Act, is a general and not a special love. If He loves all with whom He strives, then He loves all who hear the Gospel, many of whom are lost for ever. But that He loves all men is plainly at variance with the Word of God and general experience, for if that were so He would regenerate and save all.
In concluding our observations on this section of the Act, we point out that the love of the Spirit as here spoken of sheds light upon the way in which we are to view the love of the Father and of the Son, as stated in the preceding clauses. The love of each person in the Godhead must necessarily be equal in strength, for the Three Persons are the same in substance, equal in power and glory. The love revealed in Scripture is the love of one God and, therefore, the same in each Person of the Godhead. If, therefore, the love of the Spirit amounts only to an ineffectual striving with men and does not absolutely secure the salvation of any, then the love of the Father and of the Son is of the same character. The love of God, therefore, as stated in this Act is not a love unto salvation. It is simply a mere sentiment of goodwill that does not secure the salvation of any one in particular. The whole result depends upon some act on the part of the sinner, so that salvation according to this theory, is of man and not of God.
To show that the love of God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, is a love that infallibly secures the salvation of its objects, we need only point our readers to passages already quoted. The love of the Father is revealed in Ephesians 1:4, as choosing sinners in Christ that “they should be holy and without blame before Him in love”; the love of the Son in Ephesians 5:25, as giving Himself for the Church, “that He might sanctify and cleanse it”; and the love of the Spirit in Titus 3:5, is spoken of as “the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost”. The soul that lays hold of any other love for salvation than this electing, redeeming, and renewing love, embraces a delusion, and not the sure foundation laid in Zion. What serious consequences such delusive teaching as is contained in this Act has upon men’s minds, we shall not at present enlarge upon.
Section I, paragraph (b)
We now proceed to examine the second paragraph under the first section of the Act, which runs as follows:
(b) That this Church also holds that all who hear the Gospel are warranted and required to believe to the saving of their souls; and that in the case of such as do not believe, but perish in their sins, the issue is due to their own rejection of the Gospel call. That this Church does not teach, and does not regard the Confession as teaching, the foreordination of men to death irrespective of their own sin.
This paragraph, to begin with, deals with the general call of the Gospel. We are fully agreed that all who hear the Gospel are under obligation to believe in Jesus Christ for salvation. But this obligation, we hold, rests upon the direct command of God, and the suitableness of the Gospel provision to men as sinners, and not upon supposed universal love, or universal atonement, as seems to be the case here, from the close connection between this and the preceding clause which we have already dealt with. The Arminian Gospel is, “God loves all, Christ died for all, and the Holy Spirit strives with all”, and this is almost verbally the Gospel we find in the Declaratory Act. The command to believe, referred to in this clause, is evidently grounded upon such universal propositions as these which afford a false and unscriptural basis for faith.
We also observe that no reference is made here to the person of Christ as the object of faith. The command of the Gospel is, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ”. Many may believe the Gospel as they believe a piece of history, and remain spiritually ignorant of Christ. On the other hand saving faith in Christ springs from a revelation to the soul of His divine glory, sufficiency, and suitableness as a Saviour. No one, therefore, savingly believes the Gospel except he is enlightened by the Holy Ghost as to the person and work of Christ. To believe unto salvation is not something which men can do, upon invitation, as easily as a common task, but can only be performed after the reception of spiritual life and enlightenment by the Spirit of God. This all-important aspect of the Gospel appears here to be lost sight of in the haste to emphasise the universality of the Gospel call.
We also regard as unsatisfactory the reference to those who “do not believe, but perish in their sins”. It is said, “the issue is due to their own rejection of the Gospel call”. Whilst we can so far agree with this statement, we feel that it is written so as to hide from view the solemn, but nevertheless indisputable fact referred to in ch. 3, sect. 7, of the Confession, that God has in strict justice for sin passed by some of the human race, whilst He has chosen others unto salvation. It would also seem from the language of the Act that man without special grace was quite capable of receiving the Gospel, and that everything depended upon free will. Probably this the framers might deny, but we see nothing expressed that would prevent such an interpretation, and they ought to have been as careful to guard against error as to expound what they imagined to be truth.
In conclusion, we do not think that the universality of the Gospel call was an aspect of the truth that required any special emphasis at the present time. Our fathers both in the near and remote past never failed to give due prominence to this aspect of the Gospel, and it is only an insult to the living and the dead to bring it forth in the way done in this Act as if it were hidden or obscured until now. The best Scottish Calvinistic Theology is full of it. Who could give a freer and more liberal offer of Christ to sinners than Samuel Rutherford, one of the leading framers of the Confession of Faith?
We now take up the second clause of this paragraph, which is to the effect: “That this Church does not teach, and does not regard the Confession as teaching, the foreordination of men to death, irrespective of their own sin.” This clause deals with the relations of foreordination and sin. The emphasis lies upon the words, “their own”, and the meaning appears to be that men are not foreordained to death, temporal, spiritual, or eternal, irrespective of their own personal sin. This teaching is in direct contradiction to the truth as stated in the 5th chapter of the Romans. We are told there that “by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men for that all have sinned”. Adam stood not only for himself but also for his posterity, and so by his sin death passed upon all men. “By the offence of one many be dead.” It is also written in 1 Corinthians 15:22, that “in Adam all die”. Temporal death is one form of this death. The Act therefore denies, for example, that the temporal death of infants takes place on account of Adam’s sin, a fact evidently asserted in Romans 5:14. It does more however; it denies that the spiritual death under which all men are born is in consequence of the imputation of Adam’s first sin. it may even be taken as denying that we are born in a state of spiritual death at all, for it associates death only with one’s own personal sin.
If the Act refers however, as some affirm, only to everlasting death, the omission of the word “everlasting” is a serious one, for the clause, as it stands, embraces temporal, spiritual, and everlasting death. But even in this latter case the teaching is quite erroneous. If Adam stood for all his seed, then by his sin all were made liable not only to temporal and spiritual, but also to everlasting death, for the wages of sin involve the curse of God which eternity alone can exhaust. “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10). “Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire” (Matt. 25:41). The logical consequence clearly is that in Adam the whole race merited by his sin the curse of God, which is everlasting death.
But if, according to the Act, men are not foreordained to death, “irrespective of their own sin”, then Adam’s sin did not merit for the race everlasting death, which consequently implies either that Adam did not stand for his posterity, or that his sin deserved less than the curse of God. The latter alternative may be regarded as too absurd a conclusion. We are therefore justified in affirming in virtue of the former, that the Act, by implication denies that Adam stood for his posterity.
The denial of this doctrine may appear to some of little consequence, but, if the subject is carefully studied, it will be seen that a denial of Adam’s federal headship not only unhinges our views in regard to man’s natural state, but also seriously affects our views of Christ’s federal headship as the second Adam, and of the way of salvation through Him. If it is unwarrantable to say that Adam stood for his seed, it is equally so to say that Christ stood for His people. The denial therefore of Adam’s representative character has consequences of a serious and far-reaching character upon the welfare of men. For it is only by right apprehensions of the truth about sin and salvation that men will be converted from the error of their ways, and the cause of Christ advanced in the world.
Section I, paragraph (c)
We now pass on to consider the third paragraph under section I:
(c) That it is the duty of those who believe, and one end of their calling by God, to make known the Gospel to all men everywhere, for the obedience of faith. And that while the Gospel is the ordinary means of salvation for those to whom it is made known, yet it does not follow, nor is the Confession to be held as teaching, that any who die in infancy are lost, or that God may not extend His mercy for Christ’s, sake, and by His Holy Spirit, to those who are beyond the reach of these means, as it may seem good to Him, according to the riches of His grace.
In the opening words of this paragraph it is declared to be “the duty of those who believe to make known the Gospel to all men everywhere”. It has been always held by the Church of Christ that it is the duty of the believers to make known the Gospel to all men by their life and conversation, but it has never been held that it is their duty to preach or conduct religious services. According to this clause, it is “one end of their calling by God” to preach or declare the Gospel; for the expression “make known” is evidently general enough to embrace this as well as other forms of setting forth the Gospel. We think this doctrine is of the essence of Plymouth Brethrenism, and is inconsistent with the system of pastors and teachers which God has instituted in His Church. In the Presbyterian Church scope has certainly been given to Christian laymen to exercise their gifts both in public prayer and public address, but it has never been affirmed that it was the duty of all such thus to make known the Gospel. Many excellent men have lacked special gifts, especially in the direction of public address.
It is further evident that this clause gives full liberty to women to declare or preach the Gospel, for it is said to be “the duty of those who believe” – men or women, without distinction – “to make known the Gospel to all men everywhere”. Women are at liberty according to the Scriptures, to be helpers in the Gospel, but it is not their duty to occupy the position of preachers. This position the Declaratory Act gives them full liberty to assume. The words, “to all men everywhere”, clearly indicate that liberty is given to these and all others to make known the Gospel, not only in private but also in public. We think, therefore, that this provision is wise above the revealed will of God.
For persons who have no Scriptural call or fitness thus to engage themselves, this is to adopt expedients upon which the blessing of God cannot be expected to rest. Nowadays, in connection with the Churches, there are multitudes of “workers” so called, many of whom would be better engaged at home striving to enter in at the strait gate, and seeking to learn the divine art of prayer at a throne of grace.
We further observe that this paragraph affirms “That while the Gospel is the ordinary means of salvation for those to whom it is made known, yet it does not follow, nor is the Confession to be held as teaching, that any who die in infancy are lost”.
The first thing which calls for our attention is that which is said of the Gospel as “the ordinary means of salvation”. There is something very suspicious about this mode of expression, and if it is meant that there are some other extraordinary means of salvation available for hearers of the Gospel, nothing could be more contradictory to the plainest teaching of Scripture. Witness the words, “There is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
The next matter is the reference to infants. The Confession has already spoken with the utmost wisdom and carefulness on this subject. It says: “Elect infants dying in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit.” It pronounces no opinion on whether all or some are elect, as the Scriptures have given no absolute decision. We would desire, however, to call particular attention to the terms of the Confessional statement. Many people not knowing the Scriptures or their own hearts are ready to ground the salvation of infants upon their early age or supposed innocency. If infants are saved, let it be observed, it is, first, because they are “elect”, secondly, because they are “saved by Christ”, and thirdly, because they are “regenerated through the Spirit”. Nothing more is needed for adult persons, and nothing less is needed for infants. Let no one therefore suppose that infants slip into heaven without requiring any inward change. They are by nature corrupt in heart and children of wrath. There is nothing in them that a holy God can look upon with complacency. They require, therefore, a second birth before they can enter the kingdom of heaven.
And who would be bold enough to impugn the holiness and justice of God, although the whole corrupt human race, both infant and adult, had been shut out of that holy place? We know nothing aright if we do not hold that salvation is of free and sovereign grace both to the infant of days and to the man of mature years. “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” The framers of the Act would have done well to adhere to the careful words of the Confession on this subject. At the present day especially, there is such manifest wickedness and carelessness in regard to the upbringing of the young, and in the lower grades of society, even in regard to their very life, that we little need opiates to dull the consciences of parents and guardians as to their responsibilities.
The closing sentence of this paragraph asserts that the Confession is not to be held as teaching “that God may not extend His mercy for Christ’s sake, and by His Holy Spirit to those who are beyond the reach of these means”, that is, the Gospel, described above as “the ordinary means of salvation”. For this statement there is no warrant in Scripture. The persons spoken of as “beyond the reach of these means” are evidently the heathen, and we think it ill becomes the Free Church that has shown so much missionary activity to speak of any as beyond the reach of the means, or as being saved without the Gospel. Further, the expression, “beyond the reach of these means” is not a true statement of the case. There are none in the most remote parts of the earth that are beyond the reach of the means. God is able to send the Gospel by His servants to any corner of the world.
This clause, nevertheless, affirms the very dangerous and pernicious error, that “God may extend His mercy” to those who are without the Gospel. This teaching is in the most manifest contradiction to Scripture. We are told in Romans 2:12 concerning the Gentiles, that “as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law”, which plainly declares that the Gentiles who had not the Jewish revelation perished in their sins. And the heathen who are today without law or Gospel are in a similar position, and so must likewise perish. The framers of this Act shut their eyes to the truth as stated in the above passage.
We also find in the Scriptures abundant testimony to the fact that men require to know the Gospel before they can be saved. No other way is once hinted at. The parting message of the Lord Jesus to His disciples was, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15), unmistakably announcing that no creature in all the world could be saved without the Gospel. We are surprised, in face of a passage such as this, that men can speak of a possibility of salvation without the Gospel. Again, the Apostle Paul by the Holy Ghost thus addresses the Ephesians, “In whom (i.e., in Christ) ye also trusted after ye heard the word of truth, the Gospel of your salvation” (Eph. 1:13). The word of truth is here said to be the Gospel of their salvation. He also declares in the 2nd chapter of this epistle that in their natural state they were “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3), and therefore liable to perish for ever without the Gospel. It is also written by the Apostle Peter that the Word of God is the seed of the new birth, “being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever” (1 Pet. 1:23). Sinners are also said to be “saved through faith”, the gift of God (Eph. 2:8). How does faith spring up? “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17). These passages further confirm the truth that it is by the Word of God, and by it alone, accompanied by the Spirit, that sinners are born again. A passage already quoted sets a final seal upon the necessity of the Gospel of Christ for salvation. “There is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The word “name” points out that Christ must be preached in the hearing of men, and His person and work made known that they may be saved.
But to show that at least one leading man in the Free Church holds the view contained in this clause of the Act, we may mention that we heard Professor Marcus Dods declare on one occasion from his chair in the New College that there would be many on the right hand at the great day who had had “no knowledge of the historical Christ”. This conclusion he drew from the answer given by the righteous, narrated in Matthew 25:37, “Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee?” etc. From the King’s reply, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”, he affirmed that in whatever part of the world men are found doing good to their fellow men, there we find “the spirit of Christ”. All persons who were engaged thus in doing good would be found on the right hand. This is clearly a perversion of the obvious meaning of the passage, and of Christian doctrine in general. But it shows what pernicious views may be held in consistency with the doctrine that God may extend His mercy to those who have not heard the Gospel.
We cannot but wonder that the Lord Jesus should have sent forth so many servants in apostolic and later times, who gave their lives for the Gospel, if some other way was available for the conversion of men. Surely the very end for which the Gospel was given was that its sound might go throughout the world (Rom. 10:18), and those who knew its unspeakable value were willing to sacrifice all earthly comforts and endure the most cruel deaths, that the Gospel might be known among men everywhere as the power of God unto salvation.
The Free Church by adopting this clause puts a dagger into all true missionary effort. If her missionaries hold this view, as we have no doubt some of them do, the Gospel they proclaim and their efforts to proclaim it, will be detrimentally affected thereby. We have, indeed, no ground for concluding that the Gospel that is now proclaimed abroad is one whit better than that which is preached at home. In fact, the question arises if this clause is true, “What need is there for missionaries to the heathen at all?”.
We now proceed to examine the second section of the Act which runs as follows:
That, in holding and teaching, according to the Confession of Faith, the corruption of man’s whole nature as fallen, this Church also maintains that there remain tokens of his greatness as created in the image of God; that he possesses a knowledge of God and of duty; that he is responsible for compliance with the moral law and with the Gospel; and that, although unable without the aid of the Holy Spirit to return to God, he is yet capable of affections and actions which in themselves are virtuous and praiseworthy.
This section deals with the fall of man and its effects. This important subject is treated, as we might expect, like former subjects, in a way that modifies the doctrines of the Confession and adapts them to the light and easy views of sin and man’s depravity which are current in the present age. Instead of a bold, clear, and truthful statement of man’s total depravity by nature as a corrective to current views, we have a statement which is fitted to gratify the pride and self-righteousness of the age, and is not wanting in serious deviations from essential and vital truth. If the views contained in this section are believed by anxious inquirers, they may freely cherish shallow and inadequate impressions of their sin and misery, so that something far less than “the great salvation” that is in Christ will meet their case. Their latter end will therefore be worse than their first.
The first clause in this section is open to criticism. It sets forth that the Church holds and teaches, according to the Confession, “the corruption of man’s whole nature as fallen”. These words are given as a summary of Confessional teaching. They are right as far as they go. But we must remember that the Confession not only teaches that man’s whole nature is corrupt, but is totally corrupt. This makes a great difference, and in an important document such as this Act, every word is of value. The omission of the word “total” before corruption is therefore significant. The Church in the above expression only commits itself to the corruption of man’s whole nature, and not to the total corruption thereof. The words “whole nature” do not alter the matter anything. For the whole or every part of an organism may be corrupt, and yet not totally so. We feel, therefore, that the opening words of this section are a fitting preface to the light and erroneous views of man’s fallen estate that follow.
The Act proceeds: “This Church also maintains that there remain tokens of his greatness as created in the image of God.” Admitting that there are tokens in man of his original greatness, such as reason and conscience which are, however, largely weakened and corrupted by sin, we deny that there are such remaining tokens as this Act asserts. We are told “he possesses a knowledge of God and duty”. This is an ascription to man of attainments that even Pelagius himself would have shrunk from making. We know of no Christian creed that affirms so much of man by nature; and there is no statement throughout the Act more destitute of foundation from, or more contrary to, the teaching of the Word of God than this. It is to be wondered at that men who professed the least regard whatsoever to the Scriptures, or had the smallest acquaintance with human nature, could employ such language. To assert of man that “he possesses a knowledge of God” is not simply to say that his conscience testifies that there is a God, or that his understanding leads him to believe in a Supreme Being, but it is to declare that man in his natural state, dead in sin, and independent of the Scriptures, knows the living and true God.
How utterly contrary to truth this is we need hardly attempt to prove. If the framers say no such meaning was intended, then we affirm that they were either ignorant of the proper use of the English language, or that they used it most carelessly. One thing is certain, that the man who wants shelter for his erroneous views will not hesitate to take the language of the Act in its plain sense without modification. But it is quite probable that the framers will not disclaim the interpretation we have given, for is it not a fact that Professor Candlish, D.D., of the Free Church College, Glasgow, asserts in one of his books a statement equally as wild as theirs, that those among the heathen who loved goodness loved God, even although they might deny His existence? When this is the sort of theology vented in high places of instruction, we need expect no better in the Declaratory Act.
The Word of God, however, will stand for ever when the vain notions of men shall perish, and that Word asserts that men by nature are “without God” (Eph. 2:12), “know not God” (1 Thess. 4:5), and are “haters of God” (Rom. 1:30). We are also told in 2 Thessalonians 1:8 that when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven, He will take “vengeance on them that know not God”. Men in their natural estate are thus declared ignorant of God, and it is only blindness and presumption that would affirm the opposite.
On the other hand, when it is considered what “a knowledge of God” implies, it is also seen how far this Act wanders from the truth. In John 17:3 it is written, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent”. Here we are told that it is eternal life to know God, and if this Act is true, every man in his natural state possesses eternal life – a manifest absurdity. Further, a knowledge of God implies saving acquaintance with Jesus Christ, for “neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him” (Matt. 11:27), so that it is all one to say that a man by nature possesses a knowledge of Christ, as to say that he possesses a knowledge of God. It is therefore quite clear that the Act ascribes to man in his natural state what is only possible to man when enlightened by the Spirit of God in the knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus.
We are also informed in this clause that man by nature possesses “a knowledge of duty”. This also is a further statement thoroughly unwarrantable. No doubt the law was originally written on man’s heart, but man’s duty does not simply comprehend what is to be found in the moral law, but also what is to be found in the Gospel. Of extremely important duties contained in the latter, man by nature is totally ignorant, and therefore requires the teaching of the Word of God. To say, therefore, that “he possesses a knowledge of duty” is to say what is contrary to truth and experience.
The Act further goes on to say that “he is responsible for compliance with the moral law and the Gospel”, and to this we have just one, but an important objection, namely – that his responsibility is here based, not upon the authority of God in law and Gospel, but upon man’s supposed powers of compliance in possessing a knowledge of God and duty. We admit that man is under moral obligation to keep the law and obey the Gospel, but he can do neither the one nor the other without saving grace. The measure of his responsibility does not serve as any index to the measure of his ability, for that is virtually nothing, because he is “dead in sins” – the weight of his responsibility only serves to show him the depth of his inability. It is thus he is made sensible of his need of saving grace to fulfil his obligations, according as Christ said to His disciples, “Without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). To set before fallen man, therefore, that he has any measure of ability by nature to comply with the law or the Gospel is to delude him as to the possession of powers he is utterly unable of exercising, and is also to take away the possibility of a sense of the need of saving grace finding a place in his soul.
This section of the Act thus concludes: “And that, although unable without the aid of the Holy Spirit to return to God, he is yet capable of affections and actions which in themselves are virtuous and praiseworthy.” The reference here to “the aid” of the Spirit is one of the most unsatisfactory expressions of doctrine to be found in the Act. Man is described in the Scriptures as by nature “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1), and what he needs is not aid but life. Aid may do something for a living man, but nothing for a dead man. The Scriptures, therefore, affirm that sinners are “quickened”, “born again”, “made new creatures in Christ Jesus”, all which expressions clearly prove that it was not the aid of the Spirit, but this almighty creative, life-giving power that caused them to return to God. Witness also the language of Ephraim in Jeremiah 31:18, “Turn thou me, and I shall be turned”, which shows that for a sinner to “turn”, or “return to God”, there is required the almighty power of God, and that no creature help is of any value.
The use of the words “the aid of the Holy Spirit” by the framers of this Act is all the more reprehensible when it is considered that these words have long been the centre of controversy in the Christian Church. Arminians have held that men simply require the aid or help of the Spirit in returning to God and believing in Christ Jesus, while Calvinists have affirmed that men are totally dead in sin, and, therefore, require regeneration in order to return, a work that can only be accomplished by the life-giving energy of the Holy Ghost. In the former case man is represented as possessing some life, and, therefore, as capable of concurring and cooperating with the Spirit of God, while in the latter case he is represented as without any spiritual life and so, entirely passive in the hands of the Spirit when He comes to regenerate the soul and bring it back to God. The latter view is that of our Confession, and that which we believe to be agreeable to the Word of God, and, therefore, by the adoption of the former, the Free Church has accepted the Arminian and set aside the scriptural doctrine of regeneration. If men go wrong here, everything else that follows is likely to be wrong. It is, therefore, fraught with deadly consequences that erroneous views in so vital a subject should enter into the creed of the Free or any other Church.
As to man’s capacity for “affections and actions which in themselves are virtuous and praiseworthy”, let us hear what the Confession itself says on this subject. The Act treats of it in connection with the Fall, and, therefore, gives a false impression of man’s fallen estate in the sight of God, but the Confession devotes a special chapter to the doctrine of “Good Works”, and puts it on its proper footing. It says, “Works done by unregenerate men, although, for the matter of them, they may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and others; yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of the Lord; they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God. And yet their neglect of them is more sinful, and displeasing unto God” (chap. 16, sect. 7).
The works treated of in this section of the Confession will evidently embrace the “affections and actions” referred to in the Act. Looking at these affections and actions in the light of the Confession, we may say that “although, for the matter of them, they may be things which God commands, and of good use to themselves and others, yet because of ‘three vital defects pointed out above they are therefore sinful and cannot please God’.” This is the Scriptural verdict which the Confession gives on the subject. But the impression given by the Act is that natural men are capable of affections and actions that are virtuous and praiseworthy even in the sight of God, and that the human race is not totally sinful in nature and practice. This view is not only subversive of the doctrine of the Confession, but also of that of the Word of God which declares that “there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Ps. 53:3), that “unto them that are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure” (Titus 1:15), and that “the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 15:8). The best that man can perform in his natural state has been well described by one of the early fathers of the Church as “shining sin”.
Let us use a simple illustration. Love to one’s fellow men is a virtuous and praiseworthy affection. But when that love, as is the case with all unregenerate persons, is not accompanied by love to God as the predominant affection of the soul, then the former affection takes the place of the latter, and the soul worships the creature rather than the Creator, committing thereby sin of such a heinous character as leaves no real virtue or praiseworthiness in mere affection of one’s fellow men. If all the affections and actions of man are tested in this way, it may easily be seen that their character in no wise modifies one’s views of the Fall, but rather reveals its tremendous extent and consequences.
Besides, let it be observed that if there be any outward rectitude or virtue in men, this is traceable not to any lack of depravity or presence of good in the creature, but to the common influences of the Spirit of God. These influences surround, in more or less degree, the whole human race. But the framers of the Act forgot these influences altogether in their extraordinary readiness to credit man with some natural power for good.
In conclusion, we affirm that it is drugging souls with sweet poison to make them believe they are capable of affections and actions that have any real virtue or praiseworthiness in the sight of God. Nevertheless, this is the obvious meaning of the Act which clearly teaches that men are not at all so bad by nature as they were formerly told from faithful evangelical pulpits in Scotland, and that there is something good in man after all. This kind of doctrine is much more prevalent than people are aware of. A certain Rev. Mr. Ferrier, a few years ago an assistant in a Free Church in Aberdeen, and now an ordained minister, situated somewhere in the south, stated in a sermon then printed for private circulation, that the Apostle might well describe the Ephesians as “dead in trespasses and sins”, but for any one to say so of amiable young men and women who were battling their way through life, such was “a monstrous lie before heaven and hell”! That was the substance of his remarks. Our readers need not be startled. The same thing is to be found in milder language in the Declaratory Act.
The third section of the Declaratory Act now presents itself for our consideration. It is couched in the following terms:
III. That this Church disclaims intolerant or persecuting principles, and does not consider her office-bearers, in subscribing the Confession, committed to any principles inconsistent with liberty of conscience and the right of private judgment.
This clause was framed, we suppose, with reference to the relation between the Civil Magistrate and Christ’s Church, but as neither the name nor office of the former is once mentioned, the clause may be taken in its most general application. The consequences of this we shall show further on. In the meantime let us consider the bearings of the clause upon the powers of the civil magistrate.
The language in which the clause is expressed reminds us of an Act passed by the Church in 1846. The Free Church at that time thought it necessary, in view of the tyrannical claims put forth by the State, and for which some even adduced the support of the Confession of Faith, that something should be said on intolerance and liberty of conscience in the preamble to the formula to be signed by office-bearers. It was therefore stated that “the General Assembly think it right to declare that, while the Church firmly maintains the same scriptural principles as to the duties of nations and their rulers in reference to true religion and the Church of Christ for which she has hitherto contended, she disclaims intolerant or persecuting principles, and does not regard her Confession of Faith, or any portion thereof, when fairly interpreted, as favouring intolerance or persecution, or consider that her office-bearers, by subscribing it, profess any principles inconsistent with liberty of conscience and the right of private judgment.”
In this statement the Church, while disclaiming intolerant principles, and freeing the Confession from the false charge of favouring such, takes the utmost care to express her firm maintenance of “the same scriptural principles as to the duties of nations and their rulers in reference to true religion and the Church of Christ for which she has hitherto contended”. On the other hand, the Free Church of 1892 in this clause of her Declaratory Act, while using somewhat similar language about intolerance and liberty of conscience, makes no reservation at all in favour of the duties of nations and rulers to the Church of Christ. It is quite evident, therefore, that the Church here tacitly abandons the principle of national religion, one of the most important principles in her constitution. It also appears, from the terms used, that she reckons this principle an intolerant one, and is of the same mind with the Voluntaries who have always affirmed that the establishment of the Church of Christ is an act of intolerance.
To prove that the principle of national religion, so far from being one that ought to be renounced, is a principle that is clearly revealed and insisted upon in Scripture, we need simply refer our readers to the many passages that speak of God’s sovereignty over the nations and their corresponding duties of allegiance and service to Him. In Psalm 2:7-12, the Father promises the Son the uttermost parts of the earth for His possession, and thus gives Christ, as mediator, dominion over the nations of the earth. As a suitable application of this doctrine to the conduct of men, the injunction is added, “Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear.” The rulers of the world are here addressed not as mere units of the human race, but as endowed with certain offices, and, therefore, the obligation is imposed upon them of serving the Lord in wisdom and fear in their public as well as their private capacity. Again, in Psalm 72 we have many promises and predictions of Christ’s reign over the nations; “Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him” (Ps. 72:11). If they are, therefore, to serve Him in the ways that he has appointed, it is manifest they must have respect to His revealed will. What then does the Word of God say in regard to the relation of rulers to the Church of Christ? It speaks of it as follows: “Kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers” (Isa. 49:23).
Now this relation of things is not spoken of as a bare event foreordained, and certain of accomplishment, nor as a future calamity to the Church of Christ. Far from it; it is promised and foretold as a prominent element in the prosperity of the Church and of Christ’s cause in times when the divine standard of relationship between Church and State will be fully reproduced and exemplified in the world. Again, in Isaiah 60:9-12, it is declared that when the Gentiles shall be gathered in, their kings shall minister unto the Church, and the solemn warning is given to nations that neglect this important duty; “the nation and kingdom that will not serve thee shall perish; yea, those nations shall be utterly wasted”. The word “thee” here refers to the Church, and the dire consequences of neglecting to acknowledge and support her are put on record as a lesson to coming generations. Some are ready to say that such passages only apply to the Jewish people under the old economy, but the merest glance at those now quoted, shows that they unmistakably refer to Gentile nations in Gospel times.
In the New Testament also we have much that supports the doctrine of national acknowledgment of Christ and His Church. Christ himself after His resurrection assured His disciples that all that was spoken of Him “in the law of Moses, in the Prophets, and in the Psalms” must be fulfilled. These passages, therefore, already adduced must be fulfilled. The persons who labour to prevent their fulfilment by declaring that the establishment of Christ’s Church is the fruit of intolerance, are running contrary to the purposes and promises of God, and will find this to be so one day to their shame and confusion.
We find further, that Christ exhorted His disciples “to baptise all nations” which clearly means that His disciples were to have respect to the evangelisation not simply of individuals, but of nations. If, therefore, nations are to be baptised in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, does not that prove that nations as such are expected to give allegiance to God and His Son Jesus Christ? If so, it is their incumbent duty to acknowledge and support Christ’s truth and Church in the world. Other passages may be quoted, such as Philippians 2:5-11, in which it is said that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . . and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”, and Colossians 1:16, where we are told that by the Son “were all things created . . . whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers, all things were created by him, and for him”. These passages, we think, clearly set forth the subjection not only of individuals but of all nations to Jesus Christ, both as Creator and Redeemer. We have made quotations sufficient to indicate that the principle of a national acknowledgment of Christ and His Church is highly Scriptural, and is one with which the honour due to Christ and the prosperity of His Church are intimately associated.
It might also be added that this principle is a highly reasonable one. Is Christ not to be acknowledged by corporate bodies as well as private individuals? If not, then an open door is given to infidelity and atheism. A man may be a good Christian at home, but when he appears in society he must forget God, and ignore His cause. It will be clearly seen that when the Voluntary principle is carried to its logical issue, it leads not merely to the disestablishment of Churches, but to national forgetfulness of God; in a word, to national atheism. The same principle leads, as already hinted, to social atheism. When the religious bonds which alone can bind society firmly together are broken, disorder and anarchy must be the disastrous result. On the other hand, the establishment of Christ’s Church is a divinely appointed means of cementing together society in friendly union as well as for bearing national testimony to the being, government, and claims of God.
A word or two as to objections. It is objected by Voluntaries that Christ says, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Now these words refer to Christ’s immediate purpose in His estate of humiliation. He did not come to set up a temporal or earthly kingdom, nor to advance His cause by the sword. While, however, He did not then set up an earthly kingdom, nor does yet advance the interests of His cause by carnal weapons, He still claims to be “the Prince of the Kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5). As Prince and King He claims the allegiance of all earthly potentates. We are also told that “there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign for ever and ever”. One could hardly wish for a clearer and more vivid intimation of the duties of nations to Christ, and of their ultimate subjection to Him.
Another objection that is raised to the principle of national religion springs from belief in what is called “religious equality”. This is a dangerous phrase. We know of no respect at all in which there can be said to be equality amongst religions. All religions differ in some respect from one another. The meaning, however, appears to be that all religions should be regarded as on an equality by the State. The consequence of this is that the State is no more bound to acknowledge Christ than Antichrist, Mohammed, or Buddha. That such a principle should have any footing in a country that has enjoyed the light of Christianity is solemn to contemplate. It is, nevertheless, on this principle that atheists, infidels, and papists are admitted into the Government of this country, and it is on the same principle that the clause of the Declaratory Act under consideration has been framed.
It is evident that the Free Church by relegating the principle of national religion, as is done in this Act, to the class of intolerant or persecuting principles, clearly sells her birthright, for she claims in her public documents to be the Church of Scotland Free. She is also prepared to give into the hands of its enemies the last remnant of the memorable Reformation by doing, as she has done for a number of years, her utmost to overthrow the present Established Church of Scotland. We have no sympathy with the corruptions of that Church; but we hold that it is our bounden duty to maintain the connection between Church and State to the last. There is no fear, however, for the ultimate triumph of the principle of national religion, for just as surely as Christ will subdue all things under His feet, so will the kingdoms become His.
In conclusion, we observe that the terms of this clause are such that liberty is given to all to accept or reject what doctrines in the Confession they please. For it is said, the Church “does not consider her office-bearers, in subscribing the Confession, committed to any principles inconsistent with liberty of conscience, and the right of private judgment”. No exclusive reference is made to the doctrine of the civil magistrate. It is, therefore, clear that all who care to cherish any views divergent from the Confession may have full liberty to do so.
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.